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CFP: “Social Histories of Disease, Medicine, and Healing in the Modern ME/NA”

Call for Chapters for inclusion in an edited volume on

“Social Histories of Disease, Medicine, and Healingin the Modern Middle East & North Africa”

What can the study of disease, medicine, healing, and public health in the Middle East and North Africa since 1750 reveal about the region’s history?

Editors: Stephanie Anne Boyle, New York City College of Technology (CUNY) & Christopher S. Rose, independent scholar, Austin, TX. 

Deadline: June 1, 2021

Temporal and Geographic Coverage: 

  • Modern” here refers to the period from the mid-18th century to the present.
  • Middle East & North Africa” encompasses the Arab World (including the Maghreb), Iran, Israel and its antecedents, and Turkey and its antecedents. 
  • We are also open to the inclusion of other geographic contexts that are related to the ME/NA, such as the Ottoman Aegean & Cyprus, Egyptian and Anglo-Egyptian Equatoriana, Omani East Africa, etc. Please contact us to discuss.

We are soliciting abstracts for inclusion in an edited volume about the social histories of medicine, disease, and health/healing practices in the modern Middle East. This volume will illustrate how the study of medicine, disease, and healing reveal new aspects of the region’s history during the era prior to and during European imperialism, and during the era of 20th century state-building and decolonization. This is a period whose histories have traditionally described social and political history and are, therefore, primarily focused on elites and notables. 

In recent decades there have been several excellent monographs and volumes on the history of medicine, health, disease, and healing, which have demonstrated the possibilities of using this history as a lens for social history, particularly when it comes to providing glimpses into the lives of rural peasants and the urban poor; the importance of public health as legitimation and justification for state-building projects; as a tool both of imperialism and against it; and in the formation of collective identities at all strata.

We seek to bring historians of medicine and science, social historians, cultural historians, and political historians whose work touches on public health, disease, and medicine into conversation with one another. We also want to bring historians who work on different parts of the Middle East and North Africa together to identify transnational trends and highlight issues that span the borders of modern nation-states. 

Submissions can, for example:

  • Illustrate the means of transmission and reception of “European” pathologic anatomical medicine into the MENA region; especially those that complicate the binary “modern European medicine vs traditional folk / Islamic-Galenic / Prophetic medicine” narrative by demonstrating interplay / antagonism / syncretism.
  • Provide new perspectives on historical events in the region that have been gleaned through the study of medicine and healing practices;
  • Add to our understanding of international efforts to deal with the spread of pandemics and epidemics by illustrating how parties in the MENA region responded;
  • Help flush out our understanding of major pandemic and epidemic events during the era by illustrating their geographic progression through and impact on parts of the MENA region;
  • Elucidate the realities and perceptions of religious festivals (especially local/sub-regional, i.e., other than the Hajj) as potential vectors for disease transmission.
  • Explore the intersections between medicine and migration (i.e., forced migration to seek medical practices, or the role that migration has played in spreading communicable disease)
  • Illuminate the intersections of war and disease, and/or famine and disease.
  • Examine the politics of sex work and public health. 

This is by no means a comprehensive listing of all possible topics. Please contact the editors if you have questions. 

Submissions from Ph.D. candidates (ABD) are welcome, as are submissions from scholars outside the United States (especially those working in the MENA itself).

Abstracts of 500-750 words (not including notes/bibliography) and a short (~100 word) biography should be sent as PDF, Word document (doc or docx), or Google doc to HistMedModMENA@khowaga.us by June 1, 2021. Communication will be in English.

Authors will be notified of their status by June 15, 2021, with first-round submission of the chapter expected by September 1, 2021. Chapters should be between 6,500-8,000 words in length (including abstract and notes). 

We are committed to a quick timeline. A major university press in the U.S. has expressed interest in reviewing the project for publication.

Contact the editors with any questions at: HistMedModMENA@khowaga.us

Crowdsourced Syllabus on the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1920

In the same vein as the wildly successful Humanities Coronavirus Syllabus, I’ve started a crowdsourced Syllabus on the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1920.

