Omnia El Shakry (ed.), Understanding and Teaching the Modern Middle East (University of Wisconsin Press, 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?
Omnia El Shakry (OES): A few years ago, John Tully, one of the editors of the Harvey Goldberg Understanding and Teaching History series at the University of Wisconsin Press, contacted me to see if I might be interested in editing a volume on the modern Middle East. The idea behind the Harvey Goldberg Series books is to create volumes specifically designed for both high school teachers and college instructors in order to bring people up to speed on the latest scholarship; to provide a bit of chronology and basic narrative; and to suggest practical, innovative, and effective pedagogical strategies for the classroom. What I really liked about the series and the editors was their commitment to combining both content and pedagogy. In the Middle East studies field, we already have a variety of high-quality textbooks, primary source collections, and books on the contemporary political background of the region. We have far fewer resources for teaching the region that directly address pedagogical issues, while emphasizing longue-durée processes that span a wide geographical scope. For example, in her chapter Sara Pursley encourages teachers to question the sharp divide between European colonial rule up to the middle of the twentieth century and US imperial power after it, and Sherene Seikaly helps teachers frame their discussion of Israel/Palestine philosophically by thinking about the production of silences in history. The volume thus provides concrete strategies for teaching by outlining the principal existing debates and interpretations within the historical literature, and directs teachers towards the best available and most relevant primary and secondary sources—textual and audiovisual.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
OES: Understanding and Teaching the Modern Middle East is divided into four parts. Part I focuses on the challenges that teachers face in the classroom, including the difficulties of demarcating the boundaries of the Middle East (Michael Gasper), as well as strategies for addressing controversial subject matter (Omnia El Shakry). Part II provides teachers with background for imparting historical content. With the exception of a magisterial survey on the legacy of Islam in the region (Ovamir Anjum), the remaining essays focus on the modern period spanning the mid-late nineteenth century up through and including the 1979 Iranian revolution. They range from synthetic accounts of colonialism (Sara Pursley) and decolonization (Muriam Haleh Davis) to more targeted discussions of knotted issues in modern Middle East history, such as sectarianism (Ussama Makdisi) and Israel/Palestine (Sherene Seikaly). In the final chapter of that section, Naghmeh Sohrabi and Arielle Gordon, a teacher and former student team, take us through the Iranian Revolution by drawing in the perspectives of the State, the Opposition, and the People; and by discussing the role of Shiʿism together with contending nationalist, anticolonial, Marxist, socialist, and Third Worldist discourses.
In Part III we turn to understanding the contemporary Middle East, with chapters on US foreign policy (Nathan Citino); America, oil, and war (Toby Craig Jones); the Global War on Terror (Darryl Li); Arab uprisings (Asef Bayat); and refugees in and from the Middle East (Rochelle Davis). Part IV explores a variety of methods and sources for teaching, with chapters covering literature (Elliott Colla); cinema (Kamran Rastegar); gender and sexuality (Hanan Hammad); the Jewish modern Middle East (Alma Rachel Heckman); and the Armenian genocide and the politics of knowledge (Christine Philliou). The last two chapters of the book are especially noteworthy in their hands-on approach to teaching. Kit Adam Wainer takes the document-based question as a central pedagogical strategy and homes in on two key events: the 1951–1953 Mossadegh project to nationalize oil in Iran and the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis in Egypt. Ziad Abu-Rish’s “Keeping Current” ends our volume and helps teachers navigate the rapid-fire pace of current events in the Middle East, providing instructors with the necessary methods and sources for adjudicating the plethora of digital, social, and other news media about the region. Finally, chapters end with a list of “Key Resources” that educators can use.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
OES: This is an edited volume so it is, by definition, fundamentally different than either of the monographs that I have written. First, the project itself was by necessity far more collaborative from start to finish. Understanding and Teaching the Modern Middle East has twenty-one authors (myself included), which means that there was a tremendous amount of coordination, cooperation, and compromise involved. I really did my utmost to bring together a talented and diverse group of scholars who could bring expertise and nuance to discussions of historical content and teaching. I was wonderfully assisted by Andrea Miller and Stephen Cox, both of whom were extraordinarily helpful in managing every aspect of the project. Second, since this is a book about pedagogy it brings up very distinct issues. Most academics are accustomed to writing original scholarship based on primary sources or to synthesizing secondary scholarship, but writing about pedagogy is quite different. You have to imagine an audience of fellow educators who are familiar with general historical plot lines, but who may need additional information on specific historiographies, recommendations for sources, and suggestions for how to approach sensitive material. Finally, I worked on the book while on leave and so it was an opportunity to contemplate what teaching truly means, as an ethical and intellectual vocation. I realized that as teachers we learn as much from our students as they learn from us.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
