History

Six Decades of Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard

Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) is widely recognized as having one of the largest and most distinguished concentrations of Middle Eastern and Islamic scholars anywhere in the world. Founded in 1954 to further the systematic study of a vital, but at that time largely unknown, part of the world, it was the first center of its kind in the United States. The Center’s original mandate covered both the classical and modern aspects of the region, but its interests evolved to include Islamic societies and cultures worldwide. The establishment of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program (AISP) at Harvard University in 2005 allowed CMES to return its primary focus on its original regional mandate, while still having the flexibility to partner with AISP, and others at Harvard, in joint programming focused on Islam in the Middle East and North Africa. From the start CMES has been responsible for teaching (PhD and AM programs) as well as research. The Center is the coordinating body and a primary source of intellectual and material support within Harvard for scholarly pursuits covering the vast area between Morocco and Iran, and beyond.

Soon after its inception and under the directorship of the eminent Arabist Hamilton Gibb (from 1957 to 1966), the Center witnessed rapid growth in faculty and students, along with a variety of programs such as visiting fellowships and specialized publications. The dominant emphasis of CMES in the humanities, particularly history, became firmly rooted in this period, though it has never been an exclusive emphasis. In the 1970s, for example, the Center focused seriously on energy policy and development planning.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, the Center undertook major initiatives to broaden its horizons beyond the Middle East to encompass the larger realm of Islam. At the same time, it was instrumental in significantly expanding Harvard’s resources in Iranian and Turkish studies, along with modern Middle Eastern history and modern Arabic language instruction. CMES also launched research projects in areas ranging from Ottoman court records and Iranian oral history to Islamic finance and contemporary Arab studies, some of which continue today.

In 2004, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary and the appointment of anthropologist Steven Caton as its new director, the Center committed itself to a determined effort to balance its traditional strengths in the humanities and the pre-modern era with a greater focus on the social sciences and contemporary issues. This commitment expanded Harvard’s teaching and research on the contemporary Middle East, and moved beyond area-specific frameworks of inquiry in favor of approaches that are interdisciplinary, transregional, and transnational in scope.

Eminent Islamic legal expert Baber Johansen’s July 2010 – June 2013 tenure as director of CMES coincided with unprecedented transformation in the region. In response, in the fall of 2011, Professor Johansen convened the Working Group on the Transformative Movements of the Arab World. The group, composed of prominent local scholars from Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Brown University, Northeastern University, and experts from the region, met regularly to read, discuss, and learned from new research exploring the pre-history of the movements for change, cultural resource mobilization, and changes in society-government relations that, since January 2011, have been transforming the conceptions of state, politics, society, and culture in the Arab World.

Current CMES Director William Granara, Gordon Gray Professor the Practice of Arabic, whose term started in July 2013, argues that the area of contemporary creative literature and film is where political expression is most articulated and where one gets the best sense of Arab society and Arab culture.

The fears and the hopes and the anxieties and the tensions and the aspirations of Israelis, Arabs, Turks, and Persians are articulated more often through creative writing, through the novel and the short story, through plays and through poetry, than through other fields of inquiry. So to train our students in Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, and Persian, and to get them reading contemporary novels in the original, is to give them access to a world that is informative and challenging. —CMES Director William Granara, Sept 18, 2013 

Professor Granara's vision for the center places a renewed emphasis on Middle Eastern language pedagogy and engagement with undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty from the humanities. During his tenure, CMES has also increased fundraising efforts designed to enable students to participate in first-hand research and experiential learning in the region. Under his directorship, the Working Group on the Transformative Movements in the Arab World has been divided into subgroups along three over-arching themes: The Arab World in Transition: Politics and Social Movements, Middle East Literature in Transition: New Frontiers in the 21st Century, and Film and Visual Arts in a Changing Middle East. To a large extent, CMES activities are now organized under the auspices of these three groups. Geographically, during Professor Granara’s tenure as director, the Center’s initiatives have also expanded to include a focus on the Arabian Peninsula. Towards this goal, the inauguration of CMES’s new bi-annual Arabian Peninsula Lecture Series was held in April 2015.