PULLMAN, Wash. – Recent world events have led to an interest in Middle East history, but what will be learned and remembered once that interest wanes?
“Civilization is such an important part of humanity, and politics so often overshadows culture,” said Marina Tolmacheva, a professor of history at Washington State University and a specialist in medieval Arab history and Islamic civilization.
A historical perspective, she said, sobers us so we are not guided by the mood of the moment. Instead, we learn from chronicled events what happened, why it happened, how things were perceived at the time, and how people perceive them now.
Influences on the West
In hopes of fostering a consistent interest in the study of Middle East history and classical Islamic culture at WSU, Tolmacheva is establishing the Middle East Studies Research and Scholarship Fund.
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“Classical Islamic civilization is such an enormous cultural pool that whoever studies it cannot be but overwhelmed and excited by the richness, the diversity and the expressiveness,” she said. “It is a worthwhile pursuit in itself, not to mention how much Islamic civilization gave Western civilization.
“All of that is very important, whether you are doing a study of a medieval period of history or trying to explain why Osama bin Laden uses references to the crusaders, for instance, in his propaganda against the West,” she said.
Also endowed an Asian studies award
Tolmacheva’s generous philanthropy to the College of Liberal Arts goes back more than 20 years and has led to the establishment of two endowments. The $25,000 endowment for students interested in pursuing the history of the Muslim world is her second.
Her first, establishing the Asia Program Excellence Award, was inspired by one student’s outstanding work.
Both endowments provide one award annually for excellence in scholarship.
Global understanding especially important
For Tolmacheva, who immigrated to the United States from Russia, broadening the curriculum of the history department is a personal and professional priority with practical implications for our global society.
“One of my former students was applying to work in the customs service and he asked for a reference,” she said. “It was important to his employer that he had exposure to such subjects,” she said of the courses he took in Middle Eastern studies at WSU.
“Among my former graduate students, at least two got their college teaching jobs because they had training in Middle East history,” she said.
Colleagues supportive
On a personal level, Tolmacheva said she has always felt supported in her department, which is another good reason to give to its students.
“The history department has been good to me when I was establishing myself here, in terms of allowing me to pursue my interests,” she said. “The university supported me, and my peers supported me in terms of my research and travel interests.
“In a way,” she said, “this is giving back to the field, but it also is giving back specifically to the department.”
Honors and service throughout career
Tolmacheva received her undergraduate degree with distinction from St. Petersburg University and her Ph.D. in history from the Russian Academy of Sciences. A recipient of numerous grants and fellowships, she has traveled to the Middle East and Asia since 1964 and served as lecturer and interpreter on more than 20 travel tours.
In 1998 she was visiting professor at the pre-eminent French academic center, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. In 2003 Tolmacheva was awarded an honorary professorship (equivalent of honorary doctorate) by the Institute of Eastern Languages and Cultures of the National Pedagogical University of Kyrgyzstan.
She was named a 1992-93 Rockefeller Foundation fellow in the humanities, a 1995 Fulbright fellow, and a 2005-06 fellow of the Open Society Institute International Higher Education Support Program.
She was president of the American University of Kuwait 2006-09.