by Brian T. Edwards
Director of the Program in Middle East and North African Studies
There is an advantage in arriving late to the party.You can catch up on the conversations that have been going on for some time before you arrived, missing the original intrigue, perhaps, but happy too that much of it died out before you got there. You can sidestep those strands that seem to have become mired in argument and obsessive dispute. And your presence – your new perspective – can sometimes open a fresh angle on what seemed a closed circle.
Arriving late to the party is perhaps the rule of scholarship in the humanities and interpretive social sciences. So many conversations have been going on long before the latest generation arrived, first as students and then as teachers. There is always plenty of catching up to do – it frequently worries graduate students, and often younger professors, too. But there is the life cycle of careers in research and teaching; new perspectives and new approaches are the rule.
In area studies, however, there is an additional advantage to coming late to the party. Middle East Studies as an academic formation focusing on the modern and contemporary region emerged in the United States in the wake of World War II. To be sure, there had been American scholarship on the region before then, and some institutional clusters of academic specialists in the United States, generally referring to themselves as Orientalists and focusing primarily on philology and the ancient or medieval Middle East. The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, for example, was founded in 1919, and Princeton’s Department of Oriental Languages and Literatures was founded in 1927, and specialized in the study of the Arabic, Turkish and Persian languages, and on the medieval and premodern periods. With the end of World War II, however, the new international prestige and power of the United States seemed to many Americans in government and academia to require the creation of more knowledge – more expertise – about parts of the world that had been under British and French colonial control or influence. As Zachary Lockman writes in his critical history of the academic study of the Middle East in the United States: “Just as the evolution of 19th-century academic Orientalism was linked with the expansion of European power into Muslim lands, so too was the development of Middle East studies as an academic field closely connected with the emergence of the United States as a global superpower and its deepening involvement in the Middle East.” 1
Those involved with foreign policy, including academics, emphasized that the need for area expertise was a national imperative. Listen to the tone of the editorial note in The Middle East Journal, the journal of the then newly formed Middle East Institute, in the inaugural issue, January 1947:
No apology need be offered for adding a quarterly journal relating to the Middle East. Except to a very few Americans – Foreign Service and Army officers, educators, businessmen, travelers – this area is essentially terra incognita. Such a circumstance was a matter of no great practical consequence when the world was large and only loosely knit together. Now that the Middle East is very near the United States in point of time-distance and almost equally near with respect to matters of concern in American foreign policy, it deserves such thoughtful attention as can be initiated and encouraged. 2
If the editor’s note suggests the relevance of scholarship to foreign policy, the contents of that first issue are just as telling. Articles entitled “Nationalism in Morocco,” “The Arab Tribal Community in a Nationalist State,” “The Communist Movement in Iran” and “The Struggle for Multi-Party Government in Turkey” shared the pages with the reprint of statements by the Director of the Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs, the text of an agreement between the US and the Kingdom of the Yemen, the text of a note from the US to the Soviet Union regarding the question of the Turkish Straits, and a digest of labor relations in Lebanon. Created by a combination of scholars and statesmen, the Middle East Institute was funded by donations from corporate sponsors and foundations. The contents of the inaugural issue of the Middle East Journal reflect the broad public of policy makers, business people and general readers the journal hoped to address. Although the editors promised not to take an editorial stand, the somewhat limited focus on questions of nationalism, communism and political institutions revealed an emerging Cold War political perspective.
Foundations – including Rockefeller, Carnegie and Ford – would be crucial in funding the rapid development of area studies programs in US universities in the late 1940s and 1950s. Some of the early leaders of the growing field came from Europe and the Middle East itself. In 1947, Lebanese historian Philip Hitti came to Princeton, where he created a new Program of Near Eastern Studies out of the former Department of Oriental Languages and Literatures, the first such program in the US. H.A.R. Gibb left Oxford University in 1955 to lead Harvard’s new Center for Middle Eastern Studies. And Austrian scholar Gustave von Grunebaum, who had fled the Nazis, landed first at the University of Chicago in 1943, and then at UCLA in 1957, where he was appointed to direct their new Center for Near Eastern Studies; he would be named the first president of the Middle East Studies Association upon its founding in 1966. 3
As the Cold War heated up, and as the colonial order began to crumble, the imperative to develop area studies gained ground quickly. In response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first human-made satellite, in the fall of 1957, and a general sense that the US was falling behind the Soviets in education, the federal government encouraged a significant ramping up of education across the board. President Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) in 1958, with provisions for increases in education funding at all levels. Math and science were, of course, major beneficiaries of the NDEA, but it was recognized that more expertise in foreign languages and area studies would be required in the new world order. The famous Title VI of the 1958 act, entitled “Language Development,” established research centers, language institutes and fellowships. The Higher Education Act of 1965 expanded these initiatives. Together, these acts created a network of “National Resource Centers” in area studies (including the Middle East), Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships (FLAS) and other key components of Middle East studies programs today. These innovations strengthened the link between the government’s interests and the work and funding of scholars.4 This, too, is the period when new think tanks such as the aforementioned Middle East Institute (founded 1946) and the RAND Corporation (1948) forged – or attempted to forge – connections between academics and government policy.
