Observations from Harvard Arab Weekend 2014

For four days each November leading academics, businesspeople and other personalities converge on the world’s most famous institution for Harvard Arab Weekend. Sponsored by the Harvard Alumni Association and other Middle East/North Africa student organizations, this conference, billed as the ‘largest pan-Arab conference in North America” according to its website, discusses the most important issues pressing the Arab world today. After two years of pining to attend, I finally bought my tickets and headed to Cambridge for the 2014 conference which took place this past weekend, November 6-9th.

Harvard Yard
Harvard Yard

It was (surprisingly!) my first time traveling to Boston and Cambridge, which in my mind there’s no place more American, given Boston’s history in the founding of the United States. Harvard University seemed an almost odd choice at first, given that it’s still a predominantly white insttution that upholds the epitome of White Male Power. I was blown away by the beauty of the campus and its architecture, and quaint, brick-sidewalked Cambridge which reminded me of an English town….physically, we were as far away from Cairo, Baghdad, camels, deserts and the violence overtaking the Middle East as possible.

I attended Saturday and Sunday’s events, which consisted of panels, keynote speeches and a great musical performance by Marcel Khalife, a Lebanese musician whose songs have been somewhat of a controversy in the Middle East. After a moving speech (in Arabic with translation) he gave a wonderful performance in the Memorial Chapel, an ornate building with the names of Harvard alums who died in the World Wars inscribed on the walls. Playing the oud, an instrument similiar to a guitar, he was accompanied by another gentleman whose name escapes me and a female vocalist named Abeer who had the most stunning operatic voice. I’d never heard Khalife, so I enjoyed the introduction.

Marcel Khalife giving his speech in the Memorial Chapel.
Marcel Khalife giving his speech in the Memorial Chapel.

The panels I attended were interesting and highlighted current debates in the Arab world. At the Improving Education Quality And Access Level Across The Arab World panel, Marjorie Henningsen, an American who works in Lebanon, remarked on the need to overhaul the K-12 program and to teach children skills they can use in live, rather than rote learning, which I feel is pertinent to America’s educational system, too. At the Arab Identity in Motion panel, which discussed the past, present and future of the so-called “Arab identiy,” Moneera Al-Ghadeer made a great remark that resonates with my thesis topic on the hijab and burqa bans in France: “Even when we are home, home does not recognize us.” The Arab identity is not easy to pinpoint, yet in the West it is quite neatly stereotypically packaged in a way that is damaging to those of Arab descent.

image3I was probably most excited to attend the Boycott and Divestment Panel panel, which discussed the boycott of goods made in Israel and the divestment strategies aimed at Israeli companies and institutions, as Dr. Noam Chomsky spoke! Chomsky, born Jewish, is a huge critique of the Israeli state and at 85 years old and, still teaching at MIT, is frankly a legend in academia. “It doesn’t matter what we feel,” he said in response to an audience question concerning the high emotions of those who discuss the Palestine Question, “it’s what is the effect on the victims.” Another key point to my thesis. Another great quote: “Going after the centers of power matters. It’d be nice if it’s a democracy but it’s not, it’s a plutocracy.” It was an honor, having read his work before, to sit in the same room and hear him speak, and his co-panellists, especially activist Andrew Kadi, were equally inspirational.

Being a feminist, I of course attended the “Women in Business” panel, which included Alaa Balkhy, a young Saudi entrepreneur and Pratt graduate student who founded and designs the fashion label Fyunka. I’ve been meaning to do a post on Fyunka, since its cute, Arab-culture-inspired designs-think niqab-clad ladies and fluttery eyelashes-are adorable and I even own one of her clutch purses. She talked about the significance of Instagram helping Muslim businesses and Arab Insta-shops, a topic which fascinates me. A male audience member, during the Q&A, asked a great question regarding why the trend in the Middle East is for women to create social entrepreneurships rather than ‘real money’ businesses. I didn’t feel that the panel adequately addressed his question, which I understood and agree with. There is a growing number of female businesswomen in the Middle East, but they’re not spearheading construction companies, or oil companies, or bigtime financial firms or the like, probably because they don’t have experience with these things and unless they come from money they won’t have the capital to get into, say, setting up a chemical engineering plant.

Harvard Business School

The two keynote speeches I attended were quite entertaining and thought-provoking as well. Fadi Majdalani and Fadi Ghandour, Founder and Vice-Chairman of Aramex among other ventures, gave a great speech at Harvard Business School about the lack of jobs in the Middle East and what must be done. Fadi Ghandour was particularly entertaining; during Q&A, an anonymous question was asked via the Pigeonhole computer program that started with “Hi Fadi G, you’re awesome.” Fadi G. interrupted, asking “Is this a man or a woman?” and followed up with, “I can have up to four [wives] you know,” which left the audience in an uproar.

