I taught my first class on the Odyssey at the University of Jordan today, and I was not prepared for the nerve it touched in my students.
I normally consider the Odyssey light, comedic, adventure entertainment– especially compared to its sibling, the Iliad, which ends in the death of a great man, an honorable hero, and with portents of doom for many characters with whom we have come to sympathize.
The Odyssey, on the other hand, ends with a family reunited, a faithful wife rewarded, miscreants massacred, a crafty hero returned to his rightful place, and an awkward adolescent making his way into manhood. Plus nymphs and cyclopes, and sea monsters. And lots of feasting.
My students saw it differently. Many of them are Syrian, or Iraqi, or Palestinian. More than half the class said some variation of: “We know what it is to be kept away from home, to show up destitute on the doorsteps of strangers and hope they greet us with compassion instead of hostility. We know what it’s like to wonder about the fate of family members, caught up in wars that seem to go on forever, and to hope against hope that one day they will come home.”
I looked at my class– overwhelmingly women– bright-eyed, expressive, eager, razor-sharp, in their stylish, colorful, head scarves, or their Ramones t-shirts and jeans. And I was (and continue to be) profoundly moved– stunned, and ashamed I had been such a fool that I hadn’t anticipated a reading like this.
My class went in a very different direction than the one I had planned.
For many, many reasons, this is one of the great rewards of lifelong study and teaching of literature. The opportunity to be astonished, to feel a blaze of new light shed on an old story (one of the oldest). To be dazzled by a glimpse into another’s vision.
I will have more to say on this, I think. But right now, I know just enough to know that I’m not even close to figuring this out yet. And that I’m going to be wrestling intensely with how to help my students approach this text.
It used to be that the ending of the Iliad posed the greatest threat to making me tear up. After today’s class, I wonder if the Odyssey won’t have the same effect.