His crime? As one of the foremost Middle East historians, Beinin has been a staunch critic not only of American policy in the region, but of the state of Israel itself. This has put him into conflict with the faction of the American Jewish community that raised him to be a Zionist, an ideology that he has long since dispensed with. His most recent book, The Struggle for Sovereignty: Palestine and Israel, 1993-2005, co-edited with Duke Professor Rebecca Stein, is a collection of essays examining Palestine and Israel post-Oslo and post-Yasser Arafat.
While he often focuses his studies on Palestine and Israel, Beinin is no stranger to Egypt: His first visit to the country was in 1969 as a study-abroad student of Arabic.
Since that time, he has written three books on Egyptian history — Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam and the Egyptian Working Class, 1882–1954; Was the Red Flag Flying There? Marxist Politics and the Arab-Israeli Conflict in Egypt and Israel, 1948–1965; and The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture, Politics and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora — each of which has subsequently been translated and published in Arabic.
Today, he researches Islamic social movements.
Having fought his fair share of battles, the professor is ready to settle into what he expects may be a more comfortable life in Egypt's capital. He sat down for an exclusive interview with Egypt Today last month. Excerpts:
Joel Beinin: Stanford has never been much interested in the Middle East. From my point of view, there's no question about the importance of the Middle East at AUC. Rather than spend enormous energy trying to convince my faculty, colleagues, students, the administration that the Middle East is important, that discussion just doesn't need to happen here — because it's obvious.
My being American, of course, is an issue, because [people can ask], "Well, why do we need to bring an American to be the director of the Middle East Center if you're at the American University in Cairo? Shouldn't we have an Arab or an Egyptian, or whatever, doing that?"
It's a legitimate question. I don't claim that my understanding of Egypt and the Arab world — any of the things I'm dealing with — is necessarily superior to my Arab and Egyptian colleagues'. I do think there are things I might understand differently as a result of having been trained differently, as a result of having to teach Americans who come to the topic with a different understanding.
We come to the fact that [AUC] is a bicultural institution, in which the task is to bridge the gap. The vast majority of the students in the MA program, for example, are foreigners. [Roughly] 80 percent of them are Americans, plus some Arab-Americans. The task is to help them to understand Egypt and the Arab world in a way that, because of having an immediate experience with it by being here, could never happen at [other] perfectly excellent institutions. Georgetown, NYU, Harvard, Chicago all have MA programs like this one, and they're all perfectly good, but it's different when you're in Cairo. I think it adds something intangible, but also invaluable.
The other part of the task is to try to intellectually engage Egyptian students and colleagues with some of the methods, perspectives of Western or American understandings of the Middle East. There's sometimes a knee-jerk reaction that all [of] that is simply Orientalism and should be disregarded. That, I think, is wrong. Certainly a significant part of it is, and while I wouldn't just disregard it to the core, I'm sympathetic to the claim that some of that doesn't need to be taken all that seriously.
In the period between 1967 and the Iranian revolution, which marked the utter and total bankruptcy of modernization-theory understandings of the Middle East, there was an intellectual revolution of sorts. Younger scholars, sometimes with significant support from very respectable and respected older scholars [such as] Robert Fernea and Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, Albert Hourani, Roger Owen, swept the field. Political economy, gender studies, class analysis, methods inspired by Edward Said's postcolonial literary critical methods — those came to dominate by the mid-1980s, and that was reflected in who got elected to be the president of the Middle East Studies Association, who were the newly emerging prominent faculty members at major institutions — NYU, Georgetown, Harvard, Stanford, if you like.
We were people who did not accept the old school, and we didn't achieve this change by nefarious means; we didn't have any levers of power to wield. I mean, we were not invited to Washington every week to consult with anybody in the State Department or in the President's office. We were not being interviewed on major television networks or by The New York Times or by The Washington Post on any regular basis. We simply convinced our colleagues and our students that there's a better way to understand the Middle East than the way we ourselves were taught.
In response to that, there arose this conservative reaction. Intellectually, they have no legs to stand on. They have been rejected.
Daniel Pipes,* for example, the founder of Campus Watch, could not get a permanent academic position, despite the fact that his father [allegedly] tried to engineer one for him at Harvard. The history department, in the end, didn't buy it. Even Martin Kramer, author of Ivory Towers on Sand, at Tel Aviv University, never had a regular, academic position, where his politics were not very different from the majority of his colleagues, although there was and is a small minority who fiercely opposed him.
