Theo Wye is a second-year student in the AM in Middle Eastern Studies program.
How did you become interested in Middle Eastern Studies?
In my second to last year of high school the Arab Spring happened and that was the first time that I was really exposed to the Middle East in a contemporary setting. The teaching at high school was always very focused on Europe and I felt that they were ignoring such an important part of the world. I had always enjoyed languages and I thought that studying Arabic was an opportunity to do something totally different. Somehow I managed to get into Oxford to study Arabic and Islamic studies where I focused on modern Middle Eastern history. The program allowed me to study in Jordan for a year and I couldn’t get enough of it!
Why did you choose CMES?
I knew that I wanted to study in America for my master’s and I would be lying if I said that the thought of saying that I went to Harvard to my friends and family wouldn’t be a cool thing. Academically obviously, CMES has few equals, very few places in the world will you take a class by someone who’s books you read and love. I also liked the fact that the program is very flexible and allows you to have a lot of control over what you study. At Oxford I didn’t have much choice in what specific areas I studied so it was really refreshing to be able to pursue my own interests further without strict course requirements.
What are your research interests?
I started out with a strong focus on British colonial history in the interwar period, especially the colonial administration of Iraq. I was interested in comparing it to the US administration of Iraq post 2003 to see what policymakers could learn from repeated mistakes there. From there I knew that I wanted to apply my background in history to a more contemporary setting. I made a point when I got here to take a course each semester on a geographic area of the Middle East or general topic that I had absolutely no knowledge about so I’ve ended up researching topics from the emergence of HTS in Syria to Ottoman Egyptian legal manuscripts to the importance of polo in Safavid state identity. I’m currently writing my thesis on the symbolism of prisons in Islamic State propaganda and I’m comparing the administration of prisons under Syrian and Iraqi regimes to the administration of them under the Islamic State. I hope that it will provide new light on how we perceive the Islamic State and also how captured fighters will be rehabilitated.
What do you like best about studying at Harvard?
I really liked the freedom to study whatever I wanted. Coming from the British university system I never really had much of an opportunity to choose the courses that I was doing. The class environment here was totally different as well. It was hard to adjust to in the beginning but I ended up loving the fact that everyone had something to say. The teachers and students here really do give you the confidence to do that.
What are your plans after finishing your degree?
Whilst I think that my academic career is going to be put on ice (I need a few years before I can fall back in love with it!), I still want to use what I have learned. Ideally that would involve building on my research into insurgent groups in Syria and Iraq. For the moment at least I want to write as much as possible on contemporary issues in the Middle East. This year was the first time that I was properly exposed to journalis: I am an associate editor for the Harvard Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy, so that’s an avenue I definitely want to explore. I want to stay in the US for the foreseeable future, but moving to somewhere in the Middle East is also something I’m considering. Not forgetting my Arabic would be nice as well.
What advice would you offer a prospective student?
Two years seems like a long time but it really isn’t! Make sure you know what you want to do but also don’t let that blinker you. At Harvard, you have the opportunity to study literally anything, so make the most of that. I think most importantly don’t forget why you want to come here in the first place. A lot of people let the idea of heavy workloads get them down but the point of being here isn’t to get a perfect GPA that you can then show off to future employers. Some of the classes and conversations you will have here are going to stick with you for the rest of your life. Also, everyone at CMES is super helpful so don’t hesitate to ask questions. Don’t think that you shouldn’t apply because you got scared off by the impressive bios of all our wonderful students. They are great obviously but what sets CMES apart is the variety of students here. Don’t think that you won’t fit in. I can remember very well looking at the prospective students’ page on the CMES website and not thinking that I was good enough, and I very nearly didn’t apply. I’ll never regret ignoring that feeling.