Ammar Abdulhamid in senile Syria

Ammar Abdbulhamid, the Syrian reformer and dissident, is the subject of a profile in this morning’s New York Times. Abdulhamid is a courageous spokesman for progressive change in the Arab world, who’s also drawn attention to the obligation of governments to protect minorities a point on which Arab regimes historically have had an appalling record. Abdulhamid appeared together with me at The Washington Institute last December, and we shared a panel on the theme of what happens “When Minorities Rule.” Here’s a summary of his forthright remarks, devoted largely to Syria. (And here’s a summary and full text of my own presentation.)

Abdulhamid returned to Damascus last month (he had done a stint at the Saban Center), and he started a blog, here. It’s got exactly one entry, in which he reports that his travel has been restricted:

It’s been 20 days since our return to the Senile Country. A cold security reception at the airport set the tone of this homecoming, more or less, and culminated in a travel ban. Still, seeing the kids at the airport was absolutely rejuvenating.

The travel ban is not total, that is, I can still travel if I want, provided that I get a security clearance before I leave and report back upon my return.

Oh, of all the stupid things they could do? Did they really think they can put me on a leash? Did they think that I’d accept, that I’d cooperate? Well, they have another thing coming. I happen to be very much fond of the idea of staying at home at this stage and cutting down on travel time. I have proposals and articles to write, a team to enlarge, conferences to plan and people to hassle. This is going to be a productive year, a very productive year for all of us here.

Sandbox will track his adventures closely.

Update: Abdulhamid has made another blog entry, his second, this Sunday morning. Today he had a meeting with the Military Security Apparatus, and he goes back tomorrow. (The brigadier general was too busy to see him…)

Ivory Towers 101

I’m keenly interested in the way my book Ivory Towers on Sand is used in university-level courses on the Middle East. Here are two recent examples turned up by a quick search.

This past fall, Professor Rex Brynen, a political scientist at McGill University, assigned the book toward the end of his course on “Middle East Politics.” Brynen, who reviewed my book in the Middle East Journal (he didn’t like it), taught it alongside the 2003 Middle East Studies Association (MESA) presidential address by Lisa Anderson. Rex, I hope you did me justice. Syllabus here.

A fall course at the University of Arizona (headquarters of MESA) dealt with “Middle East Studies: Approaches, Themes and Controversies.” Professor Michael Bonine, a geographer, coordinated the course, which incorporated lectures by an array of faculty members from different departments. The syllabus mentions only one required reading, Ivory Towers, although other readings were to be assigned as the course progressed. The book probably loomed large toward the end of the semester, in two sessions on “Middle East Studies in Crisis?” (Is that really a question?) Syllabus here.

I don’t imagine I got much sympathy from the instructors in either course, but I commend them for making space for a dissenting view. If you assigned the book this past fall, or are using it this spring, send me the link. I might mention your course here, and your syllabus will become famous.

Profs say the darndest things (about Columbia)

“Columbia has a lot of diversity in the professors teaching about the Middle East, even politically.” That’s Joel Migdal, president of the Association for Israel Studies and a political scientist at the University of Washington. It’s the most inane thing yet retailed about Columbia’s Middle East faculty, and it shows how incredibly fungible the notion of “diversity” is within academe. Migdal’s last name means “tower,” and he seems to inhabit one.

I’d be interested to hear Professor Migdal elaborate on his statement to explain, with his rigorous attention to detail, what distinguishes Joseph Massad’s concept of Israeli racism from Hamid Dabashi’s concept of Israeli racism, or why Massad’s one-state solution is different from Rashid Khalidi’s one-state solution. (To judge from their recent joint appearance, any difference between the two seems to have shrunk appreciably.) And I wonder what he would say to Richard Bulliet, who’s taught Islamic history at Columbia for thirty years, and who now describes the Middle East department as being “locked into a postmodernist, postcolonialist point of view.”

There’s a broader context here. Despite Migdal’s presidential title, he won’t be well-known to you if your sole interest is Israel studies. That’s because he’s best-known as the co-author (with Baruch Kimmerling) of the standard post-Zionist history of the Palestinians. The revised edition is titled The Palestinian People: A History, and it carries the endorsement of Rashid Khalidi (“a dispassionate and balanced analysis”). What all this says about the priorities of Israel studies in America is a subject for another posting.

There was another recent quote that doesn’t contribute to the discussion, this one from Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz in his Columbia speech on Monday. He got the essence of the problem just right: Columbia’s coverage of the Middle East is the most unbalanced of any university in America. But I don’t believe, as Dershowitz is reported to have said, that Edward Said was the “Palestinian Meir Kahane.” Said came to advocate the dissolution of Israel, but he never exalted violence, which is the mark of Kahanism. If Meir Kahane has a parallel, it’s the suicide-cult priests of Hamas (whose “moderation,” of course, is a matter of general consensus among America’s Middle East experts).

In my book Ivory Towers on Sand, I quoted the historian Maxime Rodinson, who said that Said employed a style that was “a bit Stalinist,” and the historian P.J. Vatikiotis, who wrote that “Said introduced McCarthyism into Middle Eastern studies.” Said wasn’t a Palestinian Stalin (there’s another candidate), but a Palestinian McCarthy? Absolutely. What we’ve seen at Columbia among Said’s acolytes is that same underlying McCarthyism, stripped of the veneer of learned respectability that Edward Said gave to everything he touched.

