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A Song for Humanistic Education: Pedagogy and Politics in the Middle East

by Linda A. Herrera - 2008

Background/Context: If we take as a given the desirability of an education that promotes principles of respect, pluralism, rational critical inquiry, compassion, innovation, and excellence, then humanistic pedagogies should be paramount to that educational vision. Yet humanistic education in the Middle East has been on the demise in past decades due to the intensification of political and economic injustices, sectarianism, nativism, and religious fundamentalisms, coupled with the prevalence of market-driven neoliberal education reforms.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This study draws on the life history and pedagogy of a music educator, an Egyptian Muslim violin teacher, to broach larger questions about humanistic and aesthetic education in the Middle East. The current context of geopolitical conflict and authoritarianism have reinvigorated a reactionary cultural politics in which music and the arts are often targeted as being corruptive, extraneous, or irrelevant to Arab and Islamic society. This inquiry presses upon the need for research that addresses notions about education and national culture during periods of political and economic conflict, and of the urgency to support and build those cosmopolitan educational spaces that are constricting at an alarming pace.

Research Design: The research is organized around a life history and includes interviews, classroom observations, secondary analysis, and historical analysis. Life history allows for an investigation of the influences and conditions that contribute to an educator’s professional formation and pedagogic practices. It similarly provides a means by which to locate the teacher as a product of an historic period and, concurrently, as an active social actor who influences it.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Rather than serve as a “best practice” model, this study is intended to illustrate those pedagogic strategies that can nurture humanistic principles and lead to the cultivation of a cosmopolitan polity in the Middle East, particularly during periods of political conflict, growing sectarianism, and struggles for democratic change. For an education grounded in principles of openness and humanism may be among the greatest means for confronting the irrationalities, inequities, and injustices of our times.


If we take as a given the desirability of an education that promotes principles of respect, pluralism, rational critical inquiry, compassion, innovation, and excellence,  then humanistic pedagogies should be paramount to that educational vision. Yet humanistic education in the Middle East and far beyond has been on the decline in past decades due to the intensification of political and economic injustices and the invigoration of nativism, sectarianism, and religious fundamentalisms.1 Yet by no means is the Middle East unique in this regard; manifestations of fundamentalism appear throughout the world, from North America to South Asia, the examples, sadly, too abundant to enumerate.  During periods of reactionary cultural politics music and the arts, mainstays of humanistic education, are often targeted as being corruptive, extraneous, or irrelevant to Arab and Islamic society.  Also detrimental to the humanistic project are global market-driven education reforms that privilege the human capital or economic imperative of education. With their emphasis on competition, privatization and decentralization of public education, testing, standards, and accountability these global reforms undermine the notion of education for a public good (Torres, 2002). This life history of a music educator, an Egyptian Muslim violin teacher, serves as a testament to the urgency to protect and support humanistic educational spaces, wherever they may occur and whatever manifestation they may take.

In his Humanism and Democratic Criticism, the late Edward Said contends that the greatest threats to humanism can be found in the trilogy of nationalism, “religious enthusiasm,” and “exclusivism.” He posits that the ultimate mission of the humanist is to “offer resistance to the great reductive and vulgarizing us-versus-them thought patterns of our time.” (Said, 2004: 50). A humanistic education, which refers to an approach to learning that is humane in that it nurtures respect and compassion, and historical in that it consciously approaches the languages of literature, science, and the arts as an inherently collective human endeavor, is paramount to such an endeavor. Humanistic approaches to learning are not the domain of a particular culture or the outcome of a single historical trajectory, but contain universal dimensions.2

Related to the notion of a humanistic education is what philosopher Martha Nussbaum terms “cosmopolitan education.” Responding to the growing tendency for public intellectuals in the United States to support an inward-looking nationalism and patriotism, Nussbaum calls for an education that pays homage to the family and nation while simultaneously cultivating affinity to the expanse of humanity. She appeals for an education in which the student “may continue to regard herself as in part defined by her particular loves—for her family, her religious and/or ethnic and/or racial community or communities, even for her country. But she must also, and centrally, learn to recognize humanity wherever she encounters it, undeterred by traits that are strange to her, and be eager to understand humanity in its ‘strange’ guises. She must learn enough about the different to recognize common aims, aspirations, and values, and enough about these common ends to see how variously they are instantiated in the many cultures and many histories.” (1994: 5)

The rationality, compassion, and leadership of the humanist is needed more than ever in a project of cosmopolitan education to confront polarizing “us-versus-them” cultural politics evident around the globe. But who are the humanists and what spaces exist for them in contemporary societies? Throughout the East and the West the humanist has historically been associated with the teacher. By teacher, we do not mean someone who transmits or deposits information in students in what Paulo Freire has famously called the “banking system” of education (1970). A teacher, rather, represents an ethical social actor inextricably involved in the vocation of education in its broadest sense. It follows, therefore,  that  education refers not merely to schooling—however important schools may be—but to a process whereby the dialectical acts of learning and teaching that serve an individual and public good occur in their many manifestations.

It was in the context of being part of a working group on the role of the teacher in educational processes in Egypt and the region that this research was conceptualized.3 While I had initially planned to research the struggles and practices of public-sector school teachers in Egypt, I decided instead to look outside the formal school system to the life and practices of a music educator, a teacher of “Western” classical violin. I thought it important to investigate the borders of educational practice, to extend the normative understanding of who counts as a teacher and, in so doing, to raise awareness of pedagogic struggles and educational alternatives that might go unnoticed. I also found this an opportunity to document the practices and life of someone whom I considered to be an exemplary teacher. In discussions about this research with colleagues in the Middle East and in Europe, three  objections, all justified, were raised to it. To begin, some colleagues argued that music is a peripheral non-graded subject in the formal school system, the implication being that music is on the margins of the education system and of far less value than core academic subjects such as math, Arabic, and science. The second and more emphatic objection was raised on national cultural grounds: the type of music this particular educator is involved in is “Western,” a form that stands “outside our [Arab] heritage” (barra turathna) as an Egyptian colleague argued, and is therefore of little relevance to Arab and Islamic society. Thirdly, the point was raised that the study had a built-in elitist component since it deals with classical music, an art form associated with the tastes and habits of the elite.

