When homework is too much work

Originally written for Gulf News Opinion http://gulfnews.com/opinion/thinkers/when-homework-is-too-much-work-1.1501443

Published: 17:33 April 29, 2015

homweork-overload

 

My nephew — let’s call him Saad — is a cool sixth grader. He has gleaming bright eyes, a dashing smile and karate expertise that has fetched him medals and trophies.

He is quick-witted, intelligent and playful and is also an excellent artist who sketches, colours and paints with amazing skill. It is always a pleasure to sit down and talk to him or play with him. But when I visited Pakistan this time to see him, I found his inherent spark missing.

He was hunched over his study table, bored and uninterested. Lots of books were strewn around the table as he absentmindedly doodled on his maths homework book with a perfectly sharpened pencil. On closer inspection, I found him sketching a suit of armour. There wasn’t the usual excitement on seeing me, there wasn’t the expected discussion on the woes of the Pakistan cricket team — instead my nephew just gestured towards his books and said the one dreaded word: “Homework”.

As I went through Saad’s books, I was staggered by the amount of homework this 12-year-old is expected to complete. On a given day, Saad gets three-four books that require doing extensive, exhaustive homework and at least four more that require revision.

His final exams are due to start soon and that effectively means putting a sixth grader’s life to an end. Surely, homework will help him achieve better grades, right? Research, however, portrays contrary findings.

Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education and a co-author of a study published in the Journal of Experimental Education, has found that too much homework may have negative effects on the well-being and behaviour of students.

This study, quoted on CNN, Healthline.com and various other prestigious publications, claims that excessive homework is associated with high stress levels, physical health problems and lack of balance in children’s lives.

A total of 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle-class American communities were a part of this research and a whopping 56 per cent cited homework as a primary cause of stress.

Pope’s study concluded that excessive homework could be ineffective and counterproductive. When questioned on how much homework is optimum, she replied: “In high school, nothing over two hours. In middle school, no more than 90 minutes. As for elementary school, there is no correlation between homework and academic achievement.”

Crucial social skills

Inundated with homework, a child such as Saad has precious little time left to polish skills such as karate, cricket and football and he hardly finds time to mingle with friends and build crucial social skills. One cannot help but feel for a child who has just spent five or six hours at school studying and is expected to still do more of the same at home.

Moreover, Huffington Post reports that Richard Walker, an educational psychologist at Sydney University carried out research that shows that in countries where more time is spent on homework, students score lower on a standardised test called the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa).

Walker, author of the book Reforming Homework: Practices, Learning and Policies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) found that homework only boosts students’ academic performance during their last three years of grade school. The same basic finding holds true across the globe, according to Gerald LeTendre of Pennsylvania State University.

If the undesirable effects of homework are so conclusively proven, why do schools all over the world continue to mete out loads of homework to students everyday? As with everything, there are two sides to the story. Homework is actually meant to be helpful and is given so students can practice the concepts taught in class, build good study habits and reflect on their own learning. Indeed, it can even be fun if you like what you are doing.

But for my nephew Saad, homework seems like anything but fun. The pressure to get above average grades is weighing him down. As I leaf through his books, I cannot help but feel that we take away our children’s childhood way before they grow up. Studying becomes all stress — it is no longer about learning, quelling your curiosity and certainly not about having a good time.

As a child, I remember feeling the same pressure that Saad is going through now and I wonder: when will things change? As my girls grow older, and they start going to school in the next few years, I hope that school life for them will be rewarding and fun, full of great experiences, and that their focus will be on learning, not studying.

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What are my children reading?

Originally written for Gulf News http://gulfnews.com/opinions/offthecuff/what-are-my-children-reading-1.1318829

Published April 2014

As a child, the image of a fairy godmother, in all her Disney glory was etched firmly inside my head. When I looked at my metal mouth (and the food that got stuck in the braces) in the mirror, I wondered if a kindly fairy godmother could just come, wave a wand and poof! I’d have a set of perfect pearly whites. I wondered if the same one could please, please come to school to help with the Math (whisper the answers in my ear) and deal with all those who bullied me. She never came. Obviously.

