A conversation with incoming CMES Director William Granara

September 18, 2013

William Granara is Gordon Gray Professor of Arabic and teaches Arabic language and literature. He is currently the director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and of the Moroccan Studies Program at Harvard. In addition he is the founding director of Harvard Summer School’s program Mediterranean Crossings: France and the Arab World, in Aix-en-Provence, France.

Professor Granara studied French and Arabic at Georgetown and earned a PhD in Islamic Studies from the University of Pennsylvania (1986).  He has translated three Arabic novels into English, The Earthquake by Tahir Wattar (2000), Granada by Radwa Ashour (2004), and The Battle of Poitiers by Jurji Zaydan (2012). In addition to his scholarly publications on modern Arabic literature, he researches on the literature and cultures of medieval Muslim Sicily and Spain. Among his recent articles are “Sicilian Poets in Seville: Literary Affinities Across Political Borders” (2013); “Fragments of the Past: Reconstructing Palermo’s Jewish Neighborhood, 973-1492” (2010); and “Rethinking Muslim Sicily’s Golden Age: Poetry and Patronage at the Fatimid Kalbid Court” (2008).

Professor Granara began a three-year term as director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies in July 2013. We spoke with him at the start of the fall semester about his plans for the Center this year and beyond.

What’s your vision for the Center during your term as director?
What I'd like to see the Center do over the next three years is to integrate itself to a greater degree, and become a more active participant, in the Yard. I’d like us to build and deepen relationships with humanities-centered entities such as the Mahindra Humanities Center and the Departments of History & Literature, Comparative Literature, and Romance Languages and Literatures. I’d also like to integrate the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) more meaningfully into CMES. Many students at NELC are very much involved in what’s going on in the modern Middle East, and I’d like them to be more engaged in our activities. So one of my goals is to be sure that NELC undergraduate concentrators, Master’s students, PhD students, and faculty are an integral part of CMES in the way that our historians and anthropologists are.

I'd also like to see CMES become more accessible to undergraduates generally. Historically we have been a research institution with a focus on graduate studies at the Master’s and Doctoral level. This is natural given that we have a Master’s program in Middle Eastern Studies and joint PhD programs with the Departments of the History of Art & Architecture, History, and Anthropology. But I’d like to create more access for undergraduates, and get undergraduate students involved in our activities in much more interesting ways.

Why the humanities? What is the importance of the humanities to studying the Middle East?
First of all, language is crucial to our part of the world, and almost all of NELC’s modern Middle East language faculty are trained in the humanities—we’re all scholars of literature or Islamic studies. And our modern language programs are based on the idea of teaching texts and teaching culture, so the process of teaching Modern Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, and Arabic, from day one, entails teaching culture.

Second of all, it’s really humanities, especially right now in the area of creative literature and film, where political expression is most articulated. That has been the case pretty much throughout the 20th century and it’s continuing into the 21st. Reading an Arabic novel brings you into the world of a whole host of issues in Arab society. One gets a better sense of Arab society and Arab culture, and that includes politics, from reading Arabic novels, more so than from reading political texts or other things. 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.

What are your plans for achieving these goals of engaging CMES more fully with the humanities, with NELC, and with undergraduate students?
What I envision specifically is a focus on three broad areas, roughly defined as working groups. The first will center around contemporary political issues and modern Middle East history—current events, broadly defined, especially in the Arab World where there’s so much happening. This group will be called “The Arab World in Transition: Politics and Social Movements.”

The second working group will revolve around modern Middle East literatures, and will integrate our Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Modern Hebrew language programs with area studies. This second group, titled “Middle East Literature in Transition: New Frontiers in the 21st Century,” will explore the way in which novels and short stories, and to a lesser extent plays and poetry, express or articulate the sociological, religious, and cultural changes that are going on in the countries of the Middle East. The literature will be from the 21st century—what’s going on right now. If we need a historical marker, it’s post-9/11, because 9/11 has changed perceptions of the world.

