MERIP mourns the passing of Marsha Pripstein Posusney (1953-2008), a stalwart member of the editorial committee of Middle East Report from 1989-1994, a MERIP program committee member from 1996-2001 and our friend. An experienced teacher, Marsha was professor of political science at Bryant University and adjunct professor of international relations at the Watson Institute for International Studies of Brown University. An accomplished scholar, she was author of Labor and the State in Egypt: Workers, Unions and Economic Restructuring (Columbia, 1998), winner of the Albert Hourani Book Award of the Middle East Studies Association, as well as several edited volumes and journal articles. An untiring activist, she worked all her life to forward struggles for peace and social justice. Marsha died on August 22 after a lengthy and valiant battle with cancer. She is survived by her husband Tom, her son Eric, her father and two sisters. Memorial contributions can be sent to the Miriam Hospital Cancer Center or 4B Nursing at the following address: Miriam Hospital Foundation, Box H, Providence, RI 02901. We asked MERIP veterans and colleagues in Middle East studies to contribute some words in Marsha’s memory.
The news of Marsha’s leaving came, for me, like two stones dropped into a well—first that her condition had worsened dramatically and then, just 24 hours later, that she had gone from the world, a world that can hardly afford to lose Marsha. I feel a world of grief.
Our comings together, Marsha’s and mine, had been irregular and erratic recently, so it was a great comfort, to me, that we had some days together at the beginning of May, when we and other friends assembled in Cambridge to celebrate Roger Owen. It was a spirited mélange of people with varied connections to each other. That time felt precious then, and ever more so these past days. It was hard to miss then that her struggle to be healthy was wearing on her, but Marsha displayed an inspiring centeredness that came from knowing she was doing everything that was possible to do to beat back the scourge inside her. Fighting a disease that has gripped you this way has to be terrifying in the aloneness it imposes. Her resilience spoke to the strength of her character and also to the loving strength of her family.
I know MERIP was important to Marsha professionally and politically, and she brought to MERIP a great deal of what made our group in those days so special—her energy and resourcefulness, her engagement, her focus on workers and labor.
Marsha was a true professional, and she earned the great respect of other professionals, including those outside the family of Middle East studies teacher-activists. A year ago, at Human Rights Watch, we were looking for someone who could complete a project we had started documenting violations of the rights of the migrant construction workers from India and the Subcontinent who were building the glittering towers in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and the grubbier infrastructure that went with them. My colleague who does our work on core labor rights, looking for suggestions, contacted a friend of hers, a Cornell-based labor rights specialist, someone with no particular familiarity with the Middle East. He came back in a flash with one name, Marsha’s, which got innocently passed to me to approach her. I was pleased and proud of Marsha, and of course I did ask her, even though I knew there was no way in hell she could take it on.
Marsha Pripstein Posusney shared her courageous fight with cancer with many of us, but it was still shocking and tragic to lose her. Marsha was a direct and honest person who always said what she meant. She dedicated her academic career to understanding Egyptian labor’s capacity for protecting workers’ rights despite institutional constraints. It is clear she got the dynamism of labor right, since in the spring union leaders were deeply involved in contentious demonstrations over rising food prices and the declining standard of living. Marsha was a productive, concerned and activist scholar who was inclusive and generous with her colleagues, mentoring junior faculty and sustaining the sisterhood of academia. Like many of us, she struggled with the competing demands of family and fieldwork, careerism and integrity, and later in her life, health and research agendas. But what was amazing about Marsha is that despite her illness she continued to shoulder the hard work of organizing book projects, conferences, journal issues and initiatives at Bryant University, the Watson Institute at Brown University, the Middle East Studies Association and its committee on academic freedom, the American Political Science Association and MERIP. She was a feisty, smart, straightforward and unpretentious scholar-activist, and we are so sorry to not have her with us on our next initiative.
