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Ottoman conference to honor professor

By : Eric Coker

Some of the leading scholars in Ottoman and Middle Eastern studies will come to campus this month for a conference honoring the Binghamton University professor who has impacted their work.

“Beyond Dominant Paradigms in Ottoman and Middle Eastern/North African Studies: A Tribute to Rifa’at Abou-El-Haj” will take place from 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, April 24, in LH-2. Scholars from schools such as Princeton, Temple, Columbia, George Washington and Tennessee will make presentations. All have worked with or learned from Abou-El-Haj.

“It’s very touching,” Abou-El-Haj said. “I’m very moved by it.”

Abou-El-Haj has been a longtime leader in the field of Ottoman studies, focusing on the history of Ottoman Turks and Arabs and their cultures. He has written two books, 25 articles and 30 book reviews. Abou-El-Haj came to Binghamton in 1992 after teaching at California State University-Long Beach.

“He’s been an incredibly powerful influence on the field of Ottoman and Middle Eastern studies,” said Donald Quataert, distinguished professor of history and a longtime colleague of Abou-El-Haj in Ottoman history. “Over the years, he has tutored dozens of people who have gone on to receive PhDs from many of the leading institutions across the country. … He’s an historian first and foremost. He’s always insisted on that.”

Abou-El-Haj spent the 1996-97 school year at Princeton University as visiting professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. Some of the former graduate students there were so influenced by Abou-El-Haj that they recently contacted

Quataert in the hope of coordinating a tribute conference.

“As soon as they said that I thought, ‘Why didn’t I think of this myself?’” Quataert said.

Once the conference was organized, Quataert broke the news to Abou-El-Haj over dinner with their spouses. Quataert’s wife, Jean, is a history professor; Abou-El-Haj’s wife, Barbara, is an associate professor in art history.

“I was surprised and taken aback,” Rifa’at Abou-El-Haj said. “I didn’t realize there was this kind of reaction among the people I’ve had contact with. A lot of them I thought of as colleagues.”

“You look at the people giving these papers and it’s a ‘who’s who’ of the rising stars of Ottoman and Middle Eastern studies,” Quataert said. “They are devoted to him. It’s absolutely amazing.”

Baki Tezcan is the co-organizer and among those participating at the conference. Tezcan, an assistant professor of history at the University of California-
Davis, took a seminar with Abou-El-Haj while a student at Princeton in 1996.

“He showed me how historical sources should primarily be seen as a product of the time in which they were written rather than an objective source for the past they narrate,” he said. “Thus historians must analyze their primary sources with a view to discover the stakes their authors had in the ongoing socio-political debates of their time. This is a crucial lesson for any historian, and I learned it from Rifa’at Abou-El-Haj.

“He cares for his students and shares his ideas most generously with us all.”
Gerald Kutcher, chair of the History Department, called Abou-El-Haj “a scholar who is a powerful and critical thinker with wide-ranging interests.”

“His interests cover, for example, the formation of the modern Ottoman state, mechanisms of social production of religious institutions, economic and social life in Ottoman Jerusalem, and social changes in the oil producing Arab World,” Kutcher said. “In this work and in his interactions with us, he asks us to question our basic assumptions about what we think we understand.”

Abou-El-Haj’s role at the conference will be to “sit dead center and enjoy it,” Quataert said. The conference’s proceedings will be published in a special issue of The Journal of Ottoman Studies.

“He deserves this,” Quataert said. “He and I have a wonderful Ottoman studies program here. We’ve made it one of the best in the country.”

For more on the conference, including a schedule of presentations, go to

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Last Updated: 10/14/08