Students’ Views on Middle East Preserved in Archives

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Sidebar | IN THEIR OWN WORDS: Five Students’ Essays

Last spring Dr. Heather Sharkey asked students in her Introduction to the Middle East class to write about how events in the region affected their lives. They seized upon the assignment and found their words preserved for posterity. With the authors’ permission, more than two dozen of the essays now reside in the University Archives and Records Center, where they will serve “as a reflection of students’ views at this particular time,” says Sharkey, assistant professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. 

“It was really their opportunity to come to terms with history for themselves, to find their own understanding of events that were going on around them,” including the war in Iraq that began mid-semester, she says. “I realized that it turned out to be such an important and meaningful exercise because they had so many feelings and concerns bottled up inside, having lived through September 11 in myriad ways.” 

“The fear that swept the country due to the 9/11 acts had taken hold of me as well, but for various reasons,” wrote Aysha KassimC’04. “I not only feared for my life from more suicide attackers, but I feared for my family members, whose names and appearances would undoubtedly put them at risk. For a while, I was even scared to tell people that I was of Arab descent.” 

Kassim wrote of marching against the war in Iraq—“one of the most exhilarating and rewarding things I have done during my career” at Penn. Kathryn Fenton Nu’05, a nursing student in Penn’s Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps had a differing perspective: “It pains me to see anti-war protesters as I walk through campus and when I watch the news,” she wrote. American soldiers “daily risk their lives … for our country and for the freedom that many people in the Middle East are not fortunate to have.”

The introductory course drew students from a variety of majors and schools across the campus, and included 10 senior associates (students aged 65 or older who audit classes). Along with curiosity, many brought to class “real misperceptions of Islam and of Muslim peoples,” Sharkey says. “They asked extremely candid questions, which at first sort of threw me off base—like, ‘Is jihad an obligation for all Muslims?’”

But Sharkey says she was pleased to see emerge “a greater understanding and respect of Islamic society and culture, with non-Muslim students seeing connections [between Islam and] their own religious cultures.” As the course developed over the semester, she had a feeling that “these were going to be essays that were profound and had an impact.” She contacted Archives, and got permission forms for her students to sign over their papers.

Sharkey says she would definitely teach the class again, hoping to “stimulate a deeper intellectual interest” in Middle Eastern studies at Penn. “If I can in the process woo some into taking Arabic or Hebrew or Persian or encourage them to take more advanced classes in Middle Eastern studies, I would be thrilled.” 



Here are five of the essays submitted by Dr. Heather Sharkey’s students to the University Archives and Records Center in April:

Middle Eastern Impact on My Life

Being a Muslim American, the events in the Middle East since 2001 have severely impacted my life, primarily for the worse; The September 11th tragedy and the war on Iraq have taken lives, displaced friends, and instilled fear in my community; Most importantly, however, these events have forced me to rethink my position on several issues of foreign policy, identity, and ethics.

One would think that being born on September 11th would be the most terrible of fates; to have your birthday constantly associated with the worst civilian attack the nation has ever experienced should be the tragedy’s most direct negative effect on a person, many would assert; Unfortunately, in my case, this coincidence doesn’t even make a dent in my life, compared to all the other consequences of September 11th. (To the contrary, nobody forgets my birthday anymore.) The passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which requires all foreign visitors from a list of 18 countries including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to register with the INS, has terrified many of my family’s immigrant friends. Several families that currently attend my mosque in Houston are living in America illegally, and the strengthened INS regulations have forced one of my family’s closest friends to abandon his home and business in Houston and flee to Canada to avoid deportation; Many illegal Pakistanis, taking the same route, have flooded the borders between the US and Canada, resulting in long delays that allow the INS to catch up and arrest them; The entire Muslim community in Houston has suffered an intense case of paranoia, avoiding backlash and media attention by taking extreme precautions such as canceling large city-wide celebrations of annual events.

