By the end of my first semester teaching college in Qatar I felt I’d won the Professor’s Jackpot. But most of that first semester was full of adjustments; from driving on Doha’s roads, to the separation of the sexes, to the level of the students.
I learned to navigate through what one of my students told me were the most badly designed roundabouts in the world— three lanes with cars and trucks and buses scooting across the dividing lines willy nilly. Daily I arrived at the women’s campus with shattered nerves. Here all students were swathed in the traditional black abaya and shayla. Some even donned the niqab that completely covered their faces except for their eyes.
By noon I was fighting my way on Doha’s roads for forty minutes—which were like a scene out of the Bad Traffic video game—to get to the men’s campus, where I taught the male students in their strikingly crisp white thobes and gutras.
At first I felt out of place as a blond Californian with no head covering. But toward the end of the first semester I hit my stride, and what became tantamount to me was not so much that they learn history, but that we learned about each other—that negative stereotypes of Americans and Arabs were broken down in my classroom.
One day on the men’s campus I covered the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan during the reconstruction era in the U.S. To help them understand the legacy of the Klan, I told them about current-day hate groups in my country.
I wanted to have a discussion, but these are not students who are used to being asked to form an opinion.
“Come on, guys, I want you to engage!” I coaxed.
Osman took a stab by saying, “Before Islam, people were racist against colored people, but after, the first person chosen to do the call to prayer was an Ethiopian slave, a colored man.”
“Okay. Good,” I looked around the room at the others. “What are we going to do about this? This hate in the world?” They looked at me quizzically as if they’d never been asked such a question.
“What do you think can be done, Professor?” Ahmad questioned.
“Well, I think we need to be sure we’re raising our kids to be tolerant,” I replied.
Then Salman provided such a lovely statement that I now have it on my wall:
“We need people who are different from us so we can learn from other people and other religions. God did not make us different so that we would fight each other. God made us different so that we will love each other.”
“Salman! That’s beautiful!” I gushed and his face brimmed with pleasure.
Similarly, my favorite day at the women’s campus that first semester was also related to the topic of racism. While teaching them about Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous 1963 speech, I explained that when he began the “I have a dream” passage, he was speaking off the cuff, unrehearsed and directly from his heart.
“Some thought it was God coming through him.” I said.
“Yes,” My students nodded, “like Prophet Mohammed Peace Be Upon Him.”
When I told them that for extra credit they could memorize the “I have a dream” passage, I imagined a few, who had a good command of English, might attempt it. I was caught off-guard when I walked into class and every girl had memorized it.
One by one they stood, in their abayas, and withArabic-accented English, they recited those most transcendent words of hope.
Quiet Noora, whose face I’d never seen and who struggled to articulate in English—I hadn’t imagined she could it. There she stood, overriding her normally hesitant voice:
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.”
She said it all without stumbling.
And there was Asmaa, a student who was unusually full of fiesty girl power—she ran through the speech with confidence, not faltering over tough words like interposition and nullification.
Then small, pale Kaltham stood. She hadn’t said a word all semester. And there she went: “I have a dream,” she said quietly, but her voice got stronger, “that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”
A round-faced girl called Reem was last. She recited it carefully. I nodded, encouraging her when she paused to look at me. When she came to the part about the children, “…that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” she smiled triumphantly and said, “I love that part, Professor.”
I was bowled over.
“You’re making Americans out of us, Professor!” Reem said with a laugh.
My boss had warned me that it would be challenging to engage the students and to get them to think critically. So when I told him about Salman’s loving proclamation and my entire class reciting the speech, he said, “Wow, if you can do that . . .” And I felt I’d won the professor’s jackpot.