Penn has a long history of studying of the Middle East, going back to the late 1700s when it was the first university in the nation to offer Arabic-language instruction. That commitment continues today with the University’s Middle East Center (MEC), and its newly appointed faculty director, Harun Küçük. Küçük, associate professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science, took up the role in July from interim director John Ghazvinian.
“Just in the few weeks since he took over as director, Harun has turned out to be a tireless advocate for the needs of the Center,and demonstrated a deep concern with understanding and listening to the needs of the staff,” says Ghazvinian, who will stay in an executive director role. “He will bring a fresh perspective and a respected voice for understanding our region in its deeper historical context. But most important of all, he’s just a great guy. He leads with humility, decency, and openness.”
Küçük is a historian of early modern Ottoman science, whose groundbreaking scholarship focuses on what he calls “practical naturalism,” a pragmatic way of engaging with nature that is impervious to theoretical concerns and, sometimes, to the truth.
His research has focused on everything from the Ottoman medical marketplace to minting practices and from natural philosophy to gunpowder recipes.
He says he took a circuitous path on the road to becoming a historian of science, coming from a background in philosophy. He arrived in Annapolis, Maryland, as an undergrad from Turkey to study the classics at St. John’s College. Eventually he did a master’s in history in Turkey and committed to a Ph.D. in history of science, specializing in the 17th and 18th centuries, what he calls “a very lackluster period for the empire.”
“It was not a popular area of expertise in Ottoman history like the times of Mehmed the Conqueror or Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, who are so fascinating they made Netflix series about each of them,” he says. “I look at the relationship between monetary culture and science at a pretty low point in the history of the empire.”
His new role as head of the MEC is offering him a chance to expand his knowledge of Middle Eastern studies, as well as provide additional programming on Turkey and the Ottoman Empire.
His immediate goals are to reapply for the Title VI federal funding that keeps the center up and running and establish the vision of the next grant cycle, which will have three focuses: diverse voices and perspectives; inclusion and access; and environment, society, and the global Middle East.
“I think my role first and foremost is to maintain all the good things that the Center’s already doing and bolster them,” he says.
For Küçük, what sets Penn’s Middle East Center apart from others at universities across the country is the amount of public programming and public outreach, from providing lesson plans and training for K-12 educators to partnering with the NaTakallam program, which connects forcibly displaced people with language and cultural exchange at schools in the Delaware Valley and beyond.
“Penn is an institution of excellence and the Center’s public outreach gets that excellence into the community,” he says.
The Center got off to a quick start even before the fall semester started, organizing a virtual “Rapid Response” panel on Aug. 24 about the unfolding events in Afghanistan. The Center’s first in-person event since spring 2020 will take place on Sept. 14. “Twenty Years Later: The Legacy of 9/11,” moderated by political scientist and former MEC director Robert Vitalis, will feature six panelists including Spencer Ackerman, contributing editor and former senior national security correspondent for The Daily Beast; Vincent Ciuccoli, a Marine Corps officer with extensive deployment experience in the Middle East and North Africa; and Iraqi poet, novelist, and essayist Sinan Antoon.
Küçük says he’s “as hopeful as anybody that this semester will be as normal as possible” and welcomes the opportunity to partake in a side of academic life he hasn’t seen before through his work at the Middle East Center.
“I’m very narrowly specialized, as is every historian, and the Center is going to give me a broad overview of what's happening in the field and help me develop a vision of what the field of Middle East Studies is and should be. I’m really looking forward to that.”