The Trouble with Travel

International crises of this kind have a major impact on the ability of scholars to collaborate.

—Kathryn Yount, Associate Professor of Public Health

The Trouble with Travel
How much have war and epidemic blocked international scholarship?

At the moment, I have to postpone the goal of performing this project in Java.
Steven Everett, Associate Professor of Music

Before you go
Emory resources for faculty travel

Travel and students
Unrest has affected student travel in varying degrees

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Academic Exchange: How has the international political situation affected your work on family and gender in the Middle East?

Kathryn Yount: In 2002, I began to identify a group of scholars across disciplines—history, anthropology, sociology, demography, and others—to produce a volume on family change in the Middle East. From its inception, this project was intended to be a partnership between Americans and Arabs.

We developed a collaboration with University of North Carolina, which has funding from the Andrew Mellon Foundation to convene international scholars doing work related to the demography of the Middle East, including Iran and Turkey. With this support, we planned an international conference for April 2003, but the international political context that began to emerge in the months before became an impediment.

With uncertainty about the conflict in Iraq in the early spring of 2003, I sent out an email soliciting views from slated participants about whether or not to hold the conference. The overwhelming sentiment of the group was to proceed with the conference since about half of the people were coming from universities within the United States, including some scholars from the Middle East, including Iran and Turkey, who were in residence in the U.S. In the end, we were able to convene twelve of the twenty international participants slated to attend the meeting. And the presentations were outstanding. We felt like this turnout was a real success because so many international meetings had been cancelled or postponed indefinitely.

The success of the conference, however, wasn’t so much the number of people who attended. It was the commitment of scholars to share knowledge about family and family change in the Middle East at a time when international press about the family was quite narrowly focused. Our vision for the conference was to make available to the public images of the family in the Middle East that are based on sound research and might not be popularly known.

For example, a widely held view among scholars of the region is that the international media tends to present a rather homogenized view of “the Arab family” and families in the Middle East. All women are veiled. All women are oppressed. There was an interest among scholars participating in the conference to present the diversity of family life in the region. This interest, I think, explains the strong commitment among conference participants to see this project through. At the same time, some participants felt that it was important to acknowledge
the international situation itself as a force of change in family life in the region.

AE: What happened after the conference?

KY: We’ve continued with e-mail correspondence. And we are holding a follow-up workshop this fall for those scholars from the region who could not attend in April so that they have a chance to present their papers. Two of the ten slated to come are having visa delays but we hope they will be able to attend. A conference volume will eventually grow out of these efforts.

AE: How do such crises affect your relationship with international colleagues?

KY: They have a major impact on the ability of scholars to collaborate. Some of the challenges we have encountered include difficulties with travel, delays in obtaining visas, and concerns about the interpretation of research findings when international scrutiny of Arabs and the Middle East is so strong.

Despite these difficulties, I have been very impressed with my collaborators over the last year. On one hand, they’ve been very sincere about their concerns—for instance, the impact the war in Iraq is going to have on the economy in Egypt. At the same time, they express sincere interest in continuing collaboration in spite of over-arching logistical difficulties and polarized views about the situation in the Middle East. There’s a real acknowledgment of the value of the work you’re trying to do, and the value of these sorts of collaborations.

And colleagues here have emphasized to me the diplomatic aspect of the research as well. I felt a responsibility as a citizen of the United States to maintain these collaborative ties.

AE: Why do you feel that responsibility as a citizen rather than just a scholar?

KY: The maintenance of humanitarian ties is extremely important during times of crisis. We have one objective—to produce good scholarship that is accessible to the general public. To this end, we’ve posted our papers on a public website until they are published. Our second objective is interpersonal—to strengthen ties at a time that’s been difficult for Americans and Middle Easterners alike.

AE: Did you ever feel like you had to separate yourself from the U.S. government?

KY: Our colleagues in the Middle East had already made the separation. They were quick to acknowledge administrative decisions had already been made—and that individual Americans citizens were not the American government. At the same time, my collaborators did not press lots of political debates. There are lots of different political views among Arabs, not all of which I share, and my collaborators and I do not need to agree on everything to maintain joint research activities. Our emphasis is a common appreciation of scholarship. And we all are careful not to threaten or challenge our interpersonal ties any more than they already have been. Finding common ground through research activities of mutual interest has proved to be an effective strategy for survival under less than ideal circumstances.