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Battuta, No Journey Is Too Far
Annapolis Fourth-Graders Travel Depth and Breadth of Islamic Culture in the
Footsteps of a 14th-Century Moroccan Man
By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 5, 2002; Page AA14
First came the exotic locales, the distant geographies: Tangier. Alexandria. Damascus. Baghdad.
Then came mention of luxurious goods: Ripe tangerines. Green cardamom. Burnt-orange turmeric.
Next, these fourth-graders at Annapolis's Key School were stepping into the dusty shoes of 21-year-old Ibn Battuta as the 14th-century Moroccan man made his hajj across North Africa, to Mecca, and then kept going. By the time he returned home, he was a 64-year-old man.
"I didn't think it was gonna be interesting," remembered Richard Karsten, 9, as he led a discussion of Islamic metalwork with three classmates. "I thought Ibn Battuta [IH-bin Buh-TOO-ta] was a funny name, and I was confused."
"I'd never heard of Islam before this," said Rachel Davis, 9, a voracious reader who seeks out adventures and devours new discoveries. "I thought there was just Christian and Jewish. I hadn't heard of anything else."
"That's what I thought, too," added classmate Nick Dickenson.
But soon the students were making up dances inspired by Islamic art, which they practiced, barefoot, in their jeans. They pounded rhythms on clay pots and Egyptian drums, and they learned the song "Tafta Hindi" on their recorders.
And as the Muslim world and Islamic beliefs have lately become more integral than ever to politics and international diplomacy, and as President Bush threatens war on Iraq, the fourth-graders at Key have spent the last two months exploring every part of that world and its culture.
They memorized poems, such as this one from a 20th-century Lebanese writer named Sa'id 'Aqi:
Once . . . I heard a bird, an absorbed, ecstatic bird, eloquently telling its child:
"Fly away, soar high:
a few bread crumbs will suffice you, but the sky you need . . . the whole sky."
They learned about salat, the call to prayer five times a day, and zakat and shahada and the Ka'ba.
boys like Nick were reading "Tales from Turkey" before falling
asleep at night, and then dreaming of Ibn Battuta "going from
Tangier to Cairo to Alexandria," Egypt, he said. "And before I
woke up, I got to the point where he was in India."
And girls like Lexi Poms were lying in bed, in the morning, "imagining that it's 4 a.m., and soon I'll hear the call to prayer, and I go." Even the skeptical Richard was getting into it. He would read about Ibn Battuta's travels on camelback, and "sometimes," he said, "if you think about being on a camel for a while, it makes your legs feel really sore -- just thinking about it."
A Show of Learning
The lessons in Islam ended with a grand finale: a vivid dance and music recital, where the lower grades at Key School sat on the floor and tapped their feet in time to the drums, and children at the back of the audience sat up on their heels, the better to see the performers' Eastern-inspired movements.
When the boys started drumming, smaller children in the audience began beating their palms together, imitating what they saw the fourth-graders doing under the spotlight.
Watching the performance was Barbara Chow, executive director of the National Geographic Education Foundation, which gave $5,000 to Key School so the three fourth-grade teachers and music instructors could create the unique program for the students.
"With everything going on in the Middle East right now," she said, "for these kids to learn firsthand about Islam and the culture, music and foods, and to walk in someone else's footsteps. . . . These students will remember this forever. When they see something in the news about Islam, this is what they will remember."
Music teacher Jacque Schrader said, "It was really a reach for us." The teachers and students had never attempted such an exercise -- something "so different from anything they've ever done" -- something like the swirling movements, the stylized way they held their hands and heads and arms while dancing, even learning to listen -- and respond -- to the haunting, emotional music played not with bass drums and guitar, but with wind instruments and sitar.
"But," Schrader quickly added, "it's the same they've been doing since they were babies: Put them in a circle and make up dances."
After the performance, the fourth-graders hosted an Islamic bazaar, where the teeming cities of Cairo, Tangier and Istanbul took over each fourth-grade classroom.
"Who are you?" fourth-grader Will Barr asked his classmate Erica deBronkart, who was hidden under a striped hooded jellaba, with a brown scarf over her mouth and nose.
"Erica!" she answered.
Behind them, Lexi Poms was describing how black pepper, back in Ibn Battuta's day, "used to be very valuable, and it was called black gold." She stood next to small pots of henna, coriander, turmeric, frankincense and myrrh and could lecture fluently on all of them.
"Is there anything you don't know?" Will asked her.
At the spice table outside the blue-arched entryway to Istanbul -- formerly Martin Beadle's classroom -- Sheetal Chopra and Lucy Davidson showed off their wares, too.
"These two are our favorites," Sheetal said, pointing at the deep orange turmeric and the grayish ground coriander.
"Because they're powdery, and they're pretty," Lucy added.
"And they smell nice," Sheetal said.
They pointed at the green cardamom and said in unison, "Don't smell that one!"
Lucy warned, "It really hurts your nose."
Yet the lessons of the last two months had reached beyond the Islamic world of the 1300s. Rachel, a tall slim girl who speaks deliberately and often pulls her fine brown hair back in a ponytail or barrette, had spent time pondering how intrepid a traveler Ibn Battuta had been.
"He thought, 'I can't refuse this city. I need to see more.' Like, I want to go home now. But Baghdad. I want to go to Baghdad."
"It's a total adventure," Nick agreed.
As to the question of what personal characteristics propelled the traveler forward, Rachel decided: "He's kind of curious. I'm not sure if he's really brave."
"But I think they're kind of the same. Because when you're curious, then it makes you brave."
When you're brave, then you travel.
And travel, as Lexi Poms's father said, "is the enemy of ignorance and closed-mindedness."
By the end of the two-month lesson, even Richard had become enthralled by Ibn Battuta, that seemingly distant 14th-century man with the "funny name," and the culture Ibn Battuta lived in. As the bazaar raged, Richard exuberantly gave Rachel's dad a tour of the metalwork in his corner of Cairo.
"See? If you wanna feel this" -- Richard hesitated a moment as Robert Davis ran his hand over an intricate metal tray -- "it feels kind of bumpy." He picked up another silver object. "And this is an incense holder. And this one . . ."
He was grinning, talking fast, and his face danced.
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