On Thursday, Azd Al-Kadasi ’14 returned to campus to speak about the defacement of his “I Am Williams” poster as part of the annual Claiming Williams day. Al-Kadasi’s poster was vandalized in early October: the portrait’s eyes were gouged out, the throat slit and a cross etched onto the forehead.
Al-Kadasi returned to the College from Yemen, where he works as a Researcher and Activities Coordinator in conflict resolution at the National Dialogue Support Programme.
He spoke to a crowd in Baxter Hall about his reaction to the incident and his time at the College. Though he said he had originally planned to talk about his feelings of displacement, he explained that he would rather not lecture. Instead, he shared his story in order to promote understanding.
He projected his “I Am Williams” poster on a screen, first the original and then the vandalized copy.
Al-Kadasi first heard about the incident on Oct. 1, from a friend, after catching a flight from Yemen to Jordan, where he was scheduled to give a speech about peace through economic reform. On Oct. 2 he received an email about “difficult news” from Dean Bolton. That same day a car bomb exploded in Yemen and killed 40 people.
“I’m on edge,” Al-Kadasi said of his mental state before opening the email. “And it’s from Dean Bolton so I think, okay, one of my friends at Williams died. This is going to be bad.” When he opened the email and read about the defacement, he said it made him realize that he is in a “different reality” than he was at Williams.
“I didn’t take this very personally,” Al-Kadasi said of the defacement. “I knew that anyone who does something like that does not understand, or has not even attempted to understand, what’s really going on.”
Nonetheless, he said the vandalism still meant something to him, because Williams has shaped who he is and the way that he tackles the issues he faces in his job. Though his time at Williams was interrupted — he took two leaves of absence, one to work to pay for his brothers’ educations, and one to participate in the Arab Spring of 2011 — he grew substantially at the College.
After returning from his second leave of absence, in the middle of his sophomore year, during which he lived without electricity for eight months in a “ghost city,” Al-Kadasi realized that his relationship with his school and his home were reciprocal: The College prepared him to get involved with all the things he did in Yemen, and Yemen gave him “the motivation to be [at the College] and do something great here.”
Al-Kadasi was the first Yemeni student to attend the College and the only member of the Muslim Student Union who could read Arabic, so he often led the Adhan, the Islamic call to worship. By the end of first semester, he was co-president of the organization, and by the end of the year, he helped organize the first Muslim awareness week. In the fall of 2011, he worked with other community members to bring the first Muslim Chaplain, Bilal Ansari, to the College.
According to Al-Kadasi, the news of the vandalism made him reflect on his identity both at the College and in the Middle East. In his speech about peace the day after the incident, he talked about the importance of realizing the power of one’s actions.
“You can be empowered and achieve peace,” Al-Kadasi said, “if you believe you are part of a community where you can make a difference. I think that’s Williams.”
A new print of Al-Kadasi’s poster now hangs in upstairs Paresky, surrounded in a demonstration of solidarity by a collage of smaller “I Am Williams” portraits of students, faculty and staff in the same style as his.