How much do you know about the Middle East?
Professor Mark Wagner’s course offered this semester, HNRS 2013: Arab and Jew in Literature and Film, studies the dynamics of Middle Eastern culture focused on these two groups and how they interact.
“It's about cultural contacts between Jews and Arabs mainly in the modern period,” said Wagner. “The class moves geographically to various places where there was this sustained contact between Jews and Muslims— first to North Africa and to Yemen, to Iraq, and to Egypt.”
The class is based not only in the literature and film generated from these two groups, but also in the history surrounding their past. Wagner provides a brief pre-modern period breakdown for the students to better understand the modern period that represents the main area of study in the course.
“Before we discuss the modern period, we talk about Muslim Spain, which becomes this powerful symbol for tolerance or living together in a creative and productive way,” said Wagner.
The remainder of the course covers the current issue of Jews living in Islamic states and Muslims living in modern Israel. One of the primary interests of the course, said Wagner, is discussing the problem the Arab Jew faces: existing between two powerful cultures.
“The third part of the class is about Modern Israel. We talk about this dynamic of being culturally in-between,” said Wagner. “We have Jewish writers and Jews who are living in a kind of Arabic experience in the Middle East, and Arabs who are writing in Hebrew. I'm interested in these people who find themselves in between these two cultures, which is certainly not unusual, but in this particular case it's in-between two fiercely antagonistic cultures.”
For Wagner, confronting these issues prompts dozens of questions involving identity, language, and what constitutes a homeland.
“So there are some more general predicaments that these people find themselves in, whether they're Jews in the Arab world or Palestinians in Israel. It has a lot of universal resonance of not belonging, of taking on different roles depending on who one is around and who one is interacting with, of being an actor constantly.”
The course covers these questions through extensive reading and exposure to films that delve heavily into this subject matter. These films include “Azi Ayima”, which explores Jewish roots in Morocco, "Blood Relation", which tells the story of an Israeli family with Muslim relatives, and "Forget Baghdad", which follows Iraqi Jews writing in Arabic in Israel and who were active in the communist party in Iraq.
Wagner also assigns various readings for the students that go hand-in-hand with the films. A selection of these assignments includes Medieval Hebrew poems from Muslim Spain, a graphic novel titled “The Rabbi’s Cat” which details the lives of a Jewish family in Algeria in the 1930s, and the novel “Pillar of Salt” which explores themes of remaining true to one’s identity in a changing world.
According to Wagner, he wants to give a different telling of the Arab-Jew conflict than is normally told. For him, these cultures are mutually dependent on one another through 1400 years of change and growth. There is a balance between individualism and group dynamics that must be addressed.
“One of the points of the course is to show that Arabs and Jews have been deeply involved in shaping each other's culture for 1400 years,” said Wagner. “We try to address the question of whether it is possible to be in some sort of pluralistic setting and be one's self.”
Story by Jacqueline DeRobertis, LSU Honors College
For more information, contact the Honors College at 225-578-8831