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Cover by Emma Finkelstein

May Masthead

EDITORIAL BOARD

TARA ZIA, CC ’26, Editor-in-Chief 

JAZMYN WANG, CC ’25, Managing Editor

SAGAR CASTLEMAN, CC ’26, Deputy Editor

GEORGE MURPHY, CC ’27, Publisher

LUCIA DEC-PRAT, CC ’27, Crossword Editor

BETEL TADESSE, CC ’25, Digital Editor

JORJA GARCIA, CC ’26, Illustrations Editor

PHOEBE WAGONER, CC ’25, Illustrations Editor

ANNIE POOLE, BC ’24, Layout Editor

KATE SIBERY, CC ’26, Layout Editor

SHREYA KHULLAR, CC ’26, Literary Editor

 

SENIOR EDITORS

HENRY ASTOR, CC ’24

IRIS CHEN, CC ’24

ANDREA CONTRERAS, CC ’24

ANOUK JOUFFRET, BC ’24

JOSH KAZALI, CC ’25

MISKA LEWIS, BC ’24

BECKY MILLER, BC ’24

VICTOR OMOJOLA, CC ’24

CLAIRE SHANG, CC ’24

MUNI SULEIMAN, CC ’24

ANNA PATCHEFSKY, CC ’25

 

STAFF WRITERS

ZIBIA BARDIN, BC ’25

ELI BAUM, CC ’26

CHRIS BROWN, CC ’26

EM CHMIEL, CC ’25

SCHUYLER DAFFEY, CC ’26

STEPHEN DAMES, CC ’25

AMOGH DIMRI, CC ’24

SAYURI GOVENDER, BC ’26

SAM HOSMER, CC ’24

MADISON HU, GS ’24

MOLLY LEAHY, BC ’24

MAYA LERMAN, CC ’27

AVA LOZNER, CC ’27

GRACIE MORAN, CC ’25

MOLLY MURCH, BC ’24

SOFIA PIRRI, CC ’24

EVA SPIER, BC ’27

SIRI STORSTEIN, CC ’26

VIVIEN SWEET, GS ’25

ALICE TECOTZKY, CC ’24

OWEN TERRY, CC ’26

DOMINIC WIHARSO, CC ’25

SONA WINK, BC ’25

CECILIA ZUNIGA, BC ’26

 

STAFF ILLUSTRATORS

EM BENNETT, CC ’26

JUSTIN CHEN, CC ’26

EMMA FINKELSTEIN, BC ’27

BEN FU, CC ’25

SELIN HO, CC ’27

ELLIE HODGES, CC ’26

OONAGH MOCKLER, BC ’25

DERIN OGUTCU, BC ’27

ISABELLE OH, BC ’27

NAYEON PARK, CC ’26

OLIVER RICE, CC ’25

FIN STERNER, BC ’25

JACQUELINE SUBKHANBERDINA, BC ’27

Table of Contents


Letter from the Editor by Tara Zia

Bwecommendations by the Blue and White Staff

 

Blue Notes 

When Columbia Thaws by Chris Brown

Finding Ourselves by Sayuri Govender

Senior Vignettes by Seniors

Essays

The Woman Question by Shreya Khullar

Senza se, senza ma by Henry Astor

 

Feature

Making (Non)sense by Jorja Garcia 

 

Measure for Measure

Selected Poems by Remi Seamon

The Conversation 

Lydia Liu and Anupama Rao by Alice Tecotzky

Nadia Abu El-Haj by Vivien Sweet and Andrea Contreras

 

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Illustrations by Selin Ho

Bwecommendations

Tara Zia, Editor-in-Chief: Land of Dreams (2022). Riverside park picnics.

 

Sagar Castleman, Deputy Editor: The Fox and the Hound (1981). Procol Harum,

“Conquistador.” Jennifer Wilson, “How Did Polyamory Become So Popular?” Molly’s Cupcakes.

 

George Murphy, Publisher: Blankenberge, “No Sense.” Roman Holiday (1953). Naguib

Mahfouz, Miramar.

 

Betel Tadesse, Digital Editor: Challengers (2024), MILLION DOLLAR BABY by Tommy Richman

 

Jorja Garcia, Illustrations Editor: We Grown Now (2023).

Phoebe Wagoner, Illustrations Editor:

 

Annie Poole, Layout Editor: Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (1951). Rainer Maria

Rilke, “Go to the Limits of Your Longing.”

 

Kate Sibery, Layout Editor: Joey Bada$$, “Show Me.” Fargo (1996). A good bench.

 

Shreya Khullar, Literary Editor: Roberto Bolaño, A Little Lumpen Novelita.

 

Henry Astor, Senior Editor: Radiohead, “Bangers + Mash.” Ghassan Kanafani, Men in the

Sun. Matzo with baba ghanouj.

 

Andrea Contreras, Senior Editor: The Libertines, “Music When The Lights Go Out.” Little

Simz, “Fear no Man.” Alianzine Vol. III: LUCHA.

 

Anouk Jouffret, Senior Editor: “Green River, Mother Love Bone, and Temple of the Dog with

Patty Schemel,” Bandsplain, (The Ringer). Derek & The Dominoes, “Thorn Tree In The Garden.”

 

Miska Lewis, Senior Editor: Gemma Lawrence, “Morningside Heights.” Sitting in parks. “The

Voice” auditions.

 

Claire Shang, Senior Editor: Apricots. Pink Floyd, “Wish You Were Here.” Muriel Rukeyser.

 

Muni Suleiman, Senior Editor: Dogpark, Breaking In Brooklyn. The Muppets Take

Manhattan (1983). Doing the Broad City Challenge with your closest college friends. Maggie

Rogers, Don’t Forget Me.

 

Chris Brown, Staff Writer: Chance the Rapper, Acid Rap. Lil Yachty, “A Cold Sunday.”

 

Schuyler Daffey, Staff Writer: Justin Hurwitz, “Epilogue.” Agatha Christie, Crooked House.

Walks in Riverside Park.

 

Sayuri Govender, Staff Writer: Rachel Poser, “Common Ground.” Blood Orange (the artist

and the fruit). Making coffee with honey for your roommates. Cleo Sol, “Life Will Be.”

 

Sam Hosmer, Staff Writer: Scritti Politti, “Die Alone.” Le Samouraï (1967).

 

Sona Wink, Staff Writer: Krafwerk, “Pocket Calculator.” Growing beans. Rewatching Broad

City (Comedy Central).

 

Cecilia Zuniga, Staff Writer: Air, “Cherry Blossom Girl.” Sunday morning run in Central Park.

Cacerolazo.

 

Selin Ho, Staff Illustrator: Chappell Roan, “Good Luck, Babe!” Cardigans with big buttons. Isle

of Dogs (2018).

 

Ellie Hodges, Staff Illustrator: The Hewitt vanilla soft serve machine.

 

Jacqueline Subkhanberdina, Staff Illustrator: Olivia Dean, “I Could Be A Florist.” Plums.

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Letter From The Editor

On the breaking of silence.

By Tara Zia

In a Columbia creative writing class, I read an interview with Jorie Graham in which she describes the act of writing poetry as a breaking of silence. She posits that when putting pen to paper, we are in fact entering, and breaking, the silence of the white space. You have successfully written a poem if you enter the silence and leave a different person. In her words, “The silence you break to enter the poem is never the same silence closing over again when the voice reenters the silence.”

Watching the NYPD arrest my peers on April 18 for their involvement in the Gaza Solidarity Encampment rendered me and countless other students, faculty, and viewers from around the world speechless. Watching our classmates, including several writers on this magazine, criminalized for an act of peaceful protest, a breaking of silence, was shocking and surreal. 

In the ensuing days that silence was filled by a great deal of sound, and not just our own. Our school has become an object of media fascination, with politicians and pundits commenting on an environment that they have only begun to know in a matter of days, without ever setting foot on campus itself. At The Blue and White, we have grappled with the May issue, wondering how to proceed in the face of writer suspensions and on ground that felt like it was constantly shifting under our feet. 

In this issue, our writers took Graham’s challenge head on and broke the silence of the blank page in different ways. At times this practice is creative. In the issue’s feature, Jorja Garcia explores the history of zine-making as a personal, political, and generative practice. Shreya Khullar explores the intersection of gender politics and artistic practice in the context of the Art Humanities curriculum. 

In other cases, the breaking of silence is rooted in one's own personhood. Henry Astor pens a personal essay on his Jewish identity and experience protesting in Italy last semester. Sayuri Govender explores the diversity within the South Asian diaspora through the work of photographer Gauri Gill. In a conversation with Andrea Contreras and Vivien Sweet, Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj dives into her work and experiences as a tenured Palestinian American professor at Columbia. 

In enshrining these diverse experiences in our magazine, we hope to provide an archive of this time on campus that reflects May 2024 at Columbia as told by writers who lived through it themselves. The domino effect of Columbia’s protests to schools around the country reaffirm Graham’s prediction: that once broken, a silence will never be fully restored to its original state. I hope that if this issue lands in the hands of a Blue and White writer or Columbia student years from now, it may remind them of the necessity of this act. 

Sincerely, 

Tara Zia

Editor-in-Chief

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Blue Note

When Columbia Thaws

A tribute to the timelessness of Columbia’s lawns under the eye of the 2024 solar eclipse.

By Chris Brown

Author’s Statement: Ten days following the event depicted in this piece, the NYPD arrested 108 students protesting on this same lawn. Words fail to adequately capture the magnitude of this; it is impossible to express the feelings of seeing your classmates and peers removed in zipties as hundreds watch. I wrote this piece as a celebration of Columbia’s community, to highlight the times every year when we come together in peace to enjoy the beauty of the world.  For more than 50 years, Columbia students have been on the front lines of activism. Protest unites us; it is our culture, and it is in the fabric of our being. The South Lawns are our space, our center of community, and they deserve to be safe; the right to protest must be encouraged, not suppressed. When the story of Columbia’s spring 2024 is told, the solar eclipse will not make an appearance. Columbia is now in the eyes of the world. But I hope that I can remind us of the strength of our community, and that our presence on the lawns is not new.are some things that can only really be understood on the stage. 

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Postcard by Em Bennett

April 8, 2024, 12:44 p.m.: The weather forecast shows the first sunny day of spring after a week of torrential rain and wind. With it also being the day of a once-in-a-generation cosmic event, I have no choice but to skip my class. Setting up on the lawns, armed only with my soccer ball, backpack, and a pair of eclipse glasses, I watch as the first wave of people emerge onto Columbia’s green oasis. 

 

For just a few weeks every school year, when the presence of students and nice weather overlap, the South Lawns become the beating heart of Columbia. The green ocean to Low Beach’s marble sands, they’ve been a meeting point for hundreds of classes of students since the Morningside Campus opened. They’ve seen Lou Gehrig home runs, classes, protests, festivals, birthday parties, picnics, and any other activity you can imagine happening at a college. But today they’re the seats to a once-in-a-(college)-generation watch party, and I’m one of the first ones here.

