by Brandon Kemp
Over the last several weeks visiting professors have lectured on subjects ranging from German-Turkish cinema to behavioral economics here on the Domain. Part of a series of campus-wide job talks, these presentations aim to bring new voices to departments seeking to expand or to replace transitioning members. The International & Global Studies department had a particularly strong showing as its candidates brought energy, intelligence, and nuance to their discussions of the Middle East and North Africa. Their focuses were varied: women’s political and religious activism in Iran, the role of the opera Aida in rethinking Egyptian identity, and an examination of how gated communities in Bahrain reinforce forms of social exclusion—but consistently thought-provoking.
In the first talk, Samaneh Oladi explained to a packed room of faculty members and students how, in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, many formerly imprisoned Islamic feminists and activists began in earnest trying to secure full rights for themselves not by appealing to secular-humanist ideals but by evoking a long history of Islamic jurisprudence. They became scholars and activists challenging from within the religious and political establishments’ patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an and Islamic law.
Oladi was simultaneously courteous and confident as she spoke of the need to let Iranian Muslim women define their own struggle rather than simply imposing Western notions of what feminism should look like on them. Anna Alikhani (C’14), an Iranian-American student here at Sewanee, gave her own take as well. “I went to Iran two weeks after the 2009 riots occurred,” she said, referring to the Green Movement whose protests were the largest seen in the country since the 1970s. “Young women are very much at the forefront of a more progressive movement compared to the older women who are more interested in trying to appease and work with the regime in place.” Oladi also spoke of the tendency in much of U.S. media to portray Iranian women in drab colors. Iran is colorful, she stated, as are its women.
The second talk was delivered by Dr. Carmen Gitre, currently an assistant professor at Seattle University. Much of it was excerpted from the manuscript of a book she is currently working on. But her reading was not monotone and dry, as academic presentations so often are. It was theatrical, lively, and supremely aware of its audience—appropriate for a talk on drama and performance. The listeners were fewer due to the snowy weather outside, but it was the most spellbound group by all accounts. Aida, Dr. Gitre claimed, was not merely an extension of European culture and values in foreign lands. After all, in its celebration of a certain kind of Egyptian (usually cast as light-skinned and male), it also implicitly reinforced a sense of racial difference between North and sub-Saharan Africa which played into the Ottomans’ own imperial projects. At the same time, common Egyptians had their own forms of street performance, ones that broke down Western conventions of active performers and passive viewers. These more democratic performative spaces, she said, seemed to make a startling reappearance in 2011 as tens of thousands gathered to call for the U.S.-backed Mubarak dictatorship to step down in Tahrir Square, one of the defining moments of the Arab Spring that swept across the region.Finally, Zia Salim of the University of California, Santa Barbara and San Jose State University discussed urban geography in modern Bahrain. The country is a fascinating case study in global migration alone. With a population of just 1.2 million inhabitants, a full 666,172 of those (roughly 55 percent) are non-Bahraini.
Salim’s talk focused in particular on the evolution of gated communities (known as “compounds”) and the strange sense of alienation they engender. Most people living in them, he noted, were on two-year contracts. As a result, becoming too attached to one’s community—both local and national—is fraught with the danger of disappointment and, ultimately, displacement. Salim’s enthusiasm for his topic was palpable as he bounced from one point to another. When it came time for questions, though, he slowed down a bit and showed a remarkable and refreshing ability to take students’ questions—of which there were many—seriously. Perhaps surprising for a geographer, Salim’s interests are not confined by place. They included everything from street art in downtown L.A. to Cairo’s growing urban slums.