Selected Lecture Topics
World History: an Alternative Story
World history as commonly taught in Western schools traces a development from Mesopotamia and Egypt, through Greece and Rome, and then to the Dark Ages, which is followed by the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of modern democratic nations. I offer an alternative global storyline: a picture of world history as it looks if you put the Islamic world at the center. From this perspective, the successor to Mesopotamia was Persia, the Dark Ages were the brighter ages, and the Crusades and the Mongol invasions were pivotal turning points. This talk explores the relativity of historical narratives and proposes a world historical story from a truly global perspective, a theme explored (but not exhausted) in my book Destiny Disrupted, A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes.
Afghanistan is impossible to conquer, says conventional wisdom. Actually, Afghanistan haas been conquered many times. It’s just that the succesful conquerors are now called Afghans. What is difficult, it seems, is conquering Afghanistan and holding it from somewhere else. Four times in the last 180 years (or five, depending on what you’re counting) a mighty global power has undertaken this project. The first three attempts failed and the fourth one may be in the process of foundering now. Curiously enough, the failed conquerors failed in the same way and for the same reasons. The United States failed to learn from the Soviets, the Soviets from the British, and the British from themselves! Yes, they made essentially the same mistakes in Afghanistan twice within forty years. What accounts for this amnesia? I probe this question by telling the story of the failed British and Soviet attempts to conquer Afghanistan and comparing them to the US/NATO experience of these last ten years.
Writing Fiction, Writing Memoir
This workshop and discussion introduces writers and writing students to the differences, similarities, and interrelationships between writing fiction and writing memoir, with a focus on strategies for discovering the story arc in real experiences and for tapping the techniques of narrative fiction to bring memoir vividly to life. I draw upon understandings I have developed during my sixteen years (and counting) of running the 65-year-old San Francisco Writer’s Workshop.
Living in Two Worlds: an Afghan-American Life
What was it like to grow up in Afghanistan with one foot already in America? I contrast life in a highly conservative Islamic society to that in post-modern United States and explore, along the way, such thorny topics as the chaderi (or “burqa”) and the position of women in Islamic society. Stories from a bi-cultural childhood illuminate how and why the worldview of Afghans typically differs from that of Americans. This discussion elaborates on themes touched upon in my critically-acclaimed memoir, West of Kabul, East of New York.
Why Afghanistan Is Difficult: Prospects and Problems
I move from a long view of Afghanistan in the context of world history to the destruction of Afghanistan in recent decades, to my own experiences in Afghanistan after the events of September 11, and finally to the current U.S. involvement in this country. In this talk, I illuminate the orgins of the Taliban and their evolution into current times, the social turmoil in the country now, and the implications of events in Afghanistan for Pakistan, Iran, the former Soviet Republics, the broader region, and, most importantly, the people of the United States.
Translation and Understanding “The Other”
This lecture uses poetry translation as a frame for examining the difficulty of communication across any border—cultural, historical, or personal. No message can be mapped directly from one language to another: because of the countless assumptions and understandings wedding any message to its cultural context, switching languages entails switching frameworks. Yet understanding how an entire cultural framework is involved in every word and phrase of a language also points toward ways that the West can comprehend the world as experienced by the East, that people of the twenty-first century can comprehend the world experienced by people of the past, that we as individuals can comprehend the world as seen by any other person.
Why Islam Has Trouble with Western Modernism
After a look at the historical unfolding of Islam in its first millenium, I explore the reformist currents of the last two centuries and the challenge that Islamic thinkers face in formulating a theology relevant to industrial modernism and yet true to Islamic traditions. This talk introduces the ideas of Muslim modernists such as Jamaluddin al-Afghani, Sir Syed Ahmad, and Mohammed Abduh as well as the currents of thought leading to the Jihadist movements of today. I also look at what would be involved doctrinally in shaping a modernist Islamic theology.