Scholar Spotlight: Professor Nora Barakat, History

Nora E. Barakat

Each month, we will be spotlighting an Abbasi Program affiliate on campus. This month, our spotlight shines on Professor Nora Barakat from the Department of History.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Professor Barakat! Tell us a little about your work and what excites you most about your research.

Thank you for having me!  My work is very broadly concerned with people, institutions and commodities in the interior landscapes between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  I’m especially interested in historical forms of bureaucracy, administration and exchange that constitute everyday life – taxes, civil law codes, credit mechanisms – and how people shaped and changed these processes in imperial and national settings outside of large towns and cities.  My first book is about people we would not normally expect to be closely involved in state-making between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries - Bedouin in the Syrian interior.  I spent years reading records of subsidies to tent-dwelling communities who lived around the pilgrimage route between Damascus and Mecca, court records preserving sales of commodities like wheat and clarified butter as well as theft of livestock and household stuff, and land registers.  I use those records to tell a story about how Bedouin men, and by extension their relatives, entered the Ottoman bureaucracy on different levels between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries.   My next project is about the legacies of Ottoman economy-making practices in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century contexts of capital expansion, especially in the colonial and postcolonial states of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf.  Part of what I’m hoping to explore is the way entrepreneurs, lawyers, and others understood and articulated the relationship between Islamic law and capital accumulation in particular historical contexts, and how those ideas were reflected and extended in the legal infrastructures of commerce and trade.

What excites me most?  My scholarship and teaching focuses on the history of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Arabian Peninsula, but I see the phenomena I study as global processes and I love reading about other historical spaces and pulling out connections, resemblances and divergences with the lives, institutions and landscapes I work on in closer detail.  History is necessarily pretty nerdy - I get excited about reading texts in difficult handwriting or that have grammatical constructions or vocabulary that are challenging to my modern sensibilities.  I came to History as a discipline relatively late in my academic career because it helped me make sense of the world around me - this process of sifting through and parsing historical documents, getting into their worlds, and then figuring out how to organize and engage with a broad textual corpus in a critical way that reflects on the assumptions of our moment in space and time.

Since you started your appointment at Stanford a little before the pandemic, what are some of the things you are looking forward to doing on campus?

Thanks for this question!  I actually started my appointment mid-pandemic, in Fall 2020, so I had the unique privilege of teaching on Zoom at two different institutions in very different national environments (I was at New York University in Abu Dhabi before I came to Stanford).  I am just starting to experience the Stanford community and the opportunities here as we “return to normal”, but I am on research leave this year so it’s still only halfway.  One of the things I’m most looking forward to is growing a Digital Humanities project I co-direct, OpenGulf, which is also affiliated with the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA) here at Stanford and is based at NYU Abu Dhabi.  OpenGulf is a transdisciplinary research group focused on opening the field of Gulf Studies to digital exploration – meaning it’s an umbrella for a bunch of different sub-projects: digital text analysis and mapping, teaching computers to transcribe handwritten texts in Arabic script, extracting and analyzing data from late twentieth-century Abu Dhabi phone books from an interdisciplinary perspective, etc.  I am eager to get more Stanford students with different language abilities – not necessarily native fluency, but some background and reading ability – involved in this project as student researchers.  Because the Gulf has been a space of inter-imperial competition for at least six centuries, the languages we work with are quite capacious – right now we are working on texts in Arabic, Persian, modern and Ottoman Turkish, English, and French, but we hope to incorporate Portuguese, Urdu, Russian, German, Hindi – the possibilities are wide, and it’s a great way to learn about the practice of public-facing digital historical work as well as primary source research.

What courses are you offering next year?

It is a bit early to tell and I’m really interested in learning more about what Stanford students are most excited to study.  I will definitely teach an introductory historical survey on Formation of the Contemporary Middle East in 22-23, this course focuses, beyond what I’ve already discussed, on themes of migration, colonial occupation, nationalism, mass politics, revolution, and various brands of social movement.  More and more I find my research dealing with the production of rural-urban divides through law, administration, and different kinds of cultural media, so I’ve been thinking about a class tentatively called The Country and the City, which would look at the creation of this divide in the modern period with a focus on the region between Oman and Palestine, but in global perspective.  Last year I taught a class on Capital and Crisis in the Middle East and the World, and I’ve also taught a survey of Gulf history, the history of Islamic law, and the environmental history of the Middle East.

Tell us a little bit about how you approach “the modern Middle East”… your methodology or approach to teaching the Middle East? 

My approach is historical!  I see “the Middle East”, especially when we talk about it in the United States and in English, as the product of a particular twentieth-century moment of shift from British to American imperial frameworks.  Those frameworks are still very much with us today in our understanding of geographical and human categories and boundaries, although I think we can start to see the beginnings of different ways of thinking even here in the US. A lot of my approach to teaching the history of these constructions is about understanding the ruptures and continuities of this moment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when nation-building becomes this very widely shared goal, which of course is happening here in the US as well, when compared with an earlier more imperial context.  In my classes, we also spend time thinking with the violence and dislocations of the second half of the twentieth century and how people have made livelihoods, art, states, etc. in those circumstances.

What would you say to a student potentially interested in minoring in or entering a graduate program in Islamic studies/Middle East studies?

I think language training is one of the most crucial things these programs offer, and something that will stay with you throughout your academic career and beyond.  So thinking about which languages you want to focus on and what you want to do with them (i.e. do you want to be comfortable chatting in a coffee shop or be able to read academic literature or handwritten historical records, or all of the above) is really crucial.  That’s also related to a question about academic discipline and how we approach Islamic/Middle East studies as objects of study, that I think is important for students considering this kind of interdisciplinary program.  Having a sense of your disciplinary interests and proclivities would help you make the most of the very diverse skills affiliate faculty bring to the program, but they would also give you a path to placing Islamic/Middle East studies in a broader context.