Five Students' Essays


Students’ Views on Middle East Preserved in Archives


IN THE CLASSROOM | Last spring Dr. Heather Sharkey asked students in her Introduction to the Middle East class to write about how events in the region affected their lives. They seized upon the assignment and found their words preserved for posterity. With the authors’ permission, more than two dozen of the essays now reside in the University Archives and Records Center, where they will serve “as a reflection of students’ views at this particular time,” says Sharkey, assistant professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.

“It was really their opportunity to come to terms with history for themselves, to find their own understanding of events that were going on around them,” including the war in Iraq that began mid-semester, she says. “I realized that it turned out to be such an important and meaningful exercise because they had so many feelings and concerns bottled up inside, having lived through September 11 in myriad ways.”

“The fear that swept the country due to the 9/11 acts had taken hold of me as well, but for various reasons,” wrote Aysha KassimC’04.
“I not only feared for my life from more suicide attackers, but I feared for my family members, whose names and appearances would undoubtedly put them at risk. For a while, I was even scared to tell people that I was of Arab descent.”

Kassim wrote of marching against the war in Iraq—“one of the most exhilarating and rewarding things I have done during my career” at Penn. Kathryn Fenton Nu’05, a nursing student in Penn’s Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps had a differing perspective: “It pains me to see anti-war protesters as I walk through campus and when I watch the news,” she wrote. American soldiers “daily risk their lives … for our country and for the freedom that many people in the Middle East are not fortunate to have.”

The introductory course drew students from a variety of majors and schools across the campus, and included 10 senior associates (students aged 65 or older who audit classes). Along with curiosity, many brought to class “real misperceptions of Islam and of Muslim peoples,” Sharkey says. “They asked extremely candid questions, which at first sort of threw me off base—like, ‘Is jihad an obligation for all Muslims?’”

But Sharkey says she was pleased to see emerge “a greater understanding and respect of Islamic society and culture, with non-Muslim students seeing connections [between Islam and] their own religious cultures.” As the course developed over the semester, she had a feeling that “these were going to be essays that were profound and had an impact.” She contacted Archives, and got permission forms for her students to sign over their papers.

Sharkey says she would definitely teach the class again, hoping to “stimulate a deeper intellectual interest” in Middle Eastern studies at Penn. “If I can in the process woo some into taking Arabic or Hebrew or Persian or encourage them to take more advanced classes in Middle Eastern studies, I would be thrilled.” S.F.

2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/04/03

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