 

1:48 p.m.: A little more than an hour has passed since I got here, and the Lawns are beginning to fill up. Joined by friends on various picnic blankets, I see a Lit Hum class seated in a circle to my left. To my right, the first Spikeball net has made its way out. Aside from the freshmen discussing Virginia Woolf, I’ve yet to encounter anyone who isn’t skipping class to be here. Maybe the pull of the eclipse is too strong; maybe nice weather is irresistible. In the sky, there’s no sign that anything is abnormal.

 

2:43 p.m.: The moon has begun to visibly trace its path, and a glimpse through the tunnel vision of the eclipse glasses shows that it has already eaten into a fourth of the Sun’s territory. 

 

But beyond the world inside the eclipse glasses, there is no indication that today is special. If anything, it’s timeless. The activity on the lawns doesn’t represent an exception, but a rule: When provided with nice weather, Columbia students will crowd South Lawns. This could be any spring day in any year, and only the retro-futuristic cardboard sunglasses give away the date.

 

3:02 p.m.: A glimpse through the glasses reveals the sun almost halfway covered, and the weather starts to cool as the moon’s interference fades the mid-afternoon light. But this cold isn’t enough to scare people off the lawns on a day they’ve waited so long for.

 

Every year, South Lawns gets an influx of people enjoying the last gasps of summer and the first weeks of fall before the chill starts to set in. But once the cold comes, they stay empty for almost the entire year. Only a major snow will bring people onto the lawns with the same joy during the cold months, and only for as long as the snow lasts before collecting dirt and turning brown. Everyone retreats inwards, and the heartbeat of campus becomes subdued. A week ago, I walked across an empty campus on my way home from work; today, campus is thawing out.

 

3:25 p.m.: The eclipse reaches its apex, the sun little more than an orange crescent shining behind the near totality of the moon. Everyone on the lawns pauses their soccer games, their conversations, their homework for a brief moment to watch. In the past, many cultures saw eclipses as a sign of impending doom, an apocalyptic event. But right now, this one unites.

 

3:40 p.m.: Just like that, this moment in history is over. The moon retraces its path back across the sun, the warmth and light return to normal. Everyone returns to what they were doing before. Some leave. The event will mark another in the list of solar eclipses visible from the United States. But hidden within that line, “April 8, 2024 (Total)”, is all the joy and community of Columbia’s lawns, a permanent representation of what spring brings to this campus every year.

 

5:00 p.m.: It’s time for me to repack the few things I brought, collect the glasses scattered on the ground, and give up my claim to the spot that belonged to me today. For one day, I was able to make part of the lawns mine as friends (and celestial bodies) moved around me, coming in and out through the day. In my mind, there’s a promise that I’ll return, but with work looming and the Lawns’ closure impending, it's impossible to know if this may be the last day of its kind this year.

 

7:20 p.m.: Walking back from dinner, I see the last stragglers left as the sun begins to set, taking advantage of every minute that the lawns remain open. Come mid-April, like clockwork, they will close once more as Columbia readies itself to send off its seniors at Commencement. The flags above South Lawns will show red and the grass will hide beneath tarps and chairs.

 

But for a moment, this year and every year, Columbia defrosts. The moment may be a month, a year, a week, a day. It may be transitory, melding into the memories that become the “college days.” But it will always come.

Blue Note

Finding Ourselves 

Seeking portraits of the South Asian diaspora.

By Sayuri Govender 

To me, diaspora has always felt like this: Half your mind is in your current space, critical of the loud American culture that melts away your parents’ accent and replaces it with a dream. The other half is somewhere else, in a familiar yet unknown home, a technicolor past that doesn’t quite belong to you. Sometimes, in a quiet moment, you wish you were there. 

 

Over spring break, my sister and I visited my grandparents in Tampa. On the first night, struck by the decades of memories that filled their home, we asked to see the overfilled family photo books stacked on the bottom shelves of their prayer room. We flipped through hundreds of pictures of our mother and her brothers from when they were children in South Africa to when they were teenagers and adults in New York, where they lived after emigrating in the late ’80s. I kept seeing my face reflected in their smiles. 

 

My family’s history in India, South Africa, and the United States wraps me in a double diaspora. As one of the first born in this country, my Indian identity is complicated by the vastly different regions my family has called home. Since coming to Barnard, I have found myself hesitant to participate in South Asian affinity groups, a product of an inherited insecurity that “They don't see South Africans as Indian enough.” But what does “Indian enough” even mean? I place my Diwali diyas around my dorm room each fall, wear jhumkas to class almost every day, and share homemade Indian spices with my roommates. I proudly express Indian traditions in a refusal to be engulfed by American norms, slowly uncovering what my Indian identity means to me. Across the U.S., millions of South Asians share this struggle to carve a space for themselves. At Columbia’s Lenfest Center of the Arts, the recent exhibit “Looking for Ourselves: Gauri Gill’s The Americans, 2000–2007” spotlights some of these diverse South Asian American identities. 


Held from March 23 to April 7, Looking for Ourselves seeks to evoke the same sensation as looking through the family photo album for aspects of oneself. Through the lens of New Delhi–based photographer Gauri Gill, her photographs showcase undocumented South Asians running a motel, queer Desis hosting drag performances, American flags embracing Sikh USPS drivers. There were Halloween parties and pujas, weddings and funerals. Pain, love, luck, and loss. In fewer than 50 profound photographs, the South Asian diaspora is rendered as a spectrum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walking the rooms of the exhibit, I expected to feel more seen. Instead, I was struck by how unfamiliar the images felt to me—and how exciting that was. Gill uncovers a lineage of struggle, discrimination, and defeat. It is rare for these stories of the Asian American experience to be put on display, ones that disrupt the model minority myth and expose xenophobia, poverty, and racism. Still, I see remnants of my own family’s photographs, their sanguine faces mirrored back in Gill’s photographs. 

 

Looking for Ourselves and my own experiences imbue me with an overwhelming desire to understand the vastness of the South Asian American identity. With this same sentiment, students and faculty at Barnard are spearheading the development of the long-awaited Asian Diaspora and Asian American Studies Program. Aiming to bring in a specific course of study that addresses diasporic Asian identities, the ADAAS program promises to use postcolonial, transnational, queer, feminist, and other critical lenses to discuss the Asian diasporic heritage. ADAAS faculty and its student advisory board have recently submitted their proposal to Barnard’s administration, hoping for the curriculum to be implemented as soon as this coming fall semester. 

 

Kristen Santarin, BC ’24, a member of the ADAAS student advisory board, reflected on the significance of such a program. At elite and predominantly white institutions like Columbia, minority students actively seek cultural communities to stay afloat. Santarin and fellow advisory board members believe they should be able to find support in their academics as well. In her eyes, the ADAAS will provide students with interdisciplinary means to explore the historical and contemporary implications of their identity. Moreover, she sees the program as “a way to inform students about the way that they exist in the world.” Crucially, ADAAS centers a critical analysis of Asian diasporic identities at large, advancing traditional curricula in other ethnic studies majors at Columbia. ADAAS is not just a curriculum, but a “recognition of your existence on this campus,” she says.

 

Through the promise of new programming, and exhibitions like Looking for Ourselves, I find a burgeoning recognition of my own existence on this campus. In Gill’s photographs of South Asians across the U.S., I see familiarity and mystery at once. This visibility—whether in a photography exhibit at the Lenfest Center, in memories of my family’s early life in the U.S., or in an academic space that spotlights the Asian diaspora—is an empowering and electric force. It is what I have sought, what I have found, and what I hope to continue finding. 

Illustration by Jacqueline Subkhanberdina

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Blue Note

Senior Vignettes

You had to be there.

Alice Tecotzky

Two floors above 108th Street and Broadway lives a gray-blue couch, shaped like an L, adorned with a few square pillows and one round pillow that I hold on my lap whenever I sit down. Though I don’t own this couch—it belongs to four of my dearest friends, in their shared apartment—I love it very much. Its fibers are woven from my tears (joyous and painful), my whispered secrets, my spilled wine and beads of sweat. In the fabric live my most benign college moments, the ones that have stitched me, forever, to the women sitting on the adjacent cushions.

 

My friends’ lease ends in July. I don’t know what they’re doing with the couch, or where and to whom it will go. Like college, it will disappear abruptly and almost cruelly, pulled out from under our crowded butts and suddenly a figment of memory alone.

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Illustration by Em Bennett

Annie Poole

On the corner of 7th and Avenue C is a bar with the tagline “Bring your parents, get right in.” It seems fitting that I first got into Joyface because of my dad and his partner Kevin. “Make friends with the bouncer, the bartenders, and the owner, so we don’t have to help you next time,” they said. 

 

Following their advice, my college friends and I returned to Joyface, again and again. Despite constantly saying we needed to try somewhere new, we returned to Joyface for Halloween parties, finals celebrations, two of my birthdays, and the 21st night of September (yes, we remember). Donna Summer, Whitney Houston, ABBA, and Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” (played when the clock strikes midnight and the disco ball turns on) became our frat party anthems. 

 

My favorite Joyface night took place the weekend of our senior year homecoming. Four friends and I brought all of our parents and got right in. After taking tequila shots and dancing on tables, our parents still beg us to bring them back for graduation. Part of becoming an adult is realizing your parents may have had more fun back in “their day.”

 

Joyface, my homecoming on a night out in college. 

 

Becky Miller

It’s a dungeon, really, but with the wall decor of a SoHo gallery, the music taste of your dad’s weekly poker game, and the mellow charm of a pub somewhere mellow and charming, like London’s outskirts, maybe. In the underground domain of Arts and Crafts, we have feasted on many a mustard pretzel when the L-shaped tater tots run out. We have nursed many a Cigar City (#22), and ogled many a female portrait’s exposed breasts—you know the one, tucked in the corner, drawing eyes from across the bar with a magnetic pull. I ache to remember the rainy nights I spent writing down there, or the afternoons spent interviewing hopeful bartenders, or the pregame pints that went too fast. Safely subterranean, entering A&C feels like following a trail of memory crumbs, where we laughed until we peed. 

 

Anouk Jouffret

I spent a gloomy week in late January aching to see the ocean. When I told my friends, “I think I’m going to go to Coney Island on Friday,” they were amused: “What are you doing there?” I didn’t really know. 

 

The boardwalk was empty when I arrived save for a few runners, parents pushing strollers, and groups of men gathered around boomboxes who waved to me as I walked past them. I waved back. I put my fingers in the cold ocean water. I sat on the pier railing. I listened to “Coney Island Baby” a couple times and took pictures of the stone chess tables. I thought of the scene in Paper Moon where Ryan O’Neal tells his daughter Tatum to “drink your Nehi and eat your Coney Island” and thought of my own dad and when I watched that movie with him. 

 

My freshman year, 2020, was marked by isolation. Solo excursions were a chore. That had changed. I could savor my time alone.

 

Texts rolled in as I made my way up and down the promenade: “did you make it to your misty pier?” and “how’s it going love?” I smiled as I read them, feeling no urgency in replying just then. 

