Matthew Ellis

Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation Chair in Middle Eastern Studies and International Affairs

BA, Williams College. MPhil, University of Oxford. MA, PhD, Princeton University. Specializes in the social, intellectual, and cultural history of the modern Middle East. His first book, Desert Borderland: The Making of Modern Egypt and Libya (Stanford University Press, 2018), examines the impact of various state-making projects on local experiences of place and belonging in the desert region linking Egypt and Libya during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Broader intellectual and teaching interests include: the politics and culture of nationalism, modernity and identity formation in the Ottoman and post-Ottoman Arab world, cities and imagined urbanism, nostalgia and the politics of collective memory, popular culture, the historiography of borderlands, comparative British and French empires, and the history of geography and cartography. Articles published in History Compass and The Long 1890s in Egypt: Colonial Quiescence, Subterranean Resistance (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). Research was supported by grants from the Social Science Research Council and the American Research Center in Egypt. Recipient of a Fulbright-IIE grant to Egypt. Member of the American Historical Association and the Middle East Studies Association of North America. SLC, 2012–

Undergraduate Courses 2019-2020

History

The Middle East and the Politics of Collective Memory: Between Trauma and Nostalgia

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Fall

What is the relationship between history and memory? How are historical events interpreted and rendered socially meaningful? How is public knowledge about the past shaped and propagated? How and why—and in what contexts—do particular ways of seeing and remembering the past become attached to various political projects? In recent decades, historians have become increasingly interested in the unique role and power of memory in public life and have sought to understand the innumerable ways that collective memory has been constructed, experienced, used, abused, debated, and reshaped. In this course, we will explore these themes and questions by reading deeply into the rich literature on historical memory within the field of modern Middle Eastern history. Particular attention will be paid to the following topics: the role of memory in the construction of Palestinian and Israeli national identity; debates over national remembering, forgetting, and reconstruction following the Lebanese Civil War; Middle Eastern diaspora formation and exilic identity (for instance, after the Iranian Revolution of 1979); the myth of a “golden age” of Arab nationalism; Turkish nostalgia for the Ottoman imperial past; war, conflict, and trauma; Islamism and salafi interpretations of Islamic history; and the role of museums, holidays, and other commemoration practices in the construction of the national past across the region. Throughout the course, we will attend to the complex interplay between individual and collective memory (and “countermemory”), particularly as this has played out in several formulations of Middle Eastern nationalism.

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The Emergence of the Modern Middle East

Open , Seminar—Year

This course provides a broad introduction to the political, social, cultural, and intellectual history of the Middle East from the late 18th century to the present. After a brief conceptual overview, the course draws upon a wide array of primary and secondary sources to illuminate the manifold transformations and processes that have contributed over time to shaping what has meant to be “modern” in this remarkably diverse and dynamic region. Particular attention will be paid to the following themes: the question of modernization and reform within the Ottoman and Qajar empires; the experience of different forms of European imperialism in the Middle East; the integration of the Middle East into the world economy; World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire; state-building in both colonial and postcolonial contexts; transformations in religious thought; changing family norms and gender roles and the genesis of Middle Eastern women’s movements; nationalism; class politics, social movements, and revolution; Zionism and the Israel-Palestine conflict; post-World War II geopolitics and the Cold War in the Middle East; Nasserism and pan-Arabism; the role of US power in the Middle East; the origins and spread of political Islam; the political economy of oil; globalization and neoliberalism; and the impact of various new cultural forms and media on the formation of identities across the region.

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Women and Gender in the Middle East

Open , Seminar—Spring

Debates over the status of Middle Eastern women have been at the center of political struggles for centuries—as well as at the heart of prevailing Western media narratives about the region—and continue to be flash points for controversy in the present day. This course will explore the origins and evolution of these debates, taking a historical and thematic approach to the lived experience of women in various Middle Eastern societies at key moments in the region’s history. Topics to be covered include: the status of women in the Qur’an and Islamic law; the Ottoman imperial harem; patriarchy and neopatriarchy; the rise of the women’s press in the Middle East; women, nationalism, and citizenship; the emergence of various forms of women’s activism and political participation; the changing nature of the Middle Eastern family; the politics of veiling; Orientalist discourse and the gendered politics of colonialism and postcolonialism; women’s performance and female celebrity; archetypes of femininity and masculinity; and women’s autobiography and fiction in the Middle East. Throughout, we will interrogate the politics of gender, the political and social forces that circumscribe Middle Eastern women’s lives, and the individuals who claim authority to speak for women. The course will also briefly examine gender and sexuality as categories for historical analysis in the modern Middle East.

