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Reviewed by:
  • Simple Gestures: A Cultural Journey into the Middle East
  • Rebecca Torstrick
Simple Gestures: A Cultural Journey into the Middle East, by Andrea B. Rugh. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, Inc., 2009. xiii + 311 pages. $29.95.

First as a diplomat’s wife and mother of three sons, and later as a professional anthropologist, Andrea Rugh spent her adult life coming to know the people and cultures of various Middle Eastern countries. She socialized with the elite as an ambassador’s wife and worked among the very poor as an anthropologist on various development projects. She vividly shares her own painstaking journey to knowledge as she negotiated varying roles and relationships across Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

They show her interest and willingness to learn more about local culture and move outside of the comfortable expatriate circle. In time, this curiosity led her to enroll in and complete her doctorate in anthropology while home between her husband’s diplomatic postings.

They show her interest and willingness to learn more about local culture and move outside of the comfortable expatriate circle. In time, this curiosity led her to enroll in and complete her doctorate in anthropology while home between her husband’s diplomatic postings.

After completing her PhD and back in Egypt, she applied to the US Agency for International Development (USAID) for contract work so that she could put her training to good use. Her first contract work there focused on the educational system and led her to become an expert on educational development. Her descriptions of the vagaries of development in the region are some of the best — and most tragic — parts of this work. In Egypt, a need for big and costly projects led to a plan to build schools and provide materials for “basic” education (i.e., teaching home economics, carpentry, electricity, or agriculture). The schools that were built ended up costing more and were often poorly constructed; over time, they were not maintained and so began to fall apart. The “practical education” courses were ill-conceived; parents wanted their children to gain an education that would lead to a good job.

Rugh’s descriptions of her work on educational reform in Pakistan and Afghanistan are compelling. In Pakistan, she details the painstaking work of beginning a major reform in basic education in the North-West Frontier Province and Balochistan. Slowly, she and her colleagues were able to introduce a focus on actual student learning into the schools where they were working. We share in their struggles to create meaningful textbooks, to transform the teacher training process, to change classroom pedagogy, to develop a culture of evaluation of what students were learning. We also learn of the numerous abuses they uncovered and the fine line they had to tread in order to keep their program moving forward. In the end, they were defeated not by actions within Pakistan, but by the American government’s decision to suddenly suspend assistance to Pakistan. The program, which should have continued for six more years in order to be fully realized, ended abruptly four years after it began, and as Dr. Rugh notes, “… in the space of a year everything was gone” (p. 244).

A similar effort to develop appropriate [End Page 494] educational curricula in Afghanistan, spearheaded by UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), also ended in complete disaster when USAID pulled rank with Afghan officials to keep books developed by the University of Nebraska in the 1980s in Afghan schools. The Nebraska books were not very effective for student learning, filled as they were with militaristic images. Working with international curriculum experts and Afghan teachers and staff members, UNICEF had developed an appropriate Afghan curriculum that addressed the particular circumstances facing their system. The books included instructions for teachers and lesson formats that could be used by a literate person anywhere in the country to teach students. Just as the UNICEF books were ready for publication, USAID intervened. A photo of Laura Bush standing in front of a display of the Nebraska books had appeared in American newspapers with the announcement that USAID would pay for textbooks for Afghan students. No compromises...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-3461
Print ISSN
0026-3141
Pages
pp. 494-495
Launched on MUSE
2010-09-02
Open Access
No
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