21-year-old university student and former Afghan refugee, Gulwali Passarlay,speaks to Duke undergrads. photo by Catherine Angst
21-year-old university student and former Afghan refugee, Gulwali Passarlay,speaks to Duke undergrads. photo by Catherine Angst


51ffhcH8cRL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_“Before I died, I contemplated how drowning would feel. It was clear to me now; this was how I would go: away from my mother’s warmth, my father’s strength, and my family’s love. The white waves were going to devour me, swallow me whole in their terrifying jaws, and cast my young body aside to drift down into the cold black depths,” Gulwali Passarlay wrote in the prologue to “The Lightless Sky: A Twelve-Year-Old Refugee’s Harrowing Escape from Afghanistan and His Extraordinary Journey Across Half the World.” (HarperOne, 2016)

At the age of 12 Gulwali was sent away from his rural Afghanistan home by his mother who paid a smuggling agent at $8,000, in installments, to get him safely to Italy. “However bad it gets,” the mother told her son. “Don’t come back.” Ten months into his journey, he nearly drowned (described above) in an overcrowded boat on his way to Greece. He’s now a man in his third year at the University of Manchester in the UK — alive to tell the tale of his year-long 12,500-mile perilous journey, which he likened to “a game of Chutes and Ladders” through Pakistan; Iran (twice); Turkey (twice); Bulgaria; Greece; Italy; France (twice); Belgium, Germany, and finally the UK.

While the trip took place back in 2006-2007, his book, written with Nadene Ghouri, is an instructive lens through which to view the current refugee crisis and the complicated human smuggling and trafficking networks that have refugees and migrants using air, rail, cars, trucks, boats, and their own tired feet, across rivers and seas and over mountains — to get them to a better life.

Last month Gulwali spoke via Skype for nearly an hour with more than a dozen Duke University undergraduate students enrolled in the Refugee Lives: Violence, Culture and Identity class, co-taught by professors miriam cooke, Maha Houssami, and Nancy Kalow.

The 21-year-old politics and philosophy major answered questions and shared stories with his contemporaries about his experiences in safe-houses, prisons/detention centers and refugee camps; the dozens of unscrupulous (and a few kind) agents, smugglers, and guides he encountered; and the friends and enemies he made along the way. Continue reading


Arabic instructor Abdel Razzaq Ben Tarif inside the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies.
Arabic instructor Abdel Razzaq Ben Tarif inside the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies.

Jordan native Abdel Razzaq Ben Tarif shares a favorite quote from the Dalai Lama: “Share your knowledge; it’s a way to achieve immortality.”

This fall, he’s following that command but teaching Arabic at Duke, joining the university’s team of Arabic instructors. He has six years of experience teaching Arabic in a classroom setting, a master’s of arts teaching Arabic for speakers of other language (2009), and a master’s in American studies (2014) from the University of Jordan.

“Ben Tarif was highly recommended by Duke students who studied with him in Jordan through the Kenan refugee program in Amman led by Suzanne Shanahan,” said Mbaye Lo, assistant professor of the practice and Arabic Language Program Coordinator at Duke. “So, he is somewhat familiar with the Duke culture; and with him, we hope to secure a diverse, and yet highly talented Arabic faculty to serve our students.”

Below, Ben Tarif talks with Julie Harbin, communications specialist for the Duke Islamic Studies Center.

QUESTION: You’re an award winning Arabic instructor who’s had a variety of experiences teaching Arabic, teaching UN employees, diplomats, defense department officials and U.S. soldiers and university students. How can you compare these experiences?

BEN TARIF: I think teaching Arabic for different groups is challenging, because

you are dealing with many people from many backgrounds, and each have their own goal to study the language. When we talk about diplomats, soldiers and defense department officials, going back to school again to learn a language can be frustrating to them. You have to create your own curriculum that meets their needs to learn the language, and this is fun.

QUESTION: Why is it so important for people to learn Arabic? What should people know about learning Arabic?

BEN TARIF: Arabic is the fifth most commonly spoken native language in the world and the official language in in more than 20 countries. There are more than 300 million native speakers of the language. The Arab-speaking world has a rich cultural heritage with its own unique art, music, literature, cuisine, and way of life. Also there are financial incentives for learning Arabic. The US government has designated Arabic as a language of strategic importance. Continue reading

Column » ‘By the Book’ with Joseph Preville


struggleforpakistan-197x300Pakistan is a nation with a strong will to survive. It has endured political upheavals, ethnic discord, military dictatorships, and the challenges of religious extremism. In her new book, The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), Ayesha Jalal examines Pakistan’s history from its creation in 1947 to the present. “Pakistan’s tumultuous history,” she writes, “exhibits a daunting combination of contradictory factors that must affect any decisions made about its future. More than six and a half decades since its establishment, Pakistan has yet to reconcile its self-proclaimed Islamic identity with the imperatives of a modern nation-state.”

Ayesha Jalal is Mary Richardson Professor of History and Director of the Center for South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies at Tufts University. Born in Pakistan, Jalal was educated at Wellesley College and the University of Cambridge. She was a MacArthur Fellow from 1998-2003. Jalal is the author of many books, including The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the Demand for Pakistan (1985) and Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia (2008).

Ayesha Jalal discusses The Struggle for Pakistan in this interview. Continue reading


Podcast: Douglas Pratt on the ‘Persistence’ and ‘Problem’ of Religion on February 4, 2013: 

Some fifty years ago scholars claimed the end of religion was nigh.  More recently some at the fringe of the Christian religion have touted the imminent end of the world. But the world is still here; and so is religion, although religion could rarely be described as unproblematic. In this interview with Chris, Douglas Pratt – Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Waikato, New Zealand – asks:  ‘Why is religion so persistent?’ What are we to make of contemporary problematic issues, such as extremism and terrorism, often associated with religion? What might the Taliban in Afghanistan, Anders Breivik in Norway, and the Christchurch Cathedral in New Zealand, have in common, for instance? And why should scholars care? Continue reading

by MBAYE LO for ISLAMiCommentary and TIRN on NOVEMBER 14, 2012:

“One side argues from a perspective of freedom and mercy, as is the case with the academics, while the militants argue from the perspective of what they consider justice. The extreme diligence in pursuit of each set of values would violate the entirety of the other.” — Mbaye Lo

The response of academics and Muslims religious groups to the blowback generated by the film the “Innocence of Muslims” this past September — in the form of violent protests across the Muslim world — is the latest example of a clear disconnect in our attempts to address the problem of Islamic militancy, and warrants a clear retrospective analysis.

Most liberal academics and American Muslim religious groups tend to be apologetic about the behavior of citizens-turned-militants, rather than constructively engaging the militants’ arguments. Continue reading