In Memoriam: Professor Barbara Abou-El-Haj (1943-2015)

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The Department of Art History is mourning the untimely loss of Professor Barbara Abou-El-Haj––a dear friend and colleague to us all. For almost thirty years, with her open house and her open heart, Barbara made colleagues and students of the department an extension of her own family. And, in that period, an entire generation of students passed through her lectures and seminars, while her teaching and research added immeasurably to the national and international visibility of the program. It was in 1985 that Barbara came to Binghamton from UCLA, where she had completed her doctorate working with the renowned historian of medieval and modern art, Karl Werckmeister. The dissertation she wrote under Werckmeister’s supervision became her 1994 book, The Medieval Cult of Saints: Formations and Transformations, which exposed the fierce competition between cults that characterized the political struggle to preserve property and privilege, especially in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. There were also path-breaking articles on Bury St. Edmunds Abbey, Santiago de Compostela, and Reims and its cathedral that appeared in leading publications such as Art History, The Art Bulletin, and Gesta, extending her examination of feudal conflicts, art production, building programs and the suppression of social dissent. These writings decisively shifted the field of medieval art history away from its long established comfort zone of ritual, liturgy and the sumptuous expression of spirituality. This made her a leader of the field and in the 1980s when she regularly organized panels at the College Art Association Annual Meeting her sessions would be packed. The summation of her radical revisionist perspective was her manuscript, Lordship and Commune: A Comparative Study of Building in Reims and Amiens, long in preparation and nearing completion when illness cut short her work on it. Exacting in its reading of the historiography, scrupulous in its use of primary sources, and trenchantly committed in its analyses, Barbara’s work kept alive a tradition of the social history of art in the United States that traced its origins back to the 1930s but burst into life again in the 1970s when Barbara was a doctoral student grappling with the challenges of graduate study and the care of her two daughters, Marriam and Sarra. Active as she was in the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies as well as the Fernand Braudel Center, Barbara’s death leaves a hole in the heart of the department. We miss her every day and send our sympathy to her family and especially to her husband, Rifa’at Abou-El-Haj, Emeritus Professor of History at Binghamton University. In lieu of flowers, Barbara’s family requests that donations be sent in her memory to Oxfam or Doctors Without Borders.

We encourage you to leave your remembrances of Barbara in the comments here.

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39 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Professor Barbara Abou-El-Haj (1943-2015)

  1. Barbara was one of the first people to hug me in Binghamton when I first entered the art history program. I never had the honor of taking one of her classes, but despite that, she would grab onto my arm whenever she saw me and walk down the halls asking about my research with genuine interest. These small gestures were profoundly comforting and always helpful since she would usually have spot-on advice for how to best approach a topic. Outside of her sincere character, she was so incredibly generous with her knowledge and left an indelible mark not only on the students in Binghamton, but, I can imagine, anyone who had the immense pleasure of meeting her.

  2. I had Barbara for Theories and Methods of Art History. She was a phenomenal teacher. One of my favorite memories is going to her house for lunch on a sunny, spring day. I still make her chick pea, black olive and feta salad. Rest in peace, Professor Abu-al-Haj. We will never forget you.

  3. Having worked on the Binghamton Campus for over 30 years, I encountered many, many professors, scholars, and fellows. Being a non-academic person working in an academic environment . . . many times I felt like a fish out of water. I had the not so pleasurable experience (oh, too many times) of being reminded of my “place” in this environment. This was never the case with Professor Abou-El-Haj.
    Barbara was a rare breed of professor . . . she was gentle and kind beyond measure, she was genuine, and she always made me feel like my presence mattered.
    She never presented herself as superior or condescending . . . she would go out of her way to compliment me for the smallest things that I might have done in the course of my work, and applauded me for the big things . . . something she didn’t have to do. She was never my supervisor, so it wasn’t in her duties as a faculty member . . . she just did it, because that’s who she was.
    I will always remember her sweet nature and kindness . . . may her memory be eternal.

  4. I will always remember Barbara as a professor who possessed a rare combination of the sharpness of a high-minded intellectual, the strictness of a mentor, and the kindness and patience of a gentle human being. Equally inspirational to me was the profound sense of humanity and genuine care that she expressed towards graduate students. I hope I could meet her somewhere again in the next life. For now, I think she has done her part and is taking her due leave. However, she will not be forgotten here.

  5. So sorry to hear about my dissertation professors death, eternal memory to you may you rest in the bosom of Abraham surrounded by the glory of the saints! From your first doctoral phd student Joseph.