The image eventually faded away, and I was jolted out of my world of fantasy tales and magical beings into harsh, practical reality. Why did a fairly logical young person ever even harbour such thoughts? If only books played a better role! Fairy tales were loaded with the ‘feel-good’ factor, and felt so complete that my vivid imagination ran away to the moon with them. As my girls grow and discover Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, I want to have a close look at the pros and cons of fairy tales. Should I willingly let my girls accept fairy princesses, magic wands, fairy godmothers and witches as a fact of life? My little one has woken up in the night (terrified) a few times dreaming about the ugly and scary witch. The images get stuck in the mind, and I’m not sure I want the valuable real estate of her little developing brain to be occupied by some stupid horrifying sorceress that doesn’t even exist. Then there is the worrying matter of the ‘damsel in distress’. I am unconsciously providing a role model when I show them the beautiful princess with her blond hair, perfect skin, lovely gowns and her big blue eyes. She appears to be perfection personified. Yet she is seldom able to fend for herself, she rarely ever does something daring or intelligent, and is almost always rescued by this wonderful, amazing Prince Charming.

Extremely questionable

Isn’t there more to this seemingly innocent (and ever-repeated) plot that meets the eye? Am I unintentionally telling my girls that women are nothing if they are not gorgeous and that they invariably need a handsome man to rescue them? Is love really so simple, and is life all about ending up in the arms of Mr Right? One might argue that I am being obsessive about what is essentially harmless but I beg to differ. The entire plot upon which these fairy tales stand is extremely questionable. I can’t help feeling that I am either filling my children’s heads with a bunch of lies, or a lot of confusion. Imagine, telling a little girl to ‘enjoy the story’ but at the same time saying — no the witch isn’t real and neither is the fairy!

I do want them to devour modern day classics like Harry Potter after they have crossed a certain age and can distinguish between reality and fantasy and can appreciate someone like J.K Rowling for her simple yet eloquent style of writing, without worrying if wands are for real.

The power of stories is unique and unparalleled. There is a reason why all the religious scriptures in the world talk about past nations. Because stories affect the human psyche in a way that little else does. Imagine if we were to harness this power to build rather than confuse the thinking of our children, how much that would help in providing them with a sound upbringing! As for me, I fully intend to let my children discover fairy tales, but at the same time I want to make sure they know it’s fantasy, and that way better books that are just waiting to be discovered (including some selected ones by Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl) line their bookshelf. And I want to ensure that the bedtime stories I read to them are real, believable and leave them with some kind of lasting benefit.

 

Toddlers on the iPad – a good idea?

(Image via foodfamilyfinds.com)

Originally written for Gulf News http://gulfnews.com/opinions/columnists/toddlers-on-the-ipad-a-good-idea-1.1153921

It can change colour and design at the feather touch of a little finger. It can make almost any sound at all, far more than a favourite toy can. It can turn into a TV, a gaming device or an easel to unleash your creativity on, as and when you like. The iPad, with all its versions, is an amazing piece of technology.

Children, all around the world have been swept away into the digital iWorld, and as we watch our contended young ones poring over their tablet PC’s we wonder if screen time is as bad for children as it’s made out to be. After all, what more could a knackered parent want after a long and tiring day? The iPad is a baby-sitter, a friend and an interactive toy, all at once, and keeps a child happy, engaged and busy for long periods of time. But the question is: Are we hampering the development of our children if we let them engage with such devices at very young ages?

A quick search on the Apps Store for “apps for children” comes up with 15,155 results, and many of these apps are free, some state that they are educational and a large number of them are aimed at babies, and even claim to refine language and fine motor skills. Research from the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP), however, suggests that video screen time (TV’s and other screens used in the same way) provides no educational benefits for children under age 2 and leaves less room for activities that do, like interacting with other people and playing. Inactivity associated with TV and computer watching is connected with developmental and health issues. There are also psychological concerns related to depression, disengagement, poor social skills, and damage to a child’s ability to empathise. As one looks into child development study, traditional research and theory seem to confirm the findings scientists have made in recent times. Jean Piaget, an influential 20th century Swiss psychologist, has explained the learning process of babies and toddlers in this way: From the moment of birth onward, information comes into the brain through firsthand experiences with things, people and senses.

On a tablet, however, everything feels the same. A child’s earliest experiences are a very important part of their learning — for instance they discover the difference between rough and smooth, distinguish between light and heavy, and hot and cold, all through their hands. To us, these may seem like trivial achievements, but for a child, these encounters are exciting, and open up a world of discovery and learning. Tangible toys can allow them the opportunity to explore and learn through their own senses. We take all of those rich experiences away when we let our children become passive receivers of stimuli in front a slick, glossy screen.

