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The Dartmouth
June 19, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Q&A with Middle Eastern Studies professor Tarek El-Ariss

El-Ariss is chair of the Middle Eastern studies program and has been actively involved in campus dialogue efforts.


This article is featured in the 2024 Winter Carnival special issue.

The Dartmouth spoke with the chair of the Middle Eastern studies program, professor Tarek El-Ariss, on his efforts to facilitate campus dialogue after Oct. 7, including organizing panels and teaching new classes.

What has your experience been like in terms of navigating dialogue exchanges with students and administration over the last few months?

TE: Obviously, a lot of people are hurting. This has been very tough. I grew up in Beirut during the war, in the 1970s and 1980s. So this is also a bit tough on me, and I’ve written about it. But I think what’s important is that the doors are open — everyone’s door is open — and that I know for a fact. I think it’s important that people go talk to whomever they want to talk to, an administrator or professor. My office door is open. I talk to students all the time. The doors are open on campus, there is not one closed door. I think that’s the most important thing. Everyone’s willing to listen — but there are no magic wands, right? 

Do you have any advice on how to approach dialogue, especially when there are differing opinions? 

TE: It’s very important that we listen. Sometimes when we have something on our mind, or we believe in something very, very strongly, it’s hard to always make room for what the other person is saying or what the other person is trying to express. The first condition of dialogue is really to have your belief but also to try to make room for the beliefs of the other person. 

How do you try to exchange viewpoints or say, “This is my position? What is your position? Where do I agree with you?” I might disagree with you, but this [process] is also to find the model of communication where I’m allowing you to express that position. We’re at the university, where we take classes, we debate things. That’s what we’re supposed to be practicing. We are at Dartmouth College, and so there is a context for how we exchange, and why we are there. 

The other components of this dialogue are learning and research. So maybe I hear something that I don’t know enough about. Do I know enough? Maybe when I hear the point of view, I say, “Well, that contradicts what I believed in or what I thought, maybe I should study this topic further. Maybe I should go learn more about this.” 

So what are these conflicts, or where do they come from? What is the history of the region? What happened during those years? How did things evolve? Now everything is on social media. It’s in the news. But how much do people really know about how these things evolve? And if you don’t know how things evolve, you can’t form an educated opinion about things. So, if you want to understand the big picture, you also need to study, you need to take the courses that we offer across campus that cover different parts of this particular issue, but also other related issues.

This term you are teaching a joint class with the chair of the Jewish studies program, professor Susannah Heschel, called MES 17.19/JWST 42.11, “The Arab, The Jew and the Construction of Modernity.” What have been some of the most surprising parts of teaching that class? 

TE: Professor Heschel and I have done a lot of work on the 18th and 19th centuries. Starting in the 18th century, a lot of these groups were thinking, “Okay, this is this European enlightenment.” The Germans, the French, the British, are saying, “Wow! We saw the light. Now we have science, we have ideas, we have freedom, human rights!” They’re doing revolutions. You have democratic systems, you have new regimes that are taking over and replacing old ones. So you have these big transformations. This is also a period where Arabs and Jews are becoming modern or engaging with questions of modernity.

They’re wondering how to be in this new age of freedom and ideas. What you’re going to have is all these ideas of nationalism start to push against these older formations of empires, of millet, or of sects. I’m very interested in how these questions, this engagement with this modern tradition, begin to transform ideas, lives, political systems, and so on. Professor Heschel is also interested, particularly, in Jewish intellectuals in Europe who were working on Islam, like Abraham Geiger. This is what we communicate in the class. We try to get the students to understand and think about these questions that show this history of modernity that led to the establishment, especially in the Arab-Jewish context, the establishment of Hebrew as a modern language and Arabic as a modern language. 

“How is this new age of freedom and ideas going to affect our religious beliefs? How is it going to affect our tradition? Is it going to affect the way we dress?” All these questions are something we’re interested in. And what also comes out in this course, which is very interesting, is that you have the rise of anti-semitism in Europe in the 19th century with cases like the Dreyfus affair. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French officer, was accused of treason in 1895. There was really shoddy proof. It was an artificial case, and they used him as a scapegoat, basically. And that generated all kinds of antisemitic feelings in France.

Then, all these people in the region who thought the French are so civilized, Europeans are so civilized and this is modernity, this is separation of church and state, freedom. And all of a sudden they go back to something so tribal, so sectarian, so xenophobic, so antisemitic. And you have a huge solidarity among Muslims and Christian intellectuals in the Ottoman Empire, with Dreyfus, with the Jews, that say, “This is wrong, this European modernity that is really actually racism and colonialism.” 

