A very happy May Day to all who labor for a living, especially those who jeopardized their own health and welfare for the common good during the COVID-19 pandemic. And warmest greetings to all contingent, migrant, and undocumented laborers who work without the benefit of job security and/or legal protection, as well as to the millions of unpaid care workers who hold our basic social fabric together.
The International Labor Movement has won many notable victories, but its loftiest ideals have yet to be achieved. Walter Crane’s “A Garland for May Day” touches on a few of them:
Production for use not for profit
Solidarity of labor
A commonwealth when wealth is common
Art & enjoyment for all
Hope in work & joy in leisure
Cooperation & emulation not competition
The land for the people
May Day is a great opportunity to reflect on the value of these principles and to refocus our energies on working for more equitable social relations.
If you are able to do so, join a union! And if not, do what you can to forge connections with those who find themselves in similar positions. It is only by coming together that we can hope to achieve the noble goals of freedom and equality for all.
On Tuesday, December 12, 2017, I will discuss contemporary Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid’s recent novel Exit West as part of the American University in Dubai’s Arts & Sciences Lecture Series. Hamid’s novel focuses on a young couple from an unnamed South Asian (or perhaps Middle Eastern) city that is overrun by fundamentalist insurgents. They escape from the city through one of a series of mysterious black doors that begin to appear throughout the world, a passage that thrusts them into a global stream of refugees fleeing violence and poverty for a better life in the West. They are transported from their home city to Greece, and then to England and America. Along the way they are confronted by the hardships of displacement, the ugly nativist backlash in Europe and the United States, and the subtle yet enduring personal changes they experience as they interact with unfamiliar cultures and values.
Exit West is a remarkable example of transnational literature, a genre that adopts a self-consciously global, rather than local or national, perspective. It explores time-space compression (the black doors), the construction of multicultural identities, global role reversals (the nativists become “the natives”), and the global refugee crisis. My lecture will bring these strains together to demonstrate how literature is able to represent one of our great humanitarian challenges, and how accelerated globalization, and especially the global flow of people, is reshaping contemporary literature away from national literary traditions and toward a transnational literary consciousness.
The Arts & Sciences Lecture Series promotes interaction between AUD’s faculty, students, and staff. Hosted twice during regular semesters, these evenings provide opportunities for faculty to share their research with the university community.
Yet scattered gems remain throughout the archive. For example, I recently came across the below image by artist Paul Mavrides, co-creator of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. It accompanies an excerpt of Burroughs’s unpublished novella The Revised Boyscout Manual in the 1982 issue of RE/Search, which was dedicated to the work of Burroughs, Brion Gysin, and the industrial punk band Throbbing Gristle. Burroughs originally conceived of The Revised Boyscout Manual as a part of his novel The Wild Boys, but he eventually decided to revise it into a stand-alone narrative. It’s not as aggressively bizarre as many of his other fictions, but it’s still an interesting, highly political work that provides an important context for his other fictions of the period.
I like Mavrides’s illustration. The appalling hybrid human/insect face framed by anemone-like tentacles captures something of Burroughs’s interest in the human as biological organism, an animal species prone to viruses and caught in the flux of evolution. It is appropriately uncanny and leaves me wishing Mavrides had illustrated more of Burroughs’s work. Unfortunately, this is the only example I’m aware of, though I’m hopeful there are similar works I haven’t yet discovered.
If you know of any other illustrations of Burroughs’s writing, whether by Mavrides or anyone else, please share in the comments. Potential leads are much appreciated.
Over three beautiful early-summer days on the edge of the Arabian Gulf, the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) joined with the American University in Dubai’s Middle Eastern Studies Program to host the outstanding “Re-Locating Middle East Studies: New Geographies of Discourse” conference. With eight scholarly panels, featuring over thirty papers, and keynote addresses by Joseph Massad and Gary Bunt, “Re-locating Middle East Studies” was one of the most informative meetings I’ve attended in some time. One of the reasons I found the conference so interesting is that my work on Middle Eastern graphic novels crosses disciplinary boundaries (a crossing that makes a certain amount of sense considering the Middle Eastern Studies’ interdisciplinary nature, to mention nothing of the academic post I hold in in the Middle East), and I ended up learning a lot from the different theories and methodologies that inform academic work in this area. But the real reason that I found the conference so rewarding is that I was genuinely impressed by the quality of the scholarship on display at the various panels and plenary sessions.
Two of my personal highlights were Sameera Ahmed’s “Pushing the Agenda: Cultivating Research Capacity in the Sultanate of Oman” and Luca Nevola’s “Oh SMS Enter the Phone of My Soulmate!: Love, Mobile Phones and the Codification of Intimacy in Contemporary Yemen.” Both Ahmed and Nevola use field research to understand different cultural trends—from the traditional to the postmodern—along the southern strip of the Arabian Peninsula. Ahmed’s research, for example, draws on interviews and focus groups to construct a more robust understanding of veiling practices in Oman. She argues convincingly that attending to the opinions of Omani women toward veiling across different regions (interior vs. coastal), localities (city, village, rural), age, marital status, and educational background serves as an antidote to the often uninvited politicization of the hijab, niqab and burqa. Listening to the voices of women who choose to wear the veil helps us understand the diversity of veiling practices and allows us to begin to approach the complexity of meaning inherent in these practices. Similarly, Nevola draws on field research among Yemeni youth, both male and female, to show how young lovers in Yemen are using mobile phones, and in particular SMS communication systems, to engage in novel acts of poetry writing. Focusing on a set of SMS love poems he gathered during his fieldwork (some of which are whimsical and inventive), Nevola considers how this mode of communication affects the language of honor and modesty, the traditional semantics of love, and the conventions of courtship and marriage in the Old City of Sana’a and the Yemeni countryside. His findings suggest that contemporary telecommunication technologies challenge well-established courtship rituals, while at the same time advancing and deepening Yemen’s rich poetic tradition.
