Saturday, February 25, 2006

Civilized Dialogue Starts at Early Age

Dr. Khaled Batarfi

Civilized dialogue is better taught at early age. Dr. Sami Angawi agreed. But unlike most of us, he decided to do something positive about what he believes in.
In his weekly “diwania”, called “Makkia” (after the holy city of Makkah), members can be as young as five years old. As part of a concentrated effort, they get training during the week on how to present themselves, and how to argue a case without getting personal. On Tuesdays, they practice, real-time, in the Makkia.
In a mixed but creatively segregated environment, women and men, young and old, sit together to talk, listen and discuss.
I attended last week’s meeting as a moderator. The discussion guest, Rajaa Al-Sanae, writer of the controversial novel “Girls of Riyadh”, couldn’t like it more. For the first time, she was surrounded by readers of all ages and sexes to discuss her book in an open, but professionally organized environment.
Evenly divided, the hall was occupied at the dimly lighted back by our better halves, wearing hijab. The other part was the men’s section. Men and women faced each other, but women could see us in the more lighted section better than we could see them. In addition, those who were men-shy could sit behind some sort of parting curtain. Rajaa sat in the middle.
We started by fielding comments from the older members and guests, but quickly turned the platform to the younger crowd. They were beautiful. Their comments and questions were well studied and prepared.
The kids came for training a couple of days earlier. They all had to read the book as homework. It showed. The younger people were even better than the older ones in the way they articulated their thoughts, built up their arguments, and presented their questions and comments.
I was impressed. This is exactly what I have been calling for. Our schools should do better, providing classes in dialogue and forums for debate. More important, we must allow them to speak up their minds. At home, class, mosque, they should be given the chance to formulate their own opinion, make up their own stand and decide for themselves what they want to achieve and be.
We shouldn’t interfere in every part of their lives. We can’t keep telling them from childhood to adulthood what to think, read, study, what future to choose, and whom to marry. If we do, we end up with followers but no leaders. Those who only know how to follow orders can’t hope for a bright future.
I was happy to see these kids differ in what they thought of a novel. Then remembered that the same book was published abroad, sold all over the world, but not where it really matters. Even in Riyadh Book Fair, this month, where all censored books of Ghazi Al-Gosaibi and Turki Al-Hamad were released for the first time, the book was taken off shelves. Four hundred books were permitted but then confiscated without explanation!
Banning books is widespread. Even in academic libraries, books are banned. Reasons, vary. The ban not only includes what is regarded as ideologically incorrect, but also the politically, socially and literally imperfect. With such a wide net, even our college students are not allowed self-determination. That’s why they shy away from scientific research and prefer, if not demand, textbooks at all levels, including doctoral.
Professors, including graduates of Western universities, have to oblige.
As a result, we get carbon copies of future leaders. They study the same thing, the same way, and reach the same conclusions. When they study abroad, they carry their package with them. It confuses them when asked to look for information and make up their minds about it. They find it hard to argue with their professors. Where they came from, it is one-way street dialogue. They sat at the listening end, respectfully, and trustfully — no argument allowed.
Then comes the really hard part — debate. This is what Dr. Sami, an American schools graduate, found lacking and tried fixing. To find yourself in a multicultural environment is hard enough. To have to make a constructive dialogue with men and women of all ages, thoughts, and background is too much for many.
What to do about it? The next National Dialogue Forum is about our outdated curriculum, and how to improve it. I suggest we transform the entire system to be based on free thought, open research and civilized dialogue. We have wasted ages and generations; we can’t afford to waste any more.

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