The third working group will be on “Film and Visual Arts in a Changing Middle East.” Artistic expression, including film, contemporary art, graffiti, rap and other music, and other visual expression, has been very rich in our part of the world, particularly with regard to the Arab Spring and its ongoing repercussions. These momentous events have spawned tremendous creativity in visual arts and media. Also, we hope to expose members of the Harvard community to the richness of contemporary Israeli, Turkish, and Persian cinema.

What does the working group format mean in terms of how you’re approaching these topcs?
We don’t know what direction much of the culture and politics in the Middle East is moving in. What we want to do is apply our academic expertise in monitoring these events, and interpret them as best we can. And we want CMES to take on a leading role in attracting students, particularly undergraduates, who are otherwise not familiar with this part of the world. It’s a difficult part of the world to understand—there are lots of contradictions and complexities and difficulties that come with the field of Middle East studies, and it’s our job to help people understand these complexities—not necessarily to solve the problems but to understand how to approach them. So these working groups will basically focus on how we receive these events, whether they are artistic expressions or political explosions or whatever they are, and how we articulate them, how we understand them, and how we present them to the public. In that way these programs should be quite dynamic, ready to think about what’s going on as it happens.

Who will be involved in the working groups?
I’m pleased to announce that Professor Emeritus Roger Owen will oversee the first working group, on contemporary political issues. I’ll be chairing the second group, and working with my colleagues Irit Aharony in Modern Hebrew and Sami Alkayam, who works in Arabic literature. For the third working group I’d like to see the students, both graduate and undergraduate, involved more directly and taking greater control. But for all three, there will be representation from both from faculty and from our graduate students and undergraduates. And my hope is to also integrate our very talented and highly skilled staff—I think it’s important that the staff intellectually engage with what we’re doing and bring in their own contributions.

I’d also like, in general and for these three working groups, to more effectively tap into the enormous amount of local expertise we have here, and involve as many faculty as possible. If you look around a small geographical area both inside the Harvard campus and around the Harvard campus, there are a massive number of people who have expertise in our area, many of whom graduated from Harvard University. Leila Fawaz and Philip Khoury, for instance, are two highly eminent scholars who are graduates of Harvard’s History and CMES program. Eva Bellin from Brandeis is also a Harvard alumna, and there are many more. I’d also like CMES to take on a leading role in the promotion of the Middle Eastern studies throughout the New England area, to be a really important regional center as much as it is a vibrant part of the Harvard campus.

What kinds of activities will the working groups organize?
For the first group, we’ll continue the Mideast Newsreel series as one of our activities, and also organize a series of roundtable discussions, the first of which, on Egypt, was held already on September 5. The format for both will be short presentations, followed by a substantial question and answer period, because often enough it’s the questions from the audience that spark a real discussion. We will also have occasional lectures, and we’ll tap into a new book talk series being run by our own Outreach Program.

For the second group, on modern literature, I’m planning a monthly reading group in which we may discuss a contemporary novel, and which will involve local faculty and our students, both graduate and undergraduate, as well. In addition to the reading group we will have a lecture series, bringing writers and scholars to give talks. I have designated funding to bring Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, and Persian speaking lecturers here, so that our students can attend lectures in the languages they study. And finally this first year will culminate in a major conference, held here in April, covering Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Hebrew literatures.

For the working group on film and visual arts, I hope that students will organize activities like film screenings, bringing filmmakers in as well to discuss their work when possible, as well as art exhibits and things of that nature. One of our students, Youssef Ben Ismail, is arranging to host an artist named Z from Tunisia who has been documenting the Tunisian revolution through graffiti, and he’s going to be coming here in the fall. With this group in particular we don’t want to do too much preplanning. Things are changing very rapidly—three months ago we wouldn’t have thought of Egypt the way do now, for instance.

You have a lot planned—are you excited to be leading the Center?
I’m very excited. I have been a citizen of this building and a part of CMES, both physically and academically, for twenty years. I think I know it very well, and from many angles. I'm excited about implementing these changes and programs and building on the strengths that I have been able to watch very closely over the years.

See also: CMES News