A Talk with Felipe Restrepo Pombo

Colombian author and journalist Felipe Restrepo Pombo visited campus on April 5 to discuss his career as a Latin American writer. In 2017 Restrepo Pombo was named to the Bogotá39 list, which is a list published every decade that recognizes the best Latin American writers under age 39. Restrepo Pombo has worked in both journalism and literature. Currently, Restrepo Pombo is the editor-in-chief of the Mexican news magazine Gatopardo. Restrepo Pombo writes in both Spanish and English. His lecture was presented in Spanish, although he read an excerpt of one of his works in English.

Restrepo Pombo began his writing career as a journalist at the magazine Cambio, where the advisor was Gabriel García Márquez. Restrepo Pombo is interested in interviews that get at the heart of the person being interviewed. He described his interviewing process in which he would spend weeks working on the story, sometimes observing for days before asking any questions. This strategy earned him insight and observation that he wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. He has interviewed people from all over world with a focus on important Latin American figures.

Restrepo Pombo also spoke about his time during Mexico. He spoke about the drug wars that wreaked havoc on the country, and he described how difficult it is to be a journalist in Mexico. He described how Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists to work in because they are murdered for their work. Restrepo Pombo presented a picture of journalism in Latin America as difficult but necessary work.

The Cold War and Beyond?

This past week, I attended a lecture by Dr. John Fishel, a professor at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Fishel’s talk was part of a three-part series that focused on the Cold War; part three was dedicated to “peacekeeping, the Islamist threat, North Korea, and the next peer competitor (China).” I found this lecture particularly interesting because Dr. Fishel was speaking from his own experience, or he was recounting the experiences of people he knew. For example, one of his former students was a leader when the United States was doing some peacekeeping work in Africa right after the end of the Cold War. He also told an entertaining anecdote about Jimmy Carter and Colin Powell chasing down Haitian General Cedras to discuss peace and work to avoid an American military invasion of Haiti. However, Dr. Fishel’s main point was that just because the Cold War ended, that did not mean that we were in a safer world. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia disintegrated and fought itself in several civil wars. Many other states fell to coups and dictatorships, with some resulting in bloody civil wars. Then September 11 happened, traumatizing the world. Not long after the United States began its war in Afghanistan which, at almost 17 years, is America’s longest war. The power politics and general climate of global fear did not end with the Cold War—it is still happening today.Image result for ou cold war and beyond

International Event: “It’s Good to Be the King, or Is It?” Lecture

It's Good to Be the King Lecture On Friday, November 3, the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies welcomed Dr. Mohamed Daadaoui as part of the Brown Bag Lecture Series. Dr. Daadaoui’s lecture “It’s Good to Be the King, or Is It?” discussed the three main challenges facing the Moroccan monarchy, the monarchy’s responses, and what these challenges mean for the future of the monarchy. Dr. Daadaoui concluded that it is no longer good to be the king in Morocco because the monarchy has opened itself up to criticism by delving into the political fray. Dr. Daadaoui predicted that it will take reinvention to lift the monarchy back into its place of irreproachability.

After an introduction by Dr. Samer Shehata, Dr. Daadaoui launched right into his lecture. After differentiating the types of monarchies and management techniques they employ, Dr. Daadaoui presented the three challenges to the monarchy. The most effective example was the challenge presented by the popularity of the Party for Justice and Development under the leadership of Abdelilah Benkirane, and the monarchy’s response of sacking him. This example best demonstrated how the monarchy had lowered itself into the political scene. Dr. Daadaoui convincingly demonstrates that doing so has shifted the monarchy’s iconography from one of order and stability to one of a political institution capable of being criticized, and it will therefore require rebranding to succeed in the long run.

Dr. Daadaoui was careful not to portend the death of the monarchy, which makes his argument more credible because it is clear from the 2011 uprisings that there is no predicting the future of the region’s regimes. The lecture was very substantial and provided solid evidence for its claims, without going too extreme in its conclusions.

