Monday, August 28, 2017

Nadia Yaqub Remembers Her Friend and Co-Editor Rula Quawas

Read the New York Times piece on Rula Quawas here.

Remembering Rula Quawas

By Nadia Yaqub

On July 25, 2017, Rula Quawas, my close friend and the coeditor of Bad Girls of the Arab World, passed away suddenly. The volume was scheduled to appear just a few weeks later. She never got to hold it in her hands.

Rula Quawas in 2016 with students at the University of Jordan. Credit Leen Quawas
I first met Rula in September 2005 when she came to UNC–Chapel Hill as a visiting scholar. A professor of American literature at the University of Jordan, she was researching connections between Margaret Fuller and Huda Sha`rawi, two feminists—one American and the other Egyptian—who, despite the temporal and geographic distances that separated them, shared many traits that Rula valued, including a passion for knowledge and education and a commitment to activism. I did not know it when I met her, but these were Rula’s defining passions as well. 

Rula and I hit it off immediately. As any of her numerous friends and acquaintances will tell you, she was extraordinarily friendly, with a welcoming smile and a ready store of witty 
phrases (“witty” was one of her favorite words). I was drawn to something instantly familiar and comfortable in her manner—a practical aesthetic (short hair, simple attire) that was immediately familiar from my childhood in Beirut, and a conversational manner that invited reflection and engagement and was free of judgment. Rula welcomed brilliance, but one did not have to be brilliant to be her friend. 

Rula and I met several times during her semester at Carolina. She visited my course on Arabic literature in translation, and together we attended public presentations on geisha by students in Jan Bardsley’s first-year seminar. We enjoyed numerous meetings over coffee or dinner. A few days after we met, we were both invited to speak on a panel about Arab feminist writers that was organized by a campus student group. I promptly emailed her, expecting that she would take the lead because I was no expert on Arab feminism, and she
More info
responded in kind. We did not know at that point how much our scholarly interests would converge in the ensuing years. For me, a scholarly interest in Arab feminism was very much a product of my relationship with Rula, and developed alongside my friendship with her. Rula, of course, was just being modest; she was already an ardent, practicing feminist, and just two years later she would be selected to found and direct the Women’s Studies Center at the University of Jordan, the first center of its kind in Jordan.

Bad Girls of the Arab World was born during the summer of 2006. I was conducting research in the region and attending the World Congress of Middle East Studies, which took place in Amman, Jordan, that year. Bad Girls of Japan had just come out and we–Rula, Elizabeth Bishop, and I—discussed, with great enthusiasm, the need for such a volume about the Arab world. But we would not feel ready to take on the project for another eight years.

I lived with Rula during much of that summer in the apartment she shared with her elderly mother. Rula’s mother had been a formidable woman in her own right and Rula was proud of her accomplishments, and I think she would have liked to see them mentioned here along with her own. Hanneh Ghizawi, like Rula, prized education above everything else. As a teenager in the early 1940s, she traveled from Palestine to Beirut to pursue her education. After the 1948 war, she and Rula’s father, Butros Quawas, fled to Palestine and Jordan, where they rebuilt their lives from scratch, with Rula working as a teacher of English.

It was during that summer that I experienced Rula’s perfect generosity, incurring a debt to her that I was never able to repay, and also learning (although imperfectly) from her example how much one gives to oneself by giving to others. A desire of someone she loved or admired became her desire to fulfill. For six weeks I watched her care for her mother every day with a truly selfless love. That care would continue until Hanneh’s death just months before Rula’s, at the age of ninety-five.

That summer Rula and I also decided to create a study abroad program, Women and Leadership in the Arab World, that would bring Carolina students to the University of Jordan to study. The program brought me back repeatedly to Amman and, along with other projects (a joint grant proposal, a conference at Duke, guest lecturers, and short research residencies), it brought Rula repeatedly to North Carolina. Our friendship grew through our work together, and Bad Girls is as much a manifestation of our relationship as it is a scholarly text—a gift we gave to each other.

Rula was the recipient of numerous awards and honors. After founding the Women’s Studies Center at the University of Jordan, she was asked to form a research unit for the Jordanian National Commission for Women in 2008. She left teaching temporarily to assume these duties. In 2009 she and two other women were honored as the most distinguished women of the year in Jordan for their work on behalf of women. In 2011 she was named dean of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Jordan, and in 2013 she was a finalist for the United States State Department’s International Women of Courage Award.