It’s an annotated bibliography that aims to bring together books, journal and magazine articles, websites, documentaries, etc., about the experiences of the global Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1920 (popularly known as the ‘Spanish flu’) from fields in the humanities, social sciences, hard sciences, and medicine in one place.

Anyone can add to it – just click on the link and get started! At the moment, edits must be done using the “add comment” function.

Links to full text PDFs would be ideal; please supply URLs or DOIs where available, especially for articles or other pieces from regional publications that may be difficult for others to locate.

I’m also looking for someone to serve as a co-editor of the hard sciences / medicine section, because I’m not as familiar with that area and those who work on it.

I’m hoping this experiment will yield some nice results! (By the way, if you haven’t checked out the Humanities Coronavirus Syllabus, you should. It’s an excellent example of the collaboration that’s taking place in scholarship right now!)

History of Medicine in the MENA Zotero Group

(crossposted from https://histmedmena.hcommons.org/2021/03/25/zotero-group/)

Note: I’ve been active as my professional alter-ego on Humanities Commons, where a colleague and I have set up a group for scholars interested in the history of medicine in the Middle East and North Africa, which is what I do professionally.

Are you a Zotero user? (and if not, why not?)

We’ve set up a shared Zotero group–join and contribute your entries, and let’s create a shared bibliography detailing the history of medicine in the Middle East and North Africa!

Read on for description and instructions.

Continue reading “History of Medicine in the MENA Zotero Group”

Moving the Cheese

Many years ago, when I was still working in educational outreach, I consulted with the state of Texas on a curriculum project. The project was poorly managed, and run in the most baffling manner imaginable, neither of which is relevant to the story here.

For some time, after the new product was rolled out, we would occasionally be asked to respond to questions from the field — that is, to say, the teachers who actually used the curriculum in their classroom. And some of the questions were, quite frankly, hostile.

When I commented on this to our contact, she laughed and said, “Oh, don’t take it personally. You moved the cheese, is all.” She then went on to explain that teachers have their favorite subjects–now with several years in a classroom under my belt, I understand this–and, with standards- and test-driven education, sometimes when the lessons are changed or removed from the curriculum, people get upset. Ultimately, she said, it was a bit like what happens when you’re training a mouse to run through a maze, and then you move the cheese.

Inasmuch as I recognize that comparing teachers scrambling to address ever changing standards to mice in a maze is both inappropriate and weirdly apt, the phrase “you moved the cheese” has stuck with me.

I’ve tried to keep it in mind as I have observed some of the goings on in higher academia, much of which I’ve witnessed in the format of reviews. As I advised students preparing to write their own first book reviews, a good reviewer needs to approach the text on its own terms, not on the basis of “I wouldn’t have written this.” This may be true, but you also didn’t write it. Someone else did who isn’t you, and it’s not fair to punish them for the crime of not being you.

My very first peer reviewed article (still forthcoming, a year after acceptance) was a lesson in reminding myself not to take things personally. And this was hard. My proverbial Reviewer 2 sent a three-page single-spaced critique of my article (which, confusingly, had been accepted with revisions).

The major problem, as I realized, was that in editing it for the submission I had cut the literature review out to move it earlier in the piece, and had forgotten to paste it back in. Reviewer 2 started off by pointing out that I did not engage with the literature. Fair point. Of course, I actually had, but he (for the tone makes his gender clear) didn’t know that.

Reviewer 2 then proceeded to inform me which books I should look at. It was clear that Reviewer 2 was not in my subfield and had done a very quick library catalog search, for the titles were temporally or geographically irrelevant to the topic of the article (or both).

Reviewer 2 then went on to excoriate me for the lack of Arabic sources (which I had addressed in the text), and, by way of insinuating what a lazy, sloppy researcher I must be, informed myself and the editor that “these things are all available online now.”

Having spent most of the process of writing my dissertation attempting to psychically will such online resources into existence, this was news to me (it was also incorrect). Now on a roll, Reviewer 2 then proceeded to list three issues of a journal which were online and that I had looked at as further evidence of my laxness.

