Exiled scholars and political activists from Iraq, Iran and Ethiopia spoke at a panel discussion in Tishman Auditorium last Thursday, part of a lecture series that commemorates the 75th Anniversary of the New School's University in Exile.
The University in Exile was founded as the graduate division of the New School for Social Research in 1933 by Alvin Johnson, the New School's first president, to provide a safe haven for European scholars like Hannnah Arendt, Leo Strauss and Erich Fromm, whose PhDs were revoked by the Nazi party.
NSSR Dean Michael Schober announced at the beginning of the talk that Henry H. Arnhold, a member of the university's board of trustees, recently offered a donation that will fund a three-year Scholar in Residence Program, in partnership with the Scholar Rescue Fund, to hire scholars who have been persecuted by their native countries.
Schober declined to give the sum of Arnhold's grant after the presentation, but added that it was not "in the millions."
The speakers recounted doing work in the trying, often terrifying, atmosphere of their homelands.
The first was Mehrangiz Kar, a woman who worked as a lawyer for 21 years in Iranian courtrooms governed by Islamic religious laws, known as Sharia. She is the author of several books, including her memoir, Crossing the Red Line: The Struggle for Human Rights in Iran, and has worked as a journalist for reformist publications.
"By [Iran's] Constitution," she said, "every door to reform is closed."
In 2000, after she returned from a conference in Berlin, the Iranian government threw her in solitary confinement for two months, charging her with "acting against national security," "insulting Islamic values," and violating the "Islamic dress code." Two months after they released her, the police imprisoned her husband, the journalist Siamak Pourzand, for several months and tortured him.
After his release, he stayed in Iran to get medical help, while Kar received treatment for breast cancer in the United States. She has lived here since 2002.
Donny George Youkhanna, the third speaker, served as the Director of the National Museum in Baghdad until the summer of 2006. At the National Museum, he worked with the U.S. military and a short-lived 1,400-man Special Antiquities Task Force to help retrieve 15,000 ancient artifacts that were stolen from the museum and from Iraq's 12,500 archeological sites during the rampant looting after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The stolen items included statues, vases, cuneiform tablets, and antiquities that date back 6,000 years. According to the F.B.I., between 7 and 10 thousand items are still missing.
Youkhanna had high hopes for the American overthrow of Iraq's former President, Saddam Hussein. "I started thinking that, 'Yes, we will be more free,'" he said.
But as an English-speaking Christian, his family became a target of sectarian antagonism.
In 2006, his fifteen-year-old son received a death threat in the mail, accusing him of insulting Islam and making inappropriate comments to Muslim girls, and his father of working with the United States. After Youkhanna whisked his family off to Syria for their safety, he returned to continue his work. But the Minister of the State Board of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage revoked all of Youkhanna's executive authority, who at the time held the deputy ministerial position. "I could not spend one dinar," he said.
He soon retired, took a job offer from the University of Stony Brook and moved his family to New York.
Asked during the Q&A session about what should be done to preserve Iraq's antiquities and cultural heritage, he said that this effort would be very challenging. He noted that Iraq's national symphony orchestra, the first of its kind in the Middle East, has lately performed only at secret locations.
The final speaker was Berhanu Nega, a NSSR alumnus and the International Scholar in Residence in Economics at Bucknell University. Nega is a prominent member of Ethiopia's pro-democracy movement and the mayor-elect of Ethiopia's capitol, Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia's ruling party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, derailed the democratic elections of May 2005. Nega never assumed his mayoral post because the government arrested him and threw him in jail and charged him with treason, he said, along with between 30,000 and 50,000 other activists, politicians and journalists.
A prolonged trial sentenced Nega and 37 other opposition leaders to life in prison, but the Ethiopian government suddenly released them in July. Nega has been in the United States since September.
Ethiopia is a key partner in the War on Terror and, according to USA Today, has received nearly $20 million in American military aid since 2002. Nega is a fervent critic of U.S. foreign policy.
Asked about the Presidential elections during the reception after the event, Nega put his right hand up, crossed his fingers, and said that he is rooting for Barack Obama.
This article appears in next Tuesday's issue of the New School Free Press.