Cynthia Nelson: Anthropologist & Author, September 29 1933 - February 14 2006 Print E-mail

Remembering Cynthia Nelson: Friend, Colleague and Mentor President ...

American University in Cairo: A Newsletter for Faculty and Staff March 2006 Vol. XIII, Issue 7


Cynthia Nelson, professor of anthropology, founding director of the Institute for Gender and Women’s Studies (IGWS) and former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, passed away February 14 at her brother’s home in California after a battle with leukaemia.

Nelson was born on September 29, 1933 in Maine, and grew up between there and Massachusetts in the United States. In 1963, after finishing her doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, Nelson received a telegram offering her the position of professor in AUC’s sociology-anthropology department. Accepting the offer, she read Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, watched Lawrence of Arabia and boarded a boat that took her across the Atlantic.

In an oral history interview in July 2005, she told Stephen Urgola, senior librarian and university archivist: “So with that background, off I went. And when people asked me, well why did you go, I said I didn’t know, it was chosen, maktub.”

From the first time she set eyes on the land, Nelson held a positive view of Egypt. “For me it was a kind of coming into being of a kind of romantic image. Because coming into the harbor of Alexandria and the smell of spices, you can almost see some of the characters of Durrell,” she told Urgola.

Nelson fought against an inevitable evacuation during the 1967 War and found a positive side of Egypt during the bread riots. “People were helping each other, … which is what Egypt is about. I mean, even in its most stressful times, there’s a certain decency that emerges,” she said.

Randa Kaldas, her assistant at IGWS who worked closely with her during the last five years, was impressed by both her work ethic and personal qualities. “Whatever needed to be done, she did with passion, not just for the sake of getting things done, but rather always seeking perfection,” she said. “Every trait in Dr. Nelson made her special: her charisma, her knowledge, her warmth, her support to others, even her temper, made her very special.”

The 13 years of work Nelson put into writing the biography Doria Shafik, Egyptian Feminist: A Woman Apart, was, as she told Urgola, her most ambitious project. In recognition of her work, she received the Woman of the Year award in 1998 from the American Biographical Institute. “It turned out to be … that young students at AUC, upon reading it, said we never realized we had such women. … In a sense it’s a kind of interesting process of being able to, I guess be an intellectual midwife,” she told Urgola.

A memorial service commemorating Nelson’s life will be held on March 16 at 5 pm in Oriental Hall.
8 - 14 June 2006 Issue No. 798

Body silent, legacy vibrant

Kevin Dwyer* reflects on the work of Cynthia Nelson, and takes stock of the American University in Cairo's commemorative initiatives

Cynthia Nelson

Starting in May and June of this year Cairo and Egypt will be benefitting in two ways from the legacy of Cynthia Nelson, who passed away in February 2006 after more than four decades as a Professor of Anthropology at the American University in Cairo (AUC). On 22 May AUC's Board of Trustees voted to establish a Masters Degree Program in Gender and Women's Studies, bringing to fruition one of Nelson's most deeply cherished goals; and, on 7-8 June, AUC will be hosting an international conference on the theme "Gender and Empire," carrying forward Nelson's interest in the relationship between gender studies and contemporary political and cultural debates.

The new Masters Program in Gender and Women's Studies will be housed in AUC's Institute for Gender and Women's Studies, which Nelson founded in 2000 and directed until her death and which, in her honour, has now been renamed the Cynthia Nelson Institute for Gender and Women's Studies (IGWS). The Masters Program, rooted in the humanities and social sciences, explores how gender relations are embedded in social, political, and cultural formations. It provides students with a unique interdisciplinary and transnational perspective with special emphasis on the Middle East and North African region.

The program prepares graduates for a variety of careers as well as providing a steppingstone for further academic training. It offers excellent grounding for professional activity in the fields of human rights law, health, migration and refugee studies, and social services, in today's context where specialists in gender and women's studies are being hired as consultants in international development agencies, local NGOs, national government agencies and regional universities. The program's interdisciplinary training, it is hoped, will equip students who wish to pursue a doctorate with theoretical and methodological tools suiting a variety of disciplines and applied research. Students enrolling in the program will be able to compete for the newly established Cynthia Nelson Graduate Fellowships in Gender and Women's Studies, funded by contributions from the many individuals who were deeply affected by Nelson's work and life.

