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      Decolonizing English Literature Departments At Arab Universities

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      Arab Studies Quarterly
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      decolonizing education, English literature, epistemic disobedience, revolution, Palestine, zero point epistemology
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            Abstract

            Education in the Arab world is in need of a revolution, and this revolutionary transformation is inevitably and intricately linked to the production, ordering, and dissemination of revolutionary, anti-colonial knowledge. This article emphasizes the urgency for decolonizing education, specifically English literature departments at Arab universities. Many thinkers have documented the connection between literature, culture, and imperialism on the one hand (Gauri Viswanathan’s Masks of Conquest, 1989 and Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, 1993) and literature, culture, and resistance on the other hand (Fanon, Kanafani, Cabral, Said, and others who wrote about zero point epistemology). While there have been some decolonization efforts in different parts of the world, even at Ivy League institutions (Cornell University, for example), Arab universities ironically maintain a very rigid, government accredited English and American literary curriculum with no attempt or intention at decolonizing these colonial era curricula. This article interrogates the aims behind maintaining a purely English (and American) literary curricula, especially as the Arab region continues to undergo the most violent and aggressive forms of Western intervention, which has led to massive destruction of Arab state infrastructures, the loss of Palestine in 1948, the dissolution of the social fabric of Arab societies and thousands of deaths in the past two decades. Against this destructive Western agenda, a constructive, awareness raising impulse embedded in a literature/culture of resistance is in order. It is high time that Arab universities decolonize their English literature departments, a necessary transformation that entails, to quote the title of an essay by Walter D. Mignolo, “Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and Decolonial Freedom” (2009).

            Main article text

            Education in the Arab world is in need of a revolution, and this revolutionary transformation is inevitably and intricately linked to the production, ordering and dissemination of revolutionary, anti-colonial knowledge. This article emphasizes the urgency for decolonizing education, specifically English literature departments at Arab universities. In fact, decolonizing efforts need to encompass all relevant disciplines, especially in the humanities. This change cannot be a cosmetic one, i.e. adding a couple of courses that would include literatures from around the world. The decolonization of our university curricula is a necessary precondition for political decolonization and the genuine liberation of our minds and lands.

            In his important article entitled “Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and Decolonial Freedom,” Walter D. Mignolo (2009) argues that the Global South is in need of delinking their knowledge from that of the imperial West, and this entails “epistemic disobedience” in the humanities. Mignolo goes on to argue that the very “making of modern Europe” is deeply entrenched in its colonial history (174). According to Mignolo, this knowledge-power formula is clear in the West’s representation of Western knowledge as the “zero point epistemology” (160) that would be taught/ingrained not only at Western institutions, but especially at institutions in the Global South to ensure that these academic institutions and departments rely on Western knowledge that all professors and their students must internalize, making it easier to control colonized (or previously colonized) populations.

            The role of departments of English literature in the previously colonized and “post-colonial” world, in fact, was and still is aimed at training new (epistemic obedient) members, creating individuals totally oblivious to how their world has been put together for them by the hegemonic Western curriculum designers/planners and their indigenous trainees/mimics or comprador intelligentsia. The connection between culture and power has long been established by the likes of Antonio Gramsci ( Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, 1971), Louis Althusser (“Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, 1971), Paolo Freire ( Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970 and Education for the Critical Consciousness, 1973), Frantz Fanon ( Black Skin, White Masks, 1967 and The Wretched of the Earth), Amilcar Cabral (“National liberation and culture,” 1994), Edward Said ( Orientalism, 1978 and Culture and Imperialism, 1993), and many other thinkers.

            The critic Gauri Viswanathan’s book entitled Masks of Conquest (1989) directly addresses the role of English literary study in the British colonization of India. Viswanathan argues that “English literary study had its beginnings as a strategy of containment” (10) that would be used as a “disguised form of authority” (Ibid.) or mask of conquest to “maintain[…] social control,” (Ibid.) and I would add mind control. English literary study rather than religion (missionary campaigns) was chosen by the English administrators of India because it was less controversial and created less tension for the religiously minded Indians (Viswanathan, 38). Although Viswanathan warns against making a direct cause-effect connection between today’s English literature departments and colonial/imperial control—that “imperialism can be swiftly undone merely by hurling away the texts it institutionalized,” she does underscore the absolute necessity of recognizing that these same literary texts “were put in the service of British imperialism” (169). Thomas Macaulay’s “Minute on Indian Education,” a treatise which became official British policy in 1835, literally states that the aim behind teaching English literature is to create a “class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, opinions, in morals, and in intellect” (430).

