Department of Middle Eastern Studies
Department of Middle Eastern Studies

In Memoriam Barbara Harlow

Thu, February 2, 2017
In Memoriam Barbara Harlow
In Memoriam, Barbara Harlow

It is with a heavy heart that we announce the passing of Professor Barbara Harlow, who died on January 28, 2017, in Austin, TX. Professor Harlow was the Louann and Larry Temple Centennial Professor of English Literatures at the University of Texas at Austin where she had been teaching since 1985. Professor Harlow was also a core member of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UT Austin, training students, teaching classes, collaborating with colleagues, and advising its publication series. She worked tirelessly to build a community of scholars at UT Austin, organizing and attending talks and events and generously sharing her time and ideas across a variety of academic units at the university. Beyond UT Austin, Professor Harlow helped shape the field of Middle Eastern Studies. She was a founding member of Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, and served on advisory and editorial boards of journals such as Middle East Report (MERIP) and International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies. Her prolific contribution and unwavering support for the humanities and for Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies specifically make Professor Harlow’s passing a poignant loss at a time of great need for her generosity, energy, and commitment.

Professor Harlow was born in Cleveland in 1948. She studied French and Philosophy at Simmons College, and then went on to the University of Chicago for her MA and to SUNY Buffalo for her PhD, where she completed her doctorate on Marcel Proust in 1977. She produced an influential translation of Jacques Derrida’s Spurs in 1979. Her first academic job, which defined the future course of her career, was at the American University in Cairo, where she worked from 1977 to 1983. While there she became interested in contemporary Arab literature, the legacies of Empire in the Middle East, and Palestine, which remained in Barbara’s heart and in her writing and activism to the end. Her 1984 translation of Ghassan Kanafani’s Palestine’s Children helped to introduce English language readers to the work of a major Palestinian author and thinker. Her groundbreaking and influential book Resistance Literature, which appeared in 1987, was the first academic study in English of the fiction produced during Third World national liberation struggles. The enthusiastic global reception of Resistance Literature established her international reputation. Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention, which appeared in 1992, engaged with writings by and about women political prisoners in Northern Ireland, El Salvador, Israel, Egypt, South Africa, and the United States; while After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writing (1996) focused on the works of political authors who had been assassinated: Kanafani, the South African Ruth First, and Roque Dalton from El Salvador. Professor Harlow edited numerous books and authored over a hundred journal articles, book chapters, and review essays during her prolific career.

Emerging at the intersection of Middle Eastern and African Studies, Comparative Literature and Political Theory, Harlow’s writing and translation pioneered the investigation of decolonization not simply as a political process but as an intellectual and creative metamorphosis. She developed the linguistic and conceptual tools that allowed a new generation of scholars to examine decolonization as a new human condition. Her ethical humanism, commitment to freedom, and concern for the plight of the weak, became the common moral backbone for generations of graduate students who followed her into this comparative and cross-disciplinary field of study. Professor Harlow’s work laid the ground for thinking an East-East or South-South comparative framework that continues to shape and inform the field. This rethinking of the role and importance of literature and its relation to politics and history translated into program building at UT Austin. In 1986, Professor Harlow co-founded the Ethnic and Third World Concentration, one of the first programmatic attempts to study the literature of recently decolonized nations alongside the literature of ethnic minorities in the United States. Working across disciplines, regions, and national languages, Harlow demonstrated the vitality and necessity of the Humanities in understanding the crises of the contemporary world, and building intellectual foundations for resisting them. In conjunction with the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Social Justice she championed an interdisciplinary undergraduate program on literature and human rights. 

From Proust and Derrida to Kanafani and her more recent work on questions of security, surveillance, and drone warfare, Professor Harlow was always at the cutting edge of intellectual commitment, identifying and confronting new sites of power. For Harlow, politics was never a performative gesture or a theoretical articulation but an engagement with history and the material conditions of oppression and disenfranchisement. This she emphasized in her writing and activism, and in her teaching and mentoring of students and colleagues. Though her passing marks an end of an era at UT Austin, her writing and lessons will continue to resonate far and wide. Donations in Barbara’s memory to the ACLU or to the Center for Constitutional Rights will honor her lifelong fight against injustice.

Tarek El-Ariss, et al. 




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