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What have you been up to since graduation?

Right now, I am completing my Master’s in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, during a sabbatical year on the Boren National Security Fellowship in Oman. Before my MA, I was a Program Coordinator at the Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo and a Fulbright Research Fellow with the National Democratic Institute field office in Jordan. At GW, I majored in Middle Eastern Studies and minored in Religion.

 

What professor or class stands out in your memory of the program?

Three professors really stand out to me in my memories of the Middle Eastern Studies program. The first is Nathan Brown who was my advisor for my Elliott Undergraduate Scholars thesis. I had spent one semester in Cairo doing interviews in the fall of 2010, and when I returned in January 2011, of course everything in Egypt had massively changed. I remember I would come to Professor Brown's office full of anxiety about how I was going to track all the moving pieces of the revolution and turn them into an academic paper. He was extremely supportive and has been to this day. The second professor I remember is Charles Kiamie* who taught a seminar on the Middle East, which was infused with practical expertise from his years working in the U.S. government. Finally, Jennifer Lambert empowered me to TA for her course International Relations of MENA during my senior year, and she has been empowering me to achieve my aspirations of being a smart, competent authority in the field ever since.

(*Charles Kiamie is also a Middle East Studies alumnus, BA ‘00.)

 

How do you think alumni can be a resource for current students?

We are only a cold email away. If you are a student and you find someone whose experience interests you, don't second guess yourself, just reach out!

After graduating from the University of Virginia in 2013 with an interdisciplinaryAlumna Priya Vithani major in “Human Rights in the Middle East,” Priya came to GW to research the connections between entrepreneurship and democratic development in the Middle East. She was a recipient of the Aramex fellowship in 2014, where she worked with a social startup in Jordan. She also traveled to Cairo, where she researched the sociopolitical dynamics of entrepreneurs in Egypt for her capstone project. While at GW part-time, Priya worked as a full-time desk officer at the U.S. Department of State, covering the North Africa portfolio as a policy officer for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Priya also briefly served as the U.S. liaison to the UN Universal Periodic Review and Special Procedures processes in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs and on a short rotation as the human rights officer at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt. Following graduation from GW, Priya left the Department in 2017 for a fellowship with Kiva Microfinance, which took her to Lebanon, Morocco, and Jordan over an eight-month period. Priya is currently a Financial Sector Specialist at the World Bank Group on the Innovation in SMEs project, a first-of-its-kind project in the region that supports entrepreneurs and investment funds in Lebanon. She lives in Beirut, Lebanon.

 

What advice would you give to new students?

If you’re new, welcome to the program and congratulations! My advice is this: the program, while excellent, isn’t cheap, so you might as well make the absolute most of it. Take advantage of the Elliott School’s and the program’s many scholarships and programs to pay for school and go abroad. In total, I was able to recover about half of my tuition costs through these fellowships. Leverage the fact that you are studying in DC to do an internship or find meaningful work alongside the program, even if it means switching to part-time or taking a lighter load one semester. This will put you miles ahead of other graduate students, give you a source of income, and you’ll be able to add a degree of practicality to your academic work. Being in DC, you are surrounded by hundreds of think tanks, NGOs, and academic events or conferences. Go to as many of these as you can, ask questions, and talk to people there (network genuinely). Don’t be afraid to ask and make the program work for you. If you can’t find something that you feel would make your experience better or help you academically or professionally, talk to the IMES staff and propose ideas. The worst thing you can do is nothing at all. And lastly, don’t underestimate the interconnectivity of the field that is Middle East Studies! The people you meet and study with could just one day end up being your future coworkers or even supervisors. (My former boss at the Department of State is an alumnus of the program, and sometimes I even had to email professors in the program for work-related issues!). The field is a revolving door, and your professional reputation can carry you a long way. I hope it does. Best of luck!

 

Interview of Dr. Nathan Brown conducted via email by
Sumaya Almajdoub, MA ‘17.Arguing Islam book with author Dr. Nathan Brown

 

Hello Dr. Brown, I’ve enjoyed reading your book, and the first question I wanted to ask you is about the title. Your title mentions the “revival of Arab politics,” what do you mean by “revival”? When did Arab politics “die”?

I do not think that politics ever completely died, but it was often driven underground. When I did research on Egypt in the 1960s, I was struck by how little politics was part of the public record—when I looked at publications like newspapers there was a narrow range of views, and only top officials seemed able to set the terms of what was said. When I first traveled to the Arab world in the early 1980s, politics did not form a large part of public or private discussion. That really changed beginning in the 1990s in all kinds of public and private channels.

 

In your book you elaborate on the ways in which lively, complex and nuanced discussions continue to happen in the Arab public sphere, can you give us examples of these discussions?

