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Opinion: Becoming a scholar in a new language and culture

More attention is needed to how scholars and scholarship can take different forms.
Image by Sarah Mai

A good scholar in Yemen is a bad scholar in America, and a good scholar in America is a bad scholar in Yemen. Now, of course, some may argue the two scholars can be reconciled and integrated. I claim such reconciliation often places one scholarship as superior to the other, which ironically happens on both sides: Muslim scholars who select from science what confirms their scriptures; or Western scholars who see the traditional Islamic ways of knowing as harmonious with science, thereby avoiding any sites of tensions.

A scholar is a person involved in the generation and communication of ideas. Monolingual thinkers and speakers may overlook the centrality of language and culture because they are immersed in them. Non-native English and non-Western scholars have unconventional ways to engage with a scholarship because they have different challenges, epistemologies and realities.

I was born, raised, educated, socialized, acculturated and formed in Yemen — an experience that has shaped my sensibilities in the world. To be a scholar in Yemen is neither to invent nor innovate ideas — but rather, to preserve the history of the past. Innovation is a form of deviation from the righteous path, which was set during the early days of Islam. Where I was educated in Islamic mosques in Yemen, the atmosphere encouraged strict following of scholarship and prohibited the generation of any new ideas.

However, as John Kelly (1989) concluded in his essay “To Be a Scholar,” true scholarship is about the generation and communication of innovative ideas. This definition gives the scholar the prerogative to disrupt that which has been produced in the canon. In this sense, scholarship is always moving forward. But where I was educated, true scholarship commits itself to the canon of the past, with neither addition nor revision.

As an emerging scholar in a new context, I have to remember the place from which I hailed, while at the same time reinventing myself in my newfound intellectual community. At the University of Minnesota and elsewhere, there is much discussion about diversity, but there is often negligence and ignorance of what international students bring — the ways of thinking that reflect certain biases in their language and culture.

We can presume those students are at least willing to adapt to the American ways of doing, knowing and being in the world. Yet unless we understand their ways of being, doing and knowing, we cannot help them during their transition from one culture to another. International students — who grew up in non-Western culture and spoke a non-English language — need to reimagine what it means to become a scholar. Yet how many local scholars are aware of their predicament?

It has always been understood that true scholars are those who defy easy understanding, who go beyond surface-level conceptions and who call into question all assumptions. We need to apply that scholarly understanding to the word scholar itself. Although I am trained to become a scholar in the English language and Western culture, I have yet to study the ramifications of applying my scholarship to Yemen — the place in which my scholarly sensibilities were formed. Being a scholar in the in-between area requires consistent learning, unlearning and adapting. Yet when well-trained, those scholars can bridge the gap between cultures and civilizations because they have one foot in each world.

Salman Rushdie, an internationally acclaimed writer, explains the tension with which I am grappling. Rushdie grew up in India, lived in Britain and currently resides in America. Few people know that this successful writer stumbled for over a decade (13 years) to publish his first book. “Part of the reason I was lost,” Rushdie said, “is that I had grown up in one culture and I was living in another. And I didn’t quite understand my relationship with either — either the culture that I had grown up with or the one I was living in. And I really needed to work that out for myself — in other words, to work out who I was.” After examining his life (to allude to the notion of Socrates “the unexamined life is not worth living”), Rushdie became a great writer across the globe, creating a global canon of literature.

In profound ways, I resonate with Rushdie’s stumbling start because I grew up in Yemen for 20 years and then came to the U.S. where I have been living for the past six years. I neither belong to Yemen nor to the United States, and I need to figure out the kind of scholar I am becoming.


Born and raised in Yemen, Abdulrahman Bindamnan is PhD Student at the University of Minnesota. He earned both an MSEd from the University of Pennsylvania and a BA from the University of Miami. He can be reached at [email protected]

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