Terra Incognita: 'Fiddler on the Roof’ in Dubai

One Arab woman’s attempt to bring critical thinking to the classroom.

Mira al Hussein speaks with a soft, determined voice. She seems like an unlikely member of the Arab avant-garde. In high school, Islamic studies was one of her favorite subjects (“I loved it”).
Her MA thesis at Bristol University in England was on Hezbollah. “I still sympathize with their cause.”
She is a supporter of the Palestinians, and thinks Islamic-oriented parties in the Middle East can offer a good alternative in some cases. Turkey especially impresses her; “I admire the Islamic-oriented government in Turkey.”
Mira prays five times a day if she can, “I can’t always get up for the first prayers at 4 a.m.” and wears a loose-fitting headscarf. She thinks we need to be hard on criminals, and argues that rape probably merits corporal punishment (Dominique Strauss-Kahn, take note!). But two weeks ago Ms. al Hussein did something that is probably a first in the Muslim Middle East. She showed her class at Zayed University in Dubai, where she is a lecturer, clips from the movie Fiddler On the Roof. “I noticed they connected to it immediately. They enjoyed all the cultural similarities.”
But some students had trouble disconnecting the idea of Jews as victims in Russia with what they see in Israel. One asked: “Jews were mistreated in Russia and Europe, and moved to Palestine. But why are they doing this to the Palestinians now?” Ms. al Hussein wanted to use the movie as a way to open the minds of her students so they could look at both sides of an intense regional conflict. “By watching Fiddler on the Roof I prepared them mentally and emotionally for a debate. I divided the class in two and asked them to research each narrative of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and come to class and debate. But in the end it troubled me that even the ‘Israeli’ group was not too upset about losing the debate because, they argued, the Palestinians had a morally sound argument.”
So Mira decided to go one step further and have a pro-Israel Jew present the Israeli side. “I wanted to have a video conference and present a different point of view.”
She e-mailed me and asked whether I could “humanize the Jewish narrative, so that one generation here is able to envision and work toward peace.”
However, the administrators at Zayed was not comfortable with the idea. “They were not keen on having the video conference because they thought it was too political.”
A LITTLE background is perhaps necessary here. Zayed University is a crowning achievement of the United Arab Emirates. It doesn’t mince words in its mission statement; “your Zayed University education puts you on a level playing field with students from around the world.”
Founded initially in 1998 as a university for native Emirati women, it is now coed and has around 6,000 students. Mira al Hussein was born in Dubai in 1983, the daughter of a seafarer and businessman from the Oman-UAE coastal town of Bakha. Because her father had to support his family, he never had an opportunity to go to college. Her mother was from the Dubai town of Ajman, and a member of the Khaja tribe. The tribe, according to al Hussein, was once Jewish, but converted to Islam centuries ago.
“My mother was one of the first women in our country to enjoy the privilege of a college education.”
It is perhaps odd then that after Mira obtained her BA from Zayed University her mother was less supportive of her studying abroad. “My father, because he didn’t have the opportunity, felt an education was of paramount importance.”
Mira also attributes her education to her uncle, the dean of Ajman University, who opened his own English- language school in Dubai. “From a young age I learned with people from many nationalities,” she says.
So Mira found herself in England in 2006 at Bristol University, where she had obtained a scholarship. The frightful cold kept her inside working on her Hezbollah thesis. She doesn’t recall meeting Jews, or seeing much in the way of political activism for or against Israel. Yet she experienced the first of what seem to have been some dramatic revelations. “I felt that my loyalty should be toward my country and our foreign policy. The more I read about Hezbollah’s expansion plans, the more nervous I became. I don’t know if they would stop or would they continue in their struggle. Even if Israel were to give back the land.
That stopped being my concern though, because I became uncomfortable with Iran’s influence in the region. I have no problem with Shia Muslims, but I’m worried about the Shia revolution in the Arab world.”
AS SYMPATHY for Hezbollah faded, Ms. al Hussein began to think that what was missing was critical thinking in general. “It all started when a friend of mine chided me for reading a book I had picked up on Jewish customs and traditions... To her, that was part of Jewish propaganda, and we were never to allow such books to make us develop a soft spot for Jews, and Israelis in particular. I was furious at her prejudice.
I dislike hateful people. That’s what got me wanting to challenge stereotypes.”
“I gradually began to think that by believing in one truth, we deny other people the right to tell us a different story.”
In trying to encourage open-minded discussion, Mira has also become an advocate of economic peace.
“If people cooperate together and build a good economy, that would bring about peace... the more you promote trade, the more you end up with good relations.”
But she doesn’t support having relations between Dubai and Israel. “It is best that we here remain neutral; of course that means we miss a lot of economic opportunities.”
Mira envisions further attempts at using new media, like video conferencing and the virtual classroom, to bridge gaps between Jews and Arabs in the region, and hopes to do her PhD on critical thinking in the classroom.
Mira al Hussein is idealistic; her ideas don’t represent the vast majority of opinion, even among Arab intellectuals. But she is hopeful.
“I think the Arab world is maturing, and changing, the younger generation really wants peace. They want economic stability and comfort and progress and openness,” she tells me.
Hopefully the region will hear more from her in the future.
The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University, and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.