Notwithstanding the validity of the above points, I persisted with the topic due to the above mentioned conviction of the need for research that looks outside the strictures of formal schooling towards a more expansive conception of education. Secondly, given the political moment in which this research occurred, namely on the eve of the 2003 US-led coalition invasion and occupation of Iraq , it seemed especially urgent to venture into arenas of inquiry that address culture, education and nationalism during periods of geopolitical conflict and national and regional vulnerability. Finally, I wanted to address a widespread (but by no means universal) bias among educationists in the region that music and aesthetic education are frivolous at best, and that the study of western classical music is inherently elitist.  

It remains necessary to state clearly from the outset that the purpose of this study is not in any way to suggest the superiority of any aesthetic form over any other. In fact, this research could just have easily been about a teacher involved in sports, literature, or theater. Due to the simple fact of the author’s interest in music education and her experience with the teacher under study, it is about a violin teacher. The life history of a music educator is intended to serve as a prism through which to explore larger questions about the challenges facing humanistic and aesthetic education in the Middle East during a period characterized by geopolitical conflict, reactionary cultural politics, and struggles for democratic change.


The life history of a teacher allows for an investigation of the familial, historical, socio-political, cultural and institutional influences and conditions that contribute to an educator’s formation and pedagogic practices.  More than a mere product of his or her times, a teacher can also motivate change and alternative ways of interacting in the world.  In their volume, Lives in context: The art of life history research, Cole and Knowles (2001) stress the importance of context and relationality when setting out to conduct a life history. As they reflect:  “Lives are never lived in vacuums. Lives are never lived in complete isolation from social contexts . . . To be human is to experience ‘the relational’, no matter how it is defined, and at the same time, to be shaped by ‘the institutional’, the structural expressions of community and society. To be human is to be molded by context” (2001: 22). Profiling an educator working within a humanistic tradition during a period when that very tradition is under threat can provide a way of identifying—with the aim of encouraging and nurturing—these much needed pedagogic spaces.

Life history, as Cole and Knowles also posit, necessitates the researcher to approach the study with reflexivity, recognizing her place in the construction of the narrative, and to take an ethical stance rooted in empathy, compassion and respect towards the researched. I became acquainted with the teacher under study in 1997 when my then five-year-old daughter enrolled in his beginners violin class. As a parent who is also an educational anthropologist, I regularly observed his classes—which included private lessons, multi-age and multi-ability group classes, and rehearsals at the Cairo Opera and elsewhere—with growing professional interest and appreciation. I was also involved in the Cairo Opera since 1989 as a member of its amateur choir and intermittently as an arts reviewer. It may be argued that given my involvement in the Opera and prior judgment of the subject, I could not possibly be a partial observer, and in some sense this is correct. My aim here has not been to objectively assess the performance of this teacher in an evaluation-like exercise, but to try to understand the context in which he works and those factors that make him such an effective educator, as judged by students, parents, and colleagues.4 Hence, while I cannot lay claims to absolute objectivity, I can say that once the research began I made a transition from casual parent-observer to formal researcher which required a different set of interactions and a sharper and more disciplined observational and interpretive lens.

In 2003, I sought the teacher’s consent to be the subject of a scholarly study that would entail many hours of personal interviews and a decidedly intrusive shadowing of him throughout his various professional activities for a period of four months. He willingly agreed and generously gave of his time without posing any conditions. There was never a serious question of disguising his identity, although I proposed it as an option in the beginning. We always envisioned this as the history of an actual life in the social history tradition. The teacher facilitated the research process by helping me to obtain permission to enter the Cairo Conservatoire to attend his classes twice weekly, and welcomed me into his other lessons at the Cairo Opera House where, in addition to observing classes, I interviewed students, their parents, and his colleagues. He also opened his home for me to conduct a series of tape-recorded personal interviews in five separate sittings that took place in Cairo from January to June 2003. More than a chronological rendering of his early family life, formal schooling, music education, and professional life, these interviews included reflections on the relationship between music, society, politics, and identity. In addition to formal interviews, we also held several impromptu discussions following classes and rehearsals.

The interviews were translated5 and transcribed and information derived from them was organized chronologically and topically into categories that included family life, musical life, politics and music, institutions, national identity and the arts, and pedagogy. For each category, secondary source materials were consulted to provide historical background and the necessary socio-political context. The teacher read earlier drafts of this paper and provided additional information, corrections to his life story, and suggestions for analysis.

Skeptics of the life history method often point to the fact that one life is not representative, and indeed they are right. But this criticism does not invalidate the method and the riches it can offer for social analysis. In defense of the method I refer to anthropologist Sydney Mintz who wrote a much heralded life history of a Puerto Rican sugar cane worker in 1960. He posits that life history “can do no more than offer in broad outline some of the possible meanings of social change against which the personal history of a single individual may be examined. The suggested relationships between social background and life history are intended to serve merely as hypotheses which might be proved or disproved or refined” (1960: 270). If the hypothesis to be extracted from this life history is that educational spaces that are rooted in principles of humanism are constricting at an alarming pace, then there can be little argument that immediate and urgent action is needed.


“Art, it has been said, is the language of the heart, and if we teach about music, painting, architecture, and literature in schools, we ought to be doing it to help our youth understand that language so that it may penetrate to their hearts. . . . We may give prominence to the arts because their subject matter offers the best evidence we have of the unity and continuity of human experience” (Postman, 1995: 162–3).

One aspect of the globalizing changes in education in the past two decades has been the spiraling decline of aesthetic education.  In school systems (grades 1–8) worldwide the total time devoted to the aesthetic education—which includes arts, handicraft, dance, and music—has decreased by nearly 50% since 1980.6 The gradual erosion of the arts has occurred in part to make way for newer priorities in school curricula such as Technology and related subjects, and also subjects meant to cultivate “global citizens.” Courses on Civics/Citizenship Education and Morals and Values Education that provide a fixed set of “global citizenship” lessons and principles in an often mechanistic manner may not be best suited to preparing the young to confront the complexity, interrelatedness, and  confusion often associated with contemporary life.7 Reflecting some of the ideas of Howard Gardner on multiple intelligences (1993), Maxine Greene relates that aesthetic education allows the young to develop different creative and intellectual capacities that “find articulation not only in verbal and mathematical languages, but also in languages of imagery, movement, and musical sound” (Greene, 1995: 57).  She further elaborates on the transformative and even utopian potential of the arts when she suggests that young people, “once they are open, once they are informed, once they are engaged in speech and action from their many vantage points, they may be able to identify a better state of things—and go on to transform.  Sometimes, I believe it is our only hope” (1995: 59).

