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In October, IMES hosted a networking reception to introduce alumni to current MA students interested in academic and career advice.  After brief introductions, alumni were seated at individual tables with students rotating seats every ten minutes for an evening of "speed networking." After the event, alumni and students were matched for further mentorship support based on each other’s preference. 

“It was really refreshing to chat with people who have the same interests and experiences as I do and have been able to turn that into career success. Given that the program is small, the alumni mixer felt intimate and genuine, and I felt like I really got to know everyone there.” 

- Rebecca Asch, MA '19





“I appreciated learning first hand the different ways that alumni translated their scholarship at the Elliott School into careers which allow them to follow their passion for Middle East affairs.”

- Alex Gray, MA '20


Looking to stay engaged with Middle East Studies?

Attend one of our events! For a full list (including the time and location) visit our website:


March 4 - POMEPS book launch of Contesting Authoritarianism: Labor Challenges to the State in Egypt, by Dina Bishara

March 7 - Watch the exciting documentary, “By the Dawn’s Early Light,” about NBA all-star Chris Jackson’s journey to Islam and the question of what it means to be a Muslim in America. Presented by Zareena Grewal

March 21 - POMEPS book launch of Break All the Borders, by Ariel Ahram

March 21 - Come learn about Dr. Omar Dewachi’s (American University of Beirut) book, Ungovernable Life, and “the untold story of the rise and fall of Iraqi "mandatory medicine" - and of the destruction of Iraq itself”

April 4 - Talk with Dr. Hiba Bou Akar about her new book, For the War Yet to Come, which argues that three neighborhoods in Beirut’s southeastern peripheries are arranged, not in the expectation of a bright future, but according to the logic of "the war yet to come"

April 8 - POMEPS book launch of Identity Politics Inside Out: National Identity Contestation and Foreign Policy in Turkey, by Lisel Hintz

April 22 - Discover “How Chicago Jews created Hollywood Hills in Tel-Aviv” and the Americanization of English teaching in Israel with Dr. Eitan Bar-Yosef

To sign up for our events mailing, go to the link at the top, scroll to the bottom of the page, enter your email, and hit subscribe.

Dr. Attiya Ahmad is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and International Affairs. Her research focuses on the gendered interrelation of Islamic reform movements and political economic processes spanning the Middle East and South Asia, in particular the greater Arabian Peninsula/Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean regions. Dr. Ahmad is currently working on a project focusing on the development of global halal tourism networks. She is the author of the award-winning Everyday Conversions: Islam, Domestic Work, and South Asian Migrant Women in Kuwait (Duke Press, 2017), which examines the process of religious conversion taking place among domestic workers in the Persian Gulf. Using extensive fieldwork conducted among South Asian migrant women in Kuwait, Ahmad argues domestic workers’ Muslim belonging emerges from their work in Kuwaiti households as they develop Islamic piety in relation—but not opposition—to their existing religious practices, family ties, and ethnic and national belonging. Everyday Conversions won the Fatima Mernissi Book Award from the Middle East Studies Association and the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies Book Award. Ahmad teaches Sociocultural Anthropology; Anthropology of Gender; and Anthropology of Religious Movements. She is also the recipient of  the Henry Luce/American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship in Religion, Journalism, and International Affairs and the NSF Cultural Anthropology Senior Research Grant.

Q: What prompted you to write Everyday Conversions?

A: Everyday Conversions marks the culmination of my first major ethnographic research project, a long-term study that I conducted on the Islamic conversions of migrant domestic workers in the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf region. I initially set out to research the transnational development of an Islamic women’s movement, a project that interrogated the interrelation between transnational migration and Islamic reform.  While conducting preliminary fieldwork in Kuwait, I learned of migrant domestic workers’ conversion—a relatively widespread phenomenon that many people in the region knew about and often had very pointed opinions about. My fascination grew the more I learned about this phenomenon and the often incommensurably different ways in which it was discussed and understood by others. One of the challenges of the entire project was making sense of this phenomenon—something, as I discuss in the book, that we can only do when we account for the gendered nature of domestic workers’ experiences.

Q: What research project are you working on now?

