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Contesting Narratives, Locating Power (Lund Conference)

Disoriented: Rethinking Middle East, Far West, and the Points in Between

[Picasso: Women of Algiers] [Picasso: Women of Algiers]

Over the course of the period in which I have taught the general survey of modern middle history (defined as approximately the late 18th century to the present) several things have become apparent in the way that the 1) regional and particular narrative(s) unfold/s and 2) undergraduate students’ understanding of them. In particular, the narrative is one in which the intensity of the interaction between the ‘Middle East’ and the ‘west’ both increases and transforms, and most students end up understanding this as a dynamic in which the west “acts” and the east merely (and only) “reacts”. This apprehension takes place despite the field’s efforts to incorporate narratives of gender history and labor history, for instance, and primary sources, all of which have been touted as ideal ways to instruct on indigenous agency. Even then, however, with such demonstrations of agency – from un/veiling to multiple modernities to new political ideologies – the “west”’s actions are still seen as a reference point or inspiration. This presentation is not an attempt to refute or rewrite the truism that regional events and identities were in part formed by contact with Europe and later the US. However, as these recent revolutions can help illustrate in a manner perhaps not as clear before is the acute ways in which societies and communities – even individuals – from Morocco to Iran were extraordinarily engaged among themselves and with one another.

One way to do this might be to situate modern Middle East history vis a vis Europe so as to incorporate in more determined ways recent historical studies that show how the European metropoles (and later US) were themselves formed and shaped by their interactions with the east.  Another can be to rethink historical periodization in such a way as to bypass those temporal signposts marked by jarring contact with Europe (e.g. Napoleon’s invasion, colonialism, etc) in favor of a periodization that accounts for continuities in subjectivity. For example, historical periods that understand Arab Ottoman identity as a marker, and which would then encompass a larger part of the post-WWI era, or that look at the continuity by independent states of certain colonial policies. In this vein, a deeper and more critical analysis of nationalism can also begin, even at the introductory instructional level. By extension, then, perhaps we can also begin to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of discussing/teaching the region as a region, both historically and contemporarily.


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