International Event: “Producing Healthy Citizens” Lecture

Producing Healthy Citizens: The Politics of Women's Outdoor Exercise in IranOn Friday, October 6, guest lecturer Dr. Nazanin Shahrokni, an assistant professor from Syracuse University, presented a lecture entitled “Producing Healthy Citizens: The Politics of Women’s Outdoor Exercise in Iran” as part of the Iranian Studies Lecture Series. After a brief introduction by Dr. Manata Hashemi, an assistant professor in the Farzaneh Family Center, Dr. Shahrokni began her lecture, in which she demonstrated how the Iranian state has pivoted its discourse on women from objects of Islamic morality that the state must protect to citizens whose health is vital for the well-being of the nation. The lecture was engaging and informative throughout, although there were a few areas that I hope are further addressed in her upcoming book tentatively titled For Women Only: The State and Politics of Gender Segregation in Iran. 

Dr. Shahrokni began the lecture with an anecdote from 2010 when she met with a director from the Tehran municipality office, who lamented that the women-only parks designed to foster healthier women (and therefore better wives and mothers) became spaces that created feminists who nagged their husbands. The anecdote was attention-grabbing and introduced the topic of the lecture: the development and politics of gender-segregation in Iran. Honestly, I feel that the lecture should have had a title more along the lines of “Producing Healthy Citizens: The Shifting Politics of Gender-Segregation in Iran” because the lecture was on more than just women’s outdoor exercise and it might have attracted a bigger audience.

With the help of a PowerPoint and key graphics, Dr. Shahrokni presented her evidence chronologically, which was an effective way of presenting her position because it clearly demonstrated the shifting dialogue from the Iranian state regarding gender-segregation as well as women’s reactions to these women-only spaces. After a brief historical background of the Pahlavi Dynasty and the Islamic Republic of Iran, Dr. Shahrokni then compared in more detail the 1980s in Iran versus the 2000s. The graphic for this information was very strong because it showed how gender-segregation was originally framed in a narrative of Islamic morality and only later became framed in a narrative that women’s health is important because of their role as citizens of the state. Later in the lecture, there was another strong visual that showed the transition from the 1980s when women’s exercise was viewed as a problem to the 1990s when women were allowed to exercise in public but largely remained inside and up to the 2000s with the emergence of women-only parks as popular spaces for women of all ages to not only exercise outdoors but also organize politically and form bonds across class and social divides.

While the lecture convincingly demonstrated the implications of gender segregated spaces for women, it did not fully answer what the shifting gender segregation practices reflect about the Iranian state — which was one of the guiding questions of Dr. Shahrokni’s research. I believe that this question could have been more fully answered by discussing the future of women-only spaces as well as a more in-depth discussion about the consequences of the Ministry of Education’s report that directly linked wearing the veil with a decline in school girls’ health. Additionally, a discussion about similar segregation elsewhere in the region might have provided more context for the Iranian state’s decision and its implications.

Is It a Muslim Ban?

One of the most contentious debates that is currently dominating American politics is whether President Trump’s Executive Order outlining a travel ban is really a Muslim ban in disguise. While the original ban has been halted by the court system, the question still remains. About a month ago, I listened to a lecture that debated this very subject. The lecture included distinguished professors from OU’s Religious Studies Department, and they gave their analysis of the ban, albeit from a religious perspective. One professor sought to determine if religion, specifically Christianity, could be used to validate the order. Another broke down the role religion plays in our government, as, even though there is a separation of church and state, religion remains a crucial part of our political system. Lastly, Dr. Kimball gave his interpretation on the question on everyone’s minds: is it really a Muslim ban? In his estimation, it was not necessarily a Muslim ban, but it had the potential to become one. Once “religion tests” entered the equation, this order could not be considered impartial to religion.

While this order originated in the United States, it had global consequences. Immigrants, tourists, and refugees were confused, delayed, and sometimes detained. The order even forbid migration from some specific countries indefinitely. The travel ban is an international issue, and it should not have been treated the way it was, without careful planning and care.

UPDATE: Recently, President Trump has come out with a new version of the travel ban. This one is slightly less extreme in nature, and Iraq is removed from the list of countries it affects. However, the Muslim Ban question is still up for debate.

