Scholars in Context: Mohammed Muharram
Jadaliyya's Scholars in Context series consists of Q&As in which scholars of the Middle East describe their research and the paths they took to arrive at it. The series provides a platform for these scholars to highlight the significance of their work, identify the audiences they seek to reach, and outline their future research trajectories, giving readers an in-depth look at the latest research in a given field.
Jadaliyya (J): What is the main focus of your current research and how does it connect to or depart from your previous work?
Mohammed Muharram (MM): My current research focuses on the intersection of postcolonial studies, Arabic literature and culture, and the emerging field of the blue humanities.
My scholarly journey began with an intense exploration of the concept of “the Other” in Arabic literature and culture, particularly in relation to the West. This endeavor delved into the intricate dynamics of representation, identity, and intercultural relationships. One of my core endeavors is driven by an observation I have made over the years: that seminal postcolonial textbooks and anthologies, like The Empire Writes Back, which celebrate heterogeneity, themselves marginalize Arabic texts. This sidelining, whether intentional or not, deprives global audiences of the richness and depth these works bring to postcolonial discourse. Leveraging my expertise as a postcolonial native speaker of Arabic, I am passionately exploring and advocating for these undervalued texts, many of which remain untranslated and unknown outside the Arab world. My mission is not only to study and analyze these works within their native context but also to champion their translation and broader global recognition. Hence, I wrote the book The Arab Writes Back, an article in The Minnesota Review, and made presentations in Turkey and Germany on “Can the Arab Speak?” and “Writing Back to the Other and the Self.”
As I journeyed deeper into this subject, I perceived an underlying cyclicality and became more attracted towards another different, yet equally significant “Other”—the environment that surrounds us, such as the invisible other, Covid-19, as well as the marginalized ocean which drives the more extensive, overarching environmental crisis of climate change. I would ask: what is the role of the humanities in dealing with these ecological crises? Amid this exploration, I discerned a noticeable gap in academic discussions: the element of water or the ocean, often marginalized in climate change discourse. Despite the profound implications of rising sea levels, changing oceanic temperatures, and the subsequent impacts on marine life and coastal communities, water remains a peripheral concern in many academic circles.
It is this lacuna that my current research seeks to address. Moving beyond the terrestrial confines of postcolonial studies and cultural narratives, I am diving into the blue humanities, an exploration of cultural, literary, and historical perspectives on water, oceans, and related seascapes. Through this lens, Arabic literature and culture can be re-evaluated, not just in terms of historical colonial relationships with the West, but in the context of a broader, more holistic relationship with the environment. This reframing perspective positions the Arab world not just in conversation with the West or within itself, but also in dialogue with the very waters that have shaped its histories, economies, and futures.
Given that the Arab world has a significant coastal geography and a rich history of maritime exploration, trade, and cultural exchange, there is a potential goldmine of interpretations that emerge when one considers the oceans and waters in postcolonial readings of Arabic literature.
J: What is the connection between your previous and current work? And how is that related to the Arab world?
MM: The key connection between my previous and current work lies in my continued emphasis on postcolonial themes, which serve as a bridge between traditional literary critique and newer environmental and maritime concerns. The addition of the blue humanities allows for a deeper understanding of how colonial histories, legacies of domination, and subsequent cultural shifts have been shaped not only by terrestrial events but also by human relationships with water bodies, navigation, and maritime culture. By weaving together postcolonial studies, the blue humanities, and Arabic literature and culture, my research can shed light on novel narratives and interpretations that are at once ecocritical, postcolonial, and deeply rooted in Arabic traditions and histories. This nuanced approach can provide a more holistic understanding of Arabic literature, emphasizing both the historical struggles of postcolonialism and the intricate relationship between people, culture, and the marine environment. The issue of water scarcity is glaringly evident in areas of the Arab world, with countries like Yemen grappling with significant shortages. Such scarcity not only impacts daily life and sustenance but also plays a pivotal role in amplifying economic inequalities. As resources become more limited, disparities in access and control over these resources become more pronounced, leading to broader socio-economic divides. Additionally, the specter of climate change and its resultant impacts, such as sea level rise, looms large. While some might pose the question of awareness and response—“Are Arabs unaware of the recent environmental challenges of climate change and rising sea levels?”—my research illuminates the cultural, literary, and historical nuances of this awareness, response, and the complexities therein.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does your research address?
