Dana Sajdi knew she had come to the right place when she visited Montreal
for the first time for a job interview at Concordias History Department
early last year.
Sajdi, the departments 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
We have very little knowledge about commoners and their world views,
Sajdi explained. Were bound mostly by the view of religious
scholars what they wrote about themselves to themselves.
Sajdis 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 citys 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,
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.
Its 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