The War on Terrorism and on Iraq especially has also had dire consequences touching close to home. The increased hatred for the US in Pakistan following the institution of our newest big stick policy led to sporadic acts of terrorism in Pakistan by militant extremists. In June of 2002, a militant group bombed the US Consulate building in Karachi, killing ten people. One of the innocent victims of the blast happened to be my friend’s eighteen-year-old cousin that was visiting her grandmother. My friend’s family was very distraught and disillusioned after the incident, and our mosque held memorial services and even offered counseling.

Finally, perhaps the most significant effects I have felt as a result of current events in the Middle East have been mental. As an American, I feel it is necessary to exert our sizeable influence in troubled areas of the world to instill democracy in them, a gospel of wealth of sorts. At the same time however, as a Muslim, I feel empathy for my fellow Muslims stuck in dictatorial regimes, ready to be liberated but then manipulated and marginalized as the American government takes its self-serving share of power and oil. Stuck in a paradox of beliefs, the War on Terrorism has left me hopelessly confused as to which side I support. Do I side with my religious brothers or my country’s ideals Does the US really have the right to intervene in foreign affairs as an impartial arbitrator when it also possesses obvious interests in the outcomes? Can I really believe everything I hear from the U.S. media? Perhaps the most resounding impact the current Middle East has had on me has been the stimulus to question my preconceived principles and reevaluate my ideological priorities.

Shehzad Daredia W’06


As a nursing student in the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC), my views on the current events in the Middle East are slightly different from most college students. After I graduate I will serve a minimum of four years as a Navy Nurse and I think it is appropriate to say that the actions transpiring at present will most definitely impact and steer my future career. I was sworn in after successfully completing summer orientation on 1 September 2001. During the swearing-in ceremony I took the Oath of Office that would guide my future eight years.

I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter, so help me God.

I take this oath very seriously and by supporting and defending the Constitution, this also means supporting and defending the decisions of our government makes. I do not follow blindly though; I am free as every American is to have my own opinion of what our country does and what rulings are made. However, what separates me from the average civilian is that I completely support recent rulings and do everything possible to accomplish America’s vision for freedom of the Iraqi people through regime change.

It pains me to see anti-war protesters as I walk through campus and when I watch the news. I think of all the soldiers overseas in the heart of this current conflict and pray that they do not see these same broadcasts. I pray that they do not see masses of their fellow citizens protesting against their very reason for being there. They daily risk their lives so that for our country and for the freedom that many people in the Middle East are not fortunate to have. I think about how disheartening it would to see one’s own countrymen not supporting the very cause that these soldiers put their lives on the line for day in and day out. I realize of course that most anti-war protests are not anti-military per say, but to protest military action is to protest all enlisted and officer ranks in every service branch.

A common argument of protestors is that “America is only in this war for the oil.” I beg to differ We are in this war for many reasons, one being for economic reasons but I dare anyone to find me a war that wasn’t driven by the economy, even in a small sense. The United States is making effort to dethrone Bin Laden and end the Baath party while simultaneously removing weapons of mass destruction to secure global peace and aiding the development and construction of a new government. “But why should the U.S. intervene” some may retort.

Our government has always been criticized for either taking military action or not having involvement at all. People spoke harshly after the Battle of Mogadishu, criticizing U.S. involvement greatly after the torture and mutilation that occurred which forced Clinton to pull troops out early. So when the next conflict arose, the U.S. was more hesitant to become involved. This conflict was the genocides of Rwanda in 1994. It was only four years later until President Bill Clinton apologized in March 1998 for his handling of the crisis, saying that “we did not do act quickly enough after the killings began. We should not have allowed the refugee camps to become safe haven for the killers. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide.”

