Course Description: English 2.45
Instructor: Professor Amardeep Singh (Deep)

Spring 2003


Debate and Dialogue in Literatures of the Middle East

Professor contact information:

Office: 201 C Drown Hall
Mailbox in 101 Drown Hall
Phone: 610-758-3319 (o), 610-730-8224 (c)

Required Texts: 

Oxford Essential Guide to Writing
Literatures of the Middle East
A. B. Yehoshua, Journey to the End of the Millenium
Naguib Mahfouz, Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth
Orhan Pamuk, The White Castle
Hanan al-Shaykh, Only in London
Amitav Ghosh, In an Antique Land 

Additional resources for the course will be posted as course documents on Blackboard:


Introduction to the course:

What is this course? What does it have to do with writing? Courses like English 1 and 2 are there to help you develop analytical writing skills, so that you can convey complex information and compose careful, persuasive arguments. The goal, in other words, is to train you to express your ideas well. The problem is, teaching writing is difficult to do in a vacuum. Besides giving out a few ‘tips’, it’s virtually impossible to teach someone to write without a focused topic there to write about. So in designing this course I’ve chosen a topic I think will interest all sorts of students, whether you are at Lehigh to study Engineering or English.

This course introduces a small slice of literature of the Middle East, especially the Jewish and Arab traditions, with an emphasis on contemporary writing. We will use the literature as a space of debate and dialogue about religion, ethnicity, gender, and nationalism. Students will be asked to enter into these arguments and take positions, both in class discussions and in their written assignments. The overall hope is that students will develop as writers through an engagement with issues surrounding the ethnic and religious groups in the Middle East.

Why this topic? Many people these days live in a kind of bubble – they follow their sports teams and they watch their TV shows, but they have little interest in what happens elsewhere in the world. It's remarkable that a nation so saturated with "reality TV," is completely out of touch with reality. In my view, a vital goal of any serious college education must be a broadened horizon of ideas and cultures. What happens to people you don’t know is important. We live in an era of cultural and economic globalization, so what happens in Korea or Egypt can affect you, and it’s necessary to know how and why. No matter what your profession, knowledge about people outside your cultural bubble will continue to benefit you after school, as you encounter coworkers from different backgrounds, and with different ways of seeing the world.

What does 9/11 have to do with it? In some ways, the topic of this course is also a response to 9/11, though all of the books we’ll be reading were written before that terrible day. One thing that event has taught us is that we as Americans can’t afford protected bubbles.

à Discussion questions for the class (5-10 minutes): How has your view of the world changed since 9/11? Do you do things differently now on a daily basis? Do you actually think you’re better informed? Do you have any experiences/stories about globalization in action?


Who am I? And what is 'secularism'?

I do have my own opinions about the issues we’ll be discussing, but if I’m doing my job well those opinions will stay in the background. My goal in teaching is to favor any perspective or idea that sheds light on the subject in front of us. I’m interested in producing debate and dialogue amongst students, not in showing how one political or intellectual approach may be right ‘right’ while everything else is wrong.

One thing I don’t tolerate is chauvinism or bigotry in my classes against any group of people. This is not because I’m a bleeding heart liberal who loves all people! Rather, I think bigotry is a way of being blind to the issue. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and even snobbery are bad, in other words, because they shut down debate.

I also believe the classroom has to be a site of secular dialogue. Thus, I require students take a secular approach, even where we’re reading books that reference religion. So that the novels we'll look at later make more sense, we'll spend a small amount of time initially looking at some of the scriptural texts from the middle east, including the Old and New Testaments and the Quran. I'm going to ask you to read and think about these as literature rather than as 'scripture', at least for the purposes of this class. This is tricky to accomplish, but I think it’s worth a try. Whatever your own beliefs, I ask that you be sensitive to the fact that others in the room may feel differently, and not because they are unenlightened fools. I also ask you not to assume that people who feel differently than you do are simply not worth talking to. One of the major goals of this class is to show that people can legitimately and intelligently disagree, but this does not mean they can't still talk to each other. Indeed, it's often most important that people whose disagreements are significant learn to talk to each other. This is true in the political scenario of the Middle East, and it's also true in this classroom.

à Discussion questions for the class: What does 'secularism' mean to you? How does it work in the United States?



All of the five novels in this class were written in the past decade or so, and they all make detailed reference to one or another of the ancient religious traditions of the Middle East. They are each excellent, first-class works of literature though the writers are from different backgrounds and use quite different styles (some of the books will probably appeal to you more than others). Though this is not a course in religion or theology, we will start with some material from the Ancient world, including short excerpts from the Torah, New Testament, Quran, and the Arabian Nights (these excerpts are all contained in the anthology Literatures of the Middle East). Again, while the course will certainly respect the beliefs of the different religious communities involved, we will aim to enter into some of the critical debates about the interpretation of the respective sacred texts, and approach these texts as literature. The real goal of this first unit of the class is to prepare the way for the references to religion made in the novels that follow.

The second and largest unit of the course can be thought of as a ‘bridge’ unit between ancient cultures and religions, and the modern realities of the Middle East. The writers are all contemporary, but they are interested in narrating aspects of the ancient and medieval Middle East; they foreground how interpretation of history can be made to mirror debates occurring in the present. We will look at A.B. Yehoshua’s Journey to the End of the Millenium, Naguib Mahfouz’s Akhenaten: The Dweller in Truth, Orhan Pamuk’s The White Castle, and Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land. Each of these four texts explore the interplay between historical and mythological representation and the contemporary politics of knowledge. What is the politics behind Yehoshua’s emphasis on the historical divide between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews in his novel about Jews in medieval Europe? Analogously, what is the contemporary politics of Mahfouz’s parable of the ancient Egyptian king Akhenaten, who is widely thought to have invented religious monotheism? The final novel of the course, Hanan al-Shaykh’s Only in London, is written in a fresh contemporary style, and deals with contemporary middle eastern issues among a group of Arabs gathered in London. As we read this novel, we will also broaden the discussion with some recent essays exploring issues in the Middle East in the post 9/11 world.

Alongside the novels in the course will be a significant number of poems and essays from and about the Middle East. We will introduce and discuss some of the basic historical issues surrounding Israel/Palestine with some essays by Thomas Friedman and other writers, though this will not be a very major topic of conversation unless students express a strong interest in learning more about this issue (none of the novels in the course deals directly with Israel/Palestine issue).