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A Brand of Complex Research

A Brand of Complex Research
A view of the textbook museum USC College professor Laurie Brand visited in Jordan

Traveling 7,600 miles to Jordan, Laurie Brand began her massive research project that also will take her to Algeria, Egypt and Lebanon before the end of 2010.

Salt, Jordan, the first leg of Brand’s travels, is an ancient agricultural town built in the crook of three hills that boasts a stunning view of a 13th-century ruined fortress. The city of Salt was the first capital of the Amirate of Transjordan before Amman.

Salt is also home to the oldest secondary school in the kingdom, a school that has produced scores of government ministers and other prominent personalities.

It sounds as if Salt is an exciting and exotic backdrop for research. You be the judge.

Sitting on a stool in a one-room treasure trove of a textbook museum, Brand spent two full weeks photographing 2,000 pages of nearly 100 books she reviewed. “I was given permission to use my digital camera since the nearest photo copier was up a hill in the oldest secondary school,” Brand said.

Brand, professor of international relations at USC College, was in Jordan as a result of a two-year grant as a Carnegie Scholar to research the relationship between post-colonial states, Islam and nationalism.

The beginning of Brand’s four-country seminal research project began on a fortuitous note. The textbook museum in Salt had just reopened following a multi-year hiatus.

Brand has returned from Jordan, where she began a comparative study of Jordan, Algeria, Egypt and Lebanon with a singular focus on the intersection of nationalism and religion. “The best place to begin such a study is with a country’s textbooks, which are the most obvious place in which a regime presents the official national narrative.” Brand will supplement the textbook material with other material drawn from laws, official government statements and speeches.

Brand said that she has always been intrigued by Arab nationalism, both its apparent secularism and the degree to which it draws from Islamic history and culture.

“This project will enable me to better understand the interrelationship of the two, both over time and comparatively, in the context of how these two forces have been used by the post-independence Arab state,” she said. “I then hope, through subsequent publications and talks based on this research, to convey to an American audience a greater sense of the complexity of both Arab nationalism and Islam.”

In Jordan, Brand looked at textbooks from 1921 to the present. Algeria’s independence came in 1962, so she will look at textbooks from 1962 to the present. In Egypt, she hopes to begin with the 1920s if she can find textbooks that old. For Lebanon, she will look at textbooks from post 1946 to the present.” The range of textbook subjects includes history, religion, sociology, geography and civics.

Still in the beginning stage of reviewing her collected material, Brand already has encountered two surprises.

After the historic peace treaty between Israel and Jordan in 1994, a curriculum revision resulted in the complete elimination of a course on the Palestine issue that existed in the 1970s and 1980s. “All that was left in the history books were a few short paragraphs about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that made it virtually impossible for students to get a sense of what actually happened,” Brand said.

She also found instruction books intended just for teachers on how to teach the subjects in the textbooks. “In fact, these books also included the ministry’s outlined goals of what the students were to take away from their lessons.”

Of the four countries, Lebanon poses the greatest challenge in terms of determining a national narrative that is widely studied. According to Brand, the legacy of a 15-year long civil war in Lebanon is likely to make finding such texts problematic in addition to its large number and importance of private schools.

In the weeks ahead, Brand will examine her collected Jordanian materials; review background studies for theoretical insights; and conceive of generalizations and hypotheses to test during her trip to Algeria, where she will study parallels between the countries.

Brand, a four-time Fulbright Scholar and a past director of the School of International Relations in the College, is one of only 20 academics to receive the prestigious two-year grant from Carnegie. The Carnegie Scholars Program began in 1999, and for the fourth consecutive year, it focuses on Islam.

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