A: ‘Now’ is the operative word here! I am on leave this academic year currently conducting ethnographic fieldwork on the development of global halal tourism networks. A loose and somewhat amorphous term, 'halal tourism' is used by a variety of actors—including travel agencies, investors, start-up internet companies, hoteliers, tour guides, religious certification boards, and consumers—to refer to an emergent sector of Islamic enterprise, one that is both modeled on and developing on the heels of Islamic banking, finance and charitable institutions.  Halal tourism is a rapidly expanding sector of Islamic enterprise. A ‘niche’ sector expected to grow from $140 to $230 billion over the next five years, halal tourism is developing at twice the rate of the international tourism market as a whole, an industry vital to economic development (accounts for 10% of global GDP), state-making and nation-building projects, and that constitutes the most extensive global circulation of goods, services, information and populations of our time. Halal tourism also accounts for the largest cross-border movement of Muslims in history, a process that will dramatically increase as the growth of the world’s Muslim population outpaces the rest of the world.  An ethnographic study of transnational halal tourism networks, my project strives to understand and contextualize sociocultural aspects of why entrepreneurs and consumers consider tourism to be an important site through which to produce gendered forms of Islamic piety and Muslim belongings—even in the face of the uncertainty and risk that mark shifting landscapes of conflict in the contemporary Middle East. Combining socio-cultural anthropology, as well as gender, tourism and Islamic studies, this project entails a combined 26 months of fieldwork centered on Turkey, and spanning outwards to United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Spain and the United Kingdom, that I will complete in 2019. By analyzing the transnational activities of halal tourism purveyors and consumers, and how these intersect with existing spaces of tourism/leisure and historical sites in Andalusia (Spain) and the greater Istanbul area (Turkey), my research highlights how material relations and processes act as counterpoints—working in conjunction and in contrast—to the production of Muslim gender relations, subjectivities, affinities and histories.

Q: What is your favorite class to teach at GW?

A: I do not have one particular class that is my favorite, but in general am most invested in my gender studies and feminist theories related courses. Gender studies and feminist theories not only help us to account for experiences and phenomena that are often disregarded, but they also provide us with conceptual frameworks of analysis that are both incisive and expansive. Thus far, I have not had the opportunity at GWU to teach courses on gender and the Middle East and/or and gender in Muslim societies, but hope to do so in the coming years.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring anthropologists studying the Middle East?

A: The advice I would offer to would-be anthropologists--one I would share with colleagues in other fields--would be for them to carefully consider the possibilities of ethnography: an encompassing process of knowledge production that not only entails flexible and painstaking forms of research, most notably participant observation, but that also pushes us to consider how important are the very forms in which we share and circulate our knowledge, i.e. how we ‘write it up’ our findings. To return back to Everyday Conversions, I would not have been able to begin to account for, much less analyze, the phenomena of domestic workers’ conversion, were it not for ethnographic practice, both in terms of the in-depth research that was needed, but also in terms of the supple narrative style interweaving stories, my interlocutors' utterances, as well as more conventional forms of academic analysis, that marks the book.

As one of the leading institutions for scholarship and teaching on the Middle East, GW has a deep commitment to promoting understanding of the region through public outreach activities and resources for K-12 educators. In the past decade, the Institute for Middle East Studies has hosted dozens of workshops, documentary film viewings, museum trips, and other programs for educators and the general public.  As IMES's Outreach Coordinator, Alison Kysia oversees the design and implementation of this programming. 

At IMES, Kysia works with District of Columbia Public Schools to support librarians who want to increase literacy on topics in Middle East studies in local schools. This Fall she worked with educators from Ron Brown High SchoolWheatley Elementary Campus and Stanton Elementary School, to share books that introduce Muslim stories during the holiday season as a way of highlighting the diversity in their schools. One of these texts was Mommy’s Khimar by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow published under the Salaam Reads imprint, which was founded in 2016 and aims to introduce readers to the lives of Muslim children and families and offer Muslim kids an opportunity to see themselves reflected positively in published works.

Local librarians and teachers can learn more about fiction and non-fiction books at our upcoming K-12 workshop, “Fables, Folklore, and Fantasy in Children and Youth Literature,” at Howard University in April 2019. The workshop is a collaborative event between IMES, Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and Howard University’s Center for African Studies. For more information on how to attend contact: 

Kysia also works with the Embassy Adoption Program, which pairs teachers and their classes with local embassies to raise global awareness and foster cross-cultural engagement.  This Fall IMES offered two workshop sessions at the DCPS GlobalEdCon, which connects local global studies scholars and practitioners to DCPS global studies teachers for a day of learning and conversation. Nathan Brown, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs and the Director of the Middle East Studies Program, presented a session on “Teaching the Islamic Sharia.” Nejm Benessaiah, Adjunct Assistant Professor at ESIA and Research Fellow at American University, presented a session on “The politics of water and climate justice in the Middle East and North Africa.”

