The Middle East Studies Graduate Forum at Rutgers University hosted “Researching the Middle East after 2011: Challenges, Queries, and Questions” on 17 October 2014. The day-long collaborative, interdisciplinary symposium brought twenty scholars from eleven universities together to discuss producing innovative scholarship about the Middle East and North Africa despite social, civil, and political unrest. Many countries in the region have become unstable or untenable research sites, archives are closed, research contacts have been displaced and funding opportunities have dried up. The symposium gave scholars at all stages of their careers the opportunity to share research and research strategies. More importantly, the symposium started a conversation about how to continue to produce responsible, innovative scholarship on the region’s present and past.
Questions about how the region’s changing landscape has affected academic production guided the symposium. Have “revolution,” civil war, and the latest vestiges of colonial occupation foregrounded certain research problems? What questions does the current unrest render difficult to explore? How are the present conflicts different from previous periods of crisis and contention in the Middle East and North Africa; how might charting continuities be beneficial for scholars conducting research today?
The role between researcher and participant has blurred in many research contexts in the Middle East and North Africa. The morning roundtable offered an opportunity to reflect on the ability to do research in the Middle East and North Africa as research roles are changing. Maya Mikdashi pushed scholars to think about the ways emotional and political attachments to the Middle East shape, inspire, and challenge the work produced within the US academy on the region. Reading excerpts from Lebanese-American poet Etal Adnan’s, In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country, Mikdashi stressed the difficulty of producing scholarship from a country that is currently bombing two countries in the region and supporting two authoritarian regimes. Both Mohammed Ezzeldin and Sally Bonet picked up on Mikdashi’s call for thinking through the importance of opening up ourselves to the affective registers of the work we do. Ezzeldin presented on the concept of victimhood. He reflected on how to make sense of personal and political experience; how to be an involved participant while at the same time, thinking about how narrative and memory influence popular action. Bonet’s work with Iraqi refugees resettled in the United States raised similar questions. Reading excerpts from her field notes, Bonet reflected on the deep disjuncture between the participants’ notions of what being a refugee would mean and the everyday reality of settling in the United States. Her reflections on the experience of working with vulnerable populations exposed the challenges researchers face when a clean divide between the “participant” and the “researcher” does not exist. Kira Jumet talked about the technical challenges researchers face in Egypt today. She addressed the lack of institutional and financial support for fieldwork, how to preserve data collected during research, and the possibility of extortions and threats by the security forces. Moderating the panel, Becky Schulthies, commented on the need to think about questions of authorship, consent and documentation. She further emphasized the importance of retracing what it means to be a “speaking subject” versus a “listening subject.”
In the “Excavations and Fragmentations: An Unruly Laboratory” panel, Ella Wind and Kimberly Consroe commented on the effects of the Syrian conflict on their research. Wind focused on the Syrian drought and the implications of talking about “drought” as a political rather than environmental issue. Wind proposed that the studying the political economy of Syrian agriculture illustrates that the political and the environmental factors explaining the Syrian uprising are closely intertwined. Consroe, who worked on the border with Syria in the Turkish Hatay region, reflected on her experiences conducting archaeological research from 2009 to 2012. She talked about her ability to find valuable research opportunities despite an unstable political environment. Shifting to Egypt and the film industry, Alia Ayman provided a critique of the independent cinema industry and questioned the periodization of the revolution and its transformative effect on the power relations shaping film production. Ayman stressed that we cannot understand the dynamism of the film industry as the product of a given moment of a “revolution,” but rather one that spans years of production. Moderator Tuna Artun questioned whether the filmmakers were self-censoring. He also asked about the impact of new media on documenting the regional uprisings and their effects.
The “(De)Stabilizing Gender in Turbulent Times” panel brought together three scholars whose research addressed how states responded to the making and unmaking of gender norms in periods of unrest, such as the Lebanese Civil war, the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, and the government crack-down on political dissidents in Kuwait. Jeremy Randall exposed how the gendered subjects in Ziad Rabhani’s plays from the 1970s offered a window into the country’s changing political atmosphere. Alaa Murad investigated how the sexualization of political power was a main vehicle for the normalization of sexual violence in Egypt. She elaborated on how the interplay between the subjugated citizen and an oppressive state that continues to use sexual forms of torture, has contributed to citizen-on-citizen use of sexual violence as a display of power, for the purposes of humiliation and subjugation. Madeleine Wells thought her pregnant body would accord her respect during research in Kuwait because of cultural norms in the Gulf, but her experience exposed how states can control the delivery of gendered privileges. Yasmine Khayyat, noted in her role as moderator, that the body was the site through which citizens, and researchers, responded to the attempts of states to regulate gender. The panel exposed the importance of exploring how assumptions about gender norms are challenged as states lose control, or attempt to regain control of, their populations.
