Category: News

Title: Engage Your Senses!

Cultural Exchanges from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean

By Dr. Susan Douglass

Each year, in conjunction with the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) Annual Conference, institutional members of its affiliate, the Middle East Outreach Council (MEOC), hosts a workshop for educators and conference attendees. In November of 2017, the MESA Annual Conference in Washington D.C. featured a collaborative workshop extravaganza cosponsored by four local member organizations: the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, the Middle East Policy Council, and the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, which graciously hosted the workshop at its beautiful building. Each organization sponsored speakers and funds to make this enjoyable day accessible to more than forty educators, outreach professionals, and MESA members.

The content was built around a trending topic of historical and cultural study: the five senses. Discerning how people long ago sensorially perceived their world depends upon an analysis of material culture, literature, and fine arts, in addition to evidence from archaeological sites that illuminate what people ate and how they arranged their living spaces.

Photo of three men playing instruments while two women take video of the performance in the front row.
Layaali Arabic Music Ensemble performs during the workshop “Musical Encounters from the Arab World.”

An exploration of touch and sight began the day, starting with an historical overview of Indian textile exchanges and technologies for spinning, weaving, and applying colors to cloth during a lecture titled “Textiles from India” led by Cristin McKnight of the Corcoran School of Art and Design at George Washington University. The beautiful fabrics she displayed were a feast for the eyes, their textures luxurious to the touch.

Arabic and Persian poetry represented the sense of hearing. Abeer al-Mohsen, Arabic instructor at the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, presented “Arabic Poetry and Coffee Culture in the Arab World.” She featured readings and a lesson on Nizar Qabbani’s poem “The Fortune Teller” in Arabic, as well as an English translation. Participants especially enjoyed her demonstration of how to make Arabic coffee. Then, she surprised everyone by having the grounds “read” by the free phone app Kaave.

Fatemeh Keshavarz of the Roshan Institute for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland demonstrated the power of Persian poetry with her presentation “Wondrous Birds: Persian Poetry as Fabulous, Flying, and Musical.” She began by providing literary context, and then read selections of her own and Rumi’s poetry in Farsi. The recitations brought the language to life to such an extent that translations were hardly necessary.

The Layaali Arabic Music Ensemble led a tour of styles and techniques: percussion instruments by Michel Moushabeck; the oud (lute) by Abdul-Wahab Kayyali; and the nay (flute) by Chakib Hilali. This educational seminar, “Musical Encounters from the Arab World,” was capped by a wonderful ensemble performance.

A woman demonstrates how to make coffee while two other women watch.
Abeer al-Mohsen demonstrates how to make Arabic coffee and “read” the coffee grounds.

We indulged the sense of taste with a Middle Eastern lunch from Mediterranean Bakery. Lunch was accompanied by a talk from Harrison Guthorn, Senior Program Officer at the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, who also brought a sample of fragrant spices. Megan Geissler of the Middle East Policy Council continued with the sense of smell with her presentation and lesson plan “Mapping the Movement of Scents,” which discussed the migration of the plant and perfume trade around the region over time—accompanied by the chance to daub perfume on the wrists of workshop attendees.

The workshop ended at the recently reopened Freer Gallery of Art for a tour of the exhibit on Islamic arts arranged around an appreciation for the senses. The tour included famous pieces such as the Freer’s enameled glass mosque lamp, metalwork incense burners, ceramics, and works on paper. Teachers received a rich collection of teaching resources and were then free to view additional galleries in the renovated museum.


Dr. Susan Douglass is the CCAS Education Outreach Coordinator.

This article was published in the Winter/Spring 2018 CCAS Newsmagazine.