The Yemeni Conundrum

Despite having taken multiple classes dealing with the Middle East, none of them have covered Yemen. I have been to a lecture or two on Yemen before, so I know some general things about the country and its civil war, but nothing in-depth. Professor Bahran, however, provided an easy to follow, concise look into the conflict. I appreciated how he started with Yemen’s history and tied its regionalism into the current war. As an outsider, I assumed the civil war was largely sectarian, since the Houthis have a religious bend. This lecture, though, introduced me to the regional divisions in the country. The North has traditionally held power while the South was relatively subjugated. When the previous Vice President Hadi was elected to the Presidency and the Houthis staged their coup, the country split between the North (relatively tribal groups who back the Houthis) and the South (more urban societies who support Hadi). However, the thing that I really took away from Professor Bahran’s lecture was the hopelessness of the situation. He continuously emphasized that the victims were the Yemeni people in general and, from what I have heard of the subject, it seems like everyone in Yemen has been affected in some way. He did a good job of explaining why the conflict was hopeless, though—both sides have substantial levels of corruption and, in some cases, there is overlap between them; warlords have tried to prolong the conflict to get richer; and the international community has no real stake in the country. Unfortunately, I have to agree with Professor Bahran’s analysis of the situation that the conflict will not end any time soon. From his lecture and the ones I have been to previously, it seems as though the world has forgotten about Yemen and is content to let it suffer on its own.


The Other Side of Brexit

Brexit has come to be one of the most debated events of the year, although I’m sure our recent election will soon overpass it. Because of its global significance, and the shear shock that it happened in the first place, OU has hosted several talks centering on the causes and results of Britain’s rejection of the European Union. I have attended two of these talks, but the most recent was one by Sir Roger Scruton. He is a conservative British intellectual who discussed why it might be a good thing that Britain left the EU. While I am of the opinion that Britain should have stayed, I never really heard the opposing view. Most of the coverage I’ve heard blames the outcome on ignorance, fantastical political promises, and xenophobia. Who hasn’t seen the news report that the top internet search in the UK after the vote was “what is the EU”? Because of these reasons, it was refreshing to listen to Sir Scruton’s side. He mostly cites the want of a British identity as the reason for Brexit. In the globalizing world where nation-states seem to be disappearing, the British people wanted something tangible to hold on to—they wanted their sovereignty back and the illusion of control. He also laid out the treaty that founded the EU and focused on the “elitist” nature of it. The EU, he said, was made up of a European elite of burnt-out politicians that wanted to retain power. These politicians were then free to pass laws that the EU member states were forced to accept and push through their respective legislative bodies. According to Sir Scruton, most of the laws passed by Parliament are simply rubber-stamps for EU policies. I can understand his reasons and they are not illegitimate or something to write-off. However, it was in the Q and A session at the end of his talk that made me question some of his views. He was, of course, asked about immigration and some of his statements regarding this hot-button issue bothered me. He made gross oversimplifications of Muslim societies, saying that the women in the room would not want to live in a Muslim country on account of, among other things, polygamy and lack of rights. He also made a connection between immigration and welfare countries, stating that people moved to these states because of the benefits they might receive from the government. While I cannot say that this is not true for some, I would connect immigration to more developed countries. In most cases, I believe immigrants are looking for economic opportunities and more stable lives for their families, reasons that do not exclusively prescribe a welfare state. Over all though, I believe Sir Scruton’s talk was enlightening in regards to the pro-leaving side of Brexit.


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The Conflict in Syria

OU recently hosted a talk by Dr. Joshua Landis on Syria, its future, and our involvement there. It was an OU Presidential event, with an introduction by the university’s president, David Boren. Since my area of interest is the Middle East, I of course had to go! Dr. Landis’ talk focused on the causes of the conflict in Syria, a murky subject that very few can wade through or even begin to understand. Luckily, Dr. Landis is one of the foremost experts on Syria and regularly consults various world governments on the subject. In his opinion, one of the main causes of the conflict is demographics. When the European powers drew their arbitrary boundaries after World War I, they put several groups of disparate peoples into one country. To make matters more complicated, they then gave power to the weaker, smaller groups, increasing the animosity felt in the newly created protectorates. Dr. Landis cited this conflict as the starting point of Syria’s troubles. The majority of Syrians follow Sunni Islam, but a fringe sect, the Alawites, controlled the government. This led to growing resentments that eventually culminated in the Syrian Civil War.

