Wright to share experiences in Middle East flashpoints



On Oct. 6, 1973, Robin Wright landed in Beirut. That day, Jews all over the world were celebrating Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism. At the same time, a coalition of Arab states, directed by Egypt and Syria, led a surprise attack on Israeli-occupied territories, initiating the Yom Kippur War.

“I remember someone telling me that the Egyptians had crossed the Suez Canal,” Wright said. “I was 24.”

Since then, Wright has covered revolts, revolutions and wars from six continents and more than 140 countries. Although she has witnessed governmental transformations around the world, Wright said she “kept getting sucked back into the Middle East.”

Wright will share her familiarity with the region at 10:45 a.m. today in Amphitheater, focusing on the quickly changing nature of political uprisings and the developing makeover of the Middle East, to wrap up Week Eight’s theme of “Chautauqua’s Global Public Square.”

“When it comes to uprisings, we are witnessing the greatest period of political change in human history,” Wright said. “I want to look into the 21st century to examine what wars, revolutions and uprisings are going to look like.”

Wright has written for publications such as The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, and Time. She has been a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Smithsonian’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, among other institutions.

Her experiences with the Islamic world are detailed over eight books, which includes her most recent project, Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion across the Islamic World and Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East. The New York Times and The Washington Post selected the latter work as one of 2008’s most notable books.

Wright’s firsthand involvement in various flashpoints and turbulent territories is supplemented by her background in history. She believes peoples and their cultures cannot be adequately understood without personal interaction and an accurate perception of their pasts.

“History provides context to understand what’s happening,” Wright said. “You need the history to know a region, to know a people. It’s key to understanding every part of the world. You can’t go in for two weeks and stay in a hotel to understand it.”

This in-depth understanding is something Wright said many Americans lack. She said that, as a nation, Americans are comfortable remaining detached from many of the world’s conflicts. As a result, Americans have become somewhat “self-indulgent” and view issues of international relations “from our own prism.”

“We have the luxury of not needing to care about other parts of the world, but they need to know about us,” Wright said. “Unfortunately, not every American has been through Chautauqua where people care and talk about important things.”

The Middle East’s story is rapidly being rewritten. It is one that, Wright said, deserves national attention because all parts of the world will be affected by the political turmoil in the region.

She will begin her recounting of this story by tracing the development of social structuring — from city-states to nation-states and now to regional blocs — and explain how this progression has altered global identities and the nature of conflict.

“We all think of ourselves as nations or states, and that is evolving,” Wright said. “People all over the world are clinging to old identities at a time when the world is merging into bigger entities as our sources of governance, security and trade.”

Self-classification is not the only way war is changing, though. Wright said that the world is adapting to new technologies in communication, war, civil demands and the overall opinion of violent conflicts. She said the United States, among other nations, needs to adjust its approach to ending these complex clashes.

“The U.S. has had a hard time in [the Middle East] for a while, and it’s not because we can’t win things militarily,” Wright said. “It’s because we’re not so good at what you do next: nation-building.”

Among the shifting variables fueling modern uprisings, Wright said there is one common thread.

“The principles of democracy are what we need to look at — equal participation, pure and uncorrupt justice, equal distribution of resources,” she said. “Uprisings happen because people have an inherent sense of what their rights are.”

At the same time, Wright said that true democracy requires a gradual process. It is not a quick fix. She also stressed that the Islamic world is reeling from multiple conflicts, not just violence in Gaza or Iraq.

“I don’t rank wars. Change is always the product of a confluence factors. It’s never one thing,” Wright said. “I hope my lecture helps Chautauquans understand why these conflicts happen. If you understand why, you’re less afraid and you also know what to do about it.”