Race and the Middle East/North Africa Mellon Sawyer Seminar

Cat on street in medina of blue town Chefchaouen, Morocco

Building on earlier workshops and research sponsored by the Middle East and Middle East American center at the CUNY Graduate Center, the Mellon Sawyer seminar on Race and the Middle East/North Africa addresses a set of critical historical and contemporary questions about power and identity formation. Rather than presuming either the stability of notions of race or their irrelevance (as it has often been argued) for the MENA region, this seminar highlights the specific ways that hierarchies and inequalities have been understood, used, and reproduced in the Middle East and North Africa; among Middle Easterners and North Africans in Sub-Saharan Africa; in confrontations and conversations with Europeans; and among diaspora populations in the United States. In particular, the seminar addresses practices, policies, and beliefs about blood, biology, and marriage, appearance and regulation, exclusion and inclusion.

We recognize that, in Arabic, the word for “race,” jins, literally means “type” or “kind” and is regularly also applied to sex, gender, race, or nationality. The Arabic `unsur is also used to connote “race,” but has a slightly different resonance, as it also can mean “origin,” “breed,” or “ethnic element.” This Sawyer Seminar explores how processes of racialization and notions of race (jins or `unsur and similar terms in Turkish, Persian, and other Middle Eastern languages) are formed, experienced, and contested.​


Mellon Sawyer Seminar Directors

Beth Baron
Distinguished Professor of History, The City College of New York and CUNY Graduate Center
Director of the Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center at the CUNY Graduate Center

Mandana E. Limbert
Associate Professor of Anthropology, Queens College and CUNY Graduate Center

The Mellon Sawyer Seminar builds on earlier collaborations between Limbert and Baron, most notably a MEMEAC-sponsored workshop on “Race and Slavery between the Middle East and Africa.”

Postdoctoral Fellow

Moyagaye Leverett the is Mellon Sawyer Race and the Middle East/North Africa Postdoctoral fellow. Her research lies at the intersection of Middle East and African histories. Her first manuscript, ‘They say that we are from Africa’: Race, Slavery and Haratin Nationalists in 20th Century Colonial Morocco, examines the largely unrecognized role that so-called “black Haratin” Moroccans played in the making of the modern Moroccan state. Her research has been funded by the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad (CASA), the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, the Penn Predoctoral Fellowship, the American Insitute for Maghrib Studies (AIMS), and Fulbright, among others. Moyagaye received her doctorate from Rutgers University and her bachelors in History and Political science from CUNY Queens College. She is thrilled to return to CUNY, the place where her commitment to the examination of race in the MENA region first developed.

Dissertation Fellows

Zehra Husain is a doctoral candidate in Cultural Anthropology at The Graduate Center CUNY. Her research interests include images, mediation, politics of visibility, race and cosmopolitanism. Her ethnography focuses on Lyari Town, a neighborhood in Pakistan’s port city Karachi, which has a history of migration in the Western Indian Ocean – from East Africa and the Persian Gulf to South Asia. Based on ethnographic and archival research in Lyari Town, she studies the embodied, visual and affective investments in boxing, soccer, and rap music, to examine how athletes and musicians use these cultural repertoires from the Atlantic to fashion their own biographies as notable residents of a port town on the Indian Ocean rim. This research is supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the American Institute of Pakistan Studies. The writing portion will be supported by the CUNY-Mellon Sawyer Race in the Middle East and North Africa Fellowship and IRADAC Fellowship.

Hratch Kestenian is currently a Ph.D. candidate in history at The Graduate Center, CUNY. His dissertation explores how tuberculosis became a “social disease” in the Ottoman Empire during the long nineteenth century. More specifically, his dissertation explores the different meanings of disease and medicine and their impact on Ottoman society. Through the story of tuberculosis, Kestenian reveals how TB influenced the construction of the Ottoman social body through its pathologizing of the gender, class, race, and economic status of the individual body. Kestenian has conducted archival research in Turkey, Armenia, and Lebanon, and recently was an affiliated researcher at the Orient Institute of Beirut.

Anthony Alessandrini is Professor of English at Kingsborough Community College, CUNY, and of Middle Eastern Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he is also a member of the Committee on Globalization and Social Change. He is the author of Frantz Fanon and the Future of Cultural Politics (Lexington Books, 2016); the editor of Frantz Fanon: Critical Perspectives; and the co-editor of “Resistance Everywhere”: The Gezi Protests and Dissident Visions of Turkey (Tadween Publishing, 2014). His poetry chapbook, Children Imitating Cormorants appeared with Yavanika Press in 2018. Alessandrini is on the faculty of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, a co-organizer of the International Solidarity Action Research Network (ISARN), and a co-editor of Jadaliyya E-Zine. His book Decolonize Multiculturalism is forthcoming with OR Books in 2021.

