Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah is a PhD Candidate of Arabic and Comparative Literature and a Literature Humanities Preceptor of the Core Curriculum at Columbia University. She is currently completing her dissertation on the continuities and transformation of the amatory prelude in thepost-classical Prophetic Encomia.
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First believed to have been performed in 415 BC, Euripides’ play The Trojan Women tells of the violence committed by the Greeks during their siege of Troy, a city not too far from the borders of contemporary Syria. Scholars believe Euripides wrote the play as a critical response to the Athenian slaughter of the people of Melos during the Peloponnesian War. The tragedy draws from an ancient history to speak powerfully against contemporary war crimes and human trafficking—and classicists have taken great interest in the ways in which the play has been reinterpreted over the past century. Performed in Arabic entirely by Syrian women currently living in refugee camps in Amman, Syria: The Trojan Women provides a platform for Syrian refugees to share their experiences of war through a dramatic reinterpretation of the ancient Greek tragedy.
When the performers were recently denied entry visas to the United States, Columbia University organized a promotional event on campus that was attended by many like myself who are currently teaching and studying ancient Greek texts. Over Skype, the Syrian performers spoke about their experiences working on the play in response to questions from their U.S. audience. The highly performative aspects of “engaging across a divide”–particularly on the U.S. side of the screen–dissipated the moment one of the Syrian women took the microphone, moved her face close to the computer camera and surprised her audience by asking in perfect English, “Are you bored?” In response to our silence, she raised her voice and enunciated with a wide smile, “Boooooored?” At that moment, her question disturbed and problematized our passive, distant, and comfortable consumption of war narratives on a screen. The discomfort she provoked flips the spectator’s gaze inward, drawing attention to our role not only as audience members but as crucial participants in the tragedy behind the tragedy. For a project that aims to give a human face to the suffering that is a consequence of war, achieving this is a success in itself. Continue reading “Bored” with the Theater of War?→
For those of us who teach or will be teaching an introductory course of Islamic Studies in the United States, there are a number of pedagogical challenges we uniquely face as instructors. In order to reach a deep and critical engagement with the texts, histories, aesthetics, narratives and politics at play in a course such as “Islamic Civilization,” a form of “de-programming” must take place.
I say “de-programming” because instructors are certainly not engaging with “blank slates.” Many students enter our classes having already developed an idea or opinion of Islam, Muslims and related terminology (such as shari’a, jihad, Islamic state, burka, etc.), and this is reflected in their questions and papers. Here’s a sampling of the questions I received through an exercise I conducted at the end of the last academic term:
“What makes Islam hate Israel?” “What is the burka?” “Do mainstream Muslims read the Qur’an?” “Is there such a thing as Islam without belief in God (Allah)?” “Should Muslims get the blame for human misery?” “Is a democratic and religious state possible?” “When do most Muslims visit Mecca (what part of their life)?” “What is the Muslim position on human nature?”
When our class arrived to the cluster of assigned readings on Gender and Contemporary Islamic Civilization, as a similar exercise to another that I have described on the blog, I asked my section to write down the first thing they imagine when I say, “Identify a stereotype regarding Muslim women.” This time, I decided to ask directly to identify stereotypes rather than what first comes to mind when I say “Muslim woman.”
Again, I wanted them to be honest so I asked the students to submit their answers anonymously. As I expected, it was a much easier and faster exercise for them than the one about fictional Muslim characters. However erroneous the narratives about Muslim women may be, they are ample and accessible.*
I collected the slips of paper and read them out loud so the class could hear what their colleagues wrote. This is what they wrote, exactly how they wrote it:
First stereotype of Muslim women that comes to mind
Mid-semester, I asked my Contemporary Islamic Civilizations section* to write down the first thing that pops in their mind when I say, “Name a fictional Muslim character.” I gave the students a minute, collected the names and then read them out loud.This is what they wrote (and how they wrote it):
Aladdin: 4 students (one student also wrote: maybe not Muslim?)
