Author: everydayorientalism

Orientalism, the Classics and Egypt III, or why you must be in Alexandria on March 11

Orientalism, the Classics and Egypt III, or why you must be in Alexandria on March 11

Will you (or are you searching for the perfect excuse to) be in Egypt on March 11? Do please come and join us at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina for the third Orientalism, the Classics and Egypt (OCE) day-long seminar. This year’s event will focus on the reception of Egyptian culture and heritage in academia and beyond. We promise a day of energising debate and hilariously-awful stories about colonial scholarship, as well as a supportive, collegiate atmosphere, for scholars at all stages of their career. The speakers and titles are listed below, together with a description of the OCE workshop series. Full details of the programme and venue will be announced closer to the time. This will be a bilingual event, in Arabic and English, with translation available.

Katherine Blouin, Usama Ali Gad and Rachel Mairs

The program is available here

Speakers and titles:

Dr Hakem al-Rustom, University of Michigan, USA: Internal Orientalism: The Case of Ottoman and Kemalist Orientalism

Dr Magda Elnowieemy, University of Alexandria, Egypt: What is Egyptian in Egyptian Classical Scholarship?

Dr Monica Hanna, The Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport, Egypt: Decolonizing Heritage

Dr Rachel Mairs, University of Reading, UK: Archaeologists, Tourists and the Arabic Language in the Nineteenth Century

Dr Myrto Malouta, Ionian University, Corfu, Greece: Tony Harrison’s The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus as Post-Colonial Criticism

Dr Franziska Naether, University of Leipzig and Egyptian Museum-Georg Steindorff, Germany: Oh Faraó! Reception of Egypt in Brazilian Carnival

Event abstract

The concept of Orientalism was developed by the literary scholar Edward Said who, in his seminal work Orientalism (1978), defined it as “the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it : in short, Orientalism [is] a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”. Said’s Orientalism dedicates only a minimal space to ancient history. His short discussions of Aeschylus’s Persians, Euripides’ Bacchae and Herodotus’ Histories (p.21, 56-58) are meant to root Orientalist representations in the ancient Greek world. Said’s superficial treatment of this important topic represents a weakness within his work. Yet this alone cannot explain why, if we exclude the field of reception studies, his concept and the scholarly debates it triggered have so far had a much more limited impact on the work of historians of the ancient Mediterranean than they have on other disciplines within the Humanities and Social Sciences. This phenomenon must be understood as the symptom of a belated engagement with (if not a certain resistance to) postcolonial theory within the field and, as Phiroze Vasunia pointed out regarding Classics, of its “failure to acknowledge [its] colonial genealogy”[1]. Nevertheless, the relevance of Orientalism to the study of ancient Mediterranean history expresses itself on two, interconnected levels that have profound socio-cultural implications: Our understanding of ancient imperialisms and dynamics of “Othering”; our grasp of the interconnectedness of modern historiography, imperialism, and modern identity-making. While things are slowly starting to change, a great deal of work remains to be done.

Forty years after the release of Orientalism, this Egypt-based yearly workshop aims to bring together scholars from the Middle East, Europe, and North America, in order to reflect on the many ways in which Orientalism has shaped the field of “Classics” and its relationship to Egypt’s territory, history, and heritage.

This year’s event is made possible through the generous support of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the British Academy

[1] Vasunia, Ph. 2003, “Hellenism and Empire: Reading Edward Said”, Parallax, 9 (4), 88-97.

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The Ancient Mediterranean in 5 words or What difference does a course make?

The Ancient Mediterranean in 5 words or What difference does a course make?

by Katherine Blouin

Last Fall, I decided to do a little experiment in my 1st-year undergraduate course “The Ancient Mediterranean” (a Classics and History course). On the first day of class, right at the start of lecture, I distributed a homemade, anonymous survey to the group, which contained a few questions: What 5 words come to their mind when they think about the Ancient Mediterranean? Why are you taking this course? What are you expecting with this course? Is this your first course in ancient history? If no, what other high school or university course(s) did you take? How many languages do you speak?

On the last day of class, that is 13 weeks later, I distributed another survey, in which I asked students to respond to the 5-word question again. How different or similar would their answers be this time around? I was excited to find out, and so were the students. What follows is thus dedicated to them.

This before/after survey exercise is by no means scientific. Yet I believe it nevertheless illuminates certain trends regarding the general perception of ancient history and Classics among young Ontarians, and thus help us teachers think about how both high school and university curricula/syllabi can foster more nuanced, intersectional and de-Eurocentrized perceptions of ancient history amongst students, including those who won’t pursue a Classics or History degree.

The group

The course’s size went from 180 students on week 1 to 150 on the day of the final (attrition-wise, this is normal by UofT standards). The two main reasons for enrolling include an interest in history and (for more senior students) program requirements. Most students were first year undergraduates. Since the course was offered in the Fall, this means they were mostly coming straight out of high school. In other words, given the reduced historical curriculum in Ontarian high schools, and also the rather outdated nature of the conception of history the official program promotes (namely the biological model whereby “civilizations” sprout, blossom then decay/fall), the majority of them had not been exposed to any ancient history before, and when they had, it had been mostly through the problematic yet still popular “Classical word is the root of Western civilization” trope.

One of the most incredible features of the UTSC student body is its diversity and, also, the fact that most students are bi-/multilingual. In addition to English, languages spoken by students enrolled in the course include: Albanian, Arabic, Armenian, Bengali, Bulgarian, Cantonnese, French, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Igbo, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Polish, Portugese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Sinhalese, Tagalog, Tamil, Turkish, Urdu, Vietnamese. Such diversity, and the breadth and depth of personal, family, and collective experiences it testifies to, impacts the way students relate (or not) with ancient Mediterranean history, as well as with several of the phenomena discussed during term (multilingualism, migration, religion(s), wars, the politics of heritage).

The course

The course provides an aerial survey of the history of the Mediterranean-at-large (including the Near East), from the development of agriculture to the Umayyad caliphate. The idea is to allow students in Classics and History (the course is double-numbered) to be able to contextualize the “Greco-Roman” world within the broader historical, geographical and cultural worlds they belonged to, and to also have a general sense of how ancient history’s connections to later periods are multifaceted and profound. In other words, the course aims to de-Eurocentrize ancient Mediterranean history.

You can find a description of the course as well as its syllabus here.

Before – Week 1

On the first day of class, 139 students filled the survey (that is most of those who were in class that day). Almost all of them answered the 5-word question, for a total of 612 entries. In total, the group came up with 214 different words or referents (words referring to a territory and its people – i.e. Greek and Greece – were grouped together).

Capture d_écran 2018-12-29 à 19.22.52

Table 1: What words come to your mind when you think about the “Ancient Mediterranean”? – Week 1 (word + nb of entries)

The 20 most popular words are listed in the table below:

Capture d_écran 2018-12-29 à 17.36.13

Table 2: The Ancient Mediterranean in my class’ 20 most popular words – Week 1

The most striking feature of Table 2 is that for almost half the students who filled up the survey, the ancient Mediterranean was seen as Greek. The words ‘Rome’ [not Italy] and ‘Roman(s)’, come in second, but in lesser number, since they show up in about a third of the copies. I was expecting these two referents to be popular, but the sheer prevalence of “Greece” over “Rome” was a surprise. Likewise, they amount to way more entries than the following top words, which refer to general, obvious features traditionally attached to ancient History and Classics (notably an emphasis on military history, politics, and trade) and the Mediterranean Sea itself in popular culture.