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Illustration by Phoebe Wagoner

Henry Astor

It took me two years at Columbia before I finally visited the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I was on a tour with my history seminar, an eclectic course called The History of the End of the World, taught by Cold War scholar Matthew Connelly. Given my un-Christian upbringing, I had no idea that St. John the Divine was actually the author of the biblical Book of Revelation and that the whole church is a monument to the Eschaton. Beyond the obvious, like the seven-pointed windows for the seven seals of the rapture, Connelly pointed out something on the church’s exterior that I never would have noticed. Over the central portal is a carving of the Twin Towers with a looming mushroom cloud in the rear. Adjacent is a Final Destination–like scene of the Brooklyn Bridge mid-collapse, with cars and school buses flying every which way. Across the way is a rendition of Bohr’s atomic model, seemingly in reference to nuclear apocalypse. The spirit of an elderly Met docent now takes over me whenever I pass by St. John the Divine with a group of friends as I rush ahead of them, beckoning at the faux-Gothic facade with a “Get a load of this shit, guys!” The world has ended so many times since we’ve matriculated at this school. It can’t hurt to have a good laugh every once in a while.  

 

Madison Hu

At the entrance of my apartment is a badly drawn donkey that sprawls across the backs of five sheets of old, freshman-year handouts. 

 

I drew it last fall and it took probably 30 seconds—a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game, my roommate and I decided, would be a great addition to our housewarming party. Upon arrival, all our friends, from freshman-year dormmates to recent class buddies, were welcomed by him, and even if they didn’t play his game, they remarked on his uncanniness, which was enough for my roommate and I to keep him on the wall.

 

A few months after its conception, he found a home: a too-small ornate gold frame that my roommate found on the street. Since then, we have accumulated a small gnome balancing on top, courtesy of my roommate’s white elephant gift exchange; numerous birthday cards from our birthdays and friends’ birthdays we’ve hosted alike; and a red envelope from our Lunar New Year dinner, where I cooked two Peking ducks and only set off the fire alarm twice.

 

Everyone who comes into the house sees the frame upon entrance and has to be careful not to move too quickly past it, for risk of the gnome, birthday cards, and red envelope flying off (we are too lazy to secure them). When they do, I’m happy to put them back on, and appreciate what has become a shrine to my last year of college.
 

Miska Lewis

I watched the sun rise over the Gaza Solidarity Encampment on the morning of April 17. Having arrived on the lawn and set up tents at a speed only camp counselors can achieve, over 80 of us sighed with relief as we watched the navy blue sky turn purple and pink over Low Library. For 32 hours, the cluster of green tents became our home while our voices grew hoarse demanding our university disclose financial investments and divest from genocide. For 32 hours, I watched dozens of my friends and classmates gather at the picket line, chanting in solidarity to protect those of us on the inside. 

 

Watching Palestinian flags wave in the blustery night, I stepped back to look at the crowd singing “Your people are my people, our struggles align.” I looked up at Butler Library, feeling sure that we would either force the University to divest or raise hell until we graduate and beyond. As I write this, hundreds of fellow students have occupied the West Lawn, making sure our message rings loud in the ears of administrators and on college campuses across the country. I can hear the chanting from my dorm on 116th and Riverside. Opening a tent door to light rain and call-and-response on Butler Lawn wasn’t an expected addition to my senior year, but it’s one that I welcome.

 

Victor Omojola

If you venture to Lerner’s fifth floor and head for the lounge at the end of the western side, you’ll find what is officially a suite of Undergraduate Student Life. Encircled by administrative offices that take all the windows (and natural light) for themselves, the area is officially a suite of USL, but my friends and I have taken to simply referring to it as Lerner 5.

 

For the past three years, we have used the lounge as a default space when we have nothing better to do—or when we have a lot of better things to do. Spare time between classes: Go to Lerner 5. Need a place to eat a Ferris quesadilla? Head to Lerner 5. Exam, final project, or thesis deadline rapidly approaching: Get your ass to Lerner 5. The lounge, which we also refer to as the third bunker (there are two similar suites one must pass to access it), has been a makeshift cafe, library, dance studio, game room, book club, movie theater—in short, a sort of modern-day Black salon (minus the intellectualism).

 

As I write this from Lerner 5, it dawns on me that there is going to be a final time that I sit here, surrounded by pals, drowning in laughter, and devoid of vitamin D. Within a few years, Lerner 5 will only exist in the minds and memories of my friends and I (and perhaps the USL staff who occasionally have had to ask us to bring down our noise levels). Like Rome and Linsanity, all great things must come to an end.

Illustration by Jorja Garcia

Muni Suleiman

In October 2020, my New York City was bound by the dimensions of a John Jay single. I was once surrounded by fields and gardens for miles, and I yearned to experience some semblance of my Southern life. The Conservatory Gardens inadvertently became a second home.

 

Whether I perched myself within the flourishing floral pergola of the central Italian garden, lounged by the waterlily pond in the south English garden, or shared whimsy with the Three Dancing Maidens in the north French garden, I’ve felt a sense of peace unreplicated anywhere else in the city. I know that I’m not alone in cherishing the gardens. I’ve had the accidental honor of witnessing engagements and feeling the secondhand revelry of birthday picnics. However, my reasons for visiting were always comparatively mundane: writing essays, occasionally tying myself up in another thought experiment, and people-watching.

 

With home-making often comes relationship-building. So, I’d wake up a friend on a Saturday morning, summon them to Hungarian for a coffee and an almond croissant each, and let our conversation meander like our feet en route to the gardens. Friends and family have walked through these perennial-lined paths with me many times: This doesn’t feel like New York, they’d say.

 

Recently, I returned to the Conservatory Gardens alone. Since the winter of 2022, different parts have been undergoing restoration, and each trip has come with a sigh: It just doesn’t look how it used to. The Three Dancing Maidens’ dance floor is now dirt. The Italian pergola is stripped to its tall, steel bones. The serenity of the waterlily pond is often interrupted by irrigation replacements. I stayed for three hours anyway. Much like seasons of life, I could finally accept that the Gardens have, naturally and necessarily, changed since my first visit almost four years ago. And I had too.

 

Sam Hosmer

If you or anyone you know is an architecture major, there’s a good chance you’ve spent time on the fourth floor of Barnard’s Diana Center. That’s where we take our first studio classes, exhibit our work at the end of the semester, and trim and extrude our digital models until our eyeballs smolder and our frontal lobes melt out our noses.

 

At any given hour of the afternoon, night, and morning, Diana 404, home of the intro studios, wheezes with exasperation and fatigue, students cursing uncooperative tools, broken models, opaque concepts, unhelpful truisms, dollars burned at Janoff’s, assignments perceived as insufficiently specific, too specific, or both. The intro professors, many of whose reputations far precede them, guide students through the same famous and infamous syllabi in their own famous and infamous ways—and though courses may share the same names, no two are ever alike. Bonds between peers at this point are cast in Rockite. Overhead, at 2 a.m., the lights turn themselves off; somebody grunts and turns them back on again. A few short hours later, the sun starts to rise over campus to the east. These toughening introductory rites bond our thin but mighty ranks.

 

At one point or another, though it happens differently and at different times for everyone, an anomaly strikes: at someone’s studio desk, the fog has cleared, an idea has caught fire, and the hours have turned into days. When this happens, work output multiplies. The student’s desk crowds with models and sketches and scrawl, and the studio around them fills with the smell of freshly cut basswood. Those in this phase appear clinically insane. 

 

And then, come the crit, a jury of our professors and their (often strange) colleagues, in front of everyone, judges our work. Some of us, understandably, find this to be confrontational and discouraging—but by this point, most have stuck around, because, usually in some inexplicable and vaguely pathological way, we’ve realized we adore it. In here, where everyone has just found something big and beautiful to love, how could we not?

 

Claire Shang

Just about two years ago, I managed to pack only half an egg salad for lunch, and my phone was lagging quite substantially from the 90-page Google Doc containing this very magazine’s May issue, and because I was somewhere underground on my three-train commute to work I looked up from my phone, defunct as it already was, and it hit me, then, just how lucky I was. From exigency, revelation. One semester into my year-long term as Blue and White editor-in-chief, I realized I had to savor what was left. I would have to know when to dive in and, also, when to look up. Editing my peers and friends taught me the beauty and challenge of volunteering to do anonymous work bearing no byline, of having had to be there, of believing in the potential of an idea, of seeing something through. 

Illustration by Em Bennett

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Essays

The Woman Question

On masterpieces and gender politics.

By Shreya Khullar

A few weeks into Art Humanities, I felt the urge to preempt my questions with a dreaded caveat: “Don't worry, I’m a feminist.” After several classes simmering with buildup, this uncomfortable feeling culminated in one particularly uneasy occurrence. It was a hazy February afternoon when the post-lunch drawl was settling in, and my professor was running through his usual slideshow. Then, two images were presented to the class side by side. On the left: Michelangelo’s David, a 17-foot-tall marble statue whose fiery gaze seems to be embedded into the marrow of Western art consciousness. On the right: the 4.2 x 2.3 cm Carved Cherry Stone Pendant by Properzia de’ Rossi, a delicately engraved piece I had never encountered before. When asked to name something that differentiated de’ Rossi’s work from Michelangelo’s, I raised my hand and in an annoyed (and perhaps slightly misguided) fashion said, “Well, it’s not as good.” 

To me, the question itself was a misfire. How does one compare an icon of Western art to something that seems like little more than a household trinket? Why should we be juxtaposing men and women Renaissance artists in the first place? Was it not a disservice to the feminist movement to place these images side by side to illustrate the rather obvious point that women in the 16th century didn’t have access to 12,000 pounds of marble? 

 

The aim of the exercise, my professor later revealed, was to help us think through Linda Nochlin’s seminal 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” When I first encountered this article, it struck me with almost religious force. Nochlin’s perceptive examination of the condition of women artists leads her to argue that it was institutions and education—including “everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs and signals”—that has prevented women from achieving the same levels of artistic greatness as men. She explains that the instinctual, incorrect response to the “woman question” was to “dig up examples of worthy or insufficiently appreciated women artists throughout history” in an attempt to rediscover deserving, but undervalued “minor masters.” In other words, to attempt to rewrite the Western canon by inserting women. Another misstep by feminists, Nochlin writes, would be to assert that since women were clearly not presented with the same opportunities there should be a different standard of “greatness” for women’s art than for men’s. Nochlin’s perspective began to color my vision of the entire course, and the incongruities between her position and the Art Humanities curriculum are staggering.

 

What was the study of Luisa Roldán if not the insertion of an underappreciated “minor master” into a canon that has historically excluded her? What was the pairing of Sofonisba Anguissola with the household names Michelangelo and Raphael if not the creation of a new set of standards that would allow her to be represented? With the semester inching toward a close and my curiosity only growing, I began to form my own version of the so-called “women question,” albeit one whose disputation takes place on a much more micro scale: What are women doing in the curriculum of Masterpieces of Western Art? 

 

The course itself seems to be confused about its philosophy. Some view Art Hum as a history class, others as a foundation for students to develop their own artistic preferences, and still others as a course on visual literacy. When speaking with professors in the department, each term within the title “Masterpieces of Western Art” was thrown into question.

