Section: Features

Leading scholar of Ottoman history ’77 returns to campus

When Beshara Doumani ’77 came to Kenyon in 1973, he had only been living in the United States for three years and he didn’t know what to expect. “I didn’t know what a liberal arts college was. I was not well-informed,” he said.

As time went on, he didn’t become much more comfortable. He was the only Arab student at Kenyon, and one of very few minority students. His memories of Middle Path are far from the peaceful pictures in Kenyon’s advertisements: “It happened several times that I would be walking down Middle Path and somebody would shout out of the window, ‘Go back home where you came from, you f—ing Arab.’ That was not unusual.”

Doumani, now the Director of Middle East Studies at Brown University and a leading scholar of Ottoman and modern Middle East history, received a much different reception to Kenyon during his visit last Thursday, when faculty and students alike welcomed him to campus.

Doumani gave a lecture sponsored by the Department of Asian and Middle East Studies, hosted a question-and-answer session about the Israel-Palestine conflict, visited Associate Professor of History Nurten Kilic-Schubel’s Ottoman Empire class (HIST 258) and talked with many students and faculty about his work and his story.

Doumani’s scholarship has made a huge impact on Middle Eastern studies. “He challenged some of the social theories and models that scholars used when they were trying to make sense of Ottoman and Middle Eastern societies,” Kilic-Schubel said. Rather than focusing on sultans and the movements of empires, as previous Ottoman historians had done, Doumani’s work emphasizes ordinary people and small societal changes. In his work he makes a conscious effort to subvert assumptions — which pervade Western scholarship on the Middle East — that the Middle East is exotic and uncivilized.

Despite Doumani’s prominent position as a groundbreaking scholar and academic, it seemed that few people at Kenyon remembered that he once was a student here — until this was rediscovered by another Palestinian student, Qossay Alsattari ’15.

In her Ottoman history class, Kilic-Schubel assigned a reading from Doumani, but she didn’t know he was Palestinian or a Kenyon alumnus. When Alsattari told her these things about Doumani, it changed the way Kilic-Schubel approached her class.

“I always [say] that Qossay made me aware of, deeply aware of Beshara’s work and importance. It was a really wonderful experience,” she said.

Kilic-Schubel immediately set plans in motion to invite Doumani to campus, and he first came to Kenyon as a scholar in the spring of 2014. For the first time, Doumani felt accepted by the campus community: “I always thought of Kenyon in the old way, not realizing how much has changed! So, when I came here … and I met all these wonderful people, I felt really loved by the institution for the first time,” he said.


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