The traditional, mostly Eurocentric and at times Orientalist picture that emerges from Table 2 is both confirmed and nuanced by several of the thematic clusters one can observe in Table 1. These include words related to food (production) (agriculture, fishing, food, goat, kabob, olives, salad, souvlaki, spices); climate and landscapes (Aegean Sea, beach(es), blue, camel, coastal, desert, fertility, hot, nature, ocean, palm trees, rivers, sea/bodies of water, sun, tropical, villages, water); people (Alexander the Great, Aristotle, Augustus, Bedouins, Caesar, Gaius, Hypatia (the only female), Thucydides); “religion” (Christian, gods, goddess(es), Islam, Jupiter, mythology, polytheism, Poseidon, Zeus); archaeology (loot, paint, rubble, (ancient/destroyed) ruins, sculpture, statues).

As for epithets, there is quite a variety of them: advanced, ancient, beautiful, central, cool (sort of), diverse, fun, hopeful, interesting, mysterious, old, pioneering, rich (in culture), tumultuous, unknown (to me), vintage, weird, western, wild, wonderful. One should also highlight a few words that refer to later (or fictional) periods and cultures: Black Death, Ottoman Empire, Sinbad, Sultan, Venice (does it show one of my colleagues at UTSC works on the Venetian and Ottoman Empires?) and…dragon.

Finally, almost 30 toponymic referents appear in Table 1, though most often in only one or two surveys: Africa, Anatolian, Asia, Asia Minor, Athens, Babylon(ia), Carthage, Constantinople, Cyprus, Egypt/Egyptians, Eurasia, Europe(an), Greece/Greek, Iberian, Levant, Macedonia, Malta, Mesopotamia, Middle East(ern), Peloponnesian, Persia, Phoenicia, Rome/Romans, Silk Road, Spain, Sparta/Spartans, Troy, Turkey, Tyre.

Once students were done with the survey, I asked those who felt like it to share some of the words they had in mind with the group. Here was the result (which includes words not in the surveys themselves).

IMG_6772

All in all, that was a good start; one well worth building upon. And complicating.

After – Week 13

Fast forward to week 13, that is the last day of class. 75 students filled the survey. That’s about half the number of students still enrolled in the course by then (yes, the end-of-term mayhem leads many to skip lectures). This second round of surveys provided 351 entries amounting to 162 different words/referents.

Capture d_écran 2018-12-29 à 19.23.04

Table 3: What words come to your mind when you think about the “Ancient Mediterranean” – Week 13 (word + nb of entries)

My efforts to teach ancient Mediterranean history beyond the Classics seems to have resonated with students, for the top 20 word ranking looks substantially different. The most popular word is now “diverse”, which appears in about a quarter of the copies. Related words such as multicultural(ism)/-faith/-religion/-lingual (16 entries), varied (1 entry) or connection/connected/interconnected (8 entries) also express similar or related ideas.

Capture d_écran 2018-12-29 à 19.31.02

Table 4: The Ancient Mediterranean in my class’ 20 most popular words – Week 13

Another noticeable change is the lower number of references to “Greece” and “Rome”. Not only are these two referents not in the first and second place anymore, but they feature after “Egypt(ians)” and “Mesopotamia”. You can go ahead and put the blame on my passion – if not obsession – for these two regions. New toponyms (Alexandria, Ur, Ionia, Nubia, Sparta), hydronyms (Euphrates, Tigris, Nile) and peoples (Octavian, Parthians, Persians, Sargon, women/women’s rights) also appear on the list, and one notes more words conveying the idea of change, flux or complexity than on week 1.

IMG_1675

So what difference did that one course make? I can certainly not answer for my students, of course, and the survey only reveals a truncated picture of what overall pieces of information they will carry with them in the months and years to come. Yet one thing seems clear: the diachronic, de-Eurocentrized and intersectional nature of the course’s syllabus did lead to a substantial recalibration of the overall image the students have of the “Ancient Mediterranean”; one that shifted from a sepia zoom to a colour panorama.

What and whose stories we historians chose to share with our students matter, and the more voices they hear, the merrier we’ll all get. As Stó: Nation author and teacher Lee Maracle aptly said in October 2018 at the University of Toronto’s “Humanities Pedagogy: Confronting Colonization” workshop, we scholars and teachers ought not to “take anything away”. Rather, we need to “change the way we look at it. The start is facing ourselves and our own history.”

Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean beyond the Classics: A Syllabus

Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean beyond the Classics: A Syllabus

 

by Katherine Blouin

Since I arrived at the UofT’s Scarborough campus more than a decade ago, I’ve taught a few times a 1st-year undergraduate course entitled “The Ancient Mediterranean”. The course provides an aerial survey of the history of the Mediterranean-at-large (including the Near East), from the development of agriculture to the Umayyad caliphate. The idea is to allow students in Classics and History (the course is double-numbered) to be able to contextualize the “Greco-Roman” world within the broader historical, geographical and cultural worlds they belonged to, and to also have a general sense of how ancient history’s connections to later periods are multifaceted and profound. In other words, the course aims to de-Eurocentrize ancient Mediterranean history.

Most students who take the course come straight from high school, and so have very little (or no) background in history, let alone in ancient history. The group is a mix of students enrolled in a CLA or HIS program and of students taking the course as an elective. The classroom size is of 150-200 students and the group is very diverse.

In the light of conversations with colleagues, I thought it might be handy to share the latest version of my syllabus’ calendar and reading list.

Some preliminary cues:

1. One of my main aims was to tone down the “Mediterranean Antiquity = Greco-Roman” paradigm. As I like to say, the so-called “Classical” world did come emerge out of the blue. Far from it.

2. Accordingly, I’ve made sure to distribute the material in a way that allows a maximum of seats at the table. So contrary to all available textbooks on the topic, the Greek and Roman worlds do not take up most of the term lectures.

3. I’ve paired up Empires (Roman-Carthaginian, Achaemenid-Hellenistic, Roman Dominate-Sassanian) that are usually not taught with equal emphasis

4. The weekly calendar is meant to convey to students the importance of challenging historiographical myths such as the “Fall” of the Roman Empire (and thus the biological model of “civilizations“) and the idea whereby the Arab conquests brought about a complete socio-cultural rupture.

5. Online (blog) articles, podcasts and TedEd videos proved to be very useful pedagogical tools, especially when introductory readings on a particular topic are rare on unsatisfactory for the needs of the course.

Feel free to take on whatever you deem useful from what follows, and if you do, let me know how your students responded to the material.

Required Material and Readings

  • Podany, A.H. 2014. The Ancient Near East: A Very Short History. Oxford, OUP.
  • Shaw, I. 2004. Ancient Egypt: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, OUP.
  • de Blois, L. and R.J. van der Spek 2008. An Introduction to the Ancient World. NYC, Routlege.
  • A selection of episodes from BBC 4’s In Our Time
  • A selection of podcasts from BBC 4’s A History of the World in 100 Objects (AHOW in weekly calendar)
  • A few other readings/videos (references provided in the weekly calendar)

Weekly Calendar

Week 1 Course Presentation

Readings:

– Appiah, K.A. 2016. “There is no such thing as western civilisation“, The Guardian

– Blouin, K. 2018. “Civilization: What’s Up with That?“, Everyday Orientalism

– Futo Kennedy, R 2017. “We condone it by our silence: Confronting Classics’ Complicity in White Supremacy”, Eidolon

Week 2  Ancient Mesopotamia, from Uruk to the dynasty of Ur

Readings: Podany 2014, ch.1-5

Podcast : AHOW 012 and 015

Week 3 The Ancient Near East, from the Old Assyrian Empire to Cyrus’ conquest

Readings: Podany 2014, ch.6-10

Podcast : AHOW 016 and 21

Video: The rise and fall of the Assyrian Empire“, TedEd

 Week 4 Ancient Egypt 1

Readings: Shaw 2004, ch.1-4

Podcast : AHOW 011 and 017

Video: “A day in the life of an ancient Egyptian doctor”, TedEd

Week 5 Ancient Egypt 2

Readings: Shaw 2004, ch.5-8

Podcast : 020 and 025

Video: The pharaoh that wouldn’t be forgotten“, TedEd

Week 6  Reading week = No class

Week 7 Midterm

Week 8 The Aegean and ancient Greek World

Readings: De Blois and van der Spek 2008, ch.8-10

Podcast : AHOW 018 and 027

Video:

– “Why is Aristophanes called “The father of Comedy”?“, TedEd

– “The myth of Arachne“, TedEd

Week 9 The Achaemenid and Hellenistic Worlds

Readings:

– De Blois and van der Spek 2008, ch.11

– Llewellyn-Jones, L. 2017. “The Achaemenid Empire“, T. Daryaee ed. King of the Seven Climes.

