This past summer session I traveled between Doha, Qatar and Cairo, Egypt on a pilot study abroad program of Duke in the Arab World.
I toured Al-Jazeera headquarters and took kitschy photographs with the Great Pyramids. I visited the production site for the world’s largest liquefied natural gas company, Qatargas, and witnessed Garbage City, a Cairene slum that subsists on the informal economic sector of waste collection and recycling. I attended lectures by prominent individuals like Yemeni Nobel Prize winner Tawakul Karman and two current prime ministers, Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh and Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al Thani of Qatar. I drank tea with Egyptian leftist intellectuals and talked politics with countless cabbies, students, educators, activists and laborers. I even ran into former Egyptian presidential hopeful Hamdeen Sabahi at a local café.
During a group discussion, one of our professors reminded us of the danger of confusing privilege with actual—civic, intellectual, ethical, personal— engagement. Having the documentation and the finances to travel the world doesn’t suddenly make me an informed and conscientious cosmopolitan. I tried to embark on my study abroad with a certain amount of humility. I’m here to learn, I told myself. I’m no better equipped to do anything else in a foreign land other than just be a student. For instance, despite the best intentions of many individuals involved with DukeEngage, I still require convincing that the program as a whole amounts to little more than a marketing project for the Duke brand.
I’m also under no illusion that my study abroad program is somehow not part of the same branding project. Duke took an extraordinary risk in organizing programs in Cairo during an especially politically sensitive time. The risk was maybe justified in terms of the academic value the programs would provide the students. Or possibly the decision was justified by the fact that no other top U.S. university was willing to take that high of a risk, which only served to benefit and distinguish the Duke brand even more.
This isn’t to say there wasn’t any significant academic value to my experience. The program never lost complete sight of what makes a liberal arts education valuable: intimate class discussions, collaborative work, a multidisciplinary approach to the subject matter, etc. The program was led by two world-class professors who were both invested in the subject matter (citizenship, religion and civil society in the Arab world) and in ensuring that students’ analytical and technical skills improved along with understanding of the subject.
But what did my experience abroad amount to aside from a testament to the incredible access afforded to a naïve undergraduate student by virtue of his association with an institution like Duke? What did I gain from this program aside from becoming a pawn in Duke’s mission to brand itself as a global university? What of any value could I possibly share with the world after a mere five weeks in the “Arab World”?
These aren’t easy questions to answer, but they’re worth exploring. They shed light on what makes education important, how our institutions are working (or not) and what a student can do to shape his or her own life and the world they occupy.
More than anything the trip reinforced the idea that the people I met during my travels are plenty equipped to address their own problems without outside meddling. This is not to deny the value of solidarity or the ability of an informed outsider to come to independent conclusions, but it is a recognition of the difference in stakes and interests. The world has often had low expectations of countries like Egypt. Before the Arab Spring, Arab youth were deemed disaffected, unmotivated and apolitical. They were thought to only spend time in coffee shops and preoccupy themselves with American films and raunchy music videos. Either that or they were close-minded religious extremists bent on destroying Western civilization.
Since the spring of last year, the caricature of the savvy, heroic technophile capable of toppling regimes has been added into the mix, but the perceptions are still just as limiting. For a group of people so often talked about in the media and in the classroom, we rarely ever get a look that even comes close to appreciating the diversity, complexity and depth of these individuals.
The lack of engagement with countries like Egypt or Qatar is also apparent in our inability to differentiate and appreciate the peculiar contexts of various Arabic-speaking or Muslim-majority nations. A discussion of any Arab state quickly devolves into a discussion of Israel. When people talk about the future of Egypt, they make analogies to Turkey, Pakistan, Iran or Afghanistan, forgetting that each of these countries have their own vastly disparate histories and cultures. We still don’t have the vocabulary or the understanding of how to talk about Egypt in relevant Egyptian terms, much less decide what’s best for them.
Engagement with others first requires critical self-reflection. It’s going to be a bumpy ride, but I’m not as worried about the Egyptians’ ability to manage the fate of their country as I am about Americans, our own country and the undue influence we exert over the world—ideologically, economically or militarily. Just because you think you have the ability to help doesn’t mean you actually know what’s best. It may be damaging to our egos (or our brands), but if our goal is engagement maybe the best course of action given our extraordinary privilege isn’t to take the role of enlightened savior but that of a humble, yet critical, student.
Ahmad Jitan is a Trinity senior.