Research from AAP has also cited concerns about language delays and disrupted sleep in children who are exposed to a lot of screen time. A child busy on an iPad will give up excellent opportunities for developing her social skills, for real time conversations with adults and peers and for physical exercise. Brofenbrenner, the well-known Russian-American psychologist spoke about how important it is for babies and carers to engage with each other. A mother smiles and clicks her tongue, the baby does the same. The mother gives a little kiss, the baby tries to imitate. This ‘ping-pong’, (as Brofenbrenner called it), lays the foundation for later conversation. With children spending more and more hours in the virtual world, chances for such exchange and bonding are lessened.

For a slightly older child, however, the iPad when used in moderation and with intelligence can actually help with learning. A recent study funded by the Department of Education in the US showed that the PBS Kids iPhone app “Martha Speaks” boosted 3-to-7-year-olds’ vocabularies by as much as 31 per cent over the course of two weeks. Besides, mentally stimulating games and puzzles are known to sharpen the mind. We live in a day and age when our children learn how to unlock a touchscreen device faster than they learn how to pick up a pencil. The iPad is here to stay, and will invariably make a place in the hands and hearts of most children who will come across the beautiful device.

It is not uncommon to find toddlers who will do just about anything to retain an iPad or a smartphone — but there are strategies for coping with such behaviour. Experts suggest that rules and limits must be clearly defined to the child so that they know what is expected of them. Adults must remain consistent and be firm yet calm in order to help a child respect and follow rules. And children learn a great deal by observing us too which is why I will sign off — before my little one comments that I have been staring at a screen for too long!

Dubai for higher education?

Originally written for: http://www.dawn.com/2011/12/06/dubai-for-higher-education.html

Dubai for higher education?

A friend in Karachi recently asked me if she should consider a university in Dubai for her son’s higher education, because Dubai was much closer to Pakistan than UK or USA and that many foreign universities had campuses there. I gave her an answer more appropriate on Facebook under the relationships column: “It’s complicated,” I said.

The city of Dubai, vibrant and wonderful as it is, is fast gaining a reputation as a study hub in the Middle East. With foreign universities such as Michigan, Rochester, Wollongong, Murdoch, Middlesex and others opening campuses in this dazzling desert in especially designated areas like Academic City and Knowledge Village , one wonders if the education provided by these universities is up to mark, and if one can actually get an education of Western standards in the Middle East.

To begin with, let us take a look at global university rankings. Now rankings can sometimes be misleading and confusing, because to measure all universities in every region by the same yardstick can have erroneous results. However, global ranking has now become a widely trusted tool for students and employers alike and annual rankings by Times Higher Education (THE), Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), QS Rankings, Webometrics.info amongst other ranking systems are widely used and although data may be somewhat biased, we do get a rough idea of where a university stands.

To give you some idea of how much the higher education system in Dubai needs to develop before it can get any kind of global recognition, let me tell you that searches on the Times Higher Education (THE) website and the ARWU website showed no universities in the United Arab Emirates that were ranked well, or in fact ranked at all. On the QS University ranking, the best university in the UAE is the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain and it stands at a world ranking of 338. However, another website 4icu rates it number 766 in the world and Webometrics slips it many places below to 1389!

Furthermore the cost of studying in Dubai is almost equal to what one might pay in the West, and student loans and financial aid are far more difficult to get here than, say, in the United States. And when it comes to finding jobs, a degree acquired in the UAE has its drawbacks. Bhairvi Prakash, a recent graduate from Middlesex Dubai who now works in the local media feels that a student will get more exposure abroad and while an undergrad course in Dubai is a good idea, she feels that it is better to opt for a Masters abroad. As far as jobs are concerned, Prakash says: “It’s fine if you’re looking for jobs within United Arab Emirates but it may not be the case if you were looking to work in the West, as their educational base is much more established compared to something still relatively recent like the UAE.”

Charvi Bhatt, who is a student at the American University in Dubai (AUD), believes that education standards come into account when you want to transfer from the Middle East to a Western university and that sometimes, credits completed here are not accepted abroad. However, she also believes that education in Dubai has its perks. “Campus life is good, truly multi-cultural,” she says. “Besides, if you’re a Dubai resident you could save on costs like accommodation, phone bills, and other day to day expenses.”