Aesthetic education can also serve the interest of peace building. In the specific context of the Arab states, a UNESCO conference was held on the premise that arts education aided in the “building of the culture of peace” and as such recommended that more time be devoted to creativity and arts education in schools (UNESCO, 2002: 2). Despite lip service to the importance of the arts, aesthetic education in schools in the Arab states occupies a marginal place.  The neglect arises partly from the exam-driven and inflexible nature of school systems. In Egyptian schools for example, teachers and school administrators often express a reticence to “waste time” on mandatory music lessons since music does not count in a pupil’s overall grade point average. The precious little time allotted for instruction, they argue, should be spent preparing students for their exams.8 Islamist educators may even evade music instruction on religious grounds and attempt to eliminate musical instruments from schools altogether, claiming an incompatibility between music and Islam (Herrera, 1999).

Given the impediments to music instruction in formal schooling, alternative educational spaces such as cultural centers should be interrogated as places where aesthetic education can thrive.  Cultural centers and clubs for arts instruction, production, and performance—both “foreign” or “indigenous”—have long been a part of the urban cultural landscape in the Middle East.9 Such centers, whether private or state-run, whether housed in a modest community hall, a room in a teacher’s private home, an after-hour school auditorium, or a large national theater, provide alternative educational and pedagogic spaces.

A notable example of one such venue for aesthetic education has been the new Cairo Opera House (Dar al-Obra) which, since its opening in 1988, has served not merely as a professional performance venue, but as a public, accessible center for arts education, amateur performance, and international exchange. Funded through a grant by the Japanese government, the Opera represents an example of how cultural institutional building can constitute a component of international development.

With its mandate for public outreach and international cultural exchange, the present opera house stands in clear distinction to its predecessor, the Khedival Opera House of 1869, which was destroyed by fire in 1971. That opera house, built by order of Khedive Ismael on the occasion of the opening of the Suez Canal for which Giuseppi Verdi composed his opera Aida, was largely the meeting place of the aristocracy and local and foreign elites. The new opera, in contrast, contains classrooms, art galleries, an outdoor theater, a small and large performance hall, museums, and public gardens. Inaugurated on October 10, 1988, as The Education and Culture Centre (al-Markaz al-Thaqafy al-Ta’alimy) with a Japanese Kabuki performance, the cultural exchange aspect of the center was well demonstrated.

Yet it did not take long for the intended cosmopolitan quality of the opera house to be overshadowed by nationalist tendencies. The Ministry of Culture formally changed its name from The Education and Culture Centre, to the National Cultural Center (al-Markaz al-Thaqafy al-Qawmy). The replacement of “Education” with “National” represents more than a semantic change; it reflects an insistince of the primacy of the national over the educational, particularly when the education in question is supposed to advance a form of cultural interaction and exchange that transcends mere national allegiances. While nationalism per se is not necessarily an impediment to cosmopolitanism or humanistic education, the problem arises when nationalism takes a turn into “nativism,” or a defensive posture against the “other.”

One manifestation of nativism has been the denegration and politicization of aesthetic forms deemed “outside” the national culture. The so-called Western cultural forms—whether relating to literature, cinema, fashion, or music—usually due to their associations with colonialism and imperialism, often get maligned as being inimical to Arab and Islamic culture.  Examples of bans, censorship, and lack of official support for perceived exogenous cultural forms are rife, but they seem to peak during periods of political repression at home, and also as a response to threats or actual attacks on national or regional sovereignty.10 Whereas nationalism represents a legitimate unifying response to outside threats, problems arise as mentioned earlier when nationalism turns into nativism, or what Said has cogently described as, “the idea that there is some horribly troubling present-day situation from which you must escape and find solace in a pure essence back there in time . . . [This] automatically . . . means tyranny and suffering for the designated and excluded others.” (Said in Viswanathan, 2001: 175–176).  The forms of tyranny and suffering can occur in varying degrees and a myriad of ways, ranging from the persecution of minorities and members of political opposition groups to the constriction of cultural spaces.

Some of the murky questions surrounding nationalism, imperial politics, and exogenous cultural forms came to the fore in a modest but telling manner in the context of the opera’s Talent Development Centre (Markaz Tanmiyet al-Mowahib). This public outreach program offers an array of classes including an Arabic choir, classical ballet, Suzuki violin, the oud, and flute, to amateurs for a modest fee of roughly $20 per month. The Suzuki violin class has clearly been one of the Centre’s more successful programs. The Suzuki method, a child-centered approach to musical literacy and performance, was developed in Japan by the renowned Dr. Shinichi Suzuki (1898–1998) and made its way to Egypt as part of the Japanese cultural exchange.11 From its inception the Suzuki violin program in Cairo has constituted a local space for excellence, as evidenced by the prizes awarded its students, critical acclaim of it public performances, rising demand for the class, and kudos for its principle teacher, an Egyptian violinist trained in the method in Japan. Despite its growing popularity, in 2003, within a context of rapidly declining support by the Opera administration for “non-Arabic” music and a charged anti-Western political environment as the US-led coalition wars waged in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Suzuki violin class began losing institutional support and was in danger of being cancelled. The class, even though based on a Japanese method, was relegated by its detractors as representing an expression of Western culture.12

Through the lobbying of parents and musicians and, more especially, the efforts of its principle teacher Osman El Mahdi, the Suzuki class survived and, in fact, continues to thrive. Yet educational and other spaces that are perceived as being outside national or Islamic culture are in a perpetual state of threat. It is due to individuals and institutions committed to preserving these spaces that societies resist the impetus towards an implosive nativism, and it is here where the humanist educator plays a pivotal role.

There is perhaps no better way to illustrate the struggles taking place at the intersection of culture, politics, nationalism and education, than through the life history and pedagogy of an educator who straddles multiple and overlapping cultural spaces and communities.