These people — Pipes, Kramer, in particular — we can take them as emblematic of the reaction. They were failures in their academic careers. They couldn't get regular university posts.
I don't think, though, that it's all about sour grapes, jealousy and so forth. No, they do have a point of view, and of course there are people like Bernard Lewis, who are not failures in terms of their academic careers. For them, the issues and stakes are somewhat different. Bernard Lewis, to be sure, has never expressed himself in as crude and bombastic terms as either Pipes or Kramer. One of the things about Bernard Lewis, whether or not you agree with him, is that he is very, very eloquent and very measured in his speech and writing. He is not a know-nothing. He is a very educated, very bright, cultured man with whom I fundamentally disagree. I respect that he knows something and even knows a lot of things that I don't know.
I [have been] interested in [the Middle East] from childhood, partly because I fell in love with the Arabic language, which was related to the fact that I began to study Hebrew at a very young age. I had 12 years of Hebrew education, and obviously the two languages are close to each other.
I remember when I was in eleventh grade of Hebrew school, we were studying Hebrew Jewish poetry from Andalusia. Our teacher told us (and we read) that many Jews in Andalusia said, "It's useless to try to write poetry like this in Hebrew" — which was basically Hebrew imitations of the Arabic poetry, bringing the Arabic forms and styles into Hebrew. "Just write the poetry in Arabic and be done with it! Because Arabic is more suitable for poetry."
I found that a really fascinating idea.
This was just about the time of the 1967 war, and the war and then my visit to Cairo in the summer of 1969 really challenged pretty seriously a lot of the ideas that I had grown up with. So I was determined to learn about all of this in a much more serious and deep way.
Perhaps more incidental: I had an uncle who went to Israel after 1948 and was one of the founders of a kibbutz on the border with Lebanon, Sasa, which had been a Palestinian village. I found out this story many years later and wrote about it in my book Was the Red Flag Flying There?
Basically, what happened is the Palmah, the élite Zionist militia, went to Sasa in January of 1948 and razed many of the houses in the village, carried out a massacre and drove out the population into Lebanon. And then there was the mosque and some dozen or two houses remained. A year later, 150 Americans came to this spot, which had a certain strategic location because it was at a crossroads, and they [were] to build a kibbutz there.
My uncle was one of those people, and his particular job in the kibbutz was to build the housing for all the people and all the other kinds of construction that they needed. They had taken a decision — which in retrospect seems really, really bizarre — that they would preserve the Palestinian Arab houses and build all of the housing on the kibbutz in the Arab style. So my uncle was responsible for recruiting Palestinian Arab citizens from the surrounding villages around the kibbutz and hiring them and being basically their foreman.
Of course, he had to learn Arabic to do that, which he did. And so, when he finally left Israel — he didn't stay for very long, they came back in, I think, 1957 — he had all of this Arabic handicraft, brass trays and kanakas [used to make for Turkish coffee] and some mashrabeyya-type woodworking, and I just liked it. Of course, he knew Arabic, so this just seemed very fascinating.
I understood zero of the politics of what it meant that he did all that, and that the kibbutz was literally in the houses of the former Palestinian village. I found out the details of this only when I wrote about it in Was the Red Flag Flying There?
At a certain point, I decided that I was going to deal with these bits of fact that I knew from my childhood and try to grapple with them intellectually and integrate them into a piece of historical research.
I should say that my first book and my PhD thesis was not about any of this stuff; it was about the Egyptian working class, because I was told by my dissertation advisor, Richard Mitchell, who is known in Egypt because of his still-classic book on the Muslim Brothers, "If you write about Israel or Palestine, you won't get an academic job."
Now, that's not true today — that's an important thing that's changed.
In many respects, [my first summer in Cairo] was terrifying. First, I had studied Arabic for a few years at Princeton, and they kept on telling me that, "Oh, no problem, you'll read these classical texts, Tabary and Jahez and things like that and you'll get to Egypt, and you'll be able to figure out quickly the colloquial and how to speak."
Well, this was nonsense. You can eventually figure it out, but it requires a lot of work, and to have studied Arabic for a couple of years and then come to Cairo and not be able to order a meal in a restaurant is a little bit disconcerting. You kind of wonder: What have they been teaching me?
You know, actually it's fine to read this classical Arabic literature, but what I was interested in all along was modern history and politics, and they kept on telling me that I'd understand modern history and politics if I had read all of these classical texts — which of course is the fundamental Orientalist precept — but it was dead wrong!
