ON THE FIRST DAY of my Intro to American Studies class at the American University of Beirut (AUB), Lebanon, I asked my students when and how they had first become consciously aware of the existence of the United States. The responses were divided roughly equally between cultural and military memories: from Grand Theft Auto to the Iraq War, there was a general agreement that the United States had shaped, in many ways, the realities of their childhoods. When I reversed the question — how do you think the United States thinks about Lebanon? — the answer was uniform: terrorism.
Listening to these responses, varied in nature but all from a distinctly Middle Eastern perspective, shaped by war as much as culture, it dawned on me just how special and urgent it is to teach American Studies in the region. It is the second time in my life that I find myself teaching American Studies to a predominantly non-American audience.
In Groningen, the Netherlands, where I did my own degree, American Studies predominantly draws a crowd of students interested in the cultural aspects of American dominance. While the program is robust and broad — with modules ranging from early US history to migration to law to television studies — students tend to join because of a fascination with the United States in general and the deluge of US popular culture in the Dutch mediascape in particular. I was no different; having grown up in a rural part of the Netherlands, I was primarily drawn to the United States because of its seeming omnipresence. When I started my American Studies degree, I had never even been to the United States. As this already suggests, the Netherlands generally regards the United States favorably. My grandma still remembers vividly when the Americans liberated her rural Dutch town toward the end of World War II, and Dutch people love the United States for its nature, its megacities, and the unlimited highways, shopping malls, and fast-food chains linking all of these. Before Trump (or at least, before Bush) the consensus in the Netherlands, was that the United States was — or intended to be — a benign force. The cultural theory class that I taught as an MA student, centered on Jean Baudrillard’s poetic and bizarre travelogue America, did little to dispel such positive notions, even if the book cuttingly exposes the American obsession with primitivism and its erasures of (Native) history.
Over the course of my degree — as American military excesses became increasingly hard to ignore — I began to see that this positive consensus was, at best, over-simplified and at worst, false. At Andover, a fancy boarding school in Massachusetts where I taught post-1865 US history for a year after receiving my MA, students came to a similar awareness as we worked our way through subjects such as Jim Crow, the Great Depression, and Japanese-American incarceration. By the time I got to Brown University, where the students I taught were politically active and well versed in a counterhegemonic version of history, establishing the inequalities structuring the United States was no longer the sole subject of our discussions but instead a catalyst for helping us envision liberatory futures.
None of these experiences fully prepared me to teach in Lebanon. Many students I taught in the United States experienced the disconnects between the rhetoric of equality and its realities — of racism, poverty, homophobia, settler colonialism, racial profiling — but it was not until I came to Lebanon that I could see how an entire region, 6,000 miles away from the continental United States, had been shaped by decades of military intervention, of economic predation, and of cultural stereotyping. Whereas I, in my early days as an international student of American Studies, had to be disabused of many myths surrounding the United States, in Lebanon, none of my students had such a one-dimensional image of the United States. They never had the luxury of only thinking about the United States in relation to its culture.
Some of my colleagues in the United States have remarked that it can’t be an everyday sight: a Dutch professor teaching American Studies to a classroom of mostly Lebanese students. However, American Studies has a long history in the Middle East; it is a history entangled with militarism and cultural imperialism — which makes it all the more important to imagine a new path for American Studies in the Middle East today. If my students are any indication, that path will lie in fostering solidarity between movements for workers, the poor, and the displaced both in the United States and the Middle East.
American Studies programs were founded in Europe as early as the mid-1950s (a byproduct of Cold War diplomacy). But it was not until 1998 that the Middle East witnessed its first official degree-granting American Studies program. In Bahrain, the program opened its doors just two years after the United States reestablished its permanent naval base in the kingdom. As Alex Lubin and Marwan Kraidy note in their edited collection American Studies Encounters the Middle East (UNC, 2016), “American studies programs in the region would always be shadowed by the presence of the U.S. military.” At times, this entailed “a specific mandate” to educate a new ruling class accommodating to the regional interests of the United States and its allies. Programs like the one in Bahrain, and those in Jordan, Israel, and Qatar all have complex connections to the United States federal government. In some cases, the United States provides a measure of financial aid, for example in the form of Fulbright scholars. Consequently, some question whether (or to what extent) these institutions serve to disseminate a pro-US stance. Geopolitical history and the emergence of American Studies in the Middle East have therefore always been, and continue to be, intimately linked.
However, individual courses and interest in American Studies long predate the 1998 coordinate. Universities in Turkey and Algeria offered courses in American Studies as early as the mid-1970s. Edward Said, in 1979, already powerfully urged for an internationalization of the discipline to the Middle East, when he wrote that “I do not recall a period in recent Arab history when there has been so widespread, so sustained, and so anguished an interest in the United States. Beneath all this interest there is of course the undisputed fact that America and American interests touch Arab lives with an intrusive immediacy.”
This is true as much today as it was in 1979. Decisions made in the United States indelibly shape the daily lives of everyone living in the Middle East, leading both to a curious fascination with the United States and the economic opportunities it represents and a disillusion with the destruction it has left in its wake. My students were born after the War on Terror began. There has never been a Middle East free from direct US military invasion in their lifetimes. The crucial controversy facing American Studies in the Middle East has also remained unchanged since the 1970s: how (and whether) to talk about Palestine.