– Zuckerberg, D. 2017. “Don’t Quote me on That“, Eidolon

Podcast : AHOW 031 and 032

Video:

– “Why is Herodotus called “The father of history”?“, TedEd

Did the Amazons really exist?, TedEd

Week 10 Rome and Carthage: From Cities to Empires

Readings:

– De Blois and van der Spek 2008, ch.12-13

– Futo Kennedy, R. 2017. “Colorlines in Classical North Africa“, Classics at the Intersections

Podcast : In Our Time, “The Phoenicians” and “Carthage’s Destruction

Video:Who were the Vestals virgins“, TedEd

Week 11 The Roman World, from the Late Republic to the Dominate

Readings:

– De Blois and van der Spek 2008, ch.14-15

– Padilla, D. 2015. “Barbarians Inside the Gate, Part I: Fear of Immigration in Ancient Rome and Today“, Eidolon

Podcast : AHOW 035 and 040

Video:

-“Why would you read Virgil’s “Aeneid”?“, TedEd

-“A glimpse of teenage life in ancient Rome“, TedEd

Week 12 The Late Antique Roman and Sassanian Empires

Readings:

De Blois and van der Spek 2008, ch.16

– Daryaee, T. and K. Rezakhani 2017. “The Sasanian Empire”, T. Daryaee ed. King of the Seven Climes. https://www.academia.edu/32690732/T._Daryaee_and_Kh._Rezakhani_The_Sasanian_Empire_KING_OF_THE_SEVEN_CLIMES_ed._T._Daryaee_Jordan_Center_for_Persian_Studies_2017_pp._155-197

Podcast :

– AHOW 043 and 044

– In Our Time, “The Sassanid Empire

Video: The rise and fall of the Byzantine Empire“, TedEd

Week 13 Early Islam and the Arab Conquests

Readings:

“Arabs” and “Muhammad” in The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

Sarris, P. 2015. “Byzantium and Islam”, Byzantium: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, OUP.

Podcast :

– AHOW 045 and 046

– In Our Time, “The Arab Conquests

Assignment

In addition to a midterm and a final, the students had to write a “podcast manuscript”:

A History of Ancient Women in 180 ROM Objects 30%

Students are asked to visit the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and, on that occasion, to select one of the many objects from the Ancient Mediterranean world that is related to girls/women (including goddesses) on display there.

Then, in the fashion of BBC’s AHOW series, they shall write the manuscript of a podcast in which they offer a historical analysis of the object in question.

The 4 to 5-page manuscript (1.5 spaced) shall be structured as follows :

  1. Introduction
  2. Primary evidence analysis
  3. Conclusion

In 2014, I assigned a similar paper for my 2nd-year Roman History and Culture course, with the Roman world as the general theme. The ROM generously partnered up with me and turned 5 of the best papers into videos starring the students. The selection was made via a long list established by myself and my GA. Then, students whose papers made it to the long list and who were interested to participate had their paper sent to a small jury made of ROM curators and associate researchers. The 5 winners can be seen on the ROM’s Youtube page.

“Infants in our Soul”: On (Ancient) History as Responsability

“Infants in our Soul”: On (Ancient) History as Responsability

by Katherine Blouin

When the governor of the country, who, if he wished, could have by himself suppressed in a single hour the tyranny of the mob, pretended not to see what he saw and not to hear what he heard but allowed them to wage war unrestrainedly and so wrecked the peace, they became still more excited and pressed forward to carry out shameless designs of a bolder kind.

-Philo of Alexandria The Embassy to Gaius 20, F.H.Colson 1962 transl.

When the news of the shooting in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue broke, I thought of Philo of Alexandria. I thought of the Jews of ancient Alexandria; of the Jews of Hellenistic and Roman Egypt; and of how some patterns of othering fundamentally don’t change, nor disappear. Instead, they remain, lingering under societies’ tolerant, polite veneer, until circumstances – a crisis, the need for a scapegoat whose identity fits the agenda of a charismatic leader – make them surge again in the open. Unfettered.

In 38 CE, upon the accession of Gaius Caligula to power, the Jews of Alexandria – who had accounted since the early Hellenistic period for a substantial portion of the city’s population – were violently attacked by Alexandrians and stripped of their rights by the then prefect of Egypt Aulus Avilius Flaccus. This episode, known as the Judaeo-Alexandrian conflict, unfolded over a period of 3 years. It is the earliest pogrom we know of. We know of it thanks to ancient writers (Philo, Josephus and the author(s) of the Acta Isidori), a copy of a letter from emperor Claudius to the Alexandrians preserved on a papyrus, and some allusions in a few other documentary papyri. It has been reconstructed and studied at length, notably by the late Joseph Mélèze-Modrzejwski, in his seminal book on the The Jews of Egypt from Ramses II to Hadrian, as well as by Sandra Gambetti and myself.

Philo, a Jewish philosopher from Alexandria (and the uncle of the later prefect Tiberius Julius Alexander), is mostly known for his philosophical writings, in which he brings together Jewish texts and Greek paideia. Yet he is also our main source on the conflict between the Jewish community of Alexandria and the city’s Greek citizens. His testimony is all the more powerful that he was a first-hand witness and actor; one who led the Jewish embassy that met with the emperor Gaius in Rome some time after the pogrom. His version of events is at the core of two of his works: Against Flaccus and The Embassy to Gaius. In this post, I want to focus on what Philo says regarding the relationship between dehumanizing (some might say totalitarian) othering narratives, political leadership, and violent attacks perpetrated by civilians.

According to Philo, Flaccus was a fine prefect until the emperor Tiberius died, but things changed following Gaius Caligula’s accession to power. Having supported Tiberius Gemellus instead of Gaius for the succession of Tiberius, Flaccus then found himself in a very vulnerable position (so vulnerable in fact that he seemed to have literally feared for his life). It is in these circumstances that the prefect is said to have made a pact with some leaders of the Alexandrian civic community, whereby they would target the city’s Jewish community. According to Philo, Flaccus and the Alexandrians were convinced that their attack would please Gaius, on the ground of his ” indescribable hatred of the Jews” (Embassy to Gaius 20). Thus Flaccus first let the Alexandrians publicly disrespect king Agrippa, whose stopover in the city led to a public parody involving a mentally impaired man; then he encouraged the desecration of the city’s synagogues, and ended up declaring Jews “foreigners and aliens” (ξένους καὶ ἐπήλυδας; In Flacc. 8).

Flaccus’ (in)action led to a full-on pogrom, during which the members of the Jewish community were confined into a small area of the city (what amounts to a ghetto), their houses pillaged, and many of them killed by a mob. Philo provides a long, detailed and graphic narration in his work Against Flaccus (which is, as the title indicates, a pamphlet against the prefect, whom Philo deems responsible for the entire episode). He also includes a condensed version in his Embassy to Gaius, which was published after the emperor’s death. Here is an excerpt:

The promiscuous and unstable rabble of the Alexandrians perceived this, and thinking that a very suitable opportunity had occurred, attacked us and brought to light the hatred which had long been smouldering, reducing everything to chaos and confusion. For treating us as persons given over by the emperor to suffer the extremity of calamity undisguised or as overpowered in war, they worked our ruin with insane and most brutal rage. They overran our houses, expelling the owners with their wives and children, and left them uninhabited. Then they stole the furniture and cherished valuables and, not needing now like robbers through fear of capture to watch for night and darkness, they carried them out openly in daylight and exhibited them to those whom they met as if they had inherited them or bought them from the owners. And if several agreed together to share the pillaging they divided the spoil in mid-market, often before the eyes of the owners, jeering and reviling them the while.

