School District Using Coelho’s ‘Alchemist’ To Teach ‘Middle-Eastern Customs and Practices’?

The Middle East is the land of your imagination:

The Middle East is Aladdin. The Middle East is Habibi. The Middle East is Tintin. And the Middle East, apparently, is Paulo Coelho’s O Alquimista, published in Portuguese in 1988 and translated to English by Alan R Clarke.

At least the Columbia County Board of Education — a district that sits on the northwestern side of Augusta, Georgia — seems to be suggesting to their educators that The Alchemist can help teach students about the peoples of the Levant, the Gulf, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, and/or Central Asia.

Of late, the Columbia County Board of Education is perhaps better-known for telling their teachers what books can’t go on their library shelves. As Columbia County-based resident Ayman Fadel wrote earlier this month, the county’s board of education decided to exclude Nic Stone’s award-winning novel addressing police violence, Dear Martin (2017), from the list of novels that literature teachers can choose to assign in high-school classes. The approved list is a somewhat dusty collection that includes Ayn Rand’s 1937 novella Anthem; it’s little wonder Columbia County teachers want to update it.

To that end, a committee of teachers had come up with a list of suggestions for supplemental books; three from this list, according to the Augusta Chroniclewere rejected. Besides Dear Martin, the other rejected books were Pat Barker’s Regeneration (because one of the soldiers had sex with his adult girlfriend on page 130) and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time for, among other things, characters taking the Lord’s name in vain on four separate pages.

Fourteen other books were approved, including Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and John Krakauer’s Into the Wild.

It seems the district undergoes a novel-by-novel review process that provides a plot summary, an overview of the book’s “instructional purpose,” and “areas of potential concern.” Each book report is reviewed by Superintendent Sandra Carraway before the approved books are voted on by the school board. According to the Chronicle, Carraway said that, in these three books, “the content was extreme.”

Fadel made an open-records request, where he found, for instance, this tense email exchange, where a librarian is asking for confirmation “that we need to remove Dear Martin from our media centers.”

Fadel also found a book that was approved for instructional purposes: Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. The section that’s interesting here is not the “areas of potential concern,” but rather the instructional purpose, which alleges that the book “addresses the literary reading standards by offering … an under-represented, middle-Eastern world perspective. … Students may participate in analytical conversations regarding middle-Eastern customs and practices.”

I’m not certain why “middle” is lowercase in this sentence, nor why we should consider a fantasy Middle East as “underrepresented.” Not only do we have Aladdin and The Nights, but there are thousands of fantasy novels that take place in someone’s imaginary ancient Egypt, Sahara Desert, or suchlike.

The report on The Alchemist, as shared by Fadel:

I don’t know much about Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho, except that the man’s books are popular. I may have read The Alchemist, although I don’t remember it. According to slacker-favorite SparkNotes:

A recurring dream troubles Santiago, a young and adventurous Andalusian shepherd. He has the dream every time he sleeps under a sycamore tree that grows out of the ruins of a church. During the dream, a child tells him to seek treasure at the foot of the Egyptian pyramids. Santiago consults a gypsy woman to interpret the dream, and to his surprise she tells him to go to Egypt. A strange, magical old man named Melchizedek, who claims to be the King of Salem, echoes the gypsy’s advice and tells Santiago that it is his Personal Legend to journey to the pyramids. Melchizedek convinces Santiago to sell his flock and set off to Tangier. When Santiago arrives in Tangier, a thief robs him, forcing him to find work with a local crystal merchant. The conservative and kindly merchant teaches Santiago several lessons, and Santiago encourages the merchant to take risks with his business. The risks pay off, and Santiago becomes a rich man in just a year.

It’s true that this is inexcusably ludicrous; it’s also true that there are relatively few resources for high-school teachers who would like to teach literature of the contemporary MENA. There is the WWB Campus, although it’s still in a beta phase, and — when it comes to the “Middle East” — the site has literatures from only Egypt and Iran.

Yet while there is certainly curricular work to be done, let’s not be ridiculous. A book might have a pyramid in it, but that doesn’t mean it has anything to do with the “customs and practices” of the contemporary Middle East.

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