Sreemati Mitter is one of four new faculty members who joined the History department in teaching last year as the Kutayba Alghanim Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern History and International and Public Affairs. Drawing on her unique background in economics, public policy, and history, Professor Mitter is completing a manuscript entitled, "A History of Money in Palestine: From the 1900s to the Present." During the fall 2017 semester, Professor Mitter will teach an introductory-level course entitled "Understanding the Middle East: 1800s to the Present," which seeks to understand how the events throughout the history of the Middle East continue to shape the region’s present-day circumstances.
With a B.A. in Economics and a Master’s in Public Policy, how has studying history enhanced your understanding of these other two disciplines?
In my study of Palestine, I felt that it was impossible to understand what was going on there today without understanding the history. I think that no matter what one does — you don’t have to be a history professor — having a perspective rooted in historical understandings of why things are the way that they are today just really helps.
I came to history relatively late, starting my PhD when I had just turned 30. I had had a career before that (I had worked for some years for the Palestine Investment Fund, and before that, in investment banking in New York). And I think that in all of those jobs that I was doing, I kept coming back to the question: “Why is it like this today?” The answer was always: “Well, you have to go back in time.” There is of course the question of how far back do you go, but I’m a historian of the twentieth century — from the very early twentieth century right up to the present day. I think and hope that I can understand present day problems of Palestinians better because of my understanding of the past.
What is the seminar you are teaching this semester, “Debates in Middle Eastern History,” like?
In my seminar this semester, I want students to understand that the debates that are so deeply divisive when it comes to the Middle East today are historical debates as well as contemporary debates. The class has three levels of debates that we examine: historical debates, historiographic debates, and contemporary debates. The historical debates consider what actually happened, and we read sources that offer conflicting perspectives. One example of that is the 1948 war in Palestine. We read widely differing accounts of what happened on one single day, in one particular town, in Palestine in 1948. Then we read the historiographic debate about 1948, which shows how historians argue about what happened. The third level of debate is the present-day debate, with which most students are familiar. We try to bring all these levels of debate into conversation with each other.
I hope to give students an understanding of why these debates are so consequential and why people are still fighting about them today, and why they matter. I never require a student to think a certain way; I just want them to understand that, when we have arguments about this war or that episode in history, there are stakes. There is a reason why people continue to disagree about these things, and I want to embrace that. It is part of what makes studying the Middle East so fascinating. The history is full of conflict, and people who disagree with each other about what happened and why. So every week, we take a big event in Middle Eastern history: the 1882 British occupation of Egypt; the 1948 war in Palestine; the 1979 Iranian revolution; 9/11 and the Iraq invasion.
What has been the most enjoyable aspect of your time at Brown so far?
Getting to know the students, absolutely. And encouraging students to know that it’s okay to not have a clear path in life, to be an undergraduate and not know exactly what you’re going to do next. Embrace that even if you feel that everyone else around you knows exactly what they’re going to do. It’s good to have a job, so always keep an eye out on your future, but explore a bit. That was certainly my case. I was an economics major as an undergraduate and went to a public policy school for my master’s. I studied many languages and then came to history eventually. I very much understand students’ worries and anxieties because I had them too. I hope very much to be a professor that students can come and talk to, and not just for students taking my classes.