After driving all these many myriads of men, women, and children like herds of cattle out of the whole city into a very small portion as into a pen, they expected in a few days to find heaps of dead massed together, perished either by famine through lack of necessaries, since having had no prophetic inkling of the sudden disasters they had not provided what was needed, or else through overcrowding and stifling heat. For no sufficiency of room was obtainable, and the air was vitiated and lost all its life-giving properties through the respirations or, to give them their true name, the gasps of expiring men. (Embassy to Gaius 18, F.H.Colson 1962 transl.)

In both works, Philo writes of artificially-created famine in the ghetto; of looting; of attacks of children, women, and elders; of public torture in Alexandria’s theater; of Jews being beatten, lynched, burnt alive, and crucified. A graphic description of the parading of dead bodies in the city’s streets is reminiscent of the fate of Hector’s corpse in the Iliad. Other ones of what we know of the female, Alexandrian philosopher Hypatia’s death by lynching, which was to take place in the same city c.400 years later.

Apart from naming a few of the Alexandrian leaders, Philo ascribes these acts of indescribable violence to an anonymous mob. Yet we should keep in mind that any mob is, in fact, an aggregate of individuals. Emboldened by the silent then open support of the prefect, these Alexandrians perpetrated or passively allowed violence on a scale many of them would most probably never have thought themselves capable of performing or witnessing a few years earlier. In that regard, the social conformity Philo’s narrative testifies to is reminiscent of the Nov. 9, 1938 Kristallnacht, or of what Timothy Snyder writes in On Tyranny regarding the looting and “Arianization” of Jewish property that followed the 1938 Nazi invasion of Austria:

Local Austrian Nazis captured Jews and forced them to scrub the streets to remove symbols of independent Austria. Crucially, people who were not Nazis looked on with interest and amusement. Nazis who had kept lists of Jewish property stole what they could. Crucially, others who were not Nazis joined in the theft. As the political theorist Hannah Arendt remembered, “when German troops invaded the country and Gentile neighbors started riots at Jewish homes, Austrian Jews began to commit suicide. (Timothy Snyder On Tyranny 15-16)

How many Greek Alexandrians did actively participate in the 38 CE pogrom? How many did not? How many did help Jews take refuge, water or food? We don’t know. What we should keep in mind is that just like in 1938 Germany and Vienna, most of Alexandria’s Greek population did not openly oppose the violence and overturn of the city’s customary state of Law.

If Flaccus was really hoping to gain favor in Gaius’ eyes, his plan was a complete failure. Shortly after the pogrom, he was, indeed, arrested in Alexandria and exiled to the island of Andros. The following year, he was executed following the emperor’s order. The effect of Flaccus’ discriminatory policy did not end with his demotion though, as the continuation of the conflict over the following two years shows.

Philo’s criticism of Flaccus is in many ways comparable to that expressed by critics of President Trump following the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue as well as several other events/policies (the violence that took place in Charlottesville, the assault on LGBTQ2 rights, the separation of asylum seekers’ families and the ongoing detention of migrant children in camps, the series of bombs sent to opposition figures, the GOP’s stirring of anti-immigrant fears through the “Caravan” story, and recent calls by the President for the suppression of the 14th amendment via executive order). In both cases, we find a political leader who, facing accusations of corruption or lèse-majesté, exacerbates lingering xenophobic (anti-Jewish in one case; Islamophobic, anti-Semitic/immigrant, homophobic in the other) sentiments in the hope of self-preservation and political gain. Not only did Flaccus not condemn the attacks on the Jewish institutions, property, and bodies, he also, later on, decreed the Jews “foreigners and aliens”, thus enabling the use of physical violence by the Alexandrian “mob” against the Jews. Sounds familiar?

This short post is a case in historical relevance. Donald Trump is no Avilius Flaccus, and Washington is no Alexandria. But deep down, the tides of othering that currently shake the USA, and many countries of the world, are made of many of the same reductive topoi and populist rhetorical backbones as those that led to Alexandria’s pogrom of 38 CE. History doesn’t repeat itself. But human societies do tend to inherit the consequences of, and reproduce their forebears’ collective misdeeds. And they are especially prone to do so when they collectively lack the historical and critical skills required for them to be self-reflective on why that is so.

I shall end this post with two quotes that speak to each other and, I believe, to us all. The first one is from Timothy Snyder; the second, from Philo:

History allows us to see patterns and make judgments. It sketches for us the structures within which we can seek freedom. It reveals moments, each one of them different, none entirely unique. To understand one moment is to see the possibility of being the cocreator of another. History permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something. (Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny 130)

How long shall we the aged continue to be children grown grey in our bodies through length of years, but infants in our souls through want of sense, holding fortune, the most unstable of things, to be the most unchangeable, nature, the most constant, to be the most insecure? (Philo, Embassy to Gaius 1, F.H.Colson 1962 transl.)

I’m From Singapore & I Saw Crazy Rich Asians: What I Saw Was What I Did Not See

I’m From Singapore & I Saw Crazy Rich Asians: What I Saw Was What I Did Not See

By Girish Daswani

I am from Singapore. I grew up in an apartment close to Chinatown in the 1970s and remember wandering through the streets and shopping centres, as I killed my boredom of being an only child, reading books on Buddhism and searching for the best lanterns during the Chinese lantern festival. When my father left (I was about 8 or 9) and my mother could not afford to pay the rent anymore, we moved to the East: Siglap Road, Frankel Avenue and finally Marine Parade. My mother started her childcare centre in the different bungalows she rented, the children played below and we shared a room upstairs until the business grew and a room was made available for me (I was 14 by that time!). When we moved into our own two-bedroom apartment in Marine Parade, I was thrilled to have a home again – without the morning cries of children leaving their parents as they headed to work or the invading groups of naughtiness that interrupted my sleep when an extra room was needed for teaching. Even if it meant I had to share the HDB (Housing Development Board = public housing, commonly referred to as Singapore’s “Heartlands”, and where most Singaporeans live) flat with my mother’s brother, who was usually in a bad mood, or a room with my mother, I sensed a new freedom: I was then in junior college and about to head off for military service (Kranji did not have an MRT station at the time), and I was later to assume a coveted spot at the local University. I studied Sociology, was part of a local band, my “Malay”, “Chinese”, “Indian” and “Eurasian” friends became my extended family, and we spoke about the world outside Singapore through music and politics.

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Aerial view of Marine Parade’s HDB flats

The world was my oyster – or that was how it felt. I started travelling, backpacked through Europe, volunteered for an NGO in Bangladesh, lived in Ghana with my father’s forgotten family, did my higher education in London and finally found myself in Toronto with a job as a university professor.

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The author and his son in one of Singapore’s “Heartlands”

So, what has this to do with me having watched Crazy Rich Asians (CRA) last week? Well, having seen the very entertaining, much acclaimed, and Hollywood blockbuster film set in Singapore, I felt like everything I knew about Singapore was stolen, taken away from me. I’m being too dramatic, maybe? Maybe, but that’s how I felt. Some say that the movie (and the author of the book the movie is based on) depicts a side to Singapore that was previously hidden to many, including myself; that it draws the curtain that usually hides the obscene amounts of wealth, “old money” and patronage that have always been part of Singaporean society. And they may be right. Others are happy to see Singapore featured and photoshoped into an Asian-American Hollywood film that brings the tiny island-state into the international spotlight with a more joyful twist than the controversies of the recent Trump-Kim-Jong-un Summit (let’s not even discuss how some think that summit was a “good” thing). And they have every right to their happiness. The Singapore Tourist Board must have also been salivating on the free marketing advertisements that portrayed Singapore’s mouth-watering local food, its synthesis of colonial, Peranakan and modern architecture, its post-modern infrastructure, and the futuristic hotel (and prophecy of the end-times depicted by the Noah’s Ark) that is the Marina Bay Sand – an Ark built on reclaimed land. Salivate all you want, I say.

