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.
For several years now, my humanities education has been running in parallel with my training as a vocalist in Carnatic Music, a style of music from South India. Each December I travel to Chennai to attend the famous “music season,” a festival for Carnatic Music that sees hundreds of performances and lectures throughout the city for nearly a month. I often return to Chennai in the less chaotic summer months, when I have more time and patience to learn from my guru Sri P.S. Narayanaswamy, whom we affectionately call PSN Mama. The transition from finishing my last paper of the semester to learning the first composition of the summer is always something of a leap.
Music seems to demand of me a different kind of learning than what I’m used to at university. Yet when I try to speak on the specific method of my guru, at first I don’t have anything all that interesting to say. Like most teachers of Carnatic Music, PSN Mama teaches me through compositions: he sings the composition line by line, and I sing each line back to him until he is convinced I’ve understood its structure. For fifteen years we have known each other more through our singing voices than our conversations, most of which are usually about when to meet next, or whether I want coffee before we begin.
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?”
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.”