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College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Vivian Ibrahim Has a New Approach to Teaching History

Vivian Ibrahim can hear the voices of other professors discussing a myriad of different topics as they walk by her office on the third floor of Bishop Hall. The conversations ranging from Russian serfs to African American history are a refreshing change.

Ibrahim is the University of Mississippi’s newest professor with a focus on the Middle East, and her emphasis lies primarily with Egypt, which is where she claims roots, though she was born and raised in Great Britain. Behind her black-rimmed glasses are cheery eyes that betray the inquisitive mind of a historian.

Most historians probably aren’t accustomed to teaching riveting, exciting and newly relevant topics, but Ibrahim finds herself as one who is doing just that. And it’s been a long time since Egypt was as hot a topic as it is now.

“Egypt, when you’re doing the Middle East, is the boring country,” she said. “The sexy countries are Iraq and Israel and Palestine. I accepted the job in mid-December, and I woke up in January to bombings in Cairo, and then in mid-January to a revolution.”

Ibrahim specifically researches the relationships between the minority Coptic Christians of Egypt and the majority Muslims. Fittingly for someone who focuses on the role religion plays in a region and in the lives of its people, she drew similarities between the Middle East and the South that most people wouldn’t recognize.

“I’ve realized since I’ve moved here that religion plays a much more important role in people’s lives, at least in the South,” Ibrahim said. “But in many ways, the South reminds me more of the Middle East because your daily lives are governed by religion, and our values are exactly the same regardless of whether you’re Muslim or whether you’re Christian or whatever. So actually there’s much more in common with the South and the Middle East than you would expect at first sight.”

As for when she considers a conflict or upheaval like what’s happened in Egypt and in much of the Middle East, Ibrahim naturally looks back over the past several years, like any historian would.

Contrary to popular belief, the revolution in Egypt isn’t something that happened overnight, and that’s what Ibrahim tries to emphasize in her classes, which are split between the Croft Institute and the history department.

“This isn’t something that started two, three, four years ago,” she said. “This has its roots way back, and it’s got a lot to do with people’s standard of living and unemployment that’s been rife for years. It’s got to do with corruption — police brutality is also huge in all of this. So it’s got long, long roots, and as a historian I’m kind of keen to show the different roots to current conflict; it didn’t just come out of nowhere, and it wasn’t all because some kids had Facebook and Twitter. I mean, that’s important, that kind of was the trigger, but I don’t think that was the root.”

When asked about what she sees in Egypt’s future, Ibrahim described herself as a cautious optimist.

“I’m hoping it’s a move toward more democratic elections,” she said. “I think there are such deep-seated problems, socially and politically, that change doesn’t happen overnight; you can’t suddenly expect a whole upheaval of the existing system. It’s going to take 10 or 15 years. It’s very difficult to predict. I don’t think it’s going to be a huge, democratic leap, but I’m hoping it’s in the right direction.”

However, Ibrahim’s not as optimistic as some regarding the result of what’s taken place in the Middle East. Ibrahim claims that people in the Middle East are waking up to the fact that the “revolution,” which she labels as an evolution, has actually been stolen from the people.

“A revolution signifies change, and here we are for the case of Egypt or Tunisia, nearly eight, nine months later, and there hasn’t really been that change, and actually what we’re seeing is military command — this is a military coup that we’re seeing,” Ibrahim said.

“And I think people in the countries are waking up to that. There are still huge protests that are taking place every Friday now because the revolution was stolen — that’s how the people see it — it’s not about the people, we’ve got military command who supported the man who was president in the first place, (so) there’s no change.”

When asked where she saw the region going as a whole, Ibrahim pointed out that because the Middle East is so multi-faceted and every revolution — or evolution — is as unique as the country in which it takes place, there’s almost no way to know what the Middle East will look like in the future. But one thing that she hopes will come from it is that people in the West will realize that and why.

“That’s the kind of understanding that we need to have of the Middle East, it’s so varied, and, yes, we might all speak the same language, but we speak it with different dialects, and we have multiple religions and we have multiple practices within the same religion.

“I think maybe us not viewing the Middle East as a cohesive whole, hopefully, is where it’s going. I think the more that we judge each country individually on its merits and its own issues, the more we can kind of tailor our understanding of the region.”