Re-locating Middle East Studies Conference Roundup

Over three beautiful early-summer days here 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 by dabbling in Middle Eastern Studies I’m crossing disciplinary boundaries (a crossing that makes a certain amount of sense considering the field’s interdisciplinary nature, to mention nothing of the academic post I hold in in the Middle East), and I was intrigued by 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 are using 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 extensive 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 San’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 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 amazing 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, though they are theorizing ways for these technologies to enhance rather than supplant old media.

Day 3 (95)
Presenting my remarks on Middle Eastern graphic novels and web comics

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 have seized on the comics medium to tell the sorts of stories that are all too often marginalized by mainstream media outlets. I hoped to show that, while the Middle Eastern comics scene is still in a nascent stage, there is reason to be optimistic that the comics medium, and especially web comics, will continue to develop in evermore productive ways, thus allowing more writers and artists to seize power over their own stories and re-read contemporary Middle Eastern culture and politics for a global audience. My presentation was well attended, which is always a treat, and the audience was very helpful in asking challenging questions and suggesting further areas for exploration. I had a great time!

Finally, Joseph Massad’s and Gary Bunt’s keynote addresses were the 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 he gets controversial is 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 seizes 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.

Joseph Massad delivering his keynote address on the opening night of the Re-locating Middle East Studies conference
Joseph Massad delivering his keynote address on the opening night of the Re-locating Middle East Studies conference

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 most advanced digital frameworks. 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 interesting 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, no matter how outstanding. I look forward to future collaborations between BRISMES and AUD, and I hope to see another such conference here 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.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2015 Micah Robbins