Even with the authoritarian wave of the past few years, it is still the case that there is a lot more politics discussed in social media, older media, and private conversations.  As an example, “personal status law”—the category of law that covers marriage, divorce, and inheritance—is constantly debated by people who are not only well versed in technical religious vocabulary on those issues but also very aware of the practical implications of small changes in the law. The debate is sensitive, since it involves issues that matter to everybody. But it is also sophisticated.

 

Do these discussions in the public sphere affect outcomes on the ground? Do they shape policies? Why or why not?

I looked at several areas—constitution writing, school curricula, personal status law—to try to see where public debates actually seemed to affect decisions made by public officials. What I found was that a lot of the debates are not really connected to political realities; officials can and do ignore them. There are exceptions—I found, for instance, cases in which public officials decided to reach out to influential religious and women’s rights groups—who eyed each other suspiciously–to make a change to divorce law that had wide support.  But for the most part, debates become more polarized because advocates of contrary views do not have to deal with each other.

 

What about those who argue that the Arab world is witnessing political apathy due to increased levels of suppression, destabilization and civil strife? How would you respond to them?

I think the level of alienation is growing.  But alienation is not the same as apathy. What I sense is a growing despair about formal politics—parties, organizations, elections—particularly for younger generations. But that alienation from the current order can take many forms—from enthusiastic action in 2011 to withdrawal in 2018—and I think it is very much an open question what form it will take in the coming years.

 

How has the Arab public sphere changed with the introduction of the internet and social media? Have debates become more polarized? Are these changes only relevant to the Arab public sphere, or is this part of a global phenomenon?

Debates have become more polarized and newer social media may facilitate that process but they are not the driving force.  The way in which regimes have declined (somewhat unevenly) in their ability to control all channels of communication has allowed people to form linkages. That such linkages sometimes lead to silos and echo chambers is not simply a phenomenon in the Arab world.  

One phenomenon that is particularly pronounced in the Arab world—though hardly unique to it—is the decline of various kinds of authority. Religious authority, for instance, has not disappeared but it has become more pluralistic. Many more voices join debates and the range of views heard is becoming much greater. And the separation between the two senses of “authority”—ability to make decisions that govern people and ability to have one’s views treated with deference—is also marked.

 

Was there a specific event or incident that inspired you to write this book?

No specific event, no. I was interested even before the 2011 uprisings. But I had begun to notice how lively debates were becoming but how few of those debates seemed to be getting attention.

 

Was this book easier or harder to write compared to your other publications?

It was much broader. That made it easier in the sense that I did not need to know every detail before starting to write. But it also made it harder, since I had to think a lot more about what generalizations could be justified.

 

Do you have any advice for aspiring scholars who want to write a book? Or is there anything you’d like to add?

Do not write a scholarly book unless there is a specific question that you think needs to be answered and that you can pose and answer in a compelling way.

Christopher Rollston is Associate Professor of Northwest Semitic languages and literatures in the Columbian College’s Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

 

Your edited volume Enemies and Friends of the State: Ancient Prophecy in Context (Eisenbrauns, 2018) was just released, and it explores the complex relationship between biblical prophets and state authorities. Who was your favorite (or least favorite) character from the prophets and prophetesses examined by the volume’s contributors?

Yes, I am so pleased that this new edited volume of mine has now appeared in print, a volume that focuses on the varied and complex nature of ancient Middle Eastern prophets and prophetesses vis a vis those in positions of power within ancient Near Eastern monarchies (including those in Assyria, Babylon, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt).  The volume consists of twenty-six articles, written by a constellation of premier scholars from around the world (e.g., Yale, American University of Beirut, Princeton, King’s College London, GW).  In terms of the function of prophets in the ancient Near East, as you would imagine, some prophetic figures were simply mouth-pieces for the national government, but the most interesting prophets and prophetesses (from my perspective at least) are those who were ardent critics of governmental policies.

Among all of the ancient Near Eastern prophetic voices, I find a Judean prophetess named Huldah to be the most interesting.  She lived in Jerusalem during the second half of the 7th century B.C., and after a scroll of the Torah was found during renovations in the Temple, the highest officials of the kingdom (who were baffled about its meaning) brought the scroll to Huldah, a prominent woman (2 Kings 22), and she provided an accurate (and damning) interpretation.  By the way, this reminds me to emphasize two very common misconceptions about ancient prophets: (a) many people assume that pretty much all prophets were men.  This is not actually the case: throughout the ancient Near Eastern world, there were male and female prophets; and (b) many people assume that prophecy is an ancient Near Eastern phenomenon that was limited to Israel and Judah.  This is not actually the case either: in reality, prophets are a broadly attested ancient Near Eastern phenomenon, as we have references to prophets and seers in texts written in Akkadian, Egyptian, Aramaic, Ammonite, and Hebrew (among others).

