The Yemeni Conundrum

Tuesday, February 28 at 4pm I attended the lecture with Mustafa Bahran titled “The Yemeni Conundrum”. Bahran is a visiting professor from the University of Sana’a in Yemen. He began by presenting a general overview of the country, citing facts about Yemen’s physical size, population statistics, and religious composition. He showed photos from various regions of Yemen such as Hadramut, Aden, and Sana’a in order to display the diversity of flora, fauna, architecture, and customs that exists in Yemen. The first twenty minutes of the lecture could be described as aggressively nostalgic.

After the introduction to Yemen, Bahran described the political history of the country. He talked about the unification in 1990, the civil war between the north and south in 1994, and the southern movement of 2007. I enjoyed the way he presented the conflict in Yemen because he refrained from making overly positive or derogatory comments about any of the actors currently involved. He explained how former president Saleh introduced democratization efforts, how the Houthis had legitimate concerns, and how Hadi had been the last democratically elected president and therefore had a serious claim to power.

I appreciated the unique perspective he offered having served as the Minister of Electricity and Energy and as a cabinet member. He analyzed the various actors involved in the conflict as being at fault in some way. The most interesting part for me was when he discussed how local warlords and low-level criminals are fighting for both Hadi’s side and the Houthis’ side and are focused only on making money at the detriment of the Yemeni people.

Imperfect Strangers

On Monday, March 20 I attended the lecture entitled “Imperfect Strangers: Americans, Arabs, and U.S.-Middle East Relations in the 1970s” presented by Dr. Salim Yaqub, a guest lecturer from University of California at Santa Barbara. The lecture focused on the diplomatic strategies and challenges that shaped the 1970s in terms of US-Arab relations. Yaqub’s book, Imperfect Strangers, argues that the 1970s are the most important years to consider when analyzing the politics of the Middle East in terms of American involvement.

This lecture provided insight into how American diplomatic strategies influenced the outcomes of Middle Eastern regional conflicts. He provided examples of American policy-makers and state department officials and how their communication styles affected their ability to form personal relationships with world leaders. He spent a lot of time developing a clear picture of Henry Kissinger and his two-faced diplomacy as revealed by the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict where he was able to help neutralize Egypt, thus preventing a more serious conflict on a pan-Arab scale.

This class aims to explore cultural encounters between the United States and Arab countries. Perhaps the most relatable part of Yaqub’s lecture was his explanation of the significance of physical contact between males in the Middle East as a way to show closeness and sincerity. This, Yaqub argued, allowed Kissinger to develop better relations with Egyptian, Jordanian, and Saudi leaders. This was an interesting way to understand international relations on a micro scale through the lens of cultural mores. In the United States it is abnormal for men to show such affection; however, Kissinger leveraged his understanding of this cultural difference and he influenced the outcomes of major international conflicts because of this.

Forum on Democracy

On Thursday, February 23 I attended the event Forum on Democracy hosted in the Meacham Auditorium of the Oklahoma Memorial Union. I missed the presentations for Panel 1; however, I was present for the question and answer period of Panel 1, as well as the presentations of two speakers on Panel 2. The second presentation I listened to entitled “Identities Under Surveillance” was given by Mirelsi Velasquez, a graduate student at OU.

She began by displaying images of Japanese children accompanied by letters written by Japanese-American elementary school students who were forced into internment camps in California in 1942. She also discussed the issue of Mexican repatriation in the 1930s. Her intent was to show the way that minority communities in the United States have historically lived in fear as a way to show that we cannot hope to live democratically while we continue to oppress religious and ethnic minorities. These examples of past oppression were paralleled by examples of fear imposed on minorities happening today such as legal residents of the US being detained at airports, Mexican-American families ripped apart by deportation, and anti-Muslim rhetoric permeating the political atmosphere.

This lecture relates to a course i’m taking called US-Arab cultural encounters because the speaker discussed cultural encounters between the United States and minority/immigrant communities and the oppressive nature of these interactions. While the speaker did not explicitly discuss US interactions with Arab countries, she shed light on the hypocrisy of US democracy promotion while it simultaneously engages in the systematic oppression of religious and ethnic minority communities.

The Diplomat

Like most students majoring in International Studies, I want to work for the State Department when I graduate. While the recent election of human Cheeto has slightly changed my outlook, I am still very much determined to work in the Foreign Service for a period of life. So, when I heard that OU’s Diplomat-In-Residence Rob Andrew was hosting a session on careers in American diplomacy for the Honors Student Association, I decided that it would be a great chance to learn more about the potential careers available to eventual graduates.

