The first time I entered a desert was fourteen years ago, in the winter of 2002. I drove west from New Jersey to Indiana, and then southwest to Gallup, New Mexico, where I rested for the first time since leaving home. From Gallup I continued west into the Painted and Sonoran Deserts, before cutting back through the Chihuahuan Desert on my way east through Texas to Alabama, and then northeast to New Jersey.
Looking back on that journey, I’m certain I entered the desert without realizing I had even arrived. My concept of desert landscapes owed more to illustrated stories of Moses wandering the Sinai, or The Road Runner leaving Wile E. Coyote in a cloud of dust, than it did to any actually existing desert. My imagined deserts were barren landscapes full of danger and desolation, the palettes bleak, and death abounding. But what I found in the American Southwest was vibrant and full of life.
America’s deserts are rugged, but they also capture color. The reds and browns of the soil. The blues and purples of the distant mountains. The sky often rich with clouds, fast moving and prone to sudden showers you can see as swathes of gray against the horizon. But what surprised me most were the varied greens and yellows: A landscape alive with flora fed by those intermittent rains.
The same can be said for deserts around the world. They too are alive. Earlier this year I drove through a portion of the Arabian Desert on my way from Dubai, where I currently live, to Muscat, the capital of Oman. The landscape between these cities is marked by shifting dunes and dark-rocked mountains that cut through the sand, yet even here the earth shows signs of life. My two young sons, looking in confusion from the backseat, didn’t believe me when I told them we were in the desert. They couldn’t see it any better than I could when I first encountered it back in 2002.
It seems to me that this condition of being unable to recognize the desert for what it is is a symptom of ecological know-nothingness . I have lived my life content in ecological ignorance, and while I’ve learned to see the desert through the flora, I cannot name a single one of those plants, let alone explain their relationship to each other and the land from which they grow. They are a blur, an impression.
An acquaintance of mine suggested that rather than make a New Year’s resolution, we would be better served by committing to a “theme” for the year, the idea being that a theme offers a more nuanced, expansive way to affect change than a resolution. A theme. Something around which to organize our thoughts and actions. I like this idea, so I choose for myself the theme of “ecology.”
I want to think of ecology broadly, as encompassing what Félix Guattari calls the “three ecologies”: natural ecology, social ecology, and mental ecology. He shows how these ecological registers come to bear on each other; when one of them falls out of balance, the others follow. In other words, the three ecologies are integral parts of a larger ecosystem, which speaks to my earlier point about ecological know-nothingness. Being blind to the desert is to be blind to much more, including ourselves.
Throughout his ecological writing, Gary Snyder stresses the importance of developing an intimacy with our surroundings, including learning the names of the plants that grow around us. This means looking closely and accounting for what’s there, noting the details and the subtle variations that occur over space and time. This means staying put and watching where we step.
Knowing our neighbors’ names may be the beginning of basic civility, but it’s also — at a deeper level — the beginning of responsible coexistence, which is necessarily bound up in some degree of self-knowledge. To watch where we step is to look at our own feet. I am writing this from my balcony in Dubai, approximately one kilometer from the Persian Gulf. It is December 27, 2016. The weather is mild. I am looking at a tree. It’s a mature date palm, its fronds erect and in excellent health.
There is too much at stake at this critical juncture to continue in ecological ignorance. This is true for the deserts, the mountains, the forests, the rivers, the oceans. But it’s also true for human sociability, for the stability of our communities, for our bodies and our minds. If there is any hope of avoiding the worst of our accelerating ecological crisis, it very well may depend upon our learning to see clearly what surrounds us every day.
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.