Friday, March 25, 2011

The room formerly known as...

The Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah was in town this week, and I had the extraordinary honor to introduce him during a lecture on campus. His lecture was scheduled to be held in Suzanne Mubarak Hall, a conference room named for the former dictator, which the university administration has been unwilling to change. The best approach, suggested by a colleague during a list-serve discussion of this point, seemed apparent: it was incumbent upon anyone speaking in this auditorium to comment on the name. I thought and wrote long and hard—really for several weeks—over what I should say and how I should say it. I wanted to be unambiguous, but economical. And I did not want to distract from the speaker. It really consumed me for a period of time.

Part of what I came up with was:

The name reminds us of the shameful relationship of this institution to the former regime, and, in some cases, our own silence and complicity. And it may serve as a symbol that the extraordinary work undertaken by so many Egyptians during the past two months remains, at this moment, incomplete as long as vestiges of the former regime remain among us. While the name of this room represents some of the most troubling aspects of this university, tonight’s speaker reminds us of it at its best...

Nothing special, really.

Then two things happened.

One—some of us talked about it with Farah over lunch before the lecture, and he felt that there was merit to keeping the name because it provides an opportunity for reflection. This is based on his experience living in South Africa, where he explained many buildings have the names of former apartheid leaders. These names become important mementos of terrible history. His was a valuable experience, indeed.

Two—sometime after 3pm, I learned that the name plaque had just been removed from the conference hall. I even walked down there to confirm. Here is a photo distributed on a faculty list-serve:

The name around which I had organized my introduction was obsolete. Thankfully. But without explanation. So I had one hour to rethink and rewrite the introduction I spent weeks contemplating.

Part of my revised introduction:

Our joy on this occasion is heightened by noting that this is, I believe, the inaugural event in the newly renamed P0071. And while the change may serve as an important symbol of the extraordinary work undertaken by so many Egyptians during the past two months, I hope that the erasure of the former name does not cause us to forget the troubling relationship of this institution to the regime, and, in some cases, our own silence and complicity. As our guest pointed out to us earlier, based on his experiences in South Africa, where he lives, such sites provide opportunities for important public conversations about our shared history (which is why I mention it now).

Much the same sentiment, I think. And I guess the lesson lies somewhere in the notion that one must never be silent, and must always speak up, regardless of the name on the door.

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