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CKUT Interviews trans. Norman Cornett: on History, Education, and Naim Kattan’s Farida

faridaIn a recent interview recent interview with CKUT’s Rana Alrabi, Norman Cornett speaks about Naim Kattan’s Farida. He elaborates on Kattan’s life and how it influences his writing; on the importance of Farida in showcasing a much needed alternate vision of Iraq; and on the significance which the book holds in education, as it presents a portrayal of Iraq that is often omitted in the media today.

Cornett elaborates on the way in which Kattan is able to offer a portrayal of an often forgotten reality of Iraq: a country which is not solely defined by its political and social troubles, but one which has a long multicultural and multiethnic history.

“There is an evidentiary value to this novel. It’s [Naim Kattan’s] testimony of what he lived and how he, as a young Jew, negotiated relationships with the Shia, with the Sunni, with the Armenians, the Kurds, and with, of course, the colonial powers… what he enables us to see very clearly is a substantial and vibrant jewish community. He bears witness to the jewish presence which is millennia old…he’s reclaiming that.”

Cornett goes on to explain why he felt compelled to translate Farida into English.

“The reason I felt, as a public intellectual, I had to translate it was because I was watching the news every night, watching images of Baghdad as we still see it. This is what we know of Baghdad post Americans coming into Iraq, post Saddam Hussein. I said, ‘Is there an alternate vision for Baghdad, for Iraq? Can we see it otherwise?’ That’s why Naim Kattan’s Farida impelled me to translate it… [Naim Kattan] presents us a different Baghdad, a different Iraq… it’s imperative, I believe, for us to have a sense of it.”

Furthermore, he stresses the importance that this alternate vision holds when it comes to education in particular, as his teaching has led him to realize that many students have no idea that a vibrant Jewish community existed in Iraq.

“As a religious studies scholar I quickly sensed that students had no idea…could this exist—an Iraqi Jew? A Baghdadi Jew?… My students, including my Jewish students, did not know about this history, this heritage of…Iraqi Judaism.”

He explains that Naim Kattan’s novel teaches readers of the complex reality of the country by allowing us to see “la longue duree,” an approach to the study of history coined by Fernand Braudel.

“We have to see the big picture. Not think in terms of a year or a decade. Even a century isn’t enough. We need to think it terms of millennia, and here we have a millennia presence of Jews in Baghdad, in Iraq.”

As part of his educative approach, Cornett holds dialogic sessions, which are set up as a “catalyst for collective conversation in creative thinking and expression.” He comments on how he encourages his students to discover history in these classes by setting up opportunities for them to interact, one on one, with the authors of studied works. In this way, he is able to “make history come alive” in his classes.

Naim Kattan was a guest, on numerous occasions, in Cornett’s classes, and the experience was rewarding for both him and his students.

“They could dialogue with him one on one. It was an experience I couldn’t forget, and neither could they.”

Posted in Fiction, Interviews.

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