Letter to the Editor: Situation in NES department is not black and white
The Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2004, article "NES dept. faces warring factions" depicts the field of Near Eastern Studies as divided between "Lewisian" and "Saidian" camps. It suggests that within this dichotomy, Princeton falls in the "Lewisian" camp. The implication: all professors and students within Princeton's NES Department are either "Lewisian" or must endure his approach in chagrined silence.
This depiction of our department as a monolithic entity is far from reality. The most recent dissertations written in our department, for example, are a study of culture and conversion in medieval Cairo, a work on Iraqi intellectuals under the monarchy and an analysis of modern Egyptian historiography. None of these works could be construed as being even faintly "Lewisian" — to the extent the term has any significance at all. NES 500, the required introductory course for all entering graduate students, covers a diverse spectrum of readings — including works by both Edward Said '57 and Bernard Lewis.
All this is not to deny that Bernard Lewis is an emeritus professor in the department (he retired in 1986), or that several of our students and professors profess admiration for his scholarship. But there is hardly a party line. To the extent that any generalization about the faculty of NES is meaningful, perhaps it relates to the way some professors described themselves in the article as "traditional" (Carl Brown) or "old-fashioned" (Michael Cook).
But what does this mean? The traditional approach to the study of the Middle East focuses on the use of foreign languages in the conduct of exhaustive primary-source research. Such an approach does not necessarily imply an orientalist perspective as defined by Said.
Yet the article conflates the two, throwing around several labels. "Orientalist," "old-fashioned," "traditional," "unimaginative," "out-of-date" and "of narrow understanding" are put on one side of an imaginary equation; "postmodernist," "humanistic," "empathetic" and "comparative" are placed on the other.
Many students and professors at NES pursue a traditional approach with an emphasis on philology and the study of manuscripts, but their work is by no means "orientalist" in the Saidian sense. There are others whose research is informed by "postmodern" considerations and deal with discourse and comparative analysis.
To assert that Lewis dominates the NES Department and everyone in it is to make him larger-than-life. All in all, the reality within the department of Near Eastern Studies is far more nuanced than the picture painted in the story. Seven Agir, Halit D. Akarca, Yaron Ayalon, Mehmet Darakcioglu, Jesse Ferris, George Hatke, Robert Jacobs, Brian Linville, Reem Marto, Milena Methodieva, Intisar Rabb, Maja Petrovic, Uriel Simonsohn and Bella Tendler; Graduate Students in the Department of Near Eastern Studies
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