MESA - Middle East Studies Association

2014 Presidential Address/Bio

Nathan Brown

Nathan Brown

2014 MESA President, Nathan Brown, delivered his Presidential Address, "Scholarly Power, Being, and Nothingness" on Sunday, November 23, 2014. The address will appear in the summer 2015 issue of the Review of Middle East Studies.

I suspect I am hardly the only member of MESA who prompts one of three replies from a new acquaintance who discovers my profession. The first is that I find myself receiving a lecture about the Middle East; I generally restrain the urge to explain that I have just been given without charge what I am paid a handsome salary to deliver. The second reply is to exclaim “What an interesting time to be studying the Middle East!” as if there has ever been a boring time. But it is the third response, a question, that gives me the most trouble: “How did you get interested in the Middle East?” The truth is very muddled and mixes in large doses of serendipity and coincidence with smaller but very real doses of fear, intimidation, curiosity, frustration, and determination.

I grew up near the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle, where my father taught as a neurophysiologist and my mother worked nearby as a pediatric nurse. That led to almost no contact with anything Middle Eastern. My father was Jewish and my mother was Catholic; that led to some vague political interest on my father’s part in Israeli affairs, but the main thing that caused him to pass on to me was a soccer loyalty. (The Dutch wartime sheltering of Jews led him to follow the 1974 World Cup when the Netherlands lost to West Germany, an event to which virtually no other American paid the slightest attention. I still cheer on the Dutch team.) If dinner table discussions took an intellectual turn it was likely about science or technology (where my father made odd claims about computers soon becoming household objects) or perhaps history. Religion and politics received little comment. I vaguely recall that a neighbor was a member of the UW’s faculty teaching Persian and I more clearly remember a classmate named Deena who was of Palestinian descent, but I never spoke with either about the Middle East.   

I did become interested in other countries and cultures beyond those of the Pacific Northwest when my family relocated to Malaysia for a year in 1969; on that trip we also visited Angkor Wat, Bangkok, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Jerusalem, Athens, Paris, London, and New York. All struck me as fascinating, though primarily for their exoticism (New York as much as Bangkok, I have to admit). The fact that we were in Malaysia during a state of emergency and violent race riots or that our trip to Cambodia came months before that country’s deep descent into invasion and civil war did not escape my consciousness but neither did they attract that much of my attention. And the one Middle Eastern location visited—Jerusalem—deeply interested me but seemed at that point one exotic locale among many others.

But when it came time to select my first courses as a freshman at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1976, I came up with the original idea that it might be an interesting time to study the Middle East. War, oil embargo, diplomacy, and political violence—Middle Eastern news had taken up considerable space on the pages of the newspaper I had grown up reading, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Maybe a college course would help me understand what all the fuss was about.

My freshman adviser suggested I attend the first meeting of “International Relations of the Middle East” and then speak with the professor afterwards to find out if it was appropriate for a student straight out of high school. However, when Leonard Binder began what turned out to be a bit of a seminar, it became horrifyingly clear that I had made a tremendous mistake. One-third of those in the room were graduate students. One wore tweed and smoked a pipe; another sprinkled complicated English sentences with foreign words; and a third began a contribution with the utterly indecipherable comment: “When I was working in Foggy Bottom, the feeling on the seventh floor was…” I did not know what “Foggy Bottom” was, but I suspected it was not an appropriate term to use in educated discussion. I needed to get out. My problem was that in order to drop the class, I would need Binder’s signature. That was clearly impossibile. I did try. In fact, on one occasion I got quite close to the professor before darting away in fear. So I was stuck.

I stayed with the class, writing down strange terms and looking them up when I got to the library. I studied a map so I could tell Lebanon and Libya apart. Sufi and Shi`i were a bit more difficult, but I did my best. By the end of the course, I felt drawn in sufficiently to select “Islamic Civilization” for my “non-Western civ” requirement. This was a three quarter class taught by Stephen Humphreys but bringing in guest lecturers like Fazlur Rahman and John Woods. I took a liking to the material in part because none of these illustrious scholars had to know who I was: this was a lecture course so I could sit quietly and listen. If I needed help, we had a gentle TA named Bruce Masters who could guide us in writing papers. Still I was frustrated: every single quarter, I found that despite giving my written work a few terse compliments, Humphreys always chose to describe my final paper as "turgid."

By the time I decided to attend graduate school in political science at Princeton, I was sufficiently interested in the Middle East to enroll in beginning Arabic. I was more than a little surprised when I purchased the required textbook and discovered it was written by Deena’s father, Farhat Ziadeh of the University of Washington. (I asked my father if he knew Ziadeh and it turned out the two had served on some campus committee together. He described Ziadeh as “reasonable,” one of the traits my late father most admired in other human beings.)