“We were discussing even last week how the Core, in general, is getting rid of the designation of masterpieces,” says Professor Zoë Strother, Program Chair for Art Humanities. She believes the term has been weaponized in order to prevent women artists—and other artists working from the margins—from being incorporated into art history courses. This sentiment seems to prevail across the discipline and is one echoed by Griselda Pollock, renowned art historian and fierce critic of Nochlin, along with several professors in the department. “I think there's a general sense that that concept has outlived its usefulness,” Strother continued. “Masterpiece,” and its often paired term “genius,” are constructs many faculty believe are doing more harm than good due to their centrality within the curriculum. The solution? Democratize the study of art history by removing the term “masterpiece” from the course’s framework.  

 

As discourse continued throughout the semester, it became clear the question of women was inextricably linked to the broader question of the validity of the word “masterpiece.” The term itself invokes exclusion. It places certain works of art on a pedestal, deeming them categorically superior to others. By rendering that term null, it would open up the study of art in a way that doesn’t reinforce all the hierarchies and power structures embedded in the word.  

 

Yet, the foundation of this renegotiation of terms is constantly under scrutiny. In 2018, long-time frustration with Art Humanities and pressures from the political landscape at the time converged and came to a head. Columbia’s graduate students were on strike, Black Lives Matter protests were materializing across the country, and the aftermath of the #MeToo movement had opened up a range of feminist questions within universities. The following year, there was a comprehensive curriculum upheaval for the first time since the course’s addition to the Core in 1947. Professor Noam Elcott, CC’ 00, was at the forefront of these changes after volunteering to take on the role of chair in 2018 with the explicit mandate of reforming the curriculum along the lines of gender and race. “People on the more conservative end were dismissive of efforts to diversify the curriculum and, to say it bluntly, questioned whether the works and artists we were looking at warranted the designation ‘masterpiece.’ … On the more progressive side, there were calls for doing away with the Western focus altogether,” Elcott remarked.

 

While the motion to remove the term “Western” from the course title was outside the purview of Art Hum coordinators, several changes were made. Five years ago, the most salient demand was to introduce women into the course. Now, Art Humanities has more women represented than any other branch of the Core. Seven of the 21 artists taught in the curriculum are women, when previously Art Humanities was an entirely male-focused course. 

 

While increasing the number of women artists taught in Art Hum was undoubtedly an achievement, a new swath of problems is now bubbling to the surface. The course is currently structured in a way that breeds comparison. Each of the 10 units only highlights two to four artists, and the inclusion of women within these small groupings makes it almost impossible not to pick out what differentiates their work from the rest. While this is occasionally insightful (for example, the addition of women provided insight into the home-sphere, something all humans engage with but is rarely represented in art except in works by women), in my experience class discussions were geared towards constant remarks on women’s lack of education and resources, something hardly revelatory or productive. 

 

Moreover, wanting to negate the idea of geniuses and masterpieces while simultaneously incorporating women into the curriculum creates a glaring contradiction. If we separated art from artists’ biographies (biographies which led to the myth of the “genius,” the creator of “masterpieces”), then we would, in theory, view art as entirely independent from the identity of the artist. Yet, isn’t the incorporation of women specifically because of their identity doing exactly the opposite? While the term “masterpieces” appears to be universally frowned upon as a framework for the course, professors are increasingly vexed about whether masterpieces exist in the first place. 

 

Like most Core classes, professors have their own, often jarringly divergent, approaches to the topic. To Professor Ioannis Mylonopoulos, all art must be understood within its historical confines. “We are not art critics. We are art historians,” he said. This sentiment is echoed by many professors in the department. “The idea that there's a timeless, universal group of objects is not something that many people can buy into anymore. So every canon is going to be historically situated,” Strother remarked. When asked whether art can be studied outside of its temporal context, the answer was a resounding no.

 

Upon first reception, this idea rattled me. It seems that the rejection of the term “masterpiece” implies a rejection of aesthetic standards altogether. The logic is as follows: masterpieces are works of art that transcend their historical context, but since no art can be studied atemporally, the concept of a masterpiece ceases to exist. Therefore, all art becomes worthy of study as anthropological objects, and critiques of art can no longer be made on aesthetic grounds. Any judgment passed then becomes a mere matter of “taste.” 

 

Was my entire perspective on art based on a misconception? Are there no standards for art that cut across temporal and geographical boundaries? Must everything be historicised, rationalized, and contextualized into oblivion? These questions swirled within me like a storm. Intuitively, it felt wrong. What else, if not art, is capable of capturing something so essential to the human condition that it is meaningful regardless of the gender, race, nationality, or any other identity category, of the person viewing it? This internal whirlwind was only tempered when Professor Elcott explained to me that, in his opinion, constant historicization was only the “easy answer” to the question of whether art can capture the transcendent aspects of the human experience:

 

“There are elements of human experience that transcend time and place. There are elements of experience that transcend species. So what humans find beautiful is not consistent across time and space, but it's also not completely circumscribed by time and space. The people considered beautiful within their own culture tend to be considered beautiful by people outside that culture as well. And many of the works considered beautiful within a culture are recognized as beautiful outside that culture. Now, beauty is only one element within aesthetic experience and only one aspiration of art. And not necessarily the most important. But as Kant and many philosophers have recognized, these are not entirely culturally specific. And if you ask me, ‘Can art and artworks transcend its time and place and speak across generations and cultures?’, the answer is yes… I think we deceive ourselves and do ourselves a double disservice by pretending otherwise. I think that we misunderstand the capacities of art and we limit the possibilities of reaching across time and across cultures to make deep, aesthetic, intellectual, and ethical connections.”

 

So, why has it been so hard to let go of the idea of a masterpiece? 

 

My entire artistic education—whether it be the visual arts or my own area of study, literature—has been predicated on the belief that certain objects can illuminate something essential about the human condition, that objects that defy the boundaries of historical context and geographical divisions both exist and deserve to be studied. There would be a great irony, as Professor Elcott said to me, in revoking the word “masterpieces” right at the moment when women are deemed capable of achieving all the greatness that the word entails. Despite the countless setbacks women artists have faced, they have still managed to produce great art, because human beings are fiercely, endlessly creative. Even when an entire sect of humanity is constantly repressed in terms of resources and undermined in terms of skill, there are some “masterpieces,” although much fewer, that still have a way of making it to the surface. Perhaps it is this, along with my belief that the “golden nugget” of artistic genius can reside within human beings if we only excavate it out of ourselves, that keeps the allure of the masterpiece pulsing. No matter how romantic, childlike, or fantastical, the dream that a masterpiece could reside within anyone has become far too precious to me to be stamped out.

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Centerfold by Phoebe Wagoner

Essays

Senza se, senza ma

On protests, community, and faith.

By Henry Astor

All names have been changed.

 

In the early days of my study abroad, I found myself in the Jewish Ghetto in Venice. It was one of those days where you remember exactly where you were, what you were doing, what the weather was like, who you were with. The island-city was sweltering, lugging through the last of an atypically long summer, even for mild-tempered Italy. I had risen early that morning to catch the train from Bologna with my roommate Matt, stumbling our way to the station so clumsily that he forgot to pay the bus fare and was swiftly ticketed by a no-nonsense cop. 

 

While Venice’s better-known sites, like Saint Mark’s Basilica and the Ponte Rialto, were as crushed as ever with tourists in the waning high season, the Ghetto was empty. I passed through the hole in the wall that marks the Ghetto’s boundary—a semi-permeable membrane sieving the silent quarter from the throngs without. How fitting, I thought, to pay a visit to the Ur-Ghetto at the time the world’s largest, Gaza, was desperately struggling to be one no more, imagining if it could shred its own membrane and obey the laws of diffusion. Instead, despite the millions of screams so piercing you could practically hear them from across the Mediterranean, silence: one that would reverberate within me for many days thereafter.  

  

4,000 miles from home, in a country with barely enough Jews to fill my hometown, I was as far away from Judaism as I had ever been in my life. I knew this already; in choosing to study in Italy, I was after not my father’s Ashkenazi Jewish roots—prominent in all aspects about me—but my mother’s Italian ones, more heavily obscured by the cultural sandblast of middle American assimilation. No invectives like basta or cretino in our home, but plenty of chazerai and schmuck. I knew that this country, although it had nourished my forebears to life at some point in the fading past, was effectively a wilderness to me.

 

With barely a word of Italian on my lips in that burning epilogue of summer, I was stumbling through this place with the only other American I knew, all the way to the Jewish Ghetto of Venice, where I was struggling to find some reminder of who I was. Wandering amongst the quiet, boarded-up synagogues and former homes of notables, I couldn’t help but feel as empty as the Ghetto.   

 

 

Venice is beset by the ghosts of Crusaders and the chunky New Balance sneakers of the tourists who trample over them, pounding the island inch by inch back into the Adriatic. It is beautiful, but it is dead. Bologna is not only alive, it is the beating heart of Italy. All roads lead not to Rome, but to the statue of Neptune in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore. It is a place on the way to, ensnared in a tangled web of autostrade and high-speed rail lines. South comes north for better jobs. North comes south for sunnier skies. I came from the sidelines, oblique to these converging currents. 

 

Bologna’s relative life is an aggressive, indignant one. Under those bridges and catenary wires and hundreds of miles of graffiti-smattered portici is a sprawling underground. Squatting—“occupying” they call it—is the city’s favorite pastime. Earlier in the semester, I had met Angelica, a graduate student in sociology, who had introduced me to some of her friends in the scene. These included Franco, who leads an autonomia—an autonomous “communist youth organization” whose decentralized structure and disdain for elections mimics similar formations that flourished during Italy’s so-called Years of Lead. In any case, I was honored that Angelica, Franco, and a third friend, Giorgio, thought to invite me to their salon-like discourses on Mediterranean homosociality in the smoky courtyard of the sociology building, if only as a mute observer. 

 

But little things would bring my voice back out. At an outdoor karaoke competition in the neighborhood park, Giorgio taught me the lyrics to songs by Italy’s Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen in one man: the illustrious Lucio Dalla. For the rest of the semester, Dalla would pound my eardrums through every trip across the railroad tracks to the grocery store and every thumping bus ride through the cobblestone streets to my lectures. He was the city, a born and bred Bolognese whose lyrics clung to the ruddy sandstone facades, as much as the sandbags piled under windows when tanks were barreling toward crowds of student autonomists during the uprising of ’77. Giorgio had given me new eyes with which to see the city, had bestowed me with a sense of place. But I still wanted more. 

 

 

Outside of these fleeting moments, my mind was consumed entirely by Palestine. A Vaudevillian stagehand was pulling at my neck with a comically long cane, reeling me back to the empty, plucking me out of Italy and into Beit Hanoun and Shuja’iyya, teleporting me back into Morningside Heights as demonstrations on campus exploded across my Twitter timeline. Days disappeared like this, the great void within me filled with nothing but horror and disbelief.  

 

Having circumnavigated Bologna and re-encountered the three autonomists, I soon began to protest with them. At least once a week, Lucio Dalla’s streets were filled with desperate cries for the children of Gaza to live, that not another city should be menaced by tanks and sandbags and bombs. A brass band would play Bella Ciao, the anthem of the antifascist partisans who liberated Italy in the final years of World War II, after which  Mohammad Assaf’s “Ana Dammi Falastini” would blast from a loudspeaker. 

