Wazhmah Osman, assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies and Production at Klein College of Media and Communication, recently received a Jack G. Shaheen Research Grant from the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University (NYU). In partnership with Shirly Bahar, an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University, Osman will use the Jack G. Shaheen Collection on Arabs in US Film and Television, located in multiple NYU libraries and archives, to work on their project "Hollywood's Best Ally in the Middle East: Place, Identity, and Personality in U.S.-Israeli Television Co-Productions and U.S.-American Adaptations to Israeli Television, 2008-2020."
Osman, who received her master's degree and doctorate from NYU, was familiar with the kind of material contained in the collection before applying. The collection is named after scholar Jack G. Shaheen, who collected and amassed an extensive amount of educational and entertainment-oriented material that highlights the presence of Muslim and Arab people in media. Similarly, Osman's research often deals with the racial, ethnic and gender stereotypes of individuals with Middle Eastern backgrounds in media. Using interdisciplinary ideas including the Marxist notion of interpolation that examines hierarchical power structures, she is determined to use the plentiful information in the collection to present innovative research.
"What I'm looking at is what happened to people of color, Brown, Black people who are part of this country but in a way have a form of second-class citizenship," Osman says. "With African Americans in this country there's a long history of oppression, and with newer immigrants like Arabs, Persians and Indian people we all have a newer history of oppression here."
Osman learned about the research grant through Bahar, a longtime friend and colleague whose work also centers on Middle Eastern culture. The inaugural research grant is meant to support the travel and living expenses associated with spending time in the collection, which both of the scholars believed was a perfect fit for their scholarship. They decided to apply to the grant with a joint project that they hope will allow them to produce at least one collaborative paper and also leave some room to generate separate findings. Bahar says that Osman and the scholars behind the collection and the research grant are "very much a community for me."
James Ryan, associate director of NYU's Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies where some of the collection is held, is also interested in how the collection can forge a sense of togetherness between scholars, students and curious community members who want to learn more about a very diverse though often misrepresented area of the world. He says that the research grants, offered for both experienced researchers such as Osman and Bahar and early career researchers like graduate students, will be instrumental in bringing some scholastic and public attention to the impressive collection, which houses close to 3,000 motion pictures captured by Shaheen and other media that discusses topics of interest in Middle Eastern studies.
"We thought the best way to do this was to get some top-flight researchers in here," he says. [They're] given a little bit of money and some time to go through it and see how [it] would advance their scholarship and their work and hopefully they can produce something really interesting and that will bring more scholars to the archive to maybe help us understand where this fits in the landscape of sources for new scholarship."
The COVID-19 pandemic has put the research projects on hold until further notice, but Ryan and the other research grant coordinators hope to have the grant recipients working in and with the collection as soon as it is safe to travel and conduct work outside of their homes. In the meantime, the researchers plan on diving into as much material as possible that relates to the content in the collection.
"We have much that we can do now in terms of the representation itself, but at the same time, we really look forward to going into the archives in whatever way or [at] whatever time that's gonna be possible," Bahar says.
Osman will continue to incorporate her previous and current research — which includes her popular documentary Postcards from Tora Bora and an upcoming book about media and Afghan culture — into this upcoming archival project. She hopes that what she uncovers will expand her knowledge of Middle Eastern studies and portrayals of people of color in media.