            Considering the above, how are we, then, to understand the seemingly unbreakable, but self-imposed chains of the imperialistic ideology of Englishness that pervades English literature departments at Arab universities? This kind of academic stagnation or perhaps self-orientalism or even self-colonization, however, does not lend itself to a simple explanation. The reasons for this are multifold and diverse with one important reason being official state policy, such as the careful control of local accreditation institutions in the Arab world that will accredit programs in English literature only if they include study plans comprised of courses that are purely English in terms of specifically relating to the literature of the United Kingdom and the United States—that is nation-based literatures. However, there is also a stubborn refusal on the part of Arab professors to adopt any form of change, a refusal perhaps embedded in their subconscious attempt to mimic the more “advanced” and “modern” knowledge constructed by the British and American institutions where many of these Arab professors studied and trained and then came home to impart their “advanced” knowledge unto their students.

            In an article entitled “Decolonization of English Literature Studies in Iran: Towards Inclusion of World Literature” (2021), Esmaeil Zeiny points out that a conference on the “teaching of English literature overseas,” held by the British Council in Cambridge in July 1962, “concluded that developing nations with a long cultural history such as Iran need English literature to better comprehend life in modern society” (4). Thus, this British Council conference (re)presented the study of English literature as a “developing” nation’s entry into the “modern” world, which would then enable it to construct a “modern” society. To use Viswanathan’s aptly framed phrase again—in other words, English literary study is indeed a “mask of conquest” now disguised in the cloak of “modernity.” But the question remains, why should English literary study constitute modernity for the “developing” nations or the global south? Here I agree with Mignolo that in the twenty-first century, Western epistemology, of which English literary study is a part, is used as a way of advancing a Western agenda and worldview with the hope of making those who are “less developed” “submit to the European (and in the 20th century to the United States also) knowledge, belief, life style and world view” (177).

            So it is precisely here that we need to pause and contemplate what Mignolo states, quoting Kwasi Wiredu, “African, know thyself” (168), which is also the dictum that Edward Said adopted from Antonio Gramsci when he decided to make agentive beginnings for his groundbreaking, decolonizing work. In fact, Said, quoting Gramsci, uses this precise dictum in his book Orientalism (1978) and his essay entitled “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims” (1979):

            The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is “knowing thyself” as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory. It is important therefore to make an inventory. (Gramsci qtd. in Said 1979: 7)

            Accordingly, instead of adopting other nations’ notions of “modernity,” which are based on their imperialist worldview, the Global South must start by constructing their own modernity based on “knowing thyself,” which entails understanding one’s own history, culture, and traditions and the contexts that led to their colonization and in some cases the erasure of their cultures, languages, and dispossession as we see in occupied Palestine today. This endeavor, by necessity, means that one needs to start by delinking, decolonizing, and waging a campaign of “epistemic disobedience” that would lead to liberation, not merely reform as in “civil disobedience,” writes Mignolo, but a total transformation of the social consciousness (173–174). The next question to consider is how and where do we begin the delinking process?

            Since I am a professor of literature at a university in Jordan, I would like to concentrate on English literature departments at Arab (and specifically Jordanian) universities. As mentioned earlier, part of the problem has to do with official state policies, but I honestly believe that Arab professors of English at Arab universities have, unfortunately and perhaps unwittingly, thoroughly absorbed the very “(il) logic” of maintaining the English (and thereby “superior”) identity of these departments to the point that to question the aim behind the strict Englishness of their study plans or to call for decolonizing these departments would sound irrationally absurd to them. In an article entitled “Education and decolonization: On not reading Ibn Khaldun in Palestine,” Magid Shihade (2017) argues that Arab universities need to teach Arab and other intellectuals from the Global South, such as Ibn Khaldun and Frantz Fanon. Shihade argues that the problem is many Arab scholars have an inferior scope of vision and can only see Arab knowledge “through [the prism of] Orientalist knowledge,” (83). Agreeing with this assessment, Zeiny points out, scholars from the Global South continue to engage in a “mindless celebration of Anglo-American canonical literature” (2).

            This fact becomes especially difficult to digest when we consider that even Western institutions (such as Cornell University) have begun to decolonize their English departments. The English department at Cornell “became the first in the United States to change its name … [from] ‘English literature’ to ‘Literatures in English’” ( Thomas-Johnson, 2020). One of the professors who proposed this change, Carole Boyce Davies, a “professor of English and Africana Studies” at Cornell did so “in response to the slaying of George Floyd” at the hands of a white policeman in the American city of Minneapolis, which ignited protests all over the world in support of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Boyce Davies poignantly argues, “[a]s academics we are responsible for maintaining the order of knowledge and then transferring this to students who then go out into society” (Qtd. in Thomas-Johnson, 2020).

