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Northwestern University

Crown Gift Boosts Middle East Studies

On campus this spring, flowering crab trees, magnolias, and purple and white hyacinths are bursting forth, the most visible signs of an investment in landscaping made several years ago. Less visible are the results of seeds planted in Middle East studies, but those seeds have also sprouted and are flourishing. While the landscape is a feast for the eyes, the new professors, courses, and library resources offer students enhanced views of a different kind—views of an intriguing and often misunderstood area of the world.

There are constant demands for new courses at Weinberg College and not every demand can be met. Why Middle East studies and why now? How do you produce a program that navigates such a politically-charged part of the world? For answers, Crosscurrents spoke with three of those most responsible for the field's growth at Northwestern: Henry Bienen, whose vision it was to internationalize the curriculum; Lester Crown (McCormick 46'), whose generosity in large part made possible the growth in Middle East studies; and Carl Petry, a history professor who advocated and guided a plan for comprehensive teaching in the area.

"The Middle East is an exceedingly important part of the world today," said Lester Crown, industrialist, philanthropist, and long time member of Northwestern's Board of Trustees. "It is headline news on a 24-hour basis. It is critical, very frankly, to peace in the world. It is also an area in which there is more news but less knowledge than any other."

Henry Bienen reminded us, in a separate interview, that the U.S. will be deeply involved in the region for a long time. "We are still fighting a war in Iraq and a war in Afghanistan," said Bienen, who stepped down in August '09 after 14 years as Northwestern's president. "There are vast issues of emigration from that part of the world to Europe and the U.S., a growing Arab-Muslim component in industrial societies, and very difficult conflicts in Israel-Palestine and India-Pakistan. A deeper understanding of that area of the world is essential."

The Timing

Carl Petry and fellow history professor John Bushnell (a specialist in the Soviet Union, which encompassed vast areas of Muslim central Asia) had submitted proposals to expand the number of faculty members in Middle East history in the past, as early as the 1980s. The ideas were viewed as worthy but not fundable at the time.

Then came 9-11, and student demand for courses on the Middle East spiked. This was especially evident in language training, said Petry. The College hired additional instructors to meet the demand for Arabic instruction, and it added Persian and Turkish to the roster. Hebrew also continued to garner student interest. Northwestern has also seen an enormous increase in students who study abroad in the region, in Egypt, Jordan, Oman, and Turkey.

"But 9-11 has been a very complicated stimulus," Petry cautioned. "It's not that students 'want to go over there and study the enemy.' It's been a very genuine positive desire on their part. Students see and hear things in the media and want to go there and see for themselves. And that's the best thing—for them to experience personally what the people are really like."

Bienen said bolstering studies of this important region was a goal from the day he came to the University in January 1995. A political scientist himself, he saw that although Northwestern had strengths in African Studies and in Islam in Africa, there were no Middle East experts in political science and other social sciences and only one history professor, Petry, with expertise in the region. Still, Bienen admitted, there were other fundraising priorities at the time. It wasn't until recent years, he said, that three important factors came together, almost simultaneously, to spur the dramatic growth.

One was the decision to establish a campus in Qatar.

Bienen says his friend Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Foundation of New York, was influential in bringing the Qatar Foundation to Northwestern when it sought expertise in journalism and communications for its ambitious enterprise, Education City. Negotiations took the better part of a year.

It was a conversation with important results. "It put us in the Gulf directly," said Bienen, "and the gift from Her Highness, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned, and the Qatar Foundation was a big financial boon to the University." The Foundation's gift has led to three endowed professorships named after Qatar's leader. In the College, Carl Petry has been named the Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor in Middle East Studies.

Next, Bienen approached his friend Lester Crown, who had already given generously to build the Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies at Northwestern in 2000.

"Lester was seen as someone with a balanced view of what needed to be done to reach a better settlement in the Middle East between Israelis and Arabs, so he was deeply interested," said Bienen. "And [Provost] Larry Dumas and I had already set aside money for appointments in the Middle East. So I told Lester, 'I have a couple more years at Northwestern. Here's a time when we can really do something together.'"