So, linguistically and intellectually, I'm totally adrift, because I kind of suspected that they were wrong, and I was always asking questions about it, but they were always reassuring me that, "No, no, no! It'll be ok!" And it wasn't ok.
And then, of course, the [AUC's] Center for Arabic Study Abroad Summer Program, which is what I was on, that was its second year and still in its infancy, and we hadn't yet developed the very sophisticated methods of teaching Arabic to foreigners that they now have.
So what do they do? They put in front of us a text by Naguib Mahfouz, the hardest modern Arabic novelist to read. I'm coming from Jahez and Tabary to Naguib Mahfouz, and I'm looking up 25 words on a page, and I'm thinking, "I'm never gonna actually learn this language."
I was in a state of shock at that level.
Second, it was during the War of Attrition, so every day, [there were] fights over the Suez Canal, artillery duels between the Israelis and the Egyptians, and Israeli deep-penetration bombings into the Sa'eed. All the windows in Downtown Cairo were covered with blue paint, and all the major buildings had little brick walls in front of them so that if a bomb would fall in the street, the people inside the entryway to various buildings would presumably be protected from the bomb blast by the brick wall. Now, the brick walls weren't built so well, but, okay.
Nobody was ever hostile to any of the 30-something of us who were in this group of Americans who had come for this intense Arabic program. Nobody ever received any hostility as a result of being American, but it was very weird because there were hardly any Americans in Egypt at the time. There were no diplomatic relations. The American Research [Center] in Egypt and AUC were the only two functioning American institutions in Cairo.
I remember at the time the program bought us all summer memberships at the Gezirah Club. There were piles of Public Law 480 money in Egyptian pounds that had to be spent, and they had nothing to spend them on, since there was no functional embassy. So, okay, spend them on these students, and buy them tickets to the Gezirah Club so that they'll be able to swim and have some fresh air and exercise after spending four or five hours a day in class doing Arabic.
The public transportation was not quite as crowded then as it is now, so we used to take the 13 bus from Bab El-Louq to Zamalek and go to the Gezirah Club. I remember one day there were three or four of us, maybe more, on the bus, and we got into a conversation with some Egyptians who were standing next to us on the bus, and they said, "Who are you?"
We said, "We're Americans."
And they said, "No, it's impossible!"
We said, "No, we really are Americans."
And they said, "Well, you can't be Americans. Americans don't speak Arabic. You're Russians."
Now, there were lots of Russians. When we got to the Gezirah Club, you could see all the Russian officers. Most Egyptians would have preferred that we be Americans, except that we couldn't be Americans because Americans don't speak Arabic. They weren't particularly fond of the Russians, but since we did speak Arabic, we had to be Russians. So there were all these issues. It was not easy to find places where one could be oneself.
Of course, AUC was pretty terrified about our physical security, which, on the one hand, I can understand why they were. There was this situation: no diplomatic relations and so on, but on the other hand, they were also excessive about it. Or at least, from our perspective, they were. Nothing happened to anybody, but you had the feeling that, "Well, if they're worried about it all the time, maybe something will happen to us."
I think it's worth saying that despite having this very difficult introduction to Egypt, in the end, I am not in any way sorry that I [came]. First, I've had a very long, enjoyable and intellectually stimulating engagement with Egypt. Second, if I had been able to follow my own inclination and specialize right away in the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has always been one of my interests, if I had gone to that first and stayed with that and never had the kind of deep engagement with Egypt, I would probably not have ever had the experience of living in an Arab society where Arabs make the rules.
Because if you deal with Palestine — I mean, it's an Arab society but Israelis are making the rules, all the rules that are ultimately significant once you get out of the circle of a family or a neighborhood or something like that, [rules like] the checkpoints and this and that. And so, I never would have had the opportunity to accomplish my objective, my initial objective, which was to learn how to feel comfortable in an Arab society.
Egypt — with all its warts, with all the things that can be aggravating from time to time — Egyptians make the rules here. If you are going to succeed here to do whatever it is that you came to do, you need to respect that this is an independent country. It is not a dependency of the United States, even if, in some respects — politically, geostrategically — it is, but culturally it is not. This is a very old civilization with its own sense of itself and a lot of self-confidence in its own sense of itself, despite the fact that obviously the country is economically poorer and less industrially developed than North America or Europe.
You have to deal with all that. I'm glad that I was forced to learn how to deal with it. I don't succeed 100 percent every day, but on the whole I think I do not do too badly, and I consider myself to have been greatly enriched for the experience and for the effort it's taken.
* See response by Daniel Pipes at: http://www.campus-watch.org/article/id/2956