In November IMES co-hosted a panel discussion called “Finding Home: In Conversation with Hannah Allam, Osama Alomar, Susan Darraj, and Laila Halaby" with the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, a local nonprofit literary organization that promotes a lifelong love of reading and a connection to writing through public events, in-school education, and public promotion of exceptional literary achievement. BuzzFeed reporter Hannah Allam sat down with Osama Alomar (The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories), Susan Darraj (Inheritance of Exile) and Laila Halaby (Once in a Promised Land) to discuss what “Finding Home” looks like for an Arab American in today’s political climate.

IMES is currently pursuing an outreach collaboration with Qatar Foundation International to host an Arabic Teachers’ Council. Since 2012, QFI has supported Arabic Teachers’ Councils in major metropolitan areas throughout the country. The councils aim to strengthen local Arabic programs by providing a forum for Arabic teachers to network, collaborate, and share innovative approaches to teaching, as well as providing outreach and support to educators and their communities. We look forward to sharing the expertise of our Arabic language faculty to support quality professional development opportunities for K-12, community college, and adult education Arabic instructors in the greater DC region.


Kysia has been an educator for over 15 years. She has a B.A. in Race, Class and Gender Studies from Penn State University and an M.A. in History, with a focus on the development of Sunni religious authority from the 8th century to the present. She has taught on various subjects in a wide-range of settings, from history and literature in an alternative boarding school for teenage girls, to English language in community-based schools for adult immigrants, and courses in comparative Yemeni/American cultures while living in Yemen for a year. She was a 2013 fellow and later program associate at the Zinn Education Project, writing and promoting social justice history curricula and has also designed programming for community groups on topics including the history of Muslims in America, representations of Muslim women, and sectarianism. Her research interests focus on issues of authority, diversity, and inclusion in Muslim communities.

Graham Cornwell started his MA at the Elliott School after three years working in government affairs in the healthcare industry, looking to change fields to pursue his real passion: Middle East Studies. He arrived with one eye on future doctoral study and found terrific mentors in Professors Mona Atia (GEOG) and Shira Robinson (HIST). Cornwell's capstone project examined the spatial politics of Tamazight (Berber) language movements in Morocco and was eventually published in Social and Cultural Geography, co-authored by Professor Atia. While at GW, he served as a contributing editor at the Journal of Public and International Affairs and worked on curriculum and assessment in the Elliott School's Office of Academic Programs. After completing his MA, Graham went on to earn his PhD in Middle East History from Georgetown University. His dissertation research took him to a range of archives in Morocco, France, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. Supported by grants from Fulbright-Hays and the American Institute of Maghrib Studies, his project examined the social and cultural history of tea and sugar consumption in Morocco in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. During his PhD work, he helped to run the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP), an undergraduate educational exchange funded by the US Embassy in Baghdad. In 2017-18, Graham was a Visiting Researcher at the Centre de Recherches en Histoire Internationale et Atlantique at the Université de Nantes and an ACLS/Mellon Dissertation Completion Fellow before contributing to USIP's Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States as a research consultant. He came full circle back to 1957 E Street in October when he joined the Elliott School as Assistant Dean of Research.

What advice would you give new students?

I think it's really important to take a good mixture of 'academic' and policy or practice-oriented courses. Elliott School faculty are world-class scholars with a wealth of incredible experiences across the region. The humanities and social science courses they teach provide in-depth knowledge about the cultures and societies of the Middle East that forms the foundation of smart and sustainable policies. I also encourage students to take courses that train you in the methodologies of certain disciplines. Obviously, I'm a bit biased because I became a historian, but as an MA student, I used one of my electives to take a course from the History Department on historical methods and archives. It was incredibly useful for teaching me to research and write for other courses, too. Likewise, anthropology courses can teach you how to conduct fieldwork, geography courses how to use GIS, political science courses how to create surveys, etc. These are useful skills that will come in handy down the road. I would also add that two years goes by very quickly, especially if you spend a semester abroad and work or intern during your coursework. By halfway through that first fall semester, you have to start making plans for the next summer, which can be daunting. Don't hesitate to meet with faculty you're interested in working with or to get involved in groups campus. GW has a lot of resources, but you have to put in the effort to make the most out of them.

