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Professor brings back firsthand report on the Middle East

9/23/2014

Ammman Kites
Dr. Sumi Colligan, pictured above, third from the right in the back, learned how to make kites from the children of Amman, Jordan.

Story summary: Anthropology professor Dr. Sumi Colligan traveled across three war zones to Amman, Jordan, to learn more about the people who live there.

Anthropology professor Dr. Sumi Colligan recently traveled to Amman, Jordan, where she attended a faculty development seminar with seven other participants from various institutions of higher education across the United States.

The fact that she had to travel across three war zones in the Middle East as Israel invaded and bombed Gaza, the neighboring country of Syria experienced civil war, and the U.S. began to bomb ISIS in nearby Iraq made her attendance that much more important, Colligan said.

“There’s something really powerful about having a fresh, firsthand experience,” she said.

At the “Women's Rights in Jordan: Contesting Voices, Class, and NGOization, and Negotiating Foreign Interests” seminar, sponsored by the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), Colligan was the only anthropologist among a diverse group of faculty, which included professors of history, political science and religious studies.

Colligan decided to attend the seminar not only because she teaches a class at MCLA on “Peoples of the Middle East,” but because of her experience doing fieldwork in Israel as a graduate student.

“The history of Israel and Jordan are very closely intertwined. While I’ve looked at Jordan from across the Dead Sea in Israel, I had never been there,” she said. “The focus on the seminar was mostly on women’s issues, and I have a particular interest in that. The intersection of those two things contributed to my desire to participate in this seminar.”

In addition to lots of reading and discussions during the Aug. 2-13 seminar, Colligan met people from many different walks of life.

They included a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a woman working to interpret the Quran from a feminist perspective, youth activists and bloggers, union organizers, as well as women who had been elected to parliament and others who are involved in a day wage labor movement.

Colligan said it’s very important for her students to understand that there’s much more to countries in the Middle East than meets the eye. “And that’s something that we don’t take away from the media often.”

She intends to share additional viewpoints, and provide a closer look at the people who live in that part of the world.

While she experienced a sobering view of vast numbers of Syrian refugees who relocated to Jordan as a result of the conflict in Syria, Colligan also enjoyed lighter moments. Along with CIEE staff members and those from a youth organization in Amman called “Incite,” she learned how to make kites from children who live in poor neighborhoods, as kite flying is a popular activity in Amman.

“I think some of it is firsthand reportage, saying ‘I was just there,’ Colligan explained. “The Middle East is often a place that stereotypes, and is stereotyped in a kind of singular fashion.

“People don’t realize that, from one country to another, there are a diversity of issues, of people, and of experiences and perspectives. Just being able to communicate that to students to reflect upon their own understanding of a very complex region that we often look upon negatively lends a lot to their educational process.”