I live in Abu Dhabi. When I tell people that, I usually have to do a few follow-up comments. No, Abu Dhabi isn’t where they filmed that “Mission Impossible” movie, that’s Dubai; yes, it’s the setting for the dreadful “Sex and the City 2” movie, but that movie was actually filmed in Morocco; no, I don’t have to wear a veil; yes, I can move freely around the city; yes, I wear short sleeves and even (gasp) a two-piece bathing suit on the beach.
True, no one is going to mistake Abu Dhabi for Rio anytime soon, but at the same time, what I’ve noticed in conversations with family and friends–well-meaning people, educated people, progressive-minded people–is the way that “the Middle East” gets kind of blurred into one big mushy picture involving veiled women, angry bearded men, sand, and oil wells. I wonder sometimes how on earth people are going to get clearer visions of one another, given the ease with which stereotypes and assumptions govern our thinking.
These entrenched and outdated habits of mind have been echoing pretty loudly in my life over the past few weeks, because a group of faculty at NYU in New York have staged a vote of no-confidence about John Sexton, who has been president of NYU for the last ten years. The group has been primarily angry about a plan to expand the university’s campus in Greenwich Village and while I’m not a fan of that plan, I do recognize that the university needs classroom space, office space, and housing–all of which, in NYC, are very much at a premium. (And I’m not going to say anything about the fact that some of the most outspoken critics of the expansion plan are the first to complain that they might have to –horrors– share an office, or teach in a classroom that’s not within walking distance of their office, or teach at an inconvenient time. Nope. Not saying that at all.)
This same group of faculty complains about NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus, for a variety of reasons, although interestingly, none of the loudest voices has been to the Middle East, the Gulf, or Abu Dhabi. Some of them have, I assume eaten falafel or hummus, or the occasional pita bread, so I suppose that qualifies them for commentary, yes? What surprises me about the commentary that comes from these critics is that they make unsubstantiated claims of the sort that, were their students to make these statements in an essay, the professors would be asking for proof, evidence, support.
So in this piece from The New York Observer, or this piece in “The Daily Beast,” or this one from The Atlantic (really, one expects better from The Atlantic), or this one from The Guardian we are told that, among other things, women have no more rights than animals, that the government here is both quixotic and despotic, that cameras are forbidden on the streets, and that the place is like Siberia. One professor, in The Guardian article, even says that “faculty had no say over whether to be a global university.” Because why on earth would you want to interact with people from, you know, anywhere else other than where you’re from? Especially at a university? These articles (in which the same voices pop up with dismaying regularity) offer up every stereotype there is about this region and seem insistent about the idea that until a government or society is perfect, “we” should not enter into dialogue with “them.”
Which, of course, is going to make it really, really difficult for anyone who lives anywhere to talk to anyone. And isn’t that just a great way to make sure the world goes to hell in a handbag? Let’s all just withdraw into our own little worlds and not talk to anyone whose ideas or practices conflict with our own even a jot.
Anyway, in an effort to get even a breath of reality into this discussion, I wrote this piece, about the pleasures and challenges of teaching here. I’ve included the longer version of the piece below (so if any of my students are reading this post, you can see that I know about the pain of being edited down to the bone).
Yeah. Except that cityscape?
It’s a photograph of Dubai.
Followup: the no-confidence vote passed: 298 voted “no confidence,” out of 682 eligible voting faculty. An overwhelming mandate? Hmmm
Followup: the photo was re-edited, something about a copy editor asleep at the switch. Here’s the longer version of the piece:
“I was accepted at Oxford,” said the student sitting next to me. We were at the NYU Abu Dhabi “Marhaba Dinner” for the incoming freshmen class—a group of about a hundred and fifty—whose admission to NYUAD marked the college’s second year of existence. I’d come to Abu Dhabi with my family about six weeks before this dinner, in order to join the NYUAD literature faculty, and this evening marked my first encounter with the members of what has been billed as “the world’s honors college.” “My mum wanted me to stay close to home,” my dinner companion continued, “but I came here because I wanted…all this,” and he waved his hand towards the other students.
I looked around the room: boys in gleaming white kanduras talked with girls in skirts and heels; near the dessert buffet, two boys in jackets and ties debated the relative merits of chocolate mousse and baklava with several girls wearing abayas and headscarves. The hundred and fifty students in the room came from eighty-six countries and spoke eighty-nine different languages; the cavernous dining room echoed with excited voices speaking a hodge-podge of English and everything else. At my table, in addition to the boy from England, were students from Argentina, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, mainland China, the United States, Russia, India, and the Philippines. When a young man at the table said “I don’t want to just study international relations, I want to do international relations,” all the students nodded: with the earnestness of the young and talented, they’re sure that at some point they will change the world.
As a group of NYU faculty in New York prepare to hold a vote of no-confidence over John Sexton’s leadership of the university, NYUAD has emerged, along with Sexton’s ambitious Greenwich Village expansion plan, as primary whipping boys. And while I am not a big fan of the expansion plan, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that teaching at NYUAD has restored my hope that maybe—just maybe—the generation represented by the students here will be able to prevent the world from drowning in a miasma of sectarian violence and corporate malfeasance.
NYUAD has been accused of being “deep in the Sultan’s pockets” (although neither Abu Dhabi nor the UAE has a sultan); or we are colluding with the UAE military-industrial complex; or we are tacitly endorsing a repressive regime. One well-known faculty member in New York has been quoted in several different articles saying that Abu Dhabi is a police state, where Jews are legislated against and cameras are not allowed on the streets. My Jewish friends here—one of whom compulsively documents almost every hour of her life with the camera on her iPhone—found these statements surprising, to say the least.
