Farha Ghannam - Last Collection
Farha Ghannam - Last Collection
Al-Salamu `alaikum and good evening.
Class of 2023, thank you so much for this honor. I am delighted and humbled to have the chance to speak to you on this glorious occasion and in this very special place. I should confess that despite having given thousands of lectures in the classroom and countless presentations at professional meetings, I’ve been unusually nervous since I got the exciting news about my selection to speak to you this evening. The task of speaking to the smartest group of young people I know, who inspire me every day, and who are so capable, so compassionate, so resilient, and so eager to make the world a better place is both a tremendous honor and a daunting challenge.
After accepting, I panicked a little bit and contemplated some excuses like “the cat ate my speech” or “I fell down the stairs, hit my head, and got amnesia.” But I quickly realized that such excuses will not work out with a smart crowd like you and that despite the challenges this task represented, I really cherished the opportunity to speak to you at this important milestone. Looking for inspiration, I decided to listen to and read samples of what my colleagues said during previous Last Collections. Though their words were inspiring for sure, instead of focusing on my talk, I started mentally deconstructing the style of each speech I’ve heard- thinking about its structure, how the background of the speaker, especially gender, shaped what they were saying, and how different disciplines presented their ideas. After that, I did what any good anthropologist would do: I asked some of the “natives” of Swarthmore and eagerly listened to their suggestions, but, alas, the most common suggestion was that I use Chat GPT! What!? I thought. “Are you trying to help me or bring me down for plagiarism?”
After a couple of days of anguish, I came to a brilliant realization: half of you will most likely not hear anything I say this evening and the other half will have forgotten everything I said by the end of the speech! So I decided to relax and talk about what I know best, my life and the discipline of Anthropology.
Today, I’ll do my best not to cry but I can’t make any promises. So, if I do, please don’t feel awkward or embarrassed. Tears, to me, are meant to be shed. They communicate, among other meanings, love, care, and happiness. They do not represent weakness or shame, but our shared humanity. If I cry and need a minute or two to recompose myself, I would like you to think of this as an opportunity to look around you and mark this moment in your mind and heart. Smell the air, look at the sky and trees, enjoy the view, and be so very proud of yourselves and this remarkable accomplishment.
I can’t help but think that it’s fitting that, despite several nominations before this, it’s in 2023 that I have been given the honor of speaking during the Last Collection. Perhaps this was meant to be an opportunity for me to address the cohort born in the same year as our beloved daughter, Lena, who will be graduating from college in five days. Perhaps it is my opportunity to thank Swarthmore students for being part of the village needed to raise a child. Perhaps this is an opportunity to recognize the unbreakable bond that was created between my family and Swarthmore students in 2001 when I gave birth to our only child. Despite the fact that I planned my semester so that I would finish all my responsibilities before her birth, Lena decided to arrive almost a month earlier than expected. When I had to be back in the classroom three days after giving birth, my students were my strongest supporters. Their care and warmth soothed my afterbirth blues and reduced my anxiety about being a new mother. More importantly, they became the family that we did not have in the US. My husband and I were so lucky to have among Swarthmore’s students the best and most caring babysitters in the world. I give them credit (and, I have to say, some blame at times) for the skills they taught our daughter, especially her ability to argue tirelessly and become a great debater. One of my former students, Professor Sa’ed Atshan, became a trusted mentor and almost a Godfather to Lena. To me, Swarthmore students are not just individuals that I simply help train to compete in the global capitalist economy. Rather, I see in each one of you the capable, caring, and creative human being who helped raise my child. For that I thank you with all my heart.
I thank you also for being the best students a faculty member could possibly hope to teach. You made my classes joyful spaces and wonderful sites for the exchange of ideas and the stimulation of minds. Your generosity of spirit, your insightful questions, your thoughtful reactions to the readings, and your genuine love for learning all make my job the best in the world.
I would also like to thank you for the energy and vibrancy you brought to our campus. From Organizing for Survivors to advocating for fair compensation for Swarthmore’s workers, you’ve worked hard to make our institution better in every possible way and to help Swarthmore live up to its ethical values and core missions.