Many Western universities have opened campuses in Dubai and are heavily advertised not only locally but also in countries like Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Sadly though, the level of education offered by, say, Wollongong Dubai is very different from what one might experience in Australia. Consider the fact that Webometrics rates Wollongong Australia at 542, but Wollongong Dubai makes it to number 7494 in the world rankings.

Dr. Faiz Ishaq, Head of Campus at Szabist Dubai (a branch of Szabist Pakistan) feels that is because foreign universities in Dubai are not research based and rely on the research that has already been done. Universities abroad allocate more resources to research, hence furthering the frontiers of knowledge itself. According to Dr. Ishaq, in the UAE, institutions do not have the faculty required to promote research which he feels must be done at a cross-institutional level in order to make some kind of impact.

When one considers the fact that universities in UAE are ranked consistently low, Dr. Ishaq discusses a point which he also brought up in a QS University Rankings conference held earlier this year in Dubai. “QS Rankings are well-respected and we discussed the point that rankings are based on data given by employers. Since many of the world’s biggest financial and commercial companies have headquarters in the West, the feedback is generally about universities in the West. The universities in Asia are often ignored due to lack of data from employers.” The QS personnel agreed to that and offered to take feedback from employers in Asia as well to give fairer rankings.

Indian universities however, fare very well on any ranking system, with prestigious institutions such as Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and Indian Institute of Management (IIM) occupying good positions. Dr. Ishaq believes that is because higher education in India is very well developed (unlike Pakistan or UAE) and that a solid base is given to students starting at the primary level.

Suffice it to say that in the field of higher education, Dubai, for once must understand that bigger is not necessarily better. Breathtakingly beautiful campuses with price tags to match do not ensure a good education. However, the effort on the part of the authorities to create something of a study hub must be commended as the UAE takes baby steps towards recognition in this sphere.

Volunteering ship is changing young lives

http://gulfnews.com/life-style/general/volunteering-ship-is-changing-young-lives-1.795036

First published in Friday, (a weekend magazine by Gulf News) – in the ‘Making a Difference’ section

Logos Hope

  • Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Logos Hope is owned and operated by Good Books for All (GBA) Ships, a Germany-based not-for-profit organisation.

The little boy was standing patiently in the queue looking longingly at the goodie bags, which were being handed out to the children ahead of him. His eyes lit up when his turn finally came. The moment he received it, he quickly dug into the bag and couldn’t believe his luck. Never before had he received a gift like this: a bag full of books, a bunch of pens and a packet of colour pencils. And they were all new! Surely he’d have to return these precious materials the following day? His eyes full of mixed emotions, he looked up at Norma Hernandez, a Mexican volunteer on board Logos Hope who was handing out the gifts, and voiced his concern.

“Oh no, you don’t have to,” she told him. “These are for you only. Enjoy the books and you can use the pencils to your heart’s content. The little boy looked overjoyed. I still remember the pure glee in his eyes,” recalls Hernandez. “So ecstatic was he to receive the gift.”

The boy was not alone in his exhilaration. All around him, other children were equally ecstatic and were showing off their newfound treasures to their parents.

“They had never had books and pencils of their own and were overjoyed to be owners of these things,” says Hernandez. “To many children around the world, these are everyday commodities – things to which they don’t attach value. But to these children in Liberia, books and writing instruments were priceless.”

Hernandez should know. As a volunteer on board Logos Hope, the largest floating book fair in the world, which docked in the UAE recently, she cannot mistake the importance of an endeavour like this.

Setting sail

Logos Hope is owned and operated by Good Books for All (GBA) Ships, a Germany-based not-for-profit organisation. The organisation’s goal is to “bring hope, help and knowledge to the people of the world,” says Hernandez.

Originally used to ship books from England to India (as the demand for literature from European countries was high in India), the vessels operated by GBA Ships are today floating libraries, which welcome people at the ports they dock offering books at heavily discounted prices. Over the years the ships (four including Logos Hope) have welcomed 400 million visitors in 1,400 port visits in 162 countries, she says.

Logos (a Greek term meaning ‘word’) Hope is the company’s newest acquisition and the atmosphere on board is lively on the day I visit. With 7,000-plus titles arranged on shelves on the ship’s deck, the air is heady with the smell of books. Off the book zone, at one end of the deck is a café and in between perusing the books and buying popcorn and ice cream, children with their families turn the atmosphere on board almost carnival like. Eager young ones pose for photographs in front of a red lifeboat on the main deck and smiling crew members are at hand to guide and help visitors.

