new history prof, kung-fu films were ticket to Chinese history
Growing up the child of Jewish Iraqi immigrants in Jerusalem in the 1970s,
Zvi Aziz Ben Dor found refuge from the crime and boredom of the streets
in a run-down movie theater in the poor east end of town.
"The men in our neighborhood went to see American Westerns and kung-fu
films, and for the women there were really sad and romantic Indian and
Turkish pictures, because the cinemas didn't get any movies from Arab
countries," says Ben Dor, a CAS assistant history professor who came
to BU this summer. "But for the boys, kung-fu movies were everything.
We walked into that cinema and were in a different world. On our way home,
we'd all be trying to imitate the characters' movements -- their hits
and strokes and everything."
Ben Dor never perfected a single martial arts move, but the B-grade, Hong
Kong-produced fight flicks had a cerebral impact. The 35-year-old scholar
of Chinese intellectual history smiles broadly as he points to a Bruce
Lee poster on his office wall. "That I'm at BU I owe to that man,"
he says. "Kung-fu movies were my window into Chinese culture."
It is remarkable that Ben Dor became a scholar of Chinese culture if only
for the fact that it required learning a fourth alphabet -- he spoke and
wrote Arabic at home, he learned Hebrew and English in school, and he
took up Chinese in college. (He also is fluent in Japanese and Spanish.)
But that Ben Dor became an academic at all is amazing. His parents, whose
ancestors had lived in Iraq for thousands of years, were deported to Israel
as teenagers when anti-Semitism in Arab states worsened in the early 1950s,
following the creation of the state of Israel. They went to work as soon
as they arrived in Israel, Ben Dor says, without having finished high
school, and for nearly 10 years lived in tents in transition camps before
finally buying a one-room home in Kapamonim, the poor Jerusalem neighborhood
where Ben Dor was raised.
The transition to life in Israel was especially difficult for Ben Dor's
grandfather, an extremely religious man who sold cloth in Iraq, but gave
up work to found a small synagogue upon immigrating to Jerusalem. "For
his generation, the establishment of Israel was something of a religious
redemption, and I don't think he ever really understood or accepted that
Israel was a secular state," Ben Dor says. "In Israel, you are
supposed to be a new Jew, one of modernized European orientation."
In his Jerusalem elementary school, where tensions between Ashkenazic
Jews of European descent and Sephardic Jews of Eastern descent ran deep,
students were encouraged to learn a trade, and Ben Dor planned to become
an auto mechanic until he was well into his teens. An excellent student,
he was the only child in his grade school class accepted to an elite Jerusalem
high school attended by only a handful of Jews from Arab countries. But
after his freshman year he wanted to transfer to a local trade school
so he could be with his friends. "As someone with Arab heritage,
you were part of an enemy culture when you were outside of your own neighborhood,
and you felt it," he says. "I hated every minute of high school.
But my father begged me to stay, and I trusted him."
Ben Dor's struggle to reconcile his background with the pressure to be
"a new Jew" made him interested in learning about different
cultures. Soon, a curiosity about Chinese culture sparked by the kung-fu
films developed into a serious interest in Mao Tse-tung. "I remember
reading about him very intently when he died in 1976," he says. "And
when his wife's diaries were published in Hebrew in 1978, I read them
very closely. I think I was a bit of a Maoist in my teens."
After serving in the Israeli military, Ben Dor enrolled in Hebrew University
and completed the course work for both bachelor's and master's degree
in Chinese in only three years. "I worked as a security guard at
night, and that's how I learned Chinese," he says. "Scribbling
the characters thousands of times, over and over, just like Chinese boys
have done for centuries."
To perfect his spoken Chinese, he traveled to China in 1991 as part of
the first-ever Israeli-Chinese student exchange. Enthralled by the language
and by the intellectual and social history of China, he entered a doctoral
program at UCLA in 1995 and received his Ph.D. in history there in 2000.
Ben Dor's dissertation was about the way some Chinese in the 17th century
rediscovered their Islamic roots and translated Islamic texts from Arabic
and Persian into Chinese, a subject that resonated with him personally.
The dissertation, which he now is sending to publishers, argues that these
Chinese Muslims, who were assimilated into Mandarin Chinese culture at
least 400 years prior to the 17th century, were inspired to record their
own cultural history by the Manchus, who had done the same thing for themselves
upon conquering China in the 1640s.
"These were people who were educated in classical Chinese studies
such as Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, and were a part of an elite
Chinese culture," says Ben Dor. "Yet, at some point they decided
to learn Arabic and write about the culture of Islam in order to keep
their own identity. As someone who grew up in two worlds, I found that
Ben Dor is planning to study next the way Japan tried to persuade Chinese
Muslims to revolt in the 1930s by arguing that they were not truly part
of the Chinese culture.
His passion, however, is teaching. "One interesting thing about kung-fu
movies is that they always have as a theme the importance of preserving
and transmitting knowledge," says Ben Dor, who is driven in part
by the fact that his parents were deprived of an education. "That's
central in all Chinese philosophy and art, and it's probably the most
important lesson I get personally from Chinese culture. For me, teaching
and learning are the highest things."