There would be many peregrinations of the developing field from 1947 through the long Cold War and beyond, to the present day. The highlights of such a story would certainly include the foundation of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) in 1966, an organization that began with fifty members, but which now counts more than 2,700 individual members, 60 institutional members and 39 affiliated organizations. Edward Said’s influential and controversial critique of the academic study of the Middle East in the West, most famously in his 1978 study Orientalism, and the debates around it in a range of academic fields and subfields, would be another key episode in the recent history of Middle East studies. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a series of major historical events in the region – especially the Palestinian Intifada beginning in December 1987, increasing awareness of a new Islamic revival and the 1991 Gulf War – led to further divisions in a field that seemed increasingly polarized. Following the events of September 11, 2001, a renewed focus on the politics of Middle East studies scholarship, and of the personalities involved with the field, would make Middle East studies an often fractious and challenging place. By 2001, the links between foreign policy and academic research on the region had arguably become more diffuse, but that did not stop some from accusing the field of complicity with the designs of those who would attack the United States. Indeed, conservatives accused academics of abusing Title VI funding. 5 Meanwhile, the renewed public obsession with the Middle East and the political projects of the Bush administration expanded government funding in a number of areas, even while conservatives pushed for limitations on and reform of Title VI.
Let me return to my opening metaphor of coming late to a party. For a variety of reasons, Northwestern University decided to create a robust institutional program in Middle East and North African studies later than many of its peers. In early 2006, the university signaled its intent to put significant institutional resources into developing faculty resources in Middle East studies.
Daniel Linzer, then Dean of Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences (and since September 2007, Northwestern’s provost), appointed a faculty committee to make recommendations for the development of the field. That committee, chaired by Professor Carl Petry of Northwestern’s Department of History, now the Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani Chair in Middle East Studies, and including two contributors to this collection (myself and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd), delivered a report that made a variety of recommendations for building Northwestern’s offerings that reflected both institutional needs and changes in the study of the region. We have embraced the opportunity to bring fresh perspectives and approaches to the study, and appreciation of a region that is incredibly diverse, remarkably dynamic and especially complex.
As the interdisciplinary formation that is Middle East Studies developed its own tradition of scholarship, in a sense it too came late to a different academic party.
The current generation of scholars – well-represented in this collection – emerge from a field that itself has been undergoing change as the impact of discussions in other subfields, including literary theory, postcolonial studies, political theory and sociocultural anthropology, have questioned their own methods, their own relationships to political history and power.
At MESA’s annual meeting over the past decade, the impact of these greater scholarly trends has been exhilarating to note. In the field at large today, younger scholars are pursuing a dynamic set of new directions in thinking, teaching and writing about a region that has recently shown the world that older paradigms for understanding it – particularly as a region stuck in its own past – were academic errors, not prescriptions.
Shortly after the Middle East uprisings of 2011 – the so-called “Arab Spring” – frustrated with narratives of those who claimed the Middle East was always stuck in the past or was naturally beholden to authoritarian leadership, the estimable journal Foreign Affairs published the essay, “Why Middle East Studies Missed the Arab Spring.” With the title of the essay displayed prominently on the cover of the Summer 2011 issue, its author, F. Gregory Gause III, a senior political scientist, claimed: “The vast majority of academic specialists on the Arab world were as surprised as everyone else by the upheavals that toppled two Arab leaders last winter and that now threaten several others.”
6 While Gause self-deprecatingly included himself in the company of those he chastises, his essay neatly and silently delimited the field of Middle East studies to preclude those disciplines outside political science (and a narrow version of that field, to boot) where richer discussions have been taking place and which might reframe the conclusions he comes to in his essay. 7 For him, before the winter uprisings, “we in the academic community made assumptions that, as valid as they might have been in the past, turned out to be wrong in 2011.” Unwittingly and unfortunately, the essay reassures those outside university settings that to attend to Middle East studies scholarship is unnecessary, since the failure of academic specialists was symptomatic of larger American mistakes: Academics have nothing new or different to offer.