As Lubin and Kraidy note, it was ultimately the question of Palestine that would turn American Studies in the Middle East into “its own discipline.” Whereas Palestine remained taboo in the United States, it was “formative of regional understandings of American culture and power,” dominating the direction of American Studies programs in the Arab world. Our semester had been underway for just a few weeks when Trump presented his “Middle East Peace Plan,” masterminded by his son-in-law and sudden expert Jared Kushner. In Lebanon, where there are over 200,000 registered Palestinian refugees, living in impoverished conditions divided between 12 refugee camps, the issue of Palestine looms large. My students’ responses to the plan were universally negative. Without the right of return, the consensus was, the plan could never work. There was also resistance against the plan’s provision for Palestinians to stay in Lebanon, with the United States investing millions in return, for fear that naturalizing Palestinians would alter the power balance in Lebanon, carefully divided as it is between various Muslim and Christian sects. Why, the main question was, should the United States support a settler colonialist state? We arrived at the answer later that class when we looked at John Gast’s 1872 painting American Progress, a visual embodiment of Manifest Destiny and the genocide of Native Americans that solidified the United States as a settler colonial state itself.
Besides Palestine, 9/11 was another watershed moment in the institutional history of American Studies in the region. The Center for American Studies and Research at AUB is one of six centers funded by a Saudi Arabian businessman, who in the wake of 9/11 sought to enhance understanding between the United States and the Arab world by endowing American Studies programs in the Middle East and Arab/Islamic Studies programs in the West. Harvard’s Islamic Studies program, for example, is another beneficiary. Nevertheless, the War on Terror has, of course, colored everything that came after. Beyond actual warfare in the Middle East, several students brought up Trump’s Muslim Ban in this light, and the denial of several students with valid visas to the United States. This brings up another paradox of the field; while students are acutely aware of the devastating effects of the War on Terror and United States presence in the region, a lot of them have fixated their hopes on the United States. Lebanon is currently in the midst of catastrophic economic collapse, and for years has not been able to generate sufficient jobs for all of its graduates. Many of them dream of making it in the United States, but fear that the continued vilification of the Middle East as a terrorist haven will obstruct such hopes. Whether Trump’s catastrophic mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic — which has now also moved our classroom online — changes these aspirations remains to be seen.
This fear about the material effects of vilification is perhaps why there is something profoundly reparative — and also fun — about dissecting the injurious and stereotypical US media representations of the region, about analyzing them from the very location they depict. We watched two episodes of Amazon’s original series Jack Ryan (2018), where a Lebanese terrorist massacres a Parisian Catholic congregation with sarin gas before attempting to mastermind an Ebola outbreak in the United States. The show is based on the eponymous series by Tom Clancy, whom Andrew Lanham aptly designates “the poet of modern American Empire.” The Beqaa Valley, the territory adjoining Lebanon and Syria, plays a prominent role (though, of course, filming took place in Morocco). Our conclusion: The characters speak the wrong Arabic dialect (as one student pointed out with much glee), Lebanon is far from a desert, and the stereotype of the terrorist is tiresome, but the show does aptly portray how media representations circulate, and how soft power functions. Jack Ryan tells us more about how the United States continues to imagine itself than it does about the Middle East, and in studying this imagination we can learn a lot about the relationship between the two regions.
Teaching American Studies in the Middle East allows for a unique vantage on this relationship; it also allows us to identify moments for transnational solidarity against imperialism, racism, xenophobia, and social inequality. In Lebanon, it is students who are currently leading an ongoing revolution against nepotism, corruption, and decades of financial mismanagement by the country’s political and economic oligarchy. In particular, it is female students, who are using the frameworks afforded to them by lived experience and education alike to challenge patriarchy, corruption, and the refugee crisis. When we got to our unit on immigration, these students readily noted the distinct parallels between the Lebanese kafala system — a system of racialized economic exploitation that strips migrant domestic workers (mostly women from South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa) of all rights — and the treatment of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Similarly, our reading of Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, resonated with students who intimately understood what poverty looked and felt like, in a country where the poverty rate has now climbed to roughly 50 percent in the midst of the worst economic crisis to hit Lebanon in decades.
Seeking out these points of connection, while also recognizing the ways in which the imperial presence of the United States has contributed to the existence of inequality here as much as at home, is a small but significant step in beginning to imagine new futures. While some may find it cynical or naïve to locate liberatory potential in a university or academic enterprise — itself a vestige of neoliberal power and precarity — I believe that the best scholarship can help us to envision and articulate a brighter, more equitable future.
As our syllabus this semester reads, “There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now.” That’s James Baldwin, of course. And Baldwin is the perfect figure to think through American Studies and what it might mean, especially in an international context. In Notes of a Native Son (1955), he professes his love for the United States, which he loves “more than any other country in the world,” and says that it is exactly for that reason that “I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” While the ongoing institutional history of American Studies in the Middle East is a complex and often troubling one, the responsibility of American Studies today is to carry forward Baldwin’s project of critique. In my classroom in Lebanon, that project includes the building and nurturing of sometimes unexpected transnational solidarities. After all, the Lebanese are currently doing what Baldwin called for 50 years ago: speaking out to make their country just.