Born in the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria in 1958, Osman El Madhi’s family life and education reflect larger transformations that occurred in Egypt and the region in the decades of the 1950s to the 1980s.13 His father, the son of a railway employee, was raised in a modest family from Cairo who traced their roots to Upper Egypt. Through sheer hard work and brilliance as a student he completed medical school and enjoyed an accomplished career as a surgeon. His mother, the daughter of Mahmoud Khaïry Pasha, the first Chairman of the Young Muslim’s Association in Alexandria (Jama`iyyat al-Shobban al-Moslemeen), a Muslim equivalent of the YMCA/YWCA, had a more aristocratic pedigree. Her grandfather and Osman’s namesake, Osman Mortada Pasha, was the director of the private administration of Khedive Abbas Helmi II  (1892–1914) (see Sonbol, 1996: 274).  Osman’s parents initially met as doctor and patient and ended up as husband and wife.

By the time the El Mahdys married in the mid-1950s, the socialist pan-Arab government of the Free Officers were firmly in power and the Egyptian monarchy a vestige of the past. During this period of Arab socialism,  members of social groups who traditionally had very limited access to positions of power and prestige experienced mobility.14 The old elite, including the landed aristocracy and cosmopolitan business community, significantly lost positions of power and wealth through a process of land sequestration and nationalization of businesses.

Although largely outside the new political and economic structure, the old elite maintained a cultural link to their past through continued patronage of their mainly Christian missionary foreign schools. It followed, therefore, that Osman’s mother who attended the French Catholic schools, Collège de la Mère de Dieu and Sacré Coeur, opted for Christian French schools for her children. Her husband, a product of Egyptian government schools and a devout Muslim who made a point of regularly reading the Quran with his children, fully supported his wife’s choice of schools.  When I remarked that his father must have been a tolerant man Osman responded, “Back in the 1960s, especially in Alexandria where there was such a cultural mix, we didn’t even think about being tolerant or not being tolerant. It was a natural thing for us.”

Osman attended the reputable and architecturally majestic St. Mark’s, a boys’ French Catholic school overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and established in 1928. In keeping with its reputation as a strict Catholic school, teachers instilled a rigorous work ethic in students and continuously pushed them to perform at their best ability. Osman explains:

I don’t know if you know how it works in Catholic schools, but it is a very strict way of educating children.15 There are no compromises about many things.  It has its negative side, but the positive side is that from a very young age you [learn that you] can’t do things half way. You have to go all the way and you always have to try to do your best, even if it’s not perfect, but it has to be your best.  This is something that has remained with me from school.

When Osman began his studies at St. Mark’s, he remembers mixing on a daily basis with Muslim and Christian students of different denominations from Egyptian, Italian, Greek, Lebanese, Armenian, and Syrian backgrounds. It was normal for students to be fluent in two to four languages.  Yet with the exodus of large portions of many foreign communities from Egypt throughout the 1950s and 1960s, foreign schools underwent a gradual process of what can be called “de-cosmopolitanization,” accompanied by “Arabization.”16 Not only were students proportionately more Egyptian, but new education laws brought the foreign schools under the regulations of a centralized Ministry of Education to ensure that they did not deviate from the Arab nationalist path.

While a student at St. Mark’s, Osman recalls comfortably developing his Muslim identity, while also participating in Christian activities and celebrations, the most notable being Easter and Christmas.17 Among his most cherished activities was participating in the church choir; his family regularly attended the high Christmas mass to which, Osman recalls, “we [Christians and non-Christians] all enjoyed together.”

The religious and cultural mixing that took place in the 1960s and 1970s gave way to divisions by the 1980s that persist in ever-changing manifestations to the present. One such indication of how political-cultural changes have penetrated the school can be found in a school policy dating to the 1980s that forbids non-Christians from joining the choir. The school’s outgoing principal and choir director, Father George Absi, explained how the school administration felt compelled to change the choir policy due to “outside pressure.” When today’s Egyptian sees a Muslim boy singing in the choir, he explains, “they misunderstand this and it can cause a lot of problems.” (Father George Absi, personal communication, May 5, 2003)18

In conjunction with his school-based studies, Osman pursued a parallel music education after school hours at the Alexandria Conservatoire.  He began violin lessons in 1964, at a time when classical violin, piano and ballet were flourishing in Egypt as a direct consequence of the country’s political, military, economic, and cultural exchanges with the former Soviet Union. Given the cultural and linguistic differences between Soviet teachers and Egyptian students, they did not always share a common verbal language, but managed to communicate with a mixture of Arabic, French, sign language and “anything else that might help.” Osman studied violin with a succession of outstanding Soviet teachers from Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan who exerted a lasting influence on musical education and performance in Egypt. They prepared their students to eventually staff and run their own music institutions

By the time Osman reached the critical last year of secondary school in 1974, he had completed eleven years of parallel intensive musical training. He began considering the possibility of pursuing a career in music, a plan entirely vetoed by his family. They put pressure on him to follow in his father’s footsteps and study medicine, making the case all the more forcefully since his father had suddenly and tragically died when Osman was twelve years old. His mother dreamed that Osman would continue her husband’s work and reopen his medical clinic. When Osman scored high enough on the university entrance examination, the thanawiyya amma, to enter the Faculty of Medicine, he resolved to study medicine and enrolled at Alexandria University, albeit with a slightly heavy heart.

In 1975 when Osman entered the university, it was in the early throes of the Islamist student movement.19 He was unprepared for what he calls “this terrible change in the logic of things.” He entered the Faculty of Medicine along with sixteen boys from St. Mark’s and eight girls from sister French schools. They naturally provided a support group for each other and the boys felt some sense of responsibility for their female colleagues. Everyday two boys from the St. Mark’s group met at the lecture theater three hours in advance of the lecture at 6:30 a.m. to reserve seats for their entire group since there was fierce competition among the 1500 students for the some 700 available seats. The mixed sex group sat together but noticed hostile looks from other students. It was not long before certain male classmates took it upon themselves to “advise” Osman and the other Muslim boys from his group that they should not be sitting with Christians, and certainly not with girls. Stunned and offended by their mentality, Osman recalls, “Of course I never listened to them. We were all friends. We spent twelve years together at school and we have remained friends until today.” By his second year, the university’s Student Union, controlled by the militant Islamic organization, Jama’at  Islamiyya, instituted sex-segregation in lecture halls, forcibly ending the mixed-sex seating arrangements.

