Beshara Doumani was a freshman at Kenyon College in Ohio when the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict broke out. The only Arab student on campus at the time, Doumani tried to raise money for international relief organizations like the International Federation of Red Cross, but he was shocked by the ferocity of anti-Arab sentiment expressed by other volunteers.
“This was when I first realized how fraught the politics around the Arab-Israeli conflict were,” says Doumani, who was raised in Lebanon where his father’s family lived after being forced out of Haifa in 1948, before immigrating with his family to Toledo, Ohio, in 1970. Doumani’s encounter with anti-Arab prejudice made him to want to learn more, so he decided to pursue a master’s in Arab Studies at Georgetown University. After earning his Master of Arts, he returned to the Middle East to teach at Birzeit University, near Ramallah in the Palestinian territories, before continuing his studies at Georgetown, where he completed a Ph.D. in Middle East history in 1990.
Today, Doumani is a prominent scholar of the Middle East, specializing in the social and cultural history of ordinary people — women, peasants, Bedouins, merchants, and artisans — who lived in the provincial regions of the Arab East during Ottoman rule. “I write about the people who didn’t make it into the history books,” says Doumani, who was first tenured at University of Pennsylvania and has taught history at the University of California–Berkeley since 1998. “I’ve always been interested in the people, places, and time periods that have been silenced or erased from historical narratives.”
Doumani says his research interests crystallized in graduate school when he was perusing the stacks at the Library of Congress in search of books on the Palestinian people. “I realized there was a great deal written about the land of Palestine, but almost nothing about the people who lived there,” he says. “The question was, why? What was driving historians to focus on certain topics with a laser beam and leave the rest in complete darkness?”
The answer, he says, is that Orientalist, Zionist, and Arab nationalist narratives all, for different reasons, paid little or no attention to the history of the inhabitants of Palestine during the four centuries of Ottoman rule, which ended in 1917. “The Zionist slogan ‘a people without a land for a land without a people’ jibed with Arab constructions of this time as an age of darkness not worth studying, and with Orientalist views that see the region as outside of history, only brought into the modern world by the encounter with the West,” he says.
Doumani’s first book, Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1700-1900 (UCBerkeley Press, 1995), brings Palestinian society to life by exploring “the social life of things — olive oil, cotton textiles, soap,” he says. He also edited a collection of essays titled Family History in the Middle East: Household, Property, and Gender (SUNY Press, 2003).
His most recent project, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press and tentatively titled Kin and Court: A Social History of Family Life in Ottoman Syria, 1660-1860, reconstructs “the situation of women within the family, based largely on family papers I collected myself, court cases, and other legal records. What I’m finding from my work is that there is no such thing as the essential Arab or Muslim family. We must historicize the family.”
Doumani also writes about “the politics and ethics of knowledge production” and the role of the university in contemporary life. “This is something that has a direct impact on my life, on the life of my students, and on the life of my children,” he says. “There is a mounting campaign against academic freedom in this country at the same time that knowledge production is becoming increasingly privatized.” Doumani and his wife, Issmat Atteereh, have two daughters, 17-year-old Tala and Yara, 12.
Doumani came to Brown because the University “offered him an opportunity for institution building. I’ve been a researcher, a teacher, and a public intellectual, and I have reached a point in my career where I am ready for this new challenge,” says Doumani, who has been appointed the Joukowsky Family Distinguished Professor of Modern Middle East History, a faculty fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies, and the new director of the Middle East Studies Program.
“The University is committed to expanding Middle East studies, which will soon become not just a concentration but a center of research, with additional staff and programming. Along with new faculty, graduate students, postdoctoral research associates, and visiting professors, we will integrate existing resources and connections within Brown to build a high-caliber research community and provide innovative learning experiences in which students will play an important role. It is all very exciting,” he says.
“Brown’s vibrant and interdisciplinary intellectual atmosphere, its accessible scale, and its agility as an institution — all of this made the University very attractive to me,” he adds. “The students are fantastic, my colleagues are great, and the administration is supportive.”
Doumani will be teaching a spring lecture course he is calling “Civilization, Empire, Nation.” The class will provide students with an overview of Middle East history, “but it will also question the very vocabulary we use to talk about the Middle East and ask what is gained and lost by using these concepts. More broadly, the course will ask what it means to be a historian and how do we go about constructing narratives,” he says.
“There is a great deal of interest in the Middle East among students, often driven by a desire to understand the reasons for the dramatic and enduring conflicts in the region,” says Doumani, “but there is much more to the Middle East than conflict. It is a unique and inspiring part of the world, rich in history and culture and always enmeshed in larger global dynamics. The Middle East is part of who we are.”