  6. My deepest condolences to Rifaat Hocam and the rest of Barbara’s family. Sympathy also to those she gathered in as students and colleagues. Her kindness and collegiality made better people of us all, and her memory will indeed be blessed.

  7. My memories of Barbara, and Rifa’at for that matter, begin in the late 1960s when Rifa’at was the professor and Donald and I and Barbara were graduate students; we became great friends and above all shared our families–there was nothing Barbara liked better than to regale us with stories of her children and ask about our son own Eliot. In fact, Mirriam, Barbara and Rifa’at came to Eliot’s first birthday party! It was an astonishing coincidence when Don and I move here from Houston and met up with Barbara again and we resumed our and deepened our friendship and soon Rifa’at joined us as well. Barbara was so dedicated to and supportive of the graduate students who came to study Ottoman History here with Donald and Rifa’at and was utterly loving to me when I lost my Donald. Her death is a loss of a wonderful unique friendship that I treasure deeply.

  8. She will be sorely missed. I have enjoyed and learned much from her work, and found her to be a truly good person who was more than willing to lend me a hand when I asked anything of her. My condolences to all her family and friends.

  9. Barbara was an extraordinary person, an amazing mentor and a true friend. Whether during our casual chats with her and Rifa’at, or during the most heated seminar discussions, I could always learn something from her; about art, life, and revolution. I will remember her with the fondest memories, because those are the only ones I have.

  10. My sincere condolences to Rifa’at, your two daughters, and Barbara’s family. Barbara was an amazing teacher, colleague, and mentor. She will be deeply missed. Lyn Blanchfield

  11. The first time I dreamed in English was after a discussion with Barbara and Rifaat. Barbara welcomed me to her home and heart. She always pushed me beyond my limits, and for that I will be grateful to her for the rest of my life. RIP my best teacher and mentor.

  12. I am saddened and shocked to hear of Barbara’s untimely passing. During my long time tenure in the Art and Art History Departments, I got to see many sides of Barbara but the one that inspired me the most was her courage and determination especially during her gallant and successful fight with Breast Cancer. She often told me (accompanied by a hug) “not to give up” when situations seemed hopeless and I drew from her strength. After I retired, I would run into her and Rifa’at from time to time and was always greeted warmly with hugs and smiles but sadly I didn’t keep in touch like I should have as the retirement life took over. Rest in peace Barbara. ..you will be missed.

  13. Barbara and Rifa’at were among the first to offer warm words of welcome when my wife Emily Reiner and I moved to Binghamton and, briefly, into the SUNY community. Though she and I were both medievalists, sometimes working in similar fields, I knew her best as a motherly friend, and then as a substitute grandmother when our son Gabriel was born in Binghamton; she and Rifa’at both made us feel comfortable bringing a baby boy to academic gatherings. I’ll also remember fiery wit and incisive questions in front of the variety of speakers who came to Binghamton. She was not one to mince her words, nor one to suffer public fools lightly. I wish we had kept in touch with her since we left Binghamton. Rest in peace, Barbara.

  14. i did not know Barbara in her college surroundings, unfortunately. And after reading this article about her I do so wish I had. She and her husband were customers of mine when I still lived in Binghamton and I would see them quite often. What I always loved about their visits was the kindness and the genuine interest in how I was doing in my life and with my art. I loved her stories about her travels and family and the obvious love and closeness she shared with Rifa’at. She was just lovely. And I will remember her with much fondness.

  15. Barbara was always so kind to me as a younger student in the same program at UCLA and whenever we met in later years she would marvel that I once babysat her infant daughters while she was T.A.-ing her sections. I send sincerest sympathies to the entire family.

  16. Barbara was a real tower of strength in the department and also in the university, always warm, welcoming and full of enthusiasm. Her kindness and generosity were known to all, whether in the parties she hosted at home or the sympathetic ear she lent to students from near and far. Her enthusiasm for her research was boundless. Her original take on the medieval topics she studied was matched by her interest in contemporary international issues. These interests took her into many intellectual centres on the camplus, from CEMERS to the Braudel Center. She loved both her work and her family and her immense loss will be felt by both. My deepest sympathies are offered to Rifa’at, Marriam and Sarra.

    Tony

  17. Barbara was a brilliant scholar, and a genuine, gracious, beautiful person inside out…..She will be deeply missed..

    Rula Jurdi and Malek Abisaab

  18. A great scholar, mentor and professor. We were overwhelmed by her kindness and hospitality. We will miss her dearly.

  19. My sympathies to Barbara’s family and close friends. As a former student and TA, I add my name to the list of those inspired and educated by Barbara. Everything I know about medieval monastic life came from her brain, into mine. Thank you.

