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Staging the War on Terror

English PhD student researches cross-cultural perspectives on terrorism through performing arts. He's interviewed on WVXU (91.7 FM) at 7 a.m, Sunday, Dec. 20.

Date: 12/16/2009
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Provided by George Potter
Studying terrorism for a dissertation can be risky business. English doctoral student George Potter gets his bags searched every time he comes back home from a foreign country. He’s not sure if he is a red flag to the U.S. government, but it doesn’t seem a coincidence when an American spends a year in Egypt, learning Arabic and studying locals’ views on the U.S. occupation in the Middle East.

Interestingly enough, the trip was funded by the American government. As a 2008-2009 Fulbright Scholar, Potter traveled to Cairo, London and New York to study drama about the international conflict.

George Potter.
George Potter, seen here on top of Bab Zuweila, one of the medieval gates of old Cairo, is a Fulbright Scholar that traveled to Egypt last year.

His dissertation, “Global Politics and (Trans)National Arts: Staging the ‘War on Terror’ in New York, London and Cairo,” explores cross-cultural depictions of contemporary international art and politics, including competing discourses on rhetoric by the Bush administration, British resistance to the Iraq war, and Egyptian debates over Mubarak’s relationship with America.

“What’s exciting about George’s project is that it’s not every day you can do a project in the humanities that is urgent, timely and wrapped up in the world today,” says Jon Kamholtz, associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of English and Comparative Literature. “It’s especially interesting because politics have such a strong theatrical edge.”

“He has a great sense of how political passions are getting expressed in theatrical form,” Kamholtz adds.

Potter has experience as a playwright, an actor and a political activist. While earning both his BA and MA at Indiana State University, Potter helped organize the biggest anti-war protest the city of Terre Haute had seen since the Vietnam era.

So when it came time to pick a topic for his dissertation at University of Cincinnati, he chose to combine his love of the arts and politics.

“I figured I could either complain about it or do something about it myself,” Potter says. “I’ve always enjoyed working with literature and art, and I think there’s a way to reach people about political issues in the literature department that you can’t necessarily in a political science department. You can get people interested in the issues in a different way.”

George Potter and the pyramids.
While in Egypt, Potter learned Arabic as part of his dissertation work on politics and drama.

Plus he’s much too liberal to ever get elected, he adds with a laugh.

To collect data in Cairo, the largest Arabic-language theater community in the world, Potter spent two months intensively learning the language before meeting with Egyptian playwrights, directors and actors. For a variety of reasons most plays in Cairo aren’t published, so Potter had to rely on primary sources for information about local theater.

From there, he spent a few months apiece in London and Manhattan, attending performances and pouring over scripts.

“One of the questions I’m trying to answer is how artists are using major international events like 9/11 to address local and political circumstances,” Potter says. “And in a broader sense, are they just critiquing the circumstances about politics and war, or are they offering a viable alternative as well?”

So far, he has observed that American theater focuses more on the psychological effects of 9/11 and less about politics, whereas British theater is traditionally political and aggressive in its opinions. Egyptian theater, Potter says, is more complicated due to state censorship, but it usually includes debates about the U.S. and the Mubarak regime.

“George is an emergent, important scholar of drama,” says his dissertation advisor Jana Braziel, associate professor and faculty chair of the Charles Phelps Taft Research Center. “He’s tackling difficult subject matter in a nuanced, brilliant way.”

With very little scholarly work on Egyptian theater available, Potter sees his research as imperative to expanding Middle Eastern awareness in Western cultures. Teaching a course on Middle Eastern drama will help him do just that.

“So far, many students have seemed to be extremely interested in the Middle East. They don’t know very much, but they want to know more,” Potter says. “And there’s a lot that can be done in the field to raise awareness.”

Even if some red flags have been raised on Potter for his research, to him there’s an even bigger red flag: not doing this kind of research at all.

Listen to Mark Perzel's interview of George Potter on WVXU-91.7 FM, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2009, at 7 a.m.

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