By this point, of course, I was nearly breathing into a paper bag. Eventually, when I examined said online journal, I realized that I had been correct–the articles cited by Reviewer 2 did not say what he claimed they had, and were of only marginal use–mainly to address the major bugbear about not the article not having enough sources in Arabic.

Further correspondence with the editor revealed that he, also, didn’t find Reviewer 2’s comments particularly helpful (hence the acceptance with revisions). It was also clear that, despite his insistence that I had not engaged with the literature on the topic, Reviewer 2 was not in a place to provide any qualitative guidance on that front, either. Within a month, I had restored the the literature review to its rightful place, made a few other tweaks, got my final acceptance, and the article moved on to the land of the never-ending production queue.

I don’t know which block of cheese I moved to earn Reviewer 2’s ire, but I found the episode instructive, if not particularly useful. First, being courteous is always a plus. Reviewer 1 managed that, with equally deep but constructive criticism that I employed quickly and without much fuss.

It also made me more aware of what happens when the cheese gets moved.


Recently, a Twitter-friend, Sarah Pearce (NYU), published a review essay that focused on Geraldine Heng’s much-lauded The Invention of Race in the Middle Ages. I admire Pearce’s work — she is nothing if not thorough and thinks about things in a way that I can only dream of (perhaps not pleasant dreams, as I have never been one to think about how people think about things, but that’s what makes academia interesting).

Pearce knew going into this that she was fighting an uphill battle. Heng is a medievalist; medieval studies has been plagued with problems relating to race, racialism, and racism, with no less than the likes of Milo FakeGreekAlopoulos “weighing in” on the matter (because if our middle ages weren’t lily white, then what do we have? I guess?).

The review essay is quite detailed, and it’s worth reading — I was fortunate to be able to read it in draft form. Some of the language is, admittedly, a little harsher than I might adopt on my own, but I’m also both conflict-averse and don’t have a permanent job.

Pearce’s argument boils down to this: Heng’s work is a notable first attempt at trying to rethink race and race-stand-ins in a medieval context, but when it came to the way she represents Jews in her book, she does not successfully decolonize her own approach — in short, medieval studies is a field that peers out at the rest of the world from English Christendom, and the book’s framing of English Jews is, in Pearce’s opinion, unable to escape this Christian-centered framework.

To continue with my analogy: Pearce recognizes that Heng has correctly identified the need to move the cheese, but argues that the framework Heng proposes wasn’t entirely successful.

When Pearce put the essay out on Twitter, reaction was fairly swift and rather polarized, as one might expect. Heng, herself, is a bit of a polarizing figure. A number of other colleagues have described her as wonderfully supportive, especially of junior colleagues. A number of other colleagues have also described her as difficult to work with and impervious to criticism.

The Invention of Race arrived at a critical moment in the field, and was able to provide a focus for much of the conversation; Pearce argues that the book’s timing and lauded effort shouldn’t overshadow critical review of certain structural arguments in the book.

At no point does Heng’s ethnicity or gender enter the context of the review (nor should it have done). The review is meticulous about engaging with the text. However, much of the early criticism–I shan’t name names–revolved around the idea that Pearce was arguing for the silencing or erasure of a colleague of color (Heng is from Singapore).

One particularly adamant critic suggested that Pearce was only able to publish such a lengthy review because she is white, and went on–whether this was deliberate or thrown out in the heat of the moment, I cannot say–to imply, if not state outright, that white scholars should not be allowed to critique scholars of color. Fortunately, most of the critical commentary was less hostile than this, but the conversation was lengthy and lively.

The question of race–ironic, given that it was brought up regarding a review of a book about race–is, obviously touchy. What struck me about the adamant tone of this particular critic is the degree with which they self-identified with Heng’s work, and needed the way that Heng had moved the cheese to be perfect.

And it is the need for perfection–and the absolute unwillingness to consider the possibility that there might be imperfection or further adjustments necessary–that I found perplexing. Because, of course, once again, the issue isn’t about what’s on the page, it’s about emotional reactions to challenging those ideas.


This whole episode resonated with me because so many of the foundational works–the cheese movers, if you will–in my field have been problematic. Books need not be perfect in order to be important. Sometimes the most important books are flawed–sometimes even on purpose–in order to generate conversations about opening new lines of scholarship or taking a different approach to a long standing core narrative.

