Between the Lines program seeks to educate kids on culture and literature


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Imagine Arabic, Russian, and American writers, from different backgrounds and experiences, coming together for two weeks of collaboration and learning. This uncommon yet valuable experience is made possible by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. State Department, which has funded a two-week summer program called Between the Lines for 16- to 19-year-olds.

“It’s a chance for [the students] to make friends with young people from different countries in the region and also to go across borders with the United States,” said Christopher Merrill, the director of the University of Iowa International Writing Program. “There is the chance to find common ground and to broaden [the students’] horizons to geography, culture, politics, and a whole range of things people talk about when they get together.”

The program occurs every summer and has quickly expanded since it began in 2008. While it started with an Arabic version of Between the Lines — connecting students with writers from 17 different Middle East countries — a Russian session was added last summer. Next summer, all three groups, Americans, Arabs, and Russians, will be combined into one two-weeklong workshop.

“The idea is that it’s both a creative and a cultural exchange,” said Ashley Davidson, the IWP press coordinator. “It’s really an opportunity for students — many of them have never traveled outside of their home state or country — to really interact with others around the shared interest of writing.”

The IWP also works to bring in standout authors to help teach the students. Ghada Abdel Aal, an Egyptian writer and the author of the book I Want to Get Married was brought in to teach the Arabic creative writing workshop, while John Murillo, a poet and author of Up Jump the Boogie teaches the American version.

Merrill and Davidson said they believe Abdel Aal and Murillo will be valuable models for the students.

“They’re both quite young, they are both very dynamic individuals, and they’re both interested in working with students to expand their horizons and help them improve their work,” Davidson said. “It’s a chance for the participants to really know working writers and to ask their questions and get some guidance on their writing from people who are in the trenches and are doing this work every day.”

Murillo and Abdel Aal said they are excited to be a part of Between the Lines and bring their knowledge of writing to students.

“Poetry has been something that has really fed my life in a lot of different ways,” Murillo said. “It’s given me most of my friends; my fiancée is a poet. It’s just really helped to shape my life, so I’m hoping to give that to the kids as well.”

Abdel Aal said the workshop provides a great opportunity that many students around the world don't have the chance to experience.

“I’d really like to help the kids profit from this experience,” she said. “We don’t have these kinds of programs in lots of countries in the Middle East. Maybe it can help them be better writers.”

Throughout this workshop, the students participate in a wide range of cultural and writing activities. They have creative-writing workshops with the authors, literature seminars, and various cultural activities including exploring Iowa City, a film festival, and various readings.

Murillo and Abdel Aal held their own reading at Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St., Wednesday evening, coordinated by the bookstore and the IWP.

“We like to collaborate with [the IWP], because it’s a good way to get the students into the store,” said Kathleen Johnson, the events coordinator at Prairie Lights. “It’s good for them, because it exposes them to different kinds of literature, [and] it’s good for us because it just brings in different authors whom we wouldn’t necessarily come up with on our own.”

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