A Personal View of US-Egyptian Relations

I hope you’ll forgive my lack of posts, dear reader; it’s a fantastically busy time to be someone studying Middle Eastern politics and policy, so classes and outside commitments have been intense in these past several weeks and only now on our (early) spring break am I having time for rest, relaxation, and a little bit of general catch up.

The story I want to share today begins back in June of 2010, when myself and nine other Rice students travelled to Cairo, Egypt with the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.  The program, called Public Diplomacy and Global Policymaking in the 21st Century (kind of a mouthful, I know) was one of the best experiences of my life.  We spent seven days in Egypt with ten students from the American University at Cairo which included six two hour conferences on topics ranging from economic development to women’s rights and interfaith dialogue to media bias.  Much of our time, however, consisted of touring around Cairo, getting to know the Egyptian cohort on a personal level.  I made some fantastic friends in that week and had an incredible experience—I had wanted to go to Egypt since I was a kid, and it was everything I had anticipated for the years since.  We published a report upon our return detailing the discussions we had and talking about some general reflections on the trip, which can be found here.

Fast forward to January of 2011 for the most recent installment of my efforts in US-Egyptian relations, when six of the AUC students that we met in Cairo came to Houston for a visit!  We spent four days with them doing a wide range of things, including visiting classes, holding private meetings with Ambassador Djerejian and Dr. Lindsay, heading downtown to hear a presentation by Exxon Mobil, and even attending (per request of our guests, of course) a typical Friday night party at Rice!  The highlight of our friends’ visit was a two night film festival at the Baker Institute.  On Thursday, we saw Days of Sadat, a famous Egyptian docudrama about former president Anwar al-Sadat.  Friday’s film was called Garbage Dreams, a documentary about the Zaballeen ethnic minority in Egypt and their evolving sociohistorical role as the garbage processors for Cairo.

All in all, both visits were a success; as a student of international relations, and in this case specifically public diplomacy, I am continually more convinced that every opportunity that an average citizen has to peer into the lives of another culture, the more educated we collectively become as a society.  My Egyptian friends are all safe and sound in Cairo despite the fervor of recent activity there, and most are optimistic about their beloved country’s future.  All in all, the Egyptians are truly a noble people, and I for one look forward to a continued partnership between my country and theirs as they lead the struggle for self-determination and true democracy in the Middle East.

Swinging Back into Action

The pace of life at Rice University truly makes it hard for me to believe that this is the end of only the first week back.  As long and relaxed as my winter break was, it already feels like I’ve been back in the throes of classes, organizational responsibilities, and academic work for a remarkable amount of time.  This being said, fear not, dear reader; this semester promises to be rich in blog-worthy tales to entertain and excite you.

My course load is just as intense as last semester, with two seminars, Arabic, and a couple more classes to boot.  The seminars are probably the highlights.  The first one is POLI 470:  The Craft of Intelligence.  Team-taught by the head of the PoliSci department and several Fellows at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, this class is going to explore the concepts behind intelligence gathering and analysis, as well as include guest speakers, lots of small group work, and the creation of an extended simulation exercise.

The second seminar is called Contemporary Middle Eastern Politics (POST 455) and is being taught by Ambassador Edward P. Djerejian, the Baker Institute’s founding director and a former ambassador to both Syria and Israel with years of incredible service to the State Department.  This class too will feature guest lecturers and diplomatic simulation exercises (covering topics including Arab-Israeli land swap negotiations as well as diplomacy between Afghanistan and Pakistan), as well as a multitude of personal anecdotes from the ambassador’s fascinating life.  I’m quite frankly giddy as a kid on Christmas to be taking a class with someone I’ve come to regard as a personal role model.

A large chunk of this particular weekend is being spent working with my research fellowship, which I’ve mentioned in posts before.  We’re doing an extended ‘war room’ session centered around helping Dr. Lindsay formulate a plan for using the data he’s collected from over 500 interviews with American leaders in the book that will essentially become his career’s crowning achievement.  In addition, tomorrow morning, we’re headed over to The Container Store at the Houston Galleria (read:  awesome ritzy mall) for a private meeting with Garrett Boone, the founder and Chairman Emeritus of the same.

