As I read Jadaliyya’s introduction to reportage about the “Teaching the Middle East” conference held at George Mason University this May, I was particularly interested in the idea of shifting pedagogic and scholarly modes from “defensive” to “non-defensive.”
This resonated even more strongly as I read Laila Hourani’s introduction to the excellent 2010 collection Plays from the Arab World. At moments in her introduction, Hourani seemed to be shadow-boxing with an imaginary reader who found Arabs to be un-artistic, un-creative, violent, and boorish.
Hourani also touches briefly on the history of Arab theater, and has an insightful comment at the end about the plays’ obsession with “waiting.” But in and among these lines of thought, and while discussing the many artistic and technical merits of the plays (I dare you not to enjoy Laila Soliman’s “Egyptian Products”), Hourani attempts to convince us that Arab men aren’t violent beasts. And, in trying to refute the absurd “violent beast” stereotype, I’m afraid that she may be implanting it more deeply.
Yes, we writers should smack down egregious stupidities when we see them. But taking a “non-defensive” posture when writing about Arabic literature would free us up to create stronger and more interesting lines of thought. And yes, it’s important that even we non-academic commoners not get trapped in arguments with imaginary men and women from Ignorancetown, U.S.A.
I believe I gleaned from American essayist and activist Jonathan Kozol that when we write, we create our audience. So, instead of shadow-boxing with the ignorant, we create smarter and more receptive readers by beginning from a non-defensive posture.