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Studying the Middle East at the Library of Congress

During the period of Muslim-Spanish rule from 711 to 1492, The Kingdom of Spain was known to Arabs as Al-Andalus. Apart from a name and historical location, Al-Andalus has also played an important role in Arab nationalism and Arab culture. For some, it is an imagined space that connotes an era of fine art, grand intellectual achievement, and religious tolerance. For others it is a symbol of Muslim exile, a painful reminder of an era in Arab-Muslim civilization now gone.

To trace how Al-Andalus has figured into the formation of Arab nationalism is the current project of historian Peter Wien and the subject of his forthcoming book, “Arab Nationalism: The Politics of History and Culture in the Modern Middle East.” Wien, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, has relied on many resources to enable his work. Chief among them is the Library of Congress.

Wien recently spoke to Alhurra, a Middle East broadcasting network supported through the Broadcasting Board of Governors, on how invaluable the Library of Congress has been to his project. According to Wien, the primary repository of research materials for his scholarship is the Library’s immense and unique collection of Arabic books. These books are largely collected and maintained by the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division. For Wien, the writings of Arab poets, travelers and intellectuals found in the Library’s collections illustrate how Al-Andalus was envisioned in Arab thought and language. For example, in his August 2012 lecture delivered at the Kluge Center, Wien refers to the eminent Arab nationalist Shakib Arslan, whose 1936 book was based on Arslan’s journeys through Spain. Arslan characterized his book, according to Wien, as “an Andalusian Encyclopedia which encloses everything that came off this Lost Paradise.” Arslan was an important Arab intellectual on the eve of World War I, and an influential voice in Arab nationalism in the Arab world. By surfacing such works in the Library’s holdings, Wien shows how Arslan, and others, beckoned to a lost Arab paradise and helped to develop a common Arab heritage that is palpable today.

Peter Wien

Screenshot of interview with Kluge Fellow Peter Wien on Alhurra, June 2015. Source: https://vimeo.com/136510355

Wien also cites the invaluable support of the Kluge Center to his book project. Wien applied for and received a Kluge Fellowship in 2011, and spent seven months in residence in 2012 working on the book. His lecture delivered at the conclusion of his tenure was the first time he publicly presented his work on the subject. In it, Wien detailed the sources he uncovered during his seven month residency: the poetry and travel writings of Egyptian intellectuals, plays authored in Jordan, Arab intellectual and political debates—all of which drew upon imaginings of Al-Andalus. You can view the lecture in its entirety here.

Scholars utilize many resources in order to sustain themselves through a book project, which can take years to research, write, edit and publish. The Library of Congress collections and the Kluge Fellowship are two of the pivotal resources Wien used. The result will be a new book on the cultural history of Arab nationalism, a work that will deepen understandings of why Arabs across the Middle East and around the world understand themselves to share a common history and belong to a common people.

Peter Wien is Associate Professor for Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of Maryland in College Park and a former Kluge Fellow at the Kluge Center. His book “Arab Nationalism: The Politics of History and Culture in the Modern Middle East,” based on research conducted at the Kluge Center, will be published in July 2016.

More scholarship on the Middle East and the Arab world from the Kluge Center:

 

 

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