By Graham Reid
Last week, campus was abuzz with talk of John Green ’00’s visit, photos and autographs. While Green may be at the top of every admissions officer’s alumni list, other Kenyon grads have found success in a wide range of fields. Alums Bathsera Doumani ’77 and Sarah McGavran ’03 also returned to the Hill to lecture on their respective fields of study.
Doumani, an Ottoman historian whose work defies the traditional Istanbul-centric view of Ottoman history, spoke in Higley Auditorium on Tuesday while McGavran lectured on the German artist Paul Klee, who worked at the Bauhaus: McGavran focused on Klee’s images inspired by his time in Egypt. For Doumani, a change to the College’s overall attitude was apparent.
“It was a different kind of place [in the ’70s], and there were no courses in the history department on the Middle East at all,” Doumani said, who also recalled the tension he felt as the only Arab student on campus during the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict. According to Doumani, he and another student trying to raise money for the Red Cross “received an incredible amount of abuse”; he also routinely heard insults shouted at him from dorms.
Now, Kenyon offers an Islamic civilizations and cultures concentration in addition to other programs and courses focused on the Middle East — in stark contrast to Doumani’s time at the College.
“To come here and see that there are several faculty who are doing this [program], [with] many students interested, was an amazing experience for me,” he said.
Kenyon’s art history program has also experienced changes in its curriculum and opportunities for exhibit curation on campus since McGavran left the Hill. “I’m especially excited about the new Gund Gallery and the new resources in the art history department,” she said.
According to Assistant Professor of History Nurten Kilic-Schubel, Doumani’s work addresses the “experience of ordinary people” in the Ottoman Empire in order to “expand our understanding of the Ottoman experience.”
“He’s really passionate about the ordinary people, the peasants, the women, the workers,” said Qossay Alsattari ’16, a Middle East Students Association (MESA) student leader.
Doumani’s talk focused on an analysis of family history from two cities: Tripoli, Libya and Nablus in the West Bank. Doumani looked at court records from these two cities in order to gain insight into how people chose to distribute their property to their kin. The idea behind this approach is to identify the “kin that count,” and thus gain a deeper understanding of family structure. Doumani discussed differences between the two cities; women were given far more treatment in Tripoli than in Nablus and the stereotypical idea of the Arab family.
Doumani’s research runs against the notion that there exists a quintessential Arab family focused around wider family groups than the immediate conjugal family. According to Doumani’s talk, ideas of family in the Arab world are more diverse than many natives tell. MESA leader Max Dugan ’14 hopes that Doumani’s work will “challeng[e] the narratives and the paradigms that we have for viewing the Middle East.”
Alsattari echoed Dugan. “Once you focus the lives of the family life, the lives of the ordinary people, people here in the U.S., we could relate them with that story. We could all relate to those humans,” Alsattari said.
Doumani sees his research as relevant to modern politics as well as history.
“It’s impossible to understand the developments in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the 20th century without knowing the social structure, the economic life … of that area during the Ottoman period,” he said. Kilic-Schubel thought that Doumani’s talk allowed Kenyon students to “take a step back and just look at the history,” rather than being preoccupied with current politics in the region.
Similarly, McGavran hopes that aspects of her work can prove relevant to similar themes of perception and stereotype. Her investigation of Klee’s work on Egyptian themes brings out a tradition of Orientalism in art. This antiquated view of the Middle East as a distant, static and backward place is often looked at in contrast to the seemingly explicit modernity of Europe and the U.S.
“These images maybe have something more to do with the U.S., or they have more to do with Europe, than they actually do with the place that they’re showing,” McGavran said. She acknowledged in her talk that it was “impossible to escape Orientalism,” and that understanding these Orientalist themes can be important in understanding modern representations of these places.
“A lot of the images that we see in the media have been around for a long time,” McGavran said. “I think when you can see that something is sort of a stereotype, and of course you have a visual of it, it’s a better way to help you be critical of what you see in mass media.”