Censorship, Book Burning and Abu Dhabi Orientalism

7 February, 2022


Deborah L. Williams


When I saw in the news­pa­per that a school board in Ten­nessee had decid­ed to ban Art Spiegelman’s book Maus because because “of its unnec­es­sary use of pro­fan­i­ty and nudi­ty and its depic­tion of vio­lence and sui­cide,” I real­ized that my office book­shelves at NYU Abu Dhabi would make the school board mem­bers twitch with despair. 

What would they think of the shelves full of what can only be called crit­i­cal race the­o­ry, or the rows of books about gen­der stud­ies and queer lit­er­ary history—Terry Castle’s Appari­tion­al Les­bian nes­tled against Foucault’s Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish—or, hor­rors, the stacks of YA fic­tion, full of rep­re­sen­ta­tions of mag­ic, human-made cli­mate crises, alter­na­tive uni­vers­es, and rev­o­lu­tions. And, of course, scat­tered across my shelves are sev­er­al dif­fer­ent edi­tions of Maus, which I’ve taught almost every year for the last ten years. 

On Feb. 3, 2022, alt-right pas­tor Greg Locke led a book burn­ing of Har­ry Pot­ter nov­els and oth­er titles, Mount Juli­et, Ten­nessee (pho­to cour­tesy Ten­nessee Holler).

In fact, my shelves would be a sur­prise to my col­leagues and friends in New York, most of whom were sure that when I moved to NYUAD ten years ago, I wouldn’t have the free­dom to teach any of those things. From the moment that the NYUAD project was announced, peo­ple were sure that “we” would nev­er be able to teach “them” the things that mattered—an atti­tude that smacks of more than a lit­tle cul­tur­al supe­ri­or­i­ty, as if the NYUAD project was intend­ed to some­how bring the light of West­ern lib­er­al­ism to the benight­ed Mid­dle East. There was very lit­tle dis­cus­sion about the NYUAD project might actu­al­ly involve exchange, con­ver­sa­tion, circulation—ideas mix­ing and being changed in the process.

Some of the course titles for class­es in the NYUAD Core (every stu­dent is required to take at least four cours­es in the Core) tell a dif­fer­ent story—or rather, they tell mul­ti­ple sto­ries: “Gen­der and Rep­re­sen­ta­tion,” “Nov­els that Changed the World,” “Fem­i­nism and Islamism,” “Rev­o­lu­tions and Change,” and a class taught by the for­mer pres­i­dent of NYU, John Sex­ton, “The Rela­tion­ship of Gov­ern­ment and Reli­gion.” This last class was men­tioned by a fac­ul­ty mem­ber in a 2008 arti­cle in New York Mag­a­zine, as an exam­ple of a course that prob­a­bly wouldn’t be wel­comed in a coun­try that has no sep­a­ra­tion between church and state. Sex­ton has been teach­ing this class in Abu Dhabi since the university’s first year and has con­tin­ued to do so (inter­rupt­ed only by the pandemic).

One of the first times I taught Maus in Abu Dhabi, a stu­dent in the class, who went to high school in Islam­abad, looked at me in shock: “did that real­ly hap­pen?” He was point­ing to a pic­ture of Auschwitz pris­on­ers being beat­en by Nazi guards. The fact that the pris­on­ers are mice and the guards are cats does not lessen the impact of the images; the stu­dent, who had got­ten only a very gen­er­al out­line of World War II events in school, was shocked. His sur­prise was echoed—surprisingly—by a stu­dent who grew up in Jamaica, anoth­er who grew up in South Africa, and anoth­er who went to high school in Qatar and said her school’s librar­i­an kept a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank (wrapped in brown paper) behind her desk. “She would loan it to us if she trust­ed us,” the stu­dent said. And anoth­er stu­dent, who grew up in a for­mer Sovi­et repub­lic said that she and her friends felt like World War II was the only thing they learned about.

Those dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences and the fact that no sin­gle expe­ri­ence was in the major­i­ty is one of the delights—and challenges—of teach­ing at NYUAD and, in fact, of liv­ing in Abu Dhabi. Yes, the lan­guage of instruc­tion at NYUAD is Eng­lish, which is per­haps best explained as a nec­es­sary evil—a poly­glot com­mu­ni­ty needs some sem­blance of a lin­gua franca—that is also a teach­ing tool: we talk deeply and specif­i­cal­ly about trans­la­tion and trans­la­tion the­o­ries, about lan­guages of inti­ma­cy and estrange­ment. Each stu­dent has a dif­fer­ent rela­tion­ship and yet, at the same time, in the hav­ing of these rela­tion­ships with lan­guage, they find ways to con­nect with one anoth­er, despite their differences.