 

Italy, which was then making headlines for its cruelty to migrants disembarking at Lampedusa, was for a fleeting moment showing its best. Septuagenarian veterans of the Years of Lead linked arms with Tunisian mothers. Grubhub couriers marched with university professors. During one protest, a little boy named Samir was separated from his father in the mass of demonstrators. In tears, he sidled up to one of my comrades in the autonomia. She put him on her shoulders, bounced him up and down until the tears subsided, and they began to shout his name until his father came rushing back out of the throng. 

 

At another demonstration, while protesters were stalled on the Ponte Stalingrado, the autonomia opened up the megaphone to the crowd. Zaynab, one of the protest marshals, went up first. A Moroccan-Italian hijabi woman who had come all the way from Parma, she spoke about the takbir, her fear of being cast out of the only country she had known since she was a little girl, her confusion that her declaration of her love of God should somehow earn her the epithet of “terrorist.” Italy was her home, and she would do what it took to stay there, not just in body but in conviction. She refused to let “Muslim” and “Italian” contradict one another. 

 

After some encouragement from my comrades, I took the fore and, in as good Italian as I could muster, revealed my identity as an American Jew, here to simply do my part. Zaynab embraced me afterward. “Grazie.” What for, I wondered. This had all felt like an incredibly selfish exercise in expiation, all at the risk of my student visa. It took me some time to figure out why she did it: We showed one another that we belonged there. 

 

 

Following a call to action in the autonomia’s WhatsApp group, I found myself participating in the seizure of a campus building in a bid for divestment from Israeli universities and corporations. In this place where solidarity with Palestine had brought us all together, I was at last able to slip out of the inhuman rigidity I had felt since leaving the Ghetto. There was just as much partying as politics in the occupied building. Teach-ins and film screenings were interspersed with pizza, beer, and techno music, plus the occasional fire alarm triggered by someone’s cigarette. University delegates would show up periodically to threaten us with a sgombero – a forced evacuation at the point of a policeman’s baton, the weapon of choice in the bel paese. Organizers stood their ground every time.
 

I chatted at length with Roberto, a fellow history major who had traveled far and wide across the United States and was thrilled to finally have an English speaking partner. Luca, a sociology student, did me one better: he had visited my hometown in Tennessee, and asked if I knew some people in the music scene there. He evidently knew it better than I did. 

 

I also met Lama, one of the organization’s spokespeople. She, too, is at a place in between; her father is from Somalia. She skirts away from self-identifying as Italian, but her voice booming across the Piazza Verdi firmly cements her as one of Bologna’s main characters regardless. She belongs there. 

 

There was also a group of guys who seemed to be there mostly because they liked the smell of spray paint and the sound of techno. “Communism is a full-time job,” one of them told me. “Gotta kick back a little or else you’ll go crazy.” 

 

Franco was always the most excited to see me. I would call him the uncle of the group—he was about 6 foot 4, a grad student built like a steelworker. He and Lama were a funny pair, the two always designated to speak with any passerby or university representative. He never liked the epithet, though. “You all make this organization what it is,” he remarked in the middle of what was probably our 10th protest. Here with this rag-tag crew of chainsmoking punks, surrounded by moms and dads and kids and old folks from every corner of the Mediterranean and beyond, I had found my tribe. Arabic flowed into Italian which flowed into English senza sosta. The echoes of my self-reflections in the empty Ghetto had been replaced with the calls of a community I was proud to be a part of. 

 

 

Before that same protest, the organizers had given out at least a hundred Palestinian flags. I’ve kept mine. The most beautiful colors in the world, I couldn’t stop thinking. The colors of a home so precious that many who’ve never seen it are putting everything down for it. It was late November, one of the last pleasant afternoons before the sun began disappearing ahead of aperitivo time and before the smog set in. Those of us in the autonomia led some chants and responded to others, all experts by now. At one point, we got stuck in the Via Irnerio just before the Piazza VIII Agosto, named after the 1848 battle when the Bolognese beat back the troops of the Austrian occupation. Perhaps it was an intentional 15-minute rest, or maybe the police hadn’t moved their barricade up the street yet. In this uncertain pause, I heard a small voice, like a bird before dawn, crying out over the din of impatient chatter. It took a moment to find its source: a young boy, head wrapped in a keffiyeh, perched on the shoulders of a sister or aunt and surrounded by his family. Cessate il fuoco! Ceasefire now! Giù le mani dai bambini! Hands off the children! Soon the whole march was at his command. Israele fascista, stato terrorista! They were words a child his age should never have to know, but we followed him loyally. “Free, free Palestine!” in English. Each time it seemed like he might stop, his well of energy proved endless. I thought about the chorus to my favorite Lucio Dalla song, a letter to a friend jailed during the repressions of the mid-70s.

 

Vedi, caro amico

Cosa si deve inventare

Per poter riderci sopra

Per continuare a sperare?

 

E se quest'anno poi passasse in un istante

Vedi, amico mio

Come diventa importante

Che in questo istante ci sia anch'io?

— Lucio Dalla, “L’anno che verrà,”, 1979. 

 

“Do you see, dear friend // what we must invent // to be able to laugh it off // to keep our hopes up? // And if this year were to then pass by in an instant // do you see, my friend // how important it is // that I be here in this instant too?” 

 

The march began to move.  

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Centerfold by Phoebe Wagoner

Features

Making (Non)sense

A history of the zine.

By Jorja Garcia

A few weeks ago, in order to procrastinate a Contemporary Civilization assignment, I spent yet another night engrossed in the multitude of zines, manifestos, and mini-comics at the Barnard Zine Library. Located on the second floor of Milstein, the library uniquely propels student voices, garnering its famous reputation as “The Barnard Baddie of Libraries.” I certainly felt like a Barnard Baddie as I scraped together my own zine from miscellaneous magazines and scrap paper, using glue and tiny scissors from the library’s free collage corner.

I was introduced to the Zine Library during my first month of college, when I attended a workshop led by comic artist Sarah Shay Mirk. I received a free copy of Mirk’s How the pandemic made me rethink gender and created a zine myself. This zine, a commemoration of relationships from my hometown of Oxnard, California, only exists in my camera roll now. However, its significance to me—a reminder of my roots even as I attend school 3,000 miles away—remains just as strong. I had made zines before, but this one sprung my relationship with the medium in the context of Barnumbia: a place where I have learned the importance of pursuing ideas not already congruent with the institution’s.

 

Creating a zine can be a daily exercise, like letter writing to yourself, a friend, a stranger; or, it can be a once-in-a-while stress reliever, a reaction to an observation at a bar or a campus library. Zines can capture ideas both bite-sized and fully fledged. On Instagram, Lafat Bordieu uses the zine to extract new meanings from seemingly meaningless cosas que me encontré en la calle (things I found on the street). Ellen O’Grady, meanwhile, highlights the poetry of Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish in their illustrated zine version of his poem “The Prison Cell.” Zines can transcend the individual and the current, entering conversations central to humanity.

 

The form of a zine—one that literally cuts the conventional magazine in half—allows for lower stakes and decreased institutional oversight. Unlike this very piece, for example, which will undergo a series of edits before publication, zines welcome that which is in progress, unkempt, and often unaccepted elsewhere. 

 

The first hands to assemble these self-published scribbles were science fiction fans raving about their favorite heroes in “fanzines” of the 1930s and 1940s. Since then, the underground rock and punk scenes of the 1960s to the ’90s have helped cultivate the DIY counterculture aesthetic associated with zines today. 

 

At little to no cost, due to self-publishing and an eagerness for dissemination, zines evolved to thread connections among communities thrown into the dust and swept across the streets. As an alternative to the elite and confining perspectives of large publications, zines became a mode of tracing the origins and ongoings of counterculture movements, including their oft-marginalized communities. Zines like Search and Destroy in San Francisco and Punk Planet in Chicago traced local punk scenes. The Sex Pistols produced their own zine titled Anarchy in the U.K. Riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill and Le Tigre made their own zines to spread their disruptive confidence. Shotgun Seamstress highlighted underrepresented Black-punk voices, while Disease Pariah News disseminated important information during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Similarly, Joey Terrill’s Chicos Modernos served as a vital educational resource on AIDS for Chicano and Spanish-speaking populations in Los Angeles. 

 

But as countercultures like punk gained traction, zines also sometimes gave punk a taste of its own medicine, critiquing its lingering facade. Perhaps it is fitting to call punk a white sepulcher, as the racism and sexism bubbling within did not go unnoticed by zinesters like Mimi Thi Nguyen.

 

Having formerly frequented largely white punk rock moshes, Nguyen pushed against the staggering whiteness in the underground with her 1977 zine Evolution of a Race Riot. Published in Berkeley, California, it contains entries from women and people of color recounting their experience in the overwhelmingly white and male punk scenes across North America. Their stories capture their isolating interactions and the subsequent anger and frustration with being, for example, the only Asian, Black, or Latino person in a space. When such scenes fell short as safe spaces for racial minorities, zines offered an alternative arena. 

 

A critique of punk’s whiteness is important to punk and, by extension, the zine’s very essence: As Kevin Jagernauth says in Evolution of A Race Riot, punk remains “something that we [people of color] can identify with and abandoning that would be like abandoning ourselves.” Here, the zine becomes a tool for reinstating the presence of marginalized communities and demanding new spaces through candid conversations of intersectionality within the punk scene and beyond. Nguyen and her collaborators kickstarted a coalition for those with marginalized identities to support themselves and future generations of punks. They demonstrate the desire for humans to collaborate and amplify their own existence as a form of resistance and an effort towards reclamation. If anything, zines demonstrate the necessity for people to write their own stories, and, most importantly, to be heard by one other.

 

I encountered Nguyen’s zine during one of my procrastination sessions in the Barnard Zine Library. The Library is a portal of pages exclusively written by women, trans, and nonbinary people. Its ever-growing collection integrates new voices from Morningside Heights and beyond. The zine lovers (like myself) create community by adding their own zines to the collection, holding workshops, and running the unofficial Barnard Zine Collective. The library even holds free events like an annual Scholaztic Zine Fair in late April.

 

As one sifts through a plethora of pages, magazine clippings, receipts, colored pens, and even lipstick prints, the Zine Library recalls worlds of intimate histories otherwise left in the attic. Jenna Freedman, the library’s director, notes that it has received donations of well-kept-and-cared-for boxes filled with zines and other archival materials. This personal touch makes zines all the more cherishable. As if an old sweater, jewelry box, or quilted blanket were all packed into its creases. While sifting through these boxes, I’ve noticed the frequent use of “I” and “we,” another indicator of the form’s personable affect.

 

In our conversation, Freedman explained that the use of direct address is crucial in constructing zine introductions, one of the zine’s most essential aspects. Freedman, who has been a part of zine, punk, and feminist spheres since the ’90s, said that in her own zine-making process, she typically writes the reader’s address last. As an opportunity for a powerfully intimate first connection with the reader, it makes sense that zinesters handle the introduction with so much care. While some are simply written like a letter with a classic “Dear __,” others are packed with fervor. For example, in BE YR OWN PUNK by Margot Terc, the introduction reads: “There’s so much set up against us. And yet. We survive, we thrive, we always make it work. That is the punkest thing I know.” Introductions invite readers into the conversation. In Freedman’s words, “A zine should inspire you to make your own.”

