The class began with nervous giggles, a few “hellos” and some waving before two groups of students began their conversation in earnest.
One group was in a classroom at Augustana College in Rock Island. The other gathered around a dinner table in Cairo, Egypt. They met over a meal Thursday via Skype, an Internet-based video calling service.
The conversation was far-reaching: They started with simple “What are you eating?” and “What time is it?” questions, then moved to the Muslim Brotherhood, the nature of a dictatorship, U.S. power and responsibility and how students balanced classes with the demands of protesting.
The Augustana students were largely a small group from one of assistant professor Cyrus Zargar’s upper-level religion courses. The students in Cairo had all protested in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, where an uprising in January 2011 eventually led to the ousting of Egypt’s then-President Hosni Mubarak.
Hiba Ansari, a business and religion major from Clinton, answered one of the first questions from a woman in Egypt who asked how hard it was to live as a Muslim in America.
“It’s so easy,” she said. “No one bothers you. You’re totally OK to dress how you want, pray wherever you want.”
Zargar and Eric Maddox, founder of the Virtual Dinner Guest Project, led the conversation from opposite ends of the video chat.
Zargar said he thought the idea behind the project was wonderful and appreciated that Maddox worked to create cross-cultural understanding.
“What he is doing has immense value,” Zargar said. “If you really think about it, most of the students in that room, in their lives, will never have the opportunity to travel to the Middle East. This gives them the opportunities.”
The session originally was planned to last an hour, but the conversation stretched for two, and students from both sides of the planet made plans to meet for further conversation via Facebook.
“Every time I wanted to end it, the students sort of gave me this evil look,” Zargar said. “I had a whole course lesson planned for the second hour, but I sort of abandoned those plans when I saw that they’d be very upset at me for doing that.”
Another one of Zargar’s classes will take part in a dinner conversation on April 12.
After the class, Ansari, Fatima Kazmi, a pre-veterinary biology major, and Nick Kalina, a religion major, raved about the experience.
“I feel like this virtual conversation was the epitome of a liberal arts college, the type of experience we’re supposed to be getting — hands-on interaction with students from halfway around the world,” Ansari said.
Kalina, who described himself as a religion major who had taken every non-Christian religion class that Augustana has to offer, said the two-hour conversation was hyper-educational.
“Just this one two-hour period had so much relevancy to almost every course that I’ve taken within my major and slightly outside of it, just breaking down the bias that our media shows in the representation of other cultures,” Kalina said.
The three agreed that the talking face to face with the Egyptian students helped to dispel stereotypes that couldn’t be explained fully by textbook readings.
“We can read about these differences and we can read about how we need to get rid of these ideas, but there’s nothing like just talking to other people,” Kalina said. “This is definitely the best class period that I’ve had in college.”