2020 Spring

Middle East Center Newsletter


As the academic year 2019-20 comes to a close, I am once again grateful for the supportive and enlightened community of friends and colleagues of the Middle East Center (MEC). Although our in-person meetings and events have been put on hold, our community’s interest and engagement with the current issues in the region continues and allows us to connect with some of most pressing issues affecting our communities near and far.

This year our community and our students have been enriched with the addition of two new colleagues who work on diverse MENA interests: Assistant Professor Aria Fani, new faculty in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization, is an expert on Persian and Iranian Studies; Assistant Professor Rawan Arar, new faculty in the Department of Law, Societies, and Justice, is an expert on forced migrants and refugees, particularly in the MENA. Get to know them better through the interviews conducted for this newsletter by graduate students Maral Sahebjame (Interdisciplinary Ph.D. Program in Near and Middle Eastern Studies) and Bret Windhauser (Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilization) respectively.

We continue to highlight the commitment to research with our Voices in the Middle East lecture series, in which scholars with long-standing research in the region make presentations that offer new insights into the culture and politics of the region. Before the turn to remote events, we were able to welcome Barbara Slavin (director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council and Washington correspondent for, and Professors Matthew Ellis (Sarah Lawrence) and Ussama Makdisi (UT-Austin), as well as our very own Professor Brian McLaren (UW).

The MEC also continues its efforts to cultivate new forms of education through increased connections around the globe. This year, JSIS Affiliate Instructor David Fenner traveled to Kuwait to develop a new course on oil and business in the Persian Gulf while JSIS Lecturer, Jessica Beyer, offered her popular course on Fundamentals of Global Cybersecurity. Read this newsletter to learn more about these initiatives and other faculty news.

We are organizing an engrossing and educational 2020-21, hoping to meet you in person again, but planning for alternative modes of delivery, as well. So please stay tuned and continue to check out the MEC events page for a full listing of our events, all of which are free and open to the public. You can also follow our activities on Facebook.

As always, we are grateful for such an engaged community. Please consider supporting the Middle East Center  as we work to educate UW students and the citizens of Washington State.

We wish you health and safety in these trying times.

Arzoo Osanloo
Director, Middle East Center
Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies


An Interview with Aria Fani, New Assistant Professor in Near Eastern Languages and Civilization

Maral Sahebjame, Ph.D. Candidate in Near and Middle Eastern Studies, interviews Aria Fani, who joined the faculty of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization in Autumn Quarter 2019 as an Assistant Professor.  

As a new faculty member, what do enjoy most about your job?

Assistant Professor Aria Fani

Interacting with students really energizes me. Students possess so much potential and wisdom and I view my job as helping them figure out their story in life. This is deeply gratifying and educational for me. When I was their age, many mentors took me under their wings, and some continue to do so at this early stage of my career. Now want to pay it forward. In the classroom, I aim to equip students with the methodological tools necessary to think critically and independently and keep in check their assumptions about the world. Once they’ve graduated, I like to follow their professional and human growth. I also love getting to know my colleagues. The humanities and social sciences here have a wonderful network of scholars and I am very happy to find myself on the same wavelength as them, politically and methodologically. Not to mention, walking on campus is always such a beautiful experience. Prior to coming to the UW, I had not seen any pictures of the campus. At times it’s hard to believe how charming it is. I have also enjoyed making my office homey and fun to work in.

You’ve taught at the UW for two quarters now, is there anything that surprises you?

Honestly, coming from Berkeley, the depth of the intellectual community here pleasantly surprised me. There are always events and talks on various interesting topics and areas of the world. It would be a full time job to attend and reflect on half of them. Maybe there should be a grant, “The Prestigious Roam around Campus Fellowship.” On a less positive note, I am disheartened by the ongoing efforts to undermine the vitality of the humanities at the UW. For example, reducing language requirements curtails our enrollment. Advanced Persian went from 15-20 students to 3-4. When we treat foreign language requirements as a burden for students, then we are telling them it’s okay to graduate from a university without having learned about how non-Anglophones think and express themselves. Language acquisition is about expanding our range of empathy as human beings. The recent hastily-implemented decision to centralize undergraduate advisors is equally misguided and self-defeating, particularly for the cultural vitality of smaller departments like NELC. As a graduate student, I had heard about the danger of universities being run like neoliberal corporations, now as a professor I see it in action.

