“Basic Freedoms and Rule of Law Ought Not Be Taken for Granted” – 5in10 with Wendy Pearlman
Wendy Pearlman is the Koldyke Outstanding Teaching Associate Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, where she specializes in Middle East politics. Wendy earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University, an MA from Georgetown University, and a BA from Brown University. She has conducted research in Spain, Germany, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Israel, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As a Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and EUME Fellow 2017/18 at the Forum Transregionale Studien, she is spending a period of 18 months in Berlin, spread out over six years, researching the experiences of Syrian refugees in Germany.
What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?
As a young child I had two main interests: doing gymnastics and writing short stories. While my love for the beauty of the written word has remained, I ended my gymnastic life at age 14 after several years of competitive training. That was the same year, 1988, that some of the biggest musicians of the day held a series of benefit concerts on behalf of Amnesty International under the banner “Human Rights Now.” As a teenager, I was probably more interested in U2 than in international affairs, but this event introduced me to Amnesty International and I decided to join my town’s local chapter. After an odd turn of the events I became the leader of the group a few years later, and its activities remained the main focus of my life through middle school and high school. The work I did with Amnesty captivated me and served as an awakening to world politics. It opened my eyes to issues of repression, authoritarianism, state violence, and political imprisonment. A few months ago I was cleaning out the attic of my father’s home, I found copies of old letters that I wrote as a member of Amnesty International. There was one addressed to a Sri Lankan chief of police, one to a provincial governor in Honduras, etc. I do not recall being driven by a curiosity about the world as much as a slow realization that basic freedoms and rule of law ought not be taken for granted. This concern about oppressive government, and also the sacrifices and struggles of courageous people who dare to challenge them, remains my personal and academic passion until today.
Which stations of your academic journey were particularly formative to you?
Like many American students, I spent my third year of university studying abroad. I had never before had the opportunity to travel outside the United States. To maximize the different experiences that I could have on a single plane ticket, I spent a semester in Spain and a semester in Morocco. In Morocco, I began learning Arabic, lived with a local family, and even fasted for the month of Ramadan. The experience was life-changing for me, and I have been studying the Middle East and North Africa ever since. Another academic turning point for me came from January to June 2000, when I lived in the West Bank. I studied at Birzeit University and volunteered at a Palestinian human rights organization. What I saw and experienced in Palestinian captured my mind and heart completely, and for the next ten years my main focus was Palestine. I wrote a book of interviews with Palestinians about their experiences in the second Intifada and wrote my doctoral thesis on Palestinian politics. My dissertation, which became my second book, looked at about 80 years of Palestinian history with a focus on how the internal political cohesion or fragmentation of a self-determination movement affects its use of violent or nonviolent protest strategies.
The next major station on my academic journey was the 2011 Arab uprisings, which was something of an earthquake in my field of Middle East politics. As I had a background in the study of social movements, I became especially intrigued by the question of the what brings people to participate in high-risk dissent. In one article I examined that question with a focus on emotions and in another, I examined it with a focus on moral identity. It was against this backdrop that, in 2012, I began to do open-ended interviews with displaced Syrians about their lives. Since then I’ve collected testimonials from more than 350 Syrians in the Middle East and Europe. These became the basis of the book I published last year, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria. I am continuing to collect testimonials from Syrians of different walks of life for a new book project.
Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?
The main way that academic mobility has been a part of my research projects has been through my travel to do field research in the Middle East and, now, with people who displaced from the Middle East and sought refuge in Europe. This kind of academic mobility has affected every aspect of my research. For me, spending time in the Middle East or with Middle Eastern communities has not been simply about gathering data in order to answer research questions conceptualized at home. It is also what continually teaches me the questions that I should research in the first place.
Which key insights from your research do you consider to be the most surprising for general audiences? Why do you believe this to be the case?
My doctoral research explored dynamics of protest in general and how the organization of movements affect the forms of protest, in particular. I came to this angle when I followed American media coverage during the second Palestinian Intifada after 2000, which was asking questions such as “Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?” and “What goes on ‘inside the mind’ of suicide bombers?” These queries not only ignored Palestinians’ significant use of nonviolent methods throughout their history, but also revealed a misunderstanding of political violence as an outcome of evil leaders or psychological conditions rather than a result of political processes. I believed was a major driver of any movements’ use of violent or nonviolent protest strategies: its own degree of political cohesion or fragmentation. Given how easy it is to speak about movements as if they were unitary entities, rather than complex societies, I believed that it was important to show general audiences how internal structures and struggles shape what movements can do and are likely to do. These arguments can seem unsurprising once articulated, but it is very easy for people to lose sight of them in their day-to-day engagement with the news.
Since 2011, my research has turned to Syria and a focus on personal narratives of the lived experience of authoritarianism protest, war, and displacement. Even after collecting hundreds of these narratives, I find that each one surprises me, and I think the same is true for most general audiences. That is the case because the narratives that I collect answer questions that most general audiences do not even imagine asking. Would you risk your life for a cause you believed in? Would you allow your child to do so? Which is scarier, when bombs explode or hearing the planes and waiting for bombs to drop? What would you do if you witnessed a family member violently killed? What would you do if your spouse was arrested and years pass without any information of his or her whereabouts? How would you cope if it were you in indefinite political imprisonment? What does it feel like to be at sea for days, under the hot sun with no food or water, packed with dozens of other people in a boat that then begins to sink? How would you manage if you were forced to leave behind everything that you’d spent a lifetime building, and had to start over in a new place and new language?
I believe that when real people discuss their experiences of having actually faced questions such as these, what they say – no matter what they say — will surprise those of us lucky enough to not undergo such horrors. And that is one reason why I have focused my working on documenting and helping to transmit such testimonials.
Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) have inspired you recently?
Last May in Chicago I participated in the North American Society for Exile Studies (NASES)’s symposium on the theme “Vorstufen des Exils: irgendwo zwischen Heimat und Ankunft / Early Stages of Exile: Somewhere Between Home and Arrival.” This conference was especially impactful for me because the previous June I had also attended sessions of at the conference that Forum Transregionale Studien/EUME organized in Berlin, “Writing (in) Exile: A Forum on Literature, Writing and the Experience of Exile.” At the NASES conference, most presentations were by scholars researching and interpreting the experiences of Germans who had fled or emigrated during Nazi rule. At the EUME conference, most presentations were by Arab writers who were themselves currently experiencing exile. The combination of these two academic events were very inspiring for me. The EUME conference shined a light on experiences most directly relevant to my own study of displacement from the Arab world today. The NASES event introduced me to themes and theories that academics apply to analyzing displacement during a very different time, place, and set of historical circumstances, and pushed me to think about how these ideas might or might not be useful for making sense of contemporary trends. Trying to bridge these academic nodes, my own presentation at the NASES conference focused on Syrian experiences of exile both inside and outside Syria. For this, I analyzed both interviews that I have done and a beautiful collection of personal essays that the website Al-Jumhuriya has gathered from a range of Syrian writers reflect about their personal experiences of exile. I hope to continue to follow and explore this topic – what exile means and how it is experienced in the Syrian context –in the years to come.
Citation: “Basic Freedoms and Rule of Law Ought not be Taken for Granted” – 5in10 with Wendy Pearlman, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 17.07.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/10845.