Last Lecture

The last class is always a challenge. What can I say that best ties together the big issues of the course? Can I say something new, provide novel insights or insightful interpretations for the things we’ve been doing, not be redundant, offer encouragement if not wisdom?  I usually spend a lot of time thinking about what to say during my last chance with the students. And, since we had (rather unconventional) guest speakers all last week, I really wanted to try to work with the students to integrate the guests’ presentations into the rest of the course.

On Friday, five days before my last class, rumors began to circulate that President Obama–and Jimmy Fallon–would be coming to campus. Rumors were confirmed by a Sunday email sent to all faculty asking us not to penalize students absent to see the President of the United States.

The students entered to an interview with the creators of the Egyptian “revolution song” I had shown some weeks earlier. The song is so upbeat, it is terrific to begin on even a rainy day. (President Obama arrived on one of those amazingly beautiful days when the sky really is Carolina blue.)

I began with a quote from an oped I had read just that morning. I wanted to bring home to the students that what we had been doing all semester was not some kind of avoidance of “real education,” the dates, names and places they had learned as “history” before coming to UNC. For both conservatives like David Brooks and for progressives, education is about critical thinking, complex reasoning, and learning to communicate effectively in writing. That was what we had been engaged in all semester. The technologies, the questions, the efforts to get students to think about causes and outcomes, they were all part of that project.

I revisited the mind map, reminding them of the four big questions we had been trying to answer and the ways that events and ideas could be connected to larger questions. Then it was back to those historiographical issues: how do historians do what we do? What is the difference between argument and opinion? How do we analyze evidence?

I really wanted to find out from them how they thought the poetry and music we heard last week could be used as sources for understanding history.  They had read James Gelvin’s Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know. But in class, we had focused on performance and culture: on Tuesday, Will McInerny introduced them to Poetic Portraits of a Revolution and on Thursday, Omar Offendum talked about music and Syria and uprisings and growing up Arab in America.

What role should historians give this kind of information when trying to understand the past? The students were remarkably articulate. One student explained that we can learn about emotions, about fears and hopes, from poetry and music in ways that political economy cannot match. Another emphasized the role of poetry, story-telling, and narration in the history of the Middle East over centuries. And one provided a metaphor. Learning about politics and economy are like studying the banks of a river, he said. They show the shape and direction of history. But to really understand the river, you need to wade in, to feel the temperature of the water and get wet. Poetry and music allow us to do that.

Finally, I turned to the role of the lecturer–me.  Because critical thinking and historical scholarship require the analysis of evidence, I pointed out, lectures are inherently problematic.  I had encouraged them to view me as a source, and I pointed to their digs to remind them of their responsibility. In the course syllabus, I had encouraged students to do brief research in primary sources:  Something you read, I say, or the class analyzes will strike you as inaccurate, outrageous, or otherwise unacceptable. You get credit this semester for proving it wrong (or proving it accurate). You can get up to 5 points for writing a “dig” based on primary sources that will let you bring new information to the debate and give you firsthand experience with how historians write history.  I summarized the 15 digs I had received in which their classmates had taken the initiative to critically engage with course material.

I ended with that David Brooks quote, thanking the TA’s for their remarkable efforts to help the students develop those critical thinking, complex reasoning, and especially, coherent writing skills.  And now they are gone to exams and to summer, some to graduation and new lives.  I hope some of them stop by next year.

Islamic Political Movements

Having begun on Tuesday with a video from DAM, today I showed them one of Subliminal’s videos.

Today’s big issue: Islamic political movements.  One of the four big questions we have been addressing all semester is the nature of the state, and this week they read Naguib Mahfouz’s The Journey of ibn Fattoumeh. The main character journeys the world looking for a just society, noting the variety of states in the world and the ways in which they (do not) adhere to the kind of polity that idealists would have sought.

I began in a different place, though.  What causes human rights violations in the Middle East?  I showed them Wikipedia’s answer (the Douglas Adams fans chortled):

I explained that pundits and policy-makers had been using “Islam” as an explanation for all they find confusing or disturbing about the Middle East.  Instead of providing the sorts of answers we would expect when analyzing uprisings or rioting or government abuses in, say, France, certain public “intellectuals” substitute “Islam” for analysis when discussing the Middle East.