The history is very complex. It’s not just simply the history of conflict. It’s also a history of common interest and solidarity at multiple levels. And that’s important to bring up.

What lessons do you think we could take away from the panels that were organized last term? Are there any areas that we could improve on?

TE: It is important to say that everyone has very good intentions, and we do our best. But this is difficult, and some people have different ideas about things. But this is where everyone’s doing their best to listen, to engage, and to preserve what we have, which is a community that comes together. And it’s a community that is eager to learn and understand and engage in dialogue. We always need to outdo ourselves and keep trying to practice these values and make sure that they continue to keep us engaged. 

The Middle Eastern studies program is offering new classes in the coming terms, many of which are being taught by Palestinian professors. What inspired this move? 

TE: Sayed Kashua is Israeli-Palestinian, and he’s also written all these shows on Israeli television. So, he’s a major figure in Israel, and for the Palestinians as well. And these are the kind of people that I think are important to hear. We’re in conversation with a lot of people to come and talk and to come and teach. We’ve added courses and we asked professor Ezzedine Fishere to teach “Politics of Israel and Palestine” this winter, which was not on the books. And we have plans for Americans, Israeli Palestinians, more professors and courses and people to co-teach as well to come. But, in academia, things work very slowly because you have to book way in advance. We’re working very hard on inviting interesting speakers, but also people who have interesting things to offer you in a classroom.

What do you think Dartmouth has done right in handling these things, and what has Dartmouth done wrong?

TEl: Dartmouth is not one thing. There’s what I’m doing with my colleague, or what the administration or the President’s Office is doing. There’s also the Dean of Faculty, the undergraduate dean, the house professor. All of us make up Dartmouth, but I can tell you about what I’m doing, and I think that’s fair. I think it’s important that you also ask these different people because I don’t always see or know exactly what’s happening in these other domains. But I think, for us, the priority is to bring people together, to keep them engaged, to keep listening to them, to keep our office doors open, to hear them, to offer them courses that expand their minds and their understanding of things, to organize events that also bring them together as a community to to expose them to ideas about issues that deal with the present, but also that deal with the past. To offer them a wider view of things, so they can be better equipped at forming their own opinions and debating those opinions, and so on.

I think we need to do more. We’re trying to do as much as we can, but there is always room for improvement, and there is always room for doing more, and inviting more people, and organizing more events and spending more time talking to students. We’ve been doing that also — visiting different student groups and making sure that whoever comes to Dartmouth goes to meet with them and talk to them. I think this is very important, and I think we need to do more of this.

I remember hearing that you had won a Guggenheim Fellowship. Would you tell me a little bit more about that and the work that you’ve been doing?

TE: This is the fruit of the Guggenheim: “Water on Fire: A Memoir of War.” It comes out in April, and it’s about me growing up in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. How do you grow up during a war? What do you do? How do you process something like war when you’re a child? How do you live with it? How does it affect you? How does it shape your perception of the world? What kind of pain and scars does this experience leave? This was a 15-year war. It’s not a month. It’s not two months, it’s 15 years. 

This book starts in a therapist’s office in New York City in March 2001. I was going through tough times, and I just finished graduate school, and I just moved to New York. It was tough, and I had burnout. I wasn’t sure where I was going, or what I was doing. I tell my therapist that I come from a very traditional Middle Eastern family. I tell her I come from the 19th century. She looks at me, and she says, “I thought you were from Lebanon. Don’t you want to talk about the war?” So here I am, carrying all these scars, all these traumas, and I go to therapy, not having any idea that this is what I need to work on. In the next chapter, I start telling the story of growing up in Beirut during the war. The first chapter is set in March 2001, and the last chapter is about September 11th, 2001. The war followed me to New York, and I’ve been carrying the war with me throughout. So it’s a book about living with war. How do you live with it? Do you let it eliminate you? Can you erase the scars? How do you recognize them? How do you not let them take over your life? So, a lot of what we’re doing is also coming from a very personal experience. 

I usually end all of my interviews with this question: If you had a piece of advice to give anyone reading this piece, what would it be?

TE: Take your time. Pause. Because in that moment of pausing, of stopping, you can listen, you can understand. You can feel, you can mourn, you can be moved. You can have an idea that might transform who you are and your perception of the world. But we need to pause and take a little bit of time.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.