Rethinking the Region: New Approaches to 9-12 U.S. Curriculum on the Middle East and North Africa
Our review of the most commonly utilized World History textbooks in the United
States found that the active role of Middle Eastern and North African women in
society, politics, education, nation-building, and cultural formations is largely absent. Despite their enormous contributions throughout the modern historical period,
women are largely portrayed in textbooks as passive, recipients of freedom, victims of oppression, or silenced behind veils. The lessons on gender and women in the Middle
East and North Africa (MENA) seek to disrupt these false portrayals in order to offer educators and students a more complex picture of gender relations in the MENA
region from the 5th century to the present day.
The objectives of these lessons are multifold. The lessons (1) explore the multiple roles
women in MENA have played historically and through to the present; (2) challenge
common misconceptions about women and men in MENA; (3) discuss the diverse ways in which gender relations have been shaped by the different histories, politics,
religions and cultures of the region; (4) examine how notions of gender and sexuality have shifted (and continue to shift) over time; and (5) explore the active role women
have had in nation-building, social movements, the arts, and other forms of active citizenship.
Through these lessons, educators and students can engage in conversations that
challenge biased media images about gender relations – and how they impact both
women and men – in MENA. By providing dynamic and complex images, narratives, and facts, the multi-dimensional nature of women in MENA humanizes their
experiences rather than reducing them to flattened stereotypes and clichés. Gender in the MENA region is as diverse and complicated as anywhere else – some experiences
are empowering, others are oppressive, and many more realities fall somewhere in between these dichotomies. The present day offers a nuanced picture of sociopolitical
conditions that present learners a chance to engage with many formations of gender and many diverse societies within MENA; these lessons offer a starting point for
conversations that explore our shared past and our shared humanity as fellow citizens of the planet.
Lesson 1: Women in the Middle East and North Africa: Past and Present
In this lesson, students will brainstorm what they already know or think about
women in MENA, and as a class they will label each characteristic as positive,
negative or neutral. Students will create a timeline to highlight significant events and women from MENA. To culminate, students will discuss how the
information challenges their previous ideas about women in the region, how women in MENA are portrayed in the media today, and how these images
differ from the women featured in the timeline.
Lesson 2: Using Primary Sources to Explore Gender in the Middle East and North Africa
In this lesson students will work with primary sources to conceptualize the
diversity among women’s roles, experiences, and realities in the Middle East
and North Africa (MENA). Students will rotate through three stations where
they examine and discuss how the photographs and pieces of writing challenge
their previous views of women in MENA. Students will deepen their
knowledge and understanding of gender relations in the region.
Students will review the document “Selected Countries and Gender Inequality Index Measures” and share the facts and figures that most surprised them.
Additionally, students will use this document to discuss potential challenges
they think might be faced by women MENA. In this lesson, students will view a
video to learn about and discuss the specific challenges encountered by women in Libya. Finally, students will discuss how women in MENA are working
locally to find solutions to the challenges they confront.
The research team generated the theme “Plural Identities” based on our textbook
analyses and findings. We found that the textbook authors, in an effort describe a
place, often obscured the diversity of life experiences that have existed in these regions throughout time. While occasionally these were noted in sidebars, we felt that rich
histories and stories across religious, ethnic, gendered, political, economic, and linguistic lines were not present enough in these texts. We also noted that many of the
accounts were written or perceived from a Eurocentric perspective, contributing to the reductive ways in which the region was portrayed.
As a result, the following section provides lesson plans for teachers who may want to
focus their attention on the plurality of the region. This section has three lessons that
focus on multiple cities and the diversity that existed and exists in each of these. While the lessons focus more on a “people’s history approach” to the region, it is also
important to note that they reflect the true geographic diversity of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as these cities span three continents: Asia, Africa, and Europe.
