Writing in the Middle East

In the first of a series of posts from ELT writers based in non-Anglophone countries, Gary Pathare lifts the lid on writing for the most elusive of markets.

What makes the region unique?

The fact that this series of blog posts (about writing in specific regions) exists implies that writing differs between regions. Despite this, I have worked in the Middle East on American and British coursebooks, presumably under exactly the same conditions as an American or British writer: sometimes for royalty payments, more often for a set fee, always to a very specific brief and deadlines.

However, the region is unique in terms of materials requirements, and I consider that materials either specifically written or versioned for the region demand writers with broad personal experience of the region, arguably more so than in other contexts.

I think that there are three important things to understand from a writer’s perspective. Firstly, while this region may appear homogeneous, it isn’t. Secondly, there is a great need for cultural understanding and sensitivity when writing. Thirdly, the pedagogic requirements differ from other regions, and this is crucial.

Homogeneity

Talking about ‘the Middle East’ is apt to confuse, when you consider that the Middle East is just one of several possible categorisations of countries in the area. Publishers can choose to market to the MENA region (the Middle East and North Africa), to the Middle East, to the Gulf States, to the Arabic-speaking world, or to individual countries or specific combinations in the region. Teachers who are unfamiliar with the region may tend to see it as more homogeneous than it actually is, seeing similarities in clothing, religion and cultural norms. However, the reality is that the region is just as varied as, for example, Europe or the Americas. Just as Finns may find little in common with Greeks in cultural terms, or people from the south of Spain with their northern compatriots, Omani culture is very different from that of KSA (as Saudi Arabia is always referred to here). The region is, in fact, founded on myriad distinct, ancient, tribal cultures. Take appearance, for example: any Emirati adult can instantly identify the origin and status of a fellow Middle-Eastern man from the cut of his ‘Kandora’ (traditional dress) and the design of his beard; to an American, though, these may appear virtually identical. As a result, cultural sensitivities are easily and often breached by the use of stock ‘Middle East’ photos.

Cultural sensitivity

As well as avoiding erroneous regional ‘branding’, the writer in the Middle East needs to be very aware of cultural norms and values. These may intertwine with the law, so it is not a question of defining your own values and imposing them through your materials. These cultural norms vary in both content and intensity; individual countries have varying degrees of tolerance for ‘Western’ values, for example, so a text about an Australian movie star may be acceptable in the UAE but not in the KSA. Some topics must be avoided throughout the entire region: politics, religion, alcohol, pork, sex, homosexuality and gender issues, war, and so on. Breaching these constraints will not only prevent uptake of the materials, but could get the person responsible for purchasing them into serious trouble.

It is also worth considering what we take for granted as being common shared knowledge of popular culture. I have yet to encounter a UAE Foundations student who has heard of the Beatles, for example: the Beatles conquered America, but not Bahrain. Turkish soaps are far more popular than Australian ones, and although Hollywood is as ubiquitous here as elsewhere, people mostly watch the action, fantasy and horror genres. Bollywood movies are also very popular. To connect with this audience, the writer needs to become familiar with popular culture in the region, along with understanding the deeper elements of local traditions and norms.

Pedagogical issues

Discussions of the ‘Middle East context’ for writers tends to focus on cultural issues, rather than pedagogy. In my opinion, this is a mistake; cultural issues can be avoided fairly easily, given sufficient local knowledge and a degree of empathy, but identifying a productive, efficient pedagogy is much harder. It has taken me 18 years of teaching and writing in the Middle East to understand just how problematic the methodology that underlies the ELT profession is when applied in this context. This methodology, and the materials that support it, was not conceived of for this part of the world, and it largely fails to work.

To understand why, think about the methodology used in most coursebooks. We use reading texts to introduce grammar, vocabulary and language in general, as well as to input ideas and give explanations. As a materials writer, I spend probably half of my time writing and adapting texts, giving a point of view to discuss and embedding language points. This methodology assumes that students can read, extract and notice the language points from a 200- or 300-word text with relative ease. However, in the Middle East, learners are dealing with an alien script, often after very little literacy training in English. In addition, the ideas embodied in the text may be as alien as the script, and the expectations of the learning situation may be at odds with their own. In many cases, learners will have been brought up to view the teacher as an all-knowing decision maker, rather than a ‘facilitator’ of semi-autonomous communicative language learners, who ‘discover’ language rules for themselves, and apply them to fit their own communicative needs.

As a writer in the Middle East, I therefore live a double life. On the one hand, I am delighted and privileged to write for professional publishing houses, from whom I have learnt so much, but on the other, part of me feels that my most interesting writing is the unpublished writing I do that fully encompasses my beliefs about methodology that I have developed over the last two decades. Having said that, publishers are becoming aware of the issues, and are increasingly commissioning region-specific materials. My own credits include additional writing components to make Headway Plus and Headway Study Skills (OUP) more appropriate for the region, and two levels of OUP’s Milestones course, which addresses the need for integrated study skills development as well as a putting a greater-than-usual focus on bottom-up ‘micro-skills’ work. Unlock Basic Literacy (CUP), written with Emma Pathare, finally tackles the issue of literacy in an adult ELT context, and the new edition of Skillful (Macmillan) was informed (I am told) by our feedback on the value of increasing scaffolding in skills development for students in this region.

Which leads to my final point: I sincerely believe that having been forced to question the status quo as far as every aspect of materials is concerned, from font size to lesson sequences, writers here develop a critical awareness of language learning and language teaching that can translate into more efficient, materials for other contexts. I hope that the future of materials writing will continue to embrace the lessons of the ‘Middle East’; we are not a one-size-fits-all world, and that is what makes materials writing so enjoyable and challenging.

Gary Pathare has written and co-written a number of coursebooks for OUP, CUP and Macmillan, and numerous teacher’s books and supplementary materials. He wrote all of these after 2001, when he started teaching academic English at the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) in Dubai, UAE, after ten years’ teaching and teacher training in Barcelona. By 2006, he had developed from a writer of ‘single-use’ worksheets to one of coherent, formatted, branded sets of materials, which he shared around the 17 HCT campuses. At that time, he joined with his wife, Emma Pathare, who had just developed a bespoke vocabulary course that won an ELTON award, to become a writing team.

Gary has four main writing outlets. One is non-region-specific projects, such as general English coursebooks, supplementary materials and exam items. Then there are books with a regional focus, an increasingly popular market. Thirdly, there is a market for versioning materials specifically for the region. Finally, he writes his own non-commercial materials for his specific context in the HCT.

 

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2 responses to Writing in the Middle East

  1. Clare 17 July 2019 at 6:13 am #

    Thank you for sharing this insight, I find it extremely interesting. I have no experience working in this part of the world, but there were some students from UAE (as well as China and European countries) in the class I had to teach for my observations on my Trinity Dip – I wish I had known back then some of things you’ve mentioned here! And it raises an interesting question about materials and teaching styles that are suitable/effective in mixed classes, for example in ESOL contexts. I wonder if anyone can share ideas on how to bridge the gaps between different learners’ cultural and pedagogical expectations in those kinds of contexts and classes?

  2. Bjorn Candel 3 August 2019 at 12:57 pm #

    This is an excellent analysis! I think you hit the nail on the head with the line “This methodology, and the materials that support it, was not conceived of for this part of the world, and it largely fails to work.” I also agree that the cultural sensitivity bit is much easier to deal with than how to work out your pedagogy for this part of the world. Thank you for your clear and insightful analysis! It’s inspiring me to (once again!) look at my pedagogy as the new academic year is about to start.

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