That was The Conference that Was
Ten days ago, our conference on Iraqi history and identity came to an end. It was full of surprises. I had asked two journalists from internationally renowned papers not to attend because I was worried that our Iraqi participants would feel threatened by Western exposure which might reflect badly on them on their return. Instead, the opening session, chaired by His Royal Highness Prince Hassan bin Talal, attracted a frenzy of television reporters, and at least one Arab satellite channel. I was sitting at the main table feeling completely bewildered when a friendly conference participant pointed out that some of our Iraqi guests were happily being interviewed! Holy Smoke! Serves me right for being such a sap.
Then there was the meeting of minds thing. The mixture of Iraqi academics and Western scholars was meant to produce a collegial exchange between academicians involved in researching Iraq, and its culture, society and state. Instead there were sharp altercations between theoretically inclined historians from the US who rubbished some Iraqis’ empirical research, as well as a collective shudder of disdain on the part of the Iraqis for some of the more arcane flights of fancy produced by Western historians of Iraq. There was also a complete collapse of civility after one Iraqi historian implied that Shi’ism was primarily an Iranian phenomenon in Iraq; the rebuke to his statement was so severe and so sarcastic that it completely went over the Iraqi historian’s head. Meanwhile, a paper on the role of women in Baathist Iraq was completely savaged by the Iraqis because it dared to touch on the very real phenomenon of prostitution under the sanctions regime. “Our women are virtous!” thundered an Iraqi participant, completely misunderstanding the import of the panelist’s findings. Finally, a panel on the famous coup d’etat of the late politician Rashid Ali al-Gaylani in 1941 produced impassioned first-hand testimonies from some of the older Iraqis in the audience, which met with a bemused silence from some of the Western contingent of historians. The conference was turning into street theater, which did not please everyone.
On the whole, however, it went well. There was a great deal of interest on the part of some Western historians to strike up communication with the Iraqis and I believe some promising initiatives were introduced. Books were exchanged, umpteen cups of coffee were drunk, and late at night, the Iraqis were able to recount their plight to friendly and receptive ears. For some of the Iraqi scholars, it was a mind-blowing experience : they could hardly believe that there were so many Western scholars interested in their history. For American, European and Japanese historians, archaeologists, sociologist and anthropologists, it was a chance to practice their fluent Arabic and receive hearty congratulations for mastering such a “difficult” language.
As the Chinese sage said: “ The longest journey begins with the first step”. I’m glad that we held the conference, and I know that more of these meetings will reduce the journey’s length considerably.
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Hala Fattah - 1/19/2005
Yes, we hope to badger enough conference participants to send us their finished papers so that we can edit and send them to Cambridge U. Press or, possibly, Palgrave-MacMillan. The Arabic-language papers can be published as well. There is really a feeling that there's a market for such publications.
Ralph E. Luker - 1/19/2005
Hala, Thanks so much for this report on your conference. What a timely coup! It sounds like it was quite an event. It's no wonder that you were exhausted from the effort and the experience. I hope that it can still result in a publication of the conference proceedings.
Hala Fattah - 1/19/2005
Thanks, Jonathan. I slept for a week afterwards!
Jonathan Dresner - 1/19/2005
Thanks for reporting, but more for organizing this gathering. I think, in a way, that your commentary -- coming out of your role as someone familiar with and sympathetic to both camps -- can be an important part of bridging the gaps you so vividly chronicle.
It sounds so much more fun and productive than the meeting I went to....
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