The "Gender and Empire" conference being hosted on 7-8 June by AUC and IGWS reflects the fact that gender has become an important theme in debates related to colonial and post-colonial imperial visions. The conference will bring together scholars, writers, filmmakers, and activists from a variety of countries such as Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Turkey, the US and Egypt, who will explore how gender studies relate to the current age of empire and examine the politics and possibilities of gender studies in the historical present, focussing in particular on the Arab world. With many of the papers highlighting the situation of Iraqi and Palestinian women as well as raising theoretical issues, this conference promises presentations that are likely to contribute to and shape future debate on these subjects.

Both these events are signs of the continuing vitality of Nelson's work. Among her achievements during her more than 40 years in Cairo are authorship of key books and articles on Egypt and the training of a large number of students. In addition to founding IGWS, she was also the founding dean of AUC's School of Humanities and Social Sciences and, in 1996, was awarded the King Hussein Distinguished Service Award for Contributions to Higher Education in the Arab World.

Nelson's many books and dozens of articles made her widely known throughout the Arab world and globally. AbdAllah Donald Cole, an anthropologist and colleague of Nelson's at AUC for more than three decades, noted some of the highlights of her career in an obituary published in the Anthropology Newsletter (May 2006), where he observed that, after her fieldwork in Mexico and move to Egypt and AUC in 1963, "she began research on socialization and change among settled Bedouin, ... [and] the phenomenon of appearances of the Virgin Mary in a Cairo suburb, ... work[ed] on spirit possession ... religious experience, sacred symbols, mental health, stress and social reality in Egypt ... focused on Middle Eastern women and how they had been portrayed in the predominantly male- authored ethnography in the region ... pioneered research on nursing and health care in urban Egypt...."

One sign of her impact on the Arab world comes to us in an article from the Tunisian newspaper Le Temps by Lilia Labidi (professor of psychology and anthropology at the University of Tunis), written shortly after Nelson's passing. Labidi relates how, in the course of an event-filled career, Nelson "organized many international meetings ... [was] a source of inspiration and of new projects ... defended her ideas with great energy and vision ... trained several generations of students who now occupy the highest functions in education, research, and administration. ... her book [on Doria Shafik], now translated into Arabic, is among those works that have marked anthropological production in the region."

A personal note: before coming to AUC in 2001 as professor of anthropology, I had admired Cynthia Nelson's writings from afar; once I became her colleague I gained a growing admiration for her unequalled dynamism, her careful attention to students, her enthusiasm, her high standards, and her commitment to the region. In the few months since her passing, as I met her former students in places as distant from Cairo as Chicago and Vancouver, I became even more aware of her world-wide impact and renown. One evening, when she and I were sharing memories in a restaurant in Zamalek, we discovered we both had great respect for the anthropologist Robert Murphy (known for his research in the Amazon and among the Tuareg in West Africa), with whom we had both worked early in our careers. Cynthia strongly recommended to me his final book, where he explored disability in the United States -- a particularly poignant work since Murphy himself had become disabled, suffering from a tumor that paralysed and eventually killed him at the age of 66. Murphy's book shows the resiliency of the human spirit and I now use it frequently in my courses, hoping simultaneously to remember experiences I shared with Cynthia, to be faithful to her empathy for people and communities that are treated unfairly, and to show students how people in very difficult circumstances can create works that survive them and that project into the future. Murphy's book is entitled The Body Silent, but the title indicates only half the story: although the body lies silent the life's legacy persists. And Cynthia's life, lived so intensely up to its final days, leaves us with an extraordinary legacy -- today exemplified in the new IGWS Masters Program and the Gender and Empire conference -- that belongs not only to the past but to the present and to the future as well.
* The writer is a professor of anthropology at AUC and author of Arab Voices: The Human Rights Debate in the Middle East ( Routledge and University of California Press, 1991 ) and Beyond Casablanca: M.A.Tazi, Moroccan cinema, and Third World filmmaking ( AUC Press, 2004 )