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‘Who I am,’ with little predictability

Gary Wasserman teaches government at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

After teaching in the Middle East for six years, I have learned to be very tentative in drawing conclusions about my students’ identities and what they mean.

Most attempts to introduce and explain the “Arab Spring” to global audiences use terms that are designed to cover large groups of people and what they think, believe and act on. So we have “Islamists” and “fundamentalists,” who are usually portrayed as the bad guys. They are opposed by “secularists,” “students” and “moderates,” or even the “Twitter generation.” People everywhere use these categories and, from them, generate conclusions and hope for insights. But as a non-expert expatriate living in the region, I pause when confronted with how badly even the clearest identities apply.

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We at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar are praised, or condemned, as Americans teaching Arabs. Fair enough. Yet even as these descriptions reveal something, they conceal more.

When analysts point to, say, the clash of civilizations or declare the inevitability of ethnic conflicts or the need for inter-religious dialogue, they frequently ignore the fact that all of us are many different things. The question “Who are you?” has a multiple-choice answer. Many replies are equally correct and often changing. My students share many identities. Some separate us; some unite us.

Beyond being an American, I am their professor, in a culture that honors teachers. I am older; my students are younger. We have different family loyalties. I and some of my students are men; others are women. We differ in religions, but some of us are devout and others not at all. Politically, we are liberal, conservative, radical, reactionary. We may share an interest in politics, a desire to make money, similar tastes in clothes, art and music. We may laugh at the same jokes, cry at the same movies, grow angry at the same injustices.

To isolate any of these multiple identities, focusing on one over the others, is to detach ourselves from our complexity as well as from the multi-dimensional people we are trying to understand. We may simplify the other into a militant fanatic or a benevolent saint. But whatever benefits or “certainty” such categories produce, they force us to choose among the limbs of a body, the thoughts in a mind and the feelings in each others’ hearts.

Consider the simplest of questions. I am sometimes asked whom I teach. This is difficult to answer. Most of my students are Muslim; many women cover their hair. But what conclusions can be drawn from appearances? They come from Bosnia and Bangladesh. There are Lebanese Maronites, Armenians, Palestinian Christians and a member of a Gulf royal family who bragged of his Yemenite Jewish grandmother. Students dressed in traditional robes will casually mention their indifference to religion. In the school yearbook some students have declared a fondness for Lady Gaga, loyalty to hip-hop and an eagerness to live in Paris.

I am not even sure how many Americans I teach. One bright student looked Somali, had an Islamic last name and spoke American English. Only outside of class did I learn that she was raised in West Virginia and was a loyal fan of the state university’s Mountaineers football team.

The families of these global teens expand the idea of mixed marriages. One young man is the eldest son of a Palestinian doctor and a Polish nurse. His politics are unpredictable. A young colleague told me about her first day teaching him. Fresh from her progressive Ivy League graduate school, she was eager to show these Middle Eastern students her sympathies for the region. To her, this meant a lecture critical of U.S. foreign policy. After class, this male student approached and asked: “Is this course going to be typical anti-imperialist, anti-American drivel?” A neoconservative, he dropped her class.

Another student took three of my classes, and we ended up in a one-on-one senior tutorial for American studies. He did an excellent paper comparing newspaper stings in the United States and India. Shortly before he graduated, an Egyptian teacher remarked that she often got into arguments with him in Islamic studies because he was a strong Wahhabi fundamentalist. I had no inkling of his religious views. Nor did I need to. My former student is now working his way up the management ladder of an American oil company.

It says more about us than those in the Middle East that the concepts we use to understand people like my students don’t capture their diversity. Our own fears and interests shape our understanding of the events and people in this part of the world. Accordingly, we shouldn’t be surprised that policies based on these limited perceptions seldom produce the results that we intend.

 
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