Q&A With Rosie Bsheer

September 14, 2020
Rosie Bsheer

Rosie Bsheer is Assistant Professor of History in the Department of History and a member of the CMES Steering Committee. Her teaching and research interests center on Arab intellectual and social movements, petrocapitalism and state formation, and the production of historical knowledge and commemorative spaces. She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on oil and empire, social and intellectual movements, petro­modernity, political economy, historiography, and the making of the modern Middle East. Her first book, Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia, will be published in fall 2020 by Stanford University Press.

What classes are you teaching?

I have taught several courses since joining Harvard University in September 2018. At the undergraduate level, I taught “Oil and Empire,” an advanced writing seminar that explores how the political economy of oil has shaped the rise and fall of empires, the fate of nation-states, the making of “the economy,” the nature of class, gender, and racial discrimination, and the production of historical knowledge and the built urban environment. I also taught a survey course titled “The Making of the Modern Middle East,” which looks at how the region of North Africa and West Asia between the Atlantic and Central Asia was constructed, physically and discursively, as “the Middle East.” Some of the themes the course covers include challenges in the study of the modern Middle East, the politics of modernity, Ottoman reform, the formation of modern nation-states, colonialism and imperialism, social and intellectual movements, petrostates in global perspective, and religion and politics. At the graduate level, my focus has mostly been on the historiography of the modern Middle East as well as theories and methods in studying the region, in addition to directed reading courses that prepare PhD students to take their general exams.

In fall 2020, I am teaching a new undergraduate seminar titled “Reformers and Revolutionaries in the Arab World.” It will examine the local, regional, national, and international contexts within which social movements have operated in the Arab world from the late Ottoman to the contemporary era. The course aims to introduce students to the kinds of questions and issues that peasants, workers, unionists, feminists, leftists, nationalists, Islamists, secularists, and liberals were dealing with throughout the twentieth century and the imperial, colonial, and postcolonial worlds they were caught in. I plan on going on research leave in calendar year 2021 and so will not be teaching until spring 2022.

You are the first tenured or tenure-track historian of the modern Middle East to teach at Harvard since the late Roger Owen retired in 2013. Does stepping into a role that has been somewhat in flux for several years come with any extra sense of pressure or scrutiny? Does it have any effect on the nature of the courses you’ll offer or the material you’ll teach?

It goes without saying that I have some really big shoes to fill, but at least I do not have to go it on my own. For one, Roger’s legacy and spirit remain guiding posts for all of us here at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and for me in particular, especially as I occupy the same office he called home for so many years, his office. At the same time, wonderful colleagues at the History Department as well as at the Center have made my landing, and the transition, as smooth as one can hope for. While there was a substantial community of eager students for whom the modern Middle East was a primary or secondary field, they all came to me with excellent training and preparation. This made working with a large group of students, many of whom took their exams in my first teaching semester, somewhat manageable. I was also advising new graduate students, which was an essential part of building the modern Middle East field. The long absence of ladder faculty in modern Middle East history necessarily meant that I had to cater my teaching and mentoring to their diverse methodological and theoretical needs, which I try my best to do even under usual circumstances.

What is your upcoming book about?

Bsheer, Archive Wars, coverMy book, Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia, will be out later this month, in September 2020. Taking late-Ottoman Arabia as one of many possible starting points, the book explores how the destruction of one form of historical memory in Mecca has been complemented by the belated creation and memorialization of an official, secular history in Riyadh. Archive Wars explores this dissonance through a genealogical reading of the material, spatial, and symbolic politics of Saudi petromodernity. It addresses the late-twentieth-century production of state archives, memorial spaces, and urban redevelopment plans, and the power struggles therein, as everyday practices of state-making. Specifically, in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, ruling elites in Saudi Arabia adopted measures that aimed to reconfigure state power by pacifying wartime popular opposition, reshaping the politics of subject formation, and diversifying the petroleum economy. The ensuing struggle over state form—what I call archive wars—revolved around the production of history, the reordering of space, and the repurposing of valuable real estate. Historicizing these practices helps us rethink the nature of modern archival formation as well as statecraft while calling into question scholarly assumptions about the cohesiveness of authoritarian states, and of states in general. Approaching the domains of history-making and urban planning as mutually constitutive, contested, and ongoing material practices of state formation complicates conventional understandings of the nature of state power and its imbrication with archive formation.