This lack of involvement only gave the Bush administration more thrust to be proactive about aggressive military action in the Middle East. The straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak, was endangerment of American lives and freedom. Today we are on our way to accomplishing the seven components of Operation Iraqi Freedom, all of which I support unreservedly. We will continue to aid Iraq until they become stable and perhaps the most difficult task of all, to become self-governing. In my eyes though, the major threat has vanished through determination and precision. As our Commander-in-Chief states: “Thanks to the courage and the might of our military, the American people are more secure. Thanks to the courage and might of our military, the Iraqi people are now free. … ”

—Kathryn Fenton Nu’05 

I Must Have Cataracts Because I Can’t See

In the midst of a sophomore slump spurred by the harsh realities of life, friendships, and fallibilities, the recent events regarding American and Middle Eastern relations could not have come at a more pessimistic time. I am in the process of trying to figure so much out, and watching only one minute of news makes my stomach ache even more. The news today has become as much a weapon of war as any tank or soldier or bomb. I cringe at flagrant propaganda and wonder why the networks feel the need to equate a horrendous war with their trendy “Reality TV” shows, placing numerous journalists live in cities and filling nearly every timeslot with war coverage; The media reaches a point where it is no longer educational. In fact, the repetition of “breaking news” which is usually neither breaking nor news only desensitizes America and makes the war lose historical significance because it seems like one big act or performance. In our culture, America can arrange marriages over a TV show, so why can’t it fight a war?

Even more, the way the news networks have handled the war supports other countries’ accusations toward America. Before the events of 9/111 had been an ignorant American, myself. I never thought about how other countries looked at us, and more importantly, I never cared. I saw us as an enormous super power, and took comfort in believing that someone had everything under control. Then, after only the first few weeks of living alone in college I stared, dazed, at the television screen watching the towers of the World Trade Center fall. As soon as I was able to gather some formal thoughts I slowly realized how America really does appear to the rest of the world. We aren’t necessarily the enemy, but we are a bully. The way in which we have handled the war with Iraq has only confirmed that we do what we want; regardless of how many other countries support us, America’s sheer confidence that whatever our government does is the right course of action offends the rest of the world and most definitely affects the way in which we are perceived; I feel this is detrimental to the overall welfare of our nation because we have willingly created animosity between ourselves and others, and we do not even seem to care. I, personally; feel the weight of it on my shoulders, sitting on top of what I plan to do with my life and how I’ll pay all of my bills.

In an article I read in last month’s New York Times,journalist Lucian Truscott IV reports that television newscasts are used by Pentagon officials “in more ways than the reporters realize.” He claims “[The Bush Administration] has turned the media into a weapon of war; using the information it provides to harass and intimidate the Iraqi military leadership.”’ He explains that the Pentagon has contacted Iraqi officials with messages such as, “Surrender your forces. Opposition is hopeless. If you don’t believe us, just turn on your TV.”1

I have turned on my TV and it makes me disgusted at American popular culture-The inability to look beyond our boundaries will surely shake our future stability. I look for answers to America’s indifference, as I look for answers to the multitudes of questions that lay before me. I feel as though the various upsetting, horrific acts of the past two years have opened my eyes wider than they have ever been open before, yet I still am not able to see anything at all. Despite my blindness, I am not emotionless. At this point I simply feel guilt for being an American and I justify this guilt with the assurance that I at least feel something; at all.

1 Lucian K. Truscott; IV. “In This War; News Is A Weapon.” New York Times, 23 March 2003.

—Jane Saltman C’05

U.S. Versus the World: War with the Middle East and What it Means for Me

High school is a time where one begins the transition from childhood into adulthood. I remember all the miniscule things with which I used to be preoccupied, and the state of world affairs and the resulting repercussions was never one of them. I came to Penn and in all honesty nothing had changed much. It was not until the horrific acts of September 11th, 2002 that I first took a real, and more importantly, lasting interest, in the rest of the world. I stepped outside of my little universe and tried to grasp the magnitude of it all. This self-preoccupation, it is something to which all humans fall prey. But the complete lack of knowledge of the world outside of the United States, of an interconnected world existing besides that of this hegemon and its mighty power, is an intolerable ignorance that affects people in the U.S. more so than in any other country. I began to slowly realize that I too was a part of this ignorance. Why was there so much anger and hatred from the Middle East directed at America?