In your career, was there a mentor who was especially important to you?  

I can write a book about all the people who have supported me since I came to the States in 2004. Professor of Romance languages, Leyla Rouhi has been my ally and interlocutor since the day I emailed her in 2011 to inquire about graduate programs in comparative literature. Leyla is a rare example of someone who combines deep knowledge and passion in both research and teaching, and acts with humility and introspection. Whenever we talk, I feel empowered to surmount just about any challenge in my life of learning. Kevin Schwartz is another exceptional mentor, who has read and improved everything I have written since starting graduate school. His own scholarship cuts through national and disciplinary lines and has served as a source of inspiration for me. Kevin also thinks emphatically and carefully about the process of writing. With every paragraph I write, Kevin’s voice rings in my head, “Think about how much information you’re putting on your readers’ plate.” I owe much of my maturity as a writer to him.

What is your current research exploring? What have you found to be the most exciting parts of research?

My current book project, tentatively titled Making Persian Literature, Iran and Afghanistan in the Age of Romantic Nationalism, re-examines the relationship between nationalism and the idea of literature. It explores the historical processes by which literature became a social enterprise in Persian-speaking countries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It involves reading a largely untapped (and misread) corpus of periodicals from cities like Herat, Kabul, Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz. Reading these literary periodicals helps me dispel the facile idea that a new mode of literary knowledge was borrowed by the East directly from the West, two utterly meaningless categories if left unqualified. European-inspired ideas about language, literature, and learning took anchor in places like late nineteenth-century Iran and Afghanistan thanks to the rise of an expansive literary ecosystem, a major organism of which were these periodicals. The most exciting part of doing research is witnessing its maturation. You apply for grant after grant; you get rejected time and again. New iterations of your project rise from those grant applications, ever more in harmony with the most recent findings of the humanities.

An Interview with Rawan Arar, New Assistant Professor in Law, Societies, and Justice

Bret Windhauser, M.A. Candidate, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization interviews Rawan Arar, who joined the faculty of the Department of Law, Societies, and Justice in the fall of 2019.

What are your research interests in general?

Assistant Professor Rawan Arar

My research focuses on refugees’ experiences and the laws, policies, and practices that shape their lives. I also study the global distribution of the world’s refugees and the national and international interventions that uphold and perpetuate global inequality. Various phenomena in refugee studies can be explained through the study of refugee reception in Jordan, a country that hosts almost 3 million refugees in a population of approximately 10 million people.  Too often, generalizable theories about refugee reception emerge from the study of Western societies. I’m interested in re-centering the conversation by looking at where most of the world’s refugees live: the global south. For my part, I focus on refugee reception in the Middle East, and more precisely, the region known as Greater Syria.

What has been your field experience for your research projects?

I have conducted ethnography, participant observation, in-depth interviews, and archival research to study communities in Jordan, Syria, Gaza, the United States, Australia, Northern Ireland, and Western Europe. My primary focus is on Syrian displacement in Jordan, where I conducted ethnographic work over a four-year period and hundreds of interviews. I’ve spent time in refugee camps (mostly Za’atari and Azraq), visited informal tented settlements, met with government and humanitarian officials, and interviewed refugees, citizens, and other residents. I study Jordan’s national response to the influx of refugees and how international involvement has shaped what happens at the national level.  I am also interested in how many of the Jordanians aid workers have refugee backgrounds themselves as Palestinian-Jordanians.  I’ve also met with non-Syrian refugees, namely Iraqi, Palestinian, and Sudanese refugees, and have learned about how the experiences of refugees outside of the international spotlight differ from those who have become the focus of humanitarian intervention. National and international policies affect various refugee populations in different way, despite the fact that these groups have created a life in the same country.  I am able to draw conclusions about the global system of refugee management because of the important role that major refugee host states (including Jordan) play on the international scale.

What has been a highlight during your time at UW?

This last winter quarter, I taught a class called “Global Perspectives on Refugee Displacement.”  We discussed the politics of knowledge production and thought carefully about what it means to prioritize refugees’ voices when learning about displacement. We discussed at great length the politics of humanitarian representations of refugees, and in doing so, watched several virtual reality (VR) videos. Merge donated some VR headsets that allowed us to watch these short videos. (You can check out some VR videos about refugees here.

