There is a de facto 21st century gold rush among elite universities in the United States. In the age of globalized capital, privatization of the state, and commodified education, top-ranked, private universities and colleges are expanding beyond U.S. borders and building proxy campuses in locations fundamental to American economic and military interests. Of the U.S. universities engaged in this project, the pioneer has been New York University (NYU), the first university ever to clone its flagship campus into a standalone campus abroad. In doing so, NYU president John Sexton — infamous for declaring that he’d turn NYU into a leader in the “ICE sector (1)” — upped the ante in the race for such capital by building a new campus in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.). New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) built itself its own private island in the Persian Gulf with a name fit for the neoliberal ideal it was trying to embody: the Island of Happiness (Saadiyat Island). Beyond happiness, a third of the world’s oil reserves lie beneath and around this little island — and Iran is right across the gulf.
There is hardly a project in the Persian Gulf that is not met with controversy. This one is no exception. The construction of NYUAD is murky business for many reasons, particularly NYU’s contracting of Nardello & Co. — an investigating firm that prides itself on getting high-profile corporations out of wrongdoing allegations — to perform a fact finding mission regardings its labor practices in the construction of the Saadiyat Island campus. In addition to the major ethical questions posed by the abuse of labor used to construct NYUAD’s campus, the project represents a marriage of the university with oil capital and U.S. military and economic strategic interests to create the “global university.”
An uncomfortably intimate close-up of a young man’s face opens one of the most recent “bullet films” by Syrian film collective Abounaddara entitled “Don’t Forget the Plums.” The penetrating eyes of the unnamed speaker confront the viewer as he gives cautionary advice about how to deal with the media: “When you’re live on air, the presenter will ask you questions about what interests her…don’t let yourself get dragged in.”
The camera remains fixed upon his face with the only partially visible backdrop an off-white wall. As the unnamed speaker continues, his voice becomes more energetic and his face more urgently expressive. “What about the fighting between the Free Syrian Army and the “Islamic State”? What is the regime doing? Is the regime doing this or that?” he asks, mimicking and mocking a journalist’s predictable questions. “But we don’t give a shit,” he declares, looking straight into the camera and straight at the viewer. “There are people on the ground dying.”
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?→
I have wanted to write something focusing on Walid Jumblatt for quite sometime. He is by far my favorite Lebanese politician–mainly for his odd charm and refreshingly frank statements (see above). However, he also possesses a unique ability to maneuver through Lebanese politics enabling the Druze community that he represents–and his Progressive Socialist party–to punch above its demographic weight.
BBC describes him as “the country’s political weathervane—consistently emerging on the winning side through the twists and turns of the 1975-90 civil war and its troubled aftermath.”