The crew of Logos Hope is multicultural boasting over 50 nationalities. Each person on the ship is assigned a task and many people serve in their professional capacity – as seafarers, doctors, cooks, engineers and electricians – and work eight hours a day, five days a week. What is noteworthy is that the 400-member crew are all volunteers.

From the time the vessel began sailing way back in 1970 the crew of Logos Hope (which changes every year) have been busy giving hope and solace to the underprivileged. Logos Hope has been active in Guyana and West Africa – particularly Sierra Leone, Ghana and Liberia – where last year the doctors on board carried out hundreds of free eye examinations and dental treatment in clinics set up on the ship.

“As someone who’s had regular dental check-ups all my life, I was surprised at how little dental care is available to people in these countries,” recalls Jessie LaPlue, a 23-year-old volunteer from the US, who helped the dentists.

Medical aid is not the only solace that Logos Hope offers. In Liberia last year, the team helped rebuild orphanages and donated 50,000 books to community groups and colleges. In Sierra Leone, they donated 1,300 books to establish 13 new library branches in rural areas and trained 37 people to run them. While in Georgetown, Guyana, in 2009, the crew helped to complete several building projects for the community.

A few weeks before docking at a port, Logos Hope sends some crew members into the city to research the needs of that particular community. “We stop at a port for only two weeks and want to make sure we channel our energies in the right areas and the team helps us decide exactly what charitable activities are needed the most,” explains LaPlue.

Hernandez remembers being sent to Liberia to find out how Logos Hope could contribute to the community. “One wanted to do so much to help the people there – but with limited time and means we could only contribute in certain ways. Schoolchildren were not allowed to take the stationery home because the school management had a very limited supply.” All the reason why giving a child his own stationery makes such a big difference. The things most people take for granted in their everyday lives, says Hernandez, have for others a huge value.

Not only does the crew of Logos Hope make a difference to the lives of countless less privileged children, the experience of being on board a ship as a volunteer creates a life-changing impact on them as well. Seelan Govender, a South African volunteer who has been working with GBA Ships for the past 12 years, says what keeps him coming back to the ship is that special feeling of being able to transform people’s lives. For example, in 2002, in Yangon, Myanmar, GBA Ships was responsible for erecting a water tower (to collect potable water) for an orphanage. “They had never had something like that before. Suddenly there was water in the bathrooms, in the kitchen, even for irrigating the fields. To be able to contribute to something like that was wonderful,” says Govender.

Self-development

Living and interacting with 50 cultures on a daily basis is, according to Govender, a great learning opportunity apart from also being an enriching and rewarding experience.

The beneficiaries too have only words of praise for the ship and the team members. “The ship brought some great experiences into our lives,” wrote John Nyavor from Tema, Ghana, to the crew. He recalls the time when children from an orphanage called Charity Kingdom in Tema, climbed up the gangway into Logos Hope. “It was my first time on a ship, as it was for all the children with me. They were very happy and I will never forget that event. We still have the bikes that were given to us. (The crew had visited the orphanage for a project and donated their personal bicycles to people who were in dire need of a means of transportation.)

At a school in Monrovia, Liberia, called the Bethany Industrial Mission, that provides free education to children without educational opportunities, help and intervention from Logos Hope seems to have made a remarkable difference. Mark Kartakpah, from the school management says, “Over the past six months (August 2010 to January 2011), there has been dramatic growth in the number of students at Bethany Industrial Mission as a result of Logos Hope intervention and support. This semester, BIM also received an additional three female and three male teachers who are very enthusiastic. A total of 225 students are enrolled… This is manifested by many parents making enquiries to send their children on a daily basis.

“Associated with this growth has been a growing concern about identifying the level of achievements since Logos Hope visited in 2010. A number of teachers have produced their own teaching guides/plans for monitoring and evaluation. The books that were donated are having a lot of impact: students are getting along with reading, and the teachers are using dictionaries… and other teaching aids to assist in giving attention to assessing performance.”

What keeps them afloat

Logos Hope’s revenue comes from the sale of (discounted) books, sponsorships and donations from several organisations around the world. Port charges are frequently waived by the countries where the ship stops – a huge savings for the operators.