            The George Floyd tragedy rightly inspired this most important move at Cornell University, so why hasn’t the brutal settler colonialism of the genocidal Zionist state against the Palestinian people, who suffer daily brutality and expulsion from their homes done the same in the Arab world? This decolonizing mindset has not even made inroads at Palestinian universities in occupied 1967 Palestine, as Shihade argues, despite the hegemony of a Western knowledge that has enabled and supported the Zionist settler-colonial project (88). In the past decade or so, Western powers have been able to wreak havoc in the Arab region, killing and maiming millions, destroying the social fabrics of societies that existed for thousands of years and totally devastating several Arab states’ infrastructures in the name of “war on terror,” but all of this has not led to a transformation in education let alone to the introduction of a course on anti-colonial theory. The US’s “wars on terror” ought to be more aptly named “war of terrorisms” as Patrick Williams points out (2010: 90).

            In an article entitled “Foreign Literary Studies and the Identity of the Postcolonial Subject,” which was published back in 2003, I wrote, “Our literature departments dwell upon the origins of English and American history, values, and democracy as background information to the ‘valuable’ literatures of these civilizations” (102–103). To pass down the supposedly “superior” literature of these Western civilizations has always been an important aim behind teaching English literature in many countries of the Global South. As Macaulay envisioned in an earlier century, Britain needs to maintain this awe and loyalty to the white colonizer/master by the teaching of English literature. Moreover, these departments would act to contain any oppositional or revolutionary thoughts that may arise against the supposedly “superior” Western civilizations, which based their glory on colonization. I would also add that these departments serve to keep future generations of Arabs unaware of the world around them by dumbing down (in terms of resistance and anti-colonial methods and movements) the curriculum, which is an effective containment strategy.

            Here we are almost 20 years after my aforementioned publication in 2003 and nothing much has changed. Jordanian universities, for example, still focus on the English literary canon. An anecdotal example serves to underscore my point. The word “Palestinian” was intentionally removed from the title of a PhD dissertation I was supervising at a public university by the Head of the English Department. The explanation for this was that this department focuses on English literature, not Palestinian. The “Palestinian” literature in question was by the Palestinian American novelist Susan Abulhawa. The vast majority of Jordanian (and other Arab universities) do not allow their students in English departments to write about texts originally written in Arabic and translated into English in their MA and PhD dissertations. I personally believe that this is a form of self-policing or the prison of the mind in addition to official policy. This kind of self-policing is an idea related to the argument Michel Foucault expressed about the Panopticon, a disciplinary prison system of control whereby prisoners do not know when they are being watched and are obedient. Foucault argues that over time, this Panopticism leads to mental imprisonment and blind obedience that becomes self-imposed. This self-imposed policing can be generalized to all institutions, including universities and schools, as Foucault writes:

            The celebrated, transparent, circular cage, with its high tower, powerful and knowing, may have been for Bentham a project of a perfect disciplinary institution; but he also set out to show how one may “unlock” the disciplines and get them to function in a diffused, multiple, polyvalent way throughout the whole social body. (2008: 12)

            This “circular cage” that has diffused “throughout the whole social body” can definitely be felt in English literature departments at Arab universities.

            The Palestinian thinker and educator Munir Fasheh has a unique perspective on the difficulty of decolonizing our education—two words (decolonize and education) that Fasheh does not like to use. According to Fasheh, decolonization is only an external phenomenon, and does not necessarily affect our way of thinking even after the colonizer is expelled. In an interview with Mayssoun Sukarieh (2019), Fasheh says:

            Decolonization refers to something that is outside; healing refers to something that is defeating us from the inside. The difference exists in the tools we use. Whereas in colonialism we struggle against a danger from outside, in healing we protect, nurture, and strengthen our internal immune systems. (5)

            Based on Fasheh’s reasoning, the majority of Arab scholars have not healed from the colonization that is defeating them from the inside. They have not even reached the stage of thinking about decolonizing or healing, a realization that can only be reached after becoming aware that they are indeed living in coloniality. As my anecdotal example above shows, this Head of Department did not even question why, in fact, the knowledge taught at her university could only and strictly be English (as in nation-centered) or even what the aim behind such a degree is. Why must Arab students obtain university degrees in English literature specialized in bygone eras, the 1400s and 1500s or even the twenty-first century? The aims behind such a degree is elaborated on later.

            Another important point by Fasheh revolves around the word “education.” As Fasheh explains it, the word education has no synonym in Arabic because education is a “modern” Western creation that is institutionalized and emphasizes the colonization of the mind as opposed to the Arabic word تعليم or learning, which is connected to life:

            Colonization of the mind is accomplished through official institutional languages (in our case, this language uses Arabic letters but its meanings and references are western) that occupied the place of living languages, whose meanings stem from life via reflection on experiences. (3)

            Thus, it is institutionalized colonial “education” that is being imposed upon our universities that must be approved or accredited by Arab ministries of higher education. This knowledge is totally controlled by the state, which in turn is completely controlled by Western imperial powers. Fasheh points out that when the World Bank came to occupied Palestine (in Ramallah) after the installation of the Palestinian Authority (1993–94), they started their work on three main areas: “‘national’ security forces, ‘national’ curriculum, and ‘national’ banks – the first to control bodies, the second to control minds, and the third to own the future” (3). It is for this reason that knowing thyself, which includes knowing one’s past and present and therefore the future should figure into the study of the humanities, especially when foreign literatures are taught. In the Arab world, as in many parts of the previously colonized world, these foreign literatures are more often than not, the literatures of the previous colonial powers, Britain and France. It is the colonial literature of Britain, the remnants of the British Empire, which predominates at Arab universities.