Moustafa Bayoumi is Professor of English at Brooklyn College, CUNY. His critically acclaimed How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America (Penguin, YEAR)  won an American Book Award and the Arab American Book Award for Non-Fiction. He is the also the author of This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror (PRESS) which was chosen as a Best Book of 2015 by The Progressive and was also awarded the Arab American Book Award for Non-Fiction. A frequent contributor to The Guardian, Bayoumi has also written for The New York Times MagazineNew YorkThe NationCNN.comThe London Review of BooksThe Chronicle of Higher Education, and many other periodicals.

Aslı Iğsız is Associate Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. Her work examines cultural politics in relation to and within the Middle East, with a focus on Turkey. Her research interests are situated at the intersections of political violence, cultural policy, and politics of representation, with a critical eye on the implications of the past in the present. Her first book Humanism in Ruins: Entangled Legacies of the Greek-Turkish Population Exchange (Stanford University Press, 2018) sought to offer a critique of liberalism from the angle of the management of difference, and explored the underlying racialized logics of population transfers, partitions, segregation, apartheid, and border walls. Currently she is working on two new book projects: one on the notion of fascist utopias in the contemporary world context, and another one on international cultural politics and education reforms to refute fascism after the Second World War.

Taylor M. Moore is a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the History Department at UC Santa Barbara. Her research lies at the intersections of critical race studies, decolonial/postcolonial histories of science, and decolonial materiality studies. Her manuscript-in-preparation, Superstitious Women: Race, Magic, and Medicine in Egypt, uses modern Egyptian amulets as an archive to reconstruct the magical and vernacular medical life-worlds of peasant women healers, and their critical role developing medico-anthropological expertise in Egypt from 1880-1950. Taylor’s work is invested in illuminating the occult(ed) networks, economies, and actors whose bodies and labor are generally rendered invisible in Eurocentric histories of global science.

Kristina Richardson is Associate Professor of History at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Difference and Disability in the Medieval Islamic World: Blighted Bodies (Edinburgh, 2012) and studies on peoples on the margins of premodern Middle Eastern society. In Spring and Fall 2020 she held an NEH grant for her project “Stranger Studies: ‘Gypsies’ and Race-Making in the Premodern Middle East.” An edition and study, co-written with Boris Liebrenz, of a 16th-century Aleppine weaver’s notebook will appear soon with Orient-Institut Beirut. She has held research fellowships at the CUNY Graduate Center and the Universities of Bonn, Münster, and Munich.

Eve M. Troutt Powell is the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of History and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is an historian of the modern Middle East, focusing on Egypt, Sudan and the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century, whose works illuminate questions of race and slavery at the juncture of Arab and African societies. Her book, A Different Shade of Colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain, and the Mastery of the Sudan (University of California, 2003), casts light on the region’s multiple sources of racial thought, bypassing the usual European-inspired categories. Her most recent work, Tell This in My Memory: Stories of Enslavement in Egypt, Sudan, and the Late Ottoman Empire (Stanford University Press, 2012), uses memoirs by slave masters and former slaves to mount an argument about the differing impact and memory of slavery in these different contexts. The author of many essays and articles, Troutt Powell co-edited, with John Hunwick, The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam (Princeton Series on the Middle East, Markus Wiener Press, 2002). One of the pioneers of the history of African and Middle Eastern slavery, Troutt Powell has received fellowships from the American Research Center in Egypt, the Social Science Research Council, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 2003 and a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2020. Troutt Powell is the President-Elect of the Middle East Studies Association.


Click below for event details and video recordings.

April 29, 2022 - Between Arab and White

February 4, 2022 - Roma in the Medieval Islamic World

September 10, 2021 - Race and Empire with Ann Stoler

May 26, 2021 - Genetic Crossroads: The Middle East and the Science of Human Heredity

Palestine, Israel, and Race [Source: Jadaliyya/jadaliyya.com]

Race in the Middle East and North Africa [Source: Jadaliyya/jadaliyya.com]

Race in the Middle East and US [Source: Jadaliyya/jadaliyya.com]

Teaching Module on Race and Blackness in Early Islamic Thought [Source: Center for Religion and the Human/crh.indiana.edu]