Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies

Classes from disciplines such as art history, economics, geography, history, politics, religion, and sociology comprise the classes available within this cross-disciplinary path. 

2019-2020 Courses

The Anthropology of Images

Open , Seminar—Fall

Images wavered in the sunlit trim of appliances, something always moving, a brightness flying, so much to know in the world.—Don Delillo, Libra

A few cartoons lead to cataclysmic events in Europe; a photograph printed in a newspaper moves a solitary reader; a snapshot posted on the Internet leads to dreams of fanciful places; memories of a past year haunt us like ghosts. What each of these occurrences has in common is that they all entail the force of images in our lives, be these images visual or acoustic in nature, made by hand or machine, or circulated by word of mouth or simply imagined. In this seminar, we will consider the role that images play in the lives of people in various settings throughout the world. In delving into terrains at once actual and virtual, we will develop an understanding of how people throughout the world create, use, circulate, and perceive images and how such efforts tie into ideas and practices of sensory perception, time, memory, affect, imagination, sociality, history, politics, and personal and collective imaginings. Through these engagements, we will reflect on the fundamental human need for images, the complicated politics and ethics of images, aesthetic and cultural sensibilities, dynamics of time and memory, the intricate play between the actual and the imagined, and the circulation of digital images in an age of globalization. Readings will include a number of writings in anthropology, art history, philosophy, psychology, cultural studies, and critical theory. Images will be drawn from photographs, paintings, sculptures, drawings, films, videos, graffiti, religion, rituals, tattoos, inscriptions, novels, poems, road signs, advertisements, dreams, fantasies, phantasms, and any number of fabulations in the worlds in which we live and imagine.

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Life, Death, and Violence in (Post)Colonial France and Algeria

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Fall

But we must try to look more closely at the reality of Algeria. We must not simply fly over it. We must, on the contrary, walk step by step along the great wound inflicted on the Algerian soil and on the Algerian people. —Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, 1959

This course attends to the multiple and complicated effects that French colonialism has had on the lives, bodies, institutions, and social, cultural, and political circumstances of Algerians and others living in Algeria and France. In attending to a number of important key historical events, colonial practices, and forms of domination, violence, and resistance—from centuries of French colonial rule in North Africa to the Algerian war of independence—we will consider a number of key conceptual themes, including colonialism and postcolonialism, state violence and terror, symbolic violence, personal and cultural trauma, personal and intergenerational memory, and the politics of traces, effacement, recognition, death, burial, and martyrdom. We will also give serious thought to literary, photographic, and filmic representations of violence, recovery, and creative renewal. Along the way, we will engage with a number of highly significant thinkers and writers—including Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Mouloud Feraoun, Kateb Yacine, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, Assia Djebar, Leïla Sebbar, Tahar Djaout, Albert Memmi, and Achille Mbembe—and watch and discuss a series of important films, including The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontocorvo, 1967), Chronicle of the Years of Ember (Mohammed Lakhdar Hamina,1975), and Caché (Michael Haneke, 2006). Students will be asked in their conference work to undertake a concerted research and writing project related to the themes of the course.

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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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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 Qur’an and Its Interpretation

Open , Seminar—Year

To watch a Muslim kiss the Qur’an is to recognize that this is not a “book” in the ordinary sense of the word. There is an art to reciting its verses and an art to its calligraphy. The uncovering of its meanings has been variously understood by Muslims to be a matter of common sense, diligent scholarship, or profound inspiration. In this seminar, we will begin by studying the style and content of the Qur’an. Some of the themes that may be discussed are the nature and function of humans and supernatural beings, free will and determinism, the structure of this and other worlds, God’s attributes of mercy and wrath, gender and family relations, other religions, and the legitimate use of violence. We will also look at the types of literature that developed in response to the Qur’an in texts ranging from the entertaining stories of the prophets, to scholastic theological and philosophical analysis, to poetic mystical insights. Also included will be contemporary writings, written by Muslims, that mine the riches of the classical heritage of Qur’anic exegesis while grappling with the difficulties of dealing with a text that originated in seventh-century Arabia.

