Al-Ahram Weekly Online
20 - 26 December 2001
Issue No.565
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Off their guard

Can kids from around the world shirk the burdens of diplomats and gung-ho advisers to talk amongst themselves? Nyier Abdou looks at a dubious plan gone right

Children, as a rule, think they know everything. Adults, as a rule, assume children know nothing. As with all age-old disagreements, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

So often invoked as the indisputable victims of humanity's uglier side, children are rarely given a say in the conventions, directives and decrees adopted to shield their innocence. So it is easy to see how news that Egyptian students would be taking part in the fourth annual United Nations student conference on human rights -- beamed to UN headquarters in New York via video-conference as the default representatives of the Muslim and Arab world -- could raise some eyebrows in Cairo.

Margo Abdel-Aziz, who deals with civic education at the English language programmes office at the US embassy, brushes this kind of scepticism aside before launching into an ardent account of the birth and happy progress of the Friendship through Education initiative, organised through the International Education and Resource Network (iEARN). Abdel-Aziz is overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the programme, which links up Egyptian and American students from participating schools in both countries through Internet chats and e-mail. There is no room for sarcasm in her bright, crowded office at the embassy, where she fends off snide remarks about pushing US propaganda with amiable conviction.

"These kids are very mature," says Abdel- Aziz. "They know a lot, they're willing to listen to each other." Gesticulating eagerly, she spoke warmly of a "sharing of similar universal values," about "bringing these kids down to earth." She noted that the UN video-conference was designed to cover human rights in the "broad sense," dealing not just with straight politics, but also with social issues like gender equality, notions of peace and tolerance, and child labour. When asked whether kids in Egypt are politically aware enough to handle these topics, Abdel-Aziz said adamantly that they are "up to it."

Teachers and programme workers involved in the iEARN initiative are comparably ecstatic. Becky Fagin, who teaches at Mott Hall in New York City, is emphatic that the goal of cultural understanding is being achieved. "Students from both the US and Egypt seem to have heightened curiosity," she told Al-Ahram Weekly. "They have been asking one another questions about their cultures and daily routines. The more dialogue happens, the more interested the students seem."

When the UN invited students from the friendship initiative schools in Egypt to take part in the video-conference on 7 December, it took the programme to a new level. Children from schools in New York, Philadelphia and Wyoming, as well as Canada and Mexico, took part, making Egypt the only country outside the US and its border neighbours to be involved. Once the video-conference had been arranged, those involved realised that it had been scheduled to take place on a Friday, during Ramadan, right before Iftar, when Muslims break the day's fast. (The need for cultural understanding has never seemed more dire.) Abdel-Aziz concedes a sense of frustration: "We said, 'What are you doing? This is all wrong!' "

Two schools in New York, one in Harlem, and one in lower Manhattan ("what we have been calling a 'Ground Zero school'," says Abdel-Aziz) are involved in the Friendship through Education initiative. The three schools chosen to launch the project in Egypt were recommended by the embassy and include two public schools and an "experimental" school. The correspondence is all in English.

"Why in English?" Abdel-Aziz asks, anticipating my next question. Because, she says, it is important that these students have the facility to discuss these issues with others beyond their borders. "They need to be able to communicate and not be on the defensive," she says. These kids need English to be able "to talk to millions who have no idea about their culture."

Azza El-Sherbini, IGCSE headmistress at the Nefertari Language School in Cairo, says she was not surprised by students' ability to engage in the heavy issues. "I've seen them before in similar situations; in international conferences, whether here in Egypt or abroad," she said. "These kids have unimaginable energies, ideas and talents. A good number of our students are politically aware of international issues, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict."

It's hard to miss the irony of an earnest interchange between Egyptian students (those children who are allegedly being indoctrinated with anti-American sentiment) and American youth (those cultural imperialists in the making) on human rights (that widely interpreted, hotly debated, sporadically applied ethic). And yet it would take a heart of stone not to be moved by much of the colloquy presented by Egyptian students on a topic that is so sadly relevant to their lives.

"Without human rights, the world will be full of terrorism, war, violence and life will be aimless," declared Hisham Ahmed, a 15-year-old student at Orman Secondary School. "So we have to know what these rights are."

Abdel-Rahman Sami, at the Nefertari School, presented a poem on peace, the rhyming clunky and forced, but the sentiment bittersweet. "Killing people everywhere, I don't think that this is fair/Just ask and try to make peace, They're all fighting for a little piece/A little piece of land, Each one wants in his hand ... "

Mina Guirgis Boulos, 15 and a student at the Orman School, gave an encapsulated history of humanity in his presentation, entitled "Dream for a better world." Thousands of years ago, he said, "when the first man was living on earth -- his life was very hard." He struggled to provide for his family, and so he dreamt of a world of prosperity. "When he couldn't achieve this world in his real life, he just dreamed of it."

The story goes on. "Many years later, when man knew how to fight and how to make weapons, he began to make wars and people began to kill each other. The dream for a better world came up again." These conditions inspired some philosophers, who "wrote about a world of peace and justice, a world with no violence or hatred, just peace, love and justice. They dreamt of a world where people have good moralities."

In some ways, this kind of exchange is a good outlet for young people who feel impotent in these politically charged post-11 September times. But because the project was launched so close to the 11 September attacks, the buzz among pundits and naysayers is that it is a brazen attempt by the US to enlist students in the propaganda war that has erupted since the Bush administration announced its war on terrorism. Asked if she thought the project had been "hijacked" by the terrorist attacks, Abdel-Aziz said that only at first did she think "Why now?" Three months in, however, she says it has become clear that "people really want to have this dialogue."

Mott Hall's Fagin agrees. "When our school became linked with this project, I understood that some might criticise it as another political ploy by the government," she said. Noting that the iEARN projects have been in the works "for years and years," Fagin adds that the concept of global exchange among children is "quite common at this point." She conceded that being lined up with a school in Egypt carries more weight today, but adds that her school has been partnered with many schools across the world.

Nefertari's El-Sherbini is coolly unaffected by claims that the programme is a new arm of the American propaganda war. "Even if [the claims] are true, why not make use of it, to go for our own propaganda, too, which we are not very good at," she says, slyly. "I believe this is a golden chance to show others what we really are -- what Islam is, what being an Egyptian or an Arab is, what our opinions are on current issues." El-Sherbini notes that the idea of international dialogue has always been controversial. "Whenever it happens, critics start their fires."

At the UN video-conference, Abdel-Aziz says that many of the kids spoke off the cuff on some of the same topics being thrashed out on news programmes and daily opinion columns -- a fair and accurate image of Arabs and Islamic world and even President Hosni Mubarak's call for an anti-terrorism conference. Again, pressed if there might have been some behind-the-scenes work by parents or teachers to help their kids talk knowledgeably on political issues, Abdel- Aziz insisted that these kids should not be underestimated: "The English may not be perfect," she said, "but the message is clear."

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