Center News

A Message from the Middle East Center


There are many reasons why it would be easier for the Middle East Center to say nothing. We could fall back on the excuse that “this has nothing to do with us” because it is a matter of American domestic politics. We could say that it is not part of our job to make “political” statements. We could draw attention to our own vulnerabilities and lay claim to some kind of victimhood that dilutes or distracts from the issue at hand. Most important of all, we could point to the fact that we are a federally funded center and that, in the current political atmosphere, we would be foolish to risk our funding by taking a position that might in any way, shape or form be interpreted as critical of the US government.

These are precisely the reasons why we do not want to stay silent. Taking a stand is not worth much when there is nothing to be risked and nothing at stake. At a time when many of our students, faculty, staff and community partners feel frightened and uncertain, the very least we can do is to say that we are here to listen and to learn. And to affirm our belief that Black Lives Matter.

As scholars and students of the Middle East, we are all too aware of what it means to feel silenced or marginalized, or to watch cultures, identities and experiences that we cherish become subjected to disrespect and worse in the public discourse. We also know that the muscular displays of militarism witnessed on American streets in recent days have a direct and obvious parallel to the muscular displays of militarism we have exported overseas in recent years — a connection that is frequently overlooked or unacknowledged, but is sadly all too familiar to us. And those of us of Middle Eastern heritage know that, in our own families and communities, we are sometimes woefully out of touch and still have an enormous amount of work to do in acknowledging and unlearning our own inherited forms of anti-Black prejudice.

But this is not actually about us. It's not about whatever feelings we might have as administrators of a center. This is about the unique experience of what it means to be Black in the United States today, and the obligation that is upon us — all of us — to listen, to offer solace, to stand humble, and to ask how we can be better allies. The Middle East Center wants to hear from you. We want to know how you think we can do our part. We want to hear from anyone who has ideas and inspiration to offer. Because we are all too aware that our core mission of educating students and the community about the Middle East is worth very little if we do not reflect the concerns of the communities in which we live.

Well before the recent events in Minneapolis and elsewhere, the Middle East Center had been planning a major half-day symposium on the theme of “Blackness in the Middle East” — to take place some time during the 2020-2021 academic year. Needless to say, we intend to make this a more urgent priority now. But we do not want to stop there. We want all of our students and faculty, along with all our community partners, to know that we stand ready to listen and to do better. We do not intend to dictate solutions. We certainly do not claim to have any answers. We are not sure at all what our role should be in all this, but we know that it would be dishonest and hurtful to pretend we have no role at all.

We are figuring this out as we go along, and stumbling gracelessly no doubt. But we want you to know that you should not hesitate to call on us as an ally.



Rethinking Narratives of China and the Middle East

The Silk Roads and Beyond


Where: University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA

When: April 8th-10th, 2021


The Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania invites the submission of abstracts for a conference that examines the relationship between China and the Middle East, both ancient and modern.


Keynote Address: Peter Frankopan

Program Committee: William Figueroa, Mohammadbagher Forough, John Garver, John Ghazvinian, Dru Gladney, Renata Holod, Tugrul Keskin, Victor Mair, Dorraj Manochehr, Eleanor Sims, Jinping Wang, Bingbing Wu 


Details below:


            The last decade has seen a great deal of scholarly attention on the relationship between China and the Middle East. The majority of these works have been focused on the role of the modern Chinese state in the region. Countless studies and reports have been authored exploring Chinese investment in Middle Eastern economies, its impact on the politics of oil, and the growing interest that Beijing has taken in the region as a whole. Seen through the prism of U.S. foreign policy, China has been configured as a potential threat, possible ally, and above all a growing challenge to U.S. hegemony. New economic and trade initiatives and a flurry of Chinese goods and construction services throughout the region have had a significant impact on existing relationships and geopolitical calculations. The growing presence of Chinese workers and products have transformed the daily lives, consumption habits, and attitudes of many people who are witnessing these transformations first-hand. Whether these changes are disruptive and exploitative, or stabilizing and mutually beneficial is a hotly debated question, but there is no denying that China is becoming a major player in the Middle East.


Studies of the ancient, medieval, and pre-modern relationship between these two major cultural centers have also been flourishing. From maritime trade routes that stretched from the Chinese coast to the Red Sea, to the spread of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam in the Middle Kingdom, researchers have begun to recognize the historical roots of China’s seemingly novel interest in the Middle East. Mutual influences have been identified in the fields of art, literature, and architecture, especially after the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, which directly connected all of Asia for the first time in history. The world’s two largest collections of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain wares outside China proper are in Turkey and Iran, respectively, collected meticulously by Ottoman sultans and by Shah Abbas I, founder of the Safavid Dynasty in Iran. Although partly spurred by the rise of modern interest in Sino-Middle Eastern connections, this turn in the literature has provided new ways to explore the history of both regions without direct comparison to developments in the West.


“The Silk Road” has often provided a common framework for both fields, from the traditional overland and maritime Silk Roads of ancient times to the “One Belt, One Road” initiative promoted by China today. This framework tends to emphasize a long history of friendly and mutually beneficial interactions, interrupted by the intrusions of Western colonialism, and currently being restored to its former glory. The purpose of this conference is to foster a creative dialogue between scholars of modern Sino-Middle Eastern relations with those working on earlier periods, with the goal of questioning and complicating these conventional narratives. By treating modern Sino-Middle Eastern connections as historically rooted phenomena that expresses complex economic, political, and cultural interactions, it hopes to encourage scholars to move beyond the conventional and explore the many forms of interaction and exchange between China and the Middle East, both in ancient times and today.