My favorite thing that we did in class, however, was to learn more about the United States Refugee Congress, which is the only refugee-run organization that represents refugee issues at the national level. The Refugee Congress includes a refugee delegate from every state that represents their community. Each student wrote their final paper about a member of the Refugee Congress. I wanted students to learn about and from refugee leaders in the US. What do they believe are the most important issues to address? How do delegates advocate for their communities? I was also able to reach out to the Refugee Congress and tell them about our class project. I was so excited when George Tarr, the New York State delegate, left a message for our class during final presentations.

What classes will you be teaching in the spring and can you give me a brief description?

In spring quarter, I will teach two courses: “Immigration, Citizenship, and Rights” (LSJ 329) and “Genocide and the Law” (LSJ 491). The immigration course will be taught with the help of two excellent TAs: Kyle Murphy (JD in progress) and María Vignau Loría (Ph.D. candidate in sociology). The course begins by establishing global issues related to immigration including unequal citizenships around the world, how and why people migrate, and the ways that states control movement. Then, we will shift our focus to the experiences of undocumented migrants in the U.S., keeping in mind the relationship between the U.S. and migrants’ home country. This part of the course pairs episodes from Netflix’s documentary mini-series Living Undocumented with academic readings by immigration scholars that address mixed-citizenship status families, DACA, legal consciousness, immigrant detention, crimmigration, and deportation.

For the class on genocide, we will focus on the politics of defining a genocide, the creation of legal protections, and the politics of intervention and the responsibility to protect. We’ll ask: What is genocide? Why/How does it occur? Why do people participate, resist, or become bystanders? We will address issues of human rights, agency, survival, and ancestry. The course will include an in-depth examination of several cases, including: the Holocaust and genocide against Indigenous peoples, as well as the Armenian, Rwandan, and Cambodian genocides. We’ll put first-person accounts in conversation with scholarly works.

What other projects are you working on and how do they fit into your research history?

I am working on two book projects about refugee displacement. Building upon the fieldwork I described earlier in this interview, I explore the Jordanian response to the influx of Syrian refugees after 2011. I ask: How do state officials practice, negotiate, and concede authority? What role do humanitarian agencies and international institutions play in state governance? And, how do refugees navigate the restrictions placed upon them? The second book project is co-authored with David FitzGerald (UC San Diego) and is titled The Sociology of Forced Migration. This book is organized by the movement trajectory of a “composite refugee,” addressing flight from the home country, refugee in neighboring countries of the Global South, resettlement in the countries of the Global North, asylum-seeking, and return and incorporation.

A Curriculum Development Journey to Kuwait

As a US Department of Education National Resource Center on the Middle East, the Center has specific priorities for its funding. One of the Center’s current priorities is to develop new courses that integrate concrete field expertise with academic scholarship in the areas of business and national security. In collaboration with the other National Resource Centers at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, the Middle East Center supports a new course titled “Fundamentals of Global Cybersecurity” taught by Jackson School lecturer, Jessica Beyer. In the area of business, the Center is supporting a new course this spring quarter titled “Oil and the Persian Gulf: Fueling Business, Politics and Security in the Middle East and Beyond” taught by Jackson School Affiliate Instructor David Fenner. To develop curriculum for this new course on oil and business in the Persian Gulf, Fenner traveled to the State of Kuwait this past February, just days before the country was closed to all incoming foreign travelers to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Starbucks in Kuwait

Fenner met with officials at the government’s energy-umbrella Kuwait Oil Corporation, the Kuwait Oil Company, the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science, OilSERV Kuwait (a private-sector oilfield services company in competition with Halliburton), the Gulf University of Science and Technology (GUST) and with a member of the Supreme Council for Planning and Development.  All were generous with their time and information, helping Fenner get up to speed on both the “upstream” (exploration and production) and “downstream” (refineries, marketing, and transport) aspects of the fossil fuel industry.

As with all of the Persian Gulf countries, Kuwait has produced a “Vision” document as a blueprint for development into the post-oil era.  Attracting foreign direct investment is a central component of the Vision plan, and Fenner was able to observe a range of Seattle-area businesses operating in Kuwait.  From Microsoft to Boeing to Amazon to Starbucks, all are continuing to expand their activities and staff.  Indeed, while Fenner was there, the Seattle-based coffee giant opened Kuwait’s 170th Starbucks store.

