Q&A with Naghmeh Sohrabi

November 21, 2013
Q&A with Naghmeh Sohrabi

Naghmeh Sohrabi is the Charles (Corky) Goodman Professor of Middle East History and the Associate Director for Research at the Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University. She completed her PhD in History and Middle East Studies at CMES in 2005.

Naghmeh SohrabiHad you always had an interest in getting a PhD, and focusing on the history of the Middle East?

By the end of my sophomore year at MIT, I knew I wanted to become a historian, despite having dreamt since age 13 of coming to MIT to become a mathematician or a biologist. That changed when I met Professor Afsaneh Najmabadi (currently Francis Lee Higginson Professor of History and of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, and chair of the Committee on Degrees in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard). She was not yet a professor at Harvard but lived in Cambridge. I also took a class at MIT with Professor John Dower on Japanese history, and I fell in love with the field.

What brought you to CMES and Harvard?

When it came time to apply for graduate school, I knew I didn’t want to leave Cambridge. I applied to CMES, but as a fallback I also applied to Princeton for a PhD in history. I didn’t get into Princeton, but CMES took me as an AM student. After receiving my AM in 1996, I applied only to the PhD program in History and Middle East Studies at Harvard, and thankfully got in.

How formative was Harvard at that time for your intellectual developments?

Considering that I entered Harvard at the tender age of twenty-two and graduated with my PhD at the less than tender age of thirty-three, I’d have to say Harvard was extremely formative to my intellectual development. I say this despite the fact that I, like many of my other colleagues, had a love-hate relationship with Harvard as an institution. I revelled in the intellectual stimulation provided by my professors, and as importantly, my friends and colleagues. And like many others, I marvelled at and immersed myself in the inimitable Widener library.

What was Harvard like as an academic environment?

The academic environment particularly during the first years of my PhD was extremely thrilling. I had the great luck of being colleagues with very smart and fun-loving graduate students, many of whom gathered in Gato Rojo [Graduate Café] every morning, and from whom I learned not only about the Middle East but also about the Red Sox. I benefitted from the generosity of CMES faculty in terms of time, scholarly knowledge, and in some cases even life lessons. One professor even gave me a two week extension on a paper after I broke down in his office over a bad break-up, and reassured me with tales of his own graduate years! 

How did your own academic focus develop while you were here?

I can’t say my focus changed much. I was pretty set on nineteenth-century Iranian history, though I did flirt a bit with becoming an Arab historian (because of Professor William Granara’s instruction in Arabic), a medievalist (because of Professor Roy Mottahedeh’s independent study class), and even a political theorist (because of Professor Bonnie Honig’s class in the government department).

What current projects are you undertaking in this field?

My book based on my dissertation was published by Oxford University Press in May 2012—it is titled Taken for Wonder: Nineteenth Century Travel Accounts from Iran to Europe. With that book out of the way, I’ve focused my attention on the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Specifically, I’m interested in re-thinking the Iranian revolution by weaving into the existing historical arc, the experience of a wide array of political actors and ordinary people who were living in Iran in the years leading up to the revolution. To do this, I’ve started to learn about cultural anthropology with the hopes that combining ethnographic research data with archival records can help me answer the following questions: What does a revolution feel like to those in its midst before the term is even used to define this great upheaval? Do people’s experience of the revolution—in Iran’s case a seemingly impossible alliance of secular, Islamist, leftist and lesser-known groups—line up with historians’ later tidying up of the narrative or does it deviate from it? And is it possible to bridge the gap between the historians’ understanding of the revolution (by nature a cohesive narrative) and the ways in which it was experienced (fractured, and muddled)?

Finally, tell us where you currently are.

I am currently the Charles (Corky) Goodman Professor of Middle East History and the Associate Director for Research at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University.