What I saw was different. What I saw was what I did not see. And this is important. It is important because, just as CRA claims to be a success for “Asian-Americans” (let’s just cut to the chase and say “Chinese-Americans”) representation in Hollywood (and that is indeed something important), it was a failure in being an ally to the indigenous people and other minorities of the country the movie is set in. These groups have been under-/not represented in the country’s own post-colonial public image; their concerns are generally not heard or seen as lacking credibility because of the country’s nationalistic ideologies of meritocracy and multiculturalism. The only Malay (the indigenous person of Singapore) in the movie was…. wait, were there any Malays in the movie? The “Indians” were represented by the colonial figures of the Sikh soldier or bodyguard, scary bearded brown men with turbans. It is them who guarded the property of the crazy rich Chinese family, and the short scene in which they appear is meant to trigger laughter among the audience. As for Tamils, they are only seen as usherers at the wedding. Filipinos and Indonesians (the “new Singaporeans”) are stereotypically cast as the docile domestic helper more commonly called “maids.” Even CRA’s representation of “Chinese” people seemed confused. Elements of Hakka, Peranakan, Teochew, Hokkien, and Mandarin-speaking cultures are indiscriminately blended together in ways that are unrecognizable to the Chinese Singaporean.

The very fact that I’m using “Chinese”, “Malay”, “Indian” (let’s not forget “Eurasian”) is not random: These are the four official “Races” of Singapore. “Race” is a thing in Singapore, part of our post-colonial baggage that helps the government structure and divide Singaporeans according to “origin” types, and comes with the usual racial stereotypes. It is so central to the bureaucracy that it is printed on our identity cards.

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Poster for Singapore’s “Racial Harmony Day”

The metaphor and bureaucratic use of racial “types” can also be linked to Singapore’s fascination for “nature” (or how “race” is sometimes linked to “nature” and natural selection) and its attempts to control it (Joanne Leow). This fascination justifies a series of politics, from control over marriage and purity (see Teo You Yenn’s Neoliberal Morality in Singapore), to control of public housing (allocation of homes and mixing of races), to control over language (each race has its own “mother tongue”). How does it relate to the movie? Well, because CRA makes it seem like Singaporeans don’t really mix or intermingle beyond hierarchical, practical purposes (like the Sikh guards, the Tamil usherer opening your door, or the Filipino maids hiding their Chinese boss’s Jimmy Choo shoes and fancy jewellery in drawers). Maybe crazy rich people mix less with others – some anthropologists might agree with that. But as a middle class Singaporean who has also mingled with wealthier locals, I would say that the mixity is a lot more prevalent and complicated than the segregation-like social landscape the movie portrays.

I grew up speaking standardized (British) English in school, with Malay as my second language, and I used Singlish amongst my friends and other locals, a way of speaking English interspersed with words in Malay, Tamil, Mandarin, Hokkien and Teochew. My friends were from various socio-economic, cultural and religious backgrounds: Say Chong was my friend in Primary 3; with him, I watched the latest kungfu movies from Hong Kong (myself, Say Chong and others used to pretend “fight” using the martial arts moves we learnt in movies). Timothy was one of my closest friends from primary 3 to 6; he introduced me to the wonders of climbing down monsoon drains and protected me from potential bullies. Others became like brothers and adopted sisters (we played football in the void decks, participated in plays and school debates and made music together). Together, we shared a tapestry of experiences: we lived in Singapore and were attracted to each through common interests, schools, neighbourhoods and the need to connect with a person or group outside our respective family unit. I never limited them to their “race”. We spoke a common language: the language of being from a place, in a place. As such, we shared the experiences and frustrations of its rites of passage, including the Primary School Leaving Examinations (through which you were placed into “Normal, “Express” or “Gifted” streams), ‘O’ levels, ‘A’ levels, and military service (for males only).

I experienced racism for the first time in the army. My platoon mates mainly spoke Hokkien and Mandarin to each other, and I did not speak enough. Some did not like me and only referred to me as “Keling Kia”, never by my name. The expression “Keling Kia” comes from the colonial era. Then, South Indian labourers of Tamil or Telugu decent were called “Keling” (in Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew) and “Kia” was often used in Teochew to refer to non-Chinese ethnic groups.

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Indian coolies, Singapore, c.1900

The first Chinese girl I went out with was a friend of my cousin’s. My cousin was not pleased. To be fair, I never told her I was pursuing her friend romantically. But when the girl’s parents found out about us (they saw us at a bus stop, close to her HDB block, holding hands), they were incensed. She broke up with me immediately after that. I heard from a reliable source that her parents forbid her from seeing me, compared me to other Indians – cause we apparently all abuse alcohol and our wives – and told her that if she wanted to continue seeing me, she could “roll in the mud” (I assumed at the time that this was not a New Age cleansing ritual) and leave home. She made the right choice, went to a different university than me and her parents had her brother introduce her to his Chinese friends from NTU – one of whom she later married. I’m not bitter. I was hurt at the time but I had my friends and I had my music to channel my frustrations (one result was “She Don’t Care Anymore”, Big O Singles Club No. 5). University seemed not to place limits on me and I blossomed into a graduate.

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The author (singing) with his fellow bandmates of The Trip in concert

Why, again, am I sharing this with you? How does it relate to CRA? Well, it is to counter-balance the movie’s picture of singularity (Singapore = rich and Chinese) and the absence of conviviality between the so-called different groups and to point to the many Singaporeans who live together and with each other, mainly in the HDB flats that the cinema screen scans over quickly (you see them in the background while the characters drive to their parties and exclusive destinations). It is to point to the prejudices that already exist politically and socially; prejudices that would not allow a non-Chinese become Prime Minister. As Singaporean historian Thum Ping-tjin put it:

[The] most competent and popular politician in Singapore is not allowed to be prime minister because he is the wrong race, he doesn’t meet the qualifications of an (mandarin) elite.

If I am sharing this with you, it is to alert you to the hidden secret that there is poverty in Singapore, even as its officials try to rationalize it, provide tips on how to better manage the rising cost of living and transfer the bulk of the responsibility to the economic choices people make (see Teo You Yenn 2018 and this).

Also, where are the Crazy Rich Singaporeans who are not Chinese? Are we all not “Asians”? Why could the movie director not have taken some creative and intellectual initiative, hired some Singaporean consultants who knew about the politics and the history of the place, put more Singaporeans into leading roles (we have great actors by the way, including Tan Kheng Hua, who I was thrilled to see play the female lead’s mother), and made some modifications to the script by making the main character’s best friend Indian, Malay or Peranakan (unless the idea was to only portray local characters who had gone to élite Chinese language schools; yes, that is a thing in Singapore)? And why was there a (most probably fake) quote from Napoléon Bonaparte at the beginning of the movie? Why had the director picked that Orientalist warning whereby China, the feminized “sleeping giant”, would one day awaken from its slumber as the movie’s epigram? Has “China” ever been sleeping? Is Singapore China? Are Singaporeans Chinese? Is Asia China?

To me, CRA came across as a movie about Chinese hegemony and neo-colonial domination more than about “Asians” anywhere. I found myself entertained by the movie but perplexed at the same time. It haunted me for a few days, and I ended up watching it a second time with my (Singaporean) niece. Why did Jon M. Chu’s team come to Singapore only to film clichés and Photoshop the country, relegating its true diversity into the far, very blurry background? I understand that this isn’t meant to be a movie about Singapore, but why try to break some stereotypes by perpetuating others? While Hollywood reproduces stereotypes all the time, and in this CRA is no different from other American Hollywood bluckbusters, the movie’s claim to be a “movement” (in the fashion of Black Panther – a comparative analysis of this requires another blog post) or a work that is about representing “diversity” and “Asians” is misleading. For the movie’s lack of attempt to provide a true diversity of representations as unproblematic is problematic to me.

