Finally Getting a Place at the Academic Table—A New Faculty Chair in Palestinian Studies at Brown University
By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
The first faculty endowed chair in U.S. academia dedicated to the study of Palestine and Palestinians was announced by Brown University. Renowned professor Beshara Doumani has been named the first holder of the ‘Mahmoud Darwish’ Chair of Palestinian Studies. Doumani is a noted scholar who has mentored generations of students and written numerous books and articles that have defined the field of studies aimed at understanding and appreciating the Palestinian peoples and their quest for recognition as a society deserving of statehood.
Professor Doumani Photo: Palestinian Academic Society
Putting Palestinians at the center of academic, cultural and political affairs at a global level
Named after Mahmoud Darwish, the Chair in Palestinian Studies follows in the tradition of that great thinker, regarded as the Palestinian national poet. The Brown University announcement of the new chair characterized Darwish as “a towering and beloved figure of Palestinian and Arab literature and humanistic values.” Darwish was born in 1941 in the village of al-Birwa, Western Galilee, Palestine. Following the destruction of his village by Israeli forces in 1948, he and his family fled to Lebanon. Later, they returned to a place near Acre, in the newly formed Israeli state. Darwish attended school in Haifa and became associated with the Israeli political left. After joining the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Israel barred him from reentering the country, though sometime later he was able to settle in Ramallah on the West Bank.
Still a young man in the 1970s, Darwish was revered by the people as “the essential breath of the Palestinian people, the eloquent witness of exile and belonging.” A central theme of his writing is the idea of watan, or homeland, which brought him many awards, including one from a U.S. foundation, for Darwish’s recognition that “people whose extraordinary and courageous work celebrates the human right to freedom of imagination, inquiry, and expression.”
Darwish is widely seen as a Palestinian symbol and a leader in the opposition to Israel. He rejected the idea that he was anti-Semitic, saying he did not hate Jews, though he was no lover of Israel. Though he was critical of both Israel and the Palestinian leadership, Darwish still believed that peace between the two was possible.
Following in the Footsteps of Mahmoud Darwish—Beshara Doumani
Brown University’s announcement of Professor Beshara Doumani’s appointment as the first holder of the Mahmoud Darwish Chair in Palestinian Studies is effective July 1, 2020. The appointment to this chair is the first of its kind at a major research university. It is a result of Doumani’s scholarship, his empowerment of students over generations, and promotion of the understanding of the Palestinian condition: its hopes and trials and tribulations. One of his initiatives has been to institutionalize understanding of Palestinians called ‘New Directions in Palestinian Studies.’ The University announcement aptly characterized him as “the soul of Palestinian studies.” It furthermore expressed confidence in Professor Doumani to begin “a new era on Palestinian studies, not just at Brown but in the academy at large.”
Doumani’s specialty is the social, cultural, and legal history of the early modern and modern Middle East. Just a brief flavor of his writings is Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus 1700-1900, Academic Freedom After September 11 (editor), and Family History in the Middle East: Household, Property, and Gender (editor). His more politically oriented writings include “Palestine Versus the Palestinians?” and “The Iron Laws and Ironies of a People Denied.”
An interview with Beshara Doumani
Professor Doumani has clear Palestinian roots. His father was born in Haifa, Palestine, from which he became a refugee as a result of the 1948 formation of Israel, after fleeing to Lebanon. There, with his father and Syrian mother, Doumani spent his youth. Beshara said that he feels that being Palestinian is very much part of his identity. From there they immigrated to the U.S.
Doumani expressed warm pleasure at Brown University’s support of the initiative to “institutionalize knowledge production on Palestinians.” He sees the Chair as “the backbone” for shaping a research agenda on Palestinians, which aims to support future generations of scholars focused on Palestinian studies. The ‘New Directions in Palestinian Studies’ initiative already includes a series of annual workshops that bring together three generations of scholars in Palestinian studies to promote the sustainability of such studies over time. The New Directions initiative also has the first-ever endowed post-doctoral fellowship in Palestinian studies. This initiative stemmed from a University capital fund-raising campaign that resulted in multiple donors joining arms to support the program. These donors are not comprised of any governments.
Professor Doumani noted that he is “very proud” of Brown for taking a stand in support of an in-perpetuity program to support Palestinian studies. Further, he noted that the initiative for this program has been “bottom-up,” based on both student and faculty support for a sustained program in Palestinian studies. He is thankful to both the students and faculty for their support. Doumani said that he has a personal investment in this program, aimed at ensuring that the Palestinian people are guaranteed “freedom and justice,” which are their natural rights.
In a final note, Professor Beshara said that some supporters of the Brown University Palestinian studies initiative were “moved to tears.” Let all Arab Americans join in sharing the joy of this striking news.
“Beshara Doumani, inaugural Mahmoud Darwish Chair in Palestinian Studies,” Center for Middle East Studies, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University, 5/27/2020
Lannan Foundation Web site, Web page titled “Cultural Freedom Prize”, accessed 11/8/2006
Interview with Professor Beshara Doumani, John Mason, 6/1/2020
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.
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