Today, I congratulate you on completing your degree and graduating from one of the best institutions of higher education in the world, which is a major achievement in and of itself. But more importantly, I congratulate you on the resilience, compassion, creativity, and strength you’ve shown and continue to show in the middle of a polarized country, a frustrating political system, a troubling increase of inequalities, growing authoritarianism, serious environmental challenges, and much more. You survived a pandemic and flourished despite the enormous challenges of the past few years, which were far from easy or expected. The pandemic revealed the fragility and inefficiency of our systems while also showing us the strength of your bodies and minds and the determination of your spirits.
Despite its devastating impact, the pandemic taught us important lessons that I hope we will not forget. Covid-19 reminded us of the value of many mundane things such as face-to-face interactions, the importance of a hug, and the significance of slowing down and enjoying simple things like making your own bread. It also revealed to us broader issues to consider such as the urgency of being kinder to the environment, the connections that link our fates with the fates of others near and far, and the inability of the market to protect us as well as the limits of human supremacy and how a virus that cannot be seen with the human eye can disrupt and turn our daily lives upside down. We should remember these lessons and allow them to help us reflect on our society and how we can make it more humane and inclusive of all humans and non-humans who share the world with us.
The Lebanese-American writer Gibran Khalil Gibran said that "The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.”
Some of my students might disagree, but I do think of myself as wise, at least in this sense, and therefore I will not bid you to enter my house of wisdom. In fact, as you’ll see, I’ll be asking more questions of you than giving you answers. For I know that, in addition to your determination, you already have what you’ll need to flourish: Terrific cultural capital secured by your Swarthmore degree and the best social capital one could hope for. In addition to your family and friends, you have your peers, faculty, mentors, and Swarthmore alumni to help shape your future trajectories. No pressure, but I am confident that you will, in due time, find your own path and make a difference in the lives of people around you. Just keep in mind the words of the esteemed Toni Morrison:
"When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else."
As an anthropologist, my work is fundamentally about studying culture and understanding why people do what they do. No matter how insane the actions of others might appear to us, we try to understand their practices, the structures that produce certain ways of being and doing, and the meanings that humans attach to different actions. We pay attention to many aspects of social life such as the gifts people exchange, the meaning of their bodily movements or gestures, the rituals they perform, and the foods they eat or refuse to eat. In the next few minutes, I would like to offer you one last Swarthmore lesson to take with you as you move forward. I draw on some anthropological thoughts that I hope will help you think about the world in a different way.
To the eye of an outsider, many American staples, be it mac and cheese, brownies, proms, football, or drug commercials might appear bizarre and difficult to understand. Each of these could be a fascinating topic for an anthropological discussion and some of you have had the misfortune of hearing me rant about them, but why stray far when we have graduation to consider?
If you think about it, is it not interesting (and maybe even peculiar) that we have a several-day-long celebration just so that you can exit Swarthmore? Why do we need this rite of passage to send you off to the world? Despite the fact that we emphasize your individuality everyday, why do we make all of you dress in the same regalia and go through the same rituals? Why should you be seated together, isolated from the rest of the audience? Why do we line up speaker after speaker to remind you of the responsibilities and challenges you might face in the future, and to provide advice to help you succeed in the next stage of your life? Why are there so many activities planned to transition you from being a student, who was expected to spend their time mainly studying, to an adult, who is encouraged to engage in leisure activities (at least for a while)? Why do we cultivate - and often feel - a sense of sacredness during commencement?
These are some questions that anthropologists might ask when they come across a rite of passage in any culture they study. Since the inception of our discipline, we have dedicated an enormous amount of time to the study of rites of passage across a multitude of societies and concluded that these rites have important social, economic, psychological, and cultural significance. Be they rites of initiation in Africa, funeral rituals in Europe, marriage ceremonies in Asia, or graduation exercises in the US, rites of passage share important commonalities.
