Two professors benefit from Tri Delta’s annual National Humanities Center Fellowship

American Scholars

Two professors benefit from Tri Delta's annual National Humanities Center Fellowship

In an 1837 address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard University, Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of the American Scholar, whom he envisioned as being not just a thinker, but a creator — one who would become an intellectual leader. Rather than simply studying the theories which lay hidden among the pages of dusty, old books in libraries, this American Scholar would write the books and develop the innovative theories.         

Just as Emerson imagined, today in the world of academia, there are numerous men and women who dedicate themselves to contributing new knowledge to their fields, hopeful that their ideas may influence fellow scholars and future students. Drs. Matthew Gordon and Paul Losensky are two such scholars whom Tri Delta has chosen to support through the National Humanities Center Fellowship. This fellowship — which Tri Delta has awarded annually for the past 23 years — will allow Drs. Gordon and Losensky to take a sabbatical from teaching and focus exclusively on their research at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Recently, Drs. Gordon and Losensky took a short break from the books to discuss their projects with us.

Gordon.jpgDr. Gordon:

What are you working on at the National Humanities Center?

My project is a study of slavery and social mobility in the ninth-century Arab/Islamic Near East (my area is medieval Near Eastern social history). I am particularly interested in the cities of Baghdad and Samarra. All indications are that the populations of both cities relied heavily on slave labor; even modest households probably owned at least one slave. It is also clear that slaves were transported into the urban Near East from a variety of regions; the evidence points to a substantial slave market in this period.

I will have much to say about two specific groups of urban slaves. The one group consisted of elite female entertainers, most of whom were singers and musicians. The sources (medieval Arabic texts) refer to the careers of certain of these women, making much of their rise to prominence. The second group was made up of military men, officers and soldiers, of predominantly Turkish/Central Asian origin. Here, too, social mobility played its part, in that much like the slave singers, the soldiers entered Near Eastern society as slaves, bereft of social standing, wealth and local attachments. Only with considerable effort (and good fortune) did certain of these men, like a small number of the singers, rise to positions of standing.

In terms of gender, access to decision-making and the forms of labor they provided, the singers and soldiers followed distinct paths. I will discuss issues particular to each group such as gender relations and legal discrimination faced by the young women slaves, and those related to ethnic and social stigma targeted at the young Turkish recruits (as an Other to urban imperial society). Despite these divergences, however, there is good reason to take stock of singers and soldiers together. My aim is to carry out a particular kind of collective history, taking slavery and social mobility as the organizing questions.

How and when did you fall in love with your subject matter?

The project derives from the research I carried out for my first monograph, "The Breaking of a Thousand Swords" (SUNY Press, 2001), a study of the slave military system put in place by the ninth-century Arab/Islamic imperial state. I have also written separately about the women singers and courtesans. My hope now is to make better sense of the context in which the two very different groups of slaves provided their labor to contemporary society: the rise of a substantial slave economy in the early medieval Islamic Near East.

What does this fellowship mean to you as a scholar?

To put it simply, the fellowship provides me with the time — nine months! — to devote to my research and writing. I love teaching, and I am perfectly willing to carry out the other duties asked of me in a typical year on campus. But, for now, I am delighted to have this opportunity to focus my time and energy. It is an opportunity for which I am enormously grateful.
Losensky.jpgDr. Losensky:

What are you working on at the National Humanities Center?

Everyone is probably familiar with iconic images of the Taj Mahal. What few know is that this monument is but one representative of a far-flung cultural and literary realm, where Persian was the language of poetry and administration across much of South Asia, the Middle East and Central Asia in the 16th-18th centuries. My book project focuses on the master poet of the age, Mohammad Ali Sa'eb Tabrizi (d. 1676). Arguably the most famous living poet in the world in the 17th century, his poetry was renowned not only in his native Iran, but as far away as Istanbul and Delhi. I am particularly interested in his poetics of effulgence, which is based on the idea that a single creative force animates all reality but is manifested in an infinite variety of material forms. According to this theory of the world, all objects contain a surplus of meaning, and any object is potentially comparable to any other. As a result, Sa'eb's poetry is characterized by an intricate and unending play of metaphor and simile. In my project, I will work to bring to light some of the principles of this network of metaphorical relations by examining several key images found repeated in his work. In the process, I will attempt to show the similarities between Sa'eb's poetry and the contemporary poetry of the European baroque, as well as the poetry of our own time and culture.

How and when did you fall in love with your subject matter?

I began to study Persian as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. As a linguistics major and comparative literature minor, I was required to take a non-Western language. I had met the Persian professor in an elective course on Middle Eastern folklore and knew a little something about Persian literature through the "Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám" and some translations by Ralph Waldo Emerson. I started Persian in 1980. This was a year after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and political exiles and refugees were arriving in droves in Chicago. In the two years that I took off between college and graduate school, I worked for community organizations dedicated to helping Iranians displaced by the revolution settle into new lives in the U.S. I had always hoped to continue my studies in comparative literature. As my Persian improved, I came to know many Iranians personally and to appreciate their love for their poetry and ancient culture, and Persian became the inevitable choice for my graduate concentration. My research has since led to extended stays in the Middle East, Central Asia and India. I have even lived in Iran for several months on two occasions, one of the few American scholars to have this opportunity since the revolution. Although my initial choice of Persian was somewhat serendipitous, it has proven to be a richly rewarding career and vocation.

What does this fellowship mean to you as a scholar?

As a professor at Indiana University, I have to fulfill a hundred and one duties, big and small, during the school year. There are classes, the hours of preparation that go into them (professors have homework, too!), meetings with students and grading exams and papers. Students, both graduates and undergraduates, come to me frequently with questions about their studies, their progress on their degrees and career plans. Hours each week can be taken up with faculty meetings and committee work, all necessary to keep the programs and the university running smoothly and growing toward the future. What is often lost in all this is the opportunity to think, to read and to write — precisely the activities that got me the job in the first place. This fellowship provides a rare and precious opportunity to devote myself fully to the life of the mind in a fostering, scholarly environment. Not only will the fellowship allow me to complete a research project that has been developing over the last eight years, but it should also provide the opportunity to let my imagination run free, to gain a new perspective on my field and to begin to formulate future projects.

Incidentally, my office at the National Humanities Center is located at the east end of the building, mere footsteps from the Tri Delta garden where I often go to catch a breath of fresh air and collect my thoughts in its calm and tranquil atmosphere. I have no end of reasons to be grateful for your sorority's commitment to the noble goals of the National Humanities Center. [if gte mso 9]> Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 [if gte mso 9]> [if gte mso 10]>