Sunday, September 11, 2011

Take the Way Home that Leads Back to Sullivan Street, Where all the Bodies Hang on the Air

Prefatory note: I had hoped to write a post about what it means to have grown up as an Arabist entirely in the immediate aftermath of the events of ten years ago. But this post isn't what I meant it to be. It's more concrete and narrative than analytical; I still hope to write the piece I set out to write, but the ideas need more time to develop. It turns out that with respect to making sense of it all, ten years is an arbitrary deadline. (I wrote this before realizing that more than a few commentators and historians  had come to the same non-conclusion.) This is not even really a first draft; it's more a putting to paper of some things that I needed to put to paper to free up some head space to be able to think about the bigger issues.  And really that's what this blog is for: To start to think through my ideas about all aspects of the profession and to put the little details in writing so I can really have room to think through the bigger issues. I wasn't even in New York on the day, but I still physically flinch whenever I see the photographs and I still feel this compulsion to narrate rather than analyze (a compulsion and a deficiency uniquely American, according to some other pundits). All of what follows needed to be said before I can even think about saying something that might be worthy of the gravity of the day.


My overwhelming emotion is relief that the anniversary did not fall this year on a day when I teach. At first it seems a petty, self-interested and small-minded response. But upon reflection, it becomes clear just how much of my university career was shaped by the events of that morning. For me, the aftermath has always been within the university. So the only strangeness of my first response is that I should want to mark the day out of classroom, alone, away from any student or colleague, rather than in it.


Ten years ago today, I began my third week as a university student.

Having started my days in high school between 7:15 and 7:30, I was convinced that an 8:30 am English class would feel like sleeping in every day; it didn't take me long to realize that even that was pushing it for my night owl self. And so I very, very quickly developed the custom of taking a nap between English 129 and my next class. I sleep with news radio on, and in those days my soporific of choice was WCBS. As I dozed, I couldn't figure out why they were replaying footage from the 1993 bombing of one of the WTC garages. It wasn't a big anniversary. It wasn't even the right time of year. Not long passed before I realized what was actually happening. I leapt out of bed and into the common room of my suite in Durfee Hall. The whole building was quiet except for the TVs playing in every suite, audible because everyone had seemed to have the same reflex: to open their doors. We wandered in and out of each others' suites, silently, almost as if to see if the news on anyone else's TV was different. That is what I remember most of my own experience of the day: our collective, eerie, spontaneous hospitality.

I left Durfee when it was time to go to that next class, a lecture on the history of modern American architecture. The professor was Vincent Scully, considered to be the leading light in his field and the most gifted lecturer I have ever heard speak, a man well above six feet tall whose broad shoulders belied his nearly eighty years. He began class by referring to the syllabus, to the topic of the day's lecture: modernism.  Specifically, he told us, he had planned that day to lecture on how, in ideal aesthetic terms, the Twin Towers had ruined the New York City skyline. (I wouldn't learn until later the legendary extent of his former hatred of those buildings.) Given the morning's events, he told us as he choked up, it was no longer an appropriate approach to the material. Toward the end of the lecture, when he arrived at whatever one could still say about a building that had only just become a symbol of something entirely different than the ruin wrought by glass boxes on the American city, that had only just ceased to exist, he could no longer hold back tears. It was at that moment, witnessing not the destruction of the buildings but a giant of a man and a mind weeping openly in front of three hundred students that I knew that the world had already come to an end.


I had been offered an internship at ABC news for the summer of 2002, but turned it down to begin to study Arabic. It was clear that all the Arabic classes would be full to capacity in the fall, and as a sophomore, I would have had low enrollment priority. In terms of the quality of my beginning Arabic instruction, it was a completely fortuitous series of decisions; and so in that respect, the tragic coincidence ensured that I would become a much better Arabist, surely, than I would have been otherwise. But that is not really the subject upon which I wish to reflect upon right now; it is the stuff of sheer coincidence. The rather more pressing question is this: What does it mean to have grown up as a medieval Arabist completely parallel to the Arabism, both pressing and expedient, that most of the rest of the country experienced, viewed, or in some way became aware of during the last decade?

I came into the field as its practitioners were forced to cultivate a pernicious, intentional irrelevance in order to protect the object of our study that in many supplanted the glorious irrelevance that is the entitlement of the medievalist. Many times I have had to tell incredulous interlocutors that no, I don't study medieval Iberia because I wish Jews, Christians and Muslims could all just get along. Almost as frequently I have had to explain to a wholly different kind of interlocutor that no, I don't in any way feel guilty about studying Arabic in this day and age. This, in turn, has required the cultivation of a certain freakishness, an oblivousness to the world as my friends joined up to the departments of State and Defense, and to the euphemistic Company where, in certain corridors, I am told, one can still walk and sing the Whiffenpoofs Song and fully expect someone to harmonize from an adjacent office.

To study medieval Arabic is to push the modern world as far away as possible — perhaps even farther than it would have been before Arabic and Islam emerged into the popular consciousness. Not only have I chosen to study something that is removed from the world in which I live, I have to actively remind myself and everyone else that no, I don't do that. I don't know about terrorists. I can't do more than offer a historical account of regicides and regime changes. Rather than quietly living with my head in the thirteenth century as my predecessors did, I stand and say: Yours is not my world.

Perhaps my despair is different from the despair of the people charged with remembering and with fixing. I can see the failures coming from farther away because they are the same failures of ninth century and of the thirteenth but I am as impotent as they are — even if for different reasons. (Here I refer of course to politicians and not to civil servants or soldiers, whom I have generally found to be well-read, insightful, and equally despairing.) I am no more impotent against this than the people who shouldn't be.

I could say that to pursue the matter of Araby — in the words of another daughter of Eli — is to make a stand for the values of humanism that seem to have eroded over the course of the last decade for a whole host of reasons. But that seems too neat. And the honest truth is that I still don't know. I have no great insight into what it means to be a medieval Arabist after September 11, 2001. Ten years on, and I still can't write this piece. It means nothing. The great world keeps spinning, history continues to pile on top of history, and someone has to read it all.


Several years ago I had an exceptional student who happened to be a Naval ROTC cadet; she must be just on the verge of her commissioning now. She chose to write her research paper for my class about medieval military tactics after reading some of the battle hymns of Samuel the Nagid. The presentation of her research happened to fall on a day when she was required to wear her uniform on campus for inspection. I don't know if my other students noticed, but the striking coincidence of the visual and the aural and of the academic and the practical and dangerous was not jarring, strange or even — though I note it now — especially noteworthy.

The Nagid's war poetry is, I think, my favorite of the Arabizing Hebrew poetry from Spain. Perhaps it was inevitable, under the circumstances, that the poetry of war, like the simple fact of war, should feel familiar and appeal intellectually and aesthetically. War and Arabic poetry have occupied my world for precisely the same length of time. Perhaps the towers' collapse is not nearly as far from my mind as I would like.


How could it be? It is the matter of Araby that brought me to New York, to an apartment with this view from the living room window:


Let me conclude by quoting John Adams, writing in a letter to his wife Abigail in 1780: "I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain."

I am grateful, especially today, to the students of war whose sacrifices have afforded me the right to have spent the last decade studying poetry.

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