Professor Bardenstein researches the symbolism of trees

by Neil Desai | 7/23/96 5:00am

To a Dartmouth students, trees may conjure up thoughts of hiking, salty dog rags and "the lone pine above her."

But to Carol Bardenstein, a professor of Arabic and Middle Eastern Language and Literature, trees hold a different symbolism -- one of identity, territorial claims and memories.

Bardenstein's most recent research delves into the symbolism and relevance of trees in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

"These symbols are used heavily by both to assert their own claims to the land." Bardenstein said. "The idea of planting, uprooting and burning the trees is used by both sides to stake their claims."

Tree planting became a mass ritual of "setting down roots" to the vast majority of Jews. Planting these seeds, she said, is a literal and symbolic act of putting down roots.

In the war in 1948, about 450 Palestinian villages were destroyed and forests were planted on top of them in the name of Zionism, she said.

"From the Palestinian point of view this is like covering up the memory of their existence," she said.

This past year, Bardenstein returned to some of these now forest-covered villages with some of their former Palestinian inhabitants. She noticed they ignored the trees planted by the Israelis and actually reconstructed the memories of the old village by "reading" the trees that were there prior to the war.

During the intifada of the 1980s, Palestinians set fire to Israeli forests. The Israeli military reciprocated by uprooting olive trees in Palestinian territory.

The prickly-pear cactus is another example. Originally Palestinians used this plant to delineate village boundaries. Although many of these villages were destroyed, the prickly-pear cacti did not disappear. For the Palestinians, the cactus is symbolic proof that their past lives on.

Ironically, the Israelis have also adopted the prickly-pear cactus as a symbolic representation of themselves.

On maternity and research leave since last fall Bardenstein discovered the symbolic significance of these plants while reading through poetry and literature from the region in preparation for a course she was to teach at Dartmouth, she said.

Bardenstein has been at the College since 1987 -- first as an instructor in Arabic Language and Literature and then as an assistant professor in the department after 1991.

Although she entered the University of Michigan expecting to study biology, she graduated in 1979 with a degree in Near Eastern Studies.

She has spent many years in the Middle East -- mostly in Israel and Egypt doing research. Between 1983 and 1984 she collaborated on a biography of the late Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, conducting extensive interviews with government officials, his family, and even his widow.

Returning to sleepy Hanover is quite a transition from the ferment and potential danger in the Middle East, she said.

"But you can be safe virtually anywhere," said Bardenstein, a Detroit native. She said keeping safe entailed recognizing the lines dividing Jewish and Palestinian settlements

"Part of the challenge is crossing over [between Jewish and Palestinian sectors]. You can't do it impulsively," she said. "And it can be dangerous if none of the people are familiar with you."

Bardenstein's first exposure to the Middle East came during her junior year at the University of Michigan. At the time, she was studying biology and sociobiology, though she had taken a few Near Eastern studies courses.

However she experienced a "turning point" while studying Arabic and Yiddish language at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem her junior year.

After returning to Michigan, she switched majors and graduated with a degree in Near Eastern studies. After graduation, she was awarded a fellowship to complete her master's degree in Arabic language and literature at Hebrew University.

After graduate school, Bardenstein studied at The American University of Cairo, eventually returning to graduate school at Michigan to receive her doctoral degree in 1991.

Her life would have been much different had she not studied abroad during her undergraduate years, she said.

"I would never have stuck with Hebrew and Arabic had I only done classroom learning," she said.

As a result, she encourages her students to go abroad and immerse themselves in language in the context of its culture.

"No matter how hard we try being here in Hanover bringing in all kinds of sources in the language classes, there is nothing like immersion in a different country," she said.

She said some students are initially hesitant to journey to the Middle East, but those that went have returned very inspired and dedicated.

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