Jessica Eldosoky graduated from the Elliott School's MA in Middle East Studies program in 2013. Currently, Jessica is a Foreign Affairs Officer (FAO) at the Department of State. She works with U.S. embassies and consulates in the Middle East to develop public diplomacy programs and products to explain American culture, society, and foreign policy to regional audiences. During her studies at GW, she had internships at non-profits focused on interfaith dialogue and conflict resolution as well as the Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom. Eldosoky received the Boren National Security Fellowship to study Arabic in Cairo, Egypt in 2012. She also received the Elliott School's Aramex Fellowship in 2013 to intern in a non-profit focused on promoting co-existence among Christians and Muslims in Amman, Jordan. After graduating from GW, Eldosoky worked at American Islamic Congress, a DC-based non-profit that advocates positive relations between Muslims and non-Muslims around the world. 

What do you know now that you wish you had known as a new student?

I wish I had known that developing a technical skill is just as important as developing a deep knowledge of the region. I encourage students to take advantage of their elective courses by delving deeply into other disciplines that augment their ability to get a job, such as communications, cybersecurity, or conflict resolution.

This semester’s faculty book spotlight features Professor Ilana Feldman’s, Life Lived in Relief: Humanitarian Predicaments and Palestinian Refugee Politics. She was interviewed by Alissa Fromkin who earned her MA in Middle East Studies from the Elliott School of International Affairs in 2016. After graduate school, Fromkin completed a year-long Fulbright research project in Jerusalem focusing on the experiences of transgender Jews within religious spaces. She is currently in her second year of law school at Yale University. 

Q: How did you come to write this book?

A: The roots of this project lie in my earlier research in the Gaza Strip. While conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Gaza in the late 1990s, I was struck by the significance of the distinctions between ‘refugees’ and ‘natives’ in social relations and political discourse. The entire population is Palestinian, so these distinctions did not define membership in the national community, but they matter for how people were members of that community. I wanted to better understand how these categories emerged, and I began by researching the aftermath of the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948, the beginning of humanitarian assistance to the displaced, and the population categories that were required to manage this assistance. This initial research revealed multidimensional and often contradictory effects of humanitarian decisions and procedures, and it led me to investigate the Palestinian relief experience with humanitarianism over seven decades and across five fields of assistance (Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria).

Q: Looking at the crises in Syria and Yemen, how do you see your work informing the humanitarian response there?

A: The devastation caused to civilian populations by the wars in Syria and Yemen—humanitarian crises produced by political and military actions—are among the largest humanitarian catastrophes in a world that has been replete with such crises over the last few years. Each repeating moment of crisis has provided an opportunity to think again about what refugees tell us about our political world. But the language of crisis can also obscure some of what they tell us. Crisis suggests exception, both in the sense of being not-the-usual and in the sense of being outside existing order. The refugee condition, though, is not just returning, but persisting. And refugees are not external to global political orders, but central to them. Further refugees are not just figures, but actors, who struggle within and against this political order to create livable lives.

The Palestinian experience is centrally important for understanding what it is to be a refugee, and what refugees illuminate about politics, as displacement and need extend over many years. Palestinians may form one of the longest-lasting refugee communities, but they are by no means alone in experiencing longevity. The UNHCR has estimated that two-thirds of the global refugee population experience what it terms “protracted displacement”—being displaced from their homes for at least five years. The significant increase in refugee numbers in the past few years has dropped this percentage, but as a few more years pass it is quite likely that many of today’s displaced will move into the category of the protracted.

What do Palestinians—with seventy years of experience as refugees—have to teach people who are just embarking on that journey? I am certainly not suggesting that all, or even most, of today’s refugees will remain in that category for as long as Palestinian refugees, but all indications are that many will remain displaced and unsettled for a good while to come. One thing that Palestinians have to teach other refugees is that suffering can indeed go on longer than would seem possible, that situations that seem utterly untenable can not only drag on, but can get worse. But this is not all they have to impart. Palestinians have considerable experience in making the refugee condition “world-forming.” The lessons of this experience are not only for refugees, but for all of us who live in this world.

