Published: Oct. 20, 2017 By

Five questions with Yusur Al-Madani, one of three winners of the 2017 George Norlin Award

When Yusur Al-Madani completed her doctoral studies with the University of Colorado Boulder in 1982, she became the first Kuwaiti citizen to earn a PhD in English literature with an American emphasis. Upon receiving her degree, Professor Al-Madani returned to Kuwait where she’s led a distinguished career at Kuwait University in a range of faculty and administrative roles.

Al-Madani will return to Boulder on Oct. 26 to receive CU Boulder’s George Norlin Award, which “recognizes outstanding alumni who have demonstrated a commitment to excellence in their chosen field of endeavor and a devotion to the betterment of society and their community.” She will also give a talk to the Department of English on Nov. 3.

Said Professor Martin Bickman of the Department of English: “I am totally awed by Yusur’s intellectual and scholarly development in a range of literatures and cultures that would seem to have taken several lifetimes to master.”


Yusur Al-Madani

Al-Madani answered questions from the College of Arts and Sciences in advance of her visit.

Would you mind describing your experience of applying to CU Boulder and what it was like as an international student to come to Boulder, both intellectually and culturally?

When I received a scholarship from Kuwait University to pursue my graduate studies in the U.S., I had no idea how to begin to apply to American universities, so I went to the American Embassy for help and was given a limited list of universities, and CU was one of them. I chose CU not only for its rigorous academic environment, but also for its location in the Rocky Mountains. From an early age, I have unforgotten memories of the summers we used to spend in our mountain house in Lebanon, a practice that my family and I continue to this day, as much as circumstances permit. I love mountain areas, and in this respect CU Boulder was the place for me.

My experience in Boulder gave me the opportunity to learn and develop as a person. I have learned to say “no” and express with force what I believe in, which was culturally unaccepted from a young female in my country at that time. When I was first introduced to Emerson in one of Professor Martin Bickman’s American classes, I was fascinated by Emerson’s essay, “Self-Reliance.” I treasured every word and made a commitment to always trust in and be myself. Whenever I’ve been given a new responsibility in my long career, I always repeated to myself what Emerson said, “Do not go where the path leads. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” It is with this quote as chair of the newly established French department at Kuwait University that I started my speech in the department’s opening ceremony in September 2014. CU Boulder gave me the means to face challenges, learn from mistakes and be persistent to achieve set goals.

As a CU student in the ‘70s and ‘80s, you were one of the early scholars of what we now call global studies. How might you teach global studies today in a literature course? And how would you summarize your responsibility to teach global studies in the context where you teach it?  

The study of one discipline, like economics, political science or the humanities and sciences, often fails to make one capable of understanding what goes on in a specific region in the world. To understand, for instance, the wars taking place in the region I come from, in Iraq as one example, one must study and analyze the political and economic power of oil as a natural resource, of foreign policy superpowers in the region, as well as the economic, political and religious dimensions initiating the violence practiced by and against the citizens of this specific country.

I never have thought of myself as “one of the earlier scholars of what we now call ‘global studies.’” As a specialist in literature, I would not assign students foreign to Iraqi culture, for example, Ahmad Al Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013), a novel that won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, also known as the “Arabic Booker.” Naturally, I will ask students [instead] to extensively research the political, economic, religious, cultural and historical aspects behind the narrative in order to be able to understand the narrative’s implications. The novel narrates a dark and ghastly story of a man named Hadi Al-Attag, a seller of antiquities, in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein and the American occupation of Iraq. Troubled by witnessing a suicide bombing in one of the city’s streets, Hadi starts collecting the dismembered bodies of the dead and sutures the different organs, creating a disfigured human/creature called by the people of Baghdad, the “what’s-its-name.” This monster/figure acquires life and starts taking revenge on those who killed the people whose organs constitute his defaced body. Ironically, parts of him are also bodies blown to pieces of the suicide terrorists themselves.

The novel portrays the lives of many generations who have witnessed poverty, exile, marginalization, religious and sectarian killing, and, most of all, injustice practiced against them from inside and outside. As Al-Saadawi said in an interview, “Frankenstein in this novel is a condensed symbol of Iraq’s current problems.” He is a “visual representation of the larger crisis, rather than the solution”

I have made this reference to Al-Saadawi’s novel not only to stress my point about the importance of global studies to understand one’s region and the world, but more so to emphasize that global education should be for everyone and not only for global studies students at universities. Globalization, nowadays, is facing unprecedented challenges to counter inequality, social and cultural tensions, the rise of nationalism and regional independency, and most of all peoples’ mobilization and migration and brutal ethnic cleansing. The Proposal of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) gives a framework for global education in the 21st century. Instead of global education as an interdisciplinary major open for university students, the OECD proposal suggests the enhancement of “global competence” skills and values for young learners in schools so they can be competent enough to “coexist and interact with people of other faiths and countries” in order “to counter the discriminatory behaviors picked up at school and in the family.”

When we witness the surge of migration from poor or war zone countries to countries I call the “leaders of globalization,” when we learn about the indignant living conditions of migrants who have become citizens in those host countries, or refugees in refugee camps, when we read about and watch the injustice and marginalization practiced against them, when we observe how superpowers race to control Third World natural resources, then we will [understand] a world torn with conflicts and bloodshed, countries devastated with wars, chaos, violence and unjustified killing. Al-Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad grows to become not only a symbol of Iraq’s current problems, but a horrific representation of a global Frankenstein.

To be more effective, global studies nowadays needs to be embedded throughout curricula on all educational levels. The “global competence” referred to in the OECD stresses a global education that moves beyond mere understanding of global issues, patterns and problems to an “education for action” in order to determine solutions for globally arising problems. If this can soon be materialized, we will unquestionably create chances to live in a more inclusive rather than exclusive world.

What are your scholarship and research interests today?

Currently, my research interests focus on the field of adaptation and intermediality studies with an emphasis on drama and other cultural productions in Kuwait and the Gulf region. Currently, there is a noticeable cultural “uprising” in theater productions and the cinema in Kuwait and the Gulf region. This is evident in Kuwait with the opening of the Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Culture Center in 2016. The building itself is iconic in its architecture and has won international prizes for its design. The center now showcases performing arts nationally and internationally. I have two projects at hand to research and write about: cinema in the Gulf and the new theater productions in Kuwait. These productions are coming from an especially promising young generation. Some of them, not long ago, were students in the English department.

You’ll present a lecture to CU Boulder’s Department of English on Nov. 3. What is your lecture called? What themes, subjects or challenges do you plan to address?

My talk is about Sulayman Al-Bassam, a young Kuwaiti playwright and director. He is also a cofounder of SABAB Theater, an independent, international touring theater company established in 2002 in Kuwait. As a writer/director, Al-Bassam is famous for adapting three of Shakespeare’s plays as part of what he calls The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy: The Al-Hamlet Summit; Richard III, An Arab Tragedy; The Speaker's Progress.

The title of my talk is, “‘Such a Transformation!’ Shakespeare Re-made, Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Richard III, an Arab Tragedy.” Working from the premise developed by theorists and critics that the meaning of a text is not bound to its authorial intent or its unique historical context, but rather to the context of its reception, my paper presents a reading of Al-Bassam’s adaptation in order to argue for a new perspective for understanding adaptations.

My choice of this topic is to show how we are all globally connected. Deviousness, shrewdness, betrayal and cruelty are common human qualities regardless of class, race or region. If in Shakespeare’s time the epitome of these qualities was Richard III, in Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Richard III, an Arab Tragedy, everyone, Arabs and foreign diplomats, is implicated in a drama of betrayal and bloodshed.