Last year, I was “just” a graduate student. My primary relationship to knowledge was one of pursuit. Many of my classes seemed designed to help me both focus and expand my interests, all the while introducing me to a rich set of concepts and contemporary debates. In lecture, I listened and took notes; in seminars, we discussed and debated. In the library, it felt like we were all learning how to read slower and faster at the same time.
Now I am also a teaching assistant, suddenly responsible for knowledge in new ways. TAing Arabic has been my first truly public, prolonged experience of both authority over and accountability to a group of students. They come to my office hours. They solicit my feedback, consider my advice, and assume that I will be able to answer their questions. Suddenly my words, a year ago mere conjecture and reflection, are now treated as a definitive answer. And there is nothing quite like having someone write down what you say.
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?→
Abdilatif Abdalla, who will be visiting MESAAS and the Institute of African Studies at Columbia on November 12th and 13th, is one of the most renowned living Swahili poets. Mixing poetry and politics has been a feature of Swahili society for a long time, and classic historical Swahili poets, like Fumo Liyongo and Muyaka bin Haji, were engaged in local politics as well as in writing. Like these Swahili intellectuals before him, Abdalla has been living among his people – or separated from them, through long years of prison and exile – as the gifted and critical voice in society that Swahili poets are seen as: particularly knowledgeable people with a duty to speak up on behalf of their community.
As a poet, Abdalla became well-known only after his term in prison (1969-1972), to which he was sentenced as the author of ‘Kenya: Twendapi?’ (Kenya: where are we going?). He earned his first literary recognition with a didactic poem on the Qur’anic story of Adam and Eve, but it was the publication of Sauti ya Dhiki (Voice of Agony) in 1973, a collection of poems he had written secretly on toilet paper while in prison, that made him famous. Using traditional genres of Swahili verse, Sauti ya Dhiki covered a broad range of critical topics with remarkable depth and originality: the perils of colonialism, racism, material greed, and social injustice. But also the loneliness felt in prison, the persistence of his political struggle, and a plea against abortion from the perspective of an unborn child. Readers were awed by the force and scope of his verbal artistry. Continue reading Abdilatif Abdalla: Poet and Political Activist→
A comment on Gil Anidjar’s paper “Jesus and Monotheism” and its discussion at the MESAAS department colloquium on September 11th.
Murder, it soon becomes clear, goes far beyond the “who-done-it?” digressions, down which Freud (and Anidjar) takes his readers. This word designates more than a crime, far more than an action. It describes a kind of relation: the relation of a father to his sons, of a son to his father, of a people to their leader and, ultimately, of Christianity to Judaism.
What Anidjar terms “the Christian question” is an inquiry about this relation. But this inquiry is not about Christianity’s relation to just anyone. It is what we arrive at when we turn the screw of “the Jewish question” one more time. When we ask what it is about Christianity that so persistently maintains this relation—“murder”—to its Others. Certainly this question goes far beyond “the Jewish” one, but in Anidjar’s reading of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, the “(Jewish) Christian question” takes center stage.
“..People sometimes ask…why the Pope does not introduce this or that reform? The true answer is that a revolutionist is not the kind of man who becomes a Pope and that a man who becomes a Pope has no wish to be a revolutionist.”
What will the legacy of B.R. Ambedkar mean to India and the world one hundred years from now? It is not uncommon or insignificant that extraordinary genius remains under-appreciated in its time, waiting in the wings as the lens of human consciousness develops the capacity to penetrate into its beckoning depths. Far ahead of its time, even in this day and age, Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste is one such exceptional tract of extraordinary human insight. Though currently undervalued, its universal frame suggests that it must eventually take its place as a guiding beacon of the Indian nation.Like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X, the legacy of M.K. Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar form an essential binary. One person paves the way for immidiate change, taking into consideration current sensibilities, while the other constructs the dreams of tomorrow–shattering every rotten, but dearly held sentiment that stands in the way. Today, we understand Gandhi and Ambedkar as polarities, in time perhaps we will see that they are two essential parts of the same puzzle of India.One hundred years from now, with the distance of time, we might realize that Gandhi was but India’s pope. His complicit charisma threaded together an unlikely nation. Ambedkar is our revolutionist. He set the terms for our freedom and through his drafting of the Indian Constitution, he won a victory that Gandhi never could. Unlike Gandhi, he did not see the nation that would exist in the next year, the next decade or the next five decades. He imagined the contours of a nation that persisted beyond this century and into the next. He constructed the strong foundations necessary for such longevity. His commitment to fundamental human equality and social justice sealed the nation together in an unbreakable bond. Through his words, his deeds, and his greatest legacy to the people of the Indian nation: the Indian Constitution, he has left us the foundations for the construction of an eternal nation. He has set his legacy in the strongest of stone. How our current generation decides to engage with his legacy, will determine the fate of our own legacy, as well as the fate of our nation.