The following is a non-exhaustive list of potential topics; however, we will consider any paper that explores connections between China and the Middle East. 


Papers that incorporate additional regions, such as Europe, Central Asia, or South/Southeast Asia are also encouraged, provided they are also incorporate both China and a country in the Middle East, broadly construed.


Ancient and Modern…

Religious and Philosophical Exchange

Cultural and Artistic Exchange

Political and Ideological Exchange

Economic and Technological Exchange

Linguistic and Literary Exchange

Trade and Transportation  Networks 

Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)             

Politics of Modern Sino-Middle Eastern Relations                             

Security and Political Stability

Geopolitics and Geoeconomics of China and the Middle East


Please send abstracts (350 word limit) and a 1-page CV to

Deadline: 11:59 PM EST MondayFebruary 24th, 2020

Please note that the conference is scheduled for Next YearApril 8-10th 2021.

Congratulations to Mina E. Khalil and Gareth Smail, the recipients of this year's Janet Lee Stevens Award for Arabic and Islamic Studies!

The Janet Lee Stevens Award is given annually to two graduate students in Arabic and Islamic Studies who, in addition to showing exceptional merit in their academic performance, fulfill the spirit of the Award by working to improve relations with and understanding of the Arab and Islamic world.

You can check out previous years' recipients on our website:

Congratulations to our 2019-2020 Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship Recipients!

Academic Year FLAS:

Ali Noori..............................Turkish – PhD candidate, Religious Studies
Dahlia El Zein......................Persian – PhD candidate, History
William Figueroa.................Kurdish – PhD candidate, History
James Gross........................Turkish – PhD candidate, AAMW
Katherine Burge..................Kurdish – PhD candidate, AAMW
Nicolas Foretek....................Arabic – PhD candidate, History
Anthony Jreije.......................Arabic – Masters City Planning, Penn Design

Zubaida Qaissi...............Persian – Religious Studies/NELC major
Olivia Babski..................Arabic – undeclared, intending MMES
Keira Bokreta.................Arabic – Health and Societies major

Summer FLAS:

Benjamin Notis........................Arabic – PhD candidate, NELC
Nathaniel Shils......................Hebrew – PhD candidate, Political Science
William Figueroa.................Kurdish – PhD candidate, History
Austin Cooper.......................Arabic – PhD candidate, History and Sociology of Science

John Mullan.....................Persian – undergrad, History/NELC
Aaron Chen...................Arabic – undergrad, MMES/Religious Studies/International Relations

Find out more information about FLAS Fellowships on our website:

Star Saudi comedian Hisham Fageeh, best known for his YouTube channel (especially the video No Women No Drive) and for the 2016 film Barakah Meets Barakah, now available on Netflix, came to discuss the state of satire and comedy in Saudi Arabia. In conversation with Dr. Marwan Kraidy, Professor of Communication and the Anthony Shadid Chair in Global Media, Politics and Culture at the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Pennsylvania, Hisham Fageeh conveyed the complexities of political humor and satire in a country that is increasingly unreceptive to such.

Congratulations to Jonathan Lahdo and Eliana Salmon, who are both minoring in Modern Middle Eastern Studies, on being named Perry World House Student Fellows for the upcoming academic year!

We are beyond proud of your accomplishments and excited to see where these opportunities take you!

Join the Middle East Center next week for our annual Middle East Film Festival! 

Each film will be introduced by a presenter with special knowledge of the country, culture, and issues addressed in the film.

For Friday's film screening (03/29), we will be joined by special guests director Amr Gamal and producer Mohsen Alkhalifi for a unique opportunity to discuss their experiences making the movie. 10 Days Before the Wedding is the first Yemeni submission to the foreign language film category at the Oscars - and is the very first film to be produced, shot, and screened in Yemen. The director and producer are coming all the way from Yemen to join us for the screening.

3 Faces (Iran):

The Wild Pear Tree (Turkey):

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem (Palestine):

A Tramway in Jerusalem (Israel):

10 Days Before the Wedding (Yemen):

Congratulations to Mohammad Salih, a PhD student in Communications, for establishing Penn's first ever Kurdish language course! More information can be found on this news link.

Preservation of culture, language, and heritage of the Middle East is an integral part of education on the region, and the Middle East Center is delighted to see individuals take such initiative.

Congratulations to MMES major Carson Kahoe for being named a Penn 2019 Thouron Scholar! We are extremely proud.

More information on Penn's website

Congratulations to faculty member Mbarek Sryfi for taking first place in The Moonstone Arts Center's Annual Chapbook Contest! 

On Sryfi's collection of poetry, The Trace of a Smile, Margaret Randall said, "In this collection, Mbarek Sryfi returns the reader to the human register. These times evoke a loud response from poets and others, an urge to deal with weighty "end-time" questions and dangers. Too often the result is great emotion in a poetry that is too temporal or obvious to lift off the page. In contrast, Sryfi, brings us back down to daily observation: an old man leaning against a tree stump, a tall red house, a small girl in blue PJs, and the “sounds of bullets, / bombs, / smell of / blood / Under the rubble.” These poems remind us of our human landscape, what is truly at stake. Sryfi's language appears deceptively simple as it captivates in its hidden complexity. Sometimes it takes someone from somewhere else to show us the subtleties of our world. This is a collection to read and reread, savoring the details that make up the larger picture."