All of the lessons are meant to engage students as thinkers, historians, and writers, and assume that they will have an active role in the construction of knowledge. The first
lesson is titled “Late Ottoman Life: A Tale of Three Cities,” and hones in on Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Salonika during the late Ottoman Empire (late 19th century through
1920). Students will build knowledge about these cities by collaboratively making meaning of many primary and secondary sources about these places before the
formation of ethno- and religious centric nation-states transformed the demographics of the region. The second lesson, “Pluralistic Baghdad,” asks students to be art
historians and museum curators to explore life in post Ottoman Baghdad. This is particularly important given the contemporary moment (war and occupation) in which
most North Americans have come to (mis)understand this city. Finally, the third lesson, “Cosmopolitan Alexandria,” sheds light on a city known for its
multiculturalism. This lesson also complicates this idea by looking at events in 1950s Egypt that affected various segments of the population differently, illuminating who
benefited from this plurality and who was disadvantaged by it. Students will participate in a structured role-play that will help them unpack how these events
shaped everyday lives and experiences.
Lesson 1: Ottoman Life
Over the course of three days, students will use demographic data, texts, poems,
images, songs, cartoons, and/or timelines to learn about three cities during the
late Ottoman Empire: Salonika, Jerusalem, and Istanbul. On Day 1, students will analyze how the map of the Ottoman Empire changed over time. They will then
use texts and images to create a web to organize new information about the Ottoman Empire. On Day 2, students will read a text about their focus city and
then they will use poems, images, biographies, demographic data and other forms of media to gather more information about their city. On Day 3, students
will present their information about an Ottoman city to the class.
Lesson 2: Gallery Walk of Baghdad in the Early 20th Century
In this three-day lesson students will learn about life in Baghdad in the early 20th
century. They will begin with a gallery walk where they describe, analyze, and
interpret images and texts that depict life in Baghdad. Additionally, students will read several texts about Baghdad and they will discuss how the texts reveal what
life was like in the city in the early 20th century and aspects of life that surprised them. Finally, students will draw on the themes that emerged in class to create a
collage that reflects their new or changed views of life in Baghdad.
Lesson 3: Cosmopolitan Alexandria
Over the course of two days, students will gain an understanding of the multifaceted
nature of life in Alexandria during the early- to mid-20th century. They
will read and analyze a text to gain background knowledge on the city and then each group will create a timeline and discuss the implications of historical events
on the city. Finally, students will participate in “Café Conversations” where they will represent a variety of characters in Alexandria at that time. Each student will
determine their character’s stance towards a historical event using evidence from the texts.
It is perhaps unsurprising that in our review and analysis of five of the most popular
history textbooks assigned in U.S. high schools, the theme of Empire and Nation
emerged. Specifically, we noticed that while attention was given to the empires that emerged in (and extended beyond) the MENA region, these empires were often simply
reduced to “Muslim” empires. Certainly, many of these empires did have Muslim majority populations and rulers, but by naming these empires “Muslim,” the diversity
of the region, and indeed of the empires themselves, is hidden. Furthermore, as with other units in the resource, we found that the writing is done from a very Eurocentric
perspective and that the “Muslim world” – as it is often referred to in the texts – is portrayed as somewhat backward and often contrasted with the “modern” European
civilization (which was never referred to as the “Christian world”). Here, modernity is implicitly and at times explicitly equated with ‘better’ and ‘more rational.’ This unit
therefore seeks to broaden the view of Empire and Nation within the region by reflecting on the diversity of the people within the MENA region through an
illustration of the differing styles of leadership and constructions of identity; ways of governing; and the treatment of minorities in response to colonialism and imperialism.
A central objective of the unit is to challenge the notion that innovation is solely a Western concept. A second objective is to show the ways in which colonial encounters
shaped the ideas of Nation in the MENA region. This is reflected through an examination of both secular and religious leaders in three different countries within
the region as well as through poetry and various revolutions within the region. The first lesson – titled “Innovations in Empire” – examines the millet system, which
was established to organize minorities during the Ottoman rule. The second lesson, “Three Leaders, Three Traits, Three Paths,” highlights both secular and religious
leaders that galvanized their respective nations in very different ways and with very different understandings of nationalism. The final lesson, “Revolution Poetry,”
explores the unique history of poetry and the role it has played in inspiring revolutions
across the Middle East.
In this lesson, students will learn about empires and expansion, specifically in
regards to the Ottoman Empire. Initially, the students will identify the
meanings of the following word pairings: assimilation/conformity vs. integration/accommodation, tolerance vs. freedom, and nationalism vs. unity.