OES: Understanding and Teaching the Modern Middle East aims to transform how the modern Middle East is taught in the United States. I hope that educators, broadly understood to include K–12 and college teachers, will benefit from the volume. There are multiple ways teachers can use this book. First, it can be read by teachers and students to supplement textbooks, in the sense that many of the chapters help contextualize broader historical processes (colonialism, nationalism, decolonization, the Cold War, US foreign policy) within wider historiographies. Authors address both history and our present in ways that are complex and nuanced, and they address specialized topics in greater depth than is possible within a textbook. Second, teachers can use the volume to help prepare their lectures, select assigned readings and audiovisual materials, and create classroom assignments and exercises. For example, Muriam Haleh Davis shares one of her classroom exercises on decolonization: having students examine education, landholding patterns, and so forth, in the immediate aftermath of independence prior to drafting a five-year plan. Kamran Rastegar’s chapter helps teachers develop a critical literacy around films as historical documents, by reflecting on various film cultures in the region (feature and documentary) and by outlining the history of filmmaking in and about the Middle East. Finally, I think the book as a whole can be used in secondary school and college teacher training programs. Teaching the modern Middle East requires humility and I think everyone, ranging from seasoned academics to people who have never taught the region before, will have something to learn thanks to the intellectual generosity of the contributors.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
OES: COVID-19 has upended all of our research plans, so I am trying to be as flexible (and cautiously optimistic!) as possible. To that end, I am currently working in parallel on two research tracks. One project, conceived of as a series of articles, deepens my work on the history of psychoanalysis. I engage psychoanalysis geopolitically by way of an exploration into the oeuvre of Sami-Ali, the Arabic translator of Sigmund Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, author of a large body of original psychoanalytic writings, and translator of the poetry of Sufi masters.
I have also started working on a book length project, Encountering Traditions, that explores the historical emergence of comparative religious philosophy in the intellectual exchange between Muslim and Catholic scholars in modern Egypt. Specifically, I want to examine the co-constitution of modern philosophy and theology by looking at intellectual encounters and inter-religious friendships.
J: Is there anything missing in the book?
OES: As with any edited volume, very difficult choices and unexpected changes were made all along the way. There are two ways to approach the question of omission. One is empirical, i.e. specific content that is missing. For instance, there are no separate chapters on the Kurds (and on other particular minorities), on race in the region (although I address this in the Preface), on labor and class politics, or on intra-regional rivalries and geo-political interventions, to name a few. That said, several authors speak to these issues, for example, by reconceptualizing the minority question, by theorizing questions of race, and by weaving in class or intra-regional politics within their chapters. The second way to think about omission is conceptual. I note that “it would be disingenuous, particularly in these ‘times of war and death’ to pretend that the forces of European colonial violence, US military invasions and occupations, and Middle Eastern state sponsored repression, have not profoundly shaped and reshaped the region in the current moment.” And yet, I wish there had been more opportunity to elaborate on the creative elements that characterize the modern Middle East and to share new ways of imagining the region. We catch glimpses of it everywhere, but I wish there had been space to include chapters on the history of ideas, on music, art, and poetry, and on the anthropology of religion, to name but a few topics. I will have to leave it to others, though, to address such gaps, omissions, and aporias in their future works.
Excerpt from the book
Introduction: The Middle East in the World
A crowd of students huddled around the wiry figure of Egyptian author Sonallah Ibrahim as they clamored for his interpretation of the enigmatic and devastating final sentence of his 1981 novel, The Committee, a parable of state power and terror in which an unnamed protagonist stands before a shadowy tribunal. We had spent the last two hours listening to his formative experiences in an Egyptian prison from 1959 to 1964, when he himself was not much older than the undergraduates in the audience. His lecture perfectly complemented discussions in our course, The Middle East in the Twentieth Century, on the Faustian bargain struck under Gamal Abdel Nasser (r. 1954–1970)—the exchange of democratic political liberties for extensive social welfare programs—and on the dire socioeconomic consequences of Egypt’s transition to infitah, the so-called open-door economic policies inaugurated by Anwar al-Sadat in 1974. Students had become well aware of the stakes of political dissidence in the wider Middle East region in the postcolonial period, but also of the oftentimes ambiguous and ambivalent nature of artistic expression. Just the week prior, we had spent time analyzing ʿAbd al-Hadi al-Gazzar’s paintings—anxious visions of techno-political utopias that traversed the early exuberance of anticolonial nationalism and a later pessimism toward the Nasserist project.
