Arab Culture and Mathematics: An Equation for Fulfillment

Pursuing an Education in Mathematics

My love of math and science started when I was in high school in Jordan. The education system had two tracks or pathways where students choose to take the Science/Math pathway or the Liberal Arts/Literature pathway. It wasn’t a hard decision for me to choose Science/Math which is somewhat like STEM in today’s vocabulary. I loved math and science and scored the highest in my county on the high school exam which offered me the opportunity to get a scholarship to the University of Jordan.

I started my undergraduate work and in my first year, I had to really think long and hard about whether I want to major in math, chemistry, or biology. A lot of variables and factors influenced my decision. “Oh, I don’t like this department for this reason or that.” I ended up choosing chemistry, which I loved; I earned my Bachelors of Science in Chemistry.

However, when I came to Spokane, I started working at Keytronic Corporation where I used to inspect films for keyboards and other devices. Sitting in a cubicle under bright lights became such a boring routine in isolation that I couldn’t stand it. In no way did it compare to my previous job in Jordan as a teacher for two years. Teaching was my passion.

A few months after, I got married and moved to Los Angeles, California where my husband worked. I started my job search through the classified ads in the newspaper. There was this advertisement for a math teaching job at Notre Dame High School. I applied and when they looked at my math transcript, they hired me right on the spot. “You have enough math to teach here.” We go through calculus in high school if we’re on the science track, and so I started teaching there; that was my first teaching job where in Jordan. I had taught at the two-year women’s training college (no co-ed). I came to Notre Dame High School and it was an all-boy’s school, and I just had to dive into it. I had to adjust and work hard to communicate and understand the culture of those children.

I enjoyed teaching math that first year. I thought, “wow, all that math I learned in college during my undergraduate and in high school is coming back to me quickly (with hard work and preparation).” I loved it. The second year, and after the birth of my first child, I decided to try to use my chemistry degree and I did work for a year. I thought, “let me not do teaching and maybe try something else because I want to have time after school.” When you teach, you bring your work home.

I worked at a brass manufacturing company called Price Pfister in Pacoima. I did some work in the lab and in the beginning, it took me hours to do analysis for plating solutions. Later, when I got the practice, an eight-hour task would take me two hours to do, and I was bored, sitting there, not doing anything. I decided to go back into teaching where I taught in two other high schools; one in Ventura and the other in downtown Los Angeles. Then we moved back to Spokane as we felt it is a better place to raise our children. I enrolled at the university and got my master’s degree in Mathematics. I fell in love with mathematics and teaching again, especially after I taught it.

I started substitute teaching at high schools for a few months until I got a job in 1989 at Spokane Community College, and I’m still there. It’s been 31 years. I love it and enjoy it. I have a passion for math and for teaching. I incorporate different things from the Arab culture in my math classes whenever appropriate.

Teaching Online Classes

When I started teaching in 1989, there was no online teaching, no internet, and no email, and so I taught on-campus on the grounds all the time. When they started offering online, I jumped on it. I started teaching online a long time ago; however, of course, this last year, with the pandemic, I taught all online.

The challenge continues, it doesn’t make it easier that I started teaching online years ago because the technology changes and there’s always a need to use the best technology. Sometimes I record on Zoom, sometimes in Panopto, sometimes in Loom, and then, how to incorporate the graphing calculator and other technologies into the lectures. I believe in life-long learning. In high school, I never had a calculator. They didn’t exist at the time, even when I went to college. Now, I find myself continually changing and learning something new. I’m really working all day long. When I was teaching on campus, I would come home and take a break. And now I can’t because I’m home all the time. However, I love the flexibility of online teaching.

It’s so amazing to have YouTube and Google. I always tell my students; I wish I had Google growing up because I know I spent so many hours in the basement of the library at the University of Jordan. You just must go through those huge reference books, put them on the table and do research. Today’s students are very fortunate and lucky to have all these resources available to them. If I want to learn something I don’t know, I just go to YouTube and look at what’s available.

I started a channel for cooking! It’s called Kamilia’s Kitchen. I learned how to put videos up, but by the time I look at them, my six-year-old grandson records videos on YouTube. He was trying to help me cook and would amaze me in how he describes how I cook. With the multiple resources available now, there’s no excuse for people not to learn.

No matter how hard I work, and I think I’m getting ahead and learning more, those young kids amaze me with how much they know, how they grow up in this technology environment. I’m still learning that at my age!