I showed the students a series of slides with too-long quotes from Amnesty International.  Each detailed government abuse, torture, poverty, police brutality, lack of freedom, discrimination based on gender, origin, or religion–all real, measurable issues that compromised human rights and well-being.  The culprit was not “Islam” but both secular and religious governments in Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  Then I illustrated US support for many of those same governments:

I wanted them to think about the variety of possible responses to these problems, but instead of asking them to produce a list, I provided one–something I will change next time I teach this course.

I argued that, even though Islam was not the explanation for the problems in the region, which were quite complex but can certainly be analyzed, some people in the Middle East see Islam as the solution for those problems.  They argue that, since neither the secular Western states nor the socialist bloc had created sustainable and just regimes, it was necessary to turn to a new way.  Islam, they argue, offers alternatives to corrupt and unjust governments–and to nearly all those things that Amnesty International had documented.  Islamic politics would rely on existing institutions and provide an “authentic” alternative to the failed policies of the past, in their view.

I pointed out that, though the Muslim Brotherhood had begun in Egypt in the 1920s and the Wahabbis had begun more than a century before that, the 1980s had become the heyday for religious politics around the globe (the BJP won elections in India, the religious right in Israel, the Christian Coalition in the US, the Islamists in the Middle East).  And right now, the notion that religion belongs in the US government seems to be gaining adherents: Presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum had just announced that all rights come only from God.

Unfortunately, although I noted that there are important differences among Islamic political movements, I did not have time to describe them.

I did tell the students that the US has long had close ties with Islamic political movements and (self-described) Muslim governments.  The longer historical context of the Cold War and US intervention in the region was evident when I pointed out that support for such (non-communist) resistance movements had even been official policy.  When asked whether he regretted “having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?”  Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Adviser, famously responded, “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”

Sadat and Saddam: The 1970s and 1980s

For some reason, recent history seems much harder for me to synthesize.  What are the biggest issues of the 1970s and 1980s?  How can one present them to beginning students who don’t know much about the region, without eliciting significantly more controversy than analysis.  By the time we get to the 1970s and beyond, students already have fixed ideas and a stake in the narration.

Instead of doing an overview of the 1970s and 80s, I decided today to focus on two secular autocracies and try to connect them to the big issues of the era.  I realized they hadn’t hear Fairuz yet, a serious deficiency on my part, so they arrived to her singing one of the songs my Damascus women friends seemed to consider almost an anthem.

The “quiz” today was the same one that Viji gave her students a few weeks ago, and their responses were similar.  I told the students about the experiment she had done in class, and how thinking about issues at a deeper level would help students learn.  I explained that when I asked them to respond to a poll, I had hoped to encourage the kind of engagement that would help them participate more actively in the kinds of analysis historians do, but now it seems I may have been (inadvertently) helping them learn and remember the issues we were talking about.

I began by reviewing the importance of the past in understanding the violence in Lebanon in the 1970s, talked briefly about the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, the Israeli occupation of the south, the Syrian occupation of much of the rest, and the bombing of the US marines barracks in Beirut, for which a memorial exists down the road at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

Then I asked the students to think about all they had learned so far about the region.  Based on that, what kinds of challenges faced Egypt and Iraq in the 1970s?  Here are their Poll Everywhere responses, appropriate and complex, as a word cloud:

I began with Sadat’s Egypt, the high costs entailed in being neither at war nor at peace, and the 1973 war that managed to solve none of those problems.  Neither did the “opening” to capitalist investment.  I described Sadat’s dramatic visit to Jerusalem in 1977, the result of food riots that followed the imposition of IMF austerity measures.  (In past years I have had to describe the demands for austerity measures, but the students seem to know lots about them these days.)  I introduced the Muslim Brotherhood as both an economic and a political force, and ended with the assassination of Sadat.  (They now know the names of all of the Egyptian presidents since 1952!)

Then on to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  Context comes first: the Cold War, and the various ideological options available to people in the 1970s Middle East: communism, state nationalism, Arab nationalism, Islamism.  The Ba’ath party made sense in this context. The rising price of oil we had already talked about (and they seem to have talked to their parents about) provided the emerging Iraqi dictator with a lot of income to spread around.  I talked about rapidly improving child mortality rates under his rule, and the sorts of improvements that would have been reflected in the improving health of children.  But I also showed them a series of images reflecting the growing cult of personality, and concluded with the 1980 invasion of Iran, trying to provide the background they would need for the week’s reading, Sinan Antoon’s I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody.  The Iraqi invasion of Iran, I pointed out, brought together most of the issues we had focused on since the end of World War I: disputes over borders, questions of belonging, Nasserism and nationalism, and fear of popular revolution.