The Diplomat, as we took to calling him, talked at length about the Consular Fellows Program, which is one of the newest ways that the State Department is attempting to recruit students out of college. While the mechanics were interesting, what I found even more fascinating was the broad range of powers given to these officers. According to the Diplomat, these Fellows are primarily concerned with visa applications, which they can approve or deny entirely at their own discretion. If I’d had more time, I would’ve asked him why that was… seems like a lot of power to put in a 20-something’s hands. The Diplomat also chatted about the foreign language requirements necessary, and made a point to point out that many of the languages that we were studying (ie. French, German, etc) were actually not at all privileged in the Consular Fellows program, and that if we wanted a job in that field, we should start studying a “critical” language (Arabic, Russian, Chinese). That took the wind out of a lot of our sails.

The Diplomat concluded our hour-long conversation with a discussion of his own time as a diplomat. He had a couple particularly memorable stories… specifically, he told us a somewhat tragic and hilarious story about how he had to ship his cat to his new home in Europe during one assignment. He also talked about how tough life can be for young, and middle-aged, foreign service officers, especially with families. He emphasized that, in order to commit to a career with the State Department, especially in the early years, one needs to consider what they’re willing to give up in order to travel the world. For many of us, it was a pretty substantial sum of emotional capital.

DEMOCRACY

We should be vigilant with what is important to us, including our democracy, and the voice of an individual

In light of what is happening in our government, the College of International Area Studies hosted a “Forum on Democracy.” The forum began with a graduate student speaking out about what he thought about the event. He believed it to be a “liberal” backlash against the Trump administration, and believed that the conversation being starting on democracy was inflammatory and reactionary. He cited titles, referring to them as divisive. His comments, while were completely welcome, confused me. I did not see the forum as reactionary and defensive.

We never want to believe that threats to democracy could never happen here. The United States was founded on the idea of democracy. We have never had a King, and we live in a republic. Professor Mitchell Smith talked about how one of our democratic rights have already begun to be violated. Elected officials are rending citizens voiceless, and many officials are becoming more interesting in wielding power than upholding democracy. He called us to question why Donald Trump really says “fake news.” He wants us to question his agenda, and fight to understand what is truly happening. Dr. Alan McPherson, director for the center of the Americas, he compared the “strong man” persona and personality to that of Donald Trump’s. He outlined the difference between autocracy—non-constitutional change in policy—and populism—acts outside the bonds of democracy resulting in inequality.  He asked us to analyze Trump’s personality. He is charismatic and narcissistic, much like the strong autocrats in Latin America. He seeks the attention of crowds and monopolizes the media. He is a chauvinist and inspires hatred and divides people. Many of his actions including executive orders, questioning the popular vote, and shaming the media reflect a disdain on any checks on his power. Tarren Hircshfield gave us a background on kleptocracy, asking us to be cautious about what might happen in the future. Peter Gries provided a case study on China, asking us to question what role propaganda has and understand the repercussions.

Kyle Harper began the forum with opening statements on what democracy really meant. He started off with the etymology of the word; it means rule by the people. The word is 1000’s of years old with Greek origins and a broad definition. The Greeks believed that democracy was not just a political system. They saw it as a regime, or a way of life that encompassed religion, education, and the military. Kyle Harper’s definition of democracy has three parts: genuine opportunity, respect for the truth, and a sense of community. He emphasized education, especially this university, should stand as an example, a pillar of democracy. Education is important to teaching young minds how to reach their fullest potential and to teach people to think for themselves, and I came to this forum to become more informed because you cannot think for yourself if you do not understand what is happening in the world. Democracy is fragile and crucial; we should always be concerned about our democracy.

OUR EARTH

On 2/23/2016, I attended a “Latin Americanist Lunch” hosted by the College of International Studies. After an entire semester of having class at 12:00pm, I was finally fortunate to find myself with the time to go to one of these miniature lectures. I sat down the with my roommate in the two seats next to the guest speaker and the sponsoring OU professor.

Besides getting Panera lunch, I had a number of noble and not so noble reasons for attending this guest lecture. In my Understanding the Global Community Class, attending these international area studies events can result in extra credit. I also am required to attend these events for the scholarship that I keep this blog for. For my sorority, you can also receive points for attending these “multicultural events.” Besides these reasons for obvious personal gain in other aspects of my life, I am extremely interesting in Latin America. I am currently in Grammar in Conversational Spanish, the fifth semester of Spanish Language offered at the University of Oklahoma, and I love the language and the multitudes of cultures that share the language. Thus, this opportunity seemed to fit all of my motivations rather closely.

