Monday, November 27, 2017

Teachers Educating Across Cultures in Harmony (TEACH) Fellowship, Bahrain

Over Thanksgiving Break, I was fortunate enough to participate on a Teachers Educating Across Cultures in Harmony (TEACH) Fellowship to the Kingdom of Bahrain. The fellowship was financed,  organized, and administered by the Bilateral U.S. Arab Chamber of Commerce, an organization whose aim is to foster strategic connections, economic growth, and educational advancement with key decision-makers in the United States and the Middle East/North Africa. In order to realize this goal, the Chamber has developed the TEACH Fellowship to the Kingdom of Bahrain to help strengthen ties between the two nations.  The program's mission is to develop mutual understanding and respect between both countries with the hopes that educators will then return to their classrooms and communities to spread goodwill. 

Interestingly, upon telling folks about my trip, I was usually met with confusion. "Where is Bahrain?" they would ask.  This small island country is situated in the Persian Gulf, just east of Saudi Arabia and north of Qatar: 

This tiny but fascinating country is home to approximately 1.5 million people in 295 square miles. For reference, LA County is home to 10 million people in 502 square miles!

Bahrain is a small but charming country that is definitely worth the visit!

Over four jam-packed days, myself and  seven educators from around the country toured cultural and historical sites, met with prominent non profits and companies, and visited schools. I was flattered to be part of such an accomplished group of teachers-One lady was named 2015 Wisconsin State Teacher of the Year, and another was awarded a $175,000 grant from the state of North Carolina to overhaul math education in her school district! We were an exceptionally well-travelled group as well, with every member participating on multiple teacher travel fellowships. It was a truly phenomenal group of people. 

Our first site visit was the to the Shaik Ebrahim Bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa Center for Culture, a series of exhibits and galleries situated in turn-of the century antique buildings. The center was established in 2002 as a gathering point for intellectual thought, intercultural exchange, and research. Since it's inception, it has hosted more than 200 speakers, philosophers poets and thinkers on a variety of topics related to the Arab World. The physical spaces were a stunning display of antiquity and modernity: 

An example of the narrow alleyways that criss-cross the neighborhood. 

One of the many rooms for study. Note the pictures of the royal family on the back wall. 

Books written in Arabic. Like other Semitic languages such as Hebrew, books are read from right to left. 

A date palm in a traditional turn of the century building. Date palms are an integral part of Arabic culture because of the wood and (delicious) dates they provide. 

One of the most impressive sites we visited was the Qal'at al-Bahrain (قلعة البحرين‎)  Bahrain Fort. Given it's strategic position on the coastline of a heavily travelled trade route, the Bahrain Fort has been occupied by various peoples for the last 5,000 years, including the Dilmun Civilization and the Portuguese: 

The entrance to the Bahrain Fort. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005

The Flag of Bahrain. The triangles on the white represent the 5 pillars of Islam and the white represents mother of pearl, a valuable natural resource indigenous to the area. 


One of the most prominent themes we encountered on our trip is the controversial process of "reclaiming" land in Bahrain. For a small country with a booming economy, real estate is at a premium. In order for the economy grow, the government literally fills in the sea, creating new landforms:

The left image shows Bahrain in 2002, and the right image shows Bahrain in 2014. Note the tremendous addition of new land in the northern part  of the country. 

Environmentalists say that land reclamation is harming the delicate ecosystem along Bahrain's coasts, but development agencies and the government argue that more space is needed to grow the economy. 

This impressive skyline was built entirely on reclaimed land. The Bahrain World Trade Center on the left has won numerous awards for its creative architecture. 

After our visit to the Bahrain Fort, we went to the Bahrain National Museum, which sits on a piece of reclaimed land. Established in 1988, the museum was constructed at a cost of $30 million, and houses treasures and antiquities from the island's past: 

A recreation of a pearling vessel. Before modern technology, divers would hold their breath for up to 3 minutes as they collected mollusks. 

A Qu'ran made of Mother of Pearl. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of the museum was the history of pearling in the region. I had noticed that pearls play a prominent part of the Gulf region's culture: 

By 1928, revenues from the pearl trade accounted for approximately 90% of the country's revenue!

The Great Depression led to a precipitous decline in the demand for pearls, and fake pearls from Japan and China decimated the Gulf region's pearl industry. By 1954, there were only 11 pearling boats. Fortunately, oil was discovered in Bahrain in 1932, and has become the country's leading export. 

Interestingly,  the only available wood in the region are palms. Since summers reach a stifling 120 degrees,  homes were built of porous palm fronds. In addition to palm dates, the fronds were a crucial part of Arabic culture and civilization. 

The next day,  we visited the Al Fateh Grand Mosque. Built in 1987 and covering a whopping 6,500 square meters, this mosque can hold over 7,000 worshippers at a time! It was a sight to behold: 

Not surprisingly, the Al Fateh Grand Mosque is the premier tourist destination in Bahrain. This place is stunning!

A hallway made of imported Italian  marble 

This chandelier was constructed and imported from Austria. The dome in the background is the largest fiberglass dome in the world. 