I mourned for all the lives lost that day, and for all the people who were left to live with the pain. The fear that swept the country due to the 9/11 acts had taken hold of me as well, but for various reasons. I not only feared for my life from more suicide attackers, but I feared for my family members, whose names and appearances would undoubtedly put them at risk. For a while, I was even scared to tell people that I was of Arab descent.

A little over a year later, it seems that the U.S. has found itself in another precarious position—the War on Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom, or whatever other synonyms the media has invented. The showdown with Saddam Hussein over weapons of mass destruction appears to have come hot on the heels of the War on Terrorism and the search for Osama bin Laden. It seems that the U.S. is determined to take whatever actions it desires, regardless of the possible ramifications. There was definitely a point at which I was confused and wondering which war was actually taking place. When did we switch over? Is it the same war? I felt like the news was constantly running headlines on the “War” of whatever sort for practically the whole school year. To end terrorism sounds phenomenal and to liberate the majority of the Iraqi population that is starving to death would be a miracle. But am I the only one who feels that this is more of a “rally around the flag” technique (or “around the bush” as the case may be) than an act of moral duty? “Why now?” is the question 1, as well as many others ask. Why are we fighting Saddam only now? Is this war really about oil or Bush’s Daddy? To so many the whole affair comes across as rather vague and sketchy as to the logical reasoning behind this war in Iraq.

For the first time in my life, I took an active stance. Participating in one of the marches against the war was one of the most exhilarating and rewarding things I have done during my career at the University of Pennsylvania. I did not truly believe it would change Bush’s mind, but it felt incredibly good to stand next to others who believed that war was not the answer. I marched for hours, much to the dismay of my archless feet, but it was an experience I will never forget. It is so easy for a person to say “oh well, I’m just one person, they won’t miss me.” But if everyone says that, then there will be no one left to take a stand, and strong opinions will never be heard. It is exactly that mentality that keeps people from expressing their feelings on important issues and ultimately hinders change.

The days that led up to the initial fighting were particularly stressful for me. I was terrified that the U.S. would be attacked, and being in Philadelphia, one of the major cities in the U.S., I was positive that I would witness first hand what it meant to be an innocent victim. As it began I pondered on the perception of the U.S. held by those in foreign countries. I have wanted to study abroad in France for over 6 years now and had plans to do so this summer. But due to the war and the rampant anti-American sentiment, I felt it would be unwise to do it at this time. I honestly doubt if I’ll have the opportunity again and it upsets me. What a lot of people don’t realize, is that for the most part, the rest of the world despises America. To some Americans, “we are doing the right thing,” but to foreigners, it comes across as the U.S. flexing its muscle, without regard to respect for other peoples and for human life. These angry sentiments are merely the tip of deep rooted, blazing feelings of injustice harbored by foreigners towards the U.S., as I continued to learn from history classes and Arab friends. Thus the war in Iraq seems to be yet another straw added to a particularly heavy load on the Arab’s back.

As the war goes on I think about the troops, so many of whom are similar in age, if not younger, than me and it terrifies me to put myself in their shoes. How can you send a 19-year-old boy to go out and murder, to go out and die before he has even really lived? I thought about the innocent men, women, and mostly children, who will not survive the war in their homeland and it broke my heart. People are still out to this day protesting the war. But at this point it’s too late. I would rather support the soldiers. It’s critical to realize that they didn’t choose this war, and that they don’t have any control over what the Commander-in-Chief decides. Just as in any other company, they are cogs in the machine that is the United States. I watched a meeting a while back on veterans of previous wars; to listen to their stories of confusion and anger and to hear the statistics on the faulty war materials is enough to make one wonder if Bush is merely sending people out to die.