For an individual who comes on board for a couple of years, doesn’t the task of doing voluntary work get clinical at times? Govender says: “There are many days I feel like giving up – but I guess that’s part of life. What keeps me motivated is how this project keeps on touching people’s lives, day after day.”

The experience of being part of the crew is fascinating and for Raluca Cardos, a volunteer from Romania, one incident was particularly inspiring. “There was a young African boy who was told not to attend school because the teachers said that he could not read as he had become visually impaired. So after a free eye examination, we provided him with glasses and he returned to school, and is able to read and write as before,” she says.

Sailing to different nations and providing help whether it be of the aspirational kind as in donating books, or building facilities that make living easier or providing the much-needed medical relief, the crew and volunteers of Logos Hope take significant pride in the fact that they are privileged enough to help improve the lives and condition of people who are less fortunate than them.

It is a lot of hard work but life on board has its lighter moments. Govender relates an incident when the female crew and volunteers went off the vessel for a period of two weeks at one port. When they returned, they were unable to find their quarters. A hue and cry was raised until the ship’s carpenter revealed that he had moved the wooden door marking the entrance to their bunkers hence leading them to believe that their bunkers had vanished off the ship.

But such intervals of mirth notwithstanding, it is a sea life of many compromises. Volunteers have to share cramped quarters, the food can become predictably repetitive and the internet connection can be very, very slow. On lucky days, they can see a bit of television though they cannot be too choosy about what beams through.

“It’s a challenge, adapting to everything,” says Cardos, who when she joined was the only one from Romania. After an initial bout of feeling isolated, she soon began to appreciate the advantages of sharing her time with people from diverse cultures. The disadvantages too turned out to be a learning curve.

Sometimes, says LaPlue, “Arguments and minor scuffles do break out but the ship’s management team has established a special department to handle such situations effectively.”

For Hernandez, the toughest ordeal about being a volunteer at Logos Hope is having to say goodbye when it’s time to disembark. “After having formed strong friendships with people – they become like your family – it is hard to let go. At the end of each year, the crew changes – those who have completed two years move on. Some of my best friendships have been on board and I really miss those who have moved back to their countries.”

Also, when you live for such long stretches of time in a world that is a place unto its own, emotional attachments take on a different meaning. “You have two choices,” says Hernandez. “You can either invest in a short-term relationship or be lonely on the ship.”

Life on board

Some volunteers have joined Logos Hope with their families, and for the children there is an on board school offering the British curriculum. Govender, whose three-year-old daughter attends the play school, feels since there are 30 children, the teacher-student ratio is good.

For the crew members who don’t have their families with them, they often ‘adopt’ families. LaPlue’s ‘adopted’ father, Des, is Irish and is in his sixties. He lends his experience in the training department on the ship and she says they spend occasions such as Christmas and Thanksgiving together. But the moments of longing for home are not far away. At night. lying on her bunk bed, as the ship sails through the silent dark, making its way to yet another port, LaPlue misses being home. What helps sleep come easily, however, is the prospect of seeing a smile on yet another face tomorrow and knowing that she played a role, however big or small, in bringing that smile.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

  • Who: Logos Hope
  • What: The world’s largest floating book fair that has also built schools and libraries in poor countries

If you would like to volunteer, visit www.gbaships.org

Celebrating the written word

First published @ dawn.com

DUBAI: I have always wondered whether writers who write proficiently could also speak that well. My curiosity was quelled when I got a chance to listen to Greg Mortensen give a talk at the Emirates Literature Festival earlier this month.

The co-author of the New York Times bestseller, Three Cups of Tea, Mortensen walked out to a thunderous ovation from a packed audience in traditional Pakistani garb, a shalwar kurta. Mortenson, who started building schools in the northern areas of Pakistan after a failed attempt at reaching the summit of K2, talked about how important it is to educate girls to bring about change in society. “You can drop bombs, build roads or put up electricity wires, but unless the girls are educated, a society won’t change,” he insisted.  Currently, the Central Asia Institute, Mortenson’s brainchild, has built and operates 178 schools in the rural and generally unstable areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Around 68,000 children are enrolled in the numerous schools and close to 54,000 are girls. In his talk Mortenson pointed out that the real fear of terrorists is not a bullet, but the pen, because education can empower people and give them courage.

