Enlightened Patriots: Area Studies, the Nahda, and the Arab World

By John Meloy
Submitted to Session P4779 ("Arab Arabists:" Public Intellectuals and the Production of Knowledge About the Arab World, 2017 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The Arab Studies Program at the American University of Beirut was founded in the summer of 1949. Like other area studies programs at American universities, the ASP, initiated by US foundation funds, provided training and expertise on the region. Thus it had intimate ties to the area studies project that emerged in the West in the middle of the twentieth century fostered by the growth of the social sciences and shaped by the exigencies of World War II and the Cold War.

However, AUB’s Arab Studies Program, as an area studies program located within the area it studied, and founded and directed by Constantine Zurayk and Nabih Amin Faris, was significantly different. First, Zurayk and Faris explicitly defined the area of study in terms of the Arab world rather than the Middle East, setting it distinctly apart from programs oriented around the Near or Middle East. Moreover, for its first two decades, the ASP served as a venue and platform for public engagement on the region in the Arabic language. Annual conferences, conducted in Arabic and published in Beirut, provided a venue for prominent intellectuals from around the Arab world to continue what may be described as the work of the Nahda: participants included Taha Husayn speaking on the role of the university, ‘Ali al-Wardi on human resources, and Edmond Rabbath on citizenship. In addition, members of the program like Faris and Ishaq Musa Husayni, aside from pursuing their scholarly work, endeavored to reach popular Arabic and English readerships to promote Arab nationalism, explore Islamic modernism, and, to champion the cause of Palestine—what Faris called the labor of “enlightened patriots.” This paper examines the work of these patriots by drawing on the proceedings of the Arab Studies conferences, reports in the local press, and the archives of AUB and the Rockefeller Foundation. This paper offers view of what area studies could be when practiced within the area, bringing to light the contributions of intellectuals devoted to the region who, in the wake of the nakba, pursued the Nahda, in an entirely new institutional guise, by encouraging public debate and critique within the Arab World as well as abroad.