BIPOC Features: Susan Rahyab

One of the things that I wanted to do with Notes From the Apotheke was to amplify the voices and contributions of BIPOC scholars in ancient studies, at all levels and from all backgrounds. BIPOC in the field are invited to reflect on what brought them to studying the ancient world, as well as offer their opinions on the future of the discipline and share any work they are especially proud of or excited about.

Check out this month’s feature, written by the fabulous Susan Rahyab! Many thanks to her for taking the time to write this. Check out previous posts in the series here.

Image included with permission from author.

Introduction

I’m Susan, a second year PhD student in the interdepartmental Classical Studies program at Columbia University. Before coming to Columbia, I received both my BA and MA in history from Hunter College, CUNY.

Broadly defined, my research focuses on the social, cultural, and administrative history of Greco-Roman Egypt. You’ll find me pouring over papyri and inscriptions as I chase after topics related to Ptolemaic and Roman administration, writing and power, and archives. I likewise engage in comparative and interdisciplinary work, which explains my plan to center my dissertation around public archives in the ancient Mediterranean.

More personally, I’m a daughter of Afghan immigrants and a native New Yorker.

Path to the Ancient World

My interest in history was sparked the moment I was exposed to ancient history, so my story comes off as a bit of a cliché.

A sixth-grade lesson on the ancient world served as the spark that lit the flame. This is how I came to know about antiquity and how I held to this interest since childhood.

I was enchanted by all that I was hearing… a face that launched a thousand ships; shimmering gold illuminating Tut’s tomb; transportive scrolls… I’ll remember the little clay pharaoh I made (drowned in gold glitter, because this is me we’re talking about) and the Trojan horse I made out of popsicle sticks for my class projects, and I’ll smile. That little girl knew nothing of irregular Greek verbs.

(Dry your tears, Romanists, I learned about the Romans at some point in middle school and added them to the list.)

When the time came to decide what I wanted to study in college, I felt I had to choose between my two main interests, ancient history and fashion, both of which ensnared me at the same time. I asked myself which of the two I can see myself studying in college and pursuing as a career, and which of the two I can bear to keep solely as a hobby. The rest is history (pun intended).

So, I’m a historian who loves fashion but doesn’t study the history of fashion… it often feels like I’m jumping around between two (very different) worlds.

I went into college knowing I wanted to become a historian and get a PhD.

I felt isolated during these years because the history department didn’t have any ancient historians. I didn’t find a home in the classics department either, which was dominated by literature and archaeology. I had to be my own cheerleader.

I decided in my senior year to focus on Greco-Roman Egypt and to hold onto my interest in Greece and Rome through comparative work.

I appear to be the only Afghan American scholar of the ancient Mediterranean in academia, which isn’t at all shocking given the (STEM) careers often favored by immigrant parents. But I’m lucky that I’m the youngest of four… my eldest brother is a cardiologist, so I guess it didn’t really matter what I decided to do! But my path wasn’t exactly traditional…

My rainboots and I enjoyed a two week dig at Vindolanda. The worms of England did not.

I decided to get a master’s in history before applying to PhD programs.

I knew that an MA would contribute to my growth as a historian and allow me time to take Greek and Latin classes (which cost nearly as much as the MA). This turned out to be a hectic and formative time.

Over the course of my two-year MA, I presented at conferences, had my first publication, and went on my first dig (which was also my first time in Europe and at an ancient site!). I met kind and supportive scholars of Greco-Roman Egypt at other institutions, namely at the University of Michigan, where I did the summer MICHHERS program. After enduring the stressful PhD application process, I got into the two programs I wanted.

I outline all of this to stress what those around me did not see during this time.

I was without a mentor for so long. I wrote my conference abstracts alone, turned my BA thesis into an article alone, and applied to scholarships and fellowships alone. I’m still getting used to having scholars to lean on now.

I explored the ancient world mostly on my own during my BA and MA, just like I had been since elementary school, guided by my passion for ancient history.

I applied my training as a historian to the ancient world, gradually becoming acquainted with the problems, limitations, and understudied topics in my area of specialty.

I left as an ancient historian from a department without an ancient historian and went on to make Columbia my new home.

Change in Classics

The sheer volume of stories bravely shared by academics detailing sexual harassment, assault, intimidation, bullying, and/or retaliation is deafening.

Speaking up does not always garner sympathy or protection but can instead label a victim as a troublemaker and rabblerouser out to lay waste to the life of an illustrious professor. I’d like to see positive changes in how faculty members (especially tenured faculty) respond upon discovering that a colleague has caused others harm.

It’s important for students to know their professors would support and protect them in the event of misconduct, especially given the very real possibility that an institution chooses to do nothing despite evidentiary support.

A simple first step is condemning the perpetrator. It’s heartening to see how many do protect their students, but the many who do not do so ensure that this is still an issue.

Recruiting people of color, knocking down socio-economic barriers, and making the field more inclusive won’t mean much if the very people we’re recruiting are mistreated and/or pushed out.

Current Projects

Athena, my astute research assistant.

My undergraduate thesis on the agoranomoi (public notaries) in Greco-Roman Egypt was my first big project on the ancient world and was published in 2019.

I’ve continued to study these officials across the Greek world and a book chapter will appear at some point in the future.

I’m working on yet another project on the agoranomoi, this time a study of the socio-economic status of the individuals who held the office in Egypt. This paper also functions as my MA thesis for my PhD program. I’m a big supporter of combining papyrological and epigraphic material and this project is thereby accompanied by a small corpus of papyri and inscriptions (and a single [but ready to mingle] ostracon).

And to emphasize that I am indeed capable of writing about something other than notaries, I’ll also mention that I’m currently reworking a paper on the censorship of writing in Roman Egypt.

What’s next for me? Editions of papyri, hopefully!

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