By Rami G. Khouri
The ongoing citizen revolts across the Arab world make me feel good, but what I encountered earlier this week at the Sharjah Women’s Higher College of Technology makes me feel even more confident that the Arab future is in good hands – if Arabs are allowed to shape that future for themselves, without the distortions and ravages that come from foreign invasions and manipulations, Israeli colonization, and Arab corruption and security states.
The constitutional and governance macro-changes that will emerge in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and other Arab countries in the midst of historic change are only part of the story. The other half of the determinants of the Arab future comprises micro-changes that occur in the minds and lives of individual men and women, and local institutions that have the courage and develop the capacity to break out of the constraints of the past and forge ahead into a bold future.
I have always been, and remain, confident that the Arab people will snap out of their terrible modern history and live like free, productive, dignified human beings. This is largely because every few weeks during the past 40 years of my professional life in the Arab world, without fail, I encounter a group of people or attend an event that reinforces my sense of confidence and optimism in the ability of the Arab world to allow its humanism and rationalism to triumph over the countervailing forces of emotionalism, fear and massive political disjunction.
I was privileged to participate in a two-day conference at the Sharjah Women’s Higher College of Technology this week entitled “Counseling Arabia 2011,” whose theme was “youth at the crossroads.” In themselves, these facts are not so special, as conferences on this theme take place every week somewhere in the region, but usually with few signs of any serious attempt to come to grips with the tough issues that define the world of young Arabs, including issues related to alienation, participation, sexuality and personal freedoms.
This gathering impressed and inspired me for several reasons. The most important was the nature of the topics that were discussed, all of which would normally be seen as highly controversial, and thus not appropriate for public discussion in the Arab world. The list of topics included: identity formation, dysfunctional families, the boyatt/she-male phenomenon, victims of domestic violence, the divorced young adult, substance abuse, illicit relationships, Arabizing the counseling profession, self-mutilation/ eating disorders/suicide among youth, common mental disorders (depression, bipolar personality, etc.), mental health and the young male.
It’s hard to think of a list of youth-related topics that deserves greater priority for research and public discussion in the Arab world than this. The fact that a state-run women’s college totally comprised of Emirati students is dealing with these topics is a small but significant – even historic, I would say – sign of change in the mindset and mission of state-run colleges and universities in the Gulf region, where the prevailing norm for decades has been to see private and public life as idyllic, requiring no serious research into problem areas.
The second impressive aspect of this conference was the strong representation of Emirati and Gulf scholars among those who presented papers or engaged in discussion. Most such gatherings in the Gulf region are dominated by foreign speakers, so the strong representation of Gulf nationals, mostly university professors, who shared their research findings is an important sign of maturity in these societies’ willingness and capacity to address sensitive issues in an open and serious manner. This was boosted by the fact that the conference was opened by the UAE minister of higher education and scientific research, thus making the state a partner in this process, rather than an obstacle, as is the case in most Arab countries.
The third impressive dimension of my experience was to watch a short documentary film that female students at the college made, exploring the most personal and sensitive aspects of young people’s evolving identities in a globalized world. What these Emirati young ladies produced is as good as anything I’ve seen produced elsewhere by university students around the world, both in the technical sphere and in the substance of the issues explored.
I know from experience with other colleges and universities around the Arab world that this is not a unique situation. Yet it stands out for me due to the impressive combination of the important and sensitive issues under discussion, new research being undertaken by locals and foreigners alike, the active participation of young women students in the process, and the official sanction of the state for all the above. With this sort of locally driven activity at the community level, combined with the changes in ruling power establishments, it is safe to say that there’s a better day coming for the Arab people.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice-weekly by THE DAILY STAR.