When we returned to the classroom, we contemplated the meaning of decolonization in this context. Students were already familiar with Edward Said’s definition of Orientalism “as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient,” one that created an ontological and epistemological distinction between East and West. But how were we to make sense of the internal dynamics of Middle Eastern societies, particularly in the period after independence, in a post-Orientalist fashion?
One might argue that, for us as historians, the principal challenge is to imagine the region outside of the commonplace assumptions about modern Middle Eastern societies, namely that they are best defined by a series of absences ornegations—the lack of “authentic” nation-states, capitalism, democracy, secularism, human rights, and so forth. Against the hegemony of these Orientalist narratives, we can encourage students to understand history as a far more complex process of contingency and contradiction, for example, by grasping the contemporaneity of modernity and tradition. This style of thinking encourages students to move away from conceiving of history in terms of simple oppositions, such as capitalism or socialism, democracy or despotism, religion or secularism, and instead grasp historical processes in the elegance of their complexity. History emerges, then, as the unstable play of forces, rather than the unfolding of teleological logics. More concretely, this means viewing the Middle East as shaped by dynamic internal and external power relations—between elite and subaltern classes; between religious and secular groups; and between Middle Easterners, Europeans, and Americans.
Situating the Middle East within world history provides a way to break free from Orientalist thinking by emphasizing historical comparability. That is to say, when we study the Middle East we can study it in ways comparable to that of other regions. This means instead of emphasizing exceptionalism—the notion that the Middle East is different from other parts of the world—we may emphasize comparability. For example, we can focus on many of the themes that thread through world history more broadly by looking at histories of capitalism; colonialism; racial formations; the contours of cultural modernism, anticolonial nationalism, and postcolonial revolutionary movements; struggles around class and gender; and political contests over state power.
Comparability does not, of course, mean sameness. No two societies or histories can be the same, and there is no need to homogenize the study of the Middle East in terms of an undifferentiated notion of culture or civilization. As such, teachers will notice that many of our contributors mobilize specific case studies—for example, Algeria and Egypt—in order to highlight the heterogeneity of the various historical roads taken in the modern era. Both nations were past provinces of the Ottoman Empire, and in the nineteenth century the former became a French settler colony that was later marked by violent decolonization, while the latter was characterized by British indirect rule and negotiated decolonization. Indeed, we must study the social and political heterogeneity of the Modern Middle East through the trajectories of distinct colonial and semicolonial encounters, anticolonial nationalist revolutions, and postcolonial national regimes.
Thus, to provide a specific example, in discussing the postcolonial regime of Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser, we can pay careful attention to how the regime was politically situated both globally and locally. The nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 drew France, the United Kingdom, Israel, and Egypt into armed conflict and the Americans and Soviets into negotiations. The Suez Crisis may thus be seen as a pinnacle moment that brought together both the geopolitics of decolonization and the Cold War, as well as the particularity of Egyptian struggles over the sovereignty of the canal zone. It signaled larger Third World struggles over the control of natural resources, comparable to earlier events in Iran in 1951–1953 and later nationalization movements across the globe. At the same time, it would be a mistake to define Nasserism solely in terms of the Suez Crisis.
We can explore the regime locally as simultaneously emancipatory and regulatory; land reform and social welfare programs aspired to make a better standard of living accessible to all, in tandem with an oftentimes ruthless repression of political initiatives from below. This combination of dominance and hegemony may be addressed through Partha Chatterjee’s creative reformulation of Antonio Gramsci’s insights on passive revolution as a general framework for thinking about postcolonial transformations. Students parse the socialist rhetoric embedded in Nasser’s speeches in conjunction with clips from the documentary Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt, on Umm Kulthum, the iconic diva of modern Arabic music whose songs became intimately connected to Pan-Arabism in the 1950s and 1960s. Such screenings provide a visual and acoustic sense of the cultural contours of postcolonial nationalism as we try to make sense of those heady days of the postwar era. In this way, students view the region as shaped by both exogenous and endogenous political, social, and cultural forces. […]
While no single edited volume can do justice to the modern history of a region as vast and diverse as the Middle East, Understanding and Teaching the Modern Middle East aims to provide teachers with the foundational background knowledge, as well as concrete pedagogical strategies, for substantively addressing the region in the classroom. To address historical nuance and complexity, all of our authors synthesize and engage a wide historiography, while introducing a diverse range of sources, whether primary or secondary, written or audiovisual. Taken together, chapters encourage teachers to address the history of the region not as a “problem” or as a series of wars and conflicts but as a dynamic nexus of political, social, religious, and intellectual forces that have shaped the countries of the Middle East, a trend that we can only hope will continue.
From Understanding and Teaching the Modern Middle East edited by Omnia El Shakry. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2020 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.