Understanding the Arab World
ALL’s newest faculty member, Joseph Farag, has lived all over the globe. He only recently came to the United States to take a position at the University of Minnesota. Despite his mere two years on campus, he has already made an impressive impact on the department with the development of ALL’s new Arabic program (alongside colleague Dr. Katrien Vanpee). The program aims to provide a rounded approach to the study of the Arab world, which means examining the historical, political, and social contexts in addition to studying its language and literature. Farag has a dual background in the social sciences and the humanities, which he views as complementary to his research and efforts to create all-encompassing learning experiences for students studying Arabic. He is “heartened and impressed” by his students’ curiosity and inquisitiveness. “I think there’s a realization among students that, for all the incessant media coverage of that part of the world, it nonetheless remains largely incomprehensible and opaque to so many people,” he explained. “The students I’ve encountered in my classes here at the U try valiantly to transcend this incomprehension.”
Farag has loved being a part of ALL so far, stressing in particular his admiration for his colleagues. The department is very diverse, which allows for scholars of varying areas of Asian culture to come together and discuss commonalities and differences between their specializations. “Whether it’s through formal scholarly discussions or informal social gatherings, I learn an immense amount from my colleagues,” he explained. “I find myself rethinking and reconceptualizing my own scholarship on the Arab world as a result of conversations about things as seemingly unrelated as modern Chinese cinema or colonialism of the Korean peninsula.”
Farag’s main area of study is Palestinian literature, and his interest in the subject was sparked by his undergraduate focus on political science and global studies. With the Second Intifada, the attacks on September 11, 2001, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab world was becoming the center of global attention. At the time, political science in North America had no room for considering literature or other qualitative phenomena. As he was finishing his undergraduate degree, he encountered The Land of Sad Oranges by Ghassan Kanafani, his first piece of Palestinian literature. “Upon reading it, it seemed that literature and cultural production more broadly provided unique and telling insights into societies that quantitative social sciences ignore at their own peril,” he says. He explores the dialectic between artistic innovation and politics in his new book, Politics and Palestinian Literature in Exile, which has just been published.