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Laila Parsons



Joint appointment History/Islamic Studies   

I received my D.Phil from St Antony’s College, Oxford University, in 1996. The title of my D.Phil. thesis was “The Druze in the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947-1949” and it was completed under the supervision of Avi Shlaim. After receiving my D.Phil., I moved to the U.S where I worked at Harvard University as a lecturer, and as the Associate Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Later I worked as an assistant professor in the Department of History at Yale University. I moved to McGill in 2004 to take up a joint position in the Department of History and Classical Studies and the Institute for Islamic Studies. In 2007 I received tenure and became an associate professor at McGill. In 2018, I was promoted to full professor.  While working at McGill I have served as the director of the Middle East Studies Program (2006-2010, and 2011-2012), and as the Graduate Program Director in the Institute of Islamic Studies (2012-2014).

Research and Publications

I am a specialist in the history of the 20th-century Middle East. My first book, The Druze between Palestine and Israel, 1947-1949 (Macmillan, 2000) focused on the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and on Druze-Jewish relations. My most important article to come out of this project, “The Druze and the birth of Israel”, was published in Shlaim and Rogan (eds), The War for Palestine (CUP, 2001, 2007). In this article, I used my research on Druze-Jewish relations in 1948 to challenge Benny Morris’ well-known claim that the Palestinian refugee crisis was “born of war not by design.”

My second book, The Commander: Fawzi al-Qawuqji and the Fight for Arab Independence, 1914-1948 (New York: Hill & Wang/Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2016) focuses on the life of Fawzi al-Qawuqji, the Arab nationalist and soldier who served as an officer in the Ottoman army during World War I; fought against the French in Syria during the rebellion of 1925-1927; fought against the British in Palestine during the Palestinian Revolt of 1936-39, and again in Iraq during the Rashid ‘Ali Coup of 1941; lived in exile in Nazi Germany during World War II; and led the Arab Salvation Army (Jaysh al-inqâdh) against the Haganah/IDF during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Using Qawuqji’s own archive to construct a detailed and carefully contextualized narrative of the journey that he made through certain moments, I offer a glimpse of the complexity and contingency of the historical worlds he inhabited. (Saqi Books bought the UK rights to the book and it was also released in the UK in 2017). The book has received reviews in English in Kirkus, Booklist, Publisher's Weekly (starred review), The New Yorker, The Times Literary Supplement, The Electronic Intifada, Haaretz, The Christian Science Monitor and The National. It has also been the topic of long feature articles in the Arabic press including in Al-Sharq al-Awsat and Al-Quds al-‘Arabi. In addition it won the 2017 Distinguished Book Award of the Society of Military History and the 2017 Palestine Book Award. It was also shortlisted for the Mavis Gallant Award for Non-Fiction in 2017.
For a recent interview with me in Jadaliyya where I describe my thinking behind the book, follow this link:

For a podcast of a lecture on the book, delivered in May 2017 at the University of Oxford, follow this link:

My research on Qawuqji led me to become interested in the place of biography and narrative in the field of modern Middle East history. I have published several articles in this area, including a 2011 article in History Compass entitled “Micro-narrative and the historiography of the modern Middle East.”

My current project is a study of the Peel Commission, a British Royal Commission that was sent to Palestine in 1936 to ascertain the causes of the Palestinian rebellion against British rule and Zionist settlement. Through a detailed analysis of the commission’s procedures and of the transcripts of British, Zionist, and Palestinian testimony, I aim to deepen our understanding of how the British Mandate state structurally excluded the Palestinian leadership from power and supported the goals of Zionism. I have given a number of talks based on this project--including at Harvard, Concordia, the University of Maryland, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the Institute of Palestine Studies (Ramallah). I have also received an internal SSHRC development grant to help me expand on my archival research.

For a list of most of my publications please see below: 

“The Secret Testimony of the Peel Commission (Part II): Partition” forthcoming in the Journal of Palestine Studies, April 2020.

“The Secret Testimony of the Peel Commission (Part I): Underbelly of Empire”, Journal of Palestine Studies Vol. XLIX, No. 1 (Autumn 2019).

