Who needs Arabic?

From Martin Kramer, “Arabic Panic,” Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2002, pp. 88-95. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

Berkeley’s administration, from the chancellor down, squirmed in May when The Wall Street Journal published the description of an upcoming English department course entitled “The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance.”13 Deconstruct this:

The brutal Israeli military occupation of Palestine, an occupation that has been ongoing since 1948 [sic], has systematically displaced, killed, and maimed millions of Palestinian people. And yet, from under the brutal weight of the occupation, Palestinians have produced their own culture and poetry of resistance. This class will examine the history of the Palestinian resistance and the way that it is narrated by Palestinians in order to produce an understanding of the intifada and to develop a coherent political analysis of the situation. This class takes as its starting point the right of Palestinians to fight for their own self-determination. Conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections.

These last two sentences set off a firestorm, since they so obviously contradicted every norm of intellectual exchange. They also violated the university’s own Faculty Code of Conduct. Out they went, the very next day. If the criticism doesn’t die down, it’s possible that the rest of the description will be cleaned up. But that won’t be enough. This match of subject and instructor still raises serious questions about Berkeley’s standards.

Palestinian poetry is a legitimate subject for instruction, but not by anyone. This poetry is written in Arabic, which is rich in poetic expression. A student need not know Arabic to study it, at least on an undergraduate level. But it should never be taught by anyone who can’t read the originals with ease. If you can’t unravel the multi-layered Arabic of Mahmud Darwish, the foremost Palestinian poet, you have no business standing in front of a classroom and teaching his oeuvre. Such malpractice is particularly indefensible at those very institutions where Arabic language and literature are well represented on the faculty, as they are at Berkeley.

Who did Berkeley’s English department entrust with teaching this complex material? A 26-year-old Indo-American graduate student, one Snehal Shingavi, whose doctoral dissertation, if and when it is finished, will deal with pre-independence Indian fiction from 1917 to 1947. His qualifications? He is a militant activist in Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) (and also in the United Students against Sweatshops, the Stop the War Coalition, and the International Socialist Organization). He has been spotted wearing a kafiyyeh.14 To judge from his course syllabus, he has read a lot of Edward Said. And in April, he received a police citation for blocking entry during the SJP’s takeover of a campus building. End of résumé.

Mr. Shingavi is an authority—on agitprop. Do you need to defend yourself against pepper spray? “With pepper spray,” Shingavi advises, “you want to first rub the area with alcohol to bring the oil up, and then with water to flush the skin out.”15 That sounds authoritative. But he is utterly unqualified to teach anything to anybody about the poetry of the Palestinian resistance. “If you can’t accept that Palestinians have the right to self-determination, it is impossible to read resistance poetry,” stated Shingavi.16 Nonsense. What is true is that it is impossible to teach resistance poetry if you can’t really read it.

When The Wall Street Journal carried the offending course description, Berkeley took heat from conservatives and supporters of Israel—and rightly so. But it seems to me that the professional instructors of Arabic literature have equal grounds for complaint. If major universities can get away with employing campus agitators to teach Arabic literature, the future prospects for this field are grim. “There are usually just two positions in Arabic language and literature every year,” notes a Harvard professor of Arabic. “A very good year is three.”17 This column urges the American Association of Teachers of Arabic and the American Comparative Literature Association to register their displeasure with Berkeley’s employment of a scab. If the comp lit pros don’t speak up now, let them not lament when the only jobs left for their graduates are chasing terrorists.

13 Roger Kimball, “The Intifada Curriculum,” The Wall Street Journal, May 11, 2002.
14 Rory Miller, “UC Berkeley: A Safe Harbor for Hate,” FrontPageMagazine.com, May 13, 2002, at http://frontpagemag.com/guestcolumnists2002/miller05-13-02.htm.
15 Quote in “The Battle for What?,” ThinkCurrent.com, Oct. 2000, at http://www.thinkcurrent.com/mag-10-00/politics/students2.html.
16 The Daily Californian, May 10, 2002.
17 William Granara, quoted by Wilson, “Interest in the Islamic World.”