Exploring contemporary contributions to Middle Eastern historiography 

Exploring contemporary contributions to Middle Eastern historiography Photograph by Haidan Soendawy

Lecture series provides crucial resources for both training scholars and the public interest

In spite of the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying university closures have presented to academic life in the United States, the Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES) continues to provide valuable resources to students and scholars as well as to the general public. Of the many educational resources provided by CNES, the Historiography Series provides a format for scholars of the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) to present and discuss their research with UCLA community members including its diverse faculty and graduate students. The series is aptly named for its exploration of contemporary contributions to Middle Eastern history-writing as well as other academic disciplines. The 2020-2021 academic year has failed to curtail this series, which will host a number of notable scholars by means of online presentations.

There are two major benefits of the series for the UCLA community, broadly defined. Firstly, the series hosts presentations and discussions of recent scholarly contributions to the study of the MENA region as opposed to limited discussions on the United States’ Middle East policy and the region’s internal politics which dominate the news cycle. A sustained emphasis on political crises in the MENA region does not provide much insight into the diversity of cultural forms, socio-economic experience, and political expression that constitute the Middle Eastern experience. This CNES lecture series helps to fill that gap by expanding the public discourse about the MENA region. For Dr. James Gelvin, a historian of the modern Middle East and the organizer of this lecture series, the lectures offers Los Angeles residents the opportunity to explore the ideas discussed for a number of different reasons. As he says, “Some [attendees] are interested in the topics discussed; others, in learning about how Middle East historians go about figuring out the past. Think about each lecture as an episode of 'Law and Order' or 'NCIS' for historically-minded people.”

The second major benefit of this lecture series is that it provides unique networking opportunities for scholars and students who specialize in MENA studies. This is especially valuable for graduate students of the MENA region whose research opportunities and scholarly expertise are expanded by means of the personal connections and the specialist knowledge gained at these lectures. On that topic, Kaleb Herman Adney, a PhD candidate in the UCLA History Department, states: “Apart from specialized academic conferences, many of which have been canceled this year, the CNES Historiography Series is probably the most helpful format for expanding our academic contacts beyond the UC system and deepening our knowledge of contemporary academic work.” The series’ focus on academic approaches to the MENA region rather than historical topics as such makes it invaluable for scholars and students. As Dr. Gelvin puts it, “As far as I know, this is the only series in the country that focuses on the historiography, not history, of the modern Middle East. In other words, the series focuses on how to do history and not just the fruits of other peoples' research. As such, it is invaluable for graduate students and professional historians who are curious about cutting-edge method as well as the facts of the past.”

The series will continue to provide these opportunities in the coming year for those affiliated with UCLA as well as for the broader community. Each academic quarter will have its own academic talk starting with Dr. Benjamin Thomas White, a senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow History Department, on October 27, 2020. Dr. White specializes in the history of refugees, statelessness, the status and concept of ‘minorities’ in the Middle East. He is the author of numerous works including The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle East: The Politics of Community in French Mandate Syria (Edinburgh University Press, 2011).

In the winter quarter, Dr. Taylor M. Moore, a historian of the modern Middle East and a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the History Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, will present her research. CNES will also welcome Dr. Max Weiss, from the Department of History at Princeton University during the winter quarter. Dr. Weiss is a specialist in the intellectual and cultural history of the Middle East and the author of In the Shadow of Sectarianism: Law, Shi`ism, and the Making of Modern Lebanon (Harvard University Press, 2010). In the spring quarter, CNES will host Dr. M’hamed Oualdi of Princeton University’s Department of Near Eastern Studies who specializes in the history of slavery in Ottoman Tunisia. All of these events will continue the longstanding mission of CNES to provide a dynamic platform for analyzing and expanding knowledge on the MENA region.

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Published: Monday, October 5, 2020