Crown agreed to an endowment gift that has enabled the College to hire new faculty members, acquire library resources, and provide funds for graduate fellowships and faculty and student research.

A third piece of the puzzle came from another friend of the University, Melih Keyman. "He had a son at Northwestern at the time, and was very interested in providing support for Turkish studies," said Bienen. "When you think of the Islamic world, you need to think not just of the Arab Middle East and North Africa but Turkey, Persia, and Central Asia stretching all the way to Indonesia. And Andrew Wachtel, dean of the graduate school, was increasingly interested in the Turkish-speaking world." The Keyman Family Program in Modern Turkish Studies, part of the Roberta Buffett Center in International and Comparative Studies, now brings Turkish intellectuals, economists, policy experts, and journalists to Northwestern to speak on a regular basis. It also develops relationships with Turkish institutions and offers Turkish language classes to the Northwestern community.

The Challenges

Lester Crown is no stranger to the difficulties of making headway on Middle East issues, but he is unusually qualified to build bridges of understanding. He is Jewish himself and a strong supporter of Israel, as a glass case in his downtown Chicago office attests. It is filled with plaques, silver bowls, and crystal sculptures—gifts from many recipients of Crown family generosity to Israel-based causes. And yet Crown also counts as personal friends leaders of Middle Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan. Not long ago, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former Saudi ambassador to the United States, invited the entire Crown family to his daughter's wedding.

His involvement in fostering dialogue in the area reaches back to the late 1980s.

"Prince Bandar wanted to reach out to the Jewish community on an informal basis to form a bridge for knowledge," said Crown. Bandar invited Crown to join the group, which eventually developed into the U.S./Middle East Project, whose mission is non-partisan analysis of the peace process in that region. It is now headed by Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Adviser.

"The people involved, both in the Gulf and in the U.S., are names that everybody knows, but we haven't been able to accomplish what we'd hoped, despite the quality of the people involved," he told us candidly.

He pointed with pride to an institution that has made progress, the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, founded four years ago at Brandeis University. He emphasized the quality of scholars hired for the Center and their differing points of view—scholars like Shai Feldman, an expert on the Arab minority in Israel, and Khalil Shikaki, a major adviser to the Palestinians.

"At Brandeis and here at Northwestern—and this one hasn't risen to the level of Brandeis yet—having a center for Middle East Studies that is based on scholarship and actual history, not propaganda, is so important to what is going on in the world. It's not a question of trying to promote one side or the other. It's a question of being balanced and accurate so that not only the faculty but the students who take courses there and the papers they write are fair and factual."

Said Bienen of the difficulties, "One thing we should face honestly is that this is a very contentious area. Lots of universities have gotten into trouble over faculty appointments. For a university, this raises issues. We want open debate. At the same time, we insist that the debates be civil. We want people to be relevant to policy problems. At the same time, we don't want their work to be politicized. They can have political points of view but their work has to be rooted in facts and good analysis. Students with different points of view need to feel free to express them. There's no solution but to have high academic standards."

Trust that these standards would be upheld was crucial to getting financial support, said Bienen.

"The Qataris, the Crowns, and the Keymans were all people I knew very well. They had to trust us on the appointments we made. At the same time, they knew I was not going to be at Northwestern forever, that I was in my last quarter here. So they had to have trust in the institution as well."

The Hopes

Bienen said he doesn't know what form an expanded Middle East studies should eventually take at Northwestern—part of a Center, a department, a program. As a field of study, it encompasses many disciplines. Right now it is part of the Program of Asian and Middle East Studies (AMES), and the faculty also hold appointments in their home disciplines. But he can envision what the next ten years might bring: a vibrant cultural milieu on campus, with frequent exchanges of scholars between Northwestern and institutions in the Middle East—some of which is already happening. At the undergraduate level, students would go on to careers with a focus on the Middle East, in academics, medicine, law, and business; they would make contributions to refugee relief or to development work in international institutions. Graduate programs in the field would produce people for the State Department, for the military, for academic life. The last goal, Bienen admitted, would require a huge investment of resources.

