Baraza Comes to an End

After having taken a hiatus from regular production, the editorial leadership of Baraza has decided to discontinue the website as an ongoing project. The content produced over the nearly five years of collaboration will be preserved in the Fall of 2016.

Baraza started as the articulation of the desire by graduate students of the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University to think through the intellectual, cultural, and political possibilities of a fledgling institutional arrangement that identified a portion of the world whose vastness was rivaled only by its diversity. Distinct histories, different languages, and dissimilar disciplines threated to create distance and dissonance among us. But we decided to emphasize shared histories of experience and exchange as well as focusing on the theoretical unity of studying regions that have been subject to colonial rule from within the American Academy. We decided that experimenting in a medium often not associated with reflection was an important part of both expanding the reach of our research and thinking as well as opening up the institution to a wider base of participation and engagement.

Since then, Baraza has taken many forms but it always reflected the same activity. This activity was one of reflection, collaboration, and experimentation by a network of students, teachers, institutions, journalists, and artists. While we were always ambitious, this self-directed pedagogical activity taught us far more than what we imagined as well as developed working relationships and camaraderie we couldn’t have foreseen. Accordingly, we feel that Baraza was a success and we are happy in knowing that beyond Baraza, that activity continues as we carry the skills acquired and insights earned.

We would like to express a deep gratitude for the Department’s generous moral and material support of the project. The Center for Digital Research and Scholarship at Columbia deserves a special note of gratitude for its technical assistance and encouragement.  Finally, Baraza would have been nothing without the contribution of time, energy, and ideas of contributors on campus and from around the world.

A Year at Baraza

The past year has given us time to consider our experience editing this online space for critical reflection on the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. As editors of Baraza, we have been grateful for the exposure to our peers’ work and how we ourselves gained from the exchanges of the editorial process.

So after a year, why do we still think this online space is important?

One reason is that it provides an important intellectual exercise: authoring work accessible to a broader audience. As aspiring specialists in a variety of world regions studying everything from modern novels to ancient conceptions of science, it is easy for us to fall into the trap of jargon. Not everyone uses the word “deploy” outside the context of military movements or speaks several non-European languages, but when writing for an audience of specialists, it is easy to make these assumptions. As we edit Baraza, we have been, and aim to continue, cultivating a platform which encourages writing that engages a wide array of interests. Ultimately, this accessibility attracts feedback from a diverse range of people, sometimes even scholars and public figures — as with novelist Minna Sif’s engagement with Mara Lasky’s post on Sif’s Massalia Blues.

Accessibility also lends itself to another important aspect of our fields: interdisciplinary reflection. Authors learn how to receive different forms of feedback. As readers, we have benefited from exposure to different types of pieces that draw on literatures and types of evidence outside of our own field. For example, reading Cristina Violante’s post on valves and technologies of hygiene in the Middle East and Joy Garnett’s “Cross Pollination”, we were able to see how history, sociology, literature, and the study of power, when mixed well, can yield fascinating insights. Finally, accessibility can also mean striking a more reflective tone, as we saw in Shiv Subramaniam’s piece titled “The Question & the Kelvi” on listening, reading and the Kelvi.

As editors, we have been grateful for the chance to engage with students and faculty within our department, the wider Columbia community, and elsewhere outside of campus. As we solicited pieces, we were able to develop important editor-writer relationships, and as we workshopped together, we had the chance to critically engage with each others’ thought processes. Professionally, we have benefited from building up a network of students and faculty with whom we have worked together — often over a period of several weeks or even months — in editing, exchanging ideas, and finally posting and circulating to an audience of colleagues. Baraza has given us an opportunity to focus on our editing skills by engaging horizontally with our peers. As students, we devote countless hours to editing our own work, so having a chance to see others’ writings and to work with our peers to implement suggestions has been rewarding and beneficial for our editing and writing skills.

We wish to conclude this very fruitful year at Baraza by thanking everyone in the department and outside who have read, written for, and offered feedback on our posts. And, we hope a yet more engaging future for Baraza because it is more than just a blog; it is a space that is capable of exceeding the limits of the academic.

Game-Changer: The Rise and Expansion of the Global University

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A mural representing the relationship between NYU and NYUAD. http://new.pentagram.com/2011/04/paula-scher-nyu-abu-dhabi-mura/

There is a de facto 21st century gold rush among elite universities in the United States. In the age of globalized capital, privatization of the state, and commodified education, top-ranked, private universities and colleges are expanding beyond U.S. borders and building proxy campuses in locations fundamental to American economic and military interests. Of the U.S. universities engaged in this project, the pioneer has been New York University (NYU), the first university ever to clone its flagship campus into a standalone campus abroad. In doing so, NYU president John Sexton — infamous for declaring that he’d turn NYU into a leader in the “ICE sector (1)” — upped the ante in the race for such capital by building a new campus in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.). New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) built itself its own private island in the Persian Gulf with a name fit for the neoliberal ideal it was trying to embody: the Island of Happiness (Saadiyat Island). Beyond happiness, a third of the world’s oil reserves lie beneath and around this little island — and Iran is right across the gulf.

