The Department of English and the Moroccan American Studies Lab of Casablanca's Hassan II University, with perfect timing designed to coincide with the anniversary of the birth of the Arab Spring two years ago in Tunisia, organized what may be the first region-wide conference on American Studies as a discipline in Arab universities in the wake of this region-reshaping Spring.
With the snow-covered Atlas Mountains as a dramatic backdrop, Marrakesh was host to a gathering of experts from across the region, but also from the United States, Canada, and Europe, to gauge the state of American Studies at this crucial juncture. At the same time, Marrakesh was hosting quite another sort of crowd at the annual Marrakesh Film Festival.
Ironic, perhaps, since an important theme in our academic conference is one of image and perception, especially in the world of TV and cinema, of both Arab and American worlds. Dr. Karim Bejjit, one of the conference organizers, has done considerable research on the Christian captive narratives of the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as on the Barbary Wars of the early days of the American republic. Comparing these with the kind of "with us or against us" rhetoric born of September 11, 2001, Bejjit says that the 300 year old narratives often gave a more nuanced picture of the Moorish captors than images on American TV.
The historiography of American Studies is fascinating, whose rise Dr. Alexander Lubin of AUB's Center for American Studies and Research sees stemming from the notion of American exceptionalism. Later, "exceptions to exceptionalism" (racism, treatment of Native Americans, etc.) became a focus of scholars.
American Studies have long since evolved from a celebration of America to the point where in some corners its practitioners might be termed professors of "anti-American Studies." Dr. Brian Edwards of Northwestern University, author of "Globalizing American Studies," tells of how in Iran some see American Studies as simply a way to better understand the enemy, the "Great Satan."
In many Arab universities, American Studies were born in departments of English. While departments of English may still be a focal point, American Studies are a subject of interdisciplinary interest. Take the gathering in Marrakesh, where demographers, security analysts, and linguists dissected the topic.
Are American Studies simply public relations? If so, the PR message may have been misunderstood by its intended audience. The Arab Spring used the products of American culture – social networking, crowd sourcing, etc. – but the end result was not necessarily "pro-American."
Is America in decline, and if so, why study it? If decline there is, better to understand the society that is still capable of influencing the world in economic, military, cultural and innumerable other ways.
Whatever is happening in American Studies within the United States – and indications are that the field is in decline, in part due to the funding crisis in higher education – it was alive and well at this conference. The greater MENA – Middle East North Africa – region counts at least 9 American Studies programs, perhaps 4 of which have PhD programs.
This was a perfect opportunity to talk up the virtues of TALIM as a venue for the study of American diplomatic engagement with the Arab, Muslim, and Mediterranean worlds, and we were pleased that a number of the participants already knew of the Legation and its importance in this story. We look forward to strengthening ties with the American Studies Association and making TALIM – in addition to a research center for study of the Maghreb – a center for Arabs studying America.