Mortenson’s second book, Stones into Schools has been described by the New York Times as well as the Washington Post as a timely narrative, though not quite as compelling or as well-written as Three Cups of Tea. Coincidentally, I realised that his talk, although informative (and interspersed with self-deprecating humour), wasn’t quite as riveting as Three Cups, but then the book had been a hard act to follow, especially with David Oliver Relin’s expert wordplay.

Another attraction at the Literature Festival was a cooking demonstration by well-known Indian actress and food writer, Madhur Jaffrey. Even at 77 years of age, Jaffrey, a prolific writer, continues to come up with new recipes (as her latest effort‘Curry Easy’ showcases) and had the audience salivating at her ‘Bhuni jhinga’ and ‘Salmon in a Bengali mustard sauce’. An interesting tip that Jaffrey gave during her demonstration was that for an excellent tomato puree, one can simply grate a tomato with a grater.

After weaving through a throng of people waiting for book-signings by Madhur Jaffrey and Greg Mortenson, I found myself looking at the collection of books for sale at discounted prices at the Intercontinental Hotel (the venue for the festival). I picked up The Messenger – The Meanings of the Life of Muhammed by Tariq Ramadan, a professor at Oxford University, who is a renowned Islamic scholar and writer, and is originally from Switzerland. The first few pages of the book are beautifully written, with a depth and spirituality impossible to ignore. And when Tariq Ramadan spoke at the festival the following day, his talk was every bit as eloquent as his written word. An incredibly open-minded and often controversial Islamic scholar, Ramadan said that after reading his most recent book The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism, a French journalist asked him, ‘Are you still a Muslim?’ to which Ramadan quipped, ‘Your question speaks far more about yourself and how open-minded you are than it does about me.’ He also outlined the importance of intellectual humility and said that one must always be willing to learn from others and not have a tunnel-vision in one’s beliefs.

I also got a chance to listen to Isobel Coleman, senior fellow for US foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Coleman recently wrote ParadiseBeneath Her Feet – a book that talks about how women are transforming the Middle East. She revealed that over the last few decades, there has been a remarkable change in the role of women in the Arab society. In Saudi Arabia for instance, at one time, girls were not allowed to attend school. In 1962, in an agreement with the United States, the then king allowed females to get formal educated at school. Now, nearly half a century later, in the Kingdom, 63 per cent of all college graduates are women. Another remarkable fact she revealed was that a study by the Harvard Business Review found that women make up an increasingly high number of the most talented professionals, and that the ambition index of the women from UAE was much higher than that of the average female American professional. Coleman’s session was full of statistics and somewhat eye-opening, but the paltry attendance was a little disappointing.

When I scanned the list for a Pakistani author, I found that apart from Sadruddin Hashwani, chairman of the Hashoo Group, who spoke about his upcoming autobiography, Pakistan had no representation at the LitFest. One hopes that will change next year as the country is a burgeoning ground for extremely talented writers who have already made their mark at various international festivals.

The Festival hosted talks from many noteworthy writers such as Karen Armstrong, Lynn Truss, Michael Palin as well as many regional Arab writers, including Khalid Al Khamissi, Maha Gargash and Sara Al-Alewi. Workshops for children, and aspiring writers were also held. For a lot of booklovers (myself included), it felt like being a child in a candy store – you wanted buy all the books and attend all the talks too. But I don’t think attending more than three completely absorbing sessions in a day (the festival was over three days) is a very good idea, because by the end of a long day, I was exhausted (mentally and physically) as well as famished, and was indignantly wondering why the audience wasn’t offered Madhur Jaffrey’s (presumably scrumptious) stir-fried shrimps.

Reuters: Mohammed Amir opts for education!

I was skimming through the paper, not really interested in anything – and then… this caught my eye! Reuters have reported that banned Pakistani cricketer Mohammed Amir has decided to complete his studies! Wohooo! http://uk.reuters.com/article/2011/03/04/cricket-pakistan-amir-study-idUKLDE7230T020110304

This letter( http://blog.dawn.com/2011/02/09/a-fan%E2%80%99s-letter-to-mohammad-amir/)that I had written to Amir probably had nothing to do with it… or maybe it did!   But whatever the case, I am really delighted to read that! Way to go buddy! May Allah give you true success! If you’re reading this Amir, you made a great decision and we’re all proud of you!

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