Thursday,16 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)
Thursday,16 August, 2018
Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Obituary: Janet L. Abu Lughod (1928-2013)

Al-Ahram Weekly

Janet L. Abu Lughod’s name is well known to academics in at least three different fields: urban sociology, history and planning; Middle Eastern Studies; and world (economic) systems theory. Née Janet Lippman, she was born in 1928. Thinking back upon her long and distinguished career, it is hard to imagine that Janet would somehow not have dedicated herself to a lifetime of scholarship, to which she brought not only her superb intellect but also a driving passion that was wonderful to behold.

In a major and highly prestigious public lecture that she was invited to deliver in April 2000, she made the following remarks: “When I was still in high school, there were four books I read that left a life-shaping effect on everything I have since thought about cities. Two of those — Technics and Civilisation (first published in 1934) and The Culture of Cities (first published in 1938) — were written by Lewis Mumford. They made an urbanist out of me.” (The First Annual Lewis Mumford Lecture, State University of New York at Albany, 12 April 2000)

And what a splendid urbanist she became, focussing on this subject for most of the 12 books and over 100 articles and chapters she wrote. For those of us who live in this part of the world, her two books with Princeton University Press on Cairo (1971) and Rabat (1980) will long stand as landmark studies of cities in the Arab world. But Janet wrote on cities in her own country, the United States, as well — especially comparative works on New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. She became a leading scholar in urban studies, and in recognition of her contributions, the American Sociological Association in 1999 — one year after her retirement — bestowed upon her its award for Career Achievements in Urban Sociology.

Janet Abu Lughod received the PhD in Sociology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 1966. She was denied admission to Yale’s PhD programme because at the time that university refused to accept married women (with children). She managed to do this while at the same time being a mother of four children. Over the course of her life, she taught at the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois, the American University in Cairo (AUC), the University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern University, and The New School for Social Research (later renamed The New School University for Social Research) in New York.

Among her many honours, in 1976 she was granted a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, one of the most prestigious academic awards available in the US. It likely provided her with the time she needed to work on her widely admired book on Rabat.

Janet was an inspiration for those of us who were at AUC during her time there. We were enthralled by the depth of her knowledge and analytical acumen but also her gentle humour and ability to communicate difficult material in ways that even we novices could understand. She mentored several students who later went on to make important contributions to the anthropology of Egypt. But beyond this, they ended up being close friends as well, which was completely befitting the loyalty that Janet inspired among her charges. She was dedicated to the highest scholarly standards, and she was able to infuse that commitment with compassion and encouragement among her students.

Her interest in the Arab world came not only from a purely academic engagement with that region but also because of her marriage in 1951 to the political scientist and activist on behalf of the Palestinian people, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod. Although Janet and Ibrahim (who died in 2001) divorced in 1991, their years together were wonderful ones, and later on they remained friends. Her support for her husband’s efforts for the Palestinian people is well known to us all and without any doubt provided comfort to him throughout both the difficult and the good times. Yet, her commitment to the Palestinian people was independent of her marital ties, and one of the causes dearest to her heart was support for American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) — an organisation specifically established to assist Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank and Lebanon.

Janet leaves three daughters, Lila, Mariam, and Deena, and one son, Jawwad. I consider myself to have been extraordinarily fortunate to know her personally. She was a magnificent human being and a towering inspiration for us all. As the poetic line goes, “Take her for all in all. I shall not look upon her like again.”

The writer is professor of Anthropology, the American University in Cairo.

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