Q&A with Emrah Yildiz

May 16, 2017
Emrah Yildiz

Emrah Yildiz is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Middle East and North African Studies at Northwestern University. He completed his PhD in Anthropology and Middle East Studies at Harvard in 2016.

How was your first term on the faculty at Northwestern?

My first two quarters on the faculty at Northwestern have been truly wonderful. Although I was hired as a tenure-track faculty member, holding a joint appointment in Anthropology and Middle East and North African Studies, this year I was generously offered a College Fellowship with the Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. The fellowship is designed for incoming faculty members who have not held post-doctoral positions prior to Northwestern and comes with two course releases to allow new faculty members to acclimate to the University and focus on their research projects before they get immersed in a full teaching schedule. This year so far has afforded me the opportunity to get involved in the intellectual life of Weinberg College specifically and Northwestern more broadly. My colleagues in MENA as well as in anthropology have been incredibly generous with their time, ideas and advice as I make my transition to my position here. I could not have asked for a more intellectually stimulating, generous and collaborative environment!

What are you teaching?

This year I am teaching two undergraduate seminars: “Breaking the Law in the Middle East: The Illicit” and “Producing Territory: People, Commodities, and Values on the Move.” Next year I will be offering “Informal Economies: Conditions and Critiques of Late Capitalism” and “Frontiers, Borders, and Boundaries: States of Sovereignty” as well as two graduate seminars in anthropology and Middle East and North African Studies respectively: “Migrant Sexualities and Queer Travelers: Translocations” and “History, Anthropology, and Mobility across the Middle East.”

The Program in Middle East and North African Studies is relatively new. How is the program structured? What academic programming and degree options do you offer?

It is indeed a relatively new pro­gram. Northwestern’s Middle East and North African Studies Program (MENA) is committed to offering students and the community at large an in-depth understanding of the region that stretches from Morocco to the Gulf States and Iran, and from the Mediterranean into the Sahara and beyond. The MENA faculty is comprised of twelve core members, six language instructors, six affiliates, and four visiting scholars. They are drawn from the disciplines of anthropology, art history, comparative literature, history, political science, religion, and film and media studies among others. Undergraduate students have the option of majoring or minoring in MENA Studies. On the graduate level, the MENA Program offers a PhD certificate in Middle East and North African Studies and a PhD cluster in the Interdisciplinary Cluster Initiative offered by the Graduate School. The MENA Program recently formed a partnership with the Evanston Public Library to expand its successful programming—associated with our weekly lecture series called MENA Monday—beyond the campus. This evening series held in downtown Evanston represents one aspect of our community outreach and our commitment to helping foster dialogue around the complex, frequently misunderstood, and ever fascinating region we study and teach about.

In addition to teaching, do you have specific responsibilities in terms of growing the program or recruiting students?

I serve on the Executive Committee for the MENA program. I am also an affiliated faculty member of the Keyman Modern Turkish Studies Program and a member of the Global Politics and Religion Research Group at Buffett Institute for Global Studies. In my departmental home in anthropology, I am also involved in graduate admissions, as are all of my colleagues in the department.

When did you first know you wanted to pursue a PhD and focus on Middle East studies?

After having graduated from Wesleyan University with a BA in anthropology and German studies, I was fortunate enough to receive a DAAD research fellowship to conduct fieldwork on alternative education programs in creative industries—namely music, film, and theater—that target Turkish-, Kurdish-, and Iranian-German youth in Berlin. Based on that research I completed my MA thesis, also at Wesleyan, titled “Post-Migrant Sounds: Creative Industries of Otherhood in Weltstadt Berlin.” Both my time as a visiting research fellow at the Institute for European Ethnology of Humboldt University and my fieldwork experience convinced me that I wanted to pursue a PhD in anthropology. Having observed the ambiguous place Turkey has occupied in European Studies on the one hand, and having started learning Persian thanks to the Iranian youth I worked with in Berlin on the other, I became increasingly interested in movements of people, goods, and ideas between Iran and Turkey. I wanted to explore the equally ambiguous and historically sedimented place Turkey occupied in the Middle East, particularly vis-à-vis Iran.

What brought you to Harvard and CMES? How did your own academic focus develop while you were here?

The opportunity to work with many distinguished scholars in Iranian as well as Ottoman/Turkish Studies at CMES, while receiving rigorous training in social anthropology brought me to Harvard. I was fortunate enough to work with Afsaneh Najmabadi and Cemal Kafadar at CMES, which helped me gain an appreciation for historical inquiry while empirically and historically grounding my project on mobility across the Middle East in Middle East Studies in addition to history and anthropology. Working with Steve Caton, another CMES faculty member, further strengthened my footing both in anthropology and Middle East Studies. The joint PhD program in Anthropology and Middle East Studies offered me the best of two worlds: I was able to develop and complete an interdisciplinary project that relied almost as much on historical methods as it did on ethnographic ones, while staying grounded in the discipline of anthropology. I cannot thank my advisor, Ajantha ­Subramanian, enough for making my time at Harvard truly wonderful. She allowed me to develop my take on historical anthropology, taught me how to attend to the minute details of an argument while keeping the bigger and historical picture in mind. She also single-handedly picked me and my dissertation up on several occasions of free fall. Last but not least, the most precious gift of my years at Harvard has been the intellectual companionships I have developed with fellow graduate students. There are too many names to mention here, but let me just acknowledge Naor Ben-Yehoyada, my intellectual partner in crime, as one of those who sustained me over my years at Harvard. Without their support, graduate school and my dissertation project simply would not have been.

What is the focus of your current research?

My research lies at the intersection of historiography and ethnography of borders and their states; ritual practice, saints, and heresiography in Islam; as well as paper currency and contraband commerce in trans-regional political economy. My first book project based on my dissertation research, “The Ways of Zaynab: Genealogical Geographies and Arrested Mobilities between Iran and Syria,” brings these areas of scholarship into conversation as it follows the pathways of a ziyarat (visitation) route, often referred to as Hajj-e Fuqara’ (pilgrimage of the poor) from bus stations in Iran, through informal bazaars in Turkey, to shrines in Syria. I am also interested in studies of gender and sexuality in the Middle East. I am currently at work on a second project, which studies the spatial trajectories and lived experiences of LGBT and queer Iranian asylum-­seekers at the United Nations High Commission in Turkey.