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Harpur College and The Middle East

Harpur College and The Middle East

It is an area of the world integral to the success of the planet, and Harpur College is there

by Eric Coker

Jon Mermelstein
The student and the Middle East - 
Junior examines influence of Western oil companies

In the last 70 years, oil has made the Middle East one of the most prosperous regions in the world. Development didn't happen on its own though, and Jon Mermelstein spent the summer researching the agents of change based in the United States.

"I'm investigating how American — as well as British — oil companies helped shape the modern Middle East . . . in order to demonstrate the impact of private enterprise outside of government intervention," says Mermelstein, a junior majoring in history and minoring in Arabic who also is a 2015 Summer Scholars and Artists Fellowship recipient.

Mermelstein's desire to study the oil industry comes from being a student of Middle Eastern history and a concern for the environment.

"I'm fascinated to peek behind the fossil fuel curtain to see how Western businessmen were able to impact the development of the region," says Mermelstein, who is from Scarsdale, N.Y.

Kent Schull, associate professor of history, has guided Mermelstein during the research. Mermelstein's project is an important and timely one, Schull says.

"U.S. social, commercial, missionary, political and oil interests in the region pre-date World War II, but have not been closely investigated," Schull says. "This is what Jon wishes to research in order to find deeper roots of U.S. involvement in the Middle East."

Although his research formally started in late June, Mermelstein spent last spring in Great Britain and got a head start on the project.

"I had the opportunity to travel to London and visit the British National Archives to find government records from when oil operations began in Iraq," he says.

Mermelstein wants people to be aware that large-scale industry can exert enormous influence over the development of history.

"Oil epitomizes this trend because the companies that 
refine petroleum are both remarkably powerful and overlooked," Mermelstein says.

Christian Macaluso

Harpur College's recent investments in Middle East studies will enable students and scholars alike to benefit from a unique blend of linguistic, cultural and political perspectives.

The study of the region is one of Harpur College's greatest strengths, Dean Anne McCall says.

"Harpur College has long had faculty working on the Middle East," she says. "From political science and art history to economics, sociology and history, colleagues bring rare expertise to bear on cultures and issues that are both long-standing and timely.

"Courses across our departments challenge students to incorporate multiple systems and cultures into thinking that accounts for complexity. I am proud of the contributions that our faculty make to knowledge, and I am eager to see how our students will incorporate their learning into their careers and personal commitments."

The foundation for Harpur College's emphasis on the Middle East was laid through the 1980s and 1990s by professors such as Rifa'at Abou-El-Haj in history, Richard Hofferbert in political science and Caglar Keyder in sociology.

"Binghamton University has a long-standing and well-deserved reputation in Middle East studies," says Nancy Um, associate professor of art history and co-director of the Middle East North African (MENA) program. "Long before I joined the faculty here, I considered Binghamton to be an important center for this area of scholarship. Colleagues such as Richard Antoun in anthropology and Donald Quataert in history trained a generation of famous and well-respected Middle East scholars."

The University's partnership with Turkey has been especially strong: a dual-diploma program began in 2004-05 and more than 350 students take part each year.

Besides being the only SUNY school to present an Arabic studies major, Binghamton now offers languages such as Turkish and Hebrew, and Middle East-related courses in several departments in Harpur's divisions of social sciences and fine arts/humanities. Study-abroad opportunities are also available for Turkey and Morocco.

Mary Youssef, an assistant professor of Arabic who joined the faculty in 2012, says she has noticed how students in areas ranging from pre-health and pre-law to engineering and business have taken a greater interest in Middle East studies.

"Studying the languages and cultures of the Middle East demonstrates their global orientation and appreciation of the diversity within our world, which are desirable qualifications for their respective professional titles," says Youssef, who specializes in Arabic literature.

Arabic and Turkish

Youssef is one of several faculty additions in recent years to the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies. A SUNY grant to support the ongoing development of Turkish studies enabled the University to bring Gregory Key aboard in 2014.

Key, who spent nine years in Ankara, Turkey, teaching English and working for the Scientific and Research Technical Council of Turkey, has taught courses such as Elementary Modern Turkish, Ottoman Turkish and Turkish Media and Pop Culture.

"I got the impression that Binghamton was looking to develop Turkish and Ottoman studies," Key says of his attraction to Harpur College. "That was appealing to me. I liked the idea of getting in on the ground floor of such an initiative and to be able to set up the language program."

The department also welcomed Omid Ghaemmaghami, who specializes in Islamic intellectual history and Arabic language and literature, in 2014. Ghaemmaghami is now teaching a course on Koranic Arabic and serving as the undergraduate director of Arabic.

Andrew Scholtz, an associate professor of classics who was formerly the Classical and Near Eastern Studies chair, says the department's Middle East offerings "allow for a broader and deeper consideration of the linguistic, literary, cultural and religious background to a great deal of what is happening today in several important parts of the world."