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Previous Courses

After Colonialism: Development, Modernization, and National Culture in the Middle East During the ‘Long 1950s’

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

Students are expected to have completed previous coursework in either Middle East Studies or modern history, though exceptions can be made with permission of the instructor.

The 1950s were a transformative decade in Middle Eastern history. On the one hand, it was a heady period of national liberation. Egypt, under Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser and the Free Officers, shook off the last vestiges of British imperial influence and led the rapidly decolonizing Arab world in calling for the region’s complete political and economic independence from the West. Israel, for its part, flexed new muscles as a fledgling independent state and strove doggedly to fortify both the bounds and bonds of the nation. On the other hand, the 1950s witnessed the emergence of a new mode of state-society relations across the Middle East, predicated on a firm ideological commitment to government-led modernization. This course will provide a close examination of the dynamics of postcolonial nation-building and modernization in the Middle East during that pivotal decade by focusing on the interplay of politics and culture—particularly in Egypt, Israel, and Turkey, each of which pursued strikingly parallel paths of modernization and national development in the 1950s with profound consequences for the future of the region. Special attention will be given to cultural production (cinema, music, literature, radio, popular newspapers, and magazines) as a critical lens for understanding how the contours of modern citizenship and national belonging were similarly negotiated and contested throughout the decade.

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Palestine/Israel and the Politics of History

Open , Seminar—Fall

This course provides a comprehensive introduction to major topics and debates in the historiography of Palestine/Israel from the mid-19th century to the present. The course has two broad goals: first, to delineate significant trends and transformations that defined the political, economic, cultural, intellectual, and social history of that contested land in the modern period; and second, to explore the evolution of—and fraught political debates surrounding—varying interpretations of this history. Themes to be covered include: Ottoman Palestine in the 19th and early 20th centuries; Jewish modernity and the origins and trajectory of Zionism as an ideology and political movement; the emergence and development of Palestinian national identity and nationalism; British colonial rule and the Mandate system; the historiography of partition and its consequences; the construction of Israeli national culture and identity after 1948; the politics of memory among Israelis and Palestinians; regional war and diplomacy; the role of the United States and the global ramifications of struggle in Palestine/Israel; and various aspects of state and society within Israel, with a special focus on the diversity of its ethnic and religious composition. It bears saying that this is not a course about the “Arab-Israeli conflict” or even primarily about “conflict,” as such; rather, this course provides an integrative approach to Palestinian and Israeli history, emphasizing the construction and articulation of multiple visions for forging collective identity within Palestine/Israel, as well as strategies for establishing and asserting control over it. To this end, we will pay particular attention in this course to cultural sources—especially literature and film—as a way to capture the complexity of voices and identities that claim this land as their own.

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Propaganda: A History of Spin

Intermediate , Joint seminar—Spring

This seminar provides an interdisciplinary analysis of the phenomenon of mass persuasion in modern society. How does propaganda “work”? How should we characterize the individuals and institutions that shape and disseminate it? What are the specific languages and visual symbols that propagandists have typically used to affect mass audiences? How have both “democratic” and “authoritarian” societies sought to generate consent. And how, in turn, have individuals and social groups drawn the line between what is truth and what is propaganda? Although the manipulation of information for political ends has been intrinsic to human societies across history, this course focuses on the so-called “axial age of propaganda,” beginning with World War I, which saw the emergence of tightly organized, large-scale, government-sponsored propaganda efforts across Europe and the United States. The course will place special emphasis on the interwar period, when—amid the onset of totalitarian regimes in Europe—the very nature of “public opinion” and mass society were hotly debated by intellectuals and interpretive experts. This course will utilize a variety of case studies to explore the symbolic content of specific kinds of propaganda and the institutional milieux that produce it, paying attention both to propaganda that seeks to overthrow social structures as well as to maintain them. Finally, the course will consider the ubiquity of propaganda in contemporary society, focusing on the role of image-making professionals working in the spheres of political campaigning, advertising, and public relations. Specific case studies may include: The U.S. Committee on Public Information during World War I, the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda, Stalinism and the Soviet Union, state control of culture under the Deutsche Demoktratische Republik (East Germany), McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist, ISIL, and Breitbart News and Trumpism.

