Seeking to Understand the Middle East

Apr 3, 2015

Ryan Dye, the coordinator of the Middle East Institute at St. Ambrose University, and Hamideh Sedghi, its first scholar-in-residence
Credit Jane Kettering, St. Ambrose University

    There is a Middle East Institute on the campus of St. Ambrose University in Davenport.

The immediate question that comes to mind is why a Catholic University in the middle of America has created an academic institute focused on the Arab world.

“My immediate response to that is, why not?” answers Ryan Dye, a history professor at St. Ambrose and coordinator of the Middle East Institute. “St. Ambrose University has a long tradition of dealing with difficult questions, particularly questions dealing with peacemaking and reconciliation, and certainly there’s a tremendous need for that in the Middle East.”

The MEI is the first of its kind in Iowa, a place devoted entirely to one of the planet’s most geopolitically important regions. Dye says Iowans are thirsty for a sophisticated understanding of an area we hear much about, but don’t understand.

“ISIS, the war in Syria, the situation in Yemen, the situation in Iraq, the negotiations with Iran," he says. "It’s always in the news.”

In its first few months of operation, the Institute has hosted a few events – a guest lecture by former Republican Congressman Jim Leach last spring, a Middle Eastern film festival last fall. But the real work began this semester with the arrival of its first scholar-in-residence, Hamideh Sedghi. She is a political scientist from Iran, who grew up in the capital Tehran. She specializes in gender studies and is the author of “Women and Politics in Iran: Veiling, Unveiling and Reveiling.”  She points at the book’s cover.

“This is a picture of my grandmother," she says. "She was fully covered. She was married at the age of seven.”

Conditions were different for Sedghi’s mother, who threw off her veil at an early age and went to school. But as Sedghi was growing up, she says girls were clearly treated differently from boys, and this fact shaped her interest in feminism.

“Personal is political," she says. "Growing up as a woman, as a girl, who had a different place in society from say my older brother.”

He could walk the streets of Tehran freely, while she needed a chaperone to leave the house and a chauffeur to drive her home from school. She’ll talk about gender politics in the Middle East Monday at St. Ambrose.  An April 24th symposium will bring experts to campus to tackle the topic “Crisis upon Crisis in the Middle East: Is Change Possible?”  Sedghi says the answer is made more difficult because there’s no clear definition for the Middle East.

“If you go to the Middle East and ask any person who are you, where do you come from, they identify themselves with their village, with their town,” she says.

Sedghi does have an answer, though, when asked what change she would like to see in the Middle East.

"Well, I would like to have a feminist government," she says. "Impossible I know, but you can dream right?”

And she also has a solution for how to rid the region of its many religious, political and social divisions.

“The more conflicts, the more wars you have, the more you’re going to have these divisions," Sedghi says. "Do away with wars, you do away with divisions.”

Violent confrontations are what most Westerners see and read about daily. The goal of the Middle East Institute at St. Ambrose is to also showcase the art, literature and culture of the region, and to offer a forum for conversations and debates about how to reach peaceful solutions.