Arab scholar Prashad discusses Middle East

For The News-Letter

Author and historian Vijay Prashad spoke about the turmoil in the Middle East at Red Emma’s Bookstore on Sunday evening. Red Emma’s, a self-proclaimed radical bookstore and coffeehouse located 15 minutes from campus, brings in speakers each year to discuss social and political issues.

Prashad, currently a professor of International Studies at Trinity College in Connecticut, is the author of several books including Letters to Palestine, which documents the reactions of prominent writers and activists to the violence in Gaza last summer and was released last April.

His talk on Sunday focused primarily on the recent history of the conflicts in the Middle East with a focus on the Arab Spring and featured much criticism of Western and European responses to the conflicts.

Prashad started his talk by criticizing American politics in light of the Republican debate last week.

“When we talk about other places in the world, let’s say the Arab world or South Asia or Latin America, let’s take a moment of silence [for] the literally crap politics in the United States of America,” Prashad said. “Anywhere in the world seems better than this.”

The audience of about 50 people responded to this remark with clapping and laughter.
Prashad then discussed why he thought that the unravelling of order in the Arab world beginning in 2010 was a direct consequence of the Iranian revolution of the 1970s.

“The Iranian Revolution of 1978 and 1979 didn’t ever settle in the region. There have constantly been attempts to revise the power equation in the region since 1978 to 1979. And that has had effects right through to the present,” Prashad said. “That doesn’t mean that nothing started in 2010-2011 [in the Middle East]. It merely means that there are other social processes that you have to put into the story additionally.”

He mentioned other issues in the world that exacerbated the recent turmoil. One such issue is climate change, which has led to a drought in Syria. Prashad also stressed that climate change affected the Russian wheat harvest, leading to a downturn in Arabian economies.

Heavy criticism of the Bush administration was also discussed, with Prashad highlighting the fact that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was illegal on many accounts, and that the government the U.S. established in Iraq was, as Prashad put it, ”deeply sectarian.”

Prashad also talked about how the sanctions against Iran due to suspected nuclear weapons manufacturing put on by countries such as the U.S. and Israel allowed Saudi Arabia to gain power in the region by denouncing Iran.

Spontaneous laughter, clapping and head-nodding was a staple of the audience’s response to Prashad’s talk. After the formal talk, Prashad answered numerous questions from audience members. In a brief conversation with Prashad after the event, he highlighted the importance of discussions like the one on Sunday.

“This is the university of life, for people who may not be able to go to college. There are so few democratic spaces left where you can gather and have a discussion,” he said.

While some audience members seemed knowledgeable of the subject of the talk, as evidenced by the depth and specificity of their questions, others gained a better understanding by hearing Prashad speak.

“I came to find out more about what’s going on in the Middle East because I feel like I’m very uninformed,” Margaret Baldridge, who is not affiliated with Hopkins, said. “One of the points that he made that really sticks with me is that for us here our job is to to try to prevent our government from funding the militaries of Israel and Saudi Arabia. What this presentation did was to make you want to be better informed.”

Prashad is giving more talks along the East Coast next week in an attempt to educate the public and advertise his books.

“I’m going to Washington[, D.C.] tomorrow, and I’m promoting my book. But I don’t promote it very well.”

However, the turnout for the event and audience response suggested otherwise.

“It was a great event. He is so knowledgable and he has so many specific names of places and people that it was a little hard to follow him, but people who are better informed than I am I’m sure did follow him. My intent is to go up there now and buy at least one of his books to get better background on what he talked about tonight,” Baldridge said Sunday.

Baldridge’s response harkened back to the very beginning of Prashad’s talk when he highlighted the importance of reading and educating oneself.

“These institutions [like Red Emma’s] are hard to find increasingly and to support them I think is to be alive,” Prashad said. “So I hope you eat a lot, drink a lot, and before you leave buy lots of books. That’s really the essence of being alive — to buy a book from a place that you are happy with and that you love. And what’s not to love about a place that is so bright and beautiful?”

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