Apr
10

Teach for Arabia

After some politically-oriented books on Qatar, I was pleased to find Neha Vora's "Teach for Arabia: American Universities, Liberalism, and Transnational Qatar" (2019). The book takes a quasi ethnographic approach to Education City (individual interviews and personal experience) and the author is reflexive about a wide range of topics and experiences. "Field" research was conducted while the author was working and teaching in Education City, between 2010 and 2014, and the writing was finished in 2016 (which shows you how slow book publishing is, as this comes out in 2019). One limitation of the book is that much is assumed about life and ideas outside of the people and place of Education City - the author did not interview anyone at Qatar University, at least for some perspective. Nonetheless, this is an interesting book, and most enjoyably, it is (self) critical - which is quite rare amongst the other volumes, many being rooted in orientalist perspectives and perpetuating colonialist attitudes (one book uncritically notes Education City as a colonization project, even celebrates it as such). Interesting in this book is the journey of the author, which she takes us along; not arriving as a scholar critical of content or assumptions, but rather was pushed to contest, challenge and critique at the demands of students (example below). A few notes:

Journeys of learning: "The class - who were about half Qatari citizens and half foreign residents who had grown up in Doha - arrived the morning after reading the chapter uniformly offended; they had clearly had a group conversation prior to our meeting. They told me the reading did not speak to them and also presented them or their classmates as exotic. Overall, they were fed up with the textbook... The students then moved on to tell me how their other classes - STEM classes - contained similar moments of tension, sometimes in the curriculum and sometimes due to their professors' presumptions about what Qataris, Arabs, and/or Muslims were like." (p. 2)

Centering and marginalizing: "Faculty and staff teach and speak what they know, and what they knew was usually refracted through the United States. In addition, the texts themselves, written in English, most often published in the United States and reflecting Euro-American disciplinary conventions, were usually geared toward American audiences with unconscious familiarity in American cultural norms. As one student told me, "of course they do bring a lot of current events into the classroom but a lot of the materials in the textbooks are so US-centered." (p. 55-56)

Upending assumptions: "Whenever I design a course now, I am reminded of that class in Doha and how much it pushed me outside of my comfort zone. It challenged me to question who I center and who I marginalize through my choice of readings and assignments, the language I use in delivering my lectures, how I assign group work, and my overall interactions with students. Today, I am a tenured faculty member at an elite liberal arts institution in the United States that markets itself as invested in critical thinking, undergraduate research experiences, diversity, and global citizenship training. The students at this institution will rarely get to experience these learning outcomes to the extent that I have witnessed students experience them at the American branch campuses in Doha, due to the diversity of students, quality of resources, and number of hand-on learning opportunities available there." (p. 3)

Liberal piety: "The categorization of places, ideas, regimes, and cultures in liberal and illiberal is fundamentally a project based on faith rather than fact, one that constantly needs to elide imperial histories, encounters with difference, and discursive and material inconsistencies in order to maintain what I call liberal piety, producing subjects who believe themselves to be liberal, cosmopolitan, and inclusive rather than parochial and complicit in ongoing forms of imperialism, Orientalism, exclusion, and American exceptionalism." (p. 9)

Contradictions: "The American university was foundationally colonial and white supremacist. The earliest universities in North America, which would become the Ivy League, were Christian missionary projects built in the name of manifest destiny and civilizing the inferior Indian. They were funded by profits accrued by white slaving elites, as well as built in part by slave labor." (p. 11)

Education system: "RAND's projects included helping to set up the Qatar National Research Fund guidelines, writing the Qatar National Research Strategy, working with Qatar Foundation on multiple projects, and assessing the national Qatar University. But their main project was focused on how to improve and develop public K-12 education. In 2007, RAND produced a report, Education for a New Era, which suggested three options for reforming what it felt was a system that had failed because of Qatari resistance to change and a lack of critical thinking in schools. All three suggested reform options were neoliberal approaches that reduced centralization and focused on parental choice..." (p. 41-42)

Priorities: "American branch campuses saw coeducation as integral to the liberal project in Doha. Branch campuses perpetuated the idea that students could not attain liberal academic progress without being in mixed classrooms, and they they could not attain full citizenship without heterosocial participation in activities outside the classroom. These understandings stemmed from the mainstreaming of liberal feminism into the US academy, and from the yoking of gender and sexuality to civilization metrics for branch campus success." (p. 81)

The voiceless: "I came to see how coeducation and other measures of liberal feminist success in Education City presumed a baseline voiceless Qatari female subject on which to inscribe liberation, not a woman who entered the university with her own forms of personal power and agency." (p. 83) 

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Mar
30

Warriors in a Time of Sacrifice

Ambassador of Panama to the State of Qatar, Oreste Del Rio Sandoval, prepared a paper for a presentation made at Camilo Jose Cela University, Spain, on his experience in Qatar. The work turned into a book, titled 'Warriors in a Time of Sacrifice' (2019), published by Lusail. The title draws from a line in the national anthem of Qatar.