What is the focus your current research?

I am currently working on a second book project, tentatively titled “Crude Empire.” It examines the history of Saudi Arabian state formation through connected and competing processes of capital accumulation, land redistribution, and infrastructural development. As a legal history of private property ownership in Saudi Arabia, it takes seriously the emergence and centrality of private land ownership to state formation. Doing so sheds light on the kinds of social relations that the kingdom’s successive property laws were meant to engender and the struggles they prompted. Relatedly, the project explores the transnational political, economic, social, and technical networks that have shaped state formation through a study of the various flows of capital and expertise that have enabled the ruling Al Saud monarchy’s imperial conquests in the Arabian Peninsula, and the subsequent transformation of their empire into a state in 1932. Local as well as seafaring merchants operating across the Indian Ocean and South Asia, multinational corporations, and imperial powers financed and constructed the state’s infrastructural and bureaucratic requirements. Along with legal scholars, these have sustained the authoritarian state in its current form, as the project aims to show.

Rosie Bsheer, Middle East Seminar
Rosie Bsheer at the Middle East Seminar, March 2020


You are a co-editor of the Jadaliyya e-zine and you have contributed to the Washington Post, The Nation, and other popular media outlets. How do you view the relationship between your popular writing and your academic work, and how do they inform one another?

My popular writing and academic work are dialectically related and have fed into each other in the most productive and lasting of ways. I joined the editorial team of Jadaliyya in late 2010, shortly before the e-zine went live, which also occurred on the eve of the 2011 Arab uprisings. I was conducting dissertation research in Saudi Arabia at the time and began to write short pieces that, to some extent, intersected with my research and forced me to think of and write about it in more accessible ways. Over the years, I also worked closely, and on a daily basis, with hundreds of writers, scholars, activists, and artists. Many were directly involved in political organizing across the Arab states and wanted to foreground the struggles they were involved in. Others—as firsthand observers or as analysts—were trying to make sense of the uprisings, the potential for creating a different future, and the major obstacles to doing so, not least of which was the reactionary counterrevolution that ensued. While my work with Jadaliyya initially slowed down my academic writing, it in fact deepened it and made me a more critical thinker and writer. I was learning, almost firsthand, about myriad social and political movements and how they connected with or departed from past struggles, a subject I now teach on a regular basis. The experience also taught me that writing is a communal act; no one person is the sole author of any work, it takes a village. Jadaliyya—as a community of both editors and contributors—was my village. Writing in other popular platforms also forced me to reconsider, in more pressing ways, the historian’s craft and the responsibilities that come with it—issues of audience, accessibility, positionality, political stakes, and “truth,” among others. Having access to the popular press necessarily implicates one in processes and politics of knowledge production. It is at once a privilege and a responsibility, especially when writing about a place like Saudi Arabia whose own citizens and residents are largely prevented from voicing their opinions, let alone speaking truth to power.

You were an Associate Producer of the documentary film My Country, My Country, which tells the story of an Iraqi doctor and political candidate during the US occupation of Iraq. What was your role in that project, and how did you become involved?

I worked on the post-production of the Sundance-sponsored and Oscar-nominated My Country, My Country, an intimate portrait of Iraqis living under US occupation and the tragic narrative of how this occupation unfolds. I did so first as a translator and then as an aspiring editor. In 2005, after translating over 180 hours of footage that Laura Poitras had filmed in Iraq, I taught myself how to edit and joined the small team of two in the studio/editing room, day in, day out. It turned out that I was really bad at (and did not like) editing, but I was not so bad at making other things needed for the film happen, hence Associate Producer.