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Eileen T. Lundy and Edward Lundy, eds. Practicing Transnationalism: American Studies in the Middle East

Chrysavgi Papagianni

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1Eileen T. Lundy and Edward Lundy, eds. Practicing Transnationalism: American Studies in the Middle East

2Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016. Pp. 267. ISBN: 978-1-4773-1073-1.

3Chrysavgi Papagianni

4In Peace and its Discontents Edward Said voices a concern over the abundance of American studies focusing on Arabs and the Islam and the respective shortage of studies by Arab or Islamic scholars focusing on America or Europe. His question in fact brings into the forefront America’s obvious preoccupation and engagement with the East, a preoccupation that could be a seen as a legacy of orientalism. Given the sweeping geopolitical developments in the wider Middle East during the last few decades, such an engagement is definitely worth studying. In this respect, Eileen and Edward Lundy’s Practicing Transnationalism: American Studies in the Middle East represents a timely and much needed contribution as it attempts to explore the challenges involved in the development of American studies programs and departments in the Middle East between 1998 and 2008. The book offers an interesting and realistic insight into how these programs survived and flourished amidst adverse political geographies where the supposed American supremacy and domination was often contested, if not violently attacked.

5Divided into 4 parts and 8 chapters in total, the book focuses in the first two parts on challenges and adversities arising from the specific geopolitical conditions. Subsequently, it engages in an empirical examination of how these challenges were tackled in various university campuses across the Middle East. Such an empirical examination invests the book with an unquestionable authenticity that brings the points discussed home. The book starts with Patrick McGreevy’s and Neema Noori’s experience as leaders of the American studies programs in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates respectively. More specifically, McGreevy discusses the “American question,” setting thus the ground for the rest of the chapters that are informed directly or indirectly by the implications intrinsic in this question. As McGreevy aptly points out, this question complicates attempts to teach American studies outside the US, especially in the Middle East due to the danger of accepting inadvertently concepts of American ubiquity and exceptionalism as normal.

6Noori in the next chapter, “The Politics of American-Style Higher Education in the Middle East,” probes deeply into McGreevy’s “American question,” by examining the possible relationship between the development of such programs and cultural imperialism. As Noori explains, the curriculum, the language of instruction, even the textbooks employed can be regarded as forms of cultural imperialism. However, the real danger lies with the “stripped down” versions of the American model, as Noori puts it, that abstain from a general education or a liberal arts program. Based on interviews with teachers, students and administrators Noori argues that this stripped down version combines the worst of both systems as it deprives students of the analytical tools to critically question the value systems and authority models presented to them.

7Along the same lines, Betty Anderson continues Noori’s exploration in the second part entitled “Contexts and Implications,” through her detailed focus on the history of the American University of Beirut. Anderson draws attention on the university’s unfailing reputation and attractiveness amongst tensions, conflicts and political unrest in the city and the region at large. The enduring popularity of American higher education in the area represents an interesting paradox given the growing hostility against US foreign policies and practices at the time. As Eileen and Edward Lundy rightly point out in the Introduction, Anderson’s exploration of the status of American higher education in the Middle East once again raises the question of the “extension of empire” (12).

8It is this concept of the empire that Scott Lucas discusses in the next chapter “Shifting the Gorilla: The Failure of the American Unipolar in the Middle East.” Offering an informative overview of American foreign policies that essentially promoted US power as an end in itself since 2001, Lucas overtly criticizes notions of American supremacy that dictated imperialistic practices. Finally, Luke Peterson in the last chapter of part two, “Discourse, Palestine, and the Authoritative News Media,” examines the way in which news coverage of the Israeli-Palestine conflict in the US constructed a certain discourse of Palestine and Palestinians. Even though the last two chapters do not directly discuss the issue at hand, namely American studies in the Middle East, nevertheless, their overt criticism of US foreign policies and Orientalism provides a useful context for the issues tackled in the rest of the chapters.

9Moving away from the notions of empire and the implications of the power differential between East and West, the third part, “Cultural Encounters,” explores how poetry and music can bring about intercultural understanding and make borders and differences fade away. In the first chapter of this part, “Arabic Poetry in America,” we see how Hani Ismail Elayyan in Jordan attempted to bridge the gap between East and West through a course that studied simultaneously America’s influence on Arabs in their country but also on Arabs in the US. His focus on poetry written in Arabic by American Arabs reveals very successfully, as the editors also point out, art’s ability to foster cultural allegiances. Similarly, David McDonald in “The Stones We Throw are Rhymes: Imagining America in Palestinian Hip-Hop,” engages in an interesting exploration of hip-hop music in Palestine. Placing East and West side by side instead of pitting them against each other, McDonald reveals the shared influences among the two countries as far as the specific genre is concerned, highlighting at the same time the transnational quality of music that can offer a remedy to the social and political unrest in Palestine.

10The final part of the book, “Classroom Encounters,” offers a more empirical approach to the challenges and questions discussed in the previous parts by focusing on specific classroom experiences, obstacles, understandings and misunderstandings arising when the values taught collided with the specific values and experiences of those being taught. Indeed, one would easily suspect that the development of the American studies programs throughout the region was by no means an easy task if we take into consideration US politics -especially after 2001- that promoted American imperialism. Lucas’ discussion of the American Unipolar in part two would be an apt example of the challenges involved in the development of these programs in an area already suffering from social and political upheavals or characterized by authoritarian laws and sociopolitical sensitivities and barriers that further complicated attempts at cross-cultural approach.

11Bringing this point home, Colin Cavell in “American Studies in the Arabian Gulf: Teaching American Politics in Bahrain,” describes very eloquently how his students in Bahrain had difficulty negotiating the differences between the American values and politics inherent in the texts being taught, with the sociopolitical reality around them. Kate Sampsell-Willmann in the next chapter further illuminates the discrepancy described by Cavell. More specifically, Sampsell-Willmann focuses on a student project in Doha that never came to fruition due to cultural and political sensitivities.

12Finally, Edward Lundy in the last chapter of the part, “Teaching in the Middle East: Partial Cosmopolitanism,” offers an interesting glimpse into his classroom in the University of Jordan. Lundy shares details of the challenges involved in his teaching of topics and themes that were again off-limit due to cultural constraints and sensitivities. The description of how he and his students worked together to overcome these challenges concludes the book with a note of optimism as the theme of intercultural understanding explored in the third part, surfaces once again.

13Bringing together theory and practice, Practicing Transnationalism: American Studies in the Middle East, offers a thorough and interesting overview of the growth of American studies programs in the Middle East vis-a-vis the political developments in the area. Of course, to remember Said, one could argue that the book is still part of the West’s study of the East. Nevertheless, a closer look would reveal that this is not necessarily yet another American study of the Middle East. Instead it is a study of American politics and values within a Middle Eastern context. Overall, the hands-on approach of the subject matter invests the study with an appealing immediacy and makes it an easy read for the general public but also for the more erudite scholar. Perhaps the most valuable contribution of the book is the new portrait it paints of the modern Middle East as a place of intellectual growth and development as opposed to the usual battlefield images, constant violence and unrest that populate popular imagination. In this respect, books like Practicing Transnationalism: American Studies in the Middle East can open up new territory for American Studies, away from the oft restricting focus on American exceptionalism, and thus promote intercultural understanding.

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Chrysavgi Papagianni, « Eileen T. Lundy and Edward Lundy, eds. Practicing Transnationalism: American Studies in the Middle East », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2018-2, Online since 25 July 2018, connection on 20 August 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/13297

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