MM: My research addresses a confluence of diverse yet interconnected themes such as the following: representation, Orientalism, Occidentalism, decoloniality, writing back, Covid-19, the ocean in climate change discourses, the scarcity of water resources in Yemen and the other Arab countries, the water war novels and films, and emerging trends in the blue humanities.
J: What brought you to this work? What was the source of inspiration?
MM: Inspiration came from multiple sources. It was an amalgamation of my foundational passion for postcolonial studies and Arabic literature, the revelations brought about by global events like Covid-19, and an observed gap in academic discourse regarding the blue humanities. This has been heightened when I joined the research group “Fiction Meets Science” at the University of Bremen, Germany, along with its partner initiative “Science-Humanities” hub at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom. I also taught new courses such as “Narratives of Ocean Cultures”and “Narratives of Sea Migration.” All these factors converged, guiding me to expand my research purview and explore these multifaceted themes in unison. The binding principle is the examination of the role of the humanities (especially literature and film) in filling in the gap in scientific knowledge about the environmental problems surrounding us and changing the attitudes of the public towards a better sustainable future. I believe that science has done its job; now it is the role of the humanities to inspire action towards sustainable development.
J: What audiences would you like to reach, and what kind of impact would you like your research and writing to have?
MM: I aim for my research to resonate with a broad and diverse audience, both within academia and beyond: academic scholars, students, policy makers, the public, and cultural and literary enthusiasts. In terms of impact, I would aim to raise awareness about the crucial and central role of water in climate change discourse, thereby making it a more central concern in both academic and public conversations. I also aim at bridging the gaps between seemingly disparate fields, emphasizing the interconnectedness of our world's challenges. In addition, I hope to inspire both individual and collective actions to address these pressing issues. Finally, one of my objectives is to introduce fresh, ecocritical readings of Arabic literature that add depth and dimension to our understanding, revealing narratives that may have previously been overshadowed.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MM: First, I am co-editing The Bloomsbury Companion to the Blue Humanities with well-reputed “blue humanities” scholars such as Steve Mentz (St John’s University, New York), who coined the term “blue humanities,” Serpil Oppermann (Cappadocia University, Turkey), whose recent book Blue Humanities was published by Cambridge University Press, and Sandra Young (Cape Town university, South Africa). Second, I am authoring Situating Yemen in Postcolonial Studies (Edinburgh University Press). Third, I am writing on Arabic Blue Humanities for journals and essay collections that will be published by Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Routledge, Palgrave Macmillan, Springer, and Columbia University Press. In this project I am delving into a treasure trove of texts written originally in Arabic that have yet to be translated into other languages.
J: As a scholar at risk from Yemen, have you written on your experience or related it to postcolonial issues that you addressed in your early work?
MM: Yes. I am now working on my experience as an exiled scholar at risk in Western academia. My personal journey intertwines deeply with the narratives of displacement and the challenges of academic freedom. Coming from war-torn Yemen, I became acutely aware of the vulnerabilities faced by scholars in conflict zones and the pressing need for sanctuary and support. I was fortunate to find a platform to continue my academic pursuits. This lived experience catalyzed a deeper commitment in me to advocate for scholars in similar predicaments. Now, from the vantage point of Western academia, I am passionately researching and documenting the stories of exiled scholars, highlighting the systemic challenges they encounter, and the resilience they demonstrate. Through my work, I aim to amplify the discourse around academic freedom, emphasizing its indispensable role in fostering a thriving, diverse, and innovative scholarly community. In doing so, I hope to contribute to creating more inclusive academic spaces and support structures that recognize, respect, and actively support scholars at risk, ensuring that voices silenced by conflict and repression find echo and resonance in global academia.