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January 8, 2008, 03:42 PM ET

The Beirut Conference . . . Continued

Tuesday, here in Beirut, was the first full day of the conference on American Studies in the Middle East, keyed to the theme of “Liberty and Justice.” As you can imagine, the role of the United States in the region since 9/11 was at the top of everyone’s mind, and the sessions I attended were fascinating.

In the morning I heard a panel on “Islamic Conceptions of Justice,” with speakers from American Studies programs in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Palestine and Wake Forest University. The papers varied in academic quality, but all attempted to convey in non-technical language a range of meanings attributed to shari’a. The most interesting was the one from a young Iranian female graduate student on the shi’a notion of justice. There was lively disagreement among the four Muslims (there were two Palestinians presenting) on the panel.

I gave a paper on the meaning of the new Constitution Day lecture requirement instituted by legislation sponsored by Senator Robert Byrd in 2003. The non-Americans in the audience seemed suitably impressed by the oddity of such a public policy, but they were even more puzzled by my account of recent federal attempts to legislate the teaching of what is being called “traditional” U.S. history in the schools (and colleges, for that matter). But since (as is quite common in foreign American Studies meetings) there were few historians in attendance, I am not sure that I contributed much to the meeting.

In the afternoon I attended a fascinating session on the challenges of teaching American Studies in this region. The speakers included the head of a new MA program at Teheran University in Iran (who seems, from his utterly colloquial language, to be an American), the director of the program at the University of Jordan in Amman, and a young graduate student from Al Quds University in East Jerusalem. Their approaches seemed to reflect both their own life experiences as academics (most received at least some of their training in the United States), and the political imperatives of the U.S. relationship in their home country. I was impressed by their commitment to the field, and their clear ingenuity in coping with the numerous obstacles they had to confront. In each case, though, there seemed to be considerable student interest in studying America, which in the year 2008 is both surprising and encouraging.

The day then moved to a long plenary lecturer by the American political scientist, Norman Finkelstein, late of DePaul University, who (surprisingly, I thought) attacked the Walt-Mearsheimer attack on the “Israel lobby” in the U.S., and argued that the United States has been following its own sense of hard-nosed self-interest (rather than support of Israel due to domestic U.S. pressure) in conducting its Middle East policy. There was spirited discussion with Finkelstein, who is quite accomplished in dealing with a large and fractious crowd.

But the highlight of the day, for me, was a concluding hip hop performance by three young men from Los Angeles — one a Syrian by origin, another a Palestinian, and the third a Chicano from Alaska. Talk about diversity. They have been attending the sessions and asking sophisticated questions, and their performance was classic hip-hop social critique, and it led to a very interesting discussion with the three, lasting well into the evening. I am tired, but enlightened and stimulated. And wondering what is happening just now in New Hampshire.

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