x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

US-Qatar cultural exchange dispels fears

A face-to-face interaction highlights the possibility of smashing stereotypes and builds bridges between the West and the Arab world.

DOHA // "Arabs are dangerous." That was what high-school pupil Leah Ogawa heard as her Arabic-language class was preparing for a spring break trip to the Gulf. "Some kids in our school were saying 'Be careful!' when we were going to Qatar," recalled Ms Ogawa, 17, a senior at Boston Arts Academy. "Because of 9/11, many people have negative images of Arabs." In the end, she had no reason to be nervous about meeting her Qatari counterparts. "They are so nice," she said. "I got close to most of them."

As the controversial leader of a proposed Islamic community centre near where the World Trade Center once stood in New York City visits Doha on a US-backed diplomatic tour, the success of a less touted cultural exchange programme highlights the possibility for smashing stereotypes and building bridges between the two countries. "I was expecting that they weren't going to be open to us, but that was one of the shocking things I discovered there," said Jawahar al Mal, 16, a senior at Al Bayam Independent Secondary School for Girls, referring to a Qatar Foundation International (QFI)-backed trip a couple dozen Qatari students took to the US last month. "They were very open to our religion, treating us like close friends, not the way the movies portray."

Founded in Washington in 2007, QFI is one of only a handful of Gulf nonprofits based in the West. Others include the Mohammed bin Issa Foundation in London and the Washington-based Oasis Foundation. Though independent, it is part of an effort by the Qatar Foundation, its main backer, to foster understanding and facilitate international collaboration through education, health, technology and community-service initiatives.

QFI's main initiative is its Arabic-language and culture programme, which supports Arabic courses in US high schools - providing funding for qualified teachers, books and computer labs, and developing an Arabic-language teacher-training programme. The course incorporates traditions, holidays, cuisine and bits of religion. "We started this with a bit of trepidation. We were not sure how well it would be received," the QFI's executive director, Maggie Salem, said in a recent interview.

The ongoing storm over the proposed Islamic community centre has some American politicians and commentators denouncing Muslims just as the centre's leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, passes through the Gulf on a mission funded by the US State Department. He is in Qatar this week. But the timing of QFI's Arabic programme could hardly be better. The number of US college students studying in Arabic-speaking countries jumped six-fold from 2002 to 2007, according to the Institute of International Education.

"We're fighting wars there, there's a lot of interaction with the region that kids can't ignore," said Ms Salem. "We would love to create a generation of fluent 18-year-olds, but what we'd like even better is if they appreciated something about the richness of the people and the culture." They seem headed in the right direction. Students at Boston Arts Academy and Washington Latin High School shower praises on QFI's Arabic language pilot programme, launched last year.

"The Arabic programme in my school was phenomenal," said Damon Mallory, a recent graduate of Boston Arts Academy. His class saw the film Amreeka, went to an Arabia exhibit at a Boston museum and attended a concert by the Palestinian rap group DAM. "The more I engaged myself into this new culture," he said, "I fell in love with it." His schoolmate had a similar experience. "The programme was amazing," said Ms Ogawa. "I just enjoyed everything that we did."

A highlight was the April trip to Qatar to meet students at their sister schools. "Meeting the Qataris was by far the best thing I have done," said Mr Mallory. "I have made life-long friends, and even best friends." During the US students' visit a Qatari teacher suggested a US trip for his students. Within a couple weeks, the QFI chairman, Sheikh Jassim bin Abdulazia al Thani, had approved the idea. By July, the Qatari students were on their way to the US.

The 10-day tour included visits to the American capital and the Nasa Space Center and a beach clean-up in Florida. But the Qataris most enjoyed spending time with American students. "If they wanted to ask us about anything, we answered them; if we wanted to ask them, we did," said Essa al Malki, 15, a sophomore at Doha Independent School for Boys. "There was no boundaries between us. It was very comfortable."

Mr Mallory and his new friend Fahad al Nahdi, a senior at Doha Independent School, hope to build on the connection established this summer. They are developing their own QFI initiative, an online network and social forum for students that aims to improve relations between cultures, starting with the Arab and American communities. "Damon and I fell in love with what QFI was doing and wanted to get involved," said Mr al Nahdi. After receiving approval from QFI, they submitted their idea - called QFI Step-Up - to the Clinton Global Initiative for funding.

"We believe that it is important to display to the world how alike we are," said Mr Mallory, "as opposed to how the media present us to each other." @Email:dlepeska@thenational.ae