Marsha was a valued friend and mentor to me—not just a scholar whose work I admired. Her presence at the Watson Institute was among the things I most valued about being at Brown. Marsha made things exciting. She always had a plan up her sleeve for the next workshop or conference related to political or economic development in the Middle East, or to US policy in the region. Marsha always had the pulse of the sub-field of Middle East politics: She knew which questions were important to ask and she had the drive and enthusiasm to bring people together to think about these questions to try to advance the field.
But Marsha’s work was never motivated by purely academic concerns. The questions she asked inevitably addressed issues of real meaning not just to scholars of the region but also to people of the region. Her work combined theoretical nuance, empirical rigor and a concern for social justice. Whether in her written work or in her comments at the many conferences and workshops she organized or participated in, she had the courage to speak up for social justice even if it sparked opposition and public outcry. To me, this was one of her most admirable qualities.
I first met Marsha while a first-year graduate student at Berkeley. Marsha came there to participate in a workshop in which she presented her work on the “moral economy” of labor protest in Egypt. Two things struck me about her. First, she assigned no importance to the unspoken rules of academic hierarchy; she was warm, accessible and eager to engage even petrified graduate students. Second, her work was inspiring. Her book asked new questions and provided fresh answers about worker responses to privatization. Most importantly, the book—like all of her research—reflected her personal passions and commitments. Marsha was not content to just study a question; she wanted to understand the issues from the perspectives of people whose voices might not otherwise be heard and to integrate her work and efforts toward positive social change. On many occasions after contracting her illness, she told me how much she regretted her inability to carry out further field research in the Middle East.
From a personal standpoint, I will miss Marsha’s unwavering professional support for her junior colleagues in Middle East politics. For many of us, she was a cheerleader. Marsha and I met regularly for lunch or tea—although not nearly as often as I would have liked. In the summer, I asked if she could help me think through some conceptual issues related to a new project. She listened intently and helped me sort out my ideas. All the while she did not reveal to me that she was taking a turn for the worse.
In my willful ignorance about Marsha’s condition, I never once imagined that she would ever be gone. And now she is gone. Her loss leaves a gaping hole in the field but, thankfully, she leaves behind a valuable legacy to scholars of the Middle East. One of the best ways we can honor her memory, then, is to emulate her by asking meaningful questions that matter to real people in the places we study, and that contribute to positive social change.
I miss Marsha first and foremost as a friend but also as a scholar and a mentor. My heart goes out to Tommy, Eric and the rest of Marsha’s family for whom I can only imagine how difficult it is to lose this amazing woman.
One of my favorite memories of Marsha is an occasion when she presented a paper on steelworkers’ rights at Ahmad Abdalla’s al-Jeel center in Cairo. Marsha’s research into changing labor laws was motivated by her desire to help the left and the labor movement find what tools they could to resist the privatization of factories and the crushing of unions. It had been some time since Marsha had last been in Cairo, and the hall was packed with people eager to see her—among others, Kamal ‘Abbas of the Workers’ Legal Assistance Center and Fawzi Muhammadayn from the Helwan steel and iron mill. Marsha spoke in her fluent Arabic. Her accent never covered over the Marsha we knew in English, but it worked to great effect. Marsha laid out the arguments that had just appeared in her prize-winning book. There were lots of heated questions, for Marsha was telling Egyptian workers that they would have to compromise if they hoped to win on the big issues. Globalization was a fact and, once it was set in motion, there was no going back. It was a bitter pill. Eventually, her arguments sank in and the hall grew sober. People slowly understood that she was offering them a set of choices that were rooted in their own political convictions and principles. They understood that though her message was difficult, she was a friendly messenger—she was on their side. This was all conveyed by heavy silence in the crowd. Only when people applauded at the end of the event did life come back into the crowd. As people left the hall, many asked me how I knew Marsha, and when they shook my hand, they confessed that they had only come that night to hear her speak. If not for Marsha, they probably would have lost touch with their other comrades long ago. Marsha was a lifeline for this world—she was the reason they had come.