Searching for Najla: the Life and Making of a Female Arab Intellectual

By Ellen L. Fleischmann
Submitted to Session P4779 ("Arab Arabists:" Public Intellectuals and the Production of Knowledge About the Arab World, 2017 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
Arab Studies;
In 1945, the Jewish Agency's representative in Washington, DC cautioned in a secret report that Dr. Najla Abu-Izzeddin, the first Arab woman PhD (University of Chicago 1934, BA Vassar College), would "bear watching." Abu-Izzeddin was "the best educated, the most familiar with the United States, and the most articulate" of a cohort of young Arab intellectuals who staffed the newly formed Arab League's information bureaus in London, Jerusalem and Washington. These young luminaries of the Arab world, who had been educated at Anglo-American institutions, were chosen for being "socially acceptable and presentable" in London and Washington. Abu-Izzeddin, considered by many accounts "brilliant," had a peripatetic career as an educator in Beirut, Baghdad and Kuwait from the 1930s to 1950s, and then seemed to drop from sight, although she served on the Board of Directors of the Institute for Palestine Studies from the 1960s until the 1990s.
Available sources celebrate Abu-Izzeddin as the usual "pioneering" Arab woman, but as a historical subject she is enigmatic. Trained in physical anthropology, her fieldwork in Lebanon relied on racial categories to make scholarly arguments about the origins of the Druze. An academic by training and temperament, she expended time and effort producing non-scholarly works written in English, aiming her publishing and public speaking toward an English-speaking audience in the 1940s and 1950s, when she lectured in the United States and Saudi Arabia, advocating for the Palestinian and Arab nationalist causes, and promoting her first book, The Arab World: Past, Present and Future. I explore Abu-Izzeddin's role and life as that rarely recognized personality, the female intellectual, and argue that she was, in fact, a public intellectual. An investigation of her personality, intellectual production and work history demonstrate the fraught space occupied by a woman whose liminality emphasizes how she was both outlier, but also emblematic of changing aspirations of highly educated Arab women. Why did she take the career path she did? How was her education in American institutions formative of her intellectual self? What did she see out to achieve in articulating her vision of the causes she promoted? How did she portray that vision to the Anglo-American public she targeted in her writing and speaking?
Sources for the paper include oral history, educational transcripts, correspondence, and institutional archives from Vassar College, University of Chicago, and the Syria Mission.