And yet in the work of many of the scholars gathered here, and of those with whom they are in dialogue, questions of political or cultural identity and widening inequalities and increasing political and economic oppression had indeed been richly explored. In the fields of literary and cultural studies, socio-cultural anthropology and sociology, religious studies, media studies, and the work of a younger generation of historians, the old “truths” are like those conversations at my imagined party that seem to have run out of steam.
With a fresh and invigorated perspective on the region learned from extended time in the region, a rich appreciation for its many languages, ethnicities, religions, nationalities, and trans-national points of contact and affiliation, new directions in the field escape the narrower political prescriptions of the 1947 issue of The Middle East Journal and the 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs.
They teach us not to accept the received wisdom, not to keep the region at a distance, and to recognize the deep history of connections between and across the region and the US, and also the places and spaces outside of them. And they encourage and excite us to teach this receptive approach to a yet newer generation of students and readers for the years to come.
The essays collected in this volume emerged from a meeting held in Doha, Qatar, on September 11, 2012, a date chosen arbitrarily, but an anniversary which could not go unnoticed by at least some participants and members of the audience. These short pieces represent working papers or interim reports on manuscripts in progress by 10 faculty members working in Middle East and North African studies at the two Northwestern campuses. The subtitle of the collection emerges from a symposium series organized by Northwestern’s Program in Middle East and North African Studies (and its forerunner, the MENA Faculty Working Group).
The first two symposia took place in Evanston, Illinois, in May 2010 and April 2012, and invited leading young scholars from a range of institutions to share their work. For this, the third in the symposium series, eight of the MENA faculty from Evanston traveled to Doha and were joined by two NU-Q faculty. Together, we staged a daylong symposium. The papers collected here emerge from those presentations, with the benefit of discussion and the opportunity for revision. The disciplines represented range from political science to literary studies, from history to anthropology, and from communication studies to law. And so, on the face of it, one might have expected a more disparate or disconnected set of essays. However, as the reader will soon see, this is hardly the case.
While the various authors respect the methodologies and procedures of their home disciplines – and sometimes speak directly to them – they also just as frequently gesture across disciplinary boundaries. The organization of this volume highlights the multiple connections that link these essays. To be sure, the scholarship presented here will be of interest to students and researchers based in a number of disciplines. What is perhaps more interesting is the ways in which the authors here address scholars from other fields and borrow from modes of scholarship based outside their disciplines without sacrificing their primary allegiances.
There are of course multiple ways to highlight the connections across the essays, each of which would potentially bring out different intellectual affiliations and points of dialogue. I have chosen to divide the essays into two groupings, both to highlight the interdisciplinarity of this collective conversation and to underline what I think are some of its overarching contributions. The first group of essays, called “Circulation of Political Discourse,” brings together thoughts by five scholars who together focus on questions of how politics get felt, thought, expressed and circulated. The second, called “Transnational Migrations,” shows in a variety of ways how people, ideas and forms move through the region.
The authors in Part I of this collection offer a silent rejoinder to the critique levied by Gause. Through research before and after the Arab uprisings, these scholars, working in a range of disciplines, offer a variety of well-drawn examples of how Middle East scholarship, particularly when it focuses on the local and the individual, can open up understanding of the pressures that revealed themselves on a large scale in 2010 and 2011. As these scholars show us, and have shown us in their previous publications, those pressures were indeed visible far before they exploded on the global media stage.
Leading off the collection, Jessica Winegar focuses her essay on an affect – an emotional state – that was manifest in Cairo in the year prior to the uprising of January 2011, and which helps to explain the sentiments that eventually found massive collective expression. She shows how the sentiment of being or feeling zahaq – which she translates as “fed up” – explains the experience of workers at two different cultural projects in Cairo: one a celebrated NGO founded in 2005, the other a state-sponsored cultural garden that was created by Suzanne Mubarak in 1990 to “bring culture” to children of a poor district in Cairo.
Winegar argues that the affective states of boredom and cynicism that she witnessed among workers in both settings may not be merely moods leading to disaffected politics. Indeed, she argues, they can become resources for political agency.
In dialogue with Winegar’s work as a cultural anthropologist, Wendy Pearlman, in the second essay, brings a focus on emotions to her own work as a political scientist. Pearlman explains how over the course of two books about Palestinians, she came to see emotive experiences as central to understanding the relationship between citizenship and political regimes.
