American Studies Gets an Arab Twist
DOHA—When Eid Mohamed visited the United States for the first time, he had a firm set of beliefs about what America is and who Americans are. The minute he stepped into the superpower nation, his convictions started falling apart.
Today, as the Egyptian professor recalls that first visit to the United States in 2005, he says he was in a similar position to the Westerners he used to criticize for their typical cultural representations of the Arab region.
“All my information about the United States were unrealistic stereotypes based on popular Arabic films and novels,” Mohamed said.
He calls the trip “an eye opener” and one of the reasons he pursued American studies, an interdisciplinary field that aims to understand the United States as a nation and its influence in the world, as well as America as an ideal for freedom and democracy. The field combines the study of American history, literature, society and culture.
Today Mohamed teaches American studies and comparative literature to Middle Eastern students at Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, in Qatar.
“A big part of our problems with the West in general and the U.S. in particular is mutual cultural misunderstandings,” he said. “That’s why it’s important for students in the Arab region to understand the U.S. and its power.”
Despite the United States’ perceived dominance on the political, economic and cultural scene in the Arab region, Mohamed says very few Arab researchers specialize in American studies.
One problem facing the discipline in the region is skepticism among students and academics about the motivations for American studies. Many researchers see it as a tool to promote the United States’ foreign policy.
This idea has roots in the early days of American studies in the region. The first American studies program in the Middle East, started at the University of Bahrain in May 1998, had a close working relationship with the U.S. State Department.
Mohamed says that American studies as a discipline started out promoting the “exceptional America”—essentially marketing an idealistic American dream—and also pushing an anti-communist ideology in the Cold War era. But in the past two decades, the field took a different tack and became one of the disciplines that is most critical of American domestic and foreign policies.
This is especially true for American studies programs based in the Middle East.
Alex Lubin, formerly a professor of American studies at the American University of Beirut and now the chair of American studies at the University of New Mexico, noted that these programs have helped de-centralize the field, bringing in new perspectives.
Speaking at a conference on American studies in Doha last January, Lubin said the question of Palestine and U.S.-Israeli relations, for example, are central topics in American studies in the Middle East, while they are marginal topics in American studies in the United States.
“American studies is about producing knowledge about the U.S., but it’s also a place to allow for more critical engagement than is currently available,” Lubin said at the Doha conference.
Today two of the most prominent centers of American studies in the Middle East are Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for American Studies and Research at the American University of Beirut, and Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for American Studies and Research at the American University in Cairo.
Others include an Institute for North American and European studies at the University of Tehran, in Iran. Additionally, some universities in the region offer master’s degrees in American studies, such as Al-Quds University, in East Jerusalem, and Hassan II University, in Morocco, which has a program in Moroccan American studies. The American University of Sharjah has a minor in American studies as part of an international studies degree.
Karine Walther, an associate professor of history at Georgetown University in Qatar, says this migration of American studies to other regions of the world has allowed for the study of American history through a more global lens and has helped the field move beyond the idea of “American exceptionalism.”
“The U.S. has always been part of the world, and the world has always shaped American history. So to understand the U.S. just by itself doesn’t make sense,” she said.
Walther notes that while her students in Qatar criticize American foreign policy in the Arab region, they think things are different inside the United States.
“They still have this belief that in the U.S., things are great. There is this American dream, there is equality and freedom,” she said. “That would be a mistake. Part of telling the story of what makes America great is the struggles that Americans faced, in being realistic about what happened, not seeing this state as a perfect place. It’s an unfinished project.”
American studies centers in the Arab region can help these students better understand the complexities of American history and can shed new light on the roots of phenomena like Islamophobia, according to Walther.
It can also enlighten Arab citizens in general about the United States by producing knowledge about the country in Arabic.
Mohamed recalled an incident, in 2014, that fueled by cultural misinformation. An Egyptian TV announcer falsely reported that, a year earlier, the United States had ordered its Sixth Fleet to Alexandria to rescue pro-Morsi protesters at the Raba’a sit-in. According to the erroneous report, Egyptian armed forces had opposed the move, attacked one of the American warships, and captured its commander and brought him back to Egypt.
“This might have been a joke in the U.S., but I was surprised to see that many Egyptians believed the story,” he said. “It shows how people don’t understand the U.S. or its real power.”
Mohamed thinks American studies centers in the region will help avoid the spread of similar unrealistic narratives by offering Arab citizens better information.
“If we can’t understand the U.S.,” he said, “we won’t be able to address its people—the citizens who elect the American government that then comes and does what it does in the region.”