Another medical student at Alexandria University at the time recalls how Islamist students, with the support of the university administration, prohibited a range of student cultural activities from taking place. They stopped, for example, a student-initiated film festival on the grounds that the themes of the art house European films went against the tenets of Islam since they were foreign, or “not from our culture.” They also refused to issue the necessary authorization for an annual student sponsored mother’s day celebration because it promoted the “un-Islamic” activities of singing and dancing, albeit between students and their mothers.  Islamist student leaders were especially hostile to pop music and Western classical music, claiming that those forms were alien to the Egyptian/Islamic culture, and therefore culturally polluting (personal communication, Dr. Ibrahim Karbouch, May 2003).20

Within this reactionary cultural climate, a group of staff and students from the medical faculty organized regular on-campus classical concerts in which Osman often participated. Although he was not political in the sense of being involved in organized student politics, the very act of joining in classical music concerts and other artistic activities at that time assumed a political quality; it represented an insistence on preserving those cultural spaces that were being threatened.

After ten years of intensive medical studies which included a residency in urology, Osman become a fully certified medical doctor. On the dawn of his new career, he made the unequivocal decision to pursue his preferred vocation: music. Until today when he explains to Egyptians that his honorific “Doctor” derives from a medical degree, not a doctorate in music, and that he left medicine for a full-time career in music, they usually express a sense of disbelief. They are astonished that someone could abandon medicine, the most prestigious of professions, for music and teaching—two vocations of considerably less social value and economic reward. On numerous occasions he has been asked, “How? Why? Surely what you mean to say is you’re doing music for fun, as a hobby?” He adds, only half joking, “I think many people think I’m not in a perfect state of mind!” Yet his decision to devote his professional life to musical study, performance, and education comes from a deeply rational understanding of music as a valuable endeavor, both for the individual and for society. Like science, music in all its complexity and beauty provides the potential to develop one’s perception and understanding of the world.21 He explains,

“Music and the arts in general do change a lot in the personality. If we speak of music, the mere fact of knowing not only the music of your own country but of having some idea about the music of other countries or other cultures, allows you to have a broader understanding [of the world]. Music makes you a different person.  Even listening carefully to a piece of music can enhance your perception. It is a very important part of the educational process and I do believe it is an important thing to teach.”

In 1985, Osman enrolled at the Geneva Conservatoire in Switzerland where he majored in chamber music and supported his studies by playing in different chamber orchestras and taking on private students. The rich cultural life of Geneva with its year-round musical events provided an exhilarating auxiliary education for students as did the high regard locals exhibited towards musicians. The differential treatment the Swiss exhibited towards Osman the musician, versus Osman the eastern male foreigner, pressed upon him the role of the musician as a cultural bridge. He recalls:

“I will tell you something that used to happen to me in Switzerland that I will never forget. I look very Middle Eastern, no doubt about that, and the Swiss tend to be reserved [with foreigners]. I used to take public transport regularly in Geneva and when I was without my violin nobody ever sat next to me. When I had my violin, people had a completely different attitude. Someone would invariably sit next to me and start up a conversation by asking, ‘Is this a violin? Are you a musician?’ This would almost always lead to, ‘Where are you from? Ah Egypt! It is my dream to visit it one day!’ So they dream of visiting Egypt but wouldn’t sit next to me, because of the fear of [Arab/Muslim] strangers! The only thing in common was music as represented by the violin I was holding! This is to tell you that there the musician is seen as someone who is doing something special and is considered someone worth knowing and talking to.”

Although work opportunities were available in Switzerland, Osman did not consider making a career for himself abroad. By his third year in Geneva, he began feeling pangs of homesickness which rose to an acute level by the end of his fourth year. On completing his master’s degree in 1989 with a specialization in string quartets, Osman returned to Egypt to pursue the career of a professional musician.  Like many musicians, Osman divides his time between teaching and performing. He joined the Cairo Symphony Orchestra as a first violinist in 1989 and in 1993 moved to the Cairo Opera Orchestra as first violinist and concertmaster. From 1989, he has been teaching at The Cairo Conservatoire. In 1993, he was selected to attend a workshop on the Suzuki method and subsequently attended a training session in Japan, and became principle teacher of the Suzuki violin class at the Cairo Opera House.


Osman’s experience with institutions and educators from Egypt, the Arab world, the former Soviet Union, Japan and Europe, have culminated in his forming an eclectic pedagogic style and philosophy about teaching. Taken as a whole, his style can be characterized as humanistic, but what does this mean and how can a humanistic pedagogy be practiced? The purpose here in describing a teacher’s pedagogy is not to compile a best practice model that can be codified in a “how to” manual for teachers. Rather, it is to provide an overall portrait of a pedagogic style that can guide educators to thinking about how to work with the young in ways that can nurture in them qualities and competencies of excellence, openness, fairness, reflexivity and compassion.

All Osman’s students are expected to follow certain basic ground rules from the time they begin studying violin from as young as four years old: students—not their parents—should carry their violins; they should come to class prepared; they should respect their fellow classmates; and they should arrive to class on time.  The general standards for classroom behavior are set by his example. Osman arrives to class five minutes early, casually but neatly dressed with his shoes always immaculately polished, exuding an air of respectful informality combined with precision. He opens his violin case and meticulously removes his violin, tunes it, and carefully places it atop the room’s grand piano. Immediately thereafter he sits at the piano and attends to students who form a line with their miniature violins in hand. As he takes the violin from each small outstretched hand he looks the child squarely in the eye, smiles, tunes the violin, and returns it with another smile. One should not underestimate the power of the smile to put the pupil at ease.

Osman tries to instill in his younger students a sense of pleasure, discernment, and discovery in music through a combination of questions, stories, and humor relating to each new piece. He often begins a lesson by telling stories about the composers, the periods in which they lived, and the circumstances of their times, locating the music in an historic context. When introducing a new piece, he begins by playing it and then opens a discussion about the mood, tempo, and possible meaning of the music. During a lesson in which first-year students, who range in age from four to eight years old, hear a minuet for the first time, Osman asks what they understand about the piece. A child remarks, “It’s slow but still happy.” Another adds, “It’s old-fashioned sounding.”  He listens attentively to their comments and adds, “Very good. Can you also tell that it’s dance music? It’s not pop music like we have today where everyone jumps around to a fast rhythm,” he says, shaking his head around as if to a pop song. “It’s a dance from a long time ago for people who would have danced in a beautiful, gilded hall.” He continues, “Who knows how ladies would have dressed in those fancy dance parties two hundred years ago?”  After hearing some answers he continues, “That’s right, they wore big puffy dresses with lots of slips which means they couldn’t move too fast even if they wanted to. They were graceful and slow in their movement.” He moves his arms through the air in an exaggeratedly graceful fashion, causing them to giggle. Having helped them create a mental image about the piece’s tempo, he begins teaching them the piece phrase by phrase.

