Research on the Middle East has taken her places she never expected. by Robert Duffley
Research on the Middle East has taken MAAS alumna Kathleen Ridolfo places she never expected. At CCAS, she specialized in Palestinian politics, but since leaving there, she has applied her research skills to Iran, Iraq, and now Oman, as the new director of the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center (SQCC).
Founded in 2005, the SQCC sponsors outreach programs and cultural partnerships to promote understanding of Oman in the U.S. As the Center’s new director, Ridolfo’s mission is to educate Americans about the breadth and richness of Oman’s culture and civilization. In the coming years, she hopes to expand the Center’s influence and deepen existing relationships with universities and cultural arts organizations.
From 2000 to 2002, Ridolfo studied at CCAS, concentrating in politics. Interested in the Middle East from a young age, she recalls following the First Intifada in Palestine from her home in New Hampshire. Her interest in the Middle East deepened as she interned at the Middle East Institute as an undergraduate, then worked with NGOs in Palestine prior to enrolling in Georgetown’s Master of Arts in Arab Studies (MAAS) program.
The MAAS curriculum, Ridolfo says, was vital in deepening her knowledge of the region, and it taught her to think about its history and politics in a new way. “The biggest benefit of CCAS was the interaction with the professors,” she said, recalling classes with Dr. Mike Hudson and Dr. Samer Shehata. Professors were particularly inspiring when they presented on their specialties. “When you study the Levant,” she said, “you can’t help but think of Dr. Hudson.”
While at CCAS, Ridolfo worked as a research assistant at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., focusing on Iran and Iraq. In 2002, she was hired by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and she moved to Prague in the Czech Republic to work as an Iraq analyst. When she first arrived, there was no free press operating inside Iraq. “Radio Free Iraq’s job was to broadcast free and independent news in a country where free and independent news didn’t really exist,” she said. She says her experience at NDU enabled her to ease into the position, but six months after she started, when the U.S.-led war began, “everything exploded.”
The influx of western journalists at the start of the war, however, “didn’t necessarily mean that the Western press was a true reflection of what was going on.” As a Radio Free Europe analyst, she conducted more in-depth research than was typically broadcast in the West.
In 2008, Ridolfo left Radio Free Europe and began working as a Senior Lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School. Working with the Leader Development and Education for Sustained Peace (LDESP) program, she taught Middle East history, politics, and culture to U.S. Army officers deploying to the Middle East. Modules vary according to officers’ destinations, but the program offers a broad base of regional exposure complemented by a specific core of political, media, and cultural information.
In the winter of 2011, Ridolfo returned to D.C. to take the post of director at the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center. “Although I’ve never worked on Oman before, I was really intrigued by it.” She recently returned from an introductory week-long trip to Oman, her first visit to the country, where she met Omani officials and received an introduction to the country’s cultural sites. She observed how Oman’s culture is unique compared to other countries in the Arab world, due in large part to the influences received through Oman’s proximity to Indian Ocean trade routes. “It’s a fascinating place,” she said. “Their music is different, their dress is different, and their dance is different.”
As director of the SQCC, Ridolfo’s primary goal is to promote understanding of this unique culture through events aimed at many different audiences. On the university level, the Center oversees a Summer Arabic Language and Media (SALAM) program in Manah. The center has programs for general audiences too. In February, the Center sent a team to the National Museum of African Art, where they supervised children painting traditional Omani mijmarah incense burners. In April, an Omani ‘ūdensemble will play at the Kennedy center in Washington, D.C., and this summer the Center will bring six Omani artisans and six dancers to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they will participate in the Santa Fe Folk Art Festival.
Ridolfo hopes to continue these initiatives and build relationships that allow for more exchange opportunities. In April, she will travel to the University of Arizona, where an Omani falaj irrigation system will be unveiled at the school’s biosphere. In the coming year, she will plan the Center’s annual conference, and she hopes to make a second trip to Oman in the fall.