Sunday, July 23, 2006

Laugh or Cry?

Laugh, cry, or maybe just go in the corner and throw up?

And I'm not even talking about the situation in the Middle East!! There the news is grim, grim, grim. Juan Cole today writes and cites sources that Israel had been planning this war in conjunction with Donald Rumsfeld and the Department of Defense for nearly a year. But apparently did not share this information with the President who seems to be operating under the idea that Syria set it all in motion. If you can stand it go read Billmon for more. If you want more news about Lebanon, try the website of the Lebanon's daily paper, The Daily Star. And Iraq, don't forget Iraq, although it might not be a unified country much longer. Death squads are roaming the streets and civilians are dying in greater and greater numbers.

In light of all that, this little tidbit deserves only a thonk! of disbelief. The small, private university where I teach as an underpaid adjunct, let's call it, Grand Aspirations University has had big plans for a co-ordinated curriculum program on Islam. Fine and dandy. But this school lacks an Islamic studies program, a comparative religion program, a Middle Eastern studies program or even an anthropology program. So, local expertise on the topic is lacking (although big, Tier I university with all of the above is right down the street, they won't ask them for help). I have done my best to help out but as an adjunct I'm not part of any committees and I don't have any pull at this place. They have failed to get funding for most of their ideas which is probably for the best but one component, a play about Islam, is still going forward. The local playwright is not Muslim or Arab and has little experience in the Middle East. Here is part of a recent email exchange:

American playwright: The play is in Syria rather than Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, or someplace more stable and less fraught than Syria because I felt that the characters needed something to push up against. Though in many ways life in Damascus is like life anywhere -- eating, sleeping, seeing friends, praying, arguing with the children, etc -- in other ways it's full of complication -- contending with the secret police, contending with censorship, living under a saber-rattling regime whose foreign policy may not reflect your views (sounds familiar), and now wondering whether the Israelis will start mortaring the city from the Golan Heights.

Umm Skandar: Okay but your answer made me laugh a little. Secret police: Jordan -check, Egypt - check, Turkey -check, Foreign policy not representative of public views: Jordan - check, Egypt - check, Turkey - check; no democractic process or institutions, Jordan - check, Egypt - check, Turkey - blank (for the last decade). In fact, Syrian foreign policy is probably more closely aligned with public opinion than anywhere else (it just doesn't align with American views!!) There's much more struggle about the role of Islam in public life in Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey than there is in Syria. There's much more freedom of religion in Syria and the regime works hard to support moderate, Sufi-inflected forms of Islam.

American playwright: Thanks for this. It helps clarify a lot of my thinking actually. First of all, I didn't know that Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey had all of that going on as well; my mind boggles a little to think about it. Does *everybody* have secret police??

Ugh! Yeah, pretty much everywhere in the Middle East has secret police. Egypt for god's sake has been under "emergency measures" that preclude much of civil society for the last thirty years!!!


This play will have about as much useful information about Islam as would a play written about Christianity in America by Saudi students based on the information found in their Arabic-language books at their university library in Jedda!


Heather said...

Keep writing! Your expertise in this area is invaluable for people like me who have no idea how to start understanding this situation.

The play is quite laughable. It will probably turn out as broadly viewed as say...The Passion of the Gibson...

Its a sad state of academia when titles and positions carry more weight than knowledge and expertise. But, you can comiserate with my bitterness..

Umm 'Skandar said...

Yes, I am particularly bitter as I suspect that this "playwright" is receiving a salary that is a multiple of the usual adjunct pay! Grrr . . .
Thanks for the encouragement!