As with any group, students exhibit a considerable difference in individual talents and abilities. Some invariably take longer to memorize a piece or produce a pleasing sound, whereas others learn at a faster pace and perform at a higher standard. Despite evident differences, Osman is careful not to differentiate in his treatment of students based on their aptitude, a quality that especially endears him to the parents of slower learners. A technique he uses with students of all levels, but more so with younger students, is a strategy of positive reinforcement and humor. He usually comments on an individual performance with a positive comment followed by a more critical one. To the student who produces a screeching sound and plays out of tune but is clearly making a good effort, he comments, “I can see you’ve worked very hard on memorizing the piece which is good, but you need to concentrate more on the tone.”  He will then go about working with the student and might ask the class to join them in playing some relevant exercises because, as he reminds them, everyone can improve. He illustrates the principle of steady bowing by exaggerating faulty bowing in a comical way, by, for example, playing a piece with his bow sliding from one end of the violin to the other. For the more gifted student who is producing a superior sound, he will recognize her efforts by saying, “The sound you’re producing is definitely becoming more beautiful. It would be even better if . . .” At which point he’ll show her how to get a better sound and work with her through a passage of the music until he hears a discernible improvement. Every student, even the most gifted, is encouraged to attain greater levels of excellence.

Osman acknowledges that he learned the technique of positive reinforcement later in life, while studying the Suzuki method. He had previously been more influenced by his Soviet teachers who, in the method of the “old school,” exhibited more severity and criticism towards their pupils in an attempt to discourage any complacency and propel them to excel. He recalls that after a violin exam where he performed especially well, his teacher commented, “It wasn’t bad, but you did so and so wrong” and proceeded to produce a long list of his deficiencies. Osman explains that it was not that they were mean, on the contrary, they were “extraordinarily dedicated teachers” whom he “loved very much.” But they believed the best way to get the maximum performance from a student was through a strict regime that included unyielding criticism. With his more advanced and mature students, Osman admits that he reverts more to the “Russian” method.

Another salient characteristic of Osman’s pedagogy is patience. Being the teacher of an especially difficult instrument, Osman makes every effort to instill in the learner a love of the instrument and of music, which means, especially in the earlier stages, to make allowances for slower learners. In one of his group classes, two students aged nine and ten years old consistently came to class ill-prepared and produced an especially squeaky sound. They remained on the same piece several weeks after others in their class had moved ahead. Over the course of some months, they did not appear to be making any noticeable progress. Nevertheless, Osman attended to them with his characteristic high standards, scrupulous attention to detail, and encouragement as they struggled and fumbled through their lessons.  While he would sometimes make grumbling sounds as they repeated the same mistakes, and gently scolded them for not practicing more, he never indicated in any way that that they could not become as accomplished as anyone else. Recalling these two students, I later asked Osman if he ever had a student whom he simply did not think had what it took to continue with the violin. He responded:

It’s very easy to say don’t come back if the student isn’t practicing, if the parents aren’t following up at home, and if you don’t feel that he is giving his best effort. The easiest thing to say is ‘Thank you, bye-bye, see you, or try another instrument.’ But it’s not always the best choice because I have seen children that have had a very slow start and then after a while, without knowing why or when, something clicks; something happens and they start improving so fast, you can’t imagine how fast. So you have to be patient. You have to hope for this to happen during some step of their studies.

Due to his perseverance and results with students of varying abilities, Osman has gained a reputation for working with students who have been labeled “problem cases.”

Within the Suzuki program, not a great deal of pressure is placed on students to progress at a fast pace as its aim is primarily to strengthen music appreciation for mainly amateur musicians. The Cairo Conservatoire, on the other hand, places great demands on its students. Although a conservatoire may conjure an image of elitism, this public sector institute includes students from all social levels, with the majority being from modest backgrounds. It is free of charge and treated as a vocational institute for future professional musicians. At the Conservatoire, music is not an extra-curricular activity but a fully graded subject and the basis from which students are expected to earn their livelihoods. Due to its competitive nature and rigorous system of formal assessment, teachers cannot allow students the luxury of developing at their own paces. In fact, if a student fails to pass his music exam at the critical stage of third-year preparatory (Grade 8), he is expelled from the Conservatory without the option of repeating the year.

The borderline cases barely pass from year to year whithout showing special promise. Such students often shift from one teacher to another which further hinders their musical development. On several occasions, colleagues have asked Osman to take on “problem” students due to his patience and adroitness with students of all abilities. When he has agreed to accept a difficult student, he has usually—although not always—been able to nurture a musician of great promise. One of his current Conservatoire students, 18-year-old “Ahmed” is one such student. In the three years since Osman has been his teacher, Ahmed has gone from being perpetually on the verge of getting expelled from the Conservatoire to becoming a fine musician with an advanced musical repertoire.

A major source of Ahmed’s trouble in the past was that other teachers perceived him as “difficult,” not least because of his confrontational character. He regularly questioned their judgment, was often defensive, and gained a reputation for not only being a poor musician, but also an especially wearisome student. Osman produces better results with him in some measure because he allows Ahmed the space to question and discuss the music. During lessons they often take time to analyze a passage of music and how best to interpret it. Rather than impose his will, Osman allows Ahmed scope to experiment with an alternative interpretation. Osman also pays meticulous attention to every detail of Ahmed’s playing.

