Arab Tales of Brave New Worlds

November 2013

Queen Rania of Jordan’s announcement of Edraak.org, a massive open online course (MOOC) portal providing high-quality class material in Arabic, was received with a standing ovation at the Harvard Arab Weekend opening event last Thursday. No doubt the project, channeling technology to realize education’s equalizing potential in the Arab world, is admirable; and Queen Rania’s position as an inspiring role model is incontestable. But her opening address fell somewhat short of expectations. Listening to the keynote with a literarily attuned ear I couldn’t help but feel that the Queen’s speechwriter was unknowingly digging herself into a hole of royal proportions. The speech often favored rhetoric over substance, and seemed to ignore the side effects of most of the numerous quotations and sayings it employed to back up its arguments.

Queen Rania’s keynote began with the opening of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens, the quintessentially British author’s account of the years before and during the French Revolution in Paris and London.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness..."

Postulated as an apt description of the dichotomies that the Arab world has to overcome, Queen Rania’s use of Dickens’ text seemed full of profound meaning, but upon the mildest interrogation revealed itself as arbitrary. Catered towards effecting a rhetorical ring rather than forging any pertinent analogies between Dickens’ narrative and the Queen’s proposed narrative for the Arab world, parts of the speech often mimicked those very dualities brought forward by Dickens’ style, with the unintended result of casting the complexities of Arab politics and society in an overly simplified light.

For example, when describing the kind of narrative that the Arab world has the potential to embark on, Queen Rania asked:

"But what direction would the narrative take? Would it be a tale of boom? Or a tale of doom?"

This sonorous dichotomy of ‘boom or doom’, far from suggesting a constructive answer to the question had the opposite effect of articulating the challenges faced by the region in a reductive manner. Phrased in such a way, it appears that the Arab world has one of two options: to erupt into greatness or collapse into inescapable destruction. This kind of language, while very appealing to the ear, leaves no space for that middle ground that is the painstaking reality of conflict resolution, compromise, the imperative to reform corrupt political and administrative systems - that very pragmatism Queen Rania herself correctly insisted should infuse all progressive visions of the Arab world.

It seems that in an effort to package Edraak.org within the Harvard Arab Weekend’s theme - ‘Cherish, Challenge, Change’ - the Queen’s speechwriter downright ignored the nuances of the texts from which she drew quotations. Is cherishing the region possible only by reducing it to simplistic sketches? Do such accounts help effect change or do they in fact contribute to the problems faced by the region? Can one challenge the existing state of affairs if one is unable to fully articulate it, or uses misplaced analogies to do so? The speech took its quoting license as far as transposing the title of Dickens’ novel into a strained proposition for ‘The Tale of Twenty Two Cities’, referring to the twenty-two member states of the Arab League. This seemingly insignificant play between ‘two’ and ‘twenty two’ helped perpetuate the fallacious impression of the region as a homogeneous entity.

While the citations helped in the speech’s emotion-stirring capacity, they also drowned out any original insight that Queen Rania may have had vis-à-vis the problems she was describing - unemployment, under-development, food and water scarcity to name but a few. Yes, statistics were recited with conviction (only 1 in 5 women are employed in the Arab region compared to 1 in 2 globally; only 10 per million people are granted patents in the Arab states versus around 600 per million in countries with higher human development indicators) but there was little following these fact droplets that addressed what exactly is causing these problems in the first place. Existing policy and contentious matters of state were left untouched with the exception of some brief and admittedly honest references to Jordan and the challenging task of reforming the education system. Granted, this might be due to the peculiarity of her position as Queen consort. An important philanthropist, an Eminent Advocate for UNICEF and an NGO founder, Rania is neither a politician, nor an academic. Offering rigorous analyses of the topics she touches upon might understandably not be part of her job description.

But what about literature? Can a keynote address at such a publicized conference use ‘Western’ literary classics to strengthen the vision of an empowered Arab region without raising eyebrows? The use of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, for example, which became the tagline for Queen Rania’s vision of ‘a brave new Arab world’, was particularly telling in its complete sidetracking of the novel’s dystopian context. Not to mention the allusion of Huxley’s work to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a foundational text for post-colonial studies. Surely the Queen cannot have meant that this brave new Arab world she envisions will be replete with anxieties about freedom and the suffocating pervasiveness of technology that Huxley’s novel grapples with. Nor that this world should be ruled by Prosperos and served by Calibans. On the contrary, she was alluding to a better, more secure Arab world characterized by opportunity and social mobility. It was unfortunate that the Queen’s staff seemed oblivious to a true understanding of the text and the full import of the metaphors drawn from it. 

This lack ofclarity also had the effect of glossing over some other important repercussions of its acts of citation, in particular how quoting ‘Western’ authors and sayings might risk undermining the Arab-centered sentiments extolled in Queen Rania’s address. The choice of citations inadvertently raised a plethora of questions about the motivations of education systems and curricula which become particularly controversial in areas of the world that have been dispossessed or heavily influenced by external forces at various moments in their history. What kinds of classes should educators offer? Which topics should be included (and which excluded)? Whose perspective should a curriculum further? What kind of stance should courses take with regards to historical events? These are issues that education institutions and providers, private or public, are inevitably called to account for and they are questions which Edraak.org itself will also be faced with.

Having given numerous examples of groundbreaking projects by young Arabs,  including Jamalon (‘the Amazon of the Middle East’) and the work of filmmaker Tamer Shabaan on the Egyptian uprising, it was paradoxical that the Queen then resorted to quotes from the literary banks of another world region in order to bring her arguments home. Perhaps she did so in order not to have to select one Arab literature over another; perhaps alluding to works of literature recognized the world over as ‘classic’ would ensure some sort of common ground or connection to the audience. Yet both of these are weak arguments, since no work of art or literature can provide ‘neutral’ ground; much less so when it was written in the very heart of the Empire that historically controlled much of the Arab peninsula. The speech could have repeated the phrase ‘Self-belief and self-reliance change the reality’ a million times if it wanted to. But that would not alter the fact that the need for that very change was illustrated through yet another ‘imported’ quotation: this time an American - Texan to be exact - saying: ‘If all you ever do is all you’ve ever done, then all you’ll ever get is all you ever got’. We don’t need a degree in Middle Eastern studies to see the unintended irony in that.