This semester promises more than its share of non-academic fun, however.  I am a Willy Week Coordinator for Sid Richardson College, so expect to hear more about the most wondrous of Rice events in upcoming posts.  Additionally, Owl Days, our primary Admissions event of the year for prospective seniors that have been admitted to Rice, will be a very big deal for me as I serve as the Chairman of the Overnight Hosting Committee on the Student Admissions Council.  That also means that for any of you out there thinking about visiting our school, I’m the guy who is responsible for making sure you get paired up with one of my eighty overnight hosts and have a fantastic stay!

Finally, on a more personal note, I turned twenty-one years old on Tuesday!  This resulted in an assortment of birthday shenanigans including a midnight trip to La Tapatia, a delicious 24-hour Tex-Mex restaurant frequented by me and my bros.  They even paid for my quesadillas—a behavior so generous that it is only reserved for the most sacred of occasions.  And of course, my family at Sid Rich thoroughly embarrassed me with a multi-tonal rendition of the birthday song at our weekly Council meeting.  All in all a magnificent day for sure.

In short, the semester promises to continue to live up to my personal model for being a student at Rice University—work hard, play hard.  I consider it a privilege to be at a school where I can be as busy as I am and love all of the work that I do and the fun that comes with it.  And for the sake of suspense, next week I’ll have a very exciting story to tell y’all, so be sure to check back!

Finals Fun: Not an Oxymoron?

Upon rereading my last blog post, I realized that I looked sort of boring in comparison to the other authors as I did a breakdown of all the classes I was taking.  And that, dear reader, simply will not do—because honestly, I’m a super fun person (and clearly humble to boot, ha).  So in this post I’m shifting focus to all the fun-time celebratory things that happen when the semester winds down, rather than giving a enthrallingly detailed description of the papers I wrote over the past week.

On the last day of classes, I went out to dinner with my O-Week group from this past year.  Orientation at Rice is a pretty big deal; it’s for a full week right before classes, flush up against the beginning of the school year.  Only the freshmen and transfer students are on campus, with the exception of about fifty upperclassmen per college.  This team of advisors are EXTREMELY enthusiastic about Rice (it’s actually very competitive to get an advising position) and are there to watch over and help the new students not only through o-week, but ultimately the rest of the year—hence the fact that my group is still having dinner together so late in the semester!  For freshmen and transfers, the o-week group is sort of an instant batch of friends; they’re the first people you meet at Rice, and a lot of your first memories, inside jokes, and shenanigans are going to be with them.

This year, I did what’s called ‘co-advising,’ meaning I went to a college other than my own for o-week.  I had an AMAZING time at Duncan College’s Han SolO-Week (each college has a different punny theme each year), and was in a group with nine awesome new students and two other advisors.  We have lunch together once a week, and usually meet up at parties or what not several times a month.  To celebrate them surviving their first Rice semester, we hit up a little-known Thai restaurant in Rice Village, a shopping and dining area not far from campus.  We ordered family style and relived some of our more glorious group memories, including winning the Duncan College Scavenger Hunt during O-Week.  Afterwards, we spent the evening together at Duncan and just had a really fun time.

The next fun thing I got to do during finals was attending brunch at a professor’s house—something not at all uncommon at Rice.  I work in the sociology department on a fellowship called the Program for the Study of Leadership.  The actual work hours I put in are spent preparing interview briefs and doing transcription of interviews for my boss, Dr. Michael Lindsay, who is currently conducting the largest interview-based study of leadership of all time.  However, beyond this academic work, Dr. Lindsay sets the fellowship students up with all sorts of awesome opportunities.  About once every two weeks we have ‘power breakfast’ with leaders around campus including President Leebron, Dean Hutchison, and Dr. Levander (director of the Humanities Research Center).  Additionally, Dr. Lindsay is frequently able to score us private meetings with lecturers who are coming to the Baker Institute, including big names like Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) and Dr. James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute.

As a celebration of the end of our semester and in appreciation of all the work that we’ve done for him, Dr. Lindsay invited me and my fourteen fellowship co-workers over to his house for brunch last week.  He joshingly ordered all of us to do “an ethnographic analysis, based on what we saw in his house” about him.  Dr. Lindsay’s wife cooked a fantastic southern meal for us all (enlightening for some of my northern and international friends on the concept of grits, particularly), and we passed the time playing charades, playing with his adorable twin daughters, and discussing a crazy variety of things typical of Rice students.  It was really relaxing, and frankly very indicative of the intimate sorts of relationships that you can build at Rice with a person who would just be ‘your boss’ elsewhere, if that makes sense.