 

Freedman made the initial proposal for the Zine Library in 2003, but today remarks, “I don’t matter, honestly.” This statement, though perhaps overly humble, nonetheless speaks to the way that the Zine Library makes room for plenty of student-led programming, taking its visitors where they want to go. Grace Li, BC ’‘24, for example, taught us how to make cyanotypes in the Library this past September. Even the space’s theme of the month, “We’ve got a zine for that,” is concerned with students’ needs. In January, the theme was “protest” zines amid the suspensions of the Columbia chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, resulting in zines such as For Laura. For Laura is an anonymous work resembling a burn book that expressed widespread dissent for Barnard College President Laura Rosenbury’s censorship of pro-Palestinian voices and promoted the boycott of her presidential inauguration. (Zines like these often lie under the television in the Zine Library for free.)

 

Reflecting on the Zine Library’s role in student intervention, Freedman only hopes that zines can “continue to be whatever students need them to be, aesthetically and emotionally.” The Library remains a zone at Barnumbia where students can actively search for uncensored and intensely pertinent stories; it aches for your involvement because it can’t continue to exist without you.

 

Though many of the zines in the Library can function as valuable tools for research, a duality exists in the collection: Some zines are deliberately intertwined with academic dialogues and others (thankfully) not so much. “Sure,” Freedman explained, zines “are a unique pedagogical tool that connects emotionally with a reader.” However, the essence of a zine is rooted in ideals of punk such as a “messy care-space” and “craft.” For Freedman, when reappropriated as a class assignment, the self-initiative that makes zines a destabilizing force in academia may be lost. 

 

Nonetheless, Freedman’s role involves instructing students and faculty how to use zines in the classroom. Certainly for myself, making a zine is more enticing than penning a 10-page paper in classes like Introduction to Sexuality Studies. When I took this course last semester, we looked at zines as primary sources of queer theory and were encouraged to create one as a final project. Many of these final projects, including my own, reconsidered the academic language of authors like Michel Foucault and Jay Prosser. 

 

On the other hand, there is an argument that casts doubt on the idea of the academic zine as a productive tool for cultivating critically new voices. Indeed, zines are useful because of the space they can give to new, less established ideas. An assignment that requires students to rehash decades-old paradigms through the zine may very well be undermining the medium’s essence. A zine should at least attempt to criticize, make fun of, or even mock the language of academia at hand, just as Nguyen criticized punk. In Professor Branden Joseph’s class Zines by Artists, students are asked to explore how “a zine can adopt and interrogate the voice of an expert.” The way that a zine is used can display whether a course actually pushes you to think beyond current institutional boundaries as opposed to simple regurgitation. In the end, as Freedman explained, “If you’re not making [a zine] for yourself, it’s not really a zine.”

 

Just as zines continue to permeate pedagogy and academia, they are also gaining traction in museum collections, like the Brooklyn Museum’s recent exhibition “Copy Machine Manifestos: Zines by Artists.” This exhibition, now closed, was co-curated by Joseph. The Brooklyn Museum’s Library and Archives also house plenty of zines that remain open to the public. 

 

Upon entering the exhibit last month, I was inundated with zines alongside other paintings, videos, and photography. My eyes darted across the room as I finally saw, in person, zines I’d only ever known through a screen. However, I simultaneously felt a significant distance from them. Enclosed behind glass cases, I was unable to actually touch, let alone flip through, the works. It turns out the zines were still out of my reach. The experience reminded me of the downsides of bringing these zines into the curatorial scene, even as they become accessible to a wider audience. A crucial feature of the consumption of zines, their ability to be held, was now restricted by the necessity of preservation. But zines are not valuable due to the quality of paper they are printed on: It’s about the physical act of holding something in your hands. It’s about feeling the creases, scribbles, and happy accidents that make a work all the more human. 

 

The publication accompanying the exhibit features an essay by Professor Julia Bryan-Wilson titled “Cool Older Siblings: Queer Zines as Queer Theory.” In the essay, which considers how older siblings can use zines to help their younger siblings develop relationships with feminism, queerness, and sex, Wilson presents a suspicion: “I’ll admit my discomfort with the idea of a museum exhibition of zines. Because the zine is always a super-local and anti-institutional phenomenon, and because it seems nonsensical to try to create a timeline or overview of a movement so vast and unruly. Zines are akin to scribbles on drawing pads shown to friends, or mixtapes given to lovers, or marginalia in books scattered throughout the world’s libraries. How can anyone possibly claim to have surveyed even a sliver of what is out there?” Wilson’s point applies not just to the zine exhibition, but also to this essay. 

 

Wilson gets at perhaps the defining feature of zines: They are, by design, anti-institutional. They are not rigid, and they are not one thing. They don’t linger. They jump around, go from hand to hand, and play hide-and-seek so you can’t chain them down. You have to want a zine, go out and find one, make another yourself, and await them in the corners of small businesses, local bookstores, coffee shops, and record shops. You have to hand them out to friends, get postage for long-distance ones, and give them out to strangers. At first glance, a zine is simply pieces of paper scribbled on and stuck together. The cheap printer paper is easy to tear apart or drown in mud. Nonetheless, zines are created with care. They are unique because they are as ephemeral as each second that passes by, yet shine as infinite and bright as the stars. They capture the beginnings of miscellaneous and creative thoughts that expand into new vortexes of individual personhood all the way to broader humankind; fundamentally, they capture the irresistible itch to create and be heard.

 

So go steal some printer paper. Fold it once hot-dog style and then twice like a hamburger. Fold another hamburger. Unfold the page and form a mouth by cutting along the two middle short edges of the rectangles. Fold it into a booklet (you’ll figure it out). Write about the raccoon you saw in Riverside Park that reminds you of your pet from back home. Write about the rat that made it up to the top floor of McBain. Write about how Columbia’s gate closures make you feel angry and trapped. Cut out and add some images from a magazine. Include a doodle if you feel confident in your artistic ability. Include one even if you don’t. Now you’ve got a zine.

The Conversation

Lydia Liu and Anupama Rao

On language, our planet, and the chatbots.

By Alice Tecotzky

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Illustration by Jorja Garcia

Watching Lydia Liu and Anupama Rao converse is like watching two bees zip through a garden. Their words zig-zag between one another, landing on ideas gently in an unchoreographed partnership. As Liu speaks, Rao nods along with varying degrees of vigor. When Rao talks, Liu smiles, quietly and to herself. Spending time with these two professors is like witnessing a secret language of collaboration, one that sustained them while co-editing Global Language Justice.

 

Released in November 2023, Global Language Justice combines work from scholars, poets, and artists across disciplines. The contributors explore the links between linguistic and ecological loss, language justice in the digital sphere, linguistic adaptation among Indigenous communities, and spatial mapping. Liu is Columbia’s Wun Tsun Tam Professor in the Humanities, and Rao a professor in Barnard’s history and Columbia’s Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies departments. Together, they recruited thinkers from across the country to define justice in a new conceptual mode. Though the contributors write of destruction—ecological, linguistic, sociopolitical—they do not operate in the vocabulary of mere death. Language is living and life-affirming, sustained by and sustaining communities.

 

In their introduction, Liu and Rao explain that the book investigates “the lifeworld of languages—always in the plural—as being intrinsic to the larger ecological, political, and socioeconomic processes that cut across developed and developing societies.” Sitting in a spacious office in Kent Hall, Liu and Rao talked to me about vitality in their book, their partnership, and their own linguistic lifeworlds.

 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity

 

.…

 

The Blue and White: I want to start by talking about the two of you: how you got connected and met, and what the nature of your relationship is.

 

Anupama Rao: Professor Liu and I worked together as colleagues and compatriots because she was the director of the Institute of Comparative Literature and Society. I was Associate Director. This was nine years ago. Lydia invited me to be Associate Director and shortly thereafter, we applied for a Mellon Sawyer grant, which allows you to put together a year-long seminar around a theme. The idea was to think about a kind of new conceptual space around something called “global language justice,” one that went beyond a simplistic sense of opening up access to think about the ways in which our global moment—climate crisis, catastrophe—was coming together with a moment in which you were seeing the extinction of languages. And also the ways in which a global English was snuffing out the plenitude and singularity of language worlds. We applied for the grant, we got it, and we ran a seminar over two years.

 

Lydia Liu: We were not interested in the usual approach to language. We make it very clear in the introduction that we’re not going to take language as an instrument for communication. We were looking for other ways to think about the relationship between language and ecology. And this was in the context of the disappearance of so many languages. People pay a lot of attention to climate change, to immigration, to all of these socioeconomic factors that affect our life. But language seems to be invisible in that whole process. We wanted to make this problem visible.

 

AR: As Lydia was saying, we wanted to stay away from the catastrophic model of, “All is gone, this is extinction, nothing can be done” on the one side. And on the other, a happy, “Let’s all think through ways we can communicate.” We wanted to animate and activate both sides of that equation.
 

LL: There were many discoveries we made in this process, because we worked with so many people, scholars, artists, activists coming from different languages. So we were also interested in learning about their stories.

 

B&W: I want to ask a little bit more about how you found the contributors and connected with them, and how your relationship with them evolved. What was the nature of your communication? What was the language you all shared with one another?

 

LL: A good number of the contributors and interlocutors come from Columbia University. They’re colleagues. We had all kinds of collaborations, including co-teaching. It was a process of discovery. Before doing this, we didn’t know that there are more than 700 languages spoken in New York City. It's astonishing!

 

AR: And that alerted us, because it speaks to the adjacency between languages. There’s both a kind of indifference, but there’s also a proximity to them. And that creates new possibilities of translingualism. The people we brought in started alerting us to people that we should be paying attention to. Initially we did think quite carefully about there being an arc. You could almost say you had poetry and law, and then in between that we had people doing digital mapping, people thinking through things like border and asylum rights. Both of us also work outside of the North Atlantic, so we were quite attentive to the global purchase. This is not a story where we should be sitting and thinking from the perspective of Europe and the United States.

 

B&W: Talking about that shape in the book, something I appreciated was when essays would reference each other. I’m curious about how people communicated with each other once you brought them into the project?

 

LL: It was during the pandemic when we were ready to actually put the book together. But before that we had many workshops, so people knew each other. And of course, that’s the role of the editor. We made them read each others’ work and asked them specifically to look at the convergence of their interests.

 

AR: We did bring things together, and because it was a tough set of conversations we also needed people who are very generous and able to step outside of their own space. I think we found people like that.

 

B&W: I think of the book as multilingual itself in how it considers many ways we might create linguistic justice. Could you expand a little bit more on your idea that the ecological devastation we’re facing lines up with the silent disappearance of so many languages, particularly for Indigenous communities?

 

LL: The poets are the ones who are most sensitive to these issues. For instance, in Mohammad Bennis’ poem. He is a Moroccan poet. He talks about speaking and breathing and death. Quite a few poets talk about death. Speaking is primarily about breathing. If you stop breathing, you die. If you extend that to an entire language community, you sort of know what’s happening. And that’s why we included the poets, because they are the most sensitive group of people who really can link language to ecology.