            A quick survey of some English literature study plans at Jordanian universities is a case in point. A brief look at English literature study plans at Jordanian universities is quite telling. Here is a list of the obligatory literature courses from the English study plan at a public Jordanian university (which almost all other universities in Jordan follow religiously):

            • English Literature until 1660

            • American Literature until 1800

            • English Literature from 1660–1798

            • 19th-Century English Literature

            • American Literature in the 19th-Century

            • Novel (1)

            • Shakespeare

            • 20th-Century English Literature

            • 20th-Century American Literature

            • Criticism and Literary Theory

            • Ancient and Classical Literature ( http://languages.ju.edu.jo/)

            Likewise, a private Jordanian university lists similar courses:

            • English Literature until 1660

            • Shakespeare

            • 17th and 18th Centuries [English] Literature

            • English Literature in the 19th Century

            • American Literature (1)

            • English Literature in the 20th Century

            • Introduction to English Literature

            • Introduction to Drama

            • Introduction to Poetry

            • Literary Criticism and Literary Schools (Study Plan for English Literature, Al-Zaytoonah University of Jordan, 2021–2022).

            As can be seen from the above, the only required literature courses studied at these two Jordanian universities, both public and private respectively, and as accredited by the Jordanian Ministry of Higher Education, are English and American literature courses. I will venture to say here that all of these courses are taught in terms of transmitting canonical English and American literature uncritically and unquestioningly. The majority of these courses are not examined from within the context or perspective of decolonial or anti-colonial theories, which at the level of BA courses, are most likely non-existent at Jordanian (and other Arab) universities. The descriptions of some of these above-mentioned courses confirm that at both public and private Jordanian universities these courses are taught for the purpose of transmitting knowledge rather than critiquing it. General sounding courses, such as “Introduction to Drama” and “Introduction to Poetry” are mostly restricted to English and American literature and more marginally Western European literature. Again, the aims and mission behind such programs and curricula at Arab universities remains colonially minded.

            According to the website of a public Jordanian university, part of the vision of the “English Language and Literature Department” is listed as “aiming to supply the labour market in Jordan and the Arabian Gulf states with competent and skilled graduates.” Some of the goals listed are the following:

            • To contribute to the improvement of higher education in English Language and [L]iterature, Literary Criticism and Linguistics.

            • To [s]end distinguished students on scholarships to the best US universities to obtain Ph.D. degrees in Literary Criticism, Literature, and Linguistics.

            • To [f]oster ties with other departments of English and Literature in Jordanian and foreign universities for the benefit of faculty members and students.

            • To [d]evelop study plans and programs in the Department to suit recent developments.

            • To [s]ign agreements with American universities for the sake of establishing join[t] Ph.D. programs in English Literature and Linguistics. (English Language and Literature Department, https://arts.yu.edu.jo/).

            As can be seen from the above vision and goals for the English department at this university and all (although I do not like to use absolute words) universities in Jordan and perhaps the Arab world, the slightest inclination or indication to decolonize or delink from Western knowledge, and here specifically, the literary paradigm does not exist and is, in fact, out of the question.

            Not only are students supposedly made ready for the “labour market in Jordan and the Arabian Gulf states,” but they are also trained in the English colonial tradition. How exactly “English Literature until 1660” and similar courses will prepare Arab students for the labor market requires a good stretch of the imagination and emphasizes that these goals and study plans are, for the most part, not engaged with international efforts elsewhere to decolonize and delink from the English and American nation-centered literary paradigm. Twice in the goals listed above, the US is mentioned not only as a destination for higher education (sending “distinguished students on scholarships to the best US universities”), but also within the context of establishing/supervising what is called “joint Ph.D. programs.” It is obvious that the slightest hint of political, social, cultural, or even philosophical awareness still does not exist in our part of the world, especially when it comes to designing programs based on foreign literary study. This is especially disconcerting when, as mentioned earlier in this article, the West hopes to disseminate Western knowledge (here literature) represented as “zero point epistemology” (Mignolo, 160), specifically to encourage epistemic obedience and to maintain control over the “knowledge-making” process (Mignolo, 176). Arab professors who have been educated and trained in the West either wittingly or unwittingly obey and continue to religiously teach these texts uncritically.

