Ahmed takes prize for colonialism critique


Siraj Ahmed is the definition of one-in-a-million.

This past year, he won the Modern Language Association’s 26th annual Jeanne Scaglione Prize for Comparative Literary Studies for his book, “Archaeology of Babel: The Colonial Foundation of the Humanities.”

“The argument that I’m making is very unusual,” Ahmed said. “I’m really grateful that there is a committee of scholars that appreciate it.”

Ahmed had been a part of Lehman’s English department since 2011. Since he published his award-winning book, he has been invited to speak at Duke University in North Carolina, Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Northwestern University in Illinois, and Columbia University’s Paris campus.

Ahmed was born in Manhattan — where he still lives today — but his parents emigrated from India and settled in Brooklyn. For a short time as a child, his family moved back to India, but later returned to the United States where Ahmed spent the rest of his childhood upstate.

He eventually graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and picked up a doctorate degree from Columbia University. Now Ahmed is a professor, teaching English at the City University of New York Graduate Center at 365 Fifth Ave., and comparative literature at Lehman College.

His previous book, “The Stillbirth of Capital: Enlightenment Writing and Colonial India,” touched on colonialism. As a professor, Ahmed teaches various Middle Eastern civil wars through novels. He also touches on the international “war on terror” as well as the global refugee crisis.

These classes serve as part of the basis for his upcoming book, “Politics of the Refugee.”

“As an undergraduate, I studied primarily British literature and American literature,” Ahmed said. “When I got my Ph.D., I was studying British literature, and I felt that the way scholars looked at the 18th century was very provincial.”

It was Ahmed’s willingness and determination to dig deeper into history that allowed him to write his award-winning comparative piece, “Archaeology of Babel: The Colonial Foundation of the Humanities.”

“I felt that the study of British literature needed to be exploded out into the world and all the countries that came into conflict with Britain and America,” Ahmed said.

During the 18th century, England colonized large portions of the western world, and as a result, spread its politics and culture to the various corners of the globe. Part of Ahmed’s goal was to replace the isolated view of literature with a more global and political view of text.

Ahmed’s “Archaeology of Babel” addresses colonialism’s impact on humanities and the recording of information. The Tower of Babel, from the Old Testament story in Genesis, inspired his title. In the biblical story, there was a time when everyone spoke the same language. But once God saw the people were building a tower to reach him, he punished their pride by causing confusion, having everyone speak in a different language so they couldn’t understand each other.

When Ahmed speaks about archaeology in his book, he’s not sharing it in the sense of ancient civilizations or buildings, but more so on intellectual discovery.

“Normally we want to understand the truth in respect to religion or history,” Ahmed said. “We’re trying to understand at any given period what allowed some knowledge to be considered true … and why at a time something is considered true and why it is not.”

Ahmed’s book analyzes history, written texts and the things that are considered facts in our modern world. He examines the history of how things came to be considered true and how our global society came to record information through writing. The concept of literature was not something shared amongst other cultures until European colonization in India and other parts of the world. When the world began the practice of writing things down, it was seen as progression. But Ahmed challenges the written form itself in his book — and its flaws.

“That written manuscript gets rewritten and changed over time, and they are moved from one place to another place,” Ahmed said. “What I’m saying in the ‘Archaeology of Babel’ is why do we expect this method can tell the truth of every language. This may sound kind of weird, but this created modern humanity.”

“Archaeology of Babel” also was a critique of comparative literature itself, which finds itself quite snug within Ahmed’s discipline. As a scholar, the road is a very isolated, but occasionally it has its moments of acclaim.

“You never expect to win these awards,” Ahmed said of the MLA honor. “So to have an increasingly large audience for this book has been surprising, but I’ve been very very grateful for it.”