The final highlight of my finals period was Sid Skate.  If you haven’t gotten the idea yet from reading other posts, the residential colleges here at Rice are much more than dormitories; their institutions, traditions, and the simple fact that you stay loyal to your college long after you leave makes each one kind of like its own, quirky family.  Sid Skate is one winter tradition at my beloved college where we rent out the ice rink in the Galleria, Houston’s biggest mall, and spend some time on the ice!  It makes for an excellent study break and de-stresser, for sure.  It’s also hilarious—you can watch all the southern kids struggling until northerners show us how it’s done, indulge in a game of keep away with your bro’s hat, and attempt to take pictures in large groups (surprisingly challenging on ice).  Ultimately, it’s just an example of something fun that we like to do together as a reminder of the simple fun things in college life.

International Diplomacy as a Study Break

For someone who spends a majority of his academic time reading and writing, it feels almost peculiarly self-referential to begin keeping a blog.  I never got on board with the blogging thing…my Xanga page (anyone out there remember those?) was usually just silly tidbits, and I think I only managed one entry on MySpace.  But before betraying such nuances of personality as the demonstrated tendency to wander off on peculiar tangents, I guess I should introduce myself.

My name is Graham West.  I’m halfway through my junior year hear at Rice University and reside in what I’m sure you’ll come to agree is the BEST of Rice’s residential colleges, Sid Richardson (I joke, sort of—your college is a major source of somewhat arbitrary pride here on the Rice campus, and I’ll be explaining this concept thoroughly in later posts).   I am currently majoring in Political Science and Asian Studies, specializing in International Relations and the Middle East, respectively.  I’m also pursuing a business minor.  My plans post graduation as of the moment are to attend grad school with the intent of furthering my knowledge concerning the Middle East; ultimately, I would like a job with the US government in intelligence, defense, or diplomacy.

It is tempting to give a rundown of all the extracurricular things I do at Rice, but I’m thinking as part of my vision for this blog I’m going to try and introduce them gradually to give you, dear reader, a more exciting blog experience.  Perhaps most pertinent to my life right now is the end of classes, which is weighing rather heavily on my shoulders what with papers, tests, and presentations.  My schedule for this semester has included the following courses:

  • ARAB 201:  Intermediate Modern Arabic I
  • HIST 433:  Seminar on the Arab-Israeli Conflict
  • BUSI 296:  Business Communications
  • HIST 352:  History of the Cold War
  • POLI 472:  Seminar on American Foreign Policy

Arabic is a largely discussion based class, where we converse about 80% of the time in Arabic (using English only to go over grammatical or administrative topics).  There are just seven of us in the class plus the professor, so it’s easy to have conversations and feel comfortable.  My business class is largely centered upon learning modern best practices and practicing presentations; we have given several this semester, including topics focused on consulting, persuasion, and crisis briefing.  The History of the Cold War is a lecture class taught by Dr. Douglas Brinkley, who also happens to the history commentator for CBS news and a frequent contributor to publications like Vanity Fair and the New Yorker.

My other two classes, the four-hundred level seminars, are different in so far as they meet only once a week for three hours.  These classes focus on readings, discussions of those readings, and then later a major research paper. The political science seminar is a study of the theoretical and academic approaches to foreign policy, and I’m currently writing a paper for that class about factors influencing military aid.  The history course has been a discussion of the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict, covering everything from mental conceptions to possible solution formats.

I’d hate to leave you with the impression that all I do is study, though!  As a break from my presentations and papers of today, this evening I had a unique opportunity (though not at all uncommon here at Rice) to attend a lecture and then a private meeting at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy with His Excellency Husain Haqqani, the current Ambassador to the United States from Pakistan.  A friend of mine from my research job interned with him last summer, and she helped arrange for his visit to give a lecture at the institute followed by a private meeting with a handful of students.  We talked about India and Pakistan, nuclear proliferation, and the career path of politicians, among other things.  He was a very knowledgeable man, and quite a character to boot!  Meeting such dignitaries for casual interaction though is just a day in my life as a Rice student.