 

AR: That’s one element of what we tried to do. I like very much what Lydia said, that there’s a kind of sensitivity. There’s also a kind of elliptical nature to poetic language, which allows you to inhabit that experience in a very different way. For instance, there’s Abhay Xaxa, who is an Indigenous poet who passed away at a very young age. He has an interesting poem called “I Am Not Your Data.”

 

LL: Xaxa was also an Indigenous activist speaking about Indigenous demands for land. So the question of land is very, very central to our concern.

 

AR: It’s a real question of spatial inequality. Land is about a kind of grounding identity, a kind of belonging and its relationship to language. And that’s why using things like mapping and visualization became a powerful way for us to think about proximity, adjacency, and far-ness.

 

LL: Let me give you four lines from Xaxa’s poem: “I am not your data, nor am I your blank vote / I am not your project, or any exotic museum object, / I am not the soul waiting to be harvested, / Nor am I the lab where your theories are tested.”

 

B&W: That theme of not being reduced to a data point, or a theory, or a census label was striking to me in Wesley Leonard’s essay talking about his Miami tribe.

 

AR: He was a late discovery for us. We found what he was doing so interesting. This is not about the ethnography of preserving Native American languages. He rejects all of that.

 

B&W: I’m curious about his message of linguistic resilience and his push against viewing Indigenous languages as stagnant. How might that relate to ecological devastation? Can we apply a similar method or way of thinking about resilience and adaptivity to regenerating our planet?

 

LL: [Leonard] is pushing back against that preservationist approach to Indigenous languages. But what’s so interesting is that we’re really dealing with the uprooting and displacement of indigenous Native Americans. That is an historical fact. The next question is: After people are displaced, what happens to the community? The languages are gone and anthropologists would go—

 

AR: —would go and put the puzzle together. But not in terms of living languages.

 

LL: That’s right. That’s the life and death of language that we’re talking about. Leonard came up to complicate this whole situation.

 

AR: And there’s no authenticity. It’s not as though people don’t have access to a computer, or access to ways of revivifying languages in the conditions in which they find themselves. It’s very political.

 

LL: I think he makes a very good point. When you think about English, it has absorbed so many foreign languages and vocabularies. Why is it not possible for an indigenous language also to absorb English and French, like in the case of Miami? This is a double standard. We can tolerate the multilingual makeup of English, but we are demanding purity of Indigenous languages.

 

B&W: I want to switch gears a bit to talk about the essays on Unicode (the international linguistic standard that supports searching, texting, emailing, etc.) and equitable access to digital technologies. Those pieces were written by contributors, but how do you two think about the ways in which modern technology either enables or hinders global language justice?

 

LL: We’re not just making a point about the importance of technology for the goal of preserving communication or to ensure that certain languages will survive. We were also thinking about the confusion that people usually have about technology, and we wanted to clarify that in our work. That is, are we talking about a script? Or a writing system? Or language as an object of linguistic study? Or are we talking about speech? These are different things.

 

B&W: I’m curious if you have thought at all about how AI might factor into this. The chatbots are called large language models. What implications might AI models have for linguistic justice, if any?

 

LL: AI models, like chatbots, rely on the size of the data. More “high-resource languages,” in computer terms, would have an advantage in the number of documents people post on the internet, for example. The variety of data, the sheer amount of data—you can’t compare that to the data resource available for English.

 

AR: Part of the AI model is also the frequency of use. It becomes better the more you train it. That kind of interactivity also forecloses the unexpected, the unintended, the error. But much of the world that we’re working in and thinking about is in that space.

 

LL: If you want me to predict, these large language models will further jeopardize languages that do not have enough resources to train the models. English and a number of major languages will have an advantage. So that will discourage young people from using their own languages.

 

B&W: I’m really interested in the question you raise about poetry and the affective space of language and sound, so I want to bring it back to New York. I’m a native New Yorker and I think a lot about the sounds of this city. What is the quintessential New York City language to you? I don’t mean something like English, or Spanish, or Baïnounk, but more the smells, the feelings, the noises that make up your language of New York.

 

LL: If you go on the subway, you hear the languages and you really don’t know what people are speaking. And that’s New York. You don’t have to take linguistics to understand how vital language is for social life. How do you count languages? Within linguistics, there has been an ongoing debate about named languages. The languages that are not named—what do you do with them? Are they not languages? We’re also interested in theoretical questions. The census data leads to larger issues.

 

B&W: To finish off, I have a question that distills language down in a way that’s, perhaps, totally contradictory to this book. Have you thought about translation? Making this book available in a number of written languages or oral languages?

 

AR: Speaking of limited resources! I guess we are all carriers of this message now because we have so many people who got kind of transformed through working on the book, but also just coming to our workshops. So maybe we’re all kind of carrying that message. The translation is tough.

 

LL: It came out just a few months ago.

 

AR: Right. It took us a long time to put this together. And now to think about this. Hopefully there’s a co-sharer who says, “Hey, I want to do this!” We could think about disaggregating [the essays]. A lot of people who are practitioners and are actually teaching in community college classrooms or classrooms where they’re experiencing a lot of multilinguality have found this radical and powerful. They found that it had some really great pedagogical purpose, in addition to being theoretically interesting.

 

B&W: Do you feel hopeful? Whether about the planet, or languages, or those two things combined? It’s hard for me to feel hopeful sometimes—do you see glimmers of hope, sometimes, somewhere?

 

AR: Oh, for sure. I think our students are on fire. Being in an activated classroom in the way that Lydia was describing—there’s a lot of hopefulness. The world is in a dark place, in a really dark place. My general tendency is to walk the dark side and think that we need to figure out some really big ways to bring about major structural changes. But I think something like this, that is also very grounded and practical, is about making and doing in the moment that you’re in.

 

LL: It’s not possible to predict. But there are so many organizations, institutions, and individuals who demand justice. And that is hope.

The Conversation

Nadia Abu El-Haj

By Andrea Contreras and Vivien Sweet

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Illustration by Isabelle Oh

In a 2008 interview with The New Yorker, Barnard anthropology professor Nadia Abu El-Haj asserted that she was “not a public intellectual.” As an anthropologist, she was drawn to deep dives in the archives rather than contemporary events; the majority of her work on epistemology, settler colonialism, and Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms was confined to JSTOR and Sage Journals. After the fall of 2023, Abu El-Haj’s writing took on a different form. 

 

On Oct. 26, Barnard President Laura Rosenbury sent an email to the student body extending her sympathy for the tragic loss of life in Israel and Gaza, announcing an increase in public safety and crisis support on campus, and condemning hate speech on campus. Rosenbury expressed feeling “appalled and saddened to see antisemitism and anti-Zionism spreading.” Not two days later, Abu El-Haj, a member of the Barnard academic freedom faculty committee, responded in an open letter condemning Rosenbury’s conflation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. She argued that Rosenbury’s email “made imminently clear that Palestinians, in particular, and many others—Arabs, Muslim, Jewish students, and anyone else that does not sign onto the email’s politics—are welcome at Barnard only if they align with a particular political ideology.” Since then, Abu El-Haj’s scholarship has informed public writing in support of Palestinian liberation and academic freedom through  open letters, public articles, and op-eds from her coalition with the Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine. 

 

Born in New York to a Columbia alum, Abu El-Haj is one of few Palestinian American scholars with tenure at Columbia. When she began her academic career, Abu El-Haj was one of the first Americans to look at Zionist epistemology as a settler-colonial project that shapes Israeli identity and nationhood. Her work—which has sought to illuminate how the non-neutral disciplines of archaeology and genetic history have contributed to Israeli self-fashioning—earned her a respected place in the Palestinian academic canon. It also earned her a place on countless combative Zionist websites as she endured criticisms of her work and petitions against her tenure, ultimately awarded in 2007. Referring to the scrutiny Abu El-Haj has faced, former Barnard President Judith Shapiro commented in 2008: “Nadia is quite an example of grace under pressure.” Today, her leadership extends beyond the classroom as students face arrest, suspension, and censorship following protests for Palestine and divestment from Israel. Abu El-Haj is the vice president and vice chair of the board at the Institute for Palestine Studies in Washington, the co-director of Columbia’s Center for Palestine Studies, and a familiar face on Columbia’s Gaza Solidarity Encampment. We spoke about her career and current events on April 11. We focused mainly on academia, but Abu El-Haj is adamant about maintaining focus on Gaza.

 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

 

The Blue and White: You started doing research on Israel and Israeli geographical identity formation before the BDS movement gained traction on college campuses. What academic and political atmosphere were you operating in at the time in relation to your work about Israel and Palestine? 

 

Nadia Abu El-Haj: The first book [Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society] came out in 2001, so I started in the ’90s. It was a different time on campuses, not just vis-à-vis BDS, but the conversation on Palestine was much more shut down at that point. I was in grad school and I wanted to do this project on archaeology and the transformation of landscape and common sense and, basically, how do you render a settler colony a national home. I got funding for it because it was a certain moment—this was the rise of postcolonial anthropology. But it certainly was a moment where critical conversations, scholarly conversations about Israel and Palestine were much more constrained than they are now. Now they’re a flash point and, whether they’re scholarly or political conversations, can become very explosive.

 

B&W: At the time, I know that you were encouraged to look at Israel because to understand Palestine, you need to understand the institutions that have power. How did this decision to study Israeli archaeology inform your research and your understanding of the region? 

 

NAE: I had gone to grad school assuming I would work in Palestine, and I thought I would really work on Palestinian communities, families in Jerusalem. But as I worked more through my first several years of graduate school, I decided that I wanted to flip the gaze. There’s an enormous amount of Israeli scholarship in anthropology and sociology on Palestinians in Israel, particularly citizens of Israel. And I wanted to think about, rather than just studying the “marginalized communities,” how do you think about the construction of a national home at this hegemonic center?

 

Archaeology is well-known. I did not invent this or claim it as a central practice in the early decades of Israeli statehood and a nationalist practice. People had written about that. So, it became a heuristic for me. How do I see the building of the Jewish nation state and the transformation of Palestine—how do I see that on a large scale? And one could think about that through the practices of archaeology.

 

The argument wasn’t that it was a nationalist practice, we knew that. It was how, if you looked very carefully at the discipline and some of its major digs and its imbrication with architecture and landscape; how could you think about how it became such a powerful discipline in terms of a kind of ideological and political transformation of Palestine into Israel?

 

B&W: I wanted to talk a little about the nuances in how conversations are shut down. You, Edward Said, and Rashid Khalidi have each been targeted for your identities and political beliefs in relation to your work, as well as the intellectual content of the scholarship itself. How have you seen research by Palestinians be delegitimized?

 

NAE: I don't know if there’s one technique. Obviously, the accusation of bias is all over the place. You’re biased, you have an ideological or political mission, okay, but why does that comparable accusation not tend to get levied against Israeli, Jewish Israeli, or for that matter Jewish American scholars who dominated for decades the field of Middle East studies? So part of it is: Against whom does the accusation get levied?

 

In my case, there were a lot of questions about why I wasn’t, in the book, self-reflexive about being a Palestinian working on Israeli society, and my decision to do that wasn’t an oversight. That demand was being made of me, and it would never be made of an Israeli Jewish scholar working on Arabs or Palestinians. It’s very much a kind of personal attack. And when the noise about my tenure came up, I was clearly not a reliable witness. For example, ethnography came up as a big thing: “Well you know ethnographers, they don’t write anything down, they can say anything.”