I had the rare opportunity of being forced to talk to the speaker and one of my future professors for Understanding the Global Community. This opportunity came from walking in much later than the majority of attendance of other students and the only seats available at the table were those two. I was definitely not ready to talk about myself in a professional college standpoint, and actually stumbled after being asked my major. To say the least, I was rather embarrassed and I hope that I made up for it when telling him about myself. (I always feel nervous about not seeming intelligent and then coming off “too smart”) I told him about my plans to study abroad in Latin America and goals to attend medical school, and we had interesting small talk during the lunch before the talk. It was definitely nice to be able to have that kind of interaction with professors, and be able to talk about myself in a professional manner.

The speaker, Dr. David Lopez-Carr, is the head of the department of geography at the University of California–Santa Barbara. He was an extremely stimulating speaker. He was able to connect geography to bigger issues such as the urbanization and how that changes a nation and different communities. He mentioned the changes that capitalism can cause in the world. My Understanding the Global Community Class combined with these kinds of lectures that I have been attending have really opened my mind to the concepts of globalization and how my individual choices can make a statement. He was a professor I only to to get to know one day. He’s a champion for women’s education and sees education as the key to change. This idea is incredibly important and I really enjoyed this lecture. Dr. Lopez-Carr was able to connect so many different issues to geography. He spoke about women’s pregnancy and how many children a family has changes from rural locations to urban locations. And the fewer children mean that more resources are given to each child. He also spoke about how education also causes women to have fewer children. He also spoke about deforestation in the food industry. The food industry spends so much money on deforestation for crops. The energy used to farm these crops will be lost greatly in the food chain, and the championing for the meat industry is potentially dangerous.

This was an amazing choice for a lecture to begin the Latin Americanist Lunches, and I count myself grateful to the university to have provided me with this opportunity to hear from a visiting professor.

Music: A Capsule of Culture

At the beginning of October, I went as a guest of the Honors College to a Syrian music concert hosted in Sharp Concert Hall here on campus. There were two musicians, Kenan Adnawi, who played the oud, and Tareq Rantisi, who played percussion. While I have seen an oud in person, as well as depicted in media and entertainment, this was my first time hearing one played in person.
It was nothing short of amazing.
At first, it reminded me of the stereotypical Middle-Eastern music you hear in movies and TV shows, that short song played to transition our adventurers from their western local to a place more “foreign”. As I kept listening, however, I realized two things. First, Hollywood soundtracks fall far short in comparison. Second, I understand why such music is used to set the scene. Sitting there, in an auditorium chair in the middle of Oklahoma, USA, I was both entranced and transported. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. The skill with which the musicians handled their instruments was apparent, even though their manner of playing was unique in my eyes. Mr. Adnawi tuned his oud anew for every song, and sometimes in the middle of a song. Mr. Rantisi, the percussionist, wore an ankle of bells, which he did not shake, but which would shiver and ring ever so quietly from the vibrations of his playing. The passion of both musicians was undeniable. Mr. Adnawi grew up in Syria and would give the title of every song, along with a short explanation of the meaning behind the title and behind the piece itself.
I am sad to say that I probably would have walked away from the concert, having enjoyed it but giving it no more thought, were it not for a song played near the end. As usual, Mr. Adnawi announced the title, and this time, he welcomed the audience to sing along. The reaction was near palpable. I was sitting in the balcony section, off to the side but still close to the stage. Below me, most of the audience was clustered in the first five or six rows, with the rest scattered around the auditorium. When this particular song was announced, a wave of excitement rippled through those first few rows. This was not a song he had written, but a classic, one well know. It irks me that I am unable to recall the title, I would have loved to learn more about the piece. As the song flowed forth, those rows clapped with the rhythm and sang along where they could. I could not recognize the language, although I would guess Arabic. Some knew more words than others, but most would join in for the chorus at least. It was strange to see a group of strangers, united in their appreciation for one song, a song that rang with tradition and history. Furthermore, it was strange to realize that I could not relate it to a potential example in American culture. A group of US students might unite in Europe after turning on “Cha Cha Slide” or some similar piece of pop culture, but that is hardly comparable. Aside from “The Star Spangled Banner” and the like, what music carries the culture of the United States? A few hundred years from now, will parents play today’s pop and rap and country for their children to connect them with the past? What will be the US’ musical legacy?