In response to my frustrations with the lack of representation in the movie, a Chinese-American told me on Twitter: “I’m not sure why you as a Singaporean are inflating your sense of importance. It’s based in Singapore not a film about Singapore. This is a clear distinction.” He was quite right. This was not a film about Singapore, but a Hollywood-American movie based on a book whose author is, yes, a Singaporean, but one who left the country at age 11 and has since been living in the US. It is also a movie that, although set mostly in Singapore, includes a substantial amount of shots filmed in Malaysia and reworked through CGI (including the Young family house). CRA‘s Singapore, thus, is a highly Orientalized, imagined “Asian” fantasy. It is not my country.

Yet some of the film’s scenes do, paradoxically, tell you a lot about the country and its ties to diversity, colonialism and imperialism. While Nick Young’s best friend’s wedding takes place in CHIJMES, whose hall we see turned into a tropical forest, the after-wedding party is held in Singapore’s majestic “Gardens by the Bay”. In line with its fame as an international “Garden City” known for its beautiful Botanical Gardens and bountifully green public spaces, Singapore’s famous tourist attraction is also a symbol of the unseen labour that goes into maintaining racialized divisions and naturalizing the status quo. These divisions and hierarchies are, unsurprisingly, maintained in CRA. Designed by a British company, Gardens by the Bay consists of two climatic zones (Mediterranean and Tropical mountain range) that hold around a thousand species of plants, flanked by “Supertrees” (the purple tree-structures you see in the movie, about which someone watching the movie close to me exclaimed, “Just like the movie Avatar!”) and “themed gardens” that include four “Heritage Gardens” called “Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Colonial”. University of Saskatchewan scholar Joanne Leow has shown how these correspond to “racialized, codified spaces that classify the main ethnic groups and their related botany in Singapore as scholarly Chinese, artistic Indians, rural Malays, and enterprising colonials”. So just scratch a little below the surface and you will find a history of peoples, managed and organized through colonialism, simplified into types and re-created as living and breathing stereotypes.

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Aerial view of the Gardens by the Bay

Singapore, thus, includes many peoples not seen or experienced in CRA. While I have problems with how Race (and Nature) is manufactured and imagined in the country, I have more problems with how Singapore’s neo-colonial complexity is purposefully left out of the movie. One might then respond that CRA is about Family, that it is a rom-com focusing on how love triumphs over traditions and class differences. But what of the intimacies between “Chinese Singaporeans” (a modern invention, by the way) and other racialized Singaporeans? In her book The Intimacies of Four Continents (2016:16) Lisa Lowe writes:

it is the pronounced asymmetry of the colonial divisions of humanity that… privileges particular subjects and societies as rational, civilized, and human, and treat others as laboring, replaceable, or disposable contexts that constitute that humanity.

I could also respond, where were brown and black bodies – are other Singaporean / Asian bodies replaceable, disposable or treated as less than Singaporean / Asian? By her use of the term “intimacies” Lowe (2016:18-20) is suggesting that we instead focus on the close connections and relations between colonized people; slaves, peoples of indigenous descent and colonized labourers (for example, slavery in the Caribbean and Chinese and Indian free-labour “coolie” systems). These alliances and social ties of affinity created between different colonized people are important to consider because they actually existed (even as they might have been resisted), but (as complicated as they are) were often eclipsed by the dominant Anglo-American narrative.

How to understand that we are all intimately connected, even if in a complicated way that is not always straightforward? A last story from my years in Singapore might help. I remember spending long nights in Cuff Road, just off Serangoon Road, Singapore’s Little India. I would sit in my adopted uncle’s office, a converted shop-house, one of many that lined the street he had grown up on and continued to call his home.

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Shop houses, Little India, Singapore

My uncle (Māma, lit. “mother’s brother” in Tamil) was a well-known astrologer in Singapore and I got to know him soon after my father left my mother. He loved talking about politics and history. As I grew older, these conversations – involving groups of people, usually his close friends – went on late into the night and sometimes well into the morning. I would watch his paan-stained lips, red from the juice of the beetel leaf and areca nuts, articulate connections between India and Singapore and how their histories converged. Māma was talented at revealing the connections and convergences between the stars, the past, the present and the future, and what these alignments said about the present and what they signified personally and politically for everyone in the room. He was a gifted astrologer, but also an exceptional connector of worlds and people.

Rather than connecting us, CRA reinforces a narrative of division (“races”, classes, “civilizations”), while simultaneously erasing or occluding the other intimate connections and convergences that exist – and which I’ve experienced and tried to write about in this post. It reinforces an American identity-politics that bears the burdens of imperialisms (old and new). It may be a win for Asian-American “representation” – we need to acknowledge that many Asian-Americans of East Asian decent, and beyond, are rightfully-so, personally elevated and emotionally affected by this movie – but it is a loss for the larger battle of truly addressing (mis-) representation and considering the concerns of other minorities who are also part of the story. Until we recognize that and come together in new and unexpected ways, to expose the simple and simplistic mainstream narrative, we will only reproduce division, racial difference and exclusivity – something that I thought CRA was trying to challenge. I am secretly grateful for having watched CRA. Having spent half my life away, I thought that I had left Singapore behind me. But having watched the film, I realized that Singapore is very much still inside me. CRA doesn’t do justice to what life in Singapore is for most Singaporeans, me included.

References

Chua, Beng-Huat. 2002. Political Legitimacy and Housing: Singapore’s Stakeholder Society. Taylor and Francis.

Leow, Joanne. Unpublished. “New Asian Tropicalities: Reading Nature in the City in a Garden.”

Lowe, Lisa. 2016. The Intimacies of Four Continents. Duke University Press.

Teo, You Yenn. 2011. Neoliberal Morality in Singapore: How Family Policies Make State and Society. Routledge.

Teo, You Yenn. 2018. This Is What Inequality Looks Like. Ethos Books.

Purushotam, Nirmala. 1998. Negotiating Language, Constructing Race: Disciplining Difference in Singapore. Mouton de Gruyter.

 

How to pimp your Classics & Ancient History syllabus: 10 back-to-school tips

How to pimp your Classics & Ancient History syllabus: 10 back-to-school tips

by Katherine Blouin

Over the summer, a Ph.D. student told me that she and her fellow graduate students in Classics here at the UofT would very much appreciate to get some tips on how they can better diversify and “decolonize” (and I use this term mindfully, being aware that it is not a metaphor) their teaching in a way that is all at once more reflective of the complexities of the ancient world, mindful of Classics’ and ancient history’s complicated and ongoing ties to imperialism, and engaging to our often (and in Toronto, incredibly) diverse student body. Since we’re all either in the midst of or about to start writing our Fall syllabi, I thought the time was ripe to put together a list of the 10 main cues I’ve been following these past years. In my experience, these can be applied in a variety of ways to both undergraduate and graduate courses at all levels. That being said, this is by no means meant to be a set list, and I am certainly aware that MUCH remains to be done, so please see this list as a start.  And should you have other tips to share, please do!

1. Diversify the voices featured in your syllabus

Are all the readings assigned in your syllabus written by white male scholars? From the anglo-saxon scholarly tradition? Who are senior? If the answer is yes, consider making your reading list more representative of the world around you (or, if you look around and only see white man, of the world beyond your bubble). Likewise, foster a critical approach to texts considered to be authoritative in the field. Some may say: That’s a great idea in theory, but the fact is, some fields are more “white”, “male”, and “Anglo-Saxons” than others. My answer to that would be: Really? Please try again. And for real, this time.