His Arabic is not free of Colecisms

Juan Cole responds to the suggestion that his command of Arabic is less than commanding, after opting for English during an Iraqi elections roundtable on Al-Jazeera:

I know three kinds of Arabic Modern Standard, Lebanese dialect and Egyptian dialect. My Arabic is not free of solecisms because I didn’t start it until I was an adult, and sometimes something from one of the three slips into the other. But I did live in the Arab world nearly six years altogether, and do speak the language.

No one doubts that Cole speaks it. But speaking Arabic, and speaking it on television, involve very different levels of proficiency. A few Westerners, like the French scholar Gilles Kepel and the former U.S. diplomat Christopher Ross, have no problem going on television and gabbing away in the language. I won’t mention names, but I’ve heard that a few more non-Arab Americans can do it, and there are a couple of people on my own hallway who learned Arabic as adults and speak it on Al-Jazeera regularly. Cole prefers not to, and he gives this explanation:

I said I preferred to speak English because the subject required exactitude. I have given more than one interview in Arabic, including on Radio Sawa Iraq. In this instance I felt it was important to have absolute control of nuance, which can only be had in one’s mother tongue.

Three things can be said about that. First, it’s not clear why a give-and-take on Iraqi elections would require an absolute control of nuance, especially if you’re just a pundit with nothing at stake. Second, what’s the point of achieving absolute control of nuance, if it means turning over the reformulation of your entire message to some guy who writes subtitles in Arabic? What if he dents your credibility in the eyes of Arab viewers?

Third, and perhaps most telling, why does Cole think that absolute control of nuance is limited to one’s mother tongue? I know quite a few Arabs whose command of English is better than their command of Arabic, because they’ve taken the trouble to master it. The late Elie Kedourie once caught Arnold Toynbee in some bit of nonsense similar to Cole’s, and he dismissed it as “nativism.” Kedourie:

This nativism cannot possibly account for the rise of such languages as Arabic or English to the status of world languages. Innumerable people received these languages as a result of conquest or commerce or migrations and have learnt to speak and to write them with ease and elegance, and to express, through their medium, the most difficult and elusive ideas, and the most complex and evanescent feelings.

Talking about electoral politics would be the least of it. Kedourie, by the way, spoke the Baghdadi Jewish dialect at home, French as a youngster at school, and only later developed an English that was elegant and precise. His English style was my model, and my own mother tongue is English.

Three factors explain why so few American Middle East experts have paid Arabic the compliment of achieving a high level of expression. First, the language is difficult. Second, there are plenty of polyglot Arabs willing to translate and interpret, at minimal cost. Third, perfect Arabic is less important to career advancement than mastering all the right academic jargon and professing all the right disciplinary dogmas with absolute control of nuance. The first two factors are beyond anyone’s control, but the last can be affected, if government refocuses the Title VI subsidy program for area studies back on languages. I urge Cole, as president-elect of the Middle East Studies Association, to join me in supporting just that.

Finally, Cole offers this supposed behind-the-scenes testimonial from Fouad Ajami:

When we were bantering before the show in Arabic, and I explained how I felt to Fouad Ajami and the others [about speaking in Arabic on television], Fouad quipped that my Arabic was better than some (highly westernized) Arab rulers.

Leave it to Cole to retail a tongue-in-cheek quip made by the quip-master at the expense of American-schooled or London-loving Arab rulers as a compliment to himself. Really.

Commander of Arabic

Juan Cole has taken some delight in smashing pundit Jonah Goldberg, who ventured a one-paragraph criticism of Cole’s take on the Iraqi elections. Cole hammered back that Goldberg knows no Arabic, has no Iraq expertise, hasn’t lived in an Arab country, etc. The spat has been all over the weblogs. Cole draws this analogy:

If you saw an hour-long piece on al-Jazeerah about the reality of the United States, with English subtitles, and the reporter speaking on the U.S. had never been to America, had never read a book about America, did not know a word of English, and moreover said all kinds of things that were complete fantasy and altogether wrong, would that man be someone you would recommend to others as having an important opinion on the matter that millions of people should be exposed to on NPR and CNN every other day?

Quite right. But I see that Cole appeared the other day on Al-Jazeera to discuss the Iraqi elections with Fouad Ajami and an Iraqi opposition figure. Cole decided to speak in English, apologizing to his Arab viewers that “the subject requires precision.” So I guess they gave his remarks Arabic subtitles. Now I wouldn’t dare to speak Arabic on Al-Jazeera either, but then I don’t make the boast that Cole makes: “Unlike a lot of American specialists in the Middle East, who did one Fulbright year and now find their language is rusty, I kept up my Arabic.” His bio also claims that he “commands Arabic.” I guess his Arabic, like mine, doesn’t always obey. I’m a bit disappointed.

Cole also writes in his bio that he’s “lived in a number of places in the Muslim world for extended periods of time,” which is an enviable credential. But the Muslim world is an awfully big place, and to the best of my knowledge, Cole has never been to Iraq. (Ajami, Michael Rubin, and a host of academics have made the trek, some of them repeatedly, over the past couple of years.) So all things considered, I wonder what millions of Arabs who watch Al-Jazeera make of Cole as an expert on the reality of Iraq.

(Here’s an addendum, but only if you know Arabic. It’s a joke I heard ages ago from the late Charles Issawi, a man with an impish sense of humor. I’m sure it’s as old as the Pyramids, but here it is anyway. A Western orientalist goes to Egypt, and strikes up a conversation in Arabic with his taxi driver. The poor driver, after straining to understand his passenger, plaintively asks him how he came to know Arabic. Ana mustashriq! the orientalist answers proudly. In reply to which, the taxi driver mutters: Wa’ana mustaghrib…)

Updates: Read about how Ajami took Cole to task for not visiting Iraq here.

Another update: Cole responds to some of this. Details here.