Their questions will provide a transition to Thursday:

Revolutionary Middle East, Thursday version

I was pleased with the format Tuesday, with the students’ participation in constructing the narrative and thinking about the implications.  But I couldn’t figure out how to provide enough background for their discussions.  They were reading too broadly this week (what was I thinking?): a Nasser speech, Fanon on torture, the Eisenhower Doctrine, and two chapters from Nadje al-Ali’s wonderful book, Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present.  Their journal was to be on whether these events really constituted revolutions.  So I had to provide at least the background for the Algerian war, Iraq 1958, Nasser 1952, Mossadegh 1953, and the Suez Crisis.  It seemed to me that they all fit together, but they were obviously too much for one lecture.

I wanted to focus on France and Algeria for the welcoming music, but since I couldn’t decide which Rai to play, I did two, beginning when only a few students had arrived.

I had decided that I would begin the lecture with a Poll Everywhere poll on the biggest issues of the era.  I would take their responses, create a word cloud with wordle, and then talk about the issues raised by the biggest words (most frequently used in the students’ responses) in order.  I had prepared the PowerPoint to be flexible.  But the system was down!   (Poll Everywhere was very apologetic, claimed this wouldn’t be repeated.)

Face to face with the problem of technology: sometimes it doesn’t work.  It took me most of the hour to regain my footing.  But what followed was not my finest hour as a teacher.  I was flustered, and reverted to a standard lecture, in chronological order.  Iran, oil and the cold war (Mossadegh 1953) followed by the Sinai Suez Crisis (Great Powers, Super Powers, Nasser and Israel), and the Algerian revolution.  The only redeeming elements:

First, I love this BBC clip on the 1956 Sinai-Suez crisis, especially when thinking about 2002-3 and Iraq.

And second, I juxtaposed de Toqueville and a colon legislator on the effects of the French on Algerian society.

I scrambled to the end, trying to remind us all of the big picture concerns as I finally wound down and hoping that they would think about the bigger issues in discussion sections.

Revolutionary Middle East: Nasser

The decade that followed the creation of the state of Israel saw the overthrow of most of the rulers of the Arab states.  It’s a challenge to “cover” all of the revolutionary movements, let alone their consequences.  I have been struggling with my desire to talk about all of the big events of the decade, trying to figure out which things I should focus on.  Those would have to stand in for the issues raised by all of them.

Who better to begin with than Um Khulthoum, though I’m not sure the students understood from the video clip why she has been so beloved by so many for so long.  Review today: the partition of 1947, Israel’s establishment, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees that resulted.

I’d found a wonderful Guardian newsclip on the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958 Iraq, and asked the students to watch it and prepare to respond to four questions: What happened? Why? So what? What other information would you need to know to answer these questions?  Then the film:

They began to respond, and quickly got bogged down.  After I played the clip again, they were able to answer the questions, while the TA typed their responses.  Although I’m not convinced the responses are below the right questions, it seemed (I hoped?) that the exercise was helpful not only to make the list, but also to think about HOW one prepares for–and works to understand–historical information.

Clearly, Nasser was not only a huge and frightening spectre for the British newscaster.  He was also a really significant symbol for those who have come after him and used his legacy to seek change .  I wanted the students to think about Nasser and how he could have come to be so popular.  They are reading one of his speeches this week.  I asked them to think about everything they know about Egypt to this point, and began a timeline on a PowerPoint slide.  They were quite impressive, remembering not only the events, but also some of the big issues.  We had left Egypt after the Urabi revolt, so I caught them up to 1948: the frustrated efforts for independence after World War I and the dependent independence that followed, with British continuing to control most aspects of Egypt’s government and economy.  I hope by the end of the semester to convince them that context matters, in this case, that Nasser and his legacy can only be understood within the contexts of Egypt’s history, the struggle against colonialism, and the Cold War.


