The Middle East is an exciting and dynamic region of unique cultures, religions and people, and home to numerous long-established ethnic groups. However, the region has been subjected to depictions of tumultuous, war-ravaged nations these past few decades, and is still prone to several stereotypes today.
The view from a dormitory in the American University of Beirut
Koh Choon Hwee, a first-year PhD student at Yale University, spent two years in the American University of Beirut in Lebanon working on her Masters, and has been to Syria, Palestine and Iran.
She first became interested in the region during the International Physics Olympiad in 2006, which was held in Singapore. She was put in charge of the team from Iran, which consisted of five Iranian teenagers. She did not speak a word of -Farsi, and they did not speak a word of English. ‘It was a strange couple of weeks,’ she remarked. However, fascinated by their language and culture, that experience sparked her love for the Middle East.
Although she was interested to go on exchange to the Middle East during her undergraduate days, there was no Middle East department at the time and no courses teaching Middle Eastern history. She fought with the university administration for a long time, but was ultimately advised to go an exchange to India since it was geographically closer. Nevertheless, it was a good experience for her as India shares a lot of history with Iran and the Middle East.
Choon Hwee with her friends in Lebanon
NEGATIVE STEREOTYPES ABOUT MIDDLE EAST
Many of the negative stereotypes surrounding the Middle East are incomplete or at worst, false.
“I think we (Singaporeans) subscribe to American and Anglophone media, a lot of which they have their own baggage with the Middle East. The Israeli lobby also influences them very heavily. Many of them also believe in a certain Christian view that puts Islam as its nemesis. This is factually incorrect, as Christians and Muslims are known to have lived peacefully beside each other. When Christian kingdoms persecuted certain Christian sects, they would find refuge in Islamic kingdoms. So there’s no such eternal enmity between Christianity and Islam.”
When she was in Iran, it was a daily occurrence to see the locals be kind to one another and to foreigners like her. It was normal to see people who have just met for the first time chatting with one another on the bus and on the train!
Making friends in Iran!
Choon Hwee wishes that our media companies would take a firmer and more independent stance from American media, in order to change the current stereotypes held by Singaporeans.
Another way to challenge them is through education. When she heard that the Ministry of Education (MOE) was decreasing the Middle East component in the Junior College syllabus, she felt strongly against it. “They should retain it, even in its small form, as it is important to understand the Middle East. It’s also important to understand American imperialism even though most of us are living in it, but we have to learn more about parts of the world outside of its sphere of influence to better understand the position that we are in.”
She shared a disheartening story of a Singaporean university student who turned down an exchange opportunity in India as she wanted a position in places like New York because it was ‘more comfortable’. Unfortunately, this sentiment appears to be increasingly common among Singaporeans.
“In India, daily commutes take up to several hours, and in seasonal countries in the Middle East, the heater might be broken in the winter and the fan might be broken in the summer. I think we’ve become too comfortable as a developed city. I think people who grow up in those environments tend to be more tenacious and driven compared to us.”
However, she still hopes that students one day can effect change in the Middle East, as well as in regions like Africa and even South Asia. She has faith that some of them will have the gumption to take a contrary stance, and if their job calls for it, they will do it.
HOW TO EFFECT CHANGE
“When I was travelling, I met this Singaporean who was about fifty who told me that he wanted to travel to Iran for over twenty years but he didn’t know how and who to ask. What’s sad is that there are actually quite a lot of people like him.”
This is why she gives talks and outreach sessions in secondary schools and junior colleges when she is in Singapore.
Choon Hwee’s dream is for Singaporean students to be able to have exchanges with Iran or Lebanon, much like the exchanges that schools currently have with Taiwan or China, where their students would live with the Singaporean students for a month and vice versa. She hopes that making friends and living in the local culture would have a deep impact on them and help them form a clearer perspective of these places.
She has started a website, fromsueztosingapore.wordpress.com, where she posts music and movies, as well as current events from the Middle East. She hopes it will increase her fellow Singaporeans’ awareness about the Middle East, as well as act as a useful engagement device for teachers, offering them substantial teaching material.
Choon Hwee’s passion for the Middle East is abundantly clear. Although she remains ambivalent about the increase in understanding of the Middle East among students in the future, she is nonetheless still dedicated to changing the many stereotypes harboured by Singaporeans, one young mind at a time.
Check out Choon Hwee’s website and gain insights on the Middle East and learn about the culture there!