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Storytelling and Spirituality in Classical Islam

Open , Seminar—Fall

One of the greatest rock songs of all time, “Layla,” was written by Eric Clapton after he read the story of the star-crossed lovers Layla and Majnun. This tale of a Bedouin poet, who went mad after he was cut off from his beloved, circulated widely in Arabic sources for hundreds of years before being expanded into a long narrative poem in Persian by Nizami in the 12th century. By this point in time, telling compelling stories had become a means by which Sufi writers (the mystics of Islam) described their particular vision of being Muslim—which was that of the pitfalls, despairing moments, and ecstasies of the spiritual quest and search for closeness to the divine Beloved. Layla and Majnun were just one of several couples in allegorical stories that were understood as teaching vehicles for disciples on the path. On the opposite end of the plot spectrum, there is Ibn Tufyal’s famous story of Hayy ibn Yaqzan, a mystical-philosophical work in Arabic also written in the 12th century. That story describes an abandoned baby growing up on a desert island, raised first by a deer and then by his own devices as he slowly discovers the nature of the human-divine relationship. Other classical works dispensed with this format of the singular narrative, opting instead for nesting stories within stories and mixing animal stories with stories about humans. We will look at examples of those literary techniques in translations of Farid ad-Din Attar’s Conference of the Birds, Jalal ad-Din Rumi’s Mathnawi, and The Thousand and One Nights. What is common to all of the works that we will be reading in this class is the way in which storytelling here is rooted in a deeper dimension that explores the human potential for more refined behavior and ethics, as well as for higher spiritual states.

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The Ideas of Photography

Open , Seminar—Spring

This course is a hybrid. Each week, for the first 10 weeks of the semester, a different photographic idea or genre will be traced from its earliest iterations to its present form by means of slide lectures and readings. And each week, students will respond with their own photographic work inspired by the visual presentations and readings. Topics may include personal dressup/narrative, the directorial mode in photography, contemporary art-influenced fashion photography, new strategies in documentary practice, abstraction, the typology, the photograph in color, and narrative photography. In the final weeks of the semester, the emphasis will shift as students work on a subject and in a form that coincides with the ideas they most urgently wish to express. No previous experience in photography is necessary nor is any specialized equipment. A desire to explore and to create a personally meaningful body of work are the only prerequisites.

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The New Narrative Photography

Open , Seminar—Spring

A photograph alone, without caption, is like a simple utterance. “Ooh!” or “aah!” or “huh?” are responses to it. But when pictures are presented in groups with an accompanying text—and perhaps in conjunction with political or poetic conceptual strategies—any statement at all becomes possible. Then, photographs begin to function as a sentence, a paragraph, or an even larger discourse. Whether working in fiction or nonfiction, artists such as Alan Sekula, Robert Frank, Susan Meiselas, Taryn Simon, Jim Goldberg, Roni Horn, and others have transformed the reach of the photograph. Without formal agreement to do so, they have created a new medium, which might be entitled: The New Narrative Photography. In this course, students will study the work of these artists and others and will create their own bodies of work. If you have a story to tell or a statement to make, this course is open to you. No previous photographic experience is necessary nor is any special equipment. The opportunity to work in a new medium is rare. This course aims to create the forum and the conditions necessary for all to do so in a critical and supportive workshop environment.

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Nonfiction Workshop: To Tell the Truth

Open , Seminar—Year

This yearlong class will explore the mysteries of reading and writing what has been called “nonfiction,” focusing particularly on questions around what has been called lying and what has been called telling the truth. Was Toni Morrison right when she said our minds have an “antipathy to fraud”? Does lying have a syntax? What are the cultural contexts, nourishments, and manipulations that may affect what happens between a writer or reader and a drafted or published sentence? Is it possible to identify a lie in print? When you write, is it possible to lie less? Is it possible to “tell the truth”? In conference, we’ll discuss drafts of student work; in class, in light of the questions above and as a way of guiding our own makings, we’ll discuss readings that may include the work of June Jordan, Graham Fuller, Teju Cole, Wallace Stegner, Dionne Brand, William F. Buckley, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, and Bertolt Brecht—with the work of James Baldwin throughout. You’ll be expected to attend class, respond to assigned and suggested readings, and participate in discussions. By the end of the first semester, you’ll have written at least five pages exposing a lie in print and have given a brief presentation on your process; by the end, you’ll have produced 20 pages of publishable nonfiction in whatever form you choose. The only prerequisites are a passion for reading that equals your passion for writing and a willingness to undertake whatever might be necessary to read and write better on our last day of class than on our first.

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