Veteran’s Day

Monday, November 11, 2013

Dedication: To teachers and students of history and literature

A number of students in my Introduction to Islamic Civilization and Contemporary Islamic Civilization sections for the past two and a half years previously served in Iraq or Afghanistan. They decided they wanted to finish college which is what brought them back to school.

I know this because the first class of each semester, I say to my discussion section, “Tell me your name, your major and why you decided to take this class.” We go around the room so everyone can get to know each other.

The wide-eyed and wet-behind the ears freshmen who were probably the smartest kids in their high schools mention interests in the world and ideals of knowledge; the seniors mention something about fulfilling graduation requirements.

The veterans always mention solemnly they served in historically Muslim lands; that they knew very little going in; and that they think it’s time they learned something about where they were.

Every now and then, there have been moments as they listen attentively about Jahiz’s love of books over people or Jabarti’s disdain for Napolean’s awful Arabic syntax that I believed a memory glossed over their eyes.

That glossing over is becoming somewhat recognizable as I get older. My parents are of a generation that experienced occupation and war. They saw family members, classmates, neighbors and teachers shot; knew women who were raped by soldiers and if they lived, could no longer speak. I’ve seen memories gloss over my father’s eyes midway through some conversation about Dhaka University; while hearing the sounds of fireworks burst; during a song in a film; while watching the daily news about another day of occupation.

In the classroom, I have wondered if my physical presence ever provoked a memory. Do I look like someone? I often look like someone. Egyptian. Indonesian. Malaysian. Mexican (Sister Gomez?). Algerian. Pakistani.

I have wondered if the mention of familiar places provoked a memory. After all, how can anyone take a class on Islamic civilization without having to read about the vibrant literary and intellectual worlds of Baghdad, Basra, Kufa, Samarqand, Balkh, Bukhara, Ghazni…

In another class, an older veteran began to tear as our Iraqi professor spoke about arts and literature in Baghdad. He became so overwhelmed with emotion that he had to leave the room for a moment. Regarding his interest in Arabic literature, he said, “There’s only so much you can learn behind a rifle.”

I once had a student suffering from PTSD. I don’t remember now whether he served in Iraq or Afghanistan. In the beginning, he was one of those over-achievers always wanting to chat about assigned readings after class. When he began to miss classes, he told me he was going through a bad break-up. Mid-semester, he no longer came. Later, he informed me about his PTSD, something about refilling meds, and that he needed some time off.

I wish I could write a conclusion, but nothing seems appropriate. I just saw all the Veteran’s Day posts on my Facebook newsfeed, and it made me think of my students.

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