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2. Don’t fetishize narcissistic military leaders

I teach intro to Roman history and culture every year so I know this too well: It’s very hard when we teach a survey course to stray away from the chronological and geopolitical narrative path. Still, it’s not an excuse to spend the whole term focusing exclusively on a bunch of rich, in great part corrupt, and narcissistic ancient men who fought between each other, led civil wars, and committed genocides (yes, Julius Caesar, you did just that, and I’m looking at all of you too, politicians of the Late Republic!). First, let’s face it, it gets depressing, and heavy, after a while. Second, there is WAY more to the ancient world than that, and I’m sure you too hope that those students who study science and are about to take their first and only course of ancient history as an elective will end the term thinking the same.

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So what I’ve been trying to do is to balance the mostly political narrative of my lectures with “case study” segments that feature “voices” or topics pertaining to other aspects of the ancient world. For instance, last year, I spent a bit more time discussing three foundational stories of early Rome that revolve around rape/abduction of female bodies and how they were interpreted by modern art: The rape of Rhea Silvia; the “rape” of the Sabines; the rape of Lucretia.

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Image from the 1962 movie The Rape of the Sabines

Given the climate of the time (#MeToo), I found that it was both necessary and powerful to critically and mindfully (for we must also be aware that some of the most graphic and violent material we teach can me traumatic or painful for (some) students & adjust our teaching methods accordingly) discuss these myths more than I had in the past. Given the students’ responses both in and outside of class, it seems like it was a good idea pedagogically-speaking.

3. Don’t be a “Classical” literature monomaniac = diversify your pool of primary evidence

The ancient world was a multilingual (and multiscript) one. Unlike today, most people in Antiquity were illiterate. Just like today though, loads of them spoke more than one language, and they produced, read, or listened to all sorts of texts. Literary texts are thus only a small portion of what remains from Antiquity. Making a point to feature that diversity and complexity, be it in translation in the case of texts, does better justice to what the past was truly about than enclosing oneself in the old-school Greek and Latin lit. canon. Likewise, if teaching languages and literary material, be mindful of how representative of the full diversity of authors/genres/topics/periods your (or your department’s) curriculum is. Everyone loves their “Classics”, but there is fun to be had beyond the obvious as well (who doesn’t like to translate or discuss a sallacious monk story once in a while?). Be like Lonely Planet in the old days: Go off the beaten track.

4. Give voices – and due credits – to the “other”, the “conquered”, the “barbarians”, and the “enemies”

Ask yourself: Who do I present as the “Other” in my syllabus? Why? How? Can this be a problem for some students and colleagues? Similarly, who am I not teaching about? I’m still flabergasted by the fact that most of the new graduate students I’ve taught over the years have never been taught anything about the Persian Empire/world beyond the Helleno- (that is, essentially Atheno-) centric narrative. Likewise, I’ve taught groups of graduate students who had never been shown a Fayyum portrait, or who had no idea at all that the Carthaginians had a literature of their own (which is now, sadly, mostly lost; Google “Mago” just for fun).

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Fayyum portrait, now at the ROM

It’s not the students’ fault, but that of the too-often myopic nature of many “Classics” programs. It’s a fact that our literary evidence on the Phoenicians, Persians, Carthaginians, Gauls, etc. is one-sided. But this is no legitimate reason to completely ignore all the other material that does come from outside of the traditional Greek and Latin canon. Likewise, if you teach a survey course on the “ancient world” and dedicate 2/3 of the term to the “Greco-Roman world” and the rest to everything spanning from Mesopotamia to early Islam, you might want to either balance your syllabus better or change the title and scope of your course altogether.

 5. Feature cases of cultural interactions and connectivity

“Greek”, “Roman”, “Greco-Roman”: From a cultural perspective, these words are often misnomers in that they don’t do justice to the fundamentally interconnected, diverse, and fluctuating socio-cultural fabric of the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds. Peoples, goods, ideas have been moving since human beings exist and, accordingly, the “Greco-Roman” world owes a great, great deal to the peoples and cultures it interacted with over the course of its history. Ancient relationships to/constructs of “race”, “ethnicity”, and “identity” did exist, but in ways that ought to be defined and contextualized in the context of the time (Rebecca Futo Kennedy has put together a great list of pedagogical resources on those topics). This might seem like simple, obvious facts to many of us scholars, but given current attempts at reframing the “Classical” world as the root of white supremacy, there is still much education work to be done on that front.

Bonus tip: Try Anything that has to do with the Indian Ocean/Silk Route trade. It’s a guaranteed success.

6. Address the relationship between Classics/Ancient history & imperialism

Making students aware of the history of our disciplines and of their links to imperialism and (settler) colonialism can only benefit their critical investment in it, and their wider positionings in the world. Depending on the topic of the course and on its level/format, such discussions can take the shape of anything from a short segment to an entire class to a semester-long course.

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Arthur Evans (left) and two members of his team in Knossos

7. Don’t normalize words like “barbarians”, “pagans”, “civilization“, “the West”, “the East”, “Fall” or “decline“. If you do use them, make a point to explain to students where they come from and what’s their ‘baggage’

Because, to paraphrase Justin Trudeau, it’s 2018.

8. Don’t assume that students all come to a topic with similar sets of general knowledge and from the same entry point

For instance, don’t teach as if everyone in the classroom comes from a Judaeo-Christian background and is fully aware of the connections and differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Cause I know from experience that they don’t. But it would be really handy if, thanks to you, they finally do. Likewise, don’t assume polytheism is less sophisticated or “evolved”. Or completely different from monotheism. Cause it’s not. At all. However, the Virgin breastfeeding Jesus IS a Christian version of Isis breastfeeding Horus. And that is some essential info to carry with oneself through life or to casually flash out at a cocktail party.

9. Love, and use, pop culture, reception, and the news

Don’t be a culture snob. Instead, use pop culture as a conversation opener in the classroom. Thus, whether you think Beyoncé is a narcissist is beyond the point: The way she and Jay-Z have recently been resorting to Pharaonic imagery and Greek sculptures at Coachella, in the Apeshit video, and on social media powerfully highlights how ancient and modern history are embedded.

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Image from The Carters’ Apeshit video, with the Vénus de Milo in the brackground

And, as such, it is certainly worth a 10-min discussion at the start or at the end of class, whereby some historical records can also be set straight. Likewise, that vintage Pepsi ad set in a Roman coliseum that came out when most of your students’ entered JK is still a winner (yes, I’m an Associate Professor in Classics and a fan of Beyoncé all at once).

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So are the news with their endless stream of Antiquity-related information: That petition for the Alexandrian “mummy juice” to be transformed into a beverage? Classroom gold.

10. Love public-facing scholarship too

I’m thinking podcasts, blog posts, magazine articles, Eidolon, and documentaries/videos. These offer accessible, timely complements to textbooks and traditional scholarly publications, and they often happen to be written/ feature a more diversified pool of scholars. Don’t deny yourself and your students this two-for-one pleasure.

Have fun!

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Exhibiting Antiquity beyond the clichés: An ancient historian’s dos and don’ts

Exhibiting Antiquity beyond the clichés: An ancient historian’s dos and don’ts

By Katherine Blouin

As an ancient historian and, therefore, a kind of Antiquity nerd, I love to hang out in museums. Now as time goes by, I am increasingly self-aware of how I visit museum exhibitions. As it turns out, my visitor’s gaze is expanding. While the young me was in awe of the objects themselves, and prone to ingest whatever explanation panels there were with full trust in their “expert” nature – which I for instance did for 9-hours in a row the first time I visited the Louvre’s Egyptian collection in 1998; I mean how much more of an ancient Egypt-obsessed can you get? – the “mid-career” scholar I now am cannot help but feel like museum visits are work, and, as such, opportunities for critical reflections. More: Since I’ve become particularly interested in the relationship between imperialism and museums as institution of knowledge (re)production, I now find myself very much drawn to how exhibitions can shape visitors’ understanding of the past, and of its relationship to the present. This summer, I’ve had the chance to visit a few museums in Egypt, Greece, and Canada. I’ve found myself both exhilarated by some initiatives, and disappointed, if not annoyed by missed opportunities.