“Sowing the Seeds of Partition: The Peel Commission, 1936-7” Palestinian Journeys, 2019

“The Arab Armies in 1948” in Diana Allan and Mahmoud Zeidan (eds) Nakba Archive: Fragments from the Palestinian Expulsion, Pluto Press, forthcoming, 2020

Review of Ian Black, Enemies and Neighbours, Times Literary Supplement, April 2018

The Commander: Fawzi al-Qawuqji and the Fight for Arab Independence, 1914-1948  (New York: Hill and Wang/Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2016). 
For the Saqi 2017 edition:

“Rebels without borders: Southern Syria and Palestine, 1919-1936” in Shayegh and Arsan (eds), The Routledge Handbook of the History of the Middle East Mandates (London: Routledge, 2015), 395-409

“Syria: The roots of a rebellion”, World Book Yearbook (2013), 354-363

"The Middle East: From Fall to Spring" World Book Report (2012), 282-292

"Micro-narrative and the historiography of the modern Middle East" in History Compass 9/1 (2011)

"Some thoughts on biography and the historiography of the early 20th-century Arab World" in The Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, 21/2 (2010)

"Review of Ilan Pappe's, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine" (Oxford: Oneworld, 2006) in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 29/ 3, 2009

"Soldiering for Arab Nationalism: Fawzi al-Qawuqji in Palestine" in the Journal for Palestine Studies 36/4 (Summer, 2007).

"Palestine 1948", in The Encyclopedia of Religion and War, London (Routledge), 2004.

"The Druze and the birth of Israel", in Eugene Rogan and Avi Shlaim, eds, The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948, Cambridge (Cambridge University Press), 2002

The Druze Between Palestine and Israel, 1947-1949, London (St Antony’s/Macmillan), 2000.

"The Druze, the Jews and the creation of a shared history", in Ron Nettler and Suha Taji-Farouki, eds, Muslim-Jewish Encounters: Mutual Perceptions in Intellectual Traditions, London (Harwood), 1998.

"The Palestinian Druze in the 1947-1949 Arab-Israeli War", Israel Studies 2/1, April, 1997.

Teaching and Supervision

I teach courses in both the Institute of Islamic Studies and the Department of History and Classical Studies on a broad range of topics connected to the history of the modern Middle East. These include undergraduate courses on the history of the Arab-Israeli Conflict; the history of modern Egypt; the history of anti-colonial rebellions in the modern Middle East and North Africa; and women, gender and sexuality in the history of the modern Middle East. I very much enjoy undergraduate teaching, and in 2014 I was the recipient of the Noel H. Fieldhouse Award for Distinguished Teaching. This award is given once a year to a professor in the Faculty of Arts at McGill. In 2017, I was awarded The Principal’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching (Associate Professor Category), which is an inter-faculty award. For an interview that I did after receiving this recent award where I talk about my teaching, follow this link:

I also teach graduate classes in the Institute of Islamic Studies. Topics include: Empire and the Middle East; historical and literary approaches to the modern Middle East (co-taught with Michelle Hartman); new directions in Palestine Studies.

I have supervised several MA students to completion in the Institute of Islamic Studies. My MA students’ topics have included: the history of the Shawam community in Egypt; the Arab Revolt of 1916; the history of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon; the political career of Gertrude Bell; and ‘Allal al-Fasi and his ideas about legal reform in 20th-century Morocco.

I have supervised six PhDs to completion (four in the Department of History and Classical Studies, and two in Islamic Studies). Topics include the relationship between the late Ottoman state and Western missionaries; a social biography of Taha Hussein; a social biography of ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam; and a history of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations after Oslo. In addition I have served as a comprehensive exam examiner for approximately 20 PhD students in the Department of History and Classical Studies and the Institute of Islamic Studies. Examination fields have included the history of the 20th-century Middle East; the history of modern Egypt; the history of modern Palestine; women, gender and sexuality in the history of the modern Middle East; and British and French colonialism in the modern Middle East.  




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