The book is relatively brief, 135 pages with large font and spaced lines. Kamrava (who also a book on Qatar), authored the Forward. The book is a primer to Qatar (history, economy, politics, society, region) and offers reflections on the period of the blockade (2017-2021). For readers looking for a more detailed political book, Kamrava's book (although now somewhat dated) is quite useful. This presents some updates, but is much briefer.

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Mar
29

Small State, Big Politics

Professor of Government at Georgetown University in Qatar, Mehran Kamrava, penned one of the most read / taught books on Qatar in 2013 (with a 2015 adding an updated Preface): Qatar: Small State, Big Politics. Having read a few books on Qatar, this is one of the best, although increasingly dated (the content essentially up to 2012). Nonetheless, this is a good primer, and for those interested in the country, worth a read. A few notes:

Context on book: "The emergence of Qatar as an influential powerbroker in the Middle East and beyond over the past decade has puzzled students and observers of the region alike. How can a small stake, with little previous history of diplomatic engagement regionally or globally, have emerged as such an influential and significant player in shaping unfolding events across the Middle East and elsewhere? This is the central question to which this book is devoted." (p. 1)

"Ascendance is not without its risks, and many deep-seated structural limitations impede, or altogether threaten, the meteoric rise of the Middle East's newest heavyweights. I argue that in many ways Qatar is immune to many of these risks and limitations, and, insofar as its international profile and power-projection abilities are concerned, it has therefore been able to stand above the rest of the pack so far. The unique rise of Qatar is facilitated by a combination of factors that are both structural and contextual, in relation to its neighbours, and agency related - that is, its own resources and its employment of those resources and its agendas for purposes of power projection." (p. 18)

"Hedging may be defined as "a behavior in which a country seeks to offset risks by pursuing multiple policy options that are intended to produce mutually counteracting effects, under the situation of high-uncertainties and high-stakes." Hedging stresses engagement and integration mechanisms, on the one hand, and realist-style balancing and external security cooperation, on the other... It is a carefully calibrated policy in which the state takes big bets one way - for example, in Qatar's case opting for the US security umbrella - while it also takes smaller bets the other way, as in maintaining friendly ties with Iran and regional Islamists." (p. 51-52)

"A second, rather distinctive, branding strategy that Qatar employs is through proactive attempts at regional conflict resolution. Over the past decade, Qatar has become one of the world's most active mediators in international conflicts across the Middle East and parts of Africa, and in the process it has actively cultivated an image of itself as an honest broker interested in peace and stability. These have included mediation efforts in Yemen, Palestine, Sudan, Djibouti and Eritrea, and, most notably, in Lebanon." (p. 93) Since the book was written, probably even more notable is the brokering efforts in Afghanistan. 

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Mar
19

The Global Majlis

Career diplomat and current State Minister Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari wrote "The Global Majlis" (arabic 2015, translation 2016) as an "intellectual autobiography". The book draws on reflections from his work in Syria, Lebanon, France and the US, as well as in Qatar (published by HBKU press). Culture emerges as a key thread throughout the book, as it does in the thought and work of the author; he describes in the Forward: "I tackle the issue of distinctive cultural character versus universal cultural character in the context of culture and development. I describe how my perception of literature and the arts has evolved. I talk about the public space as a place for public discussion, beginning with the majlis tradition in our countries and extending to new media trends" (p. viii). A few interesting notes:

"The politician's role is to build on what is positive and inspire hope among people." (p. 9)

"We should not be tricked by the might of the machine behind globalised culture. Cultures are quintessentially local, and they cannot be eliminated unless the societies that produce them disappear. Yet at the same time, local cultures do not exist in isolation from historical shifts. They are not rigid and cannot afford to be so; in order to survive and thrive, cultures must accommodate changes and developments without losing their essential characteristics" (p. 14)

"Isolationism and retreating into one's identity because of globalisation's hegemony is in the end a crude expression of a culture of fear, and of a stale perception of what constitutes culture." (p. 140)

"Education in my view should emphasize tolerance, refinement and enlightenment. It should seek to help young people to go beyond instinct and natural capability, by developing their skills and talents to be able to change themselves and reform their society to be prosperous, upstanding and harmonious. The Quran reminds us 'God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves', and the instrument of bringing about this change is education and the educational institution." (p. 149)

"I was raised in a culture that does not understand education to be limited to the attainment of degrees, no matter how vaunted those degrees are and how much they help one find employment. Education in our culture and tradition is a duty for all those who want to follow the path of truth, and an endless sea in whose waters we should cleanse ourselves for as long as we live. I believe that seeking knowledge is akin to the dynamism of life in its progress and decline, or the sea in its ebb and flow. We elevate ourselves and increase the value of our symbolic capital by reading and learning, and we retreat and impoverish ourselves by being content with what we already know." (p 150-151) 

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