Salah al-Din/Saladin: 3 students (one specified Saladin from Kingdom of Heaven)**
Malcolm X: 2 students**
Scheherazade: 2 students
Can’t think of anyone: 2 students
Jafar (Muslim or just Arab?)
Jasmine (Disney princess)
Marji (from the book/movie Persepolis)
Amir Khan in Fanaa (Bollywood film)***
Lead male actor in Kite Runner (not sure if he’s Muslim)
Characters portrayed by the Palestinian actor Mohammad Bakri
Changez in TheReluctant Fundamentalist
Abu Nazir in Homeland
*All the students are Ivy League undergrads majoring in various subjects; most of them were raised and educated in the U.S.
**These are not fictional characters. I definitely expected the Aladdin characters, and I was not surprised that the students listed Saladin. I was surprised, however, to read names of 20th century North American historical figures…especially since the Autobiography of Malcolm X was required reading (in addition to Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi). Was it a result of mishearing the question (i.e., the student listed the first name s/he could think of rather than consider whether that figure was fictional)? Was it a reflection of their age? Or was it from ignorance of more recent U.S. history (i.e. post-World War II) and that U.S. high school students often receive a cursory treatment of the Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement, Cointelpro, Immigration Act 1965, etc. (if they are able to reach that time period at all)?
***Out of all the Bollywood movies with identifiably Muslim characters, a student who watches Hindi films first thought of Fanaa. It does make depressing sense. The film flattens the local and material context of the Kashmiri struggle with India as a powerful nation-state by crafting a narrative which echoes narratives on U.S. national-security and the War on Terror. In a way, it’s another commercial film giving a Bollywood flavor to a Hollywood story. In this case, violence is de-contexualized and subsequently generalized under the category of “Muslim violence.” Here, Indian nationalism as love of nation (and national security) is made relatable to an American palate which has acquired a taste for the “Islamic terrorist/national-security threat” as a popular character, making Amir Khan’s Kashmiri character as a terrorist easily identifiable (and insidiously memorable) as “Muslim.”
In Covarrubia’s seventeenth century dictionary Tesoro de La Lengua Castellana O Española, moro (from the Latin Maurus) is defined as “one from the province of Mauritania.” The term is meant to be used pejoratively as in the proverb, “A Moro muerto, gran lanzada” (p.1150). The Real Academia Española offers more than eleven definitions, including the natural border of North Africa and Spain; one who professes the religion of Islam; a Muslim who lived in Spain from the eighth to the fifteenth century; a black mare with a star on the forehead and shoes on one or two limbs; Muslims of Mindanoa and Malaysia; etc. In the Oxford English Dictionary, moor is defined as “originally a native or inhabitant of ancient Mauretania” and “later usually a member of a Muslim people of mixed Berber and Arab descent inhabiting north-western Africa (now mainly present-day Mauritania), who in the eighth century conquered Spain.”
In An Early Modern Dialogue with Islam: Antonio de Sosa’s Topography of Algiers (1612), Sosa devotes an entire chapter—“The Inhabitants and Neighbors of Algiers”—to defining the “Moor” as a category of people among other inhabitants in Algiers, including Jews, Turks and Christians. The rest of the text, however, does not always use the term in the same way; rather, its usage reveals and reproduces the conflation of race, ethnicity and religion in the early modern period.
Coverage of the conflict that brought the end of Gaddafi’s 42-year regime over Libya exposed some of the weakest points in the ways we conceive of geographical categories. Rebel forces accused Gaddafi of using “African mercenaries,” painting a racial tint to the civil conflict. In many respects, the conflict showed the limits of Libya’s Africanness — which Gaddafi emphasized in his later years — while aggravating the very real historical tensions between Arabs and other ethnic groups in Africa. Nevertheless, the positioning of Libya as an African nation has resonated with many Africans on the continent and throughout its diaspora.