On May 25, Sa’ed Atshan was chosen by the Swarthmore College Class of 2018 to speak at their “Last Collection,” an opening ceremony of their Commencement exercises.
Here are some excerpts from his talk. (A full length audio version, 26 minutes, is here. A transcript of the talk is here. ) I’m posting them as a sample of Atshan as a speaker, and as a man sharing his identity and evolution with younger peers. I believe much of this would have been in the talk he was planning for Friends Central last year.
But this was an experience denied to the students at Friends Central School. To prevent him from speaking there, two teachers at Friends Central were fired, and a high administrative official left. This shameful incident is now the subject of a federal lawsuit. (More on that lawsuit and its background here.)
Atshan’s Swarthmore talk was intriguing to me for several reasons, but one was a question I’m still seeking the answer to:
What is it about this talk, and about this person, that was worth destroying the jobs of three loyal faculty at Friends Central School to stop him from giving it on their campus?
Many readers will know that the Friends Central administration has refused comment on this matter. So we’re on our own to sort it out. This talk is not a final answer; but is worth reading and pondering as the seeking continues.
Sa’ed Atshan: Friends, thank you for selecting me and providing this opportunity to address you. I am deeply honored.
Four years ago, you sat in this very place for the First Collection. The candles that each of you lit then, and that you are lighting tonight, represent the Quaker notion that the Light of the Divine lives in every human being. I love that Swarthmore welcomes its students with this tradition grounded in egalitarianism. For many Quakers, the understanding of Light is connected to the Christian underpinnings of the Religious Society of Friends. And yet, for other Friends, who consider themselves non-theists, the Quaker conception of Light is not necessarily a reflection of God, but rather the transcendent power of seeking truth, and of doing so in community.
And so we are here for your Final Collection. In this setting, we celebrate a milestone in your pursuit of the light of knowledge. This liminal space provides time for reflection, for you to look back and forth at the same time, in anticipation of the next transition that awaits you.
As a Quaker myself, I believe that the light you carry within will continue to radiate, connecting with others for the rest of your lives. I felt that Light often as a student here and now feel it every day as a member of the faculty. . . .
While growing up, I was incredibly fortunate to have gone to the Ramallah Friends School [RFS], established by Quakers in Palestine in the 1800s. The school helped save my life. With political violence seemingly everywhere around me, the campus was a beautiful oasis.
I found solace sitting in Quaker silence among my peers, the teachers, and the staff in the school’s chapel. With the cacophony of bombings, gunfire, Apache helicopters, missiles, bulldozers, funeral processions, and demonstrations all around us, our collective silence and reflection enabled me to feel what Quakers refer to as Spirit. Wherever I go, it is from the depths of silence with others that the presence of Spirit is most palpable.
Ramallah Friends was my refuge not only from living under Israeli military occupation but also from the heightened masculinity in my society. As a boy who was not very macho, I would have been bullied at other schools, but there, in a Quaker setting, I was embraced. I would kick the ball to the opposing team during soccer so they would leave me alone, and everyone would laugh alongside me with love and support. I would place last in track and meet competitions, and yet I received thunderous applause and cheers from my peers as I crossed the finish line. The person who placed first would receive much less attention and then stand there at the end quite dumbfounded. . . .
[At Swarthmore] we proceed along the trajectory established by the Quakers who founded this institution. Among them were abolitionists and women’s rights activists. One of our founders, Lucretia Mott, once said, “I long for the day my sisters will rise, and occupy the sphere to which they are called by their high nature and destiny.” Were she here today Mott would be delighted to see Swarthmore led by President Valerie Smith and incoming Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton.
Mott would also be pleased to learn that what was Swarthmore’s stop on the Underground Railroad is now the foundation of our Black Cultural Center. The BCC was purchased from the Robinson family who were Quaker abolitionists. In their basement, the Robinsons sheltered slaves on their way toward freedom. Today, the BCC community, through its vibrancy, and under the leadership of Dean Dion Lewis, honors the spirits of those former slaves. . . .
Swarthmore was generous to me as I explored my interests throughout my undergraduate years, and for this I am thankful. The Lang Opportunity Scholarship funded my work as an Arabic translator and interpreter for the American Civil Liberties Union in their lawsuit on behalf of Iraqi torture victims held in U.S. custody in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. . . .
In 1888, Swarthmore was the first institution in the nation to offer a peace studies course, and so this year we celebrate 130 years. It is a privilege for me to teach in such a historic program. In recent years, we have experienced rapid growth, with about 10 percent of this year’s sophomore class declaring majors and minors in peace and conflict studies. And my position is the first tenure-track hire solely devoted to peace studies in the history of the College.
One of the most significant ways that I found myself at Swarthmore was by accepting my gay identity. I am grateful to Swat for dragging me out of the closet years ago, which clinched its second home status for me. The queer folks among you can attest to the fact that, for many of us, you can run, but you cannot hide here; inevitably someone or something will catalyze the coming out process. . . .
I know that the weight of the world can feel heavy. Some of you are still finding your voices and grounding. That. Is. Okay. How do we sustain our spirits at each step along the way? Self-care and self-compassion are essential.
Please know that we need you for the long haul. Give yourself permission to not always be cerebral. Believe it or not, even your professors indulge in the occasional—or perhaps more than occasional—temptations of junk food, Netflix binges, and dance parties. We, too, take walks in the Crum, marvel at blooming flowers in the Rose Garden, and people watch in the Science Center Café. As Audre Lorde once said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
You will build your own families over time, and in your own ways, and each of those paths is legitimate. It is important to find home in our own bodies and in our own skins, starting with our names. The names we inhabit parallel the bodies we inhabit. Love your name, own your name, deepen your relationship with your name, whether it’s one you received or the one you chose, with its apostrophes, hyphens, accents, unique spellings, and beautiful pronunciation. All of our names form the recognition of our collective humanity. . . .
Earlier posts on the Friends Central School controversy are: