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Visiting Scholar Finds Collections and Service in Middle Eastern Division

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Middle Eastern Division Head Michael Hopper reviews one of the dozens of periodicals available only at Harvard with visiting scholar Raid Gharib.

 

September 2, 2010 – While preparing for his thesis on the rise of nationalist thinking among a rarely-studied Middle Eastern Christian minority group who speak Syriac as a common language, Raid Gharib, a PhD candidate at the University of Tübingen, happened upon a catalog of Syriac and other language sources, The Assyrian Experience: sources for the study of the 19th and 20th centuries, edited by historian Eden Naby and Harvard College Library’s Michael Hopper, head of the Middle Eastern Division. 

Using Naby and Hopper’s book as a guide, Gharib began assembling a list of research materials he would need, but quickly discovered that most of them– including about 90 periodicals and dozens of books – are only available at Harvard’s Widener Library. The solution, he decided, was to travel to Cambridge to conduct his research.

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For Gharib, the first step in coming to Cambridge was to contact Hopper via email. In addition to outlining his thesis and how the Middle Eastern Division’s collections could help his research, Gharib sent Hopper the list items – chosen from the bibliography of Naby and Hopper’s book – that he hoped to study. Hopper was able to pull many of the items Gharib identified, along with others that might be useful to his research.  

“Part of our mission is to make our collection available to library patrons, whether they are students, faculty or visiting scholars,” Hopper said. “Given that Raid would only be here through August, we tried to do whatever we could to allow him to work as efficiently as possible.”

In addition to pulling collections in advance, Hopper arranged for Gharib to have access to a study space in the Gibb Islamic Seminar Library, a quiet space used by faculty and students in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations located near the Middle Eastern Division collection and Hopper’s office on the third floor of Widener Library.

“When I arrived here in early August, I found Michael had prepared material for me that wasn’t even on my list. In fact, there were so many things that I didn’t think I would have enough time to get through it all in five weeks,” he said. “I am very much indebted to Michael and his team, because they are doing everything to make my studies here very comfortable and very successful.”

Gharib returned to Germany at the end of August, and hopes to have a first draft of his thesis, tentatively titled “Priests, Palaces and Politics,” completed by the end of the calendar year.

“Very little has been written about nationalism within this community,” Gharib said. “What I’m aiming to in this single case study is understand this movement from a theoretical, political science perspective. Based on case-specific hypothesis, I will try to trace back the national movement of the Syriac-speaking people from its outset in mid-19th century until the present time.”

Often called Assyrians, Arameans or Chaldeans, the Syriac-speaking people are an ancient Christian group with roots in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey.  Following World War I a plan was in place to create an autonomous region for the Syriac-speaking population, but the plan collapsed due to the lack of political power and backing from the Great Powers. Without a homeland to bind the population together, Gharib said, the result was a scattered people around the world. With no unifying national identify, the community is today fractured, with no single leader to represent the population or preserve the culture.

While Gharib’s stay at Harvard ended last month, Hopper hopes his involvement with the library will continue – as a source of materials on the Syriac-speaking people.

“Collecting literature by or about the Assyrians is challenging.  Because they have such a large diaspora, materials about them can come from almost anywhere—Sweden, England, Germany, Australia, or U.S. cities like Chicago and Turlock, California, in addition to the long-existing communities in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria,” Hopper said. “Much of it is self-published or contained in family papers, and has to be acquired through personal contacts rather than from commercial vendors.  We hope Raid will now be a contact for us in acquiring materials from the various Syriac-speaking communities in Germany.”