Syrian Oud Music

Friday, Spetember 30 I attended the Music from Syria and Beyond workshop with Kenan Adnawi and Tareq Rantisi. Prior to the official starting time at 4pm there was an interactive question and answer session conducted in Arabic. Students form the Arabic flagship, as well as native speakers, introduced themselves in Arabic and asked the performers questions about the backgrounds, inspiration, and technique.

Kenen Adnawi and Tarek Rantisi at the Music of Syria workshop

Kenan Adnawi is from Syria and has been playing the oud since the age of 7. He is passionate about incorporating new techniques and improvisational methods into classical rhythmic structures. Tarek Rantisi is from Palestine and specializes in percussion. He plays a whole host of percussive instruments and explained the structure of traditional rhythmic patterns in music originating from the Arab world. Both performers described the importance of collaboration in their work as well as their desire to express Arab unity through their performances and composition of original pieces.

The following day I attended their concert at 8pm along with a cohort of my friends. People of all backgrounds filled the concert hall at Catlet to experience the performance. I had listened to oud music before on my own, mostly via youtube videos of recorded performances by popular oud players and trios. It was an entirely new experience to see the oud being played live along with the incredible drumming of Mr. Rantisi. Several of the pieces played were original compositions. A large Lebanese family sat in front of us and one of the women began to cry when the duo performed an old Lebanese song called Bint a-Shalabiyya.

James, Peter, Yousef, Vladmir, Lamis, and me at the Music of Syria concert

 

I was extremely happy to have attended the workshop that preceded the concert because I had gained a deeper understanding of and appreciatiation for the complex factors that affect the improvisation and style of these pieces.

 

Here is an original composition by Kenan Adawi.

If you’d like to hear some more oud music being played here is a trio of oud musicians from Palestine that perform all around the world. This performance is interlaced with poems by the famous Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.

War and Peace in Yemen with Dr. Waleed Mahdi

Monday, October 17, 2016 I attended the talk entitled “War and Peace in Yemen” with Dr. Joshua Landis and Dr. Waleed Mahdi. I am a student of both professors and I was excited to hear Dr. Mahdi’s unique perspective as a Yemen-born American. He began by giving an introduction to the geography of Yemen as well as some information about the humanitarian need in the country. %85 of Yemen is currently experiencing humanitarian need with 3.5 million people internally displaced. Dr. Mahdi explained the Hoothi doctrine as “Death to America, death to the Jews, praise be to God, and the dominance of Islam”. He explained the situation in Yemen as caused by a variety of factors, among them being political, religious, and tribal. The traditional north-south divide that has long characterized Yemen is not reflected in the political geography of Yemen today. Another important factor in understanding the conflict in Yemen is the role played by Saudi Arabia and the role of Iran. Dr. Mahdi explained these roles very simply: Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a proxy war in Iran. The Hoothis are backed by the Iranian regime. Iran has traditionally supported religious minorities (notably those leaning towards Shiism) as well as Shia majorities in countries like Bahrain and Iraq. The Hadi are backed by Saudi Arabia. The influence of foreign intervention has caused friction both within Yemen and on the international stage. Dr. Mahdi expressed his concern regarding foreign intervention in Yemen by both Saudi Arabia and Iran; he also criticized the use of US drone strikes.

Journey Program Launch Party

A few weeks ago I attended the launch party for the journey programs at Farzaneh Hall (the international studies building, for those who do not know). I had planned to apply for the Journey to Tanzania program for this upcoming summer, however I do not think that I will be able to go anymore, but I am saving this discussion for a different post.

All of the professors and Shanna Vincent, the program coordinator, were all super amazing and nice. There were four different programs that they discussed: Journey to Tanzania, Brazil, Italy and China. Each professor took a turn to explain what each program entailed and then the group of students in attendance broke up into sections around Farzaneh so they could speak with the professors who were heading each program individually. I stayed with the professors who were part of the Tanzania program and they were wonderfully informative and explained any questions that I had. The Tanzania program last year consisted of flying into Arusha and staying at a UN charter campus for three to four days where a few Swahili lessons would be taught and then each student was assigned to a home-stay for 8 to 10 days. Next they traveled to Zanzibar for a few days, then to Dar Es Salaam for three to four days and then back to Arusha for one night. Finally they stayed in a hotel outside of N’Gorongoro crater where they went on a little safari.

All of it sounded so amazing and something that was so far away, and it is almost unbelievable to me that I could possibly be part of it someday. And although I doubt that those professors remember me, despite my badgering questions, I hope that they know that they really did interest me and get my attention even though I may not be able to attend this summer.