Professor of Government Anne Peters specializes in comparative politics, state formation, foreign aid, and Middle East politics. She sat down with The Argus to discuss the books in her office, the Azbakia Market, the joys of Arabic, and the Queen of Pop.
Argus: What books do you have on your shelves?
Professor Anne Peters: This is about a quarter of them here. I’m too lazy to cart them all into my office.
A: Give me a tour.
AP: Mostly logistical stuff up here on the top left shelf. These are remnants of calculus and statistics. Math from graduate school—I was a chemistry major in college. And all of the books on these three shelves over here are basically histories or political histories of different Middle Eastern countries, mostly Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. Over here is a small collection of Arabic language books, most of which I got at the Azbakia Market in Cairo. This stack here is near and dear to my heart—all focused on state building, which is my specialty. Over here are books I’ve pilfered from the library because it’s easy to get to from PAC. These are some books on economic development, and these are some random books that don’t fit in anywhere.
A: If these are only a quarter, where are the other three quarters of your books?
AP: My other books are things I discarded in graduate school, books about science and technology policy, Italian politics, a lot of American political stuff. And then I have quite a few books on Middle Eastern architecture, translations in English from Arabic literature, and I have a few books in Arabic. I don’t have the chance to sit down and read a lot of Arabic books anymore, but I do try to keep up with a lot of the translations. Those are most of my books at home.
A: What fiction do you read?
AP: I didn’t read fiction for a long time because I thought ‘Oh, I should be doing work.’ So I read political biographies. I think I have Sergio Vieira de Mello’s book in here somewhere. That kind of thing. So now I’ve just gotten back into fiction, and I’ve been reading Saad Al Ibrahim, who is an Egyptian writer. Mostly novels. He’s good, sort of Kafkaesque, I guess.
A: You’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Middle East. Have you picked up any interesting books in the course of your journeys?
AP: I do have a collection of old books from Egypt’s socialist period. Books with the Hammer and Sickle called Socialist Economics for Egypt or something like that. The books are all in red or have different Soviet paraphernalia printed all over them. I never read them, actually, because they’re just not relevant to what I study now. But they’re all being sold for like five cents in these used book markets. Nobody wants them anymore.
A: What is it like being part of the university’s new Middle East program?
AP: The program starts in the fall, so we aren’t exactly up and running yet. But planning it has been a lot of fun. We’re hoping now that it will be a strong certificate with lots of demand. Maybe at some point we could transition to a major, but not any time in the near future. I hope to see more students taking Arabic and doing study abroad. I hope one day to have students sitting in my office who have learned to love the language and the region as much as I have.
A: What would you say to someone who wanted to get excited about Arabic or start learning the language?
AP: Most people are excited about it already when they go in! The letters are so pretty. I think the most important thing is to get them excited after their first month, when they’ve tried to learn the alphabet and their script doesn’t looks pretty and they feel like quitting. Then what you have to do is show them movies or newspaper commentary and exciting cultural, political, social events in the Middle East. But show it to them all in Arabic. That’s the incentive.
A: If you were to recommend one book about the Middle East so someone who had never studied on the region, what would it be?
AP: I wouldn’t probably start out with a political science book. I would start with a book that gives some good social commentary and introduces you to some interesting characters. I would probably give them something like The Yacoubian Building by Alaa-Al-Aswany. It’s a book that was made into a movie several years ago with a very famous Egyptian cast. It basically follows the trajectory of an old colonial building that was built by an Armenian immigrant from the early 1900s. It shows you how the occupants of the buildings have changed over the past hundred years, and you get to learn about their lives. There is lots of drama and lots of very controversial issues like women’s rights and political Islam and homosexuality, which made it a very, very politically touchy movie in Egypt. But people see this move in the West, or they read the book, and they say, ‘Wow, people are actually discussing these things in Egypt?’ Because if they haven’t been there, they think it’s this extremely, uniformly closed homogeneous society. So I think that book would spark people’s curiosity and make them want to look a little bit closer at nuances that they didn’t really see before.
A: Did you want to study the Middle East when you were young?
AP: No, I thought I would be Madonna.