Interested in what she calls the “affective foundations of citizenship,” Pearlman outlines a comparative project that shows how emotions across the Middle East vary from fear to cynicism to shame. To be sure, she and Winegar are in dialogue, and while the two scholars have different means of gathering data and different disciplinary uses for that data, it is useful to compare Winegar’s findings about zahaq, or “fed-up-ness,” in the case of Egypt, to Pearlman’s focus on the micro- and macro-level effects of affective states. Pearlman’s interest in emotions leads her to the moment when both the collective and the individual barriers of fear are broken down, allowing mass resistance to develop – a key turning point in the recent history of the region.
Sonali Pahwa takes an interest in the expression of personal feelings in yet another direction, and brings in two additional realms: personal writing and digital media. In her work on Egyptian women’s personal writing online, Pahwa considers the concept of a digital home, the space crafted in the online world of a blog, and the ways that space allows young Egyptian women to negotiate the restrictions on their daily life. She finds that in so doing, they are recrafting previously prescribed pathways and otherwise delimited social roles for Egyptian women and engaging the digital world opened up by the Internet both to enter public life and, in the process, to transform the public-private divide. Engaging key concepts from cultural anthropology – particularly that of the socially crafted space – and using ethnographic fieldwork as the basis of her archive, like Winegar and Pearlman (and also Hoffman and Khalil), Pahwa’s essay is one of several bridges here between the interpretive social sciences and the more text-based approaches to be found in literary and legal studies.
Joe Khalil’s work on youth-generated media provides another lens on the digital worlds of the Middle East, while shifting the rubric by which to analyze such materials. His cases are drawn from research in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, where he has been researching the ways in which young people use a variety of media to participate in public life, and often to challenge political power. Taking up ideas advanced by Joe Downing on “radical media” and Clemencia Rodriguez on “citizen media,” Khalil uses his case studies – work by a Lebanese blogger-activist and by a Saudi woman filmmaker – to show how Arab youth are appropriating a wide media toolkit to put pressure on the status quo. In this, of course, his work and Pahwa’s are in direct dialogue: They are both looking at how youth use media to reshape their lives and social space.
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s essay rounds out the first part of this collection. Hurd draws on discussions from a range of disciplines – especially anthropology, religious studies and political theory – to focus attention on the ways in which the promotion of international religious freedom makes assumptions about what it means to be religious and what it means to be free that may run against practice outside the West. Drawing on the example of the current conflict in Syria, Hurd argues that the ways in which religious freedom is exported as a putatively universal norm – what she calls the “globalization of religious freedom” – tends to distract us from recognizing that there are politics behind this export, and that what seems universal is always also situated in history.
In Syria, she argues, alternative possibilities for negotiating religious differences present themselves; she identifies an “agonistic model of religious freedom.” Paradoxically, however, these models may be foreclosed by those proponents of religious freedom. She argues that we must recognize the particularity of Syrian models of religious freedom and acknowledge the limitations and bias of top-down, universalist models of freedom.
Hurd’s essay, identifying as it does another ideology that crosses national borders in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, is a perfect bridge to Part II of this collection. It is comprised of five papers that in various ways contribute to discussions about the transnational movement of peoples, ideas and cultural forms. In the past two decades, scholars in a variety of disciplines have been responding to the imperative to understand the way “globalization” has been understood, felt and expressed.
Many theorists have dated the beginning of globalization as a historical period to the early 1970s, generally because of the demise of the Bretton Woods system. But as historians and cultural and literary critics have done further research, they have brought forth earlier episodes where a transnational or comparative approach to understanding phenomena previously understood through national(ist) lenses seems most appropriate. In so doing, they reopen questions that seemed closed, often challenging basic premises of the related disciplines in the process. Thus, projects such as Henri Lauzière’s study of Egyptian reformers in Mecca in the 1920s and Rebecca Johnson’s study of the early Arabic novel in the 19th century are not only in dialogue with Middle East studies scholars working on these particular places and times, but also with discussions from a range of disciplines pursuing what Johnson calls “transnational circuits of literary and material consumption.”