There is hardly a project in the Persian Gulf that is not met with controversy. This one is no exception. The construction of NYUAD is murky business for many reasons, particularly NYU’s contracting of Nardello & Co. — an investigating firm that prides itself on getting high-profile corporations out of wrongdoing allegations —  to perform a fact finding mission regardings its labor practices in the construction of the Saadiyat Island campus. In addition to the major ethical questions posed by the abuse of labor used to construct NYUAD’s campus, the project represents a marriage of the university with oil capital and U.S. military and economic strategic interests to create the “global university.”

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Literature and Modernity: A Review of Sudipta Kaviraj’s ‘The Invention of Private Life’

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Like many students of South Asian literature, I was delighted when the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) was launched this January. The MCLI –– whose general editor is Sheldon Pollock –– is a collection of South Asian literary works in over twelve different languages. Although some of the volumes in the MCLI will be Sanskrit works, the library’s vital contribution will be rendering available texts that belong to vernacular South Asian literary traditions such as Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, Bengali, Sindhi and Punjabi. The importance of making vernacular works of South Asian literature more accessible is paramount. As Rohan Murty, the founder of the MCLI, points out, many students in India today are more familiar with Robert Frost and Shakespeare than they are with Indian classics.

In a certain sense, the MCLI is complemented by Sudipta Kaviraj’s new book, The Invention of Private Life: Literature and Ideas, which also draws our attention to the importance of South Asian vernacular literature, specifically Bengali literature. In this book, Kaviraj offers a set of critical reflections at the intersection of literature and political theory. In the introduction, Kaviraj describes how he once thought that his scholarly penchant for both literature and political theory was “simply an accident of taste”, and that these two academic interests were unrelated to each other (Ibid: 2). But, as is evidenced in these diverse essays, Kaviraj has since then begun to see literary works as sites of formations and articulations of nationalist ideas as well as other political and social forces. Throughout this book, Kaviraj uses the theories of Bakhtin, Taylor and Danto, among others, to examine and analyze the different Indian literary works that he discusses. Yet, despite approaching many of these pieces of literature with questions of political and social theory, Kaviraj’s “sense of textual pleasure” for these works clearly comes across in his essays (Ibid: 8).

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The Electoral Hawa

Chautala election rally (author's photo).
Chautala election rally (author’s photo).

Election results in India are not merely an aggregate of atomistic decisions made on the polling day. Even before the first vote is cast, a significant degree of synchronization has usually already taken place in the voting choices of the vast majority of the electorate. One of two scenarios usually obtains. Either a candidate wins by a huge margin, or, if the contest is a close one, the overwhelming majority of votes are split between the top two contenders. In other words, only those candidates who are perceived as having a real chance of winning are catapulted to victory, while others receive little more than scraps.

The concept of the electoral hawa (lit. breeze, wind) denotes, in lay usage, the creation of this perception of winnability. It is a notoriously ambiguous term, whose usage spans the entire spectrum from the buzz created at the electoral betting market (satta bazaar) to the more profound process through which the entire electorate is said to make up its mind. Part of this productive linguistic ambiguity stems from the fact that the hawa ‘reaches’ different people in different ways, depending upon their location within society and their involvement in politics. Only those who are involved in creating the hawa, i.e. politicians, or those involved in diagnosing its direction, i.e. the satta bazaar operatives, can be said to possess anything like a bird’s eye view of it. For most of the rest of the electorate, who observe politics from a distance, the hawa becomes discernible only when, having turned into an aandhi (a seasonal storm), it is already upon them.

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Teaching to Learn

Last year, I was “just” a graduate student. My primary relationship to knowledge was one of pursuit. Many of my classes seemed designed to help me both focus and expand my interests, all the while introducing me to a rich set of concepts and contemporary debates. In lecture, I listened and took notes; in seminars, we discussed and debated. In the library, it felt like we were all learning how to read slower and faster at the same time.

Now I am also a teaching assistant, suddenly responsible for knowledge in new ways. TAing Arabic has been my first truly public, prolonged experience of both authority over and accountability to a group of students. They come to my office hours. They solicit my feedback, consider my advice, and assume that I will be able to answer their questions. Suddenly my words, a year ago mere conjecture and reflection, are now treated as a definitive answer. And there is nothing quite like having someone write down what you say.

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Marseille and the Mediterranean Feminism of Massalia Blues

Sif_MASSALIABLUES_CouvMarseille’s designation as “European Capital of Culture” in 2013 has certainly improved the city’s image. From the New York Times to National Geographic, Marseille has received long-awaited attention for its urban and cultural transformation: after decades of violence, poverty, and social malaise, it is emerging as the new capital of the Mediterranean, a raffish, “rough but refined” port city and tourist destination. “Marseille is Paris’ messy, mad other—the New Orleans of France,” writes Shirine Saad for Ralph Lauren Magazine. “It is the city of sailors and prostitutes, Marcel Pagnol and bouillabaise. But it’s also a thriving hub of street and contemporary culture.”

Yet another facet of this Mediterranean multiculturalist representation of the city relates to questions of gender and feminism, which have figured prominently in the Marseille 2013 public relations campaign. At the Bazaar of Gender: Feminine-Masculine in the Mediterranean, one of the first exhibitions at the newly minted Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, explored gender relations in the Mediterranean world. This exhibition focused on topics such as reproductive rights, the Muslim headscarf, and gay and lesbian rights, intended to unify women of the Mediterranean behind a common feminist agenda. Underlying this Mediterranean feminist discourse, however, is the belief that women of the sea’s southern shores lag behind their more progressive northern Mediterranean sisters.

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