"Arabic remains a language that can open doors professionally, whether one seeks to work in government or business," says Scholtz, who praises Associate Professor of Arabic Kevin Lacey for bringing Turkish and Persian instruction to the department. "It's not simply that the Middle East remains a critical part of the world; it's crucially an area of tremendous growth economically. To have Arabic as a language that one speaks and understands makes one more employable, but no less important is the fact that it broadens one's outlook culturally, intellectually . . . and the list goes on."

Center for Israel Studies

Binghamton University and Harpur College will soon be a leading location for students interested in examining Israel, thanks to the recent approval of the Center for Israel Studies.

The center is directed by Randy Friedman, an associate professor of Judaic studies and comparative literature, and will offer research, programming, study-abroad and learning opportunities for undergraduate students, graduate students and faculty members. A minor and courses in Israel studies that focus on undergraduate education began in the 2015-16 academic year.

"This is absolutely unique — not just to Binghamton University, but to higher education," Friedman says. "It's a fantastic benefit to students here to be able to study the complexities of Israeli society."

The University has also received a multi-year grant from the independent, nonpartisan Israel Institute in Washington, D.C., that is supporting the center by enabling the hiring of three tenure-track professors in the Judaic Studies Department.

Israel-studies courses will examine areas such as culture, religion, politics, literature, human rights and Israel-Palestine, Friedman says.

"There is a lot of undergraduate interest in courses that examine ethnic democracy or human rights or religious conflict," he says. "Israel studies is so broad that it encompasses a wide range of questions and issues that we think students are hungry to learn about. Students studying history, political science, sociology or Judaic studies can get up to their elbows in fascinating and relevant case studies."

Middle East and North African (MENA) program

MENA is an interdisciplinary program that allows students to combine courses in Middle Eastern languages (Arabic, Turkish and Hebrew) with courses in areas such as history, political science, art history and sociology.

The program is now led by two Harpur professors: Um and Kent Schull, an associate professor of history.

"The MENA program has not had a director for over a decade," Um says. "And it has been precisely during this time that interest in the Middle East and learning Middle Eastern languages has grown among our student body. Professor Schull and I realized that there was a crucial need for an active and responsive MENA program on campus and we also happily noted that many colleagues who teach or conduct research in this area have recently joined the campus. So the time was right to call everyone together in efforts to reinvigorate this long-standing program."

Future goals for MENA include hosting campus events and developing programming such as a lecture series or an interdisciplinary conference, Um says. A MENA minor is also being developed.

"The minor, once approved, will be useful for those who wish to continue Middle East studies in graduate school or follow a career path related to the Middle East," Um says.

Harpur's expertise

The faculty expertise in Middle East studies extends from Ricardo Larémont and Ekrem Karakoc in political science to Moulay-Ali Bouânani in Africana studies to Bat-Ami Bar On in philosophy and Mark Blumler in geography and biological sciences.

In Judaic studies, Dina Danon's research focuses on Sephardi communities on the eastern Mediterranean during the modern period. Danon, an assistant professor in Judaic studies and history who joined the faculty in 2013, teaches courses on medieval and modern Jewish history and Muslim-Jewish relations.

"The study of the Middle East across many disciplines is a vital component of Harpur's curriculum," Danon says. "The importance of this area of study extends far beyond giving students the tools to engage the contemporary global arena in an informed and critical fashion. The rich history of the Middle East and its many cultures provides fertile ground for helping students interrogate essential questions regarding how cultural, ethnic and religious differences have been imagined and negotiated over time."

Um's travels to Yemen, Egypt and Morocco have proven crucial to her scholarly and teaching development. Her courses examine Islamic art, architecture and material culture.

"Recently, so much popular media attention has been devoted to Middle East politics, international relations and current events," she says. "As a counterpoint, it is important to provide students with perspectives from the past and also cultural history. It is my hope that my courses will help students to understand the historic Middle East and adjacent areas with more dimension and complexity. Art can be a useful lens to understand cultures that may seem distant and different from one's own."

Harpur College continues to add expertise to its faculty lineup. Sevinç Türkkan joined the Comparative Literature Department in August after serving as an assistant professor at SUNY Brockport. Türkkan, born in Bulgaria and raised in Turkey, specializes in Turkish literature, cross-cultural studies and translation studies. Besides comparative literature, she also will teach for the department's Translation Research and Instruction Program (TRIP).

For Türkkan, Harpur College was the ideal fit.

"As an educator, I am committed to research. I cannot fathom one without the other," she says. "Binghamton and Harpur offer an ideal place for a person like me. The University's research profile is exciting and stimulating. My position in comparative literature and TRIP fits nicely with my research interests in Turkish and Middle Eastern literatures, transnational comparative studies and translation research. When the fit is there, you feel at home." 


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Last Updated: 3/1/17