During their twice-weekly hour-long lessons, Osman uses the most exacting standards in assessing his student. In his tidy practice room in the Conservatoire furnished with music stands, a desk, extra violins, and hanging plants, they work through some of the most difficult music written for violin. Osman alternates between standing and sitting by his student’s side and listens to him with great intensity. He draws Ahmed’s attention to even the slightest error in an effort to heighten his awareness of the importance of every detail, all while remaining faithful to the spirit of the piece. He physically inserts himself into the piece by snapping his fingers, clapping his hands, or stamping his feet to the tempo, humming to correct the tone, and constantly reacting to his student’s performance through facial expressions and gestures. He is also quick to tackle and solve problems. When Ahmed’s playing becomes strained and his shoulders tense, Osman instructs him to slouch down in his chair with his legs sprawled out, and to play the piece from that position. He then asks him to stand up and walk around the room, while still playing. “Relax,” he tells him, “Enjoy yourself as if you’re strolling along the Nile.” Through his flexibility, meticulous attention to detail, and constant ingenuity in dealing with different problems as they arise, Osman guides Ahmed into becoming a better musician.


Part of becoming a fine musician is learning to work within a group in that quintessential musical institution, the orchestra. The orchestra, made up of members of different backgrounds, specializations, temperaments, abilities, ages, and experiences, can be conceptualized as a microcosm of a pluralistic society. On the parallels between playing in an orchestra and living in a democratic community, Daniel Barenboim has famously said: “If you wish to learn how to live in a democratic society, then you would do well to play in an orchestra. For when you do so, you know when to lead and when to follow. You leave space for others and at the same time you have no inhibitions about claiming a place for yourself.” (Barenboim & Said, 2002: 173).

Yet orchestras can also perpetuate hierarchical divisions and promote separation based on rank and position. Osman strives to encourage mutual appreciation between musicians and a principle of egalitarianism. Since the act of performing music itself requires a high degree of coordination and cooperation, when some musicians exhibit a sense of superiority it can lead to a lack of balance that will ultimately harm the music, not to mention the group morale.

In addition to humility and cooperation, Osman also stresses the importance of the musician remaining open to alternative interpretations. “You cannot be narrow- minded with music,” he insists, “you have to be open to other ideas or you will never be a good musician.” He encourages his students to constantly seek out other sources of knowledge and instructs them to knock on the doors of other teachers and play for them, get their feedback, criticism, and ideas. He also appeals to them to absorb as much as they can from the surrounding cultural environment by constantly attending concerts, recitals, classes, and, if they have the opportunity, to travel abroad. He continuously reminds student musicians that the more sources they consult, the greater their experience and exposure to different styles, cultures, and perspectives, the closer they will arrive at being great musicians and also of finding their own voices.

As a performing musician, Osman adds to the local music scene in whatever way he can. He often plays the works of lesser-known contemporary composers and premiers the works of Egyptian and other Arab composers in the repertoire of his quartet. His choices, however, are not always appreciated. Osman recalls that after the performance of Nigun by Swiss composer Ernest Bloch (1880–1959), an Egyptian colleague questioned why he played a piece by a Jewish composer, especially given the injustices inflicted on the Palestinians by the Jewish state of Israel. Osman explained that he chose it because of its merit as a piece of music, and added that not playing the piece on the basis of the composer’s ethnic or religion identity would constitute an act of bigotry, not a stand of solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Yet his position on the universalism of music does not deny his strong identification as an Egyptian and an Arab, and his firm political convictions. As he explains, “As an Egyptian I do have some political ideas and sometimes I like to take a position. I believe, as most Egyptians do, that the American policy in the Middle East is very biased. As Arabs we have to convey the message that we are not happy with what’s going on.” In 2002, during the second Palestinian intifada, Osman answered a pan-Arab call to boycott American and Israeli institutions. At the time he was heading an after-school Suzuki strings program and community orchestra at the American school in Cairo. He made the decision to resign his job in protest against American foreign policy. “Some people take to the streets and demonstrate, and some others take a different approach. I chose not to cooperate directly with an official American institution.” Although he severed institutional ties, he maintained individual relations with students and also continued his volunteer position as director of the community orchestra which moved from the school to the living room of an orchestra member.

Political discontent does not always find concrete outlets. In the spring of 2003, as American and British led forces began their invasion of Iraq and bombardment of the historic city of Baghdad, Osman arrived for his morning Conservatoire lessons with deep circles under his eyes from lack of sleep. He carried on with his classes, attentive to his students as usual, but deeply disturbed by the turn of events in the region. He expressed his distress as only the musician can; through a poignant tone of sadness that reverberated from the graceful voice of his violin.


The metaphor of music, with its potential to forge humanistic and cosmopolitan learning communities, serves as a powerful affirmation of Daniel Barenboin’s dictum that “Music can be the best school for life” that is, if it does not become “the most effective way to escape from it” (Barenboim & Said, 2002: 174). This story of a music educator is not merely meant to serve as a tribute to an extraordinary educator, no matter how merited such a tribute might be. It is not a plea per se for more music education in schools, however conducive these forms can be for the humanist project. It is not specifically an entreaty for more aesthetic education in community and arts’ centers, even though such programs could yield tremendous benefits. It is not even primarily a testament to the ways in which educators confront fundamentalisms. It is, more immediately, a reminder of the urgency for pedagogies, for educational spaces and learning communities that promote principles of respect, pluralism, rational critical inquiry, justice, and excellence.

As communities in the Middle East and beyond grapple with political and economic injustices, growing sectarianism, and struggles for democratic change, it becomes ever more urgent to support and nurture those cosmopolitan educational spaces that are constricting at an alarming pace. Notwithstanding the continued salience of direct political action to redress social and political ills, an education grounded in principles of openness and humanism may be among the greatest means for confronting and overcoming the irrationalities, inequities, and injustices of our times.

The author would like to thank the students and parents who participated in this study, with special mention to Tara Bayat. The members of the Culture and Education in Egypt working group in Cairo, the education reading group of the Institute of Social Studies, the anonymous reviewers from <i>Teachers College Record,</i> Susan Hack, Lila Abu Lughod, and Osman El Mahdi  provided insightful critical comments on earlier drafts of this paper. A different version of this paper was published in Arabic by the title: “Al-Amkanat al-Tarbawiyya: al-Musiqa wa Hudud al-Thaqafa fi Misr” [Pedagogical Possibilities: Music and the Borders of Educational Culture in Egypt] (Herrera, 2003: 23–46).


1 Some of the injustices referred to here are linked to the politics of Empire. It is beyond the scope of this paper to deal in any depth with questions of Empire in the Middle East, however for an outstanding overview of the issue see Rashid Khalidi’s Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East (2004).

