After working long hours at the hospital, the office, the school or the garage, the 36 men and women at Clapp Memorial Library could easily have thought of less demanding ways to spend a Monday evening.
Instead, these residents of an old farming community in the center of the state sat on wooden chairs listening to a University of Massachusetts professor discuss the nuances and complexities of the Middle East for two hours.
David Mednicoff's lecture -- the second in an unusual attempt to educate the public -- focused on Western colonialism in the Middle East, the growth of authoritarianism and recent challenges to state authority in the region. He examined the contours of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and addressed how Americans are perceived as a result of their government's actions.
"This is terribly important to me as a citizen," said Colleen Durocher, a nurse. "There is so much to learn. I know a lot about the Judeo-Christian tradition. But until this class, I knew nothing about Muslims -- nothing about that part of the world."
The class called "Contemporary Middle Eastern Politics and the U.S." evolved from the terrorist attacks of three years ago. David Tebaldi, head of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, said that days after Sept. 11, 2001, librarians began calling his organization to say their patrons wanted to learn about Islam and the Middle East.
Universities taught classes about the Middle East, and churches, synagogues and mosques occasionally presented one-shot lectures. But when Tebaldi found little in the way of ongoing education for adults who wanted to learn about the region, the foundation launched a four-session course called "Understanding Islam."
With a curriculum developed by a Harvard historian, the free program at 12 Massachusetts public libraries was soon oversubscribed. "We have been doing courses like this for 20 years, and we have never had a response like that," Tebaldi said.
The enthusiastic reaction sold the agency on a sequel about the modern Middle East. A group of scholars prepared a curriculum, using a book -- "Between Memory and Desire" -- by University of California at Santa Barbara Professor R. Stephen Humphreys as a text.
The demand was immediately apparent when 100 people packed the first lecture on Middle Eastern culture this fall at the library in Pittsfield, an industrial city in western Massachusetts.
In Belchertown, a city where 60 percent of the 13,000 residents have at least a bachelor's degree, librarian Owen Maloney said he was not surprised when every seat was taken in the first session of the new course.
"You'd have to live in a cocoon not to realize that the Middle East is a trouble spot that affects us in our daily living," he said.
"The people who are at these programs, they have worked all day," Maloney said. "They have taken care of children, they have driven buses, they have worked in offices, they have taught school. It is impressive to see the kind of participation that we have had."
As the development director for nearby Holyoke Medical Center, "I guess you would call me a pretty busy person," Joanne Newman said.
She said her husband, a chemical engineer, does business in the Middle East, and she is of Lebanese descent.
But Newman said her main motivation for taking the class is that her son, Rich, 26, is a Marine "over there, guarding an ammunition pile that used to belong to Saddam Hussein."
In some ways, Newman said, "the things I have learned are like little bits and pieces of a puzzle we are all trying to figure out."
At his lectern in the library here, Mednicoff admitted: "Some of what we have done in the Middle East, and some of what we are still doing there -- it is hard to make sense of this. We want to believe as Americans that what we have done is good, or right, and that our foreign policy makes sense. But why would people there be so hateful that they would be able to raise money and attract recruits willing to kill American citizens, and themselves?"
Mednicoff said the legacy of Western colonialism hovers powerfully over contemporary Middle Eastern culture. Borders created in the 20th century by outsiders "were not necessarily logical or in sync with the region," he said. Along with "a map that is pretty random," the area was left with a sense "that Westerners came in, took away more than they gave in economic terms, and cannot really be trusted in some of the promises they made."
With degrees from Princeton and Harvard, Mednicoff has traveled and taught extensively in the Middle East. In exchange for a stipend that only slightly exceeds his travel costs, he eagerly signed up to teach the lecture series.
"What I have seen," he said, "is a real thirst for some sense of intellectual security on this issue -- not just that you can go to New York and feel safe, but security in that you can come up with your own worldview about what is happening."
Climbing into her compact car to head home after the lecture, Madeline Casey, 80, said her family could not afford to send her to college, and for most of her life she worked as a secretary.
"I'll tell you, I never learned anything about the Middle East in school," she said. "It's like, until now, the Middle East really didn't exist -- they weren't there, they weren't important, and we really didn't know about them.
"I think this course should be in every library in the country," Casey said. "And I hope it will."