Arabic was not easy, but I did discover that if I brought the same determination I had to learning the strange phrases of my classmates in Binder’s class, I could make slow progress. And in my other course work focusing on the Middle East—with John Waterbury, Carl Brown, and Manfred Halpern—I found myself growing more interested in regional politics. It was clear I would write a dissertation on a topic involving something, somewhere in the Arab world; when Carl Brown asked me how much time I had spent there, I was forced to confess I had never been. Off I was sent for language study and field work. 

I lived for two years in Cairo, studying on CASA, conducting research for my dissertation, and traveling a bit around the region. This was a time when such an extended overseas trip attenuated ties much more than it does today—now forgotten things like aerogrammes, shortwave radios, and (three-day delayed) Herald Tribunes allowed for maintaining some cultural and personal ties, but I found myself more thoroughly immersed in parts of Egyptian society than I had expected. My research was largely historical (in libraries and archives), with my colleagues and social networks partly Egyptian. 

But even after two years in which I was training to be an expert on the Arab world, I continued to be struck by how much even the parts of Cairo that I came to know consisted of many overlapping worlds that I could only understand and penetrate to a limited extent. I think I became convinced from that experience—and I continue to be convinced today—that when we do our job well, it is more to aid by building bridges that facilitate understanding than by being sources of expertise and information ourselves.

I returned back to Princeton to write up my dissertation; I then interviewed for a visiting position at Wesleyan University. I was offered the position perhaps largely due to the calming effect a member of the audience had on me when I delivered my first job talk—Bruce Masters, who had joined the history faculty. 

A year after that experience I had an interview in a neighborhood whose name had so confused me a decade earlier—Foggy Bottom. I joined the George Washington University in the fall of 1987 and have taught there ever since. From the beginning it was a fortunate place to be—GW and the Washington locale offered significant student interest, some local resources (such as the Library of Congress), a steady stream of visitors, and a community of colleagues.

Washington is also, of course, a policy-oriented city, though that did not spark much of my interest at first. The sorts of things that absorbed the attention of my academic work—the historical evolution of modes of governance and legal institutions, for instance—were not obviously connected with policy debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the Iran-Iraq war. I would sometimes participate in policy discussions at the margins but generally only by happenstance. In 1988, right after arriving, I received a call from a journalist who was writing a profile of William Quandt, then president of MESA and also a scholar at the Brookings Institution. I had nothing of interest to say—I had read some of his writings in Binder’s and Waterbury’s classes but I had never met him, and he clearly traveled in policy circles far from mine. So I uttered a polite but vague description of him (“he has the respect of both the policy and academic communities and those things are very hard to combine”) as a way of ending the call. I was a bit startled—and I learned my lesson that anything you say to a journalist can be quoted—when I received a copy of the article in the mail with my flattery very much part of the story. I pictured Quandt himself reading it and asking himself, “Who is Nathan Brown and why is he saying nice things about me?” When I finally met him fifteen years later, he did not deny that thought.

In the ensuing years, my institution has evolved, as have my interests. GW is now the location for the Institute of Middle East Studies, a first-rate center for work on the region; in the past decade we have begun to attract the strongest possible faculty, undergraduates, MA, and PhD students interested in the Middle East.

And I no longer avoid policy discussions. Actually, I have the sensation that they came to meet me, not the other way around. I still remember sitting in my car waiting to pick up my children from summer camp in 2002 when I heard George Bush give his opinion on Palestinian constitutional issues, an interest of mine hitherto as lonely in the US as my father’s interest in soccer in the early 1970s. Suddenly governance and legal issues were part of broad international and policy discussions.  

In 2005, I took off two years to serve full time at a Washington think tank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where I still have an affiliation. It was a wonderful way to get my feet wet since Carnegie afforded me considerable freedom to research and write as I liked; I found ways to translate my academic interests into terms relevant to policy discussions rather than have those discussions dictate my interests. I also found that such discussions often can be international if one tries—much of Washington policy debate is inward looking and self-referential to be sure, but there are real opportunities to contribute to and be educated by discussions in Europe and the Middle East.

The role of scholars in such discussions is somewhat controversial within the academy. The platitude I uttered about Quandt is actually quite true—it is difficult to combine participation in policy debates with purely academic work in a manner that draws the respect of both worlds. I cannot say that I succeed but I can report that when I conceive of my role as interpretation and translation rather than as prescription or technical expertise, I feel less tension. But I think that is in part because my teachers—even those who were unaware of my often timid presence in their classrooms—instilled in me a sense of how to keep my feet planted firmly in scholarly integrity, intellectual debates, and academic approaches and to have a scholar’s humility about the finality of any pronouncements I might be called upon to deliver.


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