 

You’ve given a lot of expert testimony in court cases regarding forged antiquities. Although scientific methods (such as carbon dating) are often used in such cases, you use your linguistic expertise to determine whether the carved writing on antiquities is genuine or forged by modern hands. What was the most interesting forgery case for you (from either an academic/practitioner standpoint or a political standpoint)?

For around 150 years in the field of ancient Semitic languages, modern forgers have been producing forged inscriptions and selling them on the antiquities market, under the pretense that they are ancient.  The motivations are primarily (but not exclusively) economic.  For example, some twenty years ago, the Israel Museum paid $550,000 for an inscription (an inscribed ivory pomegranate) that was assumed to date to the 8th or 7th century B.C., and to have come from the First Temple in Jerusalem.  The consensus opinion now is that this is a modern forgery.  A few years ago, therefore, it was pulled from the exhibit at the Israel Museum.

Similarly, a few years ago, a stone inscription referred to as the “Jehoash Inscription” was offered for sale on the antiquities market for around $2 million US dollars.  The story that was circulated with this inscription was that it was found during clandestine excavations near Haram es-Sharif, that is, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  Some fifteen years ago, I had a hand in debunking this very rapidly as a modern forgery, using palaeographic methodologies (for example, a constellation of anomalies in the script of this inscription) and also through the debunking of the laboratory tests that were used to tout its antiquity.  (The forgers created a fake patina and even, rather cleverly, salted flecks of gold and carbonized remains in the fake patina).  Ultimately, it did not end up selling.  At the behest of the district attorney of Jerusalem, I later testified as a prosecution witness about this inscription, as well as about a few others.  I remember the day of my testimony very vividly: I got on the stand around 9:15 a.m. in the morning and got off the stand shortly after 10:00 p.m. that night.  I gave my initial testimony in about an hour, and then I was cross-examined for around ten hours. (I was flying home the next day, hence our staying in session late into the evening.)  For me it was a particularly enjoyable day…I have a book on modern forgeries coming out in 2019, and I’ll be recounting that day in some detail.

 

What is your favorite course to teach?

That’s a tough question, as I immensely enjoy teaching….but here are three of my favorites: “The Bible in the Qur’an” (dealing with the shared scriptural traditions of the three Abrahamic religions), “Law and Diplomacy in the Ancient Near East” (dealing with the world’s earliest legal and diplomatic texts…which are written in Sumerian and Akkadian), and “Gods and Goddesses of the Ancient Near East” (a course that basically traces the development of Middle Eastern religion from our earliest ancient textual materials down through to modern times).

 

What research are you working on currently?

I’m currently finishing a book on the history of forged texts…beginning with a famous Babylonian forgery from the 6th century B.C., down to those that are “hot off the press” in the modern Middle East.  That book is currently at about 250 pages in my manuscript and my contractual deadline for it is ca. 325 pages by July 31, 2018.  The next two months are going to be very busy!

During the summer, we will be reading Mawsim al-Hijra Ilaa al-Shamaal (Season of Migration to the North) by the late Sudanese author Tayeb Salih. The book club will begin on Saturday, June 2, and run through August. All Middle East Studies alumni and current GW students are eligible to participate.

Meetings are generally held on Saturday mornings at the Elliott School. If you are interested in joining the Arabic Book Club, please contact Mitchell Ford, IMES’s Senior Academic Advisor and Arabic Instructional Assistant, at (202) 994-1545 or mfordy89@gwu.edu.

The book club was created to give students and alumni the opportunity to engage with modern Arabic literature by authors from across the Arab World. Mitch hopes that this club will enable participants to learn and discuss the ideas and themes in the books as they would with any regular reading group – while also learning important vocabulary and grammatical constructions.

The Elliott School’s Institute for Middle East Studies congratulates the following five students who received either a Boren Fellowship or Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) from the U.S. State Department to study Middle East languages:

Thomas Harris (Boren, Arabic)

Mary Ivancic (Boren, Arabic)

Rosalie Rubio (Boren, Arabic)

Brennan Ryan (Boren, Arabic)

Adam Aviles (CLS, Persian)

Both the Boren Fellowship and Critical Language Scholarship are part of a U.S. government initiative to increase the number of Americans studying and gaining proficiency in foreign languages deemed vital to U.S. national security interests. We at GW are very proud of our exceptional students, and we wish them the best of luck wherever their language studies may take them this summer or coming academic year!

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