Scholarship, Community, and Truth—Samer Al-Saber (PhD ’13), Alumni Spotlight

Samer Al-Saber, PhD '13, directing "The Prophet" at Davidson College.
Samer Al-Saber, PhD '13, directing "The Prophet" at Davidson College.

Before beginning his tenure-track position at Florida State University this coming fall, Samer Al-Saber, PhD ’13, is finishing up a two-year Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellowship at Davidson College, where he has been teaching, directing, and continuing his research on Palestinian theatre in Jerusalem and the cultural history of the city through artists’ eyes.

Back in Seattle to attend the American Comparative Literature Association’s annual conference—where he co-convened a seminar with Amal Eqeiq (PhD ‘13, UW Comparative Literature) concerning the use of ethnographic methods to understanding history—Samer took the time to sit down with the School of Drama to discuss his research, scholarly approach, and his tenures at UW and Davidson.

What brought you to the University of Washington and the School of Drama PhD program?

The doctoral program here is for both generalists and emerging scholars who wish to tackle unexplored territories. I looked into Middle Eastern studies and a number of theatre programs, but few would permit me to do the research I wanted to do. Here, it was general enough—and driven by methodology enough—that I was able to take the methodology and apply it to my own work. UW is a massive university with lots of resources and departments, and it was important to me to build contacts across campus. There were many colleagues across campus doing ethnographic work. Through them I learned so much. As scholars, we often have to create our own communities. In my case, one of my communities was in Palestine, in Jerusalem. To build an archive for my work took about four years of research—of going back and forth; establishing myself as a Palestinian theatre-maker, as well as a Palestinian theatre scholar.

What surprised you about the program?

I was surprised that the program was very Eurocentric, but that there was always a way into my research and the professors that I worked with always allowed me to do the work I wanted to do. There is an intense desire within the field of theatre and performance studies to be more global. But there are structural limitations. There’s a desire to open up the door, for people to do something different. But that research is costly. Learning a different language and culture takes a long time. Doing field work takes a very long time. Being able to translate your work and the body of work you’re working with is difficult. But there’s growing support for this kind of approach.

There is an intense desire within the field of theatre and performance studies to be more global. But there are structural limitations. There’s a desire to open up the door, for people to do something different. But that research is costly.

Can you talk about the last two years at Davidson?

One of the great things about the post-doctoral fellowship is that the teaching commitment is low, but keeps you sharp and in contact with students, as well as part of a scholarly community. I have access to an institution and a library. I have an office to do my work. It’s fantastic. There are research funds. Through the Davidson Research Initiative, I worked with students who are interested in the Middle East. This summer, one of those students will be in the West Bank and I will help him with field work, writing, and archival research. There were so many opportunities at Davidson that allowed me to do my research and mentor students to do research in the way that I do it.

And you directed “The Prophet” this season at Davidson College. What did you discover while working on that play? And how does your directing work inform your scholarly work and vice versa?

There is definitely a gap between those who experience an event and those who have not been through it, but are trying to understand it. A play is a great medium to understand what a person might go through. But we have to understand that it is a snapshot. We don’t understand Egypt better by doing The Prophet, but we understand people like those characters—of a particular class and a specific system, be it artistic, aesthetic, social, political, or economic. It surprised me that I was staging so much of the complexities of my work and my experience as part of staging the play. The play wasn’t enough on its own. I had to be a mediator.

There is definitely a gap between those who experience an event and those who have not been through it, but are trying to understand it. A play is a great medium to understand what a person might go through. But we have to understand that it is a snapshot.

There is something arrogant about claiming the ability, through a few months of research, to embody another; that we can represent a body that has been imprinted with trauma, history, and so many complexities. It reminds me how humble we need to be as scholars.

The play is within my scholarly and artistic interests because it is the intersection of political life and cultural life, and it emerged from ethnographic research by the playwright and the people involved in the initial production. It emerged from a context similar to how I do my own research. My work as a director informs my research in that I’m always intent on putting myself in the shoes of the cultural producer. It matters to me that whatever I write represents the people I’m writing about. For my dissertation, every chapter I wrote, I sat down with the people I was writing about and I read it aloud and asked them if there was anything in there that felt like it did not represent the context, situation, and history they lived through.

This summer, I will be doing the same thing with my book. I will be sitting with these artists and talking through each chapter. In my opinion, it is necessary work. If we do not consider the emotional life and the stakes of the person we are writing about, we can be sitting in our library or at our desk in absolute safety with no stakes, writing whatever we want. Even with the responsibility that we learn through scholarly training, there is a particular kind of safety when sitting in Seattle and writing about a place far away.

I think the most important thing about being a scholar is that we search for a kind of truth, and the truth can appear in production, in performance, in scholarship, in writing, and in human interaction. But the truth is a liquid thing. It is something that is changing and, therefore, we are in search of our truth.

I think the most important thing about being a scholar is that we search for a kind of truth, and the truth can appear in production, in performance, in scholarship, in writing, and in human interaction. But the truth is a liquid thing. It is something that is changing and, therefore, we are in search of our truth. If anything, to me, that is what scholarship is about. Perhaps that is what I wish to share with graduate students at FSU.

I have been in search of a home for a very long time. I’m hoping that FSU will be a permanent home. This summer, I’ll be going to a place that has declared a long-term commitment to me for the first time in my life. It takes a leap of faith to do that, and that’s something that I’m really excited about.

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