BEIRUT: The Lebanese sociologist Samir Khalaf certainly isn't the first Arab academic to gain recognition in the West, and he isn't likely to be the last either. But the honors that Harvard University bestowed on him recently are somewhat unique in that they celebrated an Arab scholar known primarily for his work outside the subject of politics.
"It's very rare for a sociologist trapped in Lebanon to get [honors] from Harvard," says Khalaf, a professor at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and director of the Center for Behavioral Studies, while sitting in his office next to a cluttered desk with his back to an overflowing wall-to-ceiling bookshelf, surroundings that underscore a lifetime of scholarship. "I had to pinch myself!"
In March, Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies and its program on Women, Gender and Sexuality conferred joint honors on Khalaf and invited him to teach a master class for doctoral students on sexuality, urbanism, violence and identity. During his time at Harvard in April, Khalaf also gave a lecture on his latest work in progress, a book about the legacy of American missionaries in the Levant.
Arab academics are often stereotyped in the West as consumed by politics. Even Edward Said, who taught at Columbia University, became more famous for his political writings than for his literary criticism. Yet Khalaf has made a career of producing what Harvard professor Steven Canton characterized as "splendid," "illuminating" and "unique" works on topics as varying and complex as Arab sexuality, urban sociology and modernity - works that fall outside the mainstream political discourse in and about the region.
Beyond personal aggrandizement, Khalaf says he hopes his latest achievement will make Western scholars realize the diverse scholarship their Arab counterparts are doing, and understand how Arabs scholars challenge preconceived notions in their respective fields of study.
"[The honors are] a credit to AUB, [which] allows students to explore topics of a sensitive nature that are still taboo [in other Arab countries]," says Khalaf, noting a conference held at AUB on sexuality in the Arab world two years ago.
The honors, according to Khalaf, have also brought tangible benefits. Partly as a result of his visit, he says, Harvard will do further exchanges with AUB by providing fellowships for doctoral work for AUB students whom Khalaf recommends.
Additionally, Khalaf views these honors as a boon for Arab scholarship overall. He says he hopes an Arab professor receiving an award from a prestigious American university will remedy what he labels the "praise-free zone" of Arab academia.
"It's very rare for Arab scholars to complement each other," he says. "Respect is still in short supply." After all, he adds: "How [would] you feel if you were doing good work and only your mother realized?"