In Conversation With Farha Ghannam

Last Collection for seniors before commencement on the campus of Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, PA on Friday, May 19, 2023. (Laurence Kesterson/Staff Photographer)

Farha Ghannam is the Eugene Lang Research Professor of Anthropology here at Swarthmore.

Erin Picken: What sparked your initial interest in anthropology as a young person?

Farha Ghannam: I first started studying anthropology when I was maybe 22 or 23. I did my B.A. in journalism and mass communication, and then I got a research assistantship with an anthropologist who was going to different villages in Jordan to look at local women’s handicrafts. I loved that idea of going to them and asking them some questions and them telling me so much about history and different aspects of their lives in their answers. I really loved the unstructured nature of those interactions. I then started doing my master’s in anthropology in Jordan, and I still remember the first anthropology course I took because it literally blew my mind. I had been quite religious and pious then, so when I had the opportunity to read about different religions and how markedly different these religions were, it opened my mind to so many different ways of being and got me so excited about learning. 

EP: You’ve written multiple books that examine gender and identity in Egypt. Why do you take a particular interest in Egypt?

FG: I am Palestinian by origin, but my family ended up in Jordan in 1967 because of the war and so I grew up there. But, I always thought of Egypt as being the center of Arab culture because all of the songs and films I saw when I was young were about Egypt and from Egypt. Therefore, I grew up with the idea that Egypt was this fantastic and wonderful place that deserves our attention. When I went to graduate school, I noticed that many anthropologists either studied their own societies, or Western anthropologists studied non-western societies. There wasn’t that exchange where an anthropologist from one Arab country chose to study another Arab country. So often people actually assume I’m Egyptian because that’s what they expect: if you study Egypt you are either Egyptian or American or British and so on. So in that way, I’m an anomaly, I’m not the norm in that way. Egypt was also very interesting to me because I’m very interested in the issue of space and how it is made and remade by both the state and the people themselves. So my first book focused on a project where people were moved from the center of Cairo to public housing in another neighborhood and the ways they were remaking these housing units and the spaces around them. 

EP: Is there any research or a possible book that you’re currently working on that you’d like to share a little bit about?

FG: Absolutely. So my first book was about remaking the urban space, the second book was about masculinity in Egypt, and the book that I’m working on now is called The Gender of Class. In it, I’m looking at the inseparability of gender and class in daily life. We often assume things are an issue of either class or gender or of their brief intersections, but I’m actually saying that they are inseparable in terms of producing our subjectivity and our practices of daily life, in particular in working-class neighborhoods. I’m looking at the inseparability of class and gender by looking at different things, for instance, a chapter about food and what it means about what it means to make food for your family. To give another example, if you want to understand labor, I think you really have to put gender and class at the center of that analysis. I’m looking at the literature on care and how in the past it has been assumed that women do many of the things that go unnoticed in their daily lives because they care, but I’m actually saying that in the context of a working-class neighborhood, men work not because they want to actualize themselves or find their passion but because they care for their families. So I’m also saying that you can’t understand care without understanding both class and gender – gender being about masculinity and femininity rather than just being about womanhood. I’m really fascinated by everyday things like the food we eat and the way we care for objects and each other. That’s what I love about anthropology, sometimes we can look at things that we take for granted and find so much meaning in them. 

EP: How did you end up here at Swarthmore?

FG: I went to the University of Texas in Austin for my Ph.D, and then my husband got a job in Washington D.C., so when I found out there was a job at Swarthmore I was excited because I love the institution and the students and I just think it’s a great place in terms of it’s distance from D.C., so my husband and I commuted for eighteen years. After we had our child, though, we stayed put here and he continued to commute. I originally thought that I would be here for only three years, and here I am 24 years later!

EP: Do you have a favorite course to teach here at Swarthmore and can you tell a little about it?

FG: Well I tend to really enjoy all of the classes I teach here because I design them, but I think the class that I love most is Comparative Perspectives on the Body because it is often a course that makes at least some of the students think very differently about things, and I get to see the excitement and the wonder about the topics of the class on their faces and in their papers, which gives me a great sense of satisfaction. At the same time, I feel like I learned a lot from my students in that class, especially during the final presentations and papers, because I often find that they tell me about things I wasn’t even aware of before they presented them. So each cohort brings new things to my attention, which helps me think about the body in very different ways. The body is also something that we often take for granted, and to see students start to think about it in a very different way, especially students who have not been exposed to these kinds of discourses before, I feel that I am contributing to people discovering something very meaningful about their lives. 

EP: Do you have any specific memories that stand out from your time here at Swarthmore?

FG: Well I have so many good memories, I have loved my time at Swarthmore. The thing I appreciate the most is how Swarthmore students helped me raise my child. I don’t have family around here, and neither does my husband, so basically Swarthmore students became our family. The first year I had Leena, our daughter, we literally hired ten babysitters, because I needed to teach and so on. But I always felt that they loved my daughter as much as my family would’ve loved her. So to me, Swarthmore students, even those who were not in those cohorts that raised my child, are not just students. I give them credit but I also blame them for some things, especially her being a great debater. You know, they sometimes say “It takes a village,” but I say “It takes a Swarthmore.” 

EP: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

FG: I very much enjoy walking, especially when the weather is good, I walk around and see the beauty of Swarthmore, I think that’s very lovely. I do pilates, and I also watch TV. I watch Swedish crime shows, don’t judge me! I also watch some reality TV, in particular food-related shows. 

EP: One last question, what is the greatest pride of your career as an anthropologist?

FG: You know, I think it’s always a great joy when you get your first book. When I published my first book I was incredibly proud, in particular because it was well-received. But I should really say that it is winning the American Anthropological Association award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in Anthropology. It wasn’t the award per se that I was so proud of, it was the fact that my students felt that I deserved to be recognized in that way, because to win this award you have to be nominated by your students and they have to write testimonials, and I had the chance to see these testimonials, which meant so much to me. In academia when you get tenure you are so proud, when your books are published you are proud, you are proud of your students, but I feel that award stands out to me as something that is so meaningful. 

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