Teaching the Middle East in the Middle East
Collected by Nadya Sbaiti
[Academic discipline is often foregrounded when thinking of the ways in which the Middle East is taught. Institutional geography, though, is often left by the wayside, often relegating pedagogical discussions on teaching the region to within the western academy. “Teaching the Middle East in the Middle East” is our attempt to bring geography back into the conversation. In this installment, we connect with three Middle East history faculty about their teaching experience in the Middle East, providing insights and observations to how teaching the region differs when physically located in the Middle East.]
Islamic History, Georgetown University in Qatar
At some point during the middle of my Middle East History II course I devote a lecture to the impact of Christian missionaries in the region since the nineteenth century. We talk about the Syrian Protestant College as I show old photos of the iconic College Hall alongside more recent constructions at the American University of Beirut’s campus. And I do
this at an American institution of higher learning based in the Gulf that was established less than twenty years ago. The irony is not lost on my students, most of whom hail from across the Arab world.
In teaching the history of the modern Middle East to students in the Middle East, one of the major challenges has been locating ways to address two distinct but interrelated issues: many students’ preconceived notions about the history of the region tend to reflect hegemonic state narratives that are disseminated not only in formal structures such as secondary school education, but also in ways that permeate the cultural experiences of everyday life. This can often translate in predictable ways, such as the adoption of nationalist narratives that can be exclusionary or reductive in their outlook toward other ethnic, national, or religious groups. It can also manifest in ways I would not have predicted (expressions of strong anti-Ottomanism, for instance).
At the same time, being a historian trained in the United States and teaching within an American institutional setting abroad raises questions regarding our reliance on texts and pedagogical models originally developed in a Western liberal context replete with colonial legacies.
In both of these instances, I have found it helpful to think more critically about structures of power and their role in creating the very environments in which these narratives are advanced (something that also affects American students studying the history of their country, I should add). Another useful approach has been a greater reliance on primary source documents, as not
only complementary to the course textbook, but as objects of study in their own right. Many primary source compilations tend to reflect matters of importance to Western scholars of the region, so I try to depart from those collections (useful as they are) in favor of alternative sources or allow students to suggest sources themselves. Finally, being in a global learning environment (with apologies for the consultancy jargon) has made for a dynamic classroom setting where students often learn much from each other’s experiences and unique approaches to similar questions concerning historical memory and identity.
Arab and Middle Eastern Studies, American University of Beirut
What would the field of Middle East women and gender studies look like if its institutional and epistemological foundations originated in the region itself, as opposed to being largely driven by a Euro-American political context? What sorts of questions would the field ask differently from those we currently encounter in the scholarship’s “greatest hits”?
How would these questions factor in new sources and methods? Might buzzwords of this field—e.g. public vs. private, veiling, freedom, agency, work, sexuality—change? These are the opening questions I ask students when I teach “Women and Gender in the Modern Middle East” at the American University of Beirut (AUB), and they help to set the tone for establishing the modes of inquiries therein.
I arrived at these questions the hard way. I had been trained academically at US universities, and steeped in the field of modern Middle Eastern women and gender studies within that milieu. I subsequently taught a recurring course on that topic at two liberal arts colleges in New England, for the most part satisfied with the results of what I saw—what I had been disciplined to see—as the field’s work of dismantling largely (though not necessarily) underlying white, western assumptions. My training as a historian ensured that I first made very clear to students that a gendered narrative history of the Middle East actually existed, but I also sought to break down problematic notions around interdisciplinary questions of agency, empowerment, and intersections of the political, among other issues.
As scholars have pointed out elsewhere, the way this field is taught in the United States is saturated in the long history of empire, both its material realities and its discursive productions. I was nevertheless unprepared when I first arrived at AUB and offered that course to mostly Lebanese and other Arab graduate students who were educated, socialized, and politicized within the region. Suddenly, those texts I had critically understood inside and out, that I had relied on to do certain kinds of pedagogical work (itself political and gendered), fell flat. Students invariably found many of the questions those texts asked, the methods they promoted, the conclusions they offered, at best irrelevant to their lived experiences, at worst completely problematic. They resisted or rejected them. What ensued was a semester-long struggle between that incredible group of students and me. I challenged them to grapple with and acknowledge that the scholarship was in fact doing important work. They in turn pushed me to truly reckon—for what felt like the first time—with the tangible, on-the-ground ramifications of the field’s Euro-American epistemologies and their profound impact on knowledge production. That struggle provoked, in a new way, the very serious question of who is the audience for this—or any—academic field? How can academic research speak to residents and inhabitants of this region? And what are the long- term political implications if this field remains an echo chamber, dismissed and disregarded by those whose lives it is supposedly studying, and for whose benefit we often claim to be doing this work? Where is the accountability?
Later iterations of this course have since seen it overhauled in a way that might best be described as a compromise from that first semester. Thereby, the field’s genealogy is acknowledged and taught, but with much more room for untranslated primary sources, as well as more space to think about how can students ask and research questions that matter to those who will continue to live in the Middle East. These students are demanding a paradigm shift in knowledge production such that it shapes their lives after and outside of the classroom.
History, Cornell University
In 2019, I had the opportunity to teach Ottoman history courses at the American University of Beirut after having taught at Cornell University for close to seven years. I was excited to teach an introduction to Ottoman history, especially as Beirut had been a major Ottoman provincial capital a little over a century ago. I quickly learned that many of my assumptions about students’ background knowledge and their engagement with the region’s history were far from reality. For example, I assumed that concepts I had been trained to think of as “basic” pertaining to claims made by the Ottoman state – namely, a foundational understanding of early Islamic history – were perhaps not so basic; the vast majority of students were unfamiliar with these concepts despite many of them having studied local history during their elementary and secondary education. Those who did grasp concepts received them through their religious education and as such Islamic history was not to be questioned or thought of historical events and thus open to interpretation and debate. Adjusting to the new students meant in practice a the total redesign of the syllabus, with the result that I doubled the introductory sections I usually allot for this course. Why? This unlearning/learning had to happen through analytical and critical thinking about this period of Ottoman Islamic history. Learning and practicing the skill of analyzing and critically reflecting on texts was one of the most challenging aspects of communicating how to critically study this history to students in the Middle East who thought they already knew it. The disconnect, I slowly discovered, was about the notion that all that has to do with the past of the region was not thought of as a complex history to be discussed and debated as a part of the study of the humanities, but an ideologically charged topic to be avoided or to never be discussed in mixed company. Breaking through this barrier and getting the diverse student body to understand that they can and should take ownership of their own history and historical narratives about the region was the biggest challenge and probably the most important aspect of teaching the history of the Middle East in the Middle East.