  20. I send my sincerest condolences to Barbara’s family. As a doctoral student in the English Department, I had the opportunity to study the saints’ cults with Barbara. I will never forget–and will always be grateful for–Barbara’s commitment to teaching and studying medieval architecture in a way that honored the laborers who built the greatest cathedrals of Europe.

  21. I am saddened to hear of this loss. Though small in stature, Professor Abou-El-Haj was a strong force in the department, a force of deep scholarly commitment and kindness. As a scholar, she was fueled by something more than ambition. I could see by our seminar discussions that her fierce dedication to the social history of her field came from a strong personal conviction– a desire to shed light on unconsidered and unrepresented groups. This historical perspective came from a genuinely generous heart, and made her the professor I came to know as a student in the Art History department. The warmth and kindness she gave to me in the form of a hug or an encouraging word will remain an inspiration. I am grateful to have known her.

  22. Very sad to hear. A wonderful, brave, warm and charming woman. Our deepest condolences to Rifa’at and their children.

  23. Bruce and I were so very sad to see this news. Barbara was a lovely and talented person. We send our sympathy to Rifa’at and the family.

  24. David and I are very saddened to learn of this untimely news. Barbara and Rifa’at were very kind to us while we lived in Binghamton, and Barbara always had a cheerful word to put in whenever we met at an event or in passing. Their home was one of the last places we visited before we departed for Florida. Barbara was a wonderful and warm mentor, a generous colleague, and an engaging scholar. She will be deeply missed. Our deepest condolences to Rifa’at and the family.

  25. I have tremendous respect for Barbara both as a scholar and as a mentor; I learned what ‘theory and methods’ meant from her course. Then, after many years, when she added my
    paper to her course reading list, I felt honored, and needless to say, very happy. But more importantly I always thought that she was a good person, a very warmhearted person, before all else. A quality so rare in the world. I had written in mu acknowledgment the following words: “Rifa’at and Barbara, I am indeed very lucky to have met you and to have shared many conversations with you. The most valuable lesson I have learned from you is your critical stance against mediocrity which, I will be taking with me to wherever I go.”

  26. I worked with Barbara as a TA in my first semester. She was also the Graduate Advisor at the time. I learned a lot from her; but what struck me most was her willingness to support the graduate students in any issue. This was something beyond kindness; I’ll dare to say it was an extension of her worldview. From scholarship to friendship she was always on the side of the underprivileged. My deepest condolences to Rifa’at Hocam and the family.

  27. Barbara had the unique and admirable gift of hospitality. The best parties were always at Barbara and Rifa’at’s home, primarily because of her warmth and empathy. She was a wonderful example of a strong and accomplished female; played out in her concurrent roles as scholar, spouse, and parent. We are all so grateful for the opportunity to have lived alongside her and the ways that our lives continue to be enriched by that experience. With all love and sympathy, Marcia and Chris

  28. I am honored to have called Barbara a mentor and a friend. Her legacy will continue to impact the department and its cohort for years to come. I send my condolences to Rifa’at, Marriam, and Sarra.

  29. I miss Barbara, a valued colleague and friend. In particular, I miss the voice that she brought to academic life at Binghamton, for she was persistent in drawing attention to the socio-political structures of injustice, to the dignity of common people, and to the need for engaged scholarship. That voice lives on in her students and colleagues, but I would love to have her in the room once again.

    I’m very sorry for the family’s loss, particularly for that of Rifa’at (also a dear and much missed colleague).

  30. We were in her office, talking about my progress. She said: “come have dinner with us, go for a walk, spend some time with your friends, simple things can in turn help you re-focus…you care about your topic, we all went through these phases.” Then she gave me a big hug with a kind, caring and genuine smile. She made hard days so much easier. Over the years I have learned so much from her and wanted to tell her a lot of things. But often right words just did not come. I am glad I told her that “being oceans away from my mom is tough, but when I am with you I always feel the caring, closeness and love. I’m truly grateful for that.” I feel very warm in the heart as I think of her. Professor Barbara Abou-El-Haj, you were a great mentor admired by all who were fortunate enough to know you. Your memory will live on.

  31. I just was Googling the professor to write to her. So upsetting to hear that one of my favorite professors at Binghamton has passed. Her course on the Mediaeval Cult of Saints (I took it around 2006/07) was incredibly challenging and rigorous and I very much enjoyed it. She was very kind and easy to talk with, and I remember being in such awe of her knowledge. I hope her family finds peace in knowing she has left an incredible legacy. I will always remember her and that class!

  32. Pingback: Barbara Abou-El-Haj’s Lordship and Commune | Binghamton Art History

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