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Students get personal picture of life in the Middle East

For the more than two dozen Hudson Middle School students who participated in an outreach program at The Phipps Center for the Arts recently, the nightly news about trouble in the Middle East will likely have more meaning.

The students wrote essays to be part of the program which is built around the center's current exhibit Prism of Longing, which examines the conflict and culture of the Middle East from the point of view of Jews, Muslims and Christians who share the region.

In interviews with six of the students, they talked about why they wanted to participate in the program, what they knew before going into it and what they understand about the Middle East now that they didn't before the experience.

Their daylong experience at The Phipps began with a tour of the exhibit with two of the artists, Susan Armington and Hend Al-Mansour, who explained their work to the students and how their culture, religion and personal experience affected what they created.

The students then heard from Itai Tennenbaum, an Israeli who grew up for a time in Tel Aviv and at age 18 served in the Israeli army during the 1982 Lebanon war. He has a degree in Jewish history from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

They also heard from Fedwa Wazwar, a Palestinian woman who grew up in the United States but maintained her identity as a Palestinian. She shared with the students what it was like to return to Jerusalem and Israel as a Palestinian and how Palestinians feel about their homeland, a place also claimed by Israel as their own.

Brendon Sargent said he was interested in participating in the project because he likes looking at art, any kind of art. The idea of looking at art about the Middle East also intrigued him. He knows the region has been at war for a very long time so he was curious what the art would be like. "I know art can change people's minds. And we know war is bad. Maybe if the art shows that, it could be helpful."

After the experience, Sargent says he has a better understanding of the issues in the region and how the history of the place has been filled with conflict for centuries. He feels he has a clearer picture of what's going on.

"There are two sides to every story and I got that listening to Itai and Fedwa," said Sargent. "It is different when you hear people talk about their firsthand experiences. He grew up with bombs and sirens going off all the time. I hope that's something I never experience where I live."

Krista Spence knew about the region's importance from the Bible and the historic relationships and conflict in the area. She was curious to know about the different cultures, Jewish and Muslim, as they are today and how art and politics mix there. Spence believes that art mirrors behavior, and she wanted to see how that would play out in the exhibit and how the artists felt about their work.

Spence said she thinks she has a better understanding of what Muslims are fighting for in the region. "I can see both sides better now. They both feel they have a claim to the same place. That's been going on for hundreds of years and they just keep attacking each other. I believe Israel has a right to the land along with them. They have to work out some kind of a way to share it."

Patrick Johnson didn't know much about the region before he got involved in the project. "I liked the pyramids and some of the early art we'd seen in school but I wanted to see what their contemporary art was like."

Johnson said before his experience he didn't really think much about the region but felt he generally favored Israel. "But listening to the people who talked with us, I feel differently. I keep thinking what it would be like to live in a place where one minute you could be riding your bike and the next minute war could break out. Everybody there is right in some way and wrong too. I won't be so quick to judge. It isn't just black and white."

Taylor Nelson wrote in her essay that the Middle East is "the home of civilization, the home of religion and the home to millions of ideas ... yet conflicts surround this birth-giving land ... that push the boundary lines on land and religion."

Nelson said she learned much from the experience, some of it supporting ideas she had, learning other things that not only opened her eyes but made her look at the region and people who live there in a different way.

"It's about two groups of people and one piece of land and the problem they have sharing it. It doesn't sound like it should be so hard but when you think about the centuries of history and culture and politics, you start to understand just how hard it is to figure out what to do. They don't want war, they just haven't had time to figure out what to do instead."

Casey Aumann thought about the Crusades to the Middle East and how the area has always been something people fought over through history. She wanted to take a look at the region now and see it through the artists' eyes.

Aumann said the experience definitely expanded her knowledge of the area and her understanding of what is at stake there. "It doesn't make sense to us over here, but to them, the land is theirs and sharing it just doesn't seem right. The fighting just keeps going on. I think it would help if they stopped being so overprotective of it and realized that it is important to everybody there no matter who they are."

Danielle Kiesow didn't really think much about the Middle East before the project. "I didn't like to because it was always about war and they seemed to hate each other. I didn't understand how all that figured in with how religious the area is. I want to understand what people who are from there think about all that."

She got some answers from the speakers and the artists she met. "I didn't know how bad it was. I didn't understand what an impact it has on everyday life from living with the fact that a bomb could go off in a store to getting searched over and over again just to get into a museum. It isn't like anything I ever have or probably ever will experience. It changed how I think about things there and what I see on the news. I know now that there are very different points of view about the same thing."

The exhibit Prism for Longing runs through Feb. 12 at The Phipps Center galleries. For more information about the exhibit and Phipps outreach programs, contact Anatasia Shartin at (715) 386-9305.

Meg Heaton can be reached at

Meg Heaton

Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

(715) 808-8604