Sadly, Kuwait also played an early role in the global spread of the COVID-19, with scores of returning Shi’a pilgrims who had been infected on visits to the holy city of Qom in Iran.  With rising numbers testing positive, Kuwait closed its borders to incoming non-residents the day Fenner arrived, and shut down Kuwait International Airport later on the day he left.

Left to right: UW alums Ahmad Almershed (’80), David Fenner (’79), Hussain Albaghly (’14)

As an added bonus, Fenner met with several Kuwaiti alumni of the University of Washington, all of whom mentioned fond memories of strolling down the “Ave,” attending Husky football games, marveling at the cherry blossoms on the Quad, and enjoying a Deluxe burger at Dick’s Drive-In.



Awards, Grants, Promotions, Publications, Presentations

Jere Bacharach (History, Emeritus): Lectured at Hamad bin Khalifa University, College of Islamic Studies, Qatar on the subjects of “How Abbasid Tax Collectors Identified ‘Good’ Umayyad Silver Coins from ‘Bad’ Ones without Reading a Word of Arabic” and “The Architecture of Power in the Islamic World.”

Arbella Bet-Shlimon (History): Promoted to Associate Professor, Department of History and published City of Black Gold: Oil, Ethnicity, and the Making of Modern Kirkuk (Stanford University Press, 2019).

Dan Chirot (Jackson School):  Published You Say You Want a Revolution?: Radical Idealism and Its Tragic Consequences (Princeton University Press, 2020).  He received an honorary doctorate in October 2019 from the University of Bucharest in recognition of his writings on and involvement with Romania over the past half century.

Liora Halperin (Jackson School): Published “Past Perfect: Jewish Memories of Language and the Politics of Arabic in Mandate Palestine,” in Heleen Murre-van den Berg et al., Arabic and Its Alternatives: Religious minorities and Their Languages in the Emerging Nation States of the Middle East (1920-1950) (Leiden: Brill, 2020).

Liora Halperin (Jackson School) and Arbella Bet-Shlimon (History): Received a Simpson Center Summer Fellowship for New Graduate Seminars in the Humanities for “Writing the Histories of Communities from the Middle East in the Puget Sound Region.”

Paula Holmes-Eber (Jackson School): Published Warriors or Peacekeepers? Building Military Cultural Competence, edited with Kjetil Enstad (Springer, 2020); and “Lost in Translation: Anthropologists and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan” in Small Wars and Insurgencies 31(1): 340-58. She was the opening keynote speaker at the International Conference on Coping with Culture hosted by the Staff and Command College of the German Armed Forces, Hamburg, Germany (Nov. 2019), where she presented on: “The Future of Military Cultural Education.”

Arzoo Osanloo (Law Societies & Justice): Promoted to Professor, Department of Law Societies and Justice. Forthcoming in June 2020, Forgiveness Work: Mercy, Law, and Victims’ Rights in Iran (Princeton University Press). Published “Lessons from the Suffrage Movement in Iran,” The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 129.

Cabeiri Robinson (Jackson School) and Arzoo Osanloo (Law Society & Justice):  Received a 2019-20 Andrew W. Mellon grant for a Sawyer Seminar Series for a project titled “Humanitarianisms: Migration and Care through the Global South.”

Naomi Sokoloff (Near Eastern Languages & Civilization): Won the 2019 National Jewish Book Award for anthologies and collections from the Jewish Book Council What We Talk About When We Talk About Hebrew (and What It Means to Americans), edited with Nancy E. Berg (University of Washington Press, 2018). She recently published: “The Nazi Beast at the Warsaw Zoo: Animal Studies, The Zookeeper’s Wife and See Under: Love,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Holocaust Literature and Culture, edited by Victoria Aarons and Phyllis Lassner (Palgrave, 2020); and “The Poet’s Tallit: Prayer Shawls in Poems by Abraham Shlonsky, Yehuda Amichai, Myra Sklarew, and Yehoshua November,” CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly (Winter 2020).

Joel Walker (History) and Hamza Zafer (Near Eastern Languages & Civilization): Received a Collaborative Studio Award ($26,060) from the UW’s Simpson Center for the Humanities to support the University of Washington’s Horn of Africa Initiative.