You could say that all of us in the class­room are a bit off balance—students who have nev­er been in a co-ed class, or read a nov­el for school, or writ­ten an essay, or spent time in the com­pa­ny of peo­ple unlike them­selves. I thought about my stu­dent from Islam­abad, now long since grad­u­at­ed, when I read about the com­pla­cent school board in Ten­nessee. How will the stu­dents in those schools react when they (even­tu­al­ly) encounter unset­tling truths or meet peo­ple whose expe­ri­ences are rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent from their own? It isn’t easy to be off-bal­ance, god knows; it takes prac­tice. It is a prac­tice. And if we don’t prac­tice, we end up stuck in our own cer­tain­ties and fear, unable to imag­ine lives oth­er than our own.

Rooftop view of NYU Abu Dhabi cam­pus (cour­tesy Deb­o­rah Williams).

Ten years into this expat life, I am still asked by friends in the States if I have to cov­er, if I can dri­ve, drink, wear a biki­ni. They won­der about the repressed veiled women, about labor­ers being exploit­ed to the point of death, about the tyran­ni­cal Sul­tan who runs the coun­try. I send pho­tos of peo­ple (men and women) on the beach in itsy-bit­sy bathing suits; I tell them about the veiled woman I saw the oth­er day gun­ning the engine on her Mus­tang when the red light flicked to green; I share my favorite sto­ry of how a for­mer stu­dent, a Mus­lim woman, gamed the sys­tem of Ladies Nights that are offered at bars all over town: she’d go with her gay male friend, who hap­pi­ly drank her free “Ladies” drinks while his pres­ence as her plus-one would pre­vent her from get­ting hit on by oth­er men.

The UAE has a pop­u­la­tion of about nine mil­lion, of which only about 11% are Emi­rati. The largest non-Emi­rati group comes from India, fol­lowed by Pak­istan, Bangladesh, and the Philip­pines. Europe, the UK, and the US get lumped in with “all oth­er coun­tries” in a group of about 1.8 mil­lion peo­ple. In Abu Dhabi, these groups bump up against each oth­er on the streets, in the malls and parks, on the bus­es and on the bike paths. While only Emi­ratis are guar­an­teed cit­i­zen­ship (there is a com­plex cit­i­zen­ship appli­ca­tion for oth­er nation­al­i­ties), it is a place where—for the most part—difference is tol­er­at­ed as a source of strength. Tol­er­ance has become a bit of a buzz­word, in fact, as illus­trat­ed by the recent cre­ation of the “Min­istry of Tol­er­ance.” There is a whole kalei­do­scope of dias­po­ras and migra­tions here; most of us are here to cre­ate, in some way, bet­ter oppor­tu­ni­ties for our fam­i­lies, wher­ev­er they may be. Liv­ing here reminds me that we are all of us wrapped in mul­ti­ple nar­ra­tives that some­times over­lap, some­times entan­gle, some­times collide.

That mul­ti­plic­i­ty exists in Maus, too, which reminds us that in addi­tion to Art’s rela­tion­ship to his father and his father’s mem­o­ries of the Holo­caust, there is the unspo­ken sto­ry of Art’s step­moth­er, who also lived through the war, and Art’s moth­er who kills her­self for rea­sons that Art does not know.

I thought about these mul­ti­ple nar­ra­tives when I went back to look at the 2008 New York Mag­a­zine arti­cle about the found­ing of NYUAD. The writer referred to Abu Dhabi’s plan to “sink $27 bil­lion into the adja­cent Saadiy­at Island, which over the next decade will be trans­formed from a desert­ed sand bank into the most high­brow cul­tur­al theme park on Earth.”

Is “high­brow cul­tur­al theme park” the best way to describe a col­lec­tion of world-class muse­ums, a uni­ver­si­ty, and the build­ings devot­ed to the Abra­ham Accords? Or per­haps the writer sim­ply couldn’t imag­ine a nar­ra­tive about the UAE in which the coun­try is any­thing oth­er than fuel pump to the world. An actu­al place where art gets made? That doesn’t fit the story.

Sit­ting in my office on Saadiy­at, I had to laugh at the irony of Maus being banned: the US seems to be clos­ing down while the UAE, con­trary to West­ern expec­ta­tions, is get­ting more open.

Except you know what? Watch­ing Amer­i­can fun­da­men­tal­ists gain con­trol isn’t fun­ny. Not at all.



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