No matter how hard I work, and I think I’m getting ahead and learning more, those young kids amaze me with how much they know, how they grow up in this technology environment. I’m still learning that at my age!

Online learning requires that students must be responsible for their own learning; students need to learn for themselves, not for anyone else. It’s important for them to be independent and responsible learners. The student is the one who makes that the experience. Hard work and perseverance is what makes them go further in their careers. I tell them my story; I say, “I came from a different country! I navigated my way. How did I do it? With hard work and perseverance. It wasn’t made easy for me. I wish it was.” The word equity wasn’t there. Now, equity, after 42 years of me being here, is a word that we hear all the time and hopefully, that will help some people find the resources they need to better their education.

Career and Job Interview Tips

I believe that hard work and using available resources are very important in student career planning and success. We offer a guidance class to all entering students. This class provides students with many essential resources about the college. In addition, the college holds job and career fairs that are well advertised among students. I encourage students to take advantage of the opportunities available to them and refer them to the counselors for more information.

I encourage students to join a club that they are interested in. I announce opportunities for students as I see appropriate.

In the career class, students are introduced on how to choose their career path and how to prepare for interviews. If it was just me, I would tell them to be confident, to prepare well, to write a good resume, and just be confident in their skills. If you are a ready for a job, you must have done your work, so why not go and demonstrate this? Use on-campus resources.

Arab Culture Club at Spokane Community College

In 2010, I started an Arab Culture Club at my church. This club started because my friends and my children’s friends loved that the Arab culture was so welcoming, friendly, and hospitable. Not to mention the amazing dishes they’d eat! At first, the club was held every Saturday at church, where nephews, nieces, and friends would gather to share Arab cultural activities, which included cooking, language lessons, cultural celebrations, and guest speakers (elders in the Arabic community). Soon after, my son and nephew began to attend Spokane Community College, and with my guidance, they decided to bring the Arab Culture Club with them, to share the culture with the students and community that surrounded the college.

The club began to hold small events such as language lessons and Arabic dances, to soon much larger events, such as Arabian Nights, which included Arabic food from local Arabic restaurants, calligraphy, henna art, live music, fashion shows, and dancers with over 300 attendees. We started with very few people and we ended up with a whole community who wanted to know where Arabian Nights was going to be held.

Arab Culture Club at Spokane Community College

What Does Arab Culture Mean to Me?

It means family, hospitality, generosity, respect to the elderly, and the value of education and rich history. Not to mention amazing food.

I emigrated with my family of 10 to Spokane, Washington in 1978. We are eight children and my mother and father. In 1978, there was no diversity in Spokane whatsoever. We felt like, “we have so much culture to share, and it’s a waste not to share it with other people.” You can’t help but feel anxious or experience culture shock. We just wanted to find jobs, work, and get started in a new country with different language and culture. It was hard, and without the family, I don’t know how we would’ve made it. We all lived together and supported each other as we navigated through our new world. We just worked hard to make it to where we are. Thankfully, all of us are successful. We have a big extended family now in Spokane.

During my teaching at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, students would ask, “Where are you from?” They would see that my accent was different and heavy. I would tell them, “I’m from Jordan.” They would say, “Oh… where is Jordan?” That bothered me. I really wanted people to know where Jordan is, because to me, it was big. I had spent my whole life there at the time. 

I told them, “Look it up on the map!” I felt like people would look at me different because I have an accent, I have origins in a different country, and you just can’t justify anything. You can’t really start sharing your culture because you are consumed in trying to understand the new culture first. It took a while to think of a way to share my culture but thankfully, I did because of my children’s sake. I wanted them to know our culture is rich and it’s important to share it with other people. They do appreciate it. Through the club activities, my son was invited to host a radio show at a community radio station, where they gave him two hours of airtime every Saturday to play Arabic music and to talk about Arabic recipes and some other interesting things about the culture. He would also invite guest speakers to his show. He was so proud to be on the air and talking about the Arab culture. I thought, “That’s amazing,” because when I came, I didn’t feel confident at all.

Thankfully, my children like to share their culture and proud of it. We have a rich culture to share.

Thankfully, my children like to share their culture and proud of it. We have a rich culture to share.