Anthropologists Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner analyzed how each rite of passage transitions individuals from belonging to one group to another, or from one state of being to another. Each rite includes a pre-liminal stage of separation, a liminal stage of in-betweenness, and a post-liminal stage of integration into a new group. Like other rites, commencement places you in-between states of being: It separates you from your fellow students and marks your body by dressing it in a gown and a cap. You are asked to join several rehearsals in order to learn how to march and where to sit and when to stand. This period is ambiguous and full of mixed feelings and uncertainties. You are no longer a student, but you are not an alum yet. You are an adult, but not yet fully recognized as such. Then the president, in a performative declaration, bestows upon you the degree of Bachelor, your name is called, you walk across the stage, shake hands with the president, receive your diploma, and become a new type of person. You acquire a new identity, and most of you are forced to leave campus on Monday morning and integrate into society as adults and alums, who are expected to do great things in life and provide Swarthmore with generous donations!
I use this example not to disenchant you or detract from the magic of this moment. In fact, we need these rituals to organize society, give meaning to different life events, and generate social connections and solidarities. Your cohort will share this experience and enjoy a unique bond that, for many of you, will last throughout your life. This rite is also meaningful for your faculty, staff, mentors, and loved ones, who worked hard to see you finish your degrees. Personally, I love many parts of Swarthmore graduation, such as the rose that will adorn your gown on Sunday, the happiness I see on the faces of family and friends, and the fact that you gather as a unified group (communitas) regardless of gender, race, class, religion, or national origin. In fact, I think it’s my recognition of the importance of this rite of passage that made me nervous about speaking today.
My goal in using this example is to highlight a few key issues that anthropology teaches us about this particular moment and how this reflection might help us think about the present and future.
First, I use graduation to defamiliarize the familiar and provide the chance to look at it in a new way. I use it to show that what might be totally habitual to us could be very strange to others. One of the most powerful things about anthropology is its insistence on questioning what is taken for granted, what often is accepted and seems to make obvious sense. No matter what we study, we always ask who defines the rules of the game: who defines key discourses and concepts such as respect, civility, equality, choice, security, and freedom? Most of these positive concepts are not neutral, but political, and strongly linked to the distribution of power in each society. Anthropology teaches us to always ask: what is at stake when we accept certain concepts, meanings, and ways of seeing the world and reject others?
Second, being an anthropologist means actively observing while you participate in different activities such as graduation. Use all your senses, not just your eyes, to understand how meanings are generated, by whom, and to what ends. Who defines proper and improper ways of inhabiting the world? One relevant example to consider since the summer is upon us is: why are we terrified of sweat? What is so offensive about this natural product (basically water) that our bodies produce when they are trying to adjust to the conditions around them? Why do we have dozens of products, some of which are harmful to our health, in order to avoid or mask it? How does the stigmatization of sweat relate to class hierarchy and the devaluing of manual work?
Coupling observation and questioning is the key to understanding that the norms that regulate your body, identity, and practice are socially constructed. The way we eat, dress, and interact with each other are fundamentally shaped by our location in the social space. Note that, when we say that something is socially constructed, we are not in any way saying that it is not real or that it is easy to change. It’s the opposite: social norms are ingrained in our bodies, spaces, and relationships. They exert tremendous power over all of us and changing them is incredibly difficult. Rather, our goal is to show that social norms are made by humans and could potentially be unmade by us too. This recognition provides us with the space to challenge and possibly change many things that we take for granted and that often appear to us as natural. It enables us to rethink the present and reimagine the future.
Anthropologists observe and question in order to see how power and various inequalities are embedded in every aspect of our daily life: Think about the major issues that we are grappling with such as police violence against black people, attacks against abortion rights, and gender affirming surgeries. These examples reveal that some bodies are subjected to more regulation and policing than others. It is important to ask: whose bodies are protected and granted full humanness and agency and whose bodies are stripped of their humanity?
The most mundane aspects of our lives are shaped by deep inequalities that often pass themselves off as natural and become part of our common sense. The way you dress, the way you travel, the way you relate to your parents and friends, and the way you imagine your post-Swarthmore future are all shaped by broader inequalities such as gender, race, and class. Look carefully and you’ll see that these structures determine whether you are recognized by our society as fully human or not. Increasingly, you have to pay to be recognized as a full human being. Your generation might not know that we used to travel by planes in a very different way. Currently, you pay to check in your luggage, you pay for pre-check to avoid long security lines, you pay to get on the plane before others, and you pay to sit in a better seat in economy class. You pay to be granted certain privileges and rights, including respect, that are denied to others who cannot afford them.
