Getting To Know Your CMNS Faculty: Adel Iskandar

March 07, 2023

As a teenager growing up in Kuwait, Adel Iskandar was no stranger to war zones. In an environment where there is war, sometimes the only way to understand the world around you is by watching television or listening to the radio. These media messages informed Adel and his family whether they were safe to stay inside, or if they had to flee to a bunker. Interacting with media in that way made Adel acutely aware of how fabrication, propaganda, and persuasive messages were constructed by political forces to impact realities. It was then that Adel's interest in media and journalism spiked, when he realized that media could both save and cost lives. His academic journey started long before he entered university.

Flash forward to 2022. Adel is now an Associate Professor of Global Communication in Simon Fraser University's School of Communication. And his curiosity towards the media has not yet waned. In fact, Adel notes that his academic journey is a lifelong, nomadic experience, one of exile and self-discovery. You learn every step of the way, he admits, and the journey never ends. As a lifelong learner, you will find that your journey is always unfolding.

Adel and his family emigrated to Canada when he was a teenager, where they lived in Nova Scotia. Then Adel made his way to Indiana, then to Kentucky, to Texas, to Washington D.C., and finally, to Vancouver. His research is informed by all these places that he's lived in and the communities he's interacted with, including Indigenous communities of Turtle Island, the Middle East, the  and migrants who have been uprooted.

"We all feel we belong somewhere at first," says Adel. "And then, as we go somewhere different, or learn more about the land we are on and our relationship to it, we are implored to rediscover who we are in that new place, that new relationship."

Adel's research has been largely in the area of political communication and cultural studies. He considers the idea of constant movement and the contours of transnational power within larger institutions, like large media institutions. He asks of his research: how do the media use discourse and language to catapult centres of power at the expense of the colonized and marginalized?

Adel also examines political digital humour. He has embarked on a large research project based around memes and satire in the Egyptian Revolutionary Movement and how satire can be transformational in the political sphere.

We sat down with Adel to chat with him more deeply about his career.

What has been the proudest achievement of your career so far?

During the first year of my PhD in the United States, 9/11 happened, and the world around us seemed to transform. As a person of colour, I immediately became securitized. In a mere six months, the US launched two massive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that cost countless lives and inaugurated the so-called "War on Terror" which continues to this day. As a young and precarious grad student immersed in a frenzy of militarized nationalism, I had two options, then. One, I could roll into a corner and hide. Or I could stand up against this toxic narrative. I chose the latter and began writing critical works that undermined the jingoistic sentiments in the United States. As a result of this work, I got invited on a television show called Politically Incorrect with provocative comedian Bill Maher. While on the show, I learned that I'd been invited specifically to serve as a prop. A Middle Eastern person who Bill would poke holes in and undermine. But instead of letting him write this narrative of me, I challenged him and his idea of Middle Eastern identity, pushing him so hard that he had to take a commercial break! Now, keep in mind, this was during a time where you couldn't say these things on air, you couldn't criticize the War on Terror. However, I did it anyway, and I felt immensely proud because it was one opportunity to push back against this patriarchal, racist narrative on live television before millions of viewers. For the following weeks my email was filled with both hate messages and messages of support lauding me for saying what so many thought but couldn't utter at the time.

Another similar instance of this took place in 2011 during the Egyptian Revolution. People's lives were on the line, and I wanted to make an immediate impact, so I turned a weekly column I was writing in an Egyptian newspaper into a commentary about the uprising (eventually collected in an anthology called Egypt and Flux Essays on an Unfinished Revolution). And it wasn't the publication that made me feel proud but the need to avoid silence and passivity and stand up for justice in the face of autocracy.  Similar to the Iranian diaspora today, while my life was in no immediate danger, I felt a strong responsibility to support those in Egypt who were rising everything for a modicum of justice.

These instances, more so than any academic achievements, were the proudest moments for me.

What courses will you be teaching when you're off leave?