I was also impressed by Firat Oruc’s “Hekayat Khaleejiya: Short Filmmaking in the Gulf” and Nadia Wardeh’s and Fadi Haddad’s “Toward the ‘Social Media Generation’: Rethinking Traditional Instructional Classroom Sources.” Oruc’s presentation focused on the vibrant contemporary filmmaking scene in the Gulf region, including the United Arab Emirates. He argues that the region’s young, experimental filmmakers are in the process of developing a language for the complex interrelations between globalization and cultural heritage, as well as the deeply felt anxieties of rapid social change, a language he calls “post-desert modernism.” He also speculates, and quite interestingly so, on the relationship between geographically small countries (Kuwait, Qatar, UAE) and the genre of short film. Wardeh and Haddad, on the other hand, draw on shifts in the contemporary media environment to argue that the humanities and social sciences have yet to seriously engage in the ongoing transition from the traditional book/news/media culture to a networked society, or the social media generation. Drawing on a range of wonderfully humorous case studies, including the Abla Fahita web series, they question the possibility of accepting new media platforms as alternatives or supplements to more conventional pedagogical resources. Like those engaged in the digital humanities more broadly, Wardeh and Haddad see emerging technologies as a fundamental (and inevitable) aspect of the twenty-first century classroom.
I also presented some of my thoughts on contemporary Middle Eastern graphic novels and web comics on the “Re-readings/Re-takes: Narratives in Literature and Media” panel (which also featured Nevola, Wardeh, and Haddad). My paper—“Graphic Novels, Web Comics, and New Narrative Forms in the Middle East”—focused on artists Magdy El-Shafee, Amir Soltani, Khalil Bendib, and Leila Abdelrazaq, with an eye toward understanding how they use the comics medium to tell the sorts of stories that are all too often marginalized by mainstream media outlets. My paper attempted to show that, while the Middle Eastern comics scene is in a nascent stage, there is reason to be optimistic that the comics medium, and especially web comics, will continue to develop in productive directions throughout the Middle East and North Africa, thus allowing more writers and artists to seize power over their own stories and re-read regional culture and politics for a global audience.
Finally, Joseph Massad’s and Gary Bunt’s keynote addresses were perfect capstones to the conference’s many fascinating papers. Joseph Massad’s remarks, “How Not to Study Women and Gender in the Muslim World,” was by turns controversial and intellectually stimulating. He was at his best when discussing how the logic of developmentalism tends to overwhelm academic, media, and NGO representations of the Middle East in general, and of Muslim women in particular. When it comes to cultural autonomy, the forces of neoliberal developmentalism are indeed insidious (something I have begun pursuing as a part of my research agenda), and Massad has a clear-eyed view of how these forces work to destroy sites of cultural difference that threaten Western capitalist hegemony. Where his talk was controversial was in suggesting that the way to properly study and discuss gender-specific practices in the Muslim world is to exoticize gender-specific practices in the West. For example, Massad focused on female circumcision as an example of a practice that Western organizations, including the United Nations, commit considerable resources—both intellectual and material—to combating, while simultaneously ignoring similar practices (e.g., male circumcision, cosmetic surgery, tattooing, etc.) that are pervasive in the West. Although he was careful to note that he objects to reducing western culture to these practices, the gist of his argument did just that, and in the process he drew a series of false equivalences (between male and female circumcision, for example) to which a number of the conference participants objected.
Unlike Massad’s more politically charged keynote, Gary Bunt’s presentation, “Interpreting Cyber Islamic Environments,” provided a comprehensive overview of online Islamic resources and communities, from the early days of listserves and chatrooms to today’s more advanced digital networks. Bunt has been tracking these developments since the invention of cyber environments as such, and his findings suggest that cyberspace is impacting on notions of Islamic religious authority by allowing alternative hierarchies to challenge and usurp traditional centers of power by virtue of their digital proficiency and online networks. These alternative hierarchies range from cyber mosques, complete with archived sermons and live counseling services, to jihadist networks that have mastered the use of social media for recruitment and propaganda purposes. What is most striking about these cyber Islamic environments is how widespread and comprehensive they are. Put simply: the internet has proven to be incredibly fertile ground for Islam. Indeed, as Bunt made clear in response to a question regarding cyber Christian environments, Muslims have far outpaced Christians and other religious groups in their use of the internet as a site of religious exploration and proselytization. I’m humbled by Bunt’s mastery of this material; when it comes to Islam and Muslims in cyberspace, his research bona fides are second to none. For more on this and related matters, check out his website: Virtually Islamic.
And of course, as with any good conference, “Re-locating Middle East Studies” was more than just panel presentations and keynote addresses. I also enjoyed mingling with scholars from around the world, including North America, Europe, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia, and I learned a good deal about Middle Eastern Studies by chatting with various conference participants over coffee or while enjoying the various meals we shared over the weekend. This was a truly international event, and thus enriching beyond the purview of the scholarship itself. I look forward to future collaborations between the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies and the American University in Dubai, and I hope to see another such conference in Dubai in the not-too-distant future.
To learn more about “Re-locating Middle East Studies: New Geographies of Discourse,” visit the conference website.