The room in the house in the Beirut neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh was packed: Every possible seat was taken, every space on the floor, and people squeezed into any spot they could find. On an October evening, they had gathered to hear two lectures: one a talk about a geological feature of the Levant called the Dead Sea Transform, and the second about the Trans-Arabian Pipeline, an oil pipeline built in the 1950s.
The audience members were not geologists or petroleum engineers. They did not even know in advance the subjects of the talks they had come to hear. Only the names of the speakers and the event’s location were publicized beforehand. The event was organized by a group called Afikra, founded four years ago by a 32-year-old Lebanese social entrepreneur and former high school teacher, Mikey Muhanna.
The purpose of Afikra is to provide a social environment in which people can learn about and discuss Arab history and culture.
“Afikra is an informal platform where people who are interested in Arab culture can explore issues,” said Muriel Kahwagi, who works at Beirut’s Sursock Museum and has given a talk on zajal, a Lebanese folk poetry form. “It’s a relaxed, friendly atmosphere, with all sorts of people. It’s not a niche audience, and it’s not cliquey—the people who come to the meetings are open to whatever is presented.”
“We are trying to create a setting in which people can ask interesting intellectual but not necessarily academic questions,” Muhanna said.
At the start of his talk, Yazan Kopty said, “My question is, What is the Dead Sea Transform and why does it matter? I’m not an expert, so if anyone knows more than me, please correct me, answer questions, and contribute. And I’m not trying to persuade you of any agenda except that you should be a little bit more worried about earthquakes than you are at present.”
Muhanna started Afikra when he was living in New York, to bring together friends who were interested in exploring Arab culture. Since then, Afikra has been steadily growing. It now has chapters in London, Bahrain, Dubai, New York, Washington and Montreal, as well as Beirut, and is looking to set up chapters in Amman, Kuwait, Boston, Paris, Doha and, ideally, a Saudi Arabian city.
The online archive of past Afikra talks contains presentations on such subjects as the history of pearl diving in Bahrain, traditional music in Iraq, the real story of the Queen of Sheba, the key features of Islamic architecture, and the work of the Egyptian playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim. All are presented by nonspecialists—enthusiastic amateurs—who share with listeners their personal interest in a specific subject.
So far, the talks have all been in English. “That may change,” Muhanna said. Speakers must be able to conduct research in Arabic, he said, not just speak the language.
An essential part of the Afikra formula is that the subjects of talks are not published in advance. If people ask him what the talks will be about, Muhanna said, “I just say, if you’re not curious to find out, you don’t have to come. People always come up to me at the end of the evening and say, if I knew this talk was going to be about trains in the Ottoman empire, I wouldn’t have come, but actually it was really interesting.”
The governing values of Afikra also say that talks promoting an opinion, an ideology, or a political or commercial interest are not allowed. Less well-known subjects in Arab culture are encouraged, and in discussion people are asked to be kind to each other.
The Afikra formula has proven to be popular, as the crowd at the Beirut event illustrates. Muhanna wants Afikra to grow in response to demand, but not in a way that adversely affects the overall quality of the meetings.
“There are tons of people who want us to grow really quickly and start chapters all over the place,” Muhanna said. “I get emails all the time saying, Why don’t you start up a chapter in Ramallah, or whatever. But we want to make sure that whatever we do is done well. We have to cook one dish at a time, or at least not too many dishes at a time.”
Muhanna’s ideas about teaching and learning began to develop when he was a teacher in Louisiana, in the United States, in 2013. He was working for a project in New Orleans called Positive Space, teaching low-income high school graduates the fundamentals of computer programming.
The project not only taught the students how to write computer code, but also helped them develop equally important “soft” learning skills. He found that the most effective way to get them to learn how to code was to encourage their natural curiosity. And the most effective way to encourage their natural curiosity was to present the idea that problem-solving could be a social activity.
“If I have a problem,” Muhanna explained, “I find other people that have a similar problem.”
“In most cases,” he said, “finding a solution to a problem in writing computer code involves searching Internet forums. But when entering words into a search engine, how do you phrase a question in such a way that you get a useful answer?” There is an intellectual discipline in choosing the right words to use in framing a question, he said. “We wanted people to understand how to phrase questions with some sort of deliberation and discipline.”
Muhanna used the same learning process later when he moved to New York and felt the desire to learn more about Arab culture, having spent many years living outside the region. That is, he followed his own curiosity, and engaged others to share this curiosity. Afikra was the result.
At the start of its fifth year, Afikra has 50 volunteer staff members around the world. “We’re in the business of making people more curious, and helping them to hone their curiosity,” Muhanna said. “The idea is that curious people can be successful, and people who are successful can be good community members, and good community members make good communities.”