From Basra to Brandeis: An interview with Ban Al-Mahfodh
T. Michael Sullivan (Joiner Center UMass Boston)
Your personal journey has taken you from Basra to Brandeis, where you recently obtained an M.A. in Sustainable International Development. It seems an improbable route for a journey. Can you comment on it?
It certainly has been an improbable journey, one involving both hard work and fate. It started in 1990 with my moving back to Iraq, arriving at Baghdad’s International Airport on the last airplane from Heathrow in London, for the next 15 years. And, hence, the life-changing events that I would never forget, both very difficult, and influential. Of course, the American-led wars, in 1990 and then in 2003, shaped the journey to follow, which culminated in the journey “From Basra to Brandeis,” a phrase I like to coin in reference to Thomas Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem” which describes his life-changing journey to Beirut for 10 years in 1979. Years of war, suffering, ongoing conflict, and all the humane stories and sights that intertwine, making us wiser, weary, resilient and more thoughtful of how humanity can fare in such situations. And this is what I came to study at Brandeis, focusing on how development practitioners and researchers can do work to try to build peace with those most vulnerable, who have had to grow up with violence, who cannot go to sleep safe and protected by their families, namely children and youth living in situations of conflict. Moreover, at Brandeis I became a part of a global development network with former classmates all over the world; and as global connections become more linked so do our common causes and what we hope to achieve on this journey.
How has the journey influenced your perception of conflict, cultures, or both?
In many ways: first, as a teenager I was deeply impacted by what it meant to move from a western society to a life under a regime, and how intellectual thinking and art were curbed by the laws and fear. So many great thinkers of Iraq — artists, professors and professionals — were told how to think, where and what to say. It was suffocating and dangerous to express what you wished. People were very hopeful for changes after the 2003 war, but the resulting lawlessness, insecurity and economic deprivation disillusioned people. My experience in Iraq and my academic training, as well as my own pursuit of global patterns as solutions to the age-old detrimental problem of conflict lead me to perceive that there is a common goal in trying to find a pattern that works. It is easier said than done. And often practical, on-the-ground situations make it impossible and very dangerous, but morally we are bound to try to find a way that, despite differences in culture, our linked humanity will lead us to end unnatural planned violence and its impact on future generations. Answers are certainly not readily available, but we can start probing what works, what doesn’t, and how we can build this common goal. Would it really be possible to achieve? I am spurred into this mode of thinking from my own personal experience: is the scar of war a necessary burden? And whose responsibility is it now with so many ongoing conflicts around the world, and so many lives bearing the impact?
In what ways does an international perspective affect your views of conflict and post-conflict development?
An international perspective is very important to me, in order to be able to learn from each other’s mistakes. Sadly, I have always felt that, with regard to conflict, history and mistakes repeat themselves, and politicians and decision-makers, in trying to determine whether acts of force, namely, armed conflict, should be taken, how aid should be administered, and how to plan for long-term development, need to take into account the overlap of structures, issues and human need. This does not mean that the role of individual cultures, religions and societal norms should be undermined, but that we should strive for the commonalities and links to be able to determine global solutions. And it is time for one in answer to war. We have seen many changes in the last ten years and wider access to information, and connecting across continents could be applied to post-conflict development: learning from common mistakes, and finding common strategies for working together, supporting structures, and building the necessary new ones so that there can be a healing process from conflict.
What role will education play in healing and post-conflict development in war-torn societies?
Coming from a family of educators (both my parents were teachers at the high school and university levels), I strongly believe that access to education is one of the greatest assets and the most positive way to move forward for post-conflict societies, and especially in the case of young people and younger generations growing up in a conflict-torn environment. As someone who was educated on three continents — from the Middle East to Europe to Boston and Massachusetts — I strongly believe in making possible access to international education for broadening perspectives. I would very much like to be involved in the future in a curriculum from kindergarten to high school that would be focused on tolerance and getting to know peoples and histories of an assorted background, and from around the world, that could be taught in Middle Eastern schools, especially those located in conflict areas. Education is the road to the future, forging the path out of conflict, and going hand-in-hand with social structures and the provision of basic human needs. But it is the way to make possible these provisions from the perspective of the future, moving from idealism of thought to reaping the concrete fruits of applying knowledge to the real world, keeping in mind that this world, in conflict, is a very harsh one.
Your research has been concerned with models for sustainable peace in post-conflict societies. Can that be broadened and applied in other contexts?
I spent just over a year looking at the basics of a simple American model and saying it is missing in the most violent urban areas of Iraq. I specifically focused on the South of Iraq, in what can basically be termed “urban slums of violence”, described as overcrowded, where most people are illiterate and living in poverty. Not a new thought, but I would very much like to be involved in piloting this basic idea, perhaps in a context more accessible than Iraq right now, and seeing what the issues involve, while employing a hands-on gathering of research data. I would very much like to look into possibilities of funding for this and be involved first-hand in the research, perhaps as part of a future doctoral study. I have also been looking into contexts of similar situations: Congo, South Sudan, Brazil, Venezuela, and Gaza, in addition to Iraq. It is important to turn our attention to the hardest hit areas, and I would like to take this further as research and perhaps my own life mission in interdisciplinary action research and implementation.
Does your personal experience, either through the lens of the journey or your education, give you a unique perspective on the conflict in the Middle East or a sensitivity to the people affected by war?
I think my own experiences both help and hinder the process. I feel passionate about issues and have insight of experience and the ability to connect to all those from similar experiences and to offer what I can in terms of thinking and brainstorming ideas and possibilities that might have a positive impact. On the other hand, though, my passion about these issues is one that is hard to leave in the office, and images and sights of conflict situations move me beyond words. And I know now that I can never be totally distanced from that experience. I do find art work to be particularly healing and a powerful tool, not only for expressing those thoughts and feelings, but also to enable me to explore interrelated topics from both the Middle Eastern and American perspectives, in my journey for forming the links among people affected by war and the new communities to which they belong.