But, in all the years I knew her, Rula only voluntarily told me about one honor, and that was her well-deserved promotion to full professor in 2009. She was the first woman to earn that rank in her department at UJ. For all her talents and activities—and she was a part of many, many workshops, trainings, conferences, commissions, consortia, symposia, panels, and other initiatives in Jordan, the Middle East, and the United States—she was first and foremost a scholar and a teacher. She loved her books, her students, and her classrooms, perhaps more than anything apart from her own family. Becoming a professor was the culmination of a long-held dream of hers. More importantly, perhaps, it gave her the freedom and legitimacy to engage in the teaching and scholarship she wanted to do.

Rula became infamous in 2012 when the short video she wrote about in her Bad Girls chapter was posted on YouTube. In it, four young Jordanian women from her class addressed the sexual harassment they themselves had experienced. It was, I think, a turning point in her life. Living in Jordan as a single woman without children, a Palestinian, and a Christian, Rula had mastered the arts of deflection and circumvention, achieving efficacy through an abundance of caution as well as through hard work, generosity, and formidable interpersonal skills. The year 2008, the first summer of our joint study abroad program, was a long lesson for me in navigating the intricacies of what could and could not be said in the classroom, on campus, and in the company of certain people in Amman. I was in Jordan in 2012 for the second iteration of our study abroad program as the fallout began from the video. For Rula, I think, the video changed the calculus of what had to be said publicly. During those weeks I was in Amman and the ensuing fall, we discussed how she should respond. Should she accept the offer by Suad Josef, then president of the Middle East Studies Association, to write a public letter on her behalf? Should she accept invitations from the media to discuss the video in public? Her main concern throughout was the effect that her actions and decisions would have on the students who had made the video and who had no part in its posting on YouTube. In the end she decided to speak out, and in interviews and debates she forthrightly defended her students’ work and the need to openly discuss the treatment of women in the public spaces of the university.

In Bad Girls Rula wrote about the harassment that she and her students endured, but she did not tell the whole story. She was dean of the faculty of languages at that time, and in the wake of the scandal was removed from that post. Rula had enjoyed being a dean and the opportunities it gave her to help others, but when other administrative opportunities arose in subsequent years, she chose not to pursue them. I think in some ways she was freed by the experience of publicly defending the video and her students. She had already begun a research project on Jordanian women bloggers and was impressed with what they were daring to say. Al Jazeera, the internet, and social media had all done their parts to alter public discourse in Jordan for this new generation of activists. Perhaps she was inspired by their example to speak frankly about this sensitive matter in the face of personal danger. No doubt she felt a kinship with these young women after having done so. I sensed in her a new confidence in her own authority and the privilege to express her own views that her position as a professor gave her, a privilege that an administrator representing an institution does not always share.

When she defended the video and her students, she did so in the name of academic freedom, conferred on her by tenure. In doing so she fought not only for her students and women’s rights, but also for that core academic value and the sanctity of the space of its most powerful expression: the university classroom. Rula and I talked a great deal about her teaching as she wrote and edited her chapter for Bad Girls. She was always aware of the awesome responsibility for shaping young minds that comes with working face-to-face with emerging adults over the course of a semester, but I sensed in her last years an even greater appreciation for the meaningful work she could undertake within that space.

I have thought a great deal over the years about Rula’s political practice, by which I mean her way of engaging with others. Her instinct was to give, to engage, and to assist, and to learn and teach through these practices. She began from a faith in her interlocutor’s good intentions and in the possibility of change for the better. She responded to the qualities in individuals and did not worry about their identities. Because she worked for social justice, her work was not circumscribed by concerns about the uneven distribution of knowledge and power. Over the years I sent her dozens of students who were traveling to Jordan to study Arabic or who were engaged in individual research projects. She always welcomed them and offered them contacts and advice. She taught in both Jordan and the United States and found meaning in teaching in both contexts. She worked with Princess Basma of Jordan and various national organizations, and, of course, at UJ, the flagship campus of Jordan’s public university system, but she also engaged with activists outside these structures of power. Hers was a politics of love, not free of agonism by any means but defined as much by giving and listening as it was by debate. Rula was sometimes hurt by opening herself to the world in this way, but I don’t think she often questioned it.

Near the end of her life Rula sent me a long excerpt from Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet (she loved Gibran and read him frequently). This passage, I think, speaks to her experience.

Love has no other desire but to fulfil itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love's ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.

No comments:

Post a Comment