UC Santa Barbara faculty Anthony Barbieri, Chinese history professor, and Sherene Seikaly, associate professor of history, received $60,000 each in research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund their prospective research projects. 

Seikaly received the news that she was awarded the endowment after applying for it her second time shortly before Christmas. Courtesy of UCSB

According to the National Endowment for the Humanities website, the organization “ is one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the United States” and achieves its mission of promoting excellence in the humanities by “awarding grants for top-rated proposals examined by panels of independent, external reviewers.” 

Seikaly said she previously applied for the fellowship but was unsuccessful,” and received the news that she was awarded the endowment after applying again shortly before Christmas. 

“I applied again, in the midst of the pandemic,” she said. “I asked two mentors to write on my behalf about my project. And just before Christmas of this year, I received really unexpected news — I had received a grant. I feel really humbled and honored to have received it.”

Professor Barbieri plans to use the grant to create an English translation of a text originating in 81 BCE titled “Discourses on Salt and Iron.”

“I will spend that time translating this ancient text called the Yán to learn the discourses on salt and iron, which doesn’t exist in an English translation in its entirety,” Barbieri said. “About 40% of it was translated about 90 years ago by someone, and so it doesn’t have a complete English translation, unlike many of the great classic works of Chinese civilization.”

The text is a written recording of a debate held in the imperial court of the Han dynasty that discussed national economic policies.

“The young emperor asked these people to debate the current policy, which was to nationalize the industries of salt and iron production,” Barbieri said. ​​”The state had taken over these very profitable industries about 40 years earlier, in order to boost revenue for a huge war they had with the northern nomads on the other side of the Great Wall … but there were a lot of difficulties that people had with these state monopolies.”

However, according to Barbieri, the debate broke off into discussion of nearly every economic trouble that Ancient China had at the time. 

“It quickly went off the rails and suddenly, the critics of the government started bringing up all sorts of other issues like the inequality of wealth, wealth distribution, conspicuous consumption by the wealthy, problems of unemployment, problems of foreign trade and for interaction,” Barbieri said. 

The debate’s deviation from its original topic has made for fascinating research material for historians.

“The debate covers basically everything that an economic historian would want to know about Ancient China in 60 chapters, and so this is why it’s such an important text,” Barbieri said.

Professor Seikaly plans to use the grant to fund research for her second novel “From Baltimore to Beirut: On the Question of Palestine,” which tells the life story of her great-grandfather Naim Cotran.

“This project was born out of a very fortuitous and accidental realization six months after my book, ‘Men of Capital: Scarcity and Economy in Mandate Palestine’ came out, when I inadvertently realized that I had written that book about my family without even knowing it,” Seikaly said.

Seikaly described how she discovered files and documents that told her great-grandfather’s story while doing a favor for her aunt. She found connections between her great-grandfather’s file and the research she conducted for her first book, and discovered that lawyer and economic thinker Fu’ad Saba, who she discussed in the beginning of her first book, had assisted her great-grandfather with a land dispute. 

“It was really kind of almost spooky, finding out that my great-grandfather had been sort of haunting me without me knowing it for the last 10 years, that I had been following in his footsteps without really knowing it,” Seikaly said.

Seikaly said the novel will follow the “unique” and “unexpected” life of her great-grandfather, who grew up in Palestine and fled his home country during the 1948 Palestinian exodus.  

“He’s born in Palestine in 1879, and he received his medical degree at the University of Maryland at the turn of the century. He then serves in Sudan as a colonial official under the Anglo-Egyptian rule during World War One. He comes back to Palestine … and then in 1948, like all Palestinians, his homeland is dismembered and he becomes a refugee in Lebanon,” Seikaly said. 

According to Seikaly, the novel will explore complicated concepts of refugeeism.

“I want to follow my great grandfather’s life at each of these stations in Baltimore, Sudan, Palestine and Lebanon to tell a story that complicates how we think about who is the perpetrator and who is the victim, who is the colonial official and who is the refugee,” Seikaly said.

A version of this article appeared on p. 5 of the Feb. 3, 2022, print edition of the Daily Nexus.