            As early as 2001, the well-known postcolonial and Africana studies critic Stephanie Newell wrote that there was a “shift that has occurred in the field of English Studies, away from the belief in a nation-centred ‘canon’ of literature” (754). In the year 2022, however, this shift of which Newell spoke more than 21 years ago, has failed to materialize at Arab universities. Writing in the “Introduction” for a blog by Stephanie Newell called “Decolonising Modern Languages and Cultures,” the critic Neelam Srivastava argues “Decolonisation and diversity are by now buzzwords in Higher Education: both at Newcastle University and at universities around the world, ‘decolonising the curriculum’ has become a mantra” with the stated aim of “working towards a collective project of liberation” (August 30, 2021). It is incumbent upon all academics and instructors in different areas of the Humanities to begin the process of decolonizing and reordering knowledge, which is, as Srivastava states an “always unfinished, never complete […] effort to uncover and dismantle the founding stereotypes and institutional biases at the heart of what we call knowledge” (Ibid).

            However, a cautionary note to Arab academics who wish to seriously take part in the decolonizing and dismantling of knowledge that has long gone unquestioned at our institutions is in order: the idea is to construct our own knowledge base and decolonial curricula. Even when some Western institutions introduce chapters, courses, study plans, departments that they describe as “decolonial,” this should not be applied/mimicked uncritically and unquestioningly by institutions in the Global South. Some Western (and other) institutions have started their own “decolonizing” of the English curriculum by diversifying it; however, as will be discussed a little later, delinking from the Western epistemic paradigm, or what Mignolo calls “epistemic disobedience,” entails a deeper restructuring of knowledge and not simply diversifying the curriculum.

            However, some Western institutions should be commended for their “decolonial” efforts. One such example is the Open University in the United Kingdom (UKOU) for their important (albeit limited) efforts in this direction. In fact, I was contacted by the UKOU to speak about my own efforts at Arab Open University to decolonize the MA in literature curriculum at my own university. These efforts include introducing comparative literature courses, such as the “Studies in Poetry” course that examines the anti-colonial and decolonizing poetry of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats and the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Other decolonial courses taught in the MA in literature program at Arab Open University include the theoretical and revolutionary works of intellectuals such as Frantz Fanon, Ghassan Kanafani, Amilcar Cabral, Malcolm X, and other thinkers from the Global South. I was able to speak about my own efforts to decolonize or delink the English literature curriculum from within the limited space I was able to navigate. My decolonizing contribution was included in a UKOU course as a uniquely “Jordanian” experience. Although the UKOU effort does not represent the type of decolonization of the curriculum being discussed in this article, it is more than any Jordanian (and perhaps Arab) university is willing to even consider at this moment in time. This fact is especially ironic given that the Arab region has greatly suffered from Western imperialism and intervention, which has led to unfathomable devastation and deaths in this part of the world. This is why it is of the utmost importance to take charge of the ordering of knowledge, and to echo Wiredu with a slight alteration—it is time to say “Arab, know thyself.”

            There have been marginal and far from anti-colonial efforts to include some Arab American and Arab British novelists in courses at different Jordanian universities; however, much of the discussion that comes out of this focus revolves around the plight of Arabs and Muslims in diaspora, negotiating hybrid, bicultural or hyphenated identities in the Western societies different Arab American and Arab British writers and their characters inhabit. If we apply the division delineated by Newell in “Reviewing Postcolonialism,” the topics that are currently allowed within the halls of Jordanian institutions are “cosmopolitan” rather than “post-colonial”: “the ‘cosmopolitan’ perspective tends to be more domestic—largely produced by and for North American scholars—focusing upon issues such as immigration, cultural assimilation, liberalism and national identity” (751). Scholars who tend to focus on diaspora identity issues, such as the plight of the Arab immigrant in the US and the negotiation of a hyphenated identity in Western society, are de-radicalizing, de-politicizing, and neutralizing anti-colonial discourses of liberation. The problem with such scholarship is that it does not do anything to advance any form of development, economic or political independence, or liberation of land and mind. Moreover, it does not promote resistance to Western hegemony and occupation/colonization of lands, which includes state ending and the total destruction of state infrastructures in the Global South. In this sense, this kind of cosmopolitanism, like the study of canonical English and American texts, is an effective strategy of containment, to use Viswanathan’s term.

