I first met Janet Abu-Lughod at a meeting of the Arab American University Graduates (AAUG). AAUG was co-founded in 1967 (disbanded in 2007), by Janet’s husband, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, a leading political scientist of the Arab world. A graduate student at Columbia University at the time, I was rather in awe of scholars who worked in the Arab World, especially if they were of Arab origin. Columbia, then, had relatively few Arab scholars (Edward Said had joined the faculty in 1963; the professors and lecturers of Arabic were largely of Arab origin). I had never had a professor of Arab origin in my academic career and had not been around anyone who studied the Arab world until I began graduate work at Columbia in Anthropology in 1967. AAUG, at the time, seemed like a magical space.
When AAUG was launched, its founders debated criteria for membership. Somehow, I had the mistaken notion that I could not join. I heard about it from Sami AlBanna, Mansour Al Ajami, and other fellow Columbia graduate students. AAUG seemed like a highly masculine space in those early years. Big names, larger than life scholars, alpha males staking out new intellectual and cultural turfs in a landscape that had been marked as not hospitable for Arab Americans. They built in that space the architecture for new fields of scholarship by new generations of scholars. It was among the most exciting intellectual project of that era for those of us from the region studying the region. And women scholars were foundational in that project, especially Janet Abu-Lughod and Elaine Hagopian (who would eventually be elected as president of AAUG).
After I returned from fieldwork research in 1973, I sought out the AAUG network. By 1974, I was giving lectures and papers in AAUG lecture series, graduate seminars, and at the annual AAUG conference. I was naive and naively confident—I now had data, fieldwork, I could speak with authority about “the people” I had worked with.
I met Janet Abu-Lughod at the 1975 AAUG meeting in Chicago, where I gave my first academic paper on women: “Urban Poor Women in Lebanon: Does Poverty have Public and Private Domains?” The paper was a critique of the relatively newly minted feminist argument that women’s “universal” oppression could be attributed to women’s “universal” association with “nature” and the “private”—an argument that seeped through the newly published Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere’s co-edited book, Women, Culture and Society (1974). My department chair at Hofstra University, Soloman Miller, had asked me to teach a course on “Sex Roles.” Knowing nothing on the topic, I had found Rayna Rapp (then Reiter) through friends. She modestly recommended that book to me, rather than her own 1975 Toward an Anthropology of Women, which was more attuned to my Marxist training. My class-based critique of the culturalist public/private argument appeared to have attracted Janet’s attention.
An interest in materialist analyses was one of several reasons for the mutual draw. Janet’s work was on urban sociology. I was one of the first graduate students in Anthropology to do doctoral exams in the new field of urban anthropology. Columbia Anthropology did not offer a graduate seminar in urban anthropology at the time of my exams. Joan Vincent recommended readings and I stumbled through the field. Janet, on the other had, was a real live urban sociologist. Her historical approach resonated with my affinities to history (developed in cohort based reading groups outside the graduate curriculum). Her world-systems analysis inspired the kind of thinking to which I was aspiring. Her now classic book, Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious, had been published in 1971, and she had long been established as one of, if not the, leading urban sociologist of the Middle East. It seemed, on so many levels, there was so much to say to each other, so much to talk about, so much I wanted to know from her.
We found a couch in a hallway of the hotel meeting rooms and talked for what seemed like hours, though it probably was not. Janet had too many other demands on her time to have given an unknown brand new PhD (just completed in 1975) that much time. Yet, she might have. She was seamlessly generous with young scholars. I never felt she rushed through any of these conversations. I never felt she was hurrying to go someplace else, to meet someone else. It seemed that she was utterly focused on our conversation, that moment, that time, our relationship.
We met regularly at conferences of AAUG, and other conferences for a number of years, including after she moved to the New School for Social Research in 1987. What was so striking, in retrospect, about our many hours of conversations, snatched between panels, on some comfortable couch or set of chairs, in the hallways of various Hiltons, Sheratons, and the like, was that Janet would bring any conversation around to eventually focus on me. She would ask me what I was working on now, what was I going to do with that project, was I receiving the support I needed at the University of California, Davis (I joined the faculty in 1976), what and where would I publish next. Then she would draw me out about my personal life—was it a good fit for me to be in a small town like Davis (then only around 30,000 or so), after years in New York City and Beirut, what did I do for recreation and relaxation, had I created a community for myself and so forth. When I adopted my daughter (1986), she shared ideas about parenting and mothering daughters (of which she had three).
