Bridging the divide


I’ve just finished teaching a three week January term course at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus (NYUAD). I’ve had the great fortune to teach before at some wonderful schools across the US. But this, for me, was a special experience, the result of the unique mix of students who had been brought together in this one place.
The course I had been invited to teach was called “Bridging the Divide between the Arab World and the West”. It was to be an examination of how the West and Arabs have interacted with each other in the past century, their mutual misperceptions, and the resultant and often tragic problems that have ensued, putting both sides at risk.
In the lead up to the start of the course, I had planned my lectures and prepared class exercises. The students would create, conduct, and analyse their own polls of US and Arab attitudes and would develop their own class blog about the divide and the ways they experience it. On day one, I was set to begin and to proceed according to my plan, and then I met my students.
The class was made up of mostly first year students. There were sixteen in all – from twelve different countries on four continents! The range was extraordinary. Four were Arabs (one each from the UAE, Egypt, Libya, and a Palestinian from Lebanon – each with a fascinating story to tell). There were four Americans (from Minnesota, Ohio, Virginia, and New Jersey). They were joined by colleagues from: the UK, Denmark, Bosnia, Kenya, India, Indonesia, and South Korea. Though different in so many ways, they were, for the most part, “cut from the same cloth”, variations on a theme. They were bright and inquisitive, expressive and insightful, and open to learning from each other.
After interviewing each of the students on the first day, it became clear to me that while they were eager to learn about the place they were in, and the Arab World, in general, they also had a great deal to share about their own experiences in confronting the many “divides” that make up our modern world. My students from Columbus, Ohio and St Paul, Minnesota, for example, wanted to tell about how their respective communities were dealing with the influx of large numbers of Somali refugees. The ethnic and religious divides that have shaped the modern histories of India, Indonesia, and Bosnia became subjects for conversation, as did the more recent tensions that have confronted Muslim immigrants to the UK, US and Denmark.
Some of my American students shared the apprehension expressed by their parents and peers when they made known their choice to go to a school in the Arab World, while some of my Arab students told of similar reactions they received when they declared their intention to attend an American school.
We had much to talk and write about, and we did. What was so extraordinary was how supportive the students were of one another. Although NYUAD is only two years old, a new culture had been created in this remarkable place, itself an important learning experience. As I watched the students engage in conversation, or when I read their posts and their comments on their colleagues’ posts, or when I saw them just mingling with one another in the cafeteria, it became clear what a remarkable thing was being done here.
There were times I felt as though this were a sort of Hogwart’s Castle. And that these little wizards had been plucked from their respective worlds and brought together where their special skills could be developed before they were to be sent back home. But I came to realise that this wasn’t the case at all. The students weren’t magical, nor was the place. It was the opportunity that had been created for meeting and learning from each other that was the magic. It was the vision behind this place that had brought these few hundred very bright young men and women from every continent to learn together, that would create lessons that would last a lifetime.
The UAE will be bidding to host the World Expo in 2020. Their theme is “Connecting the World, Creating the Future”. In many ways, this is being done across this young country every day, in business, in culture and the arts, and in the meetings of peoples in everyday life. This also describes the NYUAD experience – in every classroom and in every lunch table conversation. The students who are fortunate enough to be a part of this experience are being connected to the world in a very personal way and out of this experience a new generation of global leaders is being created. And because these students are being transformed by their encounters here, they will be better able to heal the many divides they face in our increasingly complex world.
I leave here enriched and invigorated by the time I spent with my students in this place.

The writer is President of the Arab-American Institute.


  1. time will tell if this hope is misplaced or not:

    And because these students are being transformed by their encounters here, they will be better able to heal the many divides they face in our increasingly complex world.

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