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Teresa Lesher A Very 'AWARE' Muslim

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“Where Minds Meet” is the slogan of “AWARE Center”, a centre that chose to plunge into a way that is rarely trodden; cultural exchange to generate understanding and awareness. AWARE (Advocates of Western-Arab Relations) was established in 2003 in Kuwait because “it is through culture that we preserve our heritage, that we express our creativity and that we share our individuality with the world” says Teresa Lesher the general manager of AWARE. Lesher, who is an American with a Kuwaiti nationality, holds a Ph.D. in library and information science, she embraced Islaam 25 years ago. Lesher just like the centre she runs, is a very “AWARE” Muslim.

• You are a professor, a social activist, and a prolific writer. But I am sure many readers would also like to know when and how you embraced Islaam?

When I was in college I had several friends from different countries and we used to compare and contrast our cultures, customs and experiences. During this time I had Muslim friends who told me about Islaam. I found it a very logical religion that also had answers to many questions that I had as a child and young adult – questions about God, the purpose of life, and personal accountability. I found logic and faith totally compatible in Islaam, and very soon embraced it as a wholesome yet very fulfilling way of life. This Rama’daan it will be 25 years, al’hamdu lillaah (thanks to Allaah).

• How do you read the situation after September 11th? Did it really give Islaam “a free advertisement” as some say or did it tarnish all the effort that has been made to present the true image of Islaam?

I believe it’s done both. It brought Islaam to the forefront, and caught many people off-guard – people who have been living quiet lives as peaceful Muslims. It’s not enough to be good people; we must all be activists in the sense that we strive hard for good in the community with active participation in all spheres of life. Before September 11, we were less diligent. Now we realise that if we don’t stand up for what’s good and mutually beneficial, others will be given attention for messages and means that do not represent our values.

• We notice how teenagers spend hours chatting and using the Internet as a means of recreation. Your Ph.D. dissertation was on information literacy in Kuwait. Could you define it to our readers and tell us the main trends you detected. What do we need to have as an information literate generation?

Being able to use the Internet is an important part of information literacy, which can be defined as the ability to access information efficiently and effectively, evaluate information critically and competently, and use information accurately and creatively. It is an essential survival skill in our time, and the level of information literacy among the citizens of a nation will determine, to a large extent, its economic and social prosperity in the future.

Unfortunately, information literacy is not a top priority in education in Kuwait. The curricula and teaching methods are still very traditional. Related problems include the poor perceptions and attitudes toward school libraries on the part of educational authorities, the lack of planning for information provision and human resource training at all levels, low levels of autonomy in public and school libraries, and general unawareness of the library’s potential among decision makers.

Education plays a key role. We need to develop resource-based education with a comprehensive program of instruction for information literacy. Teachers need appropriate training, curricula need to be revised, and supporting materials such as well-stocked libraries with modern equipment and connectivity to worldwide information resources must be in place.

• How do you evaluate volunteering in Kuwait and the Middle East compared to the West?

I volunteered some when I was in high school in the States but not enough to be able to make a comparison. I’ve been in the Middle East for more than 20 years and have always found ways to volunteer, usually on a personal or small group level. There is no shortage of work to be done - one only needs a degree of personal motivation and the dedication to see a project through.

• What was the motive behind the establishment of AWARE Centre in 2003? And what are its main aims?

There are many reasons for the establishment of AWARE: the poor image of Arabs and Muslims in the media, a want of positive interaction between Westerners and Arabs, and a shortage of cultural information and services for Westerners in Kuwait. With the number of Westerners in Kuwait growing, there was a strong desire in the community to take some positive steps to remedy these situations.

The AWARE Centre’s mission is to promote positive relations between Westerners and Arabs by organising activities and information services related to Arab and Islaamic culture. We organise social events, classes, lectures, films, exhibitions, tours, and cultural activities, and provide information about Arab and Islaamic culture through our website (www.aware.com.kw), our monthly “Together” magazine, leaflets about local culture, and our on-site library.

• Who are the key persons in the Centre? And how many persons work for AWARE?

I consider everyone who works and volunteers in AWARE a key person, since each one has contributed to the success of our organisation in an important way. ‘Abd Al‘azeez Aldu‘aij did the foundation work by managing the centre through the first phases; he gave us a vision and direction for the future. We currently have several full-time and part-time staff, but when you add volunteers, the number fluctuates, depending on our activities.

• What are the main activities of AWARE?

In addition to our ongoing Arabic classes, we have many regular activities like lectures, socials, films and tours. We also organise exhibitions, bazaars, desert day-camps, if’taar dinners in Rama’daan, ‘Eed celebrations and visits to diwaaniyyahs. Occasionally, local citizens invite groups of Westerners to join them in the desert, fishing, or among their families at home. We also go to schools, clubs and companies, on their request, to present information about different aspects of the culture.

• AWARE is a non-profit centre. How is it funded?

From donations of private citizens and local businesses. These generous people realise the importance of our work and support it in many ways. Our volunteers also give generously of their time, and encourage others to participate.

• Of the different activities that AWARE organises, such as Arabic lessons and cookery demos, which has been the most popular?

Several classes run throughout the year, and the enrolment is good. As for activities, we recently did a survey, and found that 52% of the respondents enjoy our lectures most. Tours and social events are also popular.

• Who attends AWARE activities? Are they mainly expatriates? What is the ratio of Westerners amongst them? And what is the ratio of men versus women?

Both Arabs and Westerners attend our activities, but the majority are expatriate teachers, businessmen, and oil company employees. Western embassy personnel and Western cultural groups also visit. I would say the ratio of men and women is about equal over the long run.

• Has any of the attendants shown interest in embracing Islaam?

To answer visitors’ many questions, we provide information about Islaam through our library, publications and on-site personnel. We also have mentors and instructors for Western Muslims who want more in-depth information. Some attendees have shown interest in Islaam after a movie, lecture or activity, and some have eventually embraced Islaam as their chosen way of life. Our intention at AWARE is to provide correct and reliable information, and that has helped some Westerners rectify some of the misconceptions may they have had about Islaam.

• Being a specialist in the field of library and information science, what role does the library at AWARE play?

The library, of course, is a way to learn independently according to one’s personal interests. It’s a good place for research and recreational reading. The AWARE library contains resources on Kuwaiti, Gulf, Arab and Islaamic culture. We have travel guides, cook books, history books, photo journals, biographies, a small collection of Arabic literature (in English), and many books on regional art and architecture. Our Islaamic section features overviews of Islaam as well as its application in various fields like human rights, family sciences, pure sciences, economy, management, and so forth. We also keep translations of the ’Qura~n in the major European languages, and provide English translations of the ’Qura~n free-of-charge.

• Do you have plans to expand outside Kuwait or have chapters? Any other plans for the future?

We regularly get visitors from around the Arab world and beyond, and many have expressed the intention to incorporate some of our ideas into their local cultural or Islaamic centres. We also hope to open branches of the AWARE Centre in other locations in the Gulf in the future.

More About AWARE: www.aware.com.kw

Hayat Alyaqout -

Hayat Alyaqout [’Hayaat Alyaa’qoot] is a freelance writer and the editor-in-chief of Nashiri E-publishing House. She earned a summa cum laude for her B.A. in political science and English language from Kuwait University.Read More >>

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