Sharjah, which is right next to Dubai, is more conservative than its neighbor. No alcohol is served in the emirate, which was named the cultural capital of the Arab world by UNESCO because of its excellent museums. The American University of Sharjah there was founded by the emirate’s ruler, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qassimi III, and it is a forerunner of NYUAD insofar as it is a school that offers a co-educational experience. The Shaikh also founded the more traditional University of Sharjah, which lies just down the road from AUS and offers separate but equal facilities for men and women.
At AUS we met with the Dean of Arts and Science, Williams Heidkamp, and with faculty from a variety of fields including literature, mass communication, history, and international relations. The overarching subject of our discussion was the challenge involved in teaching the humanities in an Islamic setting: where were certain intellectual and social lines drawn, what kinds of interaction between instructors and students were permissible outside the classroom, and where might the expectations of Western teachers and students from the Gulf region clash, what was it like to live in an emirate if you were an ex-pat? Instructors at NYUAD will face many of the same challenges, though our student body is likely to be more demographically diverse than that of AUS. The AUS faculty members seemed skeptical both about our aspirations to import some of the residential education models that we use back at NYUNY and also more generally about the prospects for a liberal arts college in the Emirates. Their institution is dominated by its engineering school, apparently, which is the first-choice program for the majority of entering students. Arts and Science seems to get those who don’t find engineering congenial and who are able to convince their parents that a liberal arts curriculum is worthwhile. They wished us well, however, hoping that if NYUAD is successful, it will enhance the status of the liberal arts in the region generally and thereby help them. We expressed our hope that we would be able to establish scholarly ties with AUS and foster the creation of communities of scholars with mutual research interests.
After lunch at the school cafeteria, we headed over to Sharjah’s Museum of Islamic Civilization, a domed building with two long wings. I spent most of my time in the hall devoted to the history of Islam and found myself reminded of the very central role that Hagar and Ismail play in Islamic belief and more specifically in the hajj pilgrimage. And it made me worry just a little about the lecture on cosmopolitanism that I’d be giving the next day. The lecture’s second half uses Moby-Dick as a case study in the dynamics of literary cosmopolitanism, and I wondered whether any in my audience might find my treatment of “Ishmael” disturbing or insensitive. Perhaps more significantly, I began to think about the significance of Melville’s treatment of Islam in the novel, which draws on stereotype far more than his treatment of Zoroastrianism. (I’m thinking particularly of the episode involving Queequeg’s “Ramadan'” but also about offhand references to Islamic and Near Eastern practices througout the book. I started thinking that I should write companion piece to my essay on cosmopolitanism and Zoroastrianism in Moby-Dick that would explore the novel’s appropriations of Islam as (I suspect) an example of the limits of its cosmopolitan aspirations.