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October 24, 2002 Middle East historian feels at home teaching at Concordia



Dana Sajdi

by Frank Kuin

Dana Sajdi knew she had come to the right place when she visited Montreal for the first time for a job interview at Concordia’s History Department early last year.

Sajdi, the department’s new specialist on the history of the Middle East, was immediately struck by the existence of a lively Arabic-speaking community on campus.

“Just walking around, I noticed all these Arabic dialects around me,” recalled Sajdi, a Palestinian who grew up in the West Bank and Jordan and went to university in Cairo. “They were playing a very famous Egyptian singer when I walked down the street, and I thought, Am I in Beirut or in Montreal? I realized there is a community here and to me that was something very positive.”

Sajdi is a native Arabic speaker who has been teaching survey courses in Middle Eastern history since last fall. She did her graduate and post-graduate work at Columbia University, specializing in 18th-century history of the Levant, the geographical area covered today by Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

In her doctoral work, she has been focusing on social history — a challenge in her area, because written sources about ordinary people are much harder to find in the early modern Middle East than in Europe and North America.

“We have very little knowledge about commoners and their world views,” Sajdi explained. “We’re bound mostly by the view of religious scholars — what they wrote about themselves to themselves.”

Sajdi’s PhD dissertation is a study of rare chronicles written by common people, including a priest, a soldier, a farmer, and a court clerk. One of the documents she analyzed is a little-used chronicle by a barber in Damascus, whose shop was located in the city’s university district.

“It seems like his barber shop was an intersection of popular knowledge and formal knowledge.

He always talked about the different scholars coming in, and he would be cutting their beards and coiffing them.”

Compared to the orderly sources left by scholars, the barber did not hesitate to criticize the notables, including the governor of Damascus. “The view from the bottom is very different from the view of the top,” Sajdi said.

Building on her doctoral work, she hopes to undertake a “revision of the whole 18th-century scholarship,” she said. “Given that we have these chronicles, now we can look back through their lenses to get a very different idea of how historiography developed.”

It’s an ambitious aim for an academic who was not very keen on history in the early stages of her education.

As an undergraduate student in theatre and sociology, she “did cartwheels to try to avoid” course requirements in the field.

However, the first Gulf War, and reactions to it in the Middle East, made her ask questions about Arab nationalism and the way it makes use of history, which prompted her to apply to graduate school in history.

Twelve years on, current affairs in the region are still prominent when its history is being discussed, especially at Concordia. Sajdi witnessed the disturbance over a guest lecture by former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu within weeks of her starting date last fall.

“I was encouraged by the fact that there is some sort of activism, as opposed to silence,” Sajdi said about the incident. “I hope my classes will be a forum where students can debate in a good way inside the classroom, rather than on the streets, committing acts of vandalism.”

So far, signs have been good, she added. “My students are very interested and engaged. They are different people, of different ages and from different language backgrounds, which makes the classroom really exciting.”

Still, Sajdi wants to avoid having present-day politics from monopolize her classroom. “In my course on the modern Middle East, I try not to reduce it to politics, although the discussion often veers towards politics,” she said.

“I try to bring in culture as much as possible. We see movies, read a novel, look at some architecture. The Middle East is not just about politics.”