Year Two in Review
So what have I been up to for the last year? Here are some highlights.
I audited three history classes in Arabic at UJ. These included: Administration in the Early Islamic Caliphate, Islamic Reform Movements of the 19th Century, and the History of Western Political Philosophy. These classes gave me excellent language practice, and were fantastic for getting an “inside look” at how Arabs and Muslims see their history.
I wrote a thesis examining discourse about Islam in the United States. This entailed reading dozens of books and hundreds of articles and blog posts that purport to explain “true Islam”, across the spectrum, ranging from Robert Spencer to Karen Armstrong. I loved diving into the subject and learning, but UJ politics–and personal agendas among professors–made the thesis process one of the worst experiences of my career. I hate to admit it, but it was probably also the best training I could imagine for high-level government service.
I spent a couple months at a traditional (i.e. conservative but anti-Wahhabi) Islamic school, where I was the only non-Muslim. I studied two subjects: an introduction to the Hanafi school of shariah law, and tajwiid (Qur’an memorization and recital).
I visited Egypt in mid-January. On my last night, two Egypt Olmsted scholars and I talked about whether same thing that happened in Tunisia could happen in Egypt. Never, we thought. The state is too strong. The next day, as I was on my way to the airport, the first demonstrations began. A week later, my Olmsted colleagues were evacuated.
In March I went to a “#hashtagdebate” sponsored by some young, tech-savvy Jordanian reformers. It was a kind of town hall meeting–half physical, half virtual–where Jordanians could discuss political reform. I was impressed and inspired by the group. The next day, they helped lead a peaceful demonstration in Amman. Overzealous Jordanians who considered them traitors showed up to barrage them with rocks, while police largely stood by; later the police stormed the circle and one demonstrator died. Afterwards, police and counter-demonstrators celebrated together in the streets.
I learned that one of my best Jordanian friends used to be a fedayeen fighter and spent 20 years in Egyptian prison, at one point sharing a cell with Omar Abdel-Rahman and al-Zawahiri’s brother, before he renounced Islam and converted to Christianity. He showed me his gunshot scars from the Battle of Karameh. Wow.
My Arabic steadily improved. I’m pretty good by American standards, which means I’m still pretty lousy by Jordanian standards. I’m wondering if any non-native speaker ever feels “fluent.”
I finished my novel, which is a science-fiction story loosely based on the Rwandan genocide. It is dark and genre-defying, but I am still hoping to find an editor who is willing to buy it… and even more important, readers who want to read it.
I am on my way to a C-17 flying assignment. I’m sad to be leaving the Middle East, but I’m also excited to be returning to a flying unit. Living abroad has given me a deep appreciation for the camaraderie, professionalism, and competence in an Air Force flying squadron.