Carl Petry hopes that Northwestern continues to attract stellar faculty in Middle East studies, at both the junior and senior levels. New resources from the University, combined with the Crown gift, have made possible the hiring of Henri Lauzière, assistant professor of history, who focuses on modern Islamic intellectual history and the political history of the Arab world (he completed his doctoral dissertation while at Georgetown's campus in Qatar); Wendy Pearlman, assistant professor of political science, an expert in the comparative politics of the Middle East; and Jessica Winegar, assistant professor of anthropology, with interests in Islam, the Middle East, and North Africa. Rebecca Johnson is an incoming specialist in literature, and Ipek Yosmaoglu is a Turkish historian. Elie Rekhess, one of Israel's leading experts on the Arab minority in Israel and Jewish-Arab relations, continues as the Visiting Crown Chair in Middle East Studies. But there are still important needs to be met. A welcome addition, Petry said, would be an expert in Asian Islam.

The University is a dynamic institution, and its work is never complete, Bienen reminded us.

"Are we there yet in Middle East Studies?" he asks. "Well, we're in much better shape than we were."

For all three individuals, it seems—the professor, the former president, the philanthropist — the important thing is that Northwestern students have opportunities to learn from dynamic scholars about a vitally important part of the world, to think deeply about its complex issues, to participate in conversations with those from different cultures and points of view, and perhaps someday to partner with those in the region to come up with solutions for a lasting peace.

Moroccan painted wood detail - photo by Richard E. Jones

Sarah Smierciak, a junior from Lemont, Illinois, is one student whose academic path — and perhaps career choices — have been transformed by the opportunities Northwestern has afforded her to study the Middle East in depth.

She planned to pursue pre-med as a cognitive science, but a distribution requirement led her to Carl Petry's class on modern Middle Eastern history — an area she admits she knew nothing about. Now, as a history major, she feels there aren't enough weeks in the year to learn everything she wants to know about the Middle East.

"In high school, I was editor of the newspaper and president of the National Honor Society, but my world was very parochial. In [Dr. Petry's] class, I was exposed to this whole different existence, a wider perspective and understanding that the world is so much bigger than anything you imagine in your everyday life. The class sparked this realization that you could never learn enough about that area of the world, it is so complex and so rich in history and culture."

Professor Petry told her that any serious scholar of the area needed fluency in Arabic, so Sarah focused her energies on mastering this difficult language. After taking first year Arabic here, Sarah spent last summer in Cairo on a language immersion grant from the Provost's office, which enabled her to become conversant in Egyptian colloquial Arabic. She lived in downtown Cairo with two roommates — one Spanish, one German.

"Both spoke English but neither spoke Arabic, so I had to deal with the landlord and the plumbing problems," says Sarah. But that meant the roommates had to do the dishes.

Language skills also allowed her to stay in Cairo, study at the American University there, and conduct interviews throughout the fall quarter for an honors thesis on the legacy of Naguib Mahfouz, the first writer in Arabic to win the Nobel prize in literature. This research was made possible through a Weinberg undergraduate research grant.

Smierciak says the best part of the experience was being able to converse with the people, who so warmly welcomed her to their country and found her desire to learn their language both amusing and puzzling.

"It was all an adventure," she recalls. "I love that you'd go down to the corner store and chat with the people working there and buy your food as an afterthought. A walk to school which should have taken ten minutes would end up being an hour and a half because you'd talk to the fruit vendor, the café owner. Luckily I learned to allow the extra time."

She can't wait to go back, and won't have to wait long. Another language immersion grant awaits her this summer, and a Crown Family scholarship will enable her to pursue a history honors thesis, tracing the nationalistic rhetoric within the Egyptian labor movements.

On campus, she has studied political Islam in Palestine with Elie Rekhess and the literature of North Africa and the Middle East with Brian Edwards. This fall will present new opportunities to learn about the modern history of the Arab peninsula with Henri Lauziére. The next step will be applying for fellowships: Fulbrights, Marshalls, and others. And the future?

"Perhaps a career in diplomacy," says Sarah. "If there was a place in which I could use my Arabic to promote constructive dialogue and understanding among people, I think that would be the ideal route for me."

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