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Winter 2021


The Orient. The word conjures images of mystery, attraction, and danger: exotic belly dancers and hookah pipes, men with swords on horses on sand dunes, magic carpets and genies in a lamp. It also designates a direction (the East), and even a directionality (orienting oneself). How have ideas and images of an “elsewhere” helped Americans and Europeans orient themselves? How do those ideas correspond to an actual place, and how has United States and European intervention contributed to shaping that place and the lives of the people in it? Furthermore, how have people living in the so-called Orient engaged with such images? This course explores this process of orientation and re-orientation in art, literature, film, and other mass media. And it examines it as tied to particular moments in the changing geopolitical relationship of the Middle East to the West—including its eighteenth-century apparition as an imperial competitor, its nineteenth- and twentieth-century existence as a colonial holding, and its post-WWII emergence as a region of strategic importance to the United States, and of geopolitical importance to the global oil market, the “War on Terror,” and new revolutionary social movements. 

Our study begins with the modern emergence and transformation of the idea of the Orient in European and American imaginations, from its colonial beginnings in nineteenth-century paintings, ethnographic studies, stage productions, universal expositions, and twentieth- and twenty-first-century film, novels, and contemporary art. At the same time, we will look at art, literature, film, and cultural productions produced by people living in or from the Middle East in order to explore the ways that they countered or engaged with these representations to represent themselves as well as the West. By examining this rich history, we ultimately ask: how can we re-orient our relationship to the Middle East, its peoples, and their ideas and claims?


Hannah Feldman is Associate Professor of Art History and core faculty in Middle East and North African Studies as well as Comparative Literary Studies. Her research, teaching, and advising center on late modern and contemporary art and visual culture. Her first book, From a Nation Torn: Decolonizing Art and Representation in France (Duke, 2014), has been reviewed in over ten national and international publications, including Art Journal, Art Bulletin, and The American Historical Review. 

Rebecca Johnson is the Crown Junior Chair in Middle East Studies, and Assistant Professor of English and the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, as well as core faculty in Middle East and North African Studies. Her research focuses on literary exchanges between Arabic and European languages in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the history and theory of the novel, and studies of transnational literary circulation and translation. Her first book is Stranger Fictions: A History of the Novel in Arabic Translation, 1835-1913 (Cornell University Press, 2020).

Kirsten Scheid is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Media Studies at the American University of Beirut. Her research and teaching interests are the anthropology of art, materialities and imaginaries, aesthetics, art historiography and theory, modernization and cosmopolitanism, affect, power, and elites. From 2019-2020, she was the Clark/Oakley Fellow at the Clark Art Institute and Williams College. She co-curated "The Arab Nude: The Artist as Awakener" (Beirut, 2016) and "Jerusalem Actual and Possible: the 9th Jerusalem Show" (Jerusalem, 2018). Her scholarly and popular essays can be accessed at

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