He likened the events in Syria to post-WWII Europe, with their “Great Sorting Out.” Essentially, after WWII several groups of people migrated (intentionally or forcefully) to countries where they constituted the majority. These movements turned Europe into the collection of nation-states that it is today. According to Dr. Landis, the Middle East might be witnessing its own “Sorting Out” today. Thanks to the civil war and various other conflicts in the region, there has been an unprecedented movement of peoples and changes in government. In Iraq, for example, the minority Sunni government under Saddam Hussein’s Baath party was replaced with Shi’ite members (the majority) after the United States invaded. With Bashar al-Assad’s refusal to step down from power and cede the government to the majority, Syria’s “Sorting Out” has taken a violent turn. In Dr. Landis’ view, it will be a long time before we hear much good news from Syria.

Theology and Migration

Father Dan Groody’s discussion of migration framed the topic in a light I had never considered it in before—that migration is encoded in us. While this was something he mainly discussed in the beginning of the lecture, it made a big impression on me. He used the example of tracking his ancestry, which showed that his ancestors had migrated from Africa, all over Eurasia, and finally made their way to America. He made it clear that migration and movement are almost encoded in our DNA, and that it is second nature for humans to move around. I appreciated how he tried to remove the stigma many Americans believe follow migrants, and I also enjoyed how he presented not just the migrants’ point of view or the Catholic Church’s point of view, but also the government and border vigilantes’ views. Father Groody laid out each sides’ goals and their beliefs and made sure to thoroughly explain each view point. In relation to this topic he said something that really stuck with me: it was along the lines of “If you think migration is a complex issue, then you don’t understand if. If you think migration is a simple issue, then you don’t understand it either.” I honestly think that this quote can also apply to religion and the way he discussed it. While most consider religion a set of beliefs you hold, it’s more than that. Religion is often the basis for a lot of people’s actions, such as Father Groody’s. It shapes how you see the world and how you interact with it. He told us an anecdote about a time he was discussing his work with a few refugees, who at the time we rather disillusioned with the world. Once he was finished talking to them, one responded by happily asking if “God really loves him that much.” Religion has the ability to change people’s outlooks and, especially in the case of migrants, can help them see the good in life or the light at the end of the tunnel. However, I am not advocating that religion makes migrants complacent in their suffering—rather I think, and I believe Father Groody does as well, that for some people religion serves to validate their lives and prove to them that they are worth seeking a better life and deserve to do everything they can to improve their conditions. I suppose the only question I would really want to ask Father Groody is, how can we help remove the stigma around migrants and refugees? Or maybe, in his opinion, does every religion serve the purpose of comforting and validating migrants or refugees, or just Christianity, specifically Catholicism? Over all, this was probably one of my favorite talks I have attended at OU so far and I wish more people could have seen it.

Israel and Palestine

(Picture from The Daily Conversation YouTube–Israel and Palestine Explained)

Today I got to attend a talk by Dr. Gershon Lewenthal about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and how it has changed in the last year. He began the talk by bringing up Israel’s current political situation, since elections were held just a few months ago. A coalition was made with mostly right-wing or religious groups—but the government is extremely fragile. With only 61 seats, it is barely the majority needed to become a functioning government. Netanyahu, once again, is the Prime Minister, but this precarious government means he cannot take any hard stances that might isolate members of the coalition. The Israeli government is, in effect, limited to the wishes of the right-wing and religious parties. But what does this mean for the Palestinians? It means some of the extreme Jewish religious groups (such as the group who wish to rebuild the Temple on the Dome of the Rock) will be difficult to control and an end to the Jewish occupation of the Palestinian territories is unlikely. The recent actions of this government and its predecessor (again, a more right-leaning one) might help explain the recent outbreak of Palestinian violence. While it does not seem like another Intifada (the attacks show no planning nor do they have the larger society’s support), they are just as troubling because of the age of the attackers. The statistics provided by Dr. Lewenthal attribute most of the attacks to persons between the ages of twelve and twenty-six—mere children—with the majority performed by the eighteen to twenty-two block. In Dr. Lewenthal’s opinion, this might be because they were too young to remember the less-than-satisfactory results of the most recent Intifada. After the violence of the 2000s, most Palestinians came to accept that violent actions got them no where. In fact, it actually made life worse for them. More peaceful options proved more efficient for getting through to the Israelis, their government, and the international community at large. These children, though, do not remember this lesson. They are upset at the government’s inaction and have decided to take matters into their own hands. It is too early to assume what impact this recent violence might have on the ongoing conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but it does not look like a peace will be reached any time soon.