Ali Jaber, Group TV director of MBC, the largest media company in the Middle East, also gave a very interesting although flawed (in my opinion) speech. Mr. Jabber, who was also a judge in 2011 on “Arabs Got Talent,” spoke like a true media person, relying on a sort of stereoytpical version of Arab society. He wrongly remarked that the Arab world had one history and one faith, which is obviously untrue: what about Christians and Jews? How can one compare Saudi Arabia’s history to that of Morocco, or of Libya to Iraq? He later remarked that people like to watch TV for escapism, to escape their job, their stress, their “wife,” which brought applause from the male audience members. When questioned for the reasons why he axed Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef’s political-lampooning talkshow, he said, “Don’t we all already know the reasons?” although later conceded that the [Egyptian] government doesnt have a sense of humour. Furthermore, he glossed over a question about the deteriorating level of “modesty” on MBC TV, which I wondered why.

Overall, I highly enjoyed my time at HAW and definitely walked away with some new perspectives. However, one major observation which stuck with me throughout the entire time was how different the conference would have been if it had taken place at The New School, which is where I am doing my masters. My school is known for “challenging the system,” which is something I felt was still not done during this conference. As I sat at these discussions I observed those around me. Everyone was well-dressed in suits and business clothes. A few girls wore hijabs, but paired with Western clothes. One girl wore Louboutin pumps and what looked like a Chanel suit to the Marcel Khalife performance. Some of the people had Western first names (this of course might have denoted their Christian backgrounds). Most were either from the Levant i.e. Lebanon and Jordan or from the Gulf countries. I realized, sitting there, an outsider because of my ethnicity and educational background, that I was looking at the conference through the lens of wealth and privilege.

I realized, sitting there, that I had little experience with this type of Arab person who is American-born, American-educated an well-to-do.The audience attendees were likely all wealthy, or if not wealthy, than privledged. They were privileged enough to either attend an uber-elite university like Harvard, or at the very least to attend an event at Harvard (most people I concluded were affiliated with Harvard). Many were probably American-born, and thus did not have the same background as those who are born in the Middle East. If they were foreign, they were clearly, again, privleged enough to learn English and come to the States. They were probably Harvard Business School students, or studying to become “doctors and lawyers,” anything but fighting for human rights or political stability for the Arab world. I know I may be entirely wrong about this, but the MENA Career Fair exemplified this: there were no non-profit organizations, only finance companies like Booz Allen and big companies like Shell Oil. They were not trying to upset the status quo.

The class divide was apparent in the discussions. Fadi Ghandour called on young, successful Arabs to return to their home countries to build their economies, citing the dire need for their expertise and skill. He noted that people were starting to return, working in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and other gulf countries. But that doesn’t count, I would argue. The Gulf countries are safe from violence, stable, and have ample resources. Even though I’ve never been there, I’d wager that Dubai is structurally akin to New York in terms of material comforts. How is it a sacrifice to return to Dubai or glitzy Jeddah? The real sacrifice would be to move to Egypt or Iraq or even Lebanon, where jobs are needed and there isn’t this growing economy where Western companies are investing. It would be a sacrifice to return to a country where the material comforts are not on par with America, but where real change is needed.

This was again apparent during the Women in Business panel. Panelist Maali Alasousi is a Kuwaiti who set up the Tamkeen for Development Initiative in Yemen after visiting the country and realizing the dire economic situation women face. When she talked about her experience, it was the same as a white, wealthy European going off into the dark jungle on a missionary adventure: Yemen might as well have been a foreign planet, not the Middle East. There was something unsettling about her remarks, since they implied the sacrifice of leaving comfortable Kuwait for backwards Yemen where children were eating garbage. The entire time, I was thinking, but what of the children who live in the garbage slums of Cairo? What of the piles of garbage one passes on every street in Cairo? What about the apparent poverty that made young boys approach my mother and I in Morocco and try to “help us” for a tip? The divide between the Gulf countries and the rest of the Middle East is disgusting, and if the conference reminded me of anything it’s that those in privledge aim to stay privledged, and it’s usually at the cost of common folk.

In any case, I was inspired, and I hope to attend the conference again!


2 thoughts on “Observations from Harvard Arab Weekend 2014

  1. it is such a great observation which you made in this article and I loved what you wrote about me and have something to add, as a human being living a gifted life and giving it to others to make their life a better one ,,,,,is not a easy mission and the success which we reached in a short period in time is been transformed as a training program in more than 13 countries so other can implement it in their nations including Egypt. The needs are a lot and people like you and us make a difference by spreading the knowledge and their expertise to other. So Lets work together to color their lives

    1. Hello Maali, I apologize if my writing may have been offensive, I can be somewhat critical when it comes to class issues (it’s the socialist/Marxist in me I guess!) I admire what you have done especially the Tamkeen work, and I can imagine the difficulties you have faced. It’s an honor that you read my blogpost! -Meredith

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