Being an anthropologist means trying to understand, not judge. It means reflecting on your positionality and appreciating the link between power and knowledge. Our categories are produced by us and reflect our socio-economic and political systems. They should not be imposed on other societies.
Think like an anthropologist by looking comparatively in order to understand others but also to rethink your own realities, not to assert your superiority. Approach the rest of the world ethically and with excitement and care. Recognize that your fate is connected to the fate of others. Look at other rites of passage and other ways of graduating and let them help you understand, not only other people and their lives, but also your own way of living and, more broadly, the meaning of being human. What history does graduation embody? How does the black gown graduates wear relate to European monks of the13th century? Why do you wear a cap? Why is a tassel part of the graduation cap while a native American eagle feather (plume) on this cap is seen by school administrators in Oklahoma as a transgression that should be fixed? How do you interpret the meanings of graduation gear? How do you make them part of your own tradition and broader ways of thinking about life?
Ultimately, the goal of an anthropologist is to understand human diversity in a deep and thoughtful way. “The purpose of Anthropology,” Ruth Benedict said many years ago, “is to make the world safe for human differences.” Other societies lead their lives in ways that are markedly different from our ways. Anthropology teaches us to recognize similarities but appreciate differences. It teaches us that diversity is not about simply showing difference, but about engaging with it in a deep way. To learn from it and help us reflect on our categories and ways of being and doing. Anthropology teaches us that diversity is not about commodifying difference and using it mainly to promote institutions or cities and to generate profit. It is fundamentally about enriching our understanding by engaging different voices, experiences, and histories. It is about broadening the scope of discourse and rethinking our assumptions about the meaning of good life, justice, freedom, and happiness.
Anthropology wants us to understand the self through the detour of the other. To come to recognize that “the other” has much to teach us. This does not mean that you have to accept what to you seems unjust or morally wrong. Rather, it means being aware of the lens that shapes how you see the world and leaving space to understand the perspective of others. It means be compassionate and understanding, but do not rush to “save” people in other cultures. Take the time to dig deep and understand a given context, its history and social and economic formation, before moving to make any intervention. Consider dialoguing with others, and treat them as equals and collaborators, rather than victims helplessly waiting to be saved.
Anthropology teaches us to look at different sites, including the human body, for the materialization of inequalities, domination, subversion, and resistance. Today, I wear this Palestinian dress (thob) to honor my parents, who lost their home and land in 1967 and became destitute refugees in Jordan. They worked tirelessly to care for their children. While my father worked in construction, my mom turned to embroidery as her only option to help our family survive devastating poverty. Despite being illiterate, she understood the value of education very well and made sure that both her sons and daughters had the chance to acquire as much schooling as possible. She worked day and night to create beautiful dresses for other women and learned new stitches and styles to meet changing demands. This type of dress I am wearing today and that my mom made 20 years ago represents the Palestinian connection to land and rootedness in the soil. My mom never stopped wearing her thob outside of the house, even when doing so led to harassment and insults. I am ashamed to say that, when I was young, I sometimes wished that my mom would stop wearing her dresses, which flagged our peasant roots and distinguished her from Jordanian women. But she never even considered that.
Now, I look back with tremendous admiration at her steadfastness and resistance to forced dislocation by proudly embodying our identity every day. Now, at the age of 85 and as the mother of 12 children, the grandmother of 40, and the great grandmother of 21, my mom still refuses to receive any guests or be seen in public without her thob. On this occasion, I think of and honor her and the millions of other Palestinian women who wear these dresses, connecting Palestinians to the land and bonding those who are in occupied Palestine with those in exile.
I also honor all your parents and congratulate them for raising such amazing human beings.
Class of 2023, you are ready for the challenges and opportunities ahead. I have faith in you and cannot wait to see the great things you will do. I’d like to conclude with the words of Rumi, one of the greatest Sufi Muslim poets, who said: “Yesterday, I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today, I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
And lastly, “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean, in a drop.”
Congratulations dear graduates! I wish you success, health, happiness, and, above all, peace. Al-Salamu `alaikum.