            How and where to begin decolonizing the curriculum

            Perhaps one of the first thinkers to speak of decolonizing the mind, which begins with education is Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, whose book Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature (1986) has become a seminal book in decolonial studies. As early as 1972, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o wrote, in an essay entitled “On the Abolition of the English Department,” “[t]he primary duty of any literature department is to illuminate the spirit animating a people, to show how it meets new challenges, and to investigate possible areas of development and involvement” (439). Ngugi’s comment is important in clearly setting out the aims of any literature department—this is where we should begin. As detailed in the previous section, there is no such aim at English departments at Jordanian institutions or at Arab universities for that matter. Far from animating the spirit of the Arab masses and preparing our students for the challenges confronting Arab societies, these departments are presenting English and American literature as the “central root of our consciousness and cultural heritage” ( Wa Thiong’o, 1995: 439). How does concentrating on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature help prepare young Arab men and women for the very real problems facing the Arab region? The Arab region is undergoing the deliberate destruction of their societies and state infrastructures. University professors in the Arab world must learn to extricate themselves from the rigid and canonical ordering of Western knowledge and become more actively involved in the reordering of knowledge that students can use to tackle the challenges confronting their societies.

            In other words, academics need to become intellectual activists, not “experts,” living in their ivory towers and unthinkingly parroting Western knowledge that was originally intended to produce indigenous students who are Indian, Arab, African in blood, but English in thought and perspective, as Macaulay desired. Western knowledge, as it is being referred to in this article, is adequately described by Hamid Dabashi in his provocatively entitled book Can Non-Europeans Think? (2015). Dabashi argues that there must be a delinking from the perspective of the European, “Kantian cul-de-sac that defines the knowing subject as the European knowing subject and designates us – the rest of the world – as their knowable realm” (n.p.). In other words, Western knowledge should be seen as one amongst many knowledges and not the zero point epistemology from which all knowledge begins/springs.

            In his article, “‘Outlines of a Better World’: Rerouting Postcolonialism,” Patrick Williams, summarizing Mignolo’s categorization of thinkers into the fields of “postcolonialism” and “decoloniality,” states “postcolonialism supposedly springs from Lacan, Derrida and Foucault, mediated via Said, Bhabha and Spivak. Decoloniality, on the other hand, claims descent from Cesaire, Fanon and Cabral, Gandhi and DuBois, as well as from indigenous movements” (88). While I generally agree that the first group tends towards “western abstract theoreticism” and the second is more inclined towards “non-western engaged activism” (Ibid.), I would definitely not place Said in the first category as he always vehemently attacked those who engage in theoretical abstraction, and emphasized the worldliness of theory, a theory in action. In fact, as Gayatri Spivak states in her essay entitled “Thinking about Edward Said: Pages from a Memoir”: “I think he often thought I was a fool, to be so persuaded by ‘theory.’ His stand … against pretentious and obscure language was against me as well” (2005: 524). For Said, the role of the intellectual is to work for the oppressed, and this is precisely what he did and urged others around him to do the same. Spivak points out: “During those early days, it was all about Palestine” (2005: 521) […] “And so it went. We did public appearances together, for Palestine” (2005: 523). Said’s strong belief in the power of knowledge and discourse to empower the oppressed to liberate themselves is evident in his own writings and activism.

            In Said’s first book (excluding his PhD dissertation on Joseph Conrad) entitled Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975), he proposes beginnings as ruptures, whereby beginnings intentionally delink from previous epistemic paradigms. For Said, beginnings, by definition, reject the concept of (Western) “zero point epistemology” (Mignolo, 160) because “originalities” or “ideal Presences” ( Said, 1975: 380) cannot be starting points for the peoples and nations of the Global South. The history, context, and aims that produced Western epistemology are radically different from the contexts and experiences of the Global South; indeed, the aims are in many cases diametrically opposed. As Said points out in Beginnings, a “beginning methodologically unites a practical need with a theory, an intention with a method” (380). The practical need of which Said speaks is something drastically lacking in our Arab region—freedom, the liberation of colonized lands and minds, control over our natural resources, economic independence, and sustainability. These are the Arab world’s practical needs that must unite with theory. These decolonial intentions or aims by necessity become methods, plans, and schemes that allow for not the beginning, but a beginning, “an eminently renewable subject” (Ibid). Rather than obediently repeating and at times mindlessly parroting Western colonial texts, Arab professors and students need to engage in a more agentive project of critically “restructure[ing] and animat[ing] knowledge, not as already achieved result, but ‘as something to be done, as a task and as a search’” (Ibid). This is what would enable the knowledge-making process to be purposeful, something that has not yet been achieved, a work in progress to which both professors and their students can contribute at Arab universities.

            While Said speaks of ruptures and new beginnings, Williams proposes rerouting, especially within the context of postcolonialism, which Williams believes needs to reroute by radicalizing its aims, adding agency and thus envisioning postcolonialism as an “anticipatory” discourse:

            One kind of postcolonial response to “why Palestine? why utopia?” would be in terms of understanding postcolonialism not as in any sense an achieved condition, but rather […] as an “anticipatory” discourse, looking forward to a better and as yet unrealized world by contrast from one where colonialism has not been eradicated – both what we could call “actually existing colonialism”, as in the case of Palestine […]. Insofar as utopia is a category grounded in the pursuit of human freedom, then it is not difficult to discern utopian foundations – the “outlines of a better world” in Bloch’s words. (93)

            Williams wants for postcolonial discourse to empower the oppressed and participate in drawing the outlines of a better world—and as proposed in the above article by Williams, the starting point of this anticipatory discourse should be Palestine. Considering all of the efforts being put forward today to decolonize nation-centered English literature departments, Arab universities must by necessity begin this process, taking into consideration, that the Arab world has paid the highest price in terms of destructive Western intervention that has caused the death of millions and vast devastation all over the Arab world. It is time to end the feckless mimicry and blind adoption of Western literary programs—the time has come to liberate, not imitate.