Lauzière takes on a fascinating moment in the modern history of Islam: the relationship between Egyptian religious scholars and the Saudi state. Those interested in Egyptian Salafism have noted this link, but most dated its genesis in the 1970s. Lauzière looks a half-century earlier and shows how early 20th-century Egyptian religious activists played an important role in turning the new Saudi state into a center of religious learning in the 1920s. The influence was in both directions, to be sure, as Egyptian reformists such as Rashid Rida and Hamid al-Fiqi traveled between Cairo and Mecca, where they edited journals, engaged King `Abd al-`Aziz ibn Sa`ud and had a firsthand look at Saudi Wahhabism. As Lauzière puts it, these Egyptian reformers were indeed “walking a tightrope” as they developed ideas that would be influential in the process of Islamic reform back in Egypt, negotiated the religious rigidity to be found in the Saudi state and tried to find ways to critique Wahhabi anxieties about modern science. In the process, of course, the Egyptian activists were influenced by the Saudi context, and Egyptian Salafism more generally owes a significant aspect of its own heritage to this moment in transnational intellectual history.
Rebecca Johnson’s essay focuses on a different occasion of transnational cultural intersection, in the service of a larger historical argument about the history of the novel itself. Johnson discusses Khalil al-Khuri’s 1859 novel Wayy, Idhan Lastu bi-Afranjī (Alas, I Am Not a Foreigner), which is claimed to be the first novel in Arabic. If so, al-Khuri’s work displaces the 1913 novel Zaynab, which has until recently been considered the first of its kind. This is not merely a piece of literary trivia: It promises to revise our accounts of the Arabic novel itself, which has until recently been characterized as derivative and a cultural import from Europe. In Wayy, she finds something more complex, and retells the story of the Arabic novel as embedded within a transnational circuitry where cultural and material objects were in continual motion. The subject of Wayy, after all, is an Aleppo merchant who is trying to marry his daughter to a European visitor. Thus, by focusing on the layered, cosmopolitan Aleppo, Wayy teaches its readers to understand the local “not against the global, but within its unequal structures of exchange.”
With its focus on transnational processes of cultural exchange, Johnson’s discovery from the mid-19th century maps in compelling ways against the two essays that follow it, despite their contemporary focus: Katherine Hoffman’s essay on Libyan exiles in the borderlands of southeastern Tunisia and western Libya, and my own on what American culture looks like in its 21st-century circulation throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
In my essay, the kinds of situations Johnson focuses on seem not impossibly distant, despite the temporal remove, but somehow repeated in the ways that both audiences and cultural producers in Iran, Egypt and Morocco take up and re-craft American cultural products. My essay seeks to bring to the foreground the question of the circulation of a literary object or cultural product precisely because it has generally been relegated to the background in literary and cultural studies. I propose that objects such as Iranian redubbings of Shrek or Moroccan films that borrow Hollywood formulas for more localized problems, such as Laila Marrakchi’s Marock, which would previously have been off the radar of comparative literature and Middle East studies, are in fact points where transnational cultural production and global politics come together and help inform each other.
Hoffman’s ethnographically rich account of the encounter of Tunisian and Libyan Berbers in the borderlands of southeastern Tunisia during the recent Libyan Civil War provides further evidence that the nation as a form is in many cases hardly the dominant form of social identification. Her essay shows how the lived experiences of refugees revolves around and puts into action numerous other social and cultural affiliations.
This is particularly true during a revolutionary period, when the arbitrariness of the ways nation-states collect individuals are exaggerated.
Based on multiple research trips to the region between the fall of Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi, as well as subsequent visits, Hoffman’s conversations with displaced Libyans and their Tunisian hosts reveal the ways Berber language, identity and shared cultural values exceed the idea of being Libyan or Tunisian among these refugee communities.
The final essay, by Kristen Stilt, takes us into legal studies and the ways in which references to Islam and Islamic law are incorporated in modern constitutions, particularly the new constitutions recently and soon to be crafted in the Middle East. Stilt shows how decisions about how to figure Islam and Islamic law into these constitutions is frequently imported from other national constitutions, and is thus influenced by decisions in other countries with Muslim majorities without respect to localized histories and contexts. Discussions of the cultural aspects of globalization reference the global flow of ideas and forms, and Stilt’s essay shows how Islamic sharia itself experiences transnational migration. Her comparative account, therefore, opens up Islamic law for legal scholars and students focused on other disciplines. It also brings a richly researched set of examples to discussions about “constitutional migration” within legal studies.
These ten papers are all reports on in-progress projects, promissory notes for books and articles yet to come. Since they were crafted to participate in an interdisciplinary dialogue, it may seem apt that they focus on the points of connection across the disciplines. In doing so, they also bring forth new directions in both the subfields and disciplines these scholars are working in and the field of Middle East and North African studies at large. To conclude by invoking one last time the metaphor with which I opened this introductory essay, the advantages of arriving late are here compounded by gaining an early perspective on the work of this set of Northwestern scholars.