Middle Eastern Studies: Entering the Limelight

When Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies was created in 1954, it came at a time when interest in other areas, particularly Soviet and East Asian studies, were at a high.

Lacking the long-term financial and personnel backing that some of Harvard's other institutes have received, the Middle East Center has quietly promoted scholarship, but mostly let the limelight stray elsewhere.

Now, with a war raging in the Persian Gulf, that small, quiet center is taking on larger, more public dimensions. Scholars there say they have received phone calls and interview requests nonstop since the conflict began two weeks ago.


But even before this media attention, the center's affiliates say they had been expanding and gaining renewed momentum even before the crisis began.


Rebounding from a scandal over CIA funding involving Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies Nadav Safran, the center has undergone a renaissance in recent years, adding new programs and establishing wider contacts abroad.

"We have done everything to improve [credibility]," says Frank M. Cross, Hancock professor of Hebrew. "It takes time to heal."


Harvard's Middle Eastern Studies contingent is seeking to establish a permanent faculty position for a modern Middle Eastern historian, trying to "strengthen the contemporary area strength the Center," says William A. Graham, director of the center.

According to Graham, Middle Eastern studies has been targeted as a key area for Harvard's upcoming multi-billion dollar fundraising drive.

"I would not have taken the directorship if I had not strong assurances from the [Faculty of Arts and Sciences] of their strong support for the Center for Middle Eastern Studies," Graham says.

In addition to emphasizing the center's importance, the war may work to stimulate student in Middle Eastern studies, scholars say. And, Graham says, this may have either a negative or positive impact on funding for the program.

"As long as the Middle East remains a highly visible problem area, we are likely to need more sources of government and private funding," the center's director says. "Whether they will be forthcoming will depend on the situation after the war