Interview with Courtney Lesoon

My interview with Courtney Lesoon for Dangerous History began with a discussion of her masters thesis on the Damascus Room at the University of Pittsburgh before proceeding to her proposed dissertation and then, to points beyond! Courtney is delightful: funny and vivacious, outspoken and full of conviction. She’s also a loyal and devoted friend. I decided to share her extended thoughts on the use and misuse of history in an extended two-part interview. You can listen to part one here, and part two over here. This is the kind of interview I’ve been hoping to have with my colleagues, one that really probes the definition of history itself, and examines the implications of an under-written or misunderstood past for the culture of a nation like the Unites States. Courtney touches on topics such as “presentism,” writing Islamic history in the west, the seemingly inescapable tropes and traps of modernity, epistemic tautologies, and what it means to be a medievalist.

Courtney Lesoon is a fourth-year PhD candidate in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, in the History, Theory & Criticism Section of the Department of Architecture at MIT. Courtney earned her BA in the History of Art with a minor in Middle Eastern Studies from College of the Holy Cross and was a 2012-2013 U.S. Student Fulbright Grantee to the United Arab Emirates where her research concerned contemporary art and emerging cultural institutions in the UAE. Courtney earned her MA in Modern Middle Eastern & North African Studies from the University of Michigan where her thesis concerned an 18th-century Damascus Room and its acquisition as a collected interior in the United States. Before arriving at MIT, Courtney also worked as a Research Assistant in the Art of the Middle East Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Her current dissertation project is titled, “Learning and the City in the Early Islamic World: 632–1067 CE.”

Courtney Lesoon

Figures mentioned in Part One of our conversation:

  • Mika Natif, former visiting professor at Holy Cross, now at George Washington University
  • Nizamiyya Madrassa, large educational institution established in Baghdad in 1067
  • Nizam al-Mulk, scholar and Vizier, founder of Nizamiyya Madrassa
  • Halaqa learning, method for learning in small groups (“halaqa” means “circle” or “ring”)
  • Ruth Crawford Mitchell, administrator and coordinator of the National Rooms in the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh
  • Nasser Rabbat, Professor, Director of the Aga Khan Program at MIT, architect and historian
  • Kristel Smentek, Associate Professor, Director of History, Theory and Criticism group at MIT, historian of art
  • Timothy Hyde, Associate Professor, historian of architecture at MIT
Proof sheet: archeological photographs of Mahdiyya, Tunisia, c. 1960. Fonds Alexandre Lezine,
Maison Méditerranéenne des Sciences de l’Homme, Médiathèque, Aix-en-Provence, France

Figures mentioned in Part Two of our conversation:

  • Ijazah, a certificate confirming a teacher’s authority to teach a particular subject
  • Seljuk Empire, a Turko-Persian, Sunni Muslim empire (1037-1194) spanning much of the medieval Islamic world
  • Mamluk, a warrior class within the Seljuk Empire
  • “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” poem by Gil Scott-Heron first recorded in 1970 and released on the album, A New Black Poet – Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, Flying Dutchman Records. Rereleased in 1971 by Flying Dutchman on Pieces of Man. Listen to it here.