Using these ideas, students will either agree or disagree with a series of statements and they will defend their choice using prior knowledge. The class
will make connections to these discussion terms and the ways in which empires expand and organize. Then, in small groups, students will create a vision of a
modern society (using pre-determined demographics or ones made by the teacher) and will discuss the power relations, decision-making processes, and
values of their society. Finally, students will compare their society to the millet system in the Ottoman Empire.
In this lesson, students will create a timeline to learn about significant
historical events in the MENA region. The class will use the timeline and
regional maps to frame their discussion about how the region changed over the course of the 20th century. Using this historical knowledge, students will
analyze speeches by Attaturk, Aflaq, and Al-Banna – leaders from Turkey, Syria, and Egypt respectively, to discuss their leadership styles with a specific
focus on the various kinds of nationalism in the MENA region.
The lesson will begin with a brief discussion about the contemporary Arab
Uprisings using video clips, images and newspaper articles. Students will read
three poems from the 1920s and they will identify language in the poem that refers to revolution, uprising, dissatisfaction, etc. Students will discuss how the
poems apply to the recent uprisings and they will end the lesson with a free write session in which they must agree or disagree with a historian’s statement
and support their opinion using evidence from the poems and the class discussion.
Our review of commonly used World History textbooks found that textbook authors
often excluded key social and political movements throughout the Middle East and
North Africa (MENA). When the topics were discussed, our analyses found that they were often framed from a Eurocentric vantage point, and they solely highlighted the
effects of these movements on international affairs and external interests. These framings correspond to how public protest in the MENA region is typically
represented, and tend to neglect how and why social and political movements begin, as well as what significance they hold, from the perspectives of those who participate in
them. Given the current groundswell of protest and political activism throughout the region, we believe that it is important for teachers and students to critically engage
with the rich history of anticolonial protest and movements for greater accountability and rule of law that have characterized the region since the 19th century. This may in
turn foster a deeper understanding of current events by providing a historical context for previous political movements and struggles for justice.
The lessons in this unit have been designed with the several interrelated objectives in
• To critically interrogate dominant representations of political thought in MENA as symptoms of a “clash of civilizations” or recurring bouts of “Muslim rage”
• To link political and social movements with the specific social, economic, historical, and political circumstances in which they have occurred
• To highlight how ordinary citizens have played a role in shaping social and political developments in the region
• To provide opportunities for student-directed learning to critically consider the political history of the region from different vantage points
As they participate in these lessons, students and teachers will have opportunities for
critical reflection and to connect the past to the present. A diverse range of readings,
historical documents, video footage, and political cartoons provide students with new opportunities to supplement, challenge, and go beyond the content in their textbooks
with respect to social and political movements in the Middle East. The activities in the lessons are similarly designed to provide students with opportunities to consider
history from more than one perspective, and as a result, challenge the authority of a text or prevailing cultural representation
In groups, students will research two case studies (Persia and Egypt) and they
will present their findings to the class. Using this information, the class will
discuss the political and economic impacts of colonialism and how these historical experiences have shaped political views in the region. Finally, students
will use images from the 1919 Egyptian Revolution and 19th century Persia to analyze how the images convey popular sentiment and how they complement the
texts they read.
At the beginning of class, students will respond to the central questions for the
lesson: Do countries have the right to control their own resources? Should an
outside country be able to keep most of the profits from the resources of another country? After discussing their opinions, the class will break into three
groups (Iranian Advocates, British Advocates, and the Hague Tribunal) to prepare for a class debate on the nationalization of the oil industry in Iran. Each
group will use research to construct their argument. The lesson will conclude with a class debate in which students present their arguments, ask clarifying
questions, and come to a decision regarding the nationalization of Iranian oil.