Today’s welcome video was a brief clip from the terrific film, “Crossing the Bridge–The Sound of Istanbul”

The class was tremendously enlightening.  After a week that had included two public lectures in addition to the usual work, I fell back on my previous teaching style.  There was so much to “cover,” what with the Urabi Revolt in Egypt, the Constitutional Revolution in Iran, and the “Young Turk” revolution in the Ottoman Empire, that I spent the whole class lecturing about the events.  I tried to tie it all together by emphasizing the belief of many members of the elite that a constitution would be the silver bullet that could strengthen Middle Eastern powers to be competitive with European states.  (The irony: although members of the US government pretended that they could introduce democracy through invasion at the start of the 21st century, people in the region had believed a whole century earlier that they could withstand foreign intervention if they only had constitutional regimes.)

Despite my enthusiasm for the topic and all of the techniques we teach new lecturers (moving around the room, lots of eye contact, dramatic voice changes, repeating important points), it was clear that I lost the students.  This was the first time all semester that they were not engaged– some actually fell asleep.  By the time the lecture was over, only one posted a question.  The only student who approached me afterward asked for a glossary so they could follow better while I sprinted through events.

I suppose it was a good test of the new system.  Some of the students had seemed to want more traditional lectures, and I had begun wondering about the efficacy of taking so long to focus on fewer things, unable to “cover” as much as during previous semesters.  This was an eye-opening “failure”: had I focused on underlying questions, they may not have “learned” about all three constitutional efforts, but they may have remembered the big ideas.  In discussions after class with the TA’s, I began thinking about how I should have done it.  Perhaps comparing the underlying notions of governance and the governed that had informed the medieval “Circle of Justice” ideals with the early twentieth-century constitutional demands that had been assigned as their reading for the week?  I also learned that it takes much more time for me to re-imagine the histories that I don’t research as problems to be explored instead of events to be narrated.

 Perhaps part of the problem had been UNC’s devastating one point defeat at the hands of arch-rival Duke in the last second of last night’s game.  In an effort to lighten the mood, instead of a map quiz, I did a review of the recommendations for Ottoman renewal.

Responses to a Changing Economy

After beginning with a video of Aida, responding to their questions from last Thursday, and my now-expected review of where we’ve been so far, I asked the students to think about how it would be possible to pay for all of the needs that had been identified so far.  Their list was fairly complete.

They left out cash cropping, but readily recognized the reasons for Egypt’s dramatic cotton export growth in the mid 1860s.  (We do live in the south!)  But what happened after cotton was once again available for Britain to import from North Carolina?  We followed the route to Egypt’s bankruptcy by way of the Suez Canal (hence Aida) and the creation of infrastructure, then the establishment of the Ottoman Public Debt Administration as the empire followed into its own default.  The conclusion seemed obvious by the time we were finished: in order to become stronger, the Ottoman and Egyptian governments had introduced military, political, social, and economic changes.  By borrowing to pay for this modernization, they had become indebted to the very powers from whom they had hoped to assert their independence, and more vulnerable to global vicissitudes (like the extended depression that began in 1873 and lasted almost until the end of the century).  Instead of making them independent and powerful, modernization had resulted in the loss of economic sovereignty.

The “responses” part is important: the Ottoman population resisted some of the changes imposed by the imperial center.   My mentor, the wonderful Donald Quataert, provided a terrific example, tobacco smuggling.  (North Carolina students really got it–tobacco has been a central part of the local economy.)  Just because people are prohibited from growing and selling unapproved tobacco does not mean they will comply.  This non-compliance seems an essential part of our understanding of nineteenth-century change.

And his focus on resistance helped me explain to my students the divergence between the common narrative of the nineteenth century and my own research.  It has always been a bit of a challenge for me to present the accepted narrative when it seems inaccurate.  We have all learned that the nineteenth century marked the end of industrial production in the Ottoman empire, a result of the increasing availability and decreasing cost of steam transportation, the promulgation of the 1838 Commercial Convention, and the importation of cheap textiles from European factories with which local handicrafts could not compete.  But the research for my book on Mosul convinced me that the nineteenth century didn’t have the same trajectory throughout the empire.  This will become a problem again when I talk about World War I and the creation of nationalism next week: how do we present the received wisdom (with the wonderful stories we have all come to love) when our own research disagrees with it?