During our visit, the Mosque was hosting a world qualifying competition. Men from around the Arab World gathered to compete to see who could recite the longest memorized passage from the Qur'an. Judges marked them for errors and omissions. 

That night, we ventured to the Bab Al-Bahrain Souk. This tightly packed commercial zone featured competing merchants gesturing for our business. It reminded me very much of Santee Alley in Los Angeles. 

A spice vendor selling food stuffs from the Near East and South Asia. 

A typical street scene at the Souk. Interestingly enough, most of the goods sold were not from the region, but rather from India! Approximately 50% of Bahrain's residents are immigrants from India.

A merchant decided to dress me in a Keffiyah, the traditional headwear for Arab men. 

Bahrain is clearly unaffected by globalization. 

In addition to cultural and religious site visits, we also had the opportunity to visit two different schools in Bahrain. The first school we visited, Bahrain Bayan, opened in 1982. This private, K-12 school serves mostly Bahraini and Saudi Arabian children, but all classes are taught in English. High School students use the International Baccalaureate curriculum.

The Bahrain Bayan School is the premier private school in the country. Almost every student graduates bilingual in English and Arabic, and many gain admission to top universities in the UK and the US. 

Faculty and Staff of Bahrain Bayan with TEACH Fellows. Funny enough, Mr. Hamoud, the gentleman next to me in the front, used to be a Corrections Officer in LA for the California Youth Authority! Needless to say, as Dean of Students at Bahrain's top private school, he doesn't have the same disciplinary problems he had back in Southern California. 

We also had the opportunity to visit St. Christopher's School, one of the oldest and most prestigious British private schools in the Middle East. This school mostly serves British expatriate children whose parents are working in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia in the oil and gas or international finance industry. According to the headmaster, most companies will subsidize tuition for up to 3 children to attend private school while abroad. Although classes are taught exclusively in English, the student body is exceptionally diverse, with over 60 different countries represented.

Our student tour guides told us that most students stay for approximately 2-4 years before relocating to another country due to their parents jobs.  Most also go on to top universities in Europe and the UK.

We also visited with a few non-profit education organizations working to close the achievement gap in Bahrain. The first non profit we visited was INJAZ Bahrain, an organization whose aim is to inspire and prepare young Bahrainis to succeed in the global economy. INJAZ brokers relationships between  Bahraini professionals in a variety  of fields and students in order to help youth grow their skills in the areas of entrepreneurship, personal finance, and public speaking.

Like other nonprofits around the world, INJAZ Bahrain struggles for funding, and due to low salaries in the non profit world, struggles to find and retain good talent. Nonetheless, their impact is tremendous: 32,000 students have been connected with 1,200 professionals.

We met with the Bahrain Economic Development Board, whose mission is to promote economic development in the country. They also release an annual report on the state of Bahraini education and offer solutions on ways to strengthen the education infrastructure  of the country. Their annual report, which documents everything from enrollment to college graduation rates, offered a unique glimpse into the country's education system:
Boys and girls are segregated by gender after the age of 10, but boys schools vastly underperform girls schools. Boys also graduate from college and university at disproportionally lower rates than girls. 

Men are disproportionally under-represented in the teaching field in Bahrain, a similar problem in the US.  

In addition to cultural, educational, and non-profit organization visits, we also met with the Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company. Along with being the largest ammonia and methanol company in the country, they are also a leading member of the US Bilateral Chamber of Commerce and a large funder of the TEACH Program. The next time I use cleaning solutions, I'll thank GPIC!

Even though the Gulf region hosts a number of expatriates working in the oil and gas industry, GPIC proudly boasts that 90% of it's employees are Bahraini.

One of the most impressive aspects of GPIC was it's commitment to environmental sustainability, corporate responsibility, and employee development. In addition to hosting a women's empowerment Day each year, GPIC encourages employees to volunteer, (and many choose to volunteer with INJAZ Bahrain!) and has won a number corporate environmental sustainability awards as well.

Our last stop of the trip was to Peninsula Farms, one of the largest greenhouse farms in the region. They produce a variety of products including vegetables , goat milk, goat cheese, and goat milk. Given the harsh weather conditions during the summer, (with averages over 100 degrees!) it was an impressive facility:

Peninsula Farms founder Grahame Dunling and his farm's products. The son of the Bahraini Ambassador to the US, Dunling grew up in Washington DC and is a die-hard Redskins fan and organic farmer in the desert.  
Peninsula farms have 45,000 sq/ft of growing area and is operational year-round and is one of the largest sustainable, all natural greenhouse farms in the Middle East!

Overall, our 4 day excursion to the Kingdom of Bahrain was an enlightening, educational experience. Bahrain is a country that delicately balances antiquity and modernity, where tradition and globalization meet. Thank you to the US Bilateral Chamber of Commerce and the other Fellows for an unforgettable experience!

I also published an op-ed about our trip in the Huffington Post. Check it out:

And fellow Matt Cottone made a short video documenting our trip:

Until next time...


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