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Meet Rebecca Johnson, the MENA Program's New Director

September 11, 2020

Northwestern’s Middle East and North African Studies Program (MENA) has a new director. Rebecca Johnson is Associate Professor of English and the Humanities. She is co-appointed in the Department of English and the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, and is a core faculty member of the Comparative Literary Studies Program.

Johnson is a scholar of Arabic and comparative literature, with a focus on translation, literary exchange, and the transnational circulation of texts and forms—which are important aspects of Middle East Studies that she brings to the MENA Program.

“Rebecca Johnson brings to the directorship of the MENA Program a wealth of expertise in and longstanding commitment to the region,” says Jessica Winegar, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities. “As a scholar of transnational literary and cultural exchanges, she embodies the MENA Program's vision to understand and teach about the area as globally connected.”

“Rebecca is a cutting-edge scholar, an award-winning and passionate teacher, and a creative administrator who will lead the program into its next, exciting chapter,” says Winegar, who played a key role in the establishment of the MENA Program at Northwestern and remains one of its core faculty members.

mena-200-winter-2020.pngTogether, Winegar and Johnson have twice co-taught the MENA Program’s core course, Making the Modern Middle East: Culture, Politics, History (MENA 200). Johnson has also co-taught MENA 200 with Wendy Pearlman, Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence in the Department of Political Science.

Other courses Johnson teaches include Middle Eastern Literature and the World, Postcolonial Noir, The Arabian Nights, Reading Cosmopolitanism, Literature and Resistance, Translation Problems, and a College Seminar on conspiracy theories.

This is a momentous time for Johnson. In addition to assuming the directorship of the MENA Program, she was recently promoted to Associate Professor and named Associate Editor of the Journal of Arabic Literature, one of the leading journals in the field. And in January 2021 her first book, Stranger Fictions: A History of the Novel in Arabic Translation, will be published by Cornell University Press.

rebecca-johnson-stranger-fictions-cover.jpgIn the book, Johnson argues for a new transnational history of the novel that places translation at its center, showing how 19th-century Arabic translators of European novels theorized the genre itself as a global one. Tarek El-Ariss, Professor and Chair of Middle Eastern Studies at Dartmouth College, calls Stranger Fictions “a groundbreaking contribution to modernity studies, translation studies and world literature, and to Arabic and comparative literature.”

Johnson is now at work on her second book, “Visionary Politics: Revolutionary Transnationalism and the Aesthetics of the Arab Avant-Garde,” which examines the history of contemporary Arab literary styles since the 1960s. Similarly based on cross-linguistic exchanges, this book investigates experimental Arabic literature and art and their revolutionary attempts to envision alternative political futures throughout the decades-long transition from decolonization to globalization.


Johnson’s “stellar scholarship is matched by a generous commitment to students, who have relied on her intellectual leadership repeatedly, not only to find the best way to conduct their research but also to access the often arcane rules of the professional world,” says Alessia Ricciardi, Professor of Italian and Comparative Literature and Director of Northwestern’s Comparative Literary Studies Program.

Susan Manning, Bergen Evans Professor of the Humanities and Chair of the Department of English (Johnson’s home department), notes that Johnson “is an extraordinary scholar and an extraordinary teacher and has all the potential to become an extraordinary leader as well. She has actively contributed to three units on campus—the MENA Program, the Department of English, and the Kaplan Humanities Institute—and her leadership of the MENA Program will ensure that the humanities remains at the center of its interdisciplinary enterprise.”

rebecca-johnson-northwestern.jpgJohnson begins her three-year term as Director of the MENA Program with the Fall 2020 quarter. “We like to say that we take the MENA region as a point of departure, rather than a destination,” she writes in her introductory Note from the Director. “This viewpoint is especially crucial now, as our daily lives under a complex of unfolding global crises provide moments for reflection on interconnectedness.”

“To say that the Middle East is a point of departure is to say that the experiences, analyses, and reflections of those living in and around the region contain timely lessons for the wider world,” she reflects. “Our job, as scholars, is to learn them.”

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