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Students experience Middle Eastern cultures up close during geography trip

April 13, 2012

EAU CLAIRE — Forty-two students from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire boarded a bus March 30 for a 90-mile field trip that would help them better understand cultures half a world away.

The group headed to Minneapolis-St. Paul to tour Middle Eastern markets and visit a mosque during a Muslim prayer service. For the past five years Dr. Paul Kaldjian, associate professor of geography, has led the field trip for students in his "Geography of the Middle East and North Africa" class, as well as students scheduled for a summer immersion trip to Turkey.

The first stop was breakfast at Babani's, a Kurdish restaurant in St. Paul.

"We've never opened for breakfast in 15 years," said the restaurant's owner, Rodwan Nakshabandi. "We only do it for Paul. We like him."

The students liked what they tasted.

"The food was awesome," said J.T. Stocks, a senior biology major from McFarland. "I was actually eating food off other people's plates."

While students dined on a menu that included soup, salad and warm bread, they listened to Nakshabandi talk about growing up in a Kurdish village in northern Iraq, his escape across the border to Turkey to avoid Saddam Hussein's genocide against Kurds, and his eventual arrival in Minnesota to start a new life.

Following breakfast, students visited a pair of Middle Eastern markets. The first stop was the Caspian Market and Bistro in downtown Minneapolis. Each year Kaldjian brings his students to this Iranian market in hopes that they learn more than the obvious from their assignment to find foods from different lands.

"They are exposed to different attitudes from people," Kaldjian said. "We go to the Caspian Bistro and the proprietor there gives them free samples of foods, just really welcomes them in. It becomes a relationship, not an economic transaction, when you interact in this context."

Hillary Johnson, a senior geography major from Stoughton, got firsthand experience with such interaction when she was given a lesson on the Persian rugs hung as artwork on the walls of the bistro.

"I had been talking to her before," said Johnson of the woman who explained the hard work that goes into creating the artistic rugs. "And she was just so friendly. Then she came and found me when I was just searching and was like, 'Come here, I want to show you this.'"

After worksheets were completed and shopping bags filled at the Caspian Market and Holy Land Grocery and Deli, it was time for what Kaldjian called the flagship experience of the trip, a visit to the Masid An-Nur mosque in Minneapolis.

"Students are a little bit apprehensive about going to the mosque," said Kaldjian, noting that questions abound. "'Are we allowed to go in?' Yes, of course we're allowed to go in. 'Will I be asked to do something I don't feel comfortable doing?' The answer is no. We will be received as guests in somebody else's space and place."

In December Kaldjian was honored for his work to facilitate better understanding of Islam and Muslims when he received the 2011 Building Bridges Award from the Islamic Resource Group of Minneapolis. In presenting the award, Zafar Siddiqui, president of the Islamic Resource Group, said Kaldjian helps students understand Islam and Muslims in a much deeper way than just in theory.

Students on the recent trip shared their reactions after visiting the mosque.

"I loved it," said Corrin Turkowitch, a junior geography major from Wauwatosa. "I didn't know what to expect. When I came in, I immediately felt welcome, sat down, took it all in. It was very comforting."

As for the message during the service, Turkowitch said it wasn't all that different from what she grew up hearing.

"Obviously, the rituals and the small little things are vastly different," she said. "But the message, and what was truly trying to be put across, to me that is ultimately the same."

After the Muslim prayer service, students sat in a circle on the floor with the imam, or worship leader, and other representatives of the mosque for a 45-minute question-and-answer period.

Kaldjian said he hopes the lessons learned stay with the students forever.

"That's the best feeling, when the students show interest, when the students ask questions, because one of the things we try to teach students to do is ask questions," Kaldjian said. "We have good students. I'm very excited about the kind of students we have, who are taking these classes and taking these experiences and want to learn about the Middle East, who want to learn about other cultures."



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