This week’s interview is with Dr. Mary-Jane Deeb, Chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division at the Library of Congress.
Describe your background
My background is a bit complicated: my mother was Slovenian and my father was a Levantine from Egypt. I grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, spoke French at home, and went to an Irish nun school where I learned English. I also spoke Arabic and Italian while growing up, as did many people in that part of the world. I’ve traveled widely, lived in many places, and have been in the Washington, D.C. area since 1983. I’m married, have a son and a little granddaughter.
What is your academic/professional history?
My professional life has been rich and varied. Before joining the Library of Congress I was the Editor of The Middle East Journal, Director of the Omani Program at The American University in Washington D.C. and Director of the Algeria Working Group at The Corporate Council on Africa. I also taught at both Georgetown University and The George Washington University and have worked for the United Nations Economic Commission for Western Asia, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), America-Mideast and Educational and Training Services, Inc. (AMIDEAST), and the US Agency for International Development in Lebanon. I am also the author of several books and over 150 articles.
How would you describe your job to other people?
I would say that I am responsible for an exciting division at the Library of Congress that deals with 78 different countries in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. I have a superb staff that speaks numerous languages including Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Armenian, Hebrew, Swahili, French, Italian, and Portuguese, and that can read 35 additional languages. I would add that every day is different with: frequent visits from foreign dignitaries; speaker programs on a variety of subjects including, art, music, culture; staff from various U.S. government agencies coming over for briefings, with patrons bringing gifts of books and photographs to add to our collections. I would also say that our division organizes grand events in The Great Hall and the Coolidge Auditorium, and that we travel to different parts of the world to teach bibliographic representatives how to collect publications for the Library, to participate in conferences, or to locate rare collections that we then try to acquire. And that is just for starters…!
Why did you want to work at the Library of Congress?
I was born in Alexandria, the site of the greatest library of antiquity, and am now working in Washington, the site of the greatest library of modern times! Isn’t that wonderful? Since my earliest childhood I was surrounded with books – I loved the look, the smell, the feel of books – I still do. Working in a library with other people who share my passion is a privilege. If I talk about a favorite book, I can immediately find a kindred soul who has read the book and loves it, too. Where else can you find this communion of taste and affinity for books?
What is the most interesting fact you’ve learned about the Law Library and/or the Library of Congress?
That the Law Library is the largest legal library in the world and it holds one of the most complete collections of U.S. Congressional documents in their original format. Furthermore, the Law Library makes the records and acts of Congress from the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention through the 43rd Congress available online, for anyone to access. Quite amazing!
With respect to the Library of Congress, I continue to learn something new everyday, so I do not want to commit myself to an interesting fact today, as I might find a more interesting fact tomorrow!
What’s something most of your co-workers do not know about you?
I not only like reading books, but like writing them as well, and have published three mystery books set in the south of France. I also like cooking and have numerous cookbooks – I sometimes try new dishes on my unsuspecting guests….
We need more people as charming and erudite as Mary-Jane.
It was such a nice surprise to watch you tonight on the News Hour! I immediately called Nancy Wood and Anne Dammarell. Nancy used to work for the Middle East Institute and knew you there. I’m sure I don’t have to re-introduce you to Anna Dammarell; she’s been in Thailand since late November, teaching English. This is her second trip to that country.
Dear Mary Jane Deeb,
Do you know of a translation of a manuscript that Stefano Carboni, Curator, Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City identified as Sub Saharan, 19th Century and Dale J. Correa, Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies, New York University, has identified as below:
Salaams! So this appears to be the Mawlid written by al-Hariri (al-Shaykh al-Imam Shihab al-Din Ahmad b. Ali b. Qasim al-Maliki al-Bukhari al-Andalusi). It is the ninth part (of 25) of a larger book of sermons and so-called ‘popular’ beliefs and practices. Al-‘Aidarus says that this text had been wrongly attributed to Ibn al-Jawzi, largely because no one knew anything about al-Hariri.
From the manuscript itself I would say African provenance, probably West Africa? Late medieval period? This text seems to be popular among the Tijaniyya, if that helps at all. It’d be better to see it in person to determine age and provenance.
I have also been in contact with Romain Pingannaud, Christies Islamic, London, whose research has spurred my interest to translate the manuscript to be available to the general public. I can forward images of all pages and thank you in advance for your help.
It occurs to me it might have originated in Timbuktu. As a maritime art historian I am fascinated at its journey from Sahel to Portsmouth New Hampshire, where I purchased it 20 years ago.
I just read A Christmas Mystery in Provence (3 topics I love) and wanted to learn more about the author. I found this wonderful interview and am so impressed with Dr.? Deeb’s accomplishments.
Looking forward to reading her other books.