Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate and a visiting professor at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the LongerRange Future, speaks on November 27 and 28
Week of  23 November 2001 · Vol. V, No. 14


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For new history prof, kung-fu films were ticket to Chinese history

By David J. Craig

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.

  Zvi Aziz Ben Dor, a CAS assistant history professor, first became interested in Chinese culture through the kung-fu films he loved as a boy in Israel.
Photo by Albert L'Étoile

"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."

Standing out
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."

Between worlds
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 fascinating."

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."


23 November 2001
Boston University
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