            One of the most important initial changes is to rename the English literature department; instead of the “English Literature Department,” it should be called “Department of Literatures in English,” which is a more inclusive name that incorporates literature from every corner of the globe (in translation) with a special emphasis on the literatures of the Global South—this includes the Arab world, Africa, Latin America, the Indian subcontinent, and other Asian countries. The emphasis on thinkers from the Global South is essential because their philosophical and intellectual contributions and interventions are based on the lived experiences of colonized peoples. Along with the literatures of the Global South, it is necessary to include the literatures of the West; however, rather than the previous method of transmitting these texts uncritically, the approach that needs to be adopted is a decolonial one that entails critiquing/interrogating these texts. Nelson Maldonado-Torres et al. (2018) have called for a “decolonial turn” in the humanities (65). As Maldonado-Torres et al. argue, the issue is not in diversifying the curriculum, but in restructuring knowledge:

            we conceive the decolonial turn as a form of liberating and decolonising reason beyond the liberal and Enlightened emancipation of rationality, and beyond the more radical Euro-critiques that have failed to consistently challenge the legacies of Eurocentrism … (often Eurocentric critiques of Eurocentrism). Otherwise put, the decolonial turn seeks to overcome hierarchies that impede true rigour and excellence in philosophical thinking. (65)

            Overcoming the Eurocentric hierarchies of which Maldonado-Torres et al. speak is a necessary step for their project of “decolonizing the university” and this article’s purpose of designing/planning a curriculum of “literatures in English” that would allow students in the Arab world and the Global South to understand the world around them and how to respond to its challenges.

            The destructive Western colonization of the Global South and the especially brutal Zionist settler colonization of Palestine are not events that can be conveniently relegated to a dead and gone past—the effects of the colonization of the previously colonized world continue and the actual settler colonization of Palestine and resistance to it continues unabated. Police brutality against black men and women in the US continues, so do the brutal killings of Palestinian youth and most recently the very brutal killing of the well-known and highly respected Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh by an Israeli sniper (from the Israeli Occupation Forces) in the Jenin refugee camp. To add insult to injury, it was not enough for the Israeli Occupation Forces to kill Abu Aqleh; they even attacked the pallbearers who were carrying her casket, causing it to almost fall to the ground ( Federman, 2022). The Zionist state fears Palestinians, both the living and the dead. Many wondered why the Zionist state would have committed this crime in broad daylight with the whole world watching. Decades earlier Frantz Fanon explained the brutality of the colonizer in his book The Wretched of the Earth: “colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence” (61). Colonialism and particularly Zionist settler colonialism in occupied Palestine is pure brutal force and violence and can only survive through violence and the constant ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinians.

            Colonization, based on the belief of the supremacy of one race over others, consists of a discourse of epistemic violence, a kind of illogic that is based on epistemic racism, examples of which we have seen most recently in the Western media’s reporting on Ukraine. For example, a CBS news senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata stated the following:

            People are hiding out in bomb shelters, but this isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. You know this is a relatively civilized, relatively European (I have to choose those words carefully too) city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope it’s going to happen. ( https://youtu.be/vLYYm7GSA-I)

            This, of course, was not the only example—there were plenty more from the Western media propaganda machine—Ukrainians, unlike Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans are civilized, blond and blue-eyed; they are Europeans, not Arabs and Africans. Setting racism aside for a while, Westerners, like D’Agata, do not realize that people who are used to violence, being bombed and starved are being bombed and starved by the “civilized” West, the US and other Western countries. Palestinians were made refugees about 74 years ago when they were dispossessed and ethnically cleansed by Western Zionist/imperialist militias, Afghans were bombed and killed by the US, Iraqis were bombed by the US, which killed more than a million Iraqis with advanced bombs and sanctions. This context is not provided by the likes of D’Agata because it does not fit into the Western narrative of the West bringing democracy to the “less developed world.”

            Thus, in the same way that the George Floyd tragedy ignited a change toward the decolonization of the English department at Cornell University, shouldn’t Palestine and the total devastation of Arab nations and the killing of hundreds of thousands of people in the Arab region as a result of US policies signal a change in not only our English departments, but also all humanities’ departments in the Arab region? There have been important awareness-raising educational programs spearheaded by the likes of Rabab Abdulhadi who recently won a court case against San Francisco State University (SFSU) to hire two more tenure track faculty members to help build Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies (AMED) at her university ( mondoweiss.net).

