William & Mary

Middle Eastern Music Ensemble Performs at Conference

MEI ContingentFor the second consecutive year, the William and Mary flag was flown on a table at the annual conference of the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington, D.C.

Students continue to benefit from what Lois Critchfield, a benefactor of Middle Eastern Studies at the College, describes as a "sort of partnership" that has developed between the two institutions.

Said senior Sulaiman Bah, one of the 13 students who joined Critchfield at the conference, "It's even cooler than that. You see all of the tables. There are ambassadorial tables. The corporations have tables. The big institutions and the think tanks have their own tables. Then the College of William and Mary has a table. We're the only college. It really puts our name out there."

An additional impact was made this year when 11 of the William and Mary students, all of whom are members of the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble at the College, performed 75 minutes of music from the region for more than 300 of the 670 attendees.

The conference, the MEI's 60th, convened under the title "New Approaches to Enduring Issues." According to Critchfield, the students heard a series of topics addressed by leading scholars and government experts, including exiting Iraq, engaging political Islam, the international community and Iran, and America's partnership with the Gulf. Peter Bechtold, visiting professor of government at the College, was moderator of a panel discussion on making peace in the Sudan. In each case, discussions were conducted with a view toward conflict resolution. Participants, overall, felt that there was "a change in the air, but no one was prepared to predict the direction of this change," Critchfield said. Banquet speaker Karen Abu Zayd, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East commissioner-general, traced the evolution of the Palestinian refugee problem and provided details of the frustrations and fears the future holds for the refugees if an Arab-Israeli peace formula is not found.

Bah said he was impressed by both the scholarship and the objectivity offered by the presenters. He came away questioning how much credibility the United States had lost in the region and how that affected its ability to influence decisions. He said he was taken by a statement made by Hooshang Amirahmadi, a professor at Rutgers University, concerning Iran: "The United States needs to treat Iran like it treated China," Bah explained. "You will not be able to defeat it, but you may be able to contain it. The United States must admit that Iran has power in the region."

After the speech by Zayd, Bah went up to her and thanked her for "being so honest." He said, "During her lecture, she explained that she was representing an organization that serves people who are suffering because of the decisions some of your governments have made." She asked, "Are you willing to step up to the plate and help change that?" according to Bah.

Among the William and Mary contingent attending the function, Bah said he was extremely impressed with Bechtold. "Everyone approached him to shake his hand; there's nobody in the field [of diplomacy] he doesn't know," Bah said. Likewise, he shared his praise for Anne Rasmussen, associate professor of music and director of the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble, who "not only explained to the audience what was happening with every piece performed but who, with every piece, would grab a different instrument and play it," he said.

For Rasmussen, as impressive as were the dignitaries attending the function, the opportunity to perform for them equaled the chance to introduce music as a means of helping them expand their own horizons.

"It was an interesting audience, one that had never thought about how music can be a window into looking at history, politics, gender, colonialism, neocolonialism, militarism" and other issues that have an impact on the region, she said. "The conference topics were all about war, war, refugees and war," she said. "For many scholars, there's a lot more that is going on in the Middle East. There is poetry, literature, history-there's what people do when they're not fighting wars."

After the conference, Critchfield cited several developments that have tied the College to the MEI, including the fact that 16 Middle East studies majors at the College have been granted one-year memberships and that efforts at creating an ongoing videoconferencing relationship are being explored. In addition, Aisa Martinez ('06) interned at the MEI last summer and is now working there supporting the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center.

Critchfield, who worked in the Middle East along with her husband, James, for nearly three decades as an employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, has sought to support Middle Eastern Studies at the College in a variety of ways. Perhaps best-known of these is her creation of the James H. Critchfield Memorial Endowment, which supports study abroad and academic exchanges and enhanced programming at the College's Arabic Language House. For her support, she was named, in 2006, an honorary alumna of the College by the William and Mary Alumni Association.