Focus on the Faculty: Lara Deeb
By Andrew Nguy (PO ’19)
Lara Deeb, professor of anthropology and chair of the Department of Anthropology, sits at her desk in an office brimming with books and DVDs that reflect her scholarly area, Middle Eastern studies. Her shelves contain copies of her own latest publication, Anthropology’s Politics: Disciplining the Middle East (2015), which looks at the ways in which anthropological study of the Middle East has evolved alongside the national and global political landscape.
“The dramatic shift in discourse has had a pretty big impact on my career and on the careers of other Middle East anthropologists,” says Deeb.
While she was conducting research on the Middle East during the late 1990s, she recalls, the popular political party Hizbullah was commonly described by U.S. media outlets as “fighters,” but by the time she was finishing her dissertation in 2001, the term “terrorists” was regularly being used.
Interested in cultural anthropology from a young age, Deeb says she was attracted to the discipline because of the perspective on social and cultural differences that it offers.
“I really liked ethnography as a methodology,” she says. “And I believed that ground-up understanding gained from talking to people—the kind of knowledge that ethnographic field research can generate—was a key way to approach social justice advocacy.”
Having moved to suburban Pennsylvania from Beirut as a young child, Deeb also found that anthropology gave her a way to make sense of her experience of being raised between cultures. Growing up, she often returned to Lebanon to visit relatives, even during the Lebanese civil war. Later on, when she was in graduate school at Emory University, her focus on the history of the Middle East expanded her understanding of that region, leading her to do field research in south Beirut with a Lebanese community she was unfamiliar with. From this research in south Beirut, she published her first two books: An Enchanted Modern (2006) and Leisurely Islam (2013).
Starting this fall, Deeb will direct the Scripps Humanities Institute for one year. The fall semester theme is “The ‘War on Terror,’ 15 Years Later,” while the spring semester will focus on “Walls, Borders, Fences.” Both programs will include lectures by invited professors, presentations by Claremont faculty about their research, and student-only workshops and discussions with guests, including prominent activists and organizers as well as a journalist who covered the Iraq war and a civil rights attorney.
“For fall, my goal is to curate a set of events that push us to think critically about the last 15 years both inside and outside the U.S. and to begin to disentangle what has changed during this so-called war on terror from what has in fact been a continuation of former policies and practices in new guise,” says Deeb. “For spring, I am building a program that explores social, spatial, and political divisions in different contexts and pushes usto ask questions about settler-colonialism, anti-immigration policies, and state violence in border zones.”
In addition to her anthropology courses, including one on representations of Palestinians in ethnography and film, Deeb teaches a class as part of the Scripps Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities that examines representations of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. media and culture over time. Each year, she observes, students come in with a fuzzier memory of life before September 11, 2001.
“It becomes more difficult for them to imagine a world without particular forms of warfare, surveillance, and anti-Muslim racism,” says Deeb. “I want to use the 15-year anniversary of 9/11 as a reminder and a marker, a moment to assess how things have, and have not, changed.”
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