In the first part of the lesson, students will view clips from Argo and Planet of the
Arab. Based on the clips, students will discuss common themes, how people are
depicted, how certain depictions can contribute to the “Otherizing” of a group, and how this might lead to the development of a rationale for political action in
MENA. Students will read “The Roots of Muslim Rage” and discuss the limitations of making religion the main cause of political action and public
opinion. In part two, students will read an excerpt from the graphic novel Persepolis. While reading, students will take notes on how the author describes
the political opposition to the Shah and the different kinds of people who protested his rule. Finally, students will examine the Newsweek piece “Muslim
Rage.” The class will discuss the hashtag #muslimrage, which emerged on Twitter following the story. Students will have time to search for #muslimrage on
Twitter and respond to what they found by sharing the tweets that most transformed or destabilized the meaning of the events. They will also analyze and
discuss how the use of social media can affect the impact of public events.
This unit offers students an opportunity to engage in their own historical reading of the arts
and technology through images, music, and texts that represent some of the varied forms of
cultural production and innovation that have emerged from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) during different historical periods. The lessons focus on artistic and scientific
pursuits that highlight the social and political engagement of MENA peoples and illustrate the circulation of ideas about innovation and social change.
Importantly, this unit seeks to address a critical gap in the ways that MENA peoples have been
portrayed in contemporary US World History textbooks. An analysis of high school textbooks
revealed that historical narratives commonly obscure the active role and contributions of
peoples in the region to the advancement of social, political, cultural, and scientific change,
within and beyond the region. Furthermore, the role of MENA peoples as producers of
culture and innovation is largely absent in these texts. Indeed, the portrayal of key events
often conceals the vibrant political and social discussion underway in the MENA region during certain periods. As such, US World History textbooks do not adequately reflect the
contestation, struggles, and rational debates of the region’s peoples, nor the production, interaction, engagement, and circulation of ideas that constitute a shared past.
The lessons in this unit invite students to reconsider the sources that historians have
traditionally used to construct the past and the ways in which arts and technologies reveal
alternative narratives about the social, political and economic conditions of a period and the movement of ideas across time and space. By examining samples of visual arts, popular music, and scientific innovations, students will reflect on historical narratives, including how the history of science and ideas has been narrated. Why might the contributions of particular groups or world regions be underrepresented in these accounts? How might these accounts be revised to better reflect the rootedness of ideas in the interactions among a number of societies? What does an analysis of the circulation of ideas through the arts and technology reveal about cultural representation? What does it reveal about our shared past?
The lessons in this unit draw on multiple disciplines. Where appropriate and possible, teachers may wish to collaborate with teachers of music, art, and science for cross-disciplinary thematic instruction.
Students will listen to two popular pieces of music by Egyptian musician and
composer Sayed Darwish (1892-1923) and examine the lyrics to the songs.
Students will explore the social, political, and economic context of his artistic production, in particular, the period surrounding the Egyptian Revolution of
1919. They will learn that Sayed Darwish’s many songs have since been reinterpreted and performed by countless musicians from different countries of
MENA and elsewhere over the last century. These songs have been translated into various genres of music including, more recently, hip-hop, techno, and
hard rock. Widely known across the region, Darwish’s songs are performed by the region’s most notable artists as often as they are sung at family and other
informal social gatherings. Students will reflect on what makes particular pieces of music transcend time and space and how music has been used in MENA as a
medium for social and political engagement. They will also consider the use of popular oral sources as primary material in historical research.
In Part 1 of this two-part lesson, students will work in pairs to explore the roles
and contributions of MENA scholars and the interaction and dissemination of
their ideas, objects, and practices to other world regions. Each pair will be given an item to discuss and locate on a world map, and then asked to illustrate
its movement to other world regions using colored yarn or markers. In Part 2, which can be conducted in class or assigned for homework, students will read
and critically analyze an article about the spread of ideas from MENA to Western science. They will reflect on the many roles played by MENA peoples
in the development and dissemination of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) innovation and the significant contributions by MENA
scholars to our shared past.
In the first part of this lesson, students will examine artwork from 19th century
European and American travelers to MENA. They will consider the content and
perspective of the artwork and how people, places and events are represented. Students will then analyze contemporary works of art from MENA, focusing on
young artists from Saudi Arabia, or from another source. Prints of the works will be hung around the classroom in the form of a gallery. Students will spend
10 minutes walking around the artworks to get a general sense of them. Then they will choose one work of art on which to focus their analysis.