Toby Jones moderated the “Capital Circuits, Basic Needs: Economic Networks in the Middle East” panel, which explored the social and political effects of economic exchanges on the populations of the Middle East. Peter Gran observed that the uprisings in Egypt force us to confront the role of the underclass in modern Middle Eastern History—he claimed the importance of the underclass is frequently ignored in histories of the region. He proposed a reorientation of social theory in the US academy to counteract the phenomenon of excluding “the mass.” Sherene Seikaly presented work that unearthed economic continuities undergirding the 1977 “Bread Riots” in Egypt and the uprisings in Tahrir Square in January 2011. Both waves of protests used access to basic needs to rally “the people” of Egypt to protest in the streets against the Egyptian government. Dena Al-Adeeb explored how the global art market created the cultural districts in Abu Dhabi and Doha. She questioned how the artistic processes of place-making and identity formation are affected by transnational artistic exchanges. Al-Adeeb posited that Western artistic consumption served as a site of agency and knowledge production for artists operating in the new arts districts in the Gulf.
In the “(Dis)Engaging the State” panel, the discussions revolved around the different loci through which the state can be studied in an ever-changing political climate in Egypt. Nada El-Kouny moderated the panel and helped shape discussion around questions of reform and transformation, the binary between resistance and domination, in addition to, a critique of “activism.” Mai Alkhamissi used the Egyptian Craftsmen Union, created in the aftermath of the eighteen-day uprising in 2011, to problematized the binary between reform and transformation. Alkhamissi argued that through everyday “attritional” processes of reform, the union members transform their lives and their understanding of democracy and politics in the context of an ongoing revolution. Derek Ludovici shared the challenges he faced trying to research the labor movement in Mahalla al-Kubra. He had to relocate his field site to the American University in Cairo campus where he studied labor activism within the university’s workforce. Ludovici’s presentation chronicled the difficulty of conducting research under authoritarian regimes and the impossibility to conducted research outside of state surveillance in those circumstances. Karim Malak provided a critique of concept of “activism,” specifically in regards to how activism and the human rights agenda have created norms about the universality of religious freedom in Egypt.
Eve Troutt Powell, Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, ended the day with an insightful keynote address about conducting research in the Middle East. Troutt Powell conceded that due to the changing political realities in the Middle East and North Africa many of the resources that have been available to scholars in the past are no longer available. She reminded everyone that this is not the first moment when scholars of the Middle East needed to be creative in how they pitched research projects and savvy in how they applied for funding. She was denied access to the Egyptian National Archive while researching her dissertation. The archive housed the documents at the core of her proposed dissertation project. She turned her attention to the Egyptian theater archive, which transformed not just her project, but her motivation as a scholar. She became a cultural historian because of the time she spent analyzing plays written by Egyptians at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Professor Troutt Powell emphasized that while the research futures we may have imagined for ourselves may not be possible, the work we are striving to produce is important to pursue. She emphasized that scholars of the Middle East were responsible to two publics. The American public, which was in need of nuanced, informed scholarship not just about the present but about the region’s history as well and the publics of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, which is either home or an adopted home for many scholars of the region. She encouraged students in the research stage to embrace moments where new opportunities arose. She emphasized the need to be creative about securing access to resources to ensure that both publics are served by responsible scholarship.
Dena Al-Adeeb is an artist and scholar-activist born in Baghdad, Iraq and is currently based in New York. She is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Department, Culture and Representation track with a focus in Arts Politics at NYU.
Mai Alkhamissi received her MA in Anthropology and Cultural Politics from Goldsmiths College, University of London.
Tuna Artun is Assistant Professor of History at Rutgers. His work deals with the social and cultural history of knowledge in the Ottoman world, with a particular focus on alchemy.