2 In his tremendously erudite volume, The rise of humanism in classical Islam and the Christian West, George Makdisi demonstrates the influence of Arabo-Islamic culture, especially with regard to humanism and scholasticism, in intellectual cultures of the West.

3 The group I refer to is the Culture and Education in Egypt Working Group (CEEWG) of the Middle East Awards Program (MEAwards), of the Population Council’s (PC) West Asia and North Africa Office, Cairo, which was under the coordination of the author (2002–2003).  Some of the findings of that research were published in Arabic, Herrera (2003) and in English, Herrera and Torres (2006).

4 Osman al-Mahdi’s reputation as an outstanding violin teacher is well established by the fact that his classes have been consistently in high demand. Similarly, he is highly regarded by his peers as evidenced by the fact that Egyptian composers Mona Ghoneim, Awatef Abdel Karim, and Khaled Shukry have all dedicated compositions to him.

5 All of the interviews with Osman were conducted in English. Interviews with some of his students and their parents took place in Arabic. All translations were done by the author.

6 See the survey documenting major subject areas in official curricula worldwide by grade level (Benavot 2004: Tables A3, A4, and 10).

7 This observation is based on comparative textual analysis of Morals and Values curricula (from the years 2003-2005)  currently being undertaken by the author.

8 While there is no precise data on just how many schools in Egypt offer music classes, a group of researchers who participated in the previously mentioned Culture and Education in Egypt Working Group all reported that music rooms in the schools they visited were either being used as storage rooms or extra classrooms for the core subjects.  School administrators consistently explained that there was no time in the day for music.

9 While a history of art and culture centers in the Middle East region would make for a fascinating study, it is out of the scope of this paper.

10 Iran provides a more recent example of this form of cultural exclusion. In December 2005 the hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced on state broadcasts a ban on Western music, including classical music, reiterating Ayatollah Khomeini’s sentiments on “westoxication.” (New York Times, 2005).

11 Dr. Suzuki developed what he called the “mother tongue” method in musical instruction. Following the logic of children’s language acquisition, he advocated that children first learn to listen, absorb, and imitate music before learning its formal rules. According to the Talent Association of Australia, Suzuki’s goal was to “embrace the whole child, nurturing a love of music and the development of a fine character rather than just the mastering of a musical instrument. Suzuki called his idea 'Talent Education’ and soon established a school in Matsumoto.  Talent Education refers to the development of skill, knowledge and character. Suzuki took a great deal of time and care developing the repertoire, which presents technical and musical concepts in a logical sequence.”  The Suzuki method, which began in Japan, in 2003 included over 8000 Suzuki teachers and more than 250, 000 children learning it world wide (Talent Association of Australia, 2003).

12 It’s worth noting that Western classical music is an eclectic form that draws on a vast resource of secular and spiritual musical traditions from the East and the West which includes, as musicologist Estelle Jorgensen points out, “the musics of Eastern Orthodoxy and Judaism, and . . . the secular musics of Middle Eastern and Northern African countries in which Islam took hold.” (Jorgensen, 2003: 134–5).

13 The cosmopolitanism of Alexandria was legendary and immortalized in works of art and fiction such as Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quratet. But the city’s cosmopolitanism, as Sami Zubaida reminds us, flourished in an imperial context and was steeped in layers of exclusions and segregation. As Zubaida relates, “Cosmopolitan Alexandria…included a rigorous system of exclusions for native Egyptians, including segregation or exclusion on buses and trams, and certainly from clubs, some bars and cafés and many social milieux. Native Egyptian society provided servants, functionaries and prostitutes for the cosmopolitan milieu.” (2002: 37–38)    André Aciman’s autobiographical history of the de-cosmopolitanization of Alexandria, Out of Egypt(1994), with its absence of native Egyptians except in the roles of servants and odd characters, confirms Zubaida’s observation.

14 See Galal Amin (2000) for a discussion of how social mobility has contributed to social change in Egyptian society in the last half century.

15 Having attended thirteen years of Catholic school in San Francisco, California, the first nine of which were in a French Catholic school, I assured him I understood perfectly well the type of education he was describing.

16 Not unlike what occurred in Alexandria, Istanbul experienced its own de-cosmopolonization and Turkification, as portrayed in Orhan Pamuk ‘s  Istanbul, memories of a city  (2005) (p. 215).

17 In its earlier years, the policy at St. Mark’s was to allow Muslim boys to attend what at that time was a boarding school, but to keep practices and signs of Islam at bay. A student boarder from the 1940s recalled that Muslim students were not allowed to fast during the holy month of Ramadan.  By the 1960s, the school administration embraced a principle of religious pluralism, not merely because of legal obligations to do so, but due to a seeming change of attitude regarding religious education.

18 The author interviewed Father George Absi on May 5, 2003 at St. Mark’s School, Alexandria.

19 According to French sociologist Giles Kepel, “The jama’at  islamiyya were the Islamist student associations that became the dominant force on Egyptian university campuses during Sadat’s presidency. Although they were at first a minority within the Egyptian student movement (then dominated by the Nasserist and Marxist currents) that arose just after the country’s defeat in the 1967 war, the Islamicist students made their breakthrough during the relative calm that prevailed in the campuses after the October war of 1973” (1985: 129).

20 Interview with Dr. Ibrahim Karbouch in Alexandria, May 2003.

21 Indeed throughout history music has been integral part of scientific study. The ancient Greeks studied harmonics, a subject which combined music, arithmetic, astronomy, and geometry (Postman, 1996: 103). Similarly, in the time of medieval Islam music was “studied by the scholars and favored by the Sufis” although it didn’t make up a formal, independent subject of school curricula (Dodge, 1962: 87).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 2, 2008, p. 352-376
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14563, Date Accessed: 12/4/2020 12:49:10 PM

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About the Author
  • Linda Herrera
    Institute of Social Studies, The Hague
    E-mail Author
    LINDA A. HERRERA is Senior Lecturer of Development Studies at the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague. Her recent publications include: Cultures of Arab schooling: Critical ethnographies from Egypt (2006) with Carlos Alberto Torre (Eds.), “Higher Education in the Arab World” (2006), and “What’s new about youth? A review essay” (2006). Her major research interests include education and social transformation in the Middle East and North Africa, the ethnography of schooling, the cultural politics of Muslim youth, and youth and development.
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