Q: Over your ten years of research for this book, how has your understanding of the humanitarian enterprise changed? How did you decide when you were done researching?

A: As I conducted the research for this book, I was struck by just how vibrant and complex humanitarian spaces are. The scholarly literature on humanitarianism, aid providers’ own definitions of their missions, and recipients’ evaluations of this assistance all often emphasize the limits of humanitarianism—the limits of its mandate, the limits of its capacity to engage recipients as full human beings, and the limits of its ability to meet people’s multidimensional needs. Even as these limits are real, they only partially define the humanitarian experience. I was impressed with the range of things that people are able to do with humanitarian tools. They press political claims, they work to alter their present and future conditions, they build complex relationships in and through categories that are meant only to manage aid delivery.

Deciding when to stop researching is never easy—as there is always more to learn. I am still learning about this subject even though the book is done and published. A good rule of thumb is that as more conversations, more document reading, and more secondary research begin to yield less new information, it is a good indication that research may be concluding. In this case, I also came to feel that the conflict in Syria—which has led to a major upheaval in humanitarian conditions for Palestinians—marked the temporal end of my book. For Palestinian refugees it is another stage in a continuing history.

Q: What lesson(s) do you want the reader to take away from your book?

A: In a global political environment in which concern for refugees and migrants seems in short supply, the long Palestinian experience with displacement has much to teach us. It shows that humanitarian compassion—responses that address people primarily as suffering subjects and that focus on alleviating that suffering—is not an adequate alternative to a politics of hate and xenophobia. As Palestinians have insisted for seventy years, displaced persons also have political claims on us. Refugees will pursue these claims whether we recognize them or not, but their actions do not relieve us of our obligations.

Q: Can international humanitarian law better protect the rights of refugees, if so how? Would systemic changes like the development of enforcement capabilities or a global acceptance of “humanitarian rights” prevent future “humanitarian situations” from becoming “humanitarian conditions”?

A: Humanitarian actors regularly note, as a former head of UNHCR put it, that “there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems.” Many (most?) humanitarian crises have political causes—even when they are ostensibly the result of natural disasters—and resolving such situations, to keep them from extending into ongoing conditions, almost always requires political will and action. Neither humanitarian law nor humanitarian aid is sufficient on its own to provide adequate protection, sustenance, and support for a full life. Which is not to say that having better enforcement mechanisms and more robust legal protections would not help—it would. Such changes would require political will that is currently absent. In many ways international responses to refugees seem to have gone backwards in recent years—with first Europe and now the United States threatening refusal of entry to refugees and asylum seekers. These actions seem to violate, if not the letter of international refugee law, than certainly what has come to be understood as its spirit.

Q: You note that many people in the camp deal with structural barriers, such as Gazans in Jordan who cannot get a national number and accompanying benefits, and emotional barriers such as the conflict between insisting on return while also seeking to better conditions in the camps. This seems to contribute to a sense of malaise in the younger generation – however, this malaise has been noted all around the Middle East. What does the Palestinian experience teach us about this social phenomenon more broadly?

A: It is certainly the case that many of the vulnerabilities Palestinians refugees encounter are shared by other economically, socially, and politically precarious populations—in the Middle East and across the globe. To that extent, understanding how Palestinians survive, live, and strive in conditions that often offer little hope for change can teach us about politics and life strategies in other constrained circumstances. At the same time, refugees remain distinguished within, though not apart from, the broader landscape of precarity. This particularity is partly due to the presumed (even if not at all actual) temporariness of their situation, partly due to statelessness (though not all Palestinian refugees are stateless), and partly due to the recognition of international responsibility for their care and protection (even if not their rights). The vast humanitarian system means that refugees are not superfluous in the way that many urban poor now seem to be. They are objects of concern and attention by this system and also material that keeps the humanitarian industry going.

Q: The Palestinian story is incredibly complex, in your narrative, you seem to seamlessly weave in key historical details without overpowering the reader who may be less familiar with this background. How did you choose what information to include and decide how to present it?

A: I am gratified to hear that the narration of historical events was successful. Given how complicated this history is—over many decades and in multiple places—these choices were not easy to make. I tried to think, through many rounds of revision, about what context readers needed to make sense of the experiences I was describing. By writing and rewriting I eventually settled on what I hoped would be a balanced narrative.

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.

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