In memory of Thomas Naff

Thomas Naff

The Middle East Center sends its deepest sympathy to the family and loved ones of Dr. Thomas Naff. Naff served as Director of the Middle East Center from 1967 to 1983. During his time, Naff significantly expanded both the Center and the Middle East Studies program at Penn. Naff recruited Middle East scholars across multiple disciplines, some of whom are still at Penn today. By 1975 Penn arguably had the most comprehensive and distinguished program in Middle East Studies in the country. Naff also established academic links, local, national, and international, that gave what was then called the Near East Center a very high national and international profile. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Middle East Center was ranked number one or number two several times in national competitions. By the early 1980s, it was the premier institution for contemporary, as well as ancient and medieval, studies of the Middle East.

(Text below provided by Professor Heather Sharkey, Chair, Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations)

Naff was born in Spring Valley, Illinois, in 1929 to Lebanese immigrant parents. He grew up in Highland Park, Michigan, and attended public schools. He learned his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, for a dissertation entitled, “Ottoman Diplomacy and the Great European Powers, 1789-1802,” which he pursued concomitantly at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University in London.  After teaching at Harvard and the American University in Cairo, he joined the faculty at Penn in 1967 in what was then the Department of Oriental Studies. He was an early leader in researching water politics in the contemporary Middle East, and co-edited a volume entitled, Water in the Middle East: Conflict or Cooperation? (1984).  He was interested in Middle Eastern environmental politics broadly and gave a talk at the Brookings Institution in 2003 on the environmental impact of Saddam Hussein’s policies on the Iraqi marshlands and possibilities for amelioration.

Naff led the Middle East Center for many years.  In the mid-1980s, and with support from scholars including Edward Said and others, he played an instrumental role in raising funds to establish the Janet Lee Stevens Fellowship (named in honor of one of our graduate students who died in the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1983), from which many of our graduate students have continued to benefit over the years.  He retired in 2002, by which time the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department (NELC) was known as Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (AMES).

Naff had a keen interest in the history of Near Eastern and Middle Eastern studies and in how academic institutions and disciplines evolved against their social, political, and economic contexts.  To that end, Naff wrote a book called Paths to the Middle East: Ten Scholars Look Back (1993).  He interviewed leading historians – figures like Albert Hourani, J.C. Hurewitz, and Halil Inalcik, as well as another one of our colleagues, George Makdisi – to elicit their insights into how Middle Eastern studies had emerged from Oriental Studies and in response to U.S. and international political agendas surrounding Cold War politics, the demand for oil, and more. 

Naff was married to Joan Rice from 1952 until her death in 2015. They had three sons, Clayton, Derek, and Bryan. He loved being a grandfather and talked about his grandchildren often.