I met miriam cooke sometime in the early 1980s, probably at an annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). She had finished her PhD in 1980 at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, just five years after I had finished my PhD at Columbia University. I bumped into this brilliant and articulate woman with a British accent everywhere I went. I remember asking the Lebanese poet, essayist, and artist Etel Adnan, now a mutual friend, “Who is this person?” Etel shook her head and said, “I don’t know, but she is everywhere I go!” I said, “Aha, so she is everywhere!” This was in the days when conspiratorial stories about the Middle East proliferated.
My encounters with miriam were always engaging and collegial. I left our conversations thinking deeply about whatever we had discussed and remembered them. But she did this odd thing of using all lowercase letters for her name.
At one MESA meeting in the 1980s, my good friend Barbara Aswad told me that another colleague had asked Barbara about me—“Who is she? Why is she everywhere?” “Hmmm,” I thought. “This must be because people are suspicious of successful women.” I could not predict in those early days that miriam cooke would become one of the people I most trust and respect. I worked most closely with her and a few others to strengthen the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies (AMEWS), launch the Journal for Middle East Women’s Studies, and develop the field of Middle East feminist studies.
AMEWS was born out of angst. The Civil War in Lebanon broke out in 1975, the same year I completed my PhD (in which I had predicted the falling apart of the Lebanese political system). The hell that the Middle East had become was reflected in relationships among Middle East–focused scholars in the United States, inside and outside academe. By the early 1980s I felt alienated from Middle East studies and was seriously thinking of leaving the field. However, the second wave of the women’s movement had hit academe, and women’s studies programs were being founded everywhere. I was a cofounder of the Women’s Studies Program at the University of California, Davis, in 1980. I thought that an association for Middle East women’s studies might be a sane and productive place for collegial relations in the academy for scholars of Middle Eastern women. Maybe the world of women’s studies and feminist sisterhood would be protected from the conflicts and hatreds that were all around us in Middle East studies.
It was, of course, a naive dream. I founded AMEWS in 1985. Within a couple of years it was also riddled with conflict and tensions. The tensions were personal, political, ideological, and theoretical. Many of the same issues were reverberating throughout feminist circles: Could/should scholars who were not from the region write about the region? What schools of thought were appropriate for the study of Middle Eastern women? Could/should Western feminist theory be applied to Middle Eastern women? Who could “speak for/about” Middle Eastern women? These and other questions sometimes became both personalized and politicized—and highly charged. In the 1990s I thought AMEWS was at risk of falling apart. This is where miriam cooke walked in. She was elected president of AMEWS in 2000 at a moment that AMEWS might not have survived.
A small group of us gathered around miriam and worked to strengthen AMEWS. It worked because miriam was in the leadership. She was calm, reasonable, and understanding. She listened to every temper, temperament, and temper tantrum. She soothed the spirits and brought a number of sides back into the fold. She carefully navigated minefields while making almost all feel that they had a place. She raised funds to hold an AMEWS reception and dinner at MESA. The first reception was held in 2002 outside the meeting hotel at Marjorie Ransom’s home in Washington, DC. You had to really want to participate in an AMEWS event to attend this reception. Participants who ate, drank, and spoke together felt the renewed excitement of AMEWS. The event healed the soul and launched a tradition of annual AMEWS dinners and receptions at MESA. During her presidency between 2001 and 2003, AMEWS was a site of collegial engagement and inspiration for Middle East women’s studies.
The idea of establishing a scholarly journal focused on Middle East women’s studies had been debated since the founding of AMEWS and intensified at our annual meetings held in conjunction with MESA in the late 1990s. While miriam was president of AMEWS, several of us renewed the idea of launching a journal, and she actively moved it forward. Initially the Dutch publisher Brill had consulted with me about establishing a journal on women and Islamic cultures, since I was already general editor of the Brill Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures. I responded that the only organization that could sponsor and launch such a journal was AMEWS, and miriam cooke was its president. Although discussions were initiated between Brill and AMEWS, that press took a different path. Undaunted, miriam, Sondra Hale, and I began conversations with Indiana University Press. miriam led the conversations on behalf of AMEWS. Indiana was so impressed that it offered us a contract to publish the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies. In 2005 AMEWS published the first issue. In 2008 miriam raised funds for and co-organized, with Ellen McLarney and Banu Gökarıksel, the first JMEWS international conference, which was cosponsored by multiple organizations at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Sharif 2008).
It is gratifying to see miriam as coeditor of the journal she cofounded. Currently in its fourteenth volume, JMEWS gets better and better and is now the best it has ever been. The coeditors—miriam cooke and Frances Hasso at Duke and Banu Gökarıksel at UNC-Chapel Hill—are a powerhouse of intellectual and creative production. JMEWS has come full circle, and in some ways it has come home.
None of these things was easy. Every time there was an issue or a problem, Sondra Hale and I would be on the phone or on Skype with miriam. Wherever she was—in Istanbul, Tunis, Beirut, London, or at home—she took our calls and we brainstormed and solved problems. Whatever the problem, miriam had a calming effect and made it seem solvable. Indeed, the problem was almost always solved.
It is possible that AMEWS would not have lasted without miriam’s timely presidency. It is also possible that we would not have had a JMEWS without her critical leadership—at least not then. At every step, miriam’s reasonable and unruffled voice shined light into a dark corner and helped us find a door or a window to open and make things right.
miriam has not only been an amazing institution builder. She is also a pathbreaking scholar in Middle East feminist studies. Her books include War’s Other Voices: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War (1987), Women and the War Story (1997), Women Claim Islam: Creating Islamic Feminism through Literature (2001), Dissident Syria: Making Oppositional Arts Official (2007), Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf (2014), and Dancing in Damascus: Creativity, Resilience, and the Syrian Revolution (2016). She has published biographical works on key thinkers in the region: The Anatomy of an Egyptian Intellectual, Yahya Haqqi (1984) and Nazira Zeineddine: A Pioneer of Islamic Feminism (2010). Her half dozen coedited books include Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing, in collaboration with Margot Badran (1990; rpt. 2005).
Yet for all these accomplishments, miriam cooke is among the most humble academics I know. She rarely toots her own horn or demands the spotlight, though she would be entitled to do so. She makes space for others to take credit for work that is collaborative or perhaps even work that she has done. These are unusual qualities in academe, which almost requires scholars, if they are to get ahead, to blast others out of the water. Like her leadership with AMEWS and JMEWS, miriam did the work and let it speak for itself. Her life speaks for itself. It has been an honor to share this much history with miriam cooke, an intellectual inspiration, collaborator, mentor, and friend, who has my deepest respect and love.