Still freshly out of Columbia, and barely setting foot in Davis, I co-organized a panel about Lebanon at the 1976 AAUG annual conference in New York City. The Civil War in Lebanon had been raging for a year and a half. My dissertation, on the politicization of religion in Lebanon, had been completed one month before the war broke out in April 1975. I was intensely engaged in public debates on the war and had expended myself on an endless series of public talks about Lebanon and the war. The panel drew an audience of standing room only.
I believe it was at this AAUG meeting that Janet pulled me aside for a conversation and invited Elaine Hagopian to meet with us. I had met Elaine, a distinguished sociologist at Simmons College in Boston, sometime earlier and was equally in awe of her. To my mind, Janet and Elaine were the alpha women of AAUG, in every respect role models for young women scholars. I could not believe that the two of them, set time aside, to talk with just me. Both of them told me that I was probably giving too many public talks and that I needed to focus on publishing. They had a publishing project for me. They wanted me to put together an introduction to the Middle East to be used in college classrooms. There were few introductory texts, and fewer yet with the kind of approach that Janet and Elaine would have endorsed. I was stunned that they would invite me into such a project. Overwhelmed. They talked in detail about what such a project would entail, they could not do it themselves, they said, but they would offer to help me, they said the projected needed a young scholar with my kind of approach. While ultimately, I did not take up the project of a textbook, the fact that two distinguished scholars whom I deeply respected and admired, thought well enough of a young PhD to invite me into a project normally undertaken by more senior scholars stayed with me—as did their advice to slow down my public talks and publish more.
In retrospect, the meetings, conversations, and phone chats with Janet over the years were her mentorship of me. She taught me about urban studies, historical analysis, about publishing, about networking with progressive scholars, about taking care of my sanity in the, at times, insane world of Middle East studies. Always there was an aura about her—the meticulous, internationally known scholar. Yet, somehow always made time to give of herself to young scholars. How did she do it? Her aura created a spell. I remember my distinguished sociology colleague at UC Davis, John Walton, being impressed that I knew Janet Abu-Lughod. For me, she was a friend. I did not know at the time, that she was also a mentor. I would not have had the words to name it. I thought of our time together as precious and undeserved friendship for which I was so grateful.
My last conversation with Janet was in Spring of 2009. I had been at a conference in New York and had not been able to see her. Her daughter, Lila, gave me the phone number. We had an extended chat by phone in which Janet again asked me in great detail what my projects where, what I was doing with them, what was I publishing. By that time, I was in the senior steps of full professor at UC Davis. Yet Janet was still mentoring me.
Janet was one of the most gentle and generous mentors a young scholar (or a senior scholar) could have. Graceful, dignified, kind to a fault, she always found something productive to offer, something strong to build on, something good that she could recommend in her mentees. To be in her orbit was to move in the highest circles of scholarship. She could and did urge her mentees to the edge—to think differently about our material, our data. She urged us to historicize, to contextualize, and to free our case studies from hegemonic paradigms. More than intellectually inspiring, Janet drew on and drew out the human relationship. It was her way of making a young scholar feel utterly heard that encouraged new productivity. It was her way of making a young scholar feel utterly interesting that encouraged innovative thinking. It was her way of making a young scholar feel utterly seen that built confidence. Her daughter, Lila, one of the leading anthropologists of the Arab world, told me that she thought of me as a mentor. I am humbled by that testimonial. Lila, I learned from the best. I was fortunate to be one of the young scholars that your mother mentored—even as a senior scholar. Janet, you have left a piece of you in each of us who had the privilege of being graced by your wisdom and kindness. May we be half as generous as you.
[This article is part of a series commemorating Janet Abu Lughod. Click here to read the Introduction to the series and view a complete listing of articles included in the series].