MESA, or the Middle East Studies Association, held its annual November meeting in San Francisco amidst a crisis not of its making. Several hotels were on strike as the meeting began, and many MESA members did not attend out of sympathy with the hotel workers. As it so happened, halfway through the meeeting, the hotel workers and proprietors reached a deal and the strike was called off, too late, alas, for many scholars who had wanted to give papers or otherwise attend to Middle East -related business. For me, after seven years of non-attendance, San Francisco was a real shot in the arm. Most of my UCLA colleagues, people I had been in class with as well as several professors, were there so we caught up on news, mostly of children, mortgages and books in the pipeline.
At the annual IJMES dinner -- International Journal of Middle East Studies,-- MESA's flagship journal -- we missed Juan Cole, who had just passed on the journal's editorial duties to Judith Tucker, from Georgetown. Naturally, everyone was talking about the phenomenal success of Juan's blog. A colleague of both Juan's and I, Ken Cuno , now at the University of Illinois, recalled how at a past MESA conference, Juan had asked him for a ride to the nearest cyber cafe at 11pm one night. Obviously, the man does with very little sleep.
The rest of us traded the usual gossip, criticizing some panels and extolling others. I was surprised by how many panels there were on Iraq. They were not necessarily those dealing with the heavy security stuff that the rest of us shrug off as unreal, slightly delusional and devoid of substance. This is all the more fascinating as I remember lonely years at MESA past when there was barely a paper given on Iraq. At my rare presentations, I would be greeted with polite applause and little follow-up questions. (Of course, that could be the result of my conference style which is a cross between uneventful and uneven).
The two panels I attended on Iraq on the first day, however, were brimming with excitement. In the first, three scholars who had actually been to Iraq, with one staying for nine months, gave their opinion on the state of scholarship in Iraq today, the security constraints inhibiting progress, the role of politics in academia and the religious/sectarian/ethnic divide that was embroiling college campuses everywhere in Iraq. The second panel, entitled "Beyond Baghdad", had invited anthropologists with first-hand knowledge of Iraq to discuss their experiences. Again, I was surprised by how many American academics had been to Baghdad, that former no-man's land, and how many of them had gained valuable insights on its history and culture. That last panel was interesting in the participants' anti-war stance. With the exception of one anthropologist-turned-businessman, the panel was vehemently anti-war. Professor Robert Fernea, dean of Iraqi anthropology at Texas, said it best : "The Americans must leave", he growled, "There is no other option left for them but to leave Iraq".