In larger cities, some cultural events are held, such as the annual Arab festival in Seattle. Such events provide the opportunity of a mix of generations to work together to help the new generation understand and appreciate their own culture. Spokane is a growing city and no matter how small we start, we should continue to use available resources to help new generations understand and appreciate their culture and heritage. I’m thankful for Spokane Community College, which has a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. This makes such efforts in a higher education environment possible.

If you had unlimited funds from a philanthropist to use towards building Arab cultural initiatives in the U.S., what types of initiatives might you set in motion?

That’s hard to think about, only because I started the club at the college with only $100. There is no limit to what I can do. I know it requires a lot of work, but I probably would start investing in physical locations, perhaps. An Arab Cultural Center designed to provide opportunity for Arab-Americans and the public to visit, learn the language, culture, cooking, etc. For people to better understand another culture, engage with dialogue and make connections with people from different cultures. Part of this cultural center would be a coffee house where people go to for entertainment, chats, sharing and playing games, and more.

My vision of such a center is to provide Arabic food, teach them the language, the dance, and celebrations of cultures. We need to bring out the positive aspects from such a rich culture. Social media shows so many negative things about the Arab culture. I think we must find ways to remove that or to minimize it at least. Perhaps, just spread the Arab culture in as many cities as we can. I think often about reaching out to King Abdullah II from Jordan to ask him to build a cultural center for Jordanians in Spokane. I’m not sure yet of how I would send him such a message. We could share our culture with other people in a good way, where they benefit from it and find it fun and interesting.

I have children who are amazing and they participate in spreading cultural awareness. Two of my children are teachers. One is a medical doctor, and another is an acupuncture physician. They are all smart and love sharing their culture. Often, I go to them for ideas. They are younger and are more in-tune to their generation. Sometimes, I find myself stuck in the past in how I think. Lots of times, I go to them for advice. We need to use social media to advertise positive messages about the Arab culture. There are so many things we can do. In Seattle, the Arab festival has lots of money to bring people from all over the Arab countries. I would love to focus on the celebrations.

I would love to bring Arabic concerts to Spokane. I know that not only us, Arabs, enjoy Arabic concerts. Our non-Arab friends enjoy it as well, regardless of not understanding the language; that whole environment of happy people, dancing, and celebrating is really something special. In the Arab culture, there is a focus on the family. We celebrate little events such as the baby growing their first tooth, to bigger events such as graduations and weddings. Celebrating that first tooth is for sure surprising to our American friends!

Henna art at Arab Culture Club event.

Engaging or Interesting Things About the Arab Culture Club

My students find many aspects of the Arab culture club engaging and interesting. This includes traditions and celebrations such as weddings, henna art, the folk dance or dabkeh. The Arab Culture Club at SCC hosted a Palestinian dabkeh group who trained and involved students in learning how to do this group dance. The club put on a fashion show during the Arabian Nights event where students dressed up with traditional clothing for men and women. They were also interested in calligraphy. Students love to have their names written in Arabic, and they are fascinated by the art of writing Arabic, and how it is read and written from right to left.

Personal Experience as a Leader of Arab Culture Club, Mathematics Professor at SCC 

As the Arab Culture Club advisor, believing in taking baby steps in moving forward with a meaningful plan is something I never regret. I believed that the Arab culture is so rich that I wanted to share it with others. People know little about the Arab world and culture. They only have a general idea and not enough understanding to help them appreciate the Arab culture. It was quite a challenge to grow the club since it doesn’t directly fit in the mathematics classroom.

We started small and worked hard to bring the club to a level where we offer fun learning experiences to students. Considering that the subject I teach does not naturally bring out the topic about culture, I had to reach out to students from other departments, such as ESL and the International Club. Budgets and regulations surrounding it adds another challenge to what events the club can put on. This has improved over the years. This was a great experience for other students in other clubs to engage in the club events and learn the culture in a fun way.

As a math professor, my experience provided me with personal growth that was built through my curiosity about the culture of all the different student populations we have. Those first-generation students in college, single parents, full-time workers, young and old students from different backgrounds – I respected all those cultures as I was trying to navigate through the higher education system. I have been teaching since 1989 at the same college and enjoy every aspect of it.

To tie in Arab culture with math, occasionally, whenever appropriate, I bring up the history of mathematics and Arab mathematicians as well as the Arab numerals and demonstrate how they are written and pronounced in Arabic. Students find this fascinating.

Kamilia Nemri is a Mathematics Instructor at Spokane Community College and advisor for the Arab Culture Club.

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