Relocating Middle East Studies: New Geographies of Discourse

Since arriving in Dubai, I’ve taken a fairly aggressive approach to reading non-Western literature, particularly contemporary Middle Eastern and South Asian fiction and long-form journalism. I’ve also been looking at Middle Eastern graphic novels in preparation for the Graphic Novel seminar I’m teaching in the Fall, and I continue to discover many wonderful graphic narratives being produced throughout the Middle East and North Africa. All of this has been exciting, but I haven’t yet had the opportunity to share my thoughts on these texts in a formal setting.

That will change when the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) comes to the American University in Dubai (AUD) for a conference on evolving political, economic, and cultural dynamics in the Middle East. AUD’s School of Arts & Sciences has a very active Middle Eastern Studies program, and its faculty has worked hard to bring BRISMES—one of the leading Middle Eastern Studies organizations—to AUD for what promises to be an intellectually-engaging three days of scholarly discussion and debate.

I will be joining the “Re-readings/Re-takes: Narratives in Literature and Media” panel, where I will present some of my research on what’s going on throughout the region viz. graphic novels (see abstract below). I can’t wait to meet with visiting scholars who will converge on AUD from around the world next month.

Graphic Novels, Web Comics, and New Narrative Forms in the Middle East

In his introduction to graphic novelist Joe Sacco’s comic-book series Palestine (1993-1995), Edward Said recalls how “liberated and subversive” he felt upon first encountering the comics medium, with its extravagant illustrations and fantastic, unconstrained narratives of conflict and adventure. He attributes his initial enthusiasm to adolescence, but he also admits how, after reading Sacco’s graphic narrative, he was “plunged directly back into the world of the first great intifada and, with even greater effect, back into the animated, enlivening world of the comics I had read so long ago.” The graphic novel’s subversive, liberating potential to tell the sorts of stories that are largely ignored by the popular media and literary fiction alike has not been lost on a new generation of storytellers working within the comics medium to re-read the contemporary sociopolitical realities of life in the Middle East. Indeed, the past decade has seen a remarkable proliferation of graphic narratives produced and distributed throughout the MENA region. This paper will examine how writer-illustrators such as Magdy El-Shafee (Metro: A Story of Cairo),  Amir Soltani and Khalil Bendib (Zahra’s Paradise), and Leila Abdelazaq (Baddawi) have seized on the comic form’s radical heteroglossia to interrogate topics ranging from religion to politics to sexuality in increasingly novel and challenging ways. By manipulating spatio-temporal dynamics to present multiple, simultaneous contexts within a single narrative, these graphic storytellers practice a sophisticated narratological approach to what has always been a popular medium, thus transforming a traditionally juvenile and ephemeral mode of pop-art into mature texts that capture aspects of life too often relegated to the margins of representation. Working from within their own independent publishing collectives and often adapting their work for online platforms, these young artists are producing an emerging body of literature that is re-shaping how contemporary readers perceive the challenges and triumphs of 21st century life in the Middle East.

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


Rethinking Democracy in Literature, Language and Culture

Good news came yesterday in the form of an acceptance letter to the Hellenic Association for the Study of English‘s conference, “Rethinking Democracy in Literature, Language and Culture.” The event is hosted by Aristotle University of Thessaloniki’s School of English Language and Literature and will take place from May 15-17, 2015. You can learn more by visiting the conference website. I’m eager to see the other panelists’ abstracts, which should be posted soon, but in the meantime I’ll settle for posting mine below:

Narratives of Domination and Resistance in the World’s Largest Democracy

India’s 2014 general elections reshaped the political status quo in the world’s largest democracy. Led by Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seized an outright majority in the nation’s lower house of parliament, thus securing Modi’s position as India’s 15th Prime Minister. Modi’s campaign slogan—Unity. Action. Progress.—echoes the mix of Hindutva and neoliberal ideologies that have distinguished the state of Gujarat, where he served as Chief Minister from 2001 to 2014, as a site of both human rights abuses and economic privatization. Indeed, the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, during which rioting Hindu nationalists murdered nearly 2,000 of their Muslim neighbors and displaced more than 150,000 others, did little to discourage multinational corporations from responding to Modi’s privatization policies with an influx of investment dollars. That such human rights abuses occur so comfortably alongside neoliberal economic developments in one of the world’s leading democracies raises troubling questions about democracy’s role in facilitating some of globalization’s most egregious abuses.

My paper addresses this problem as explored by two contemporary Indo-Anglian writers—Arundhati Roy and Neel Mukherjee. These writers critique the way Indian democracy privileges its neoliberal economic agenda over and against the basic human rights of its many impoverished ethnic/religious minorities and internally displaced denizens. Mukherjee’s 2014 novel, The Lives of Others, traces the development of India’s Naxalite insurgency from its early days of targeted attacks on local landlords in the 1960s to the present day guerrilla war it’s waging against the State’s ongoing attempt to forcibly relocate India’s Adivasi population from their native forests, thus clearing the way for multinational infrastructure projects and natural resource extraction. Mukherjee’s fictional narrative is bolstered by fellow novelist Arundhati Roy’s incisive piece of long-form journalism, Walking with the Comrades (2011), which not only provides a rare opportunity to listen to the Adivasi militants in their own words, but also establishes direct and compelling connections between the Naxalite insurgency and the human rights abuses that accompany India’s embrace of neoliberal economic policies in the wake of the Cold War. While Mukherjee and Roy are quick to acknowledge the Naxalite’s violent methods, they contextualize the insurgency in relation to the systematic human rights abuses that underwrite concepts like unity, action, and progress, all of which are promoted as fundamental to what the popular media often (and wrongly) calls the “deepening democracy in India.” If anything, Mukherjee and Roy expose a deepening crisis in democracy, a crisis that pits multinational business interests, backed by ultra-nationalist ethnic/religious majorities, against the basic democratic rights of those at the bottom of a rapidly-widening economic divide.

I’ve been thinking through the complexity of democracy for a few years now, so I’m pleased to have the opportunity to gather with a group of scholars committed to interrogating and/or theorizing democracy and its cultural representations. That I get to do so in the birthplace of ancient democracy makes the opportunity doubly exciting!

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