Blogs > Cliopatria > The plight of Iraqi Historians (Part 2)

Jun 1, 2004 11:11 am

The plight of Iraqi Historians (Part 2)

In October of last year, I met the President of Mustansiriya University in, of all places, the Frankfurt Book Fair. Mustansiriya is one of the better-known Universities in Baghdad, situated right next to the campus of the Liberal Arts College of Baghdad University. The President of Mustansiriya, Dr. Taha Al-Bakka’, is an affable, genial man whose popularity with the faculty was such that that he was elected the first President of the University in the postwar period.

I asked Professor Al-Bakka’ what had changed since the Americans’ entry into the city. He thought for awhile and then enumerated the courses that had been abolished (all more or less Baathist propaganda) and the courses that had been freshly created, such as those examining the history of Kurdistan or that of Shi’i thought. Then he said, “The Americans want to send our students and professors abroad for study on American scholarships. Should they go?”

I was surprised at the question. My first response was to think beyond ideology, and reply immediately,“Of course,“ I said,"They will be getting first-class educations”. Professor Al-Bakka’ was silent, and then he said, “There’s something else. Now the Americans want us to teach American Studies. I don’t understand that at all. We teach American history, for heaven’s sake, so why do we have to teach it again under a different guise?”.

I tried to explain that American Studies was, in some ways, a different approach, whose practitioners incorporated a larger definition for the field. The operational word, I explained, was" culture" but I was unsure as to whether American culture would be taught as an exceptionalist current in which the rise of American power was seen as all but inevitable, or as a historical phenomenon in which stress would be on laid on showing that world cultures had as much influence on America as America had on the rest of the world.

I don't know what approach was taken. However, I noticed that one of the subjects for which the newly-reopened Fulbright program was to recruit students for was in fact American Studies. I have full confidence that, left alone, the Fulbright program would take a more nuanced approach. But I wonder whether the ideologues in the CPA would leave this to chance. They haven't done so for practically everything else, so why should this be any different?

POSTSCRIPT: As of today, Tuesday 1rst of June 2004, Dr. Al-Bakka' is the new Minister of Higher Education in Iraq!

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Jonathan Dresner - 5/31/2004

Actually, I'm a terrible haiku writer, in the classic sense. But I'm a pretty good improvisational writer, parodist and satirist, and those are important part of the traditions which I'm trying to reclaim for our far too literal and serious-minded society.

Hala Fattah - 5/31/2004

Dear Jonathan,
I'm so happy for you that you love your chosen profession and you have no regrets. Truth be told, I only wavered when I was in my pre-dissertation stage but I think its normal, we're all isolated and confused at that point. But I too love history, and the funniest thing is that I've been through terribly adverse situations where I've been told I'm in the wrong field because its not a money-maker but I've always resisted changing into something else. This blogging is heaven-sent because it allows me to write historical vignettes that don't fit elsewhere, and its deeply satisfying at the same time.
So you must be an accomplished haiku writer!

Jonathan Dresner - 5/31/2004

I got lucky....

Really, my father was sent to Nagoya for a one-year assignment (he worked/works for a defense contractor), and on assignments like that the family gets to come along and the company (really, the client) pays for it. It was my senior year of HS, and I didn't know what else I wanted to do with my life.... when it came time to look at colleges, I picked one with a strong Japanese language program, and did four years as a language/culture student. In my senior year I was looking at graduate schools, and for lack of better understanding of the social sciences, I thought history was a good way to study the things I was interested in. Turned out that it was (though others have since done much better work on my originally concieved question than I ever could) and as an added bonus I absolutely love being a historian! I think like a historian, I love good historical questions and I can't really deal with a current issue comfortably until I understand its roots (though sometimes I choose to ignore those roots).

I've lived in Japan for a few years over the last two decades: a year in HS, a year in college and a year doing graduate work. But I really feel more like a historian and teacher than a Japanologist most days (then I get to go to a conference and talk to grown-ups who understand my work, and it shifts the other way for a while).

I love my chosen profession, I really do. I'm an odd duck in most professional situations, but that doesn't bother me most of the time.

Hala Fattah - 5/31/2004

Hi Jonathan,
So my question would be: how did you get interested in Japanese History? I guess its a dumb question, because I've met a lot of Americans (and even Chinese and Japanese) that study Ottoman/Arab history too but its always interesting to me how the initial spark in a field transforms your whole life. A friend of mine, originally from Oklahoma, became a Middle Eastern historian after seeing the film, "Lawrence of Arabia!" I,myself,lived abroad for a long time and wanted to rediscover my "roots" (Did you know that roots change along with your perceptions of them?)

Jonathan Dresner - 5/30/2004


My position isn't all that odd, for an Asianist in an American university. But I really am an historian, and teach my courses in history. It's just that my students, certainly, and the non-academic public, expect me to be an expert on things contemporary and artistic as well. And I'm interested, but certainly not enough to teach some of this stuff.

That said, I did teach a mini-term course on Japanese poetry a few years back that I'd love to repeat sometime: I love the public exchange/group production model of Japanese poetry society, though the incredibly self-referential symbology is tiresome.

I've never applied to jobs that would require me to teach language: I know just enough about language teaching to think that I'd probably be pretty bad at it. But I do teach all of Asian history (actually I teach the whole World, but that's another course and another discussion), and I'm the only person here who has any interest in Korea (working on that course, still), or teaches any Chinese history (outside of a political scientist).

Give it a few more years, and with increased interest in Middle and Near Eastern studies, and the generalist Ottoman scholar will join the generalist Asianist as a thing largely of the past. But our teaching will always be more broad than our scholarship.

Hala Fattah - 5/30/2004

Dear Jonathan,
I think your position is somewhat unique! I don't know that many US historians that teach Japanese Studies (I guess thats what you would call it, if its not entirely history) but at the same time, you do fit a rubric that historians of the Ottoman Empire fall into all the time. That is, if they study the "core" Empire, they probably teach the language, literature as well as history of the place, and if they're studying the "provinces" (ie Eastern Europe or the Arab region), then they also get dragged into teaching contemporary Arab politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict etc etc.

But I wonder if Japanese Studies contains within it an exceptionalist view of the world, or is it really only concentrated in American Studies, because of its somewhat unique status as a unilateralist power. And, as you said, its funny that this would be something that gets taught in Iraq, more so than other more necessary specialties. Time will tell, I guess, if Iraqis grow to understand the US better through a zip past American culture from the 1900's to the present.
Thanks for your comment,

Jonathan Dresner - 5/30/2004

The emphasis on "American Studies" is pretty much what the Fulbright program does, I think, at least in large part. But as you point out, there are other, more critical needs that should be addressed through other mechanisms.

I'm sympathetic to the American Studies problem, though: as a Japanese historian in an American university, I am a member of the history department (and we're too small for this, but in larger departments I'd be somewhat marginalized by my lack of common interests with Euro-American historians) with whom I share a methodology but not interests, and a member of the Japanese Studies faculty, with whom I share interests, but not methodologies. I'm also expected to be a Japanophile, which really isn't the case (I'm not a Japanophobe, either, which makes me kind of unusual, actually, though less so), and an expert on everything Japanese, not just history.

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