The war still continues today, and I have grown tired of watching the television, day in and day out, about the “fight for Iraqi freedom.” I wonder, as many others do, if the U.S. will stick around and help these Iraqi citizens, who they are supposedly fighting for, to rebuild their broken country. I wonder how many innocent maimed or dead children they will leave behind. I wonder if they will set up a puppet government in Iraq as they have done in so many other countries. Looking back at my question as to why only “now” the U.S. decided to take action, I think about all the other countries with dictators and with grave injustices being inflicted on the people and ask why the U.S., with its high moral duty, never intervened then? Where was the U.S. when my people in Sierra Leone were being slaughtered and maimed like animals for 10 years? The truth is, and always has been, that the U.S. is an opportunist state. It scans the horizon for a situation to skew, a problem to create, and a people to dominate in order to prosper. Perhaps oil is now more valuable than diamonds. Growing up in this country makes it so easy to become selfish, and focus on self-gain and glory. I hope to keep on learning now that my eyes are open, lest I sit back and let the media tell me what the “truth” is.

Aysha Kassim C’04

Middle East State of Mind

Like most 20-year-old female students at a fairly liberal university that has a large Jewish and a vocal Arab population, happenings and turmoil in the Middle East like the war in Iraq, anti-terrorist action in Afghanistan, Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli retaliation in Israel, and women’s rights controversies in various countries affect my day-to-day life and pervade my conversations with family, friends, and professors. However, due to my Israeli heritage and Yeshiva education certain occurrences in the region impinge on my personal life and thinking more than on that of the average young adult in my college setting.

My grandparents, originally from Romania, moved to Israel in 1936. The newlywed couple planted eucalyptus trees to dry out the swamps filled with malaria-wrought mosquitoes and constructed a house on their own. My grandfather fought in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, while my grandmother and her young sons sewed uniforms and cooked for soldiers. Later on, my father and uncle fought in both the Yom Kippur and Six Day wars. My innate but indirect familial connection to the land was supplemented by my own personal relationship, forged in the many summers and one year expanse I spent living in Israel, or more specifically, Hertzalia Pituach.

As a result of the various ties I have to the region, political, economic, and social turbulence in the Middle East is a very real concern of mine. While others watched clips of Israelis wearing gas masks during the missile attacks of the first gulf war, I was learning about the experience first hand over the phone from my frightened grandmother and cousins. While others skimmed over articles about terrorist action on Ben Yehuda Street, I was thanking God that I had left the area ten minutes prior to the attack and calling the hospital to check on a friend that was injured. When others were debating the potential War in Iraq, I was thinking about how the situation would affect my family living in the vicinity.

Events in the Middle East were inculcated into my life and thinking not only by my father and Israeli relatives, but also by the administration and teachers at my school. At Yeshivat Ramaz, where I attended elementary, middle, and high school, Middle Eastern history and current events were infused into the curriculum, starting in kindergarten. In sixth and tenth grade an entire class was devoted to Middle East. When learning about ancient Greek or Roman history, the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, World War II, or the Cold War, the teacher would invariably incorporate a section on the region. Moreover, we would have weekly assemblies to discuss and debate events in Israel and her neighboring countries. Lastly, there was an “Israel Issues” club in which almost half of the student body partook. Thus, I was taught from an early age, both at home and at school, to think about history and the present not only in terms of the West and America, but also in terms of the Middle East in general and Israel specifically.

Immersing myself in the relatively diverse Penn environment, taking classes about the region, the discussing war with Iraq, and witnessing recent terrorist threats made on the once “infallible” America have heightened my awareness and peaked my interests in Middle Eastern current affairs. Thankfully, attending university has afforded me the opportunity to debate the aforementioned issues, with students that have radically divergent opinions from my own and has enabled me to view such proceedings from a different perspective.

Danielle Cohen C’05

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