Alia Ayman is a graduate student at the Middle East Studies Center at AUC. She is also a filmmaker, curator, and one of the founding members of Zawya, an art house cinema in downtown Cairo.
Sally Bonet is an educator who was born in Sudan and has taught in the Arab world for several years. She is a Ph.D. Candidate at Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education and has recently received a Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship for her research with Iraqi refugees and their encounters with citizenship in the United States.
Kimberly Consroe is a Ph.D. Candidate at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Her dissertation is about human dentition excavated from Tell Atchana in Hatay, Turkey, and the genetic information it provides concerning migration and human variation.
Nada El-Kouny is a Ph.D. student in the Anthropology department at Rutgers. Nada is interested in looking at infrastructure, mobility, violence, intergenerational disjunctures and political contention in rural Egypt. Nada was a co-convener of the symposium.
Mohammed Ezzeldin is a Ph.D. student in History at The Graduate Center, CUNY. His work traces the genealogies of revolution in Egypt and the transformation of violence and temporality in the decades that preceded the revolution.
Peter Gran is the professor of Middle Eastern History at Temple University. His work concentrates on Egyptian history and Eurocentrism in the writing of history. He published Islamic Roots of Capitalism: Egypt 1760-1840 (1979), Beyond Eurocentrism: A New View of Modern World History (1996), The Rise of the Rich (2009).
Toby Jones is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers. Jones does work on the environment, energy, and the history of science and technology in the Middle East. He published Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia (2010).
Yasmine Khayyat is Assistant Professor of Arabic Literature at the African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Languages & Literatures Department at Rutgers. She does cultural memory studies on Lebanon.
Derek Ludovici received his MA from AUC in 2013. He is a PhD student in Anthropology CUNY focusing on changing labor-state relations since January 25, 2011.
Kira Jumet is a PhD Candidate in the Rutgers University Department of Political Science. Her dissertation, “Mobilization, Grievances, and Political Opportunities in the Egyptian Uprisings,” examines protest mobilization during the 2011 Revolution and June 30, 2013 uprising.
Karim Malak is an MA candidate at Columbia University’s MESAAS Department. His research interests include neoliberalism in Egypt and the modern subject, religious freedom more broadly in the Middle East and Egypt’s Coptic Christians.
Taylor Moore is a Ph.D. student in History at Rutgers University her research centers around histories of the body, “technologies of the self,” and the intersections of race and sexuality in the production of subjectivities, particularly with regards to processes of heterosocialization, in the Middle East and North Africa. Taylor was a co-convener of the symposium.
Maya Mikdashi is a sociocultural anthropologist who is currently an Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Research on Women, Rutgers. Maya is also Co-Founder/ Co-Editor of Jadaliyya.
Alaa Murad is currently in the final year of a joint MA degree in Near Eastern & Judaic Studies and Conflict & Coexistence Studies at Brandeis University.
Jeremy Randall is a third year Ph.D. student in the History program at The Graduate Center, CUNY. His research focuses on the role of affect and ecology in understanding the intersections of leftism and popular culture in Lebanon during the 1970s-1980s.
Nova Robinson is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Rutgers. Her dissertation "Lobbying the League: Syrian Women’s Transnational Pan-Arab Activism, 1910-1949" focuses on transnational Syrian women`s networks in the first half of the 20th century that lobbied the League of Nations on behalf of women`s rights and Arab sovereignty. Nova was a co-convener of the symposium.
Becky L. Schulthies is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers. Her work is on media production and reception in urban Fez, Morocco.
Sherene Seikaly is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the editor of Arab Studies Journal and Co-Founder/Co-Editor of Jadaliyya.
Eve Troutt Powell (Keynote) is an Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of History and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She has published Tell This in My Memory: Stories of Enslavement from Egypt, Sudan and the Ottoman Empire (2012) and A Different Shade of Colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain and the Mastery of the Sudan (2003).
Madeleine Wells is a PhD Candidate at the George Washington University studying comparative politics and international relations. Her research addresses nation-building and sectarian politics in the Arabian Gulf.
Ella Wind is a graduate student in Near East Studies at NYU. Her research focuses primarily on the political economy of Turkey and the Levant. She is also a Co-Editor of Syria-related content for Jadaliyya and a researcher for the Syria Refugee Portal project.