 

The entire discipline’s been built on ethnography, but I wasn’t trustworthy because they immediately label me as a Palestinian scholar, not a scholar. Of course the same thing happens with everybody, which is that you’re just a bad scholar.

 

So Edward’s Orientalism (1978) gets taken on as not being historical and being inaccurate. For me it’s similar: I didn’t know Hebrew, I’d never been on an archaeological dig, I’d spent two weeks there. I mean, none of that was true. But, you can’t separate the accusation of shoddy scholarship from the identification of the scholar as Palestinian and thereby unreliable to begin with.

 

B&W: I’m wondering how the boundaries between tenured and untenured professors have been redrawn, specifically in the last few months, with regards to protest and freedom of speech on campus.

 

NAE: In general, if you’re not going to get tenure for political reasons, people don’t take you down on political accusation. You go through the tenure process and one way or another the scholarship isn’t good enough, or it isn’t enough, or you get taken down in a kind of side-angle way. 

 

If you’re on multi-year contracts, contracts can be eliminated for any reason, right? It’s like New York state law. As a tenured faculty member, technically, you cannot be fired. Which is why Edward would always say don’t write about Palestine until after you’re tenured. But I was like, I’ll find another career. That’s what I wanted to write. 

 

For the first time in my career, I would not rule out the possibility of firing tenured professors. Because I think, well, you can use Title VI and accuse them of antisemitism, which would be the grounds of firing. I would have said, 10 years ago, that’s not going to happen, but we’re in a very different political moment. It’s very different not just because of Palestine and the ongoing slaughter, and the way that has reshaped the power of donors, campus politics, etcetera, but national politics, because this is just the wedge that the Republicans needed into higher ed. This isn’t about Palestine. They want to go after DEI and they want to go after gender and sexuality studies and they want to go after race, critical race studies, right? 

 

B&W: Columbia has taken increasingly draconian measures toward both its faculty and its students. Tell us a little bit about the work that Faculty for Justice in Palestine has been doing. Is there a way in which organizing capacity as a professor is limited?

 

NAE: At this point there’s so many faculty who are just done that they’re willing to take the risk. There’s an extraordinary amount of limit to faculty organizing. So, the point of FSJP, it was started as part of a national movement as the complement to SJP. And the focus was very much on the politics of educating about Palestine and teach-ins. Of course, we also knew we were going to have to fight campus politics, the administration, in a certain way. And the immediate founding was not unrelated to that. So, after President Rosenbury sent her email that declared anti-Zionism was effectively antisemitism, I had written a letter. I went public, and then I reached out to a few people. And they were like, oh, we should just start an FJP. In the fall, there were a lot of events, teach-ins, lectures. But honestly, there’s been a lot of battling the administrations in defense of students. 

 

I think the real issue is there’s so much going on on campus that we have spent an inordinate amount of time putting out fires. I feel a little—more than a little—frustrated: Can we get the ball back on Gaza? So it’s a political organizing goal, which has both an educational mission, that’s what FSJP is, right, and an activist mission of divestment. But to even get there, I feel like we need to be able to have a moment to breathe and on this campus, we just really haven’t.

 

It’s really trying to get the administration to back off the students. The other piece is faculty governance. We just don’t have any faculty governance [at Barnard]. So the limits of organizing, we really cannot stop the administration from doing anything it wants to do. On the other side of the street, the [Columbia] Faculty Senate is set up as a faculty governance. They have more pull, but they’re still advisory. I mean, Barnard faculty are on the University Senate, but the Barnard administration is not answerable to it at all, whereas the Columbia administration, at least in terms of a tradition of decades, they have been responsive.

 

Since 1968 when a lot of this was set in place, a lot of the rules and regulations and cops weren’t allowed on campus without University Senate approval, etcetera. You know, since ’68 they’ve always consulted the Senate. And then the rule changes in the fall did not consult the Senate.

 

So, there’s limits to what we can achieve. Because I think sometimes students think we have more power than we do. So it’s not that people aren’t fighting, but these administrations are not answerable to faculty anymore. Quite clearly.

 

B&W: I wanted to return to something you said earlier that it’s been frustrating, right, that the conversation has not been about what’s actually happening in Palestine. More generally, why are our administrators incapable of naming or talking about Gaza? What are they scared of?

 

NAE: They’re scared. They’re under enormous pressure from the board of trustees and from very wealthy alumni who are absolutely convinced that the problem on this campus is that Jewish students either feel or are unsafe. [Shafik] appointed the Task Force on Antisemitism entirely in response to pressure that there is an epidemic of antisemitism on campus. [But] it requires an assessment of what actually is antisemitic, [and] what actually is pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist.

 

And feeling unsafe, I mean, I’ve asked students, even Palestinian students, I want you to parse that word. When you’re doxxed, you’re unsafe. When you’re sprayed with chemicals, you’re unsafe. But a lot of the rest of the time, you’re uncomfortable. It’s symptomatic of what’s happened to American politics, right? I mean, it’s the legacy of a certain progressive politics that didn’t think through the dangers of talking about feeling safe, right? Which was, who’s really going to be able to mobilize that accusation and make institutions respond to it?

 

B&W: What do you think about the way many universities have used academia and formal research to frame the discourse about Palestine as a spirited intellectual debate? There’s been a Day of Dialogue on campus, and the Dialogue Across Difference initiative in which they’re bringing academics to speak on balanced grounds.

 

NAE: The ones on Barnard’s campus, not a single one of us who actually works on Palestine was consulted. They brought in people I don’t know on what basis, but it was accompanied by, you know, not giving [us] rooms for events—actually literally banning, until the night before, the showing of Israelism.

 

There is a question, to me, about what do we mean by dialogue, right? I think we really have to think about when dialogue is demanded, and when it’s not. Dialogue Across Difference on the other side of the street, Bruno Bosteels, because he was running it, he actually ended up taking a much more complicated approach. He didn’t do what the whole thing here did, in which you have to have one Arab or one Muslim or one Palestinian as if it’s all the same thing, and one Jew every time. He didn’t assume that our identities were going to be coterminous with our politics. So he created conversations that were real conversations.

 

B&W: I was at a talk of yours a couple of weeks ago where you spoke extensively with Maya Wind, who wrote Towers of Ivory and Steel: How Israeli Universities Deny Palestinian Freedom (2024). You spoke about the domino effect of an academic boycott. I was wondering what an academic boycott in Israel would look like and how it would affect other Israeli institutions that endorse apartheid. 

 

NAE: I mean, the academic boycott is the BDS movement. Obviously sanctions, but divestment. Divestment materially is the most important thing. And of course sanctions in particular of not sending arms. The academic boycott occupies a symbolic field that is extremely important. Israeli academia sees itself as part of the Western academy. People are trained, largely, in England or the U.S. To get tenure, you have to write in English. So, the academy is materially tied to the Western academy in an important way. But that aside, it sees itself as heavily part of this Anglo and American university system. A real sense of separation would be saying, no, you’re not one of us. 

 

Now, this particular boycott, unlike the South African boycott, is not blanket. So, the South African boycott boycotted individuals. [Now] individuals are not subject to the boycott, but institutions are. And most research grants are, right, if you got an NSF here, the institution controls it. So it would have consequences, but, largely I think it’s symbolic. In the same way that artists are calling for people not to go to concerts in Israel. It’s the symbolic cultural isolation of a country that sees itself as constitutively related to the West.

 

The thing about the boycott conversation I think has been almost most important in the last 10 or 12 years is it’s kept the question of Palestine in the conversation because there’ve been so many arguments about, how can you do this? So it’s kind of forged open this space. It’s not a lot here, but in Europe there’s more than there was. 

 

B&W: Do you think BDS has impacted the reception of Palestinian scholarship, given that the movement really brought the discourse on Israel and Palestine into the space of the college campus?

 

NAE: I think there’s a wider audience for that scholarship now. There’s a lot of conversation across Indigenous studies and Palestine studies. There’s a lot more comparative and cross-disciplinary and cross-regional conversations about Palestine than there were 20, 25 years ago. And I think, again, is BDS the cause? Is it a symptom? Is it a little bit of a dialectic? 

 

It’s easier to have a substantive, analytic conversation without it devolving into being yelled at, which used to happen to me all the time. I think it’s part of this whole shifting trend that BDS both has fed, but has fed on. 

 

B&W: I’m curious about how we can bring it back to Gaza and to Palestine. We’ve spoken so much about the academy even in this conversation, because it’s what we’re most familiar with and also the most direct line of attack for us here in the West. How can we do that now and specifically talk not just about Gaza and genocide, but about liberation and beyond? 

 

NAE: I think that the bigger political and scholarly project is how do you change the terms of the conversation?

 

Again, as academics, we do it one way. More public writing, less scholarly writing is important at this point. Can we reframe why is it so hard to call this a genocide? How do you have that conversation? And I think there’s both the public-facing piece of that—of what it means to write and give lectures and hold teach-ins rather than constantly fighting the administration—because it’s a kind of losing battle. And not only that, in the end, we’ve got to get the focus back on Palestine.

Measure for Measure

Selected Poems

By Remi Seamon

Meanwhile, Siberia

 

Long weeks

full of swallowing and goodbyes,

full of lining up

next to caskets to receive

strange kisses on the cheek

full of returning

to watch the camels in Siberia

on the television

who can smell water

30 miles away… and even after

switching it off, and taking our

selves to bed

the camels keep galloping

somewhere through the desert, looking

for water —if I’m being honest 

they obsess me

more than pickles or men

and I think of them more than feminism

or February 24th 

the day my grandfather died

and somewhere the camels

quietly carry on

pulling ice

from the frozen stems of yellow

Siberian grass

which melts in their hot, red mouths

and trickles down their wooly throats

and keeps them alive.
 

Arc

 

It’s not that hard to write a poem

 

when you’re full of wine and light-

footed animals, and it’s past three

 

and someone’s yelling on the phone but you’re

on your back staring at the ceiling

 

counting cracks… not everything’s

a movie. Sometimes men

 

have tattoos on the back of their neck

for no reason

 

and no one kills Jennifer Coolidge, she just dies

and you can’t always see the moon

 

not because the government makes you pay now

but because there are clouds

 

though maybe that too. You can’t

always change things

 

and Jesus can’t save the whales

but you can hear the cool water slapping

 

against the sides of the boat.
 

The TV

 

I watched you through the TV

turning stones over with your shoe. You

were someone I loved, badly cast

in a suit. You were forced to grow

a beard longer than the road

that leads to the place

you were never born… I pour tea for us

and drink it by myself. It’s the color

of policies and the taste of love

that someone left on the stove

until it spilt, and gave us

third degree burns. The TV

is a box that holds love

like wind. Your voices reaches me through it

your voice, searching for the end

of the poem — a child looking for a hand

or the poem looking back at itself —

there you are, being watched, peeling

an orange, there I am, drinking my tea

burning my love on my tongue

wanting everyone safe

and dead

and televised.

Illustration Em Bennett

EmilyWellsBennett_PoemsSeniorVignette.JPG
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