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Commemorating Janet Abu-Lughod

[Janet Abu-Lughod. Image courtesy of Deena Abu-Lughod.] [Janet Abu-Lughod. Image courtesy of Deena Abu-Lughod.]

The year 2013 was one of deep loss. One of the most profound of these was the death of the path-breaking and prolific sociologist, demographer, and urbanist Janet Abu-Lughod. Her passing is painful, but as a thinker, writer, researcher, scholar, woman and activist, the model she offered remains very much alive.

Born in 1928 and trained at the University of Chicago, Professor Abu-Lughod leaves behind a formidable legacy of intellectual production generated from unstinting curiosity and relentless rigor. In her various positions at the American University in Cairo, Smith College, Northwestern University, and the New School for Social Research, Abu-Lughod was an academic leader and mentor. Throughout her career, she published more than one hundred articles and thirteen books, each of which contributed a unique combination of empirical and theoretical insights.

Abu-Lughod was a pathbreaker in ways that bridged the personal, political, and professional. She belonged to a generation of women who had no choice but to struggle various uphill battles at universities and at home where she juggled family life and her professional obligations and scholarly passions. For many years the only woman in her department, she along with others established the Organization of Women Faculty at Northwestern University in the late 1960s. In the late 1970s their study of faculty salaries revealed significant gender disparities that embarrassed the administration.

Not one to waver in the face of authority, Abu-Lughod stood for her principles when it was a lonely and unpopular thing to do. This was perhaps clearest in her commitment to the question of Palestine, a cause to which Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, her husband of four decades was steadfastly dedicated. She paved her own relationship to Palestine, even as it took her husband away for weeks, sometimes months at a time. Whether in her various demographic studies in the 1970s and 1980s or in her pioneering survey of Israeli settlements in 1982, Abu-Lughod’s incisive and prescient contributions on Palestine continue to be as relevant and as critical today as they were decades ago.

Indeed Abu-Lughod’s exceptional and expansive scholarship will continue to have a life of its own. In Before European Hegemony: The World System AD 1250-1350, Abu-Lughod questioned the very formation of the modern world system. In doing so, she gave generations of students and scholars dynamic and flexible tools for critical inquiry. Her spatial and temporal interests ranged from the premodern to the contemporary, from the West to the East. She revealed with care and precision the urban realities and histories of Cairo and Rabat as well as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. She mapped out trade networks in the thirteenth century and race in the twentieth. Her voluminous work will continue to inform and shape students of the Middle East and far beyond. As Nezar AlSayyad puts it, Abu-Lughod “was always willing to take risks and…refused to limit herself to a particular specialty.”

In the bundle of articles here, Immanuel Wallerstein reframes his 1992 review of Before European Hegemony with a preface and postscript that stress Abu-Lughod’s enormous intellectual curiosity, her contributions to the debate on world system’s theory, and the personal itineraries that informed her expansive scholarship. Nezar AlSayyad commemorates Abu-Lughod’s role as the guru of the Cairo school of urban studies and traces her innovation in comparative urban studies. Diane Singerman writes about Abu-Lughod’s Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious as a rare work that has inspired decades of unfolding questions. She commemorates Abu-Lughod’s skills, intellect, imagination, and dedication in this volume that traced the social, historical, demographic, institutional, and geographic character of Cairo over a millennium. Ananya Roy pays tribute to Abu-Lughod’s magisterial work and its anticipation of contemporary debates about the Eurocentricity of urban studies’ canonical theories. Roy explains: “We are all her students, working within an intellectual space opened by her pioneering efforts.” Suad Joseph remembers the seamless generosity, wisdom, and care that marked Janet Abu-Lughod's formative mentorship of young and established scholars in the field of Middle East studies and beyond.

Immanuel Wallerstein, “A Scholar Open to the World

Nezar AlSayyad, “The Janet Abu-Lughod I Knew

Diane Singerman, “In Memoriam

Ananya Roy, “Before Theory: In Memory of Janet Abu-Lughod

Suad Joseph, "A Gentle and Generous Mentor: Janet Abu-Lughod"

[A memorial to celebrate the life of Janet Abu-Lughod will be held at the New School for Social Research in New York City on 21 February 2014.]

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