Maha Nassar

Associate Professor, Modern Middle East History, Islamic Studies

Marshall 453

I am a cultural and intellectual historian of the twentieth-century Arab world, with a focus on Palestinian history. My research on intellectual constructs of social, political and cultural identities seeks to trace the circulation of political vocabularies that construct as well as contest nationalist narratives.

My first monograph, Brothers Apart: Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Arab World, examines how Palestinian cultural producers in Israel during the 1950s and ‘60s positioned themselves within an Arab and third world social, cultural and intellectual milieu that extended far beyond the confines of the Israeli nation-state. By mapping the strategies they deployed, my book demonstrates the importance of Arabic newspapers and literary journals in traversing national boundaries and in creating transnational and transregional communities of solidarity. In 2018 Brothers Apart received a Palestine Book Award for academic titles.

My current projects explore further various dimensions of Palestinian subject formation in the twentieth century. One project involves an analysis of the discursive framings utilized during the 1950s regarding “Arab women in Israel,” in which Israeli officials appropriated Mandate-era Palestinian nationalist discourses to position the state as an emancipator of Palestinian women. Yet some Palestinian women pushed back against these discourses, in part by deploying Israel’s narratives of gender equality to call for more equitable treatment. Another project examines how Palestinian intellectuals challenged stereotypical images of Arabs in Western and Israeli expressions of popular culture, which they saw as part of the larger Palestinian struggle to win global hearts and minds.

In keeping with my interest in the transnational circulation of political vocabularies, I am also exploring how Palestinian writers engaged with the Black American freedom movement. While scholars have recently examined how certain Black American intellectuals became interested in the question of Palestine during this period, little attention has been paid to how Palestinians drew on the vocabularies of Black liberation to make legible their conditions, whether as citizens of Israel, under occupation, or in exile.

For my next book project, I aim to tell the story of how Palestinian identity has been constructed and maintained under the conditions of statelessness and transnational dispersal. I argue that despite the lack of an independent nation-state, Palestinians have nonetheless articulated a clear sense of national identity—as well as a larger sense of "peoplehood"—that transcends state boundaries and often challenges the dominant national narratives of the countries in which they live. I argue further that their sense of identity is rooted in familial connections to specific locales in historic Palestine and is expressed through self-identity, civil society organizations and grassroots mobilizing. Additionally, cultural expressions such as cuisine, clothing, family celebrations, and dialect have further contributed to this strong sense of Palestinian identity. These bottom-up practices of identity formation—frequently led by women—challenge our understanding of national identity as being forged through top-down (and often male-dominated) state institutions such as museums and schools.

I teach graduate and undergraduate courses on Middle Eastern history and historiography, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Islamic thought. I have conducted fieldwork in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine.

I am also a 2018 Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project and a Policy Member of Al-Shabaka - The Palestinian Policy Network. My analysis and opinion pieces have appeared in numerous U.S.-based publications including The Washington Post, The Forward, and The Hill.