Edward Said’s Orientalism, for example, was almost universally panned when it was first published (and not just by people named in it). Said, a professor of Comparative Literature, took on nearly every subfield in the humanities and social sciences, and was roundly scolded for not having stayed in his lane. The book, quite frankly, also isn’t that readable: I’ve pretty much made it through the introduction and I paraphrase the argument for students because I can’t bear to assign a text I’m fairly certain no one will read.

Still, some people absolutely adore the book, and the message contained within. At a plenary session at the 1998 Middle East Studies Association’s (MESA) annual conference, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of the publication of Orientalism, Said–after slyly pointing out that he’d had MESA in mind when he wrote the book (cue laughter from “woke” audience)–sheepishly admitted that he had intended the book to be a conversation starter, and had been a bit surprised that so many people adopted it as a functional paradigm for the field.

Indeed, some of his critics who were in the room that evening (most of whom split off to form a second association shortly thereafter) delivered thunderous denunciations from the floor, until Homi Bhabha clapped back … it really was a once in a lifetime event for so many reasons. It even inspired me to try to re-read Orientalism, which I quickly gave up on, because the book really is one dense puppy.

Similarly, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook’s Hagarism was also hugely influential in the field of early Islamic studies, even if most of the people who wrote negative reviews took it seriously. In this case, it was kind of a shoddy book on purpose, intended to demonstrate that the narrative of Islam’s origins could be substantially altered if one applied the same level of source criticism to the narrative that, as Crone stated in the introduction to Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam are applied to nearly every other historical subfield. The book was resoundly trashed by the same scholars across whose bow it was intended to fire, most of whom excoriated the two young upstarts for daring to suggest that the cheese even needed moving, let alone how to move it.

Four decades later, however, the challenge has been taken up. Very few people read Hagarism anymore — I tried once and gave up on page 3 — it achieved its purpose in throwing down the gauntlet to scholars in a field that wasn’t moving in the right direction. The reason people don’t read it anymore is that it’s been supplanted by actual scholarship that proves, disproves, and leaves open to question parts of the traditional narrative, which was the intent all along.


Some of you may remember that I originally posted this, and then it vanished for a bit. In this section, I discussed the controversy that has since become known as Selimgate, which now has its own Wikipedia entry. I have withdrawn my comments, under duress, after having been contacted by one of the parties involved. I will refrain from further editorial comment.

And I emphasize that this goes against every single instinct I have, because this is a story that I am itching to tell. But given that other colleagues have been thrown under the bus by their institutions for exercising their rights of free speech and observation, I must bear in mind that I don’t even currently have an institution that could do so. I must protect myself … and believe me, that is the only reason I am doing so.

I will simply quote the venerable Natalie Zemon Davis here:

Reviewing always rests on assumptions about community, about what persons we define as engaged in a common task, about what books should be included in our historical exchange and with what standing, and about shared criteria or evaluation.

For quarrels to hold a community together and innovate, much depends on the frame and the language.this means recognizing and embracing the diversity of stances within the membership, …  so that we can talk as allies in the common task of Donna Haraway’s engaged criticism.

I wish I had a clearer way to wrap up this lengthy piece, one that I haven’t said before, over and over, but ultimately, I find myself back in the same place that I, and others, have been time and again. Academia is rife with pettiness and drama. Scholars hoard their research for fear of it being stolen–I, myself, have been very resistant to sharing any of my pre-press work with people I don’t know. This is the world in which we live and work, and, yes, some times I do wonder why.

At the same time, however, our fields have methodologies and established means of “doing” scholarship for a reason: these are the criteria upon which our work is judged; more to the point they are the criteria upon which we expect our work to be judged. When we stray outside of these — that is, to say, when we pile on the cheese movers and refuse to legitimate their efforts by focusing on everything but the product presented for review — we ultimately wind up making ourselves look foolish and petty.

There are too many foes out there waiting in the wings to discredit, de-legitimate, and defund. The last thing we need is to be doing it to each other.