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Middle East Studies program becomes Center at Watson

Newly named center develops new initiatives, hires new faculty

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 16, 2019

At ACCRIP’s first meeting of the academic year, members of the committee and students discussed whether Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories constitutes social harm. ACCRIP Chair Chi-Ming Hai facilitated a conversation between student groups for and against divestment.

At the beginning of this semester, the Middle East Studies program was renamed the Center for Middle East Studies as it joined other regional centers within the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

The new name indicates the University’s permanent commitment to the concentration and grants the department greater visibility within and beyond the University for future growth and fundraising.

Beshara Doumani, founding and former director of MES, said that since he joined the University in 2012, the concentration has grown into a center in everything but name. In the past seven years, the department has increased its number of faculty, taught more students at the University, attracted more concentrators and hosted numerous events on campus annually. The department began advocating to change its name to a center in spring 2018, according to Shahzad Bashir, MES director since 2018.

The program’s new name as a center allows it greater formal recognition within the University and does not imply any change in department organization or substance, Doumani said. This recognition makes MES symmetrical with other regional studies within the Watson and provides a more legible way for its faculty and students to present themselves outside the University.

“It’s like moving into a bigger apartment but already having all the furniture, all the people,” Doumani said.

Beyond its naming as a new center, Doumani hopes that the innovative structure already defining the department can serve as a model for similar attempts outside the University. “We think of the Middle East not so much in terms of geography but in terms of … big topics and themes that we want Brown to be the best in the country at,” he said.

These topics and themes are addressed by six recent research initiatives that aim to develop new subfields by raising funds to endow designated professorships. This year, MES hired Paul Kohlbry, a postdoctoral fellow in Palestinian Studies. “We have the first chair ever in the country — if not the world — in Palestinian studies,” he said, adding that the University could serve as a worldwide center for the field.

In addition, the department has hired Samine Tabatabaei, a specialist in contemporary art, as a visiting asssistant professor in Iranian Studies. The Center intends to develop academic scholarship focused on other areas as well.

Bashir wrote in an email to The Herald that CMES also plans to “expand Turkish studies and create new programming concentrating on Istanbul.” The center will also host a variety of events throughout the year, including conferences about North Africa, music concerts and topical events on Syria and the Sudan.

A new faculty steering committee was also established within CMES. The committee consists of professors from departments across the humanities and social sciences. “Looking to the future, we remain committed to the innovative and collaborative spirit that has characterized MES at Brown so far,” Bashir wrote.

MES concentrators are looking forward to the increased student resources and opportunities for faculty collaboration that the center will bring. Ryan Saadeh ’20, an MES undergraduate fellow, said he was excited about the concentration’s change from program to center. “As a student, this is exciting not just in terms of commitment to academic resources and support for undergraduates but for the expansion of breadth of programming, events and opportunities,” he said.

Benjamin Chiacchia ’20 said he has felt the growth of the department with each passing year and appreciates the unique, interdisciplinary courses he has been able to take in MES. Although he focused on history for most of his time in the concentration, toward the end of his junior year he began to take comparative literature, anthropology and art history classes all related to the Middle East.

“It’s cool that you can approach this geographic and demographic construct from multiple angles in a way that not every concentration is able to,” he said. “It is a unique opportunity and one that I really relish being able to experience.”

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