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Middle Eastern Nationalisms

Advanced , Seminar—Fall

Students are expected to have completed previous coursework in either Middle East Studies or modern history, though exceptions can be made with permission of the instructor.

This course provides an intensive theoretical and historical inquiry into the phenomenon of nationalism as it has played out in the Middle East since the late 19th century. What is a nation? How are nation-states built and sustained? How did the nation form first take shape in the Middle East, and what are the broad challenges and historical mechanisms that have governed its evolution across a variety of specific contexts? The course will be broken into two main sections. Part I will examine the current theoretical literature on the origins and spread of nationalism, introducing students to key scholarly debates and innovations that transcend Middle Eastern historiography. Part II will develop and apply the themes and theoretical concepts from Part I by exploring specific Middle East case studies, focusing both on state-sponsored nationalism as well as on popular practices and experiences of nationhood and national identity. Brief attention will also be paid to professional history-writing in the Middle East since the 1930s, specifically the role of nationalist historiography in partitioning the Middle Eastern past.

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First-Year Studies: Place, Landscape, and Identity in the Middle East

Open , FYS—Year

What does it mean to “belong” to a place, and how do people’s sense of belonging affect their worldviews? All too often, the Middle East is portrayed in Western media as a place defined by perpetual conflict and upheaval. By the same token, prevailing interpretations of Middle Eastern history and society tend to present the region’s inhabitants as intensely ideological—at once primarily motivated by, and inured to, oftentimes violent struggles in the service of broad political forces for change (of which Islamism represents, perhaps, the most commonly cited example). In this course, we will attempt to challenge such widespread conceptions of the Middle East as a hyperpoliticized region by approaching it through an entirely different optic—the relationship that various Middle Eastern societies have forged with the places and spaces they inhabit. How have different environments and landscapes—from the Sahara Desert and the ancient and continuously occupied cities that dot the region (such as Baghdad or Damascus) to the lush Nile valley—shaped the way that people in the region think about their identity? How have denizens of the Middle East negotiated their local identities with broader regional geographies, and how did the onset of imperialism and nationalism affect this dynamic? How has a fundamental concern with place, landscape, and identity been represented in Arab, Persian, and Turkish literature and art over the centuries? What is the proper relationship between geography and history, and how can an exploration of this relationship help us make better sense of the experience of various Middle Eastern societies? This course will provide a broad overview of Middle Eastern history from late antiquity to the present, focusing throughout on people’s subjective relationships with the varied geographies of the Middle East as its central framework for unpacking the region’s diversity and complexity.

Faculty

Palestine/Israel and the Politics of History

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Fall

The approach of this course is chronological but also cumulative—meaning that each new phase in this complex history must be evaluated in light of what has come before. For this reason, no additional students will be admitted for the spring semester.

This course provides a comprehensive introduction to major topics and debates in the historiography of Palestine/Israel from the mid-19th century to the present. The course has two broad goals: first, to delineate significant trends and transformations that defined the political, economic, cultural, intellectual, and social history of this contested land in the modern period; and second, to explore the evolution of—and fraught political debates surrounding—varying interpretations of this history. Themes to be covered include: Ottoman Palestine in the 19th and early 20th centuries; Jewish modernity and the origins and trajectory of Zionism as an ideology and political movement; the emergence and development of Palestinian national identity and nationalism; British colonial rule and the Mandate system; the historiography of partition and its consequences; the construction of Israeli national culture and identity after 1948; the politics of memory among Israelis and Palestinians; regional war and diplomacy; the role of the United States and the global ramifications of struggle in Palestine/Israel; and various aspects of state and society within Israel, with a special focus on the diversity of its ethnic and religious composition. It bears saying that this is not a course about the “Arab-Israeli conflict” or even primarily about “conflict” as such; rather, this course provides an integrative approach to Palestinian and Israeli history, emphasizing the construction and articulation of multiple visions for forging collective identity within Palestine/Israel, as well as strategies for establishing and asserting control over it. To this end, we will pay particular attention in this course to cultural sources—especially literature and film—as a way to capture the complexity of voices and identities that claim this land as their own.

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Related Disciplines

Additional Information

Selected Publications

Desert Borderland: The Making of Modern Egypt and Libya

Desert Borderland investigates the historical processes that transformed political identity in the easternmost reaches of the Sahara Desert in the half century before World War I. Adopting a view from the margins―illuminating the little-known history of the Egyptian-Libyan borderland―the book challenges prevailing notions of how Egypt and Libya were constituted as modern territorial nation-states.