I will be teaching "News Media, the Public, and Democracy" as well as "Mass Media Communication in the Middle East."

What is the best part about your profession?

Well, the students, firstly. It's an incredible feeling when they get back in touch after we've parted ways to say that my course impacted their life, that our connection--whether that's the information I imparted or the conversations we had--made a difference to them. When I go into a course, I have a clay-like template that is shaped by the students. The students shape every aspect of the educational experience, including the instructor. So I'm getting molded by these courses as much as the students are.

The second-best part of my job is that I get paid to ponder. For a living, I get to ask big questions, to think about things and search for resolutions to issues I've been grappling with for years.

And the third best part is being surrounded by curious minds, of the students and of my colleagues.

What strategies did you use to succeed in grad school?

Succeeding in grad school, in my view, is really about three things. One: perseverance against all odds. Grad school is not a walk in the park. Sometimes, you will get battered around. It takes over your life. So you need to be able to persevere and survive. Two: protect yourself. You must remember to care for yourself throughout grad school by thinking outside the box about what is good for you and by being kind to yourself. And three: build a community. Sometimes these communities do not exist where you're studying, so you must go out and find them. Build a safety net of people who will support and champion you.

What is your favourite memory from SFU so far?

I have two! Since coming to SFU, I have to say that I've found a community for myself. As a School, we genuinely care about each other. At the end of the day, we're all just humans. It's not just a workplace, it's a place where we live. We get married, we get divorced, we raise children and pets, we build friendships, we lose loved ones. Life happens while we're at these institutions. And when I say that I'm thinking in the context of a personal example. I lost a lot of loved ones in a very short amount of time, and the CMNS faculty and students were incredibly supportive. My favourite memories are when they were a family I could lean on. Their care will stay with me for the rest of my life.

The second occurred when I received the SFU Teaching Excellence Award. Again, it wasn't winning the award itself that makes it one of my favourite memories but the way it came to be. I learned that a student had nominated me, and this student refused to make their identity known. Even after I won the award they never came forward. They didn't want recognition. They didn't want a reference letter. They simply nominated me because they felt it was deserved. This selfless act on the part of the student moved me immensely.

What advice do you have for students?

Love what you do. I know it sounds like a tremendous privilege to say love what you do because I know it's not easy going after what you love but try to find pleasure in what you're doing. Hopefully your journey at university leads you to people who will foster these things that you enjoy, maybe a supervisor or professor, that will help you chase your passions. I realize that it is very difficult to be a student in twenty-first century Canada. The cost of education and living is exorbitant, so don't just think outside the box. Do away with the box entirely. Be creative and do things in an unconventional way. Don't try to fit the mold of the university, get the university to fit your mold. Students can change the structure of the university to serve them best.

What motivates you every morning?

The desire to work with students. I thoroughly enjoy working and interacting with my students in a way that nurtures their curiosities. The students make the academic world rewarding. And then, of course, I have little kids, so they wake me up in the morning and get me out of bed. Literally. There is something truly special about young people's infinite curiosity and what they bring to our lives.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

I enjoy watching soccer; it's a beautiful game. I spend time following players and teams. I also really enjoy food, and we live in a great food city. And of course, I love following online jokes and humour.

And finally, what book(s) do you currently have on your nightstand?

There are two books on my nightstand. The first is a general book on world mythology that covers Aztec, Mayan, Greek, Byzantine, Chinese and Egyptian myths. It's like an encyclopedia or almanac of myths that I keep sifting through. So much of our lives are about myth, and I love seeing how they mirror contemporary life. The second book is a Palestinian cookbook by Reem Kassis. Palestinian food hasn't been publicized very well, and it's this beautiful book about food, family, and exile. The author tells a story about the passing of recipes between herself and her mother, where the ingredients are from, and how they are prepared. Palestine has been a holy land for so many people and many have migrated there, bringing their cultural foods to the area. This book is an amazing amalgam of different Palestinian cuisines.

Learn more about Adel Iskandar by checking out his Faculty page here.