            Abdulhadi, through her activities with AMED, also champions an important initiative called Teaching Palestine: Pedagogical Praxis and the Indivisibility of Justice, which was launched to educate students and audiences about significant historical events that have greatly impacted Palestine and Palestinians, such as the Balfour Declaration, the Nakba of 1948, the 1967 Naksa, the different massacres committed against the Palestinian people (Deir Yassin, Tantoura, Kfar Qassim, Sabra and Shatila, and many others), the Israeli invasions of Lebanon and the siege of Gaza among others ( https://amed.sfsu.edu/). Abdulhadi has faced several difficulties in teaching Palestine at SFSU. She recently attempted along with another colleague to hold a Zoom session with the Palestinian activist and intellectual Leila Khaled, but Zoom cancelled the session. Coming to the support of Abulhadi and her colleague, Tomomi Kinukawa, a Faculty Hearing Committee ruled in October 2021 that SFSU “failed to protect Professors Rabab Abdulhadi and Tomomi Kinukawa from censorship when Zoom, Facebook, and YouTube denied their services for an event featuring Leila Khaled” ( mondoweiss.net), a ruling that was overturned by San Francisco State President, Lynn Mahoney (Ibid). Teaching Palestine is still a constant struggle, not just at American universities, but even at Arab universities.

            Conclusion

            With all the upheaval and catastrophic wars and interventions of the US and Western nations in the Arab region, can Arab universities afford to continue to separate and insulate themselves from the world around them and to obediently transmit sixteenth- to twenty-first-century English literature to their Arab students in 2022? It is not about separating politics from literature—destructive wars, sieges, sanctions, and settler colonialism cannot only be relegated to the realm of politics. These aggressive Western/Zionist policies come barging into our reality, our everyday life and impose themselves upon our geography, natural resources, space, food, psychological well-being, and even the air we breathe. It is time to understand both theoretically and practically what and how settler colonialism and imperialism in general work and how the colonizer thinks. Writing in the introduction to a special issue of the journal, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, Linda Tabar and Chandni Desai (2017) state:

            This special issue brings Palestine into conversation with Settler Colonial Studies, Critical Indigenous Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, other critical scholarship and political practices. In doing so, we write in opposition to the way in which Palestine is often taken up and framed in the mainstream media and academic scholarship. (ii)

            Similarly, Arab scholars need to teach “in opposition to the way in which Palestine” and other Arab causes are “framed in the mainstream media and academic scholarship.” This necessitates delinking from the Western epistemic base/center, the so-called zero point epistemology that has dominated academia and academic writing for decades. In fact, even the word “academic” needs to be interrogated. What is academic writing? What does it entail? These questions are more adequately examined in humanities’ departments that are truly ready to decolonize their curricula from the base up.

            Arab universities are in need of curricula that would examine the most important issues affecting the Arab region and other regions in the Global South and the Global North where there are also oppressed groups. It is time to establish departments of literatures in English that teach Ibn Rushd, Ibn Khaldoun, Ibrahim Touqan, Fadwa Touqan, Nazik Al Malika, Badr Shakir Al Sayyab, Ghassan Kanafani, Mahmoud Darwish, Adonis, Mourid Barghouti, Radwa Ashour, Assia Djebar, Abdelrahman Munif, Mahatma Gandhi, Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, Amilcar Cabral, W. E. B Du Bois, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Paulo Freire, Mohammed Abed al-Jabri, Edward Said, Angela Davis, Kwasi Wiredu, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Amiri Baraka, Walter Mignolo, Cornell West, and many others. This does not mean that Western literatures and philosophers are no longer to be taught—they would, of course, continue to be taught, but they would not constitute the sacred canon from which all else springs—the zero point epistemology. In conclusion, I would like to repeat an idea I mentioned at the outset of this article: our educational system is indeed in need of an epistemic revolution that would mark the beginning of a total transformation of the Arab social consciousness.

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            Author and article information

            Contributors
            Journal
            10.13169/arabstudquar
            Arab Studies Quarterly
            ASQ
            Pluto Journals
            2043-6920
            4 November 2022
            4 November 2022
            : 44
            : 3-4
            : 196-214
            Affiliations
            [1-arabstudquar.44.3-4.0196]Professor of Postcolonial Literature, Director of Arab Open University, Anman, Jordan
            Author notes
            Article
            10.13169/arabstudquar.44.3-4.0196
            c266400e-2f83-4358-9198-18b689c7d4bf
            © 2022 Tahrir Hamdi

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            Social & Behavioral Sciences
            decolonizing education,English literature,epistemic disobedience,revolution,Palestine,zero point epistemology

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