Further, if these critics are to be believed, all of us who teach here have abandoned academic integrity in favor of a fat paycheck and warm weather. Critics of NYUAD seem unwilling or unable to imagine that perhaps faculty are here because of the deep intellectual pleasure of teaching these students and because of the excitement—and challenge—that comes with creating a new institution. We are not missionaries preaching western-style enlightenment (as a faculty member in New York described the Abu Dhabi faculty mandate), and while some of us may feel challenged at times by living in a society that conceptualizes individual freedoms differently than does, say, the United States, I challenge you to find a country anywhere that offers its inhabitants perfect, unfettered freedoms. NYUAD’s faculty have come to Abu Dhabi to help re-imagine the liberal arts college for the twenty-first century, particularly in terms of how students encounter the humanities—and, thus, worlds other than their own.
One of the charges leveled against NYUAD is that it’s “buying” smart students with generous financial aid packages, but again, I would challenge these critics to find a student at any institution who can afford to ignore the price tag of her diploma. It’s worth remembering that many countries provide outstanding college educations at no or low cost to their citizens, and that even in the US, top schools provide generous aid packages to attract promising students who would otherwise have no hope of affording full tuition, room, and board. If NYUAD wants to attract the most exciting students, it needs to make sure it’s playing on the same field.
Contrary to popular opinion, the majority of NYUAD students are not from wealthy backgrounds and have not traveled widely outside their home countries; we have students here who have never been in a co-ed class, never been in a Muslim country, never been out of a Muslim country, never been in a classroom where they could voice their opinion. My first semester teaching at NYUAD, I asked a student—a girl from Egypt—what she thought about Art Spiegelman creating a graphic novel (Maus) to tell a story about a Holocaust survivor and his son. The student said she didn’t understand the question—but her confusion had nothing to do with Spiegelman’s book. She couldn’t believe that I wanted her opinion; she was sure that there was some kind of trick answer. When she trusted that I wanted to hear what she had to say, the first thing she said was “no teacher has ever asked me what I thought.” Then she went on to connect Spiegelman’s “comic book” with some of the political art she noticed in Cairo during Arab Spring.
What is developing at NYUAD might be described by sociologist Bryan Turner as “cosmopolitan virtue”: a sense of responsibility that leads to “care for other cultures, ironic distance from one’s own traditions, concern for the integrity of cultures in a hybrid world, [and] openness to cross-cultural criticism.” Irony here is not the hipster-ish stance of “whatever,” which so many college students claim as their birthright. Turner’s irony requires an “intellectual distance from one’s own national or local culture,” which makes sense, considering that with distance frequently comes a fresh perspective.
When female Emirati students can assert that feminism is a part of their identity as Emirati women, when US students become friends with students who grew up in Palestine, when the student from Mumbai plays cricket with classmates from Pakistan—aren’t these the conversations and connections we want to foster? Shouldn’t the 21st century college be encouraging us—students and faculty alike—to live outside our comfort zones, to find connections across differences instead of trying to eradicate difference altogether? Shouldn’t we be moving towards a more cosmopolitan worldview, one that sees difference as an opportunity rather than a threat? Critics of NYUAD (many of whom have never been to the Middle East, much less to Abu Dhabi) talk about our enterprise in voices full of certainty, as if they know the right way to think about education, learning, and global cultures. What we are all learning at NYUAD, however, is that no single culture, no single perspective offers all the answers.
When answers do emerge, they come from collaboration and reflection, as happened last year when the four-person student team from NYUAD won the prestigious Hult Challenge, which charges students to work with an NGO on solutions to global social problems. The NYUAD students worked with SolarAid to develop a sustainable plan to bring solar power to African villages. What was the high-tech strategy that won the million-dollar prize?
Build a community network.
The team had traveled to villages in Ethiopia and Kenya to explain their original, detail-heavy plan, and discovered, as they talked with people, that the original plan wouldn’t work. The villagers said that in order to give up their old kerosene lamps for the new solar-powered lights, they needed a reliable local network of tech support and maintenance. These discussions led the team to devise a viable community support system—and won them first prize.
Are the Hult students incredibly talented? Absolutely. Had they learned the skills necessary for collaboration and reflection at NYUAD? Perhaps. And perhaps also their own lived experience helped them understand how to connect across difference: the four students come from India, Pakistan, China, and Taiwan. Nationalism would suggest that they be bitter enemies; cosmopolitanism allowed them to harness their intellectual energy for the social good.
While I’m not saying that NYUAD is a success because its students are prize-winners, I am suggesting that, at a moment when the world’s problems seem intractable because dialogue and conversation have fallen prey to aggression and self-interest, the existence of a place where people from wildly divergent backgrounds—indeed, in some cases from enemy countries—can come together on common ground for shared intellectual exploration and discovery—well, that seems like something that we should be making every effort to preserve, protect, and nurture.
Say what you will about John Sexton’s plans to expand NYU’s campus in Manhattan, the campus in Abu Dhabi offers an example of what it means to explore the world of the mind in intimate conversations and creative action. People have asked why Abu Dhabi, instead of, say, London, Berlin, Beijing. The answer, like most answers, is complicated, but rests at least in part in the fact that everyone here, even the students whose families may live a few blocks away, is working with new frames of reference, be they geographical, political, linguistic, intellectual, or spiritual. At NYUAD we are looking at the world with new frames of reference—asking different questions, finding different answers, exploring new collaborations. We aren’t just studying international relations, or doing international relations. We are, all of us, living international relations.