Since I couldn’t keep bottling up these thoughts any longer, I’ve made a little list of my main dos and don’ts, with examples from 4 museums: Athens’ Museum of Cycladic Art, Acropolis Museum, and Byzantine and Christian Museum, as well as Montréal’s Musée Pointe-à-Callière’s special exhibition Reines d’Égypte/Queens of Egypt (organized in collaboration with Turin’s Museo Egizio).

DO

1. Address questions of provenance – including archaeological context and, when this applies, the implications of illegal excavations. This is a great way to make the general audience more aware of the ethical and political dimension of archaeology, the Antiquities market, and museums.

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Panel from the Museum of Cycladic Art

2. Comment on the coloring of ancient human representations. In this particular day and age, to make such basic facts of ancient iconography known beyond academia is more crucial than ever. This is all more so the case that the inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world had a profoundly different understanding of what skin colours meant (for instance, skin colour was commonly a gender marker in ancient Egyptian art, and thus had nothing to do with “race”), let alone of “ethnicity” (itself anachronistic a word). The Acropolis Museum has been doing great work on the colours of ancient statues, and this has led to several museographical displays in their main gallery (panels, replicas, online resources and even an online colouring game). It is forbidden to take pictures in the galleries, so I didn’t take any, but you are welcome to browse through their website. The topic is also addressed in the Museum of Cycladic Art.

Were figurines paintedPanel from the Museum of Cycladic Art

3. Acknowledge what we don’t know (for sure). I find it crucial to point out to my students how history and archaeology are fundamentally work-in-progress disciplines, and I think museums can also play a big role in making the general public aware of the importance of evidence-based (absence of) knowledge.

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Enigma of Keros

Panels from the Museum of Cycladic Art

4. Use digital technologies in a way that allows visitors to contextualize and visualize the “social life” of the artefacts they see. Displays of this type prove very efficient when it comes to highlighting the historical significance of ancient objects. I really enjoyed the animated projections and videos featured the Reines d’Égypte exhibit. These were conceived by Montréal’s Ubisoft, which is behind the video game series Assassin’s Creeds (itself a great example of how ancient history and archaeology can constructively enhance contemporary entertainment, and vice versa):

“A collaboration with Pointe-à-Callière Museum for this unique exhibition was natural for us. Like Assassin’s Creed Origins, Queens of Egypt proposes a highly immersive experience in the heart of Ancient Egypt. With the research data already collected for the game, we knew we had the content to accentuate the immersive experience of the visit. I think this partnership clearly demonstrates the many possibilities the medium of video games has to offer when applied to other spheres than entertainment,” declared M. Jean Guesdon, Creative Director of the Assassin’s Creed brand at Ubisoft Montréal. ” (from the exhibit’s website)

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Video shot conceived by Ubisoft for Reines d’Égypte (source: Musée Pointe-à-Callière)

Likewise, the Byzantine and Christian Museum’s temporary exhibition “Byzantium and the others in the first millennium: An Empire of stability in a turbulent era” featured compelling 3D video projections dedicated to the “past life” of a selection of artefacts (a short news clip available on the exhibition page shows these displays better).

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3D projection window from Athens’ Byzantine and Christian Museum

5. Acknowledge and discuss the relationships between colonialism, the acquisition of museum collections, and modern, “western” art.

Cycladic art and modernism

Panel from the Museum of Cycladic Art

6. Include a segment on reception. In other words, give visitors an opportunity to learn more about how the ancient world inspired modern art and politics. I wish I had seen inspiring displays/panels of this type seen this summer, but alas, it hasn’t been the case yet. However, should anyone at Pointe-à-Callière wish to add on be it only a tiny section on Egyptian queens in today’s pop culture, please drop me a line: I’ve got *many* ideas, including Katy Perry’s Black Horse, Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s  All the Stars and, of course, Beychella and Queen Bey + Jay Z’s recent, pharaonizing pics live from Berlin’s Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung!

7. Have a fun, funky gift shop, with nice, affordable replicas of ancient jewels, good-quality books, and some kitsch stuff. For, let’s face it, who doesn’t love a kitsch Rosetta stone memento in the office or a funky Moschophoros magnet on the fridge?

DON’T

1. Miss the opportunity to make the public aware of what “unknown provenance” means by not saying anything about what such a label often means. This is all the more problematic when – as is the case with the Reines d’Égypte exhibition currently on in Montréal – most of the exhibited objects are of undocumented provenance.

 

2. Show archival pictures of excavations without addressing the particular geopolitical context in which these excavations took place nor the types of labor they showcase. Here too, Reines d’Égypte disappointed me a great deal. Towards the end of the exhibition, one finds 3 large archival pictures. While they could (and I dare say, should) have provided an opportunity to briefly contextualize the Italian excavations from which most of the artefacts came from and highlight the nature of labour relationships on Egyptian (and most other) digs at the time, including child labor, these important features of the history of the Museo Egizio’s collection are completely ignored. The result is, sadly, an Orientalist photographic display where Egyptian workers appear as “exotic”, anonymous bodies to be either put to work (by Schiaparelli, the Italian excavator in charge of the pictured fieldwork) or gazed at (by the visitors).

 

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Large size archival pictures (incl. 2 captions and 1 detail from a larger picture) exhibited toward the end of Reines d’Égypte

3. Systematically call early digs “excavations” when led by European or North American scholars and “looting/illegal digging” when performed by locals. This dichotomic conception of archeology is not only reductive and racist; it also completely ignores the deeply connected, and complicated, relationships between local and foreign interests, scholars/experts, as well as consumers and dealers of Antiquities (just watch the pictures above again and notice who is seen doing the physical work of digging, and for whom).

 

4. Exhibit/Discuss the finding of human bodies without addressing the ethical questions that increasingly stem from these practices and the methodological challenges faced by scholars who excavate/study this type of remains. These questions do pertain to a variety of important and interesting issues, from local beliefs regarding the afterlife of deceased bodies/individuals to dilemmas on their study, exhibition and ownership, to claims for repatriation. These are  highly debated topics among a growing number of scholars and local (notably aboriginal) communities. For this very reason, and also out of respect for the ancient individuals displayed and the communities they (are believed to) come from, museums have, in my view, an ethical duty of respect and self-awareness.

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Archival picture from Reines d’Égypte: “Prince Khaemwaset’s tomb upon its discovery”. Neither the caption nor the surrounding exhibit of mummy cases from that cache address the ethical questions posed in #4

5. Be cheap on the info panels. If I, as an ancient historian, feel lost looking at a whole lineup of artefacts and works of art that only come with super brief captions and no context, can non-specialists possibly feel?

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6. Confine exhibitions to a lineup of clichés for the sake of appealling to the “general public”. While I perfectly understand that museums need to fund themselves and thus attract visitors, I also believe the “general public” appreciates/benefits from being brought beyond of the usual, highly problematic “eternal Egypt” or “Greece craddle of democracy” tropes. So please please please, let’s all stop reproducing the age-old stereotypes regarding the erotic, mysterious, violent Orient or the civilized, democratic, sophisticated Greco-Roman world, let’s all stop focusing (quasi)-exclusively on the rich and famous, let’s stop saturating the soundscape with new age or Lawrence-of-Arabia-style music.

IN SUM

Don’t underestimate your audience.

Be bold. Be honest. Be humble. Be up-to-date. Be fun. Be relevant.

Let me now end this post with Charles Bigeast‘s ancient Greece-inspired gif entitled “Caryatide”. Cause, why not?