Writing about Violence: A Joint Reflection from Latin America and the Middle East

by Hiba Bou Akar and Roosbelinda Cárdenas

Although we cannot pinpoint the exact origin of the idea to co-teach a comparative course on contemporary politics in the Middle East and Latin America, we remember well what followed from that initial decision in late 2015. First there was the excitement that accompanies an emergent sense of possibility. As we reviewed the literature while designing the course, we found numerous connections and continuities that allowed us to place Latin America and the Middle East in joint focus. But resonance and similarity were not the only promise, so we developed a syllabus that also explored the differences and disjunctures. We discussed the state’s role in gendering, as people in the informal sector stake their claims to livelihoods in Egypt and the Dominican Republic. [1] We thought through the racially-contested geographies that characterize black women’s fight against land grabs in Brazil and the negotiations and resistance against the building of the separation wall in Israel and Palestine. [2] We reflected on the oil modernities of Dubai and Venezuela [3] and discussed the aftermaths of the Pink Tide in Latin America and the Arab spring in the Middle East. [4]

Yet, as we pulled out these promising lines of connection we had to confront the realization that many of them were framed in experiences of violence. Suddenly, our syllabus began to read like a list of dystopic nightmares: devastated landscapes, persistent forms of gendered subjugation, ever-more exploitative labor regimes, voracious resource extraction and seemingly endless cycles of war. Our initial excitement turned into somber reflection.

With this realization, we entered the classroom with a sense of both anticipation and urgency. The class brought together students from diverse backgrounds and experiences, creating a rare opportunity for them to complement their skills and enter into rich dialogues as we thought through issues across the two regions. [5] The semester-long project assignment we designed produced exciting results as students made unexpected connections. Posters of their final projects pinned on our class walls displayed the generative potential of thinking comparatively: on political graffiti and street art in Cairo and Bogota, the state’s role in Brazilian favelas and West Bank refugee camps, drug wars in Mexico and Afghanistan, the tactics of Zapatista and Kurdish women’s resistance movements and diasporic influences in popular music in both regions, among other projects. In addition, this pedagogical experiment afforded the two of us a unique space where we could have South-South conversations, beyond the Eurocentric gaze, about places we call home.

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