About Wendell Marsh

Wendell Hassan Marsh is a doctoral student in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies and the Institute of Comparative Literature and Society. His work lies at the intersection of the study of Islam in Africa, Arabic written culture, and intellectual history. Specifically, his research interrogates the African Islamic library as a locus of knowledge production and circulation

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.

Arabic in Africa and the Problem of Archival Thinking

Archival material held in a private archive in Northeastern Senegal. Author’s photo.

Ideally, ‘Eid al-Fitr joyously marks the end of Ramadan fasting with communal prayer and equally communal feasting. In Senegal, as elsewhere in the Islamic world, there are some translations in the form of the holiday but the message is the same. Known in the vernacular as Korité, it functions to bring together the community of believers and cultivate a sense of unity in the West African nation, around 94 percent of which is Muslim. However, during my pre-dissertation research on Islamic textual collection in Senegal this summer, Korité appeared to be as much a point of disunity and contestation as solidarity and community.

Because ‘Eid and the rest of the Islamic year follows a lunar calendar, the start of a new month must be observed by someone with the authority to determine the start of the full moon, thereby making time an inherently political concern. This necessity has produced a notorious, yet predictable, low-level controversy across the ummah, the world community. When does the month start? When does it end? And according to whom? While many countries follow religious authorities in Saudi Arabia, it is sometimes the case that they establish national bodies to determine the appearance of the new moon and hence the beginning and end of the holy month. In some places, this determination is even made at the local level. In Senegal, all three seem to be the case, forcing people to decide between multiple days on which to celebrate their connection with the larger Muslim world.

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When the French Speak Arabic to Africans

All too often, we think of Arabic writing in West Africa—when we think of it at all—as a way to access a history beyond or outside the colonial moment. Yet this document, the front page of the weekly journal of the French colonial government in Senegal, shows that the French authorities depended on Arabic to speak to their subjects, even as they gradually tried to transform Senegambian social and political organization for their own economic gain. Far from being beyond the colonial moment, here Arabic appears integral to it.

The use of Arabic in Saint-Louis, the capital of French colonial Senegal, is not so startling in and of itself. The Arabophone geographers, most notably al-Bakri, report that Islam and its accompanying Arabic script appeared on the banks of the Senegal River, in Tekrur, as early as the eleventh century. The use of Arabic in the Western Sahel appears to have started to grow during the fourteenth century, under the influence of the trade empire of Mali, whose famed Mansa Musa lured scholars from Egypt and as far as Andalusia. Arabic written production in the Sahel reached its peak in the pre-modern period during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the area was under the suzerainty of the Songhai empire. It was in the nineteenth century, however, that Arabic writing became an important technology of government when the ulema’, or Islamic scholars, began to lay claim to temporal power, thus producing “textual polity,” to use the phrase of Brinkley Messick.

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Tariq Ramadan’s Burden

Tariq Ramadan faces off claims of Arab colonialism in Africa. Source: Seneweb.com

During a recent debate on the Senegalese television channel TFM about the ongoing violence in Palestine, Tariq Ramadan accused one of his interlocutors Bakary Sambe of the most offensive crime for an African intellectual: having a colonized mind.

Sambe, a professor at Senegal’s Gaston Berger University and coordinator of the Observatory of Radicalisms and Religious Conflicts in Africa, had been asked about American leadership in peace talks when his response solicited Ramadan’s comments. In a clear departure from the flow of the conversation, Sambe offered his reflections on the Islamist threat of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood while staring directly at Ramadan. Observing that Sambe’s comments had “nothing to do with” the conversation, Ramadan asked Sambe if he was speaking live from Washington or London. Humorously, Sambe slips and says that he is speaking from Washington, before correcting himself by saying that he was speaking from here (here being Dakar). Ramadan then gives a dismissive gesture while Sambe appears clearly flustered and at a lost for words.

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Review: Muslim Societies in Africa

loimeier coverThe study of Islam in Africa has long been in need of a coherent work of synthesis that bridges specific and substantive knowledge on Islamic contexts in Africa with a broad continental view that places those African experiences of Islam in a larger world history. Many a scholar have tried gallantly, but even more have failed miserably. At last, with Muslim Societies in Africa (IUP), Roman Loimeier has provided us a resource to sit with and digest, a resource that will likely prove to be a foundation for the study of Islam in Africa for years to come.

Few scholars would attempt to produce a work of such scale and scope. Loimeier, uniquely positioned as a scholar who has done research in Senegal, northern Nigeria, and Tanzania, has written a historical anthropology that emphasizes the importance of place. The result is a book organized largely by geographic region with some attention to periodization.

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Reanimating Baraza: A Look Back

After a hiatus, the editorial collective is reanimating Baraza and is excited about its future. This is the first post in a summer series that will feature the new type of content you can expect to see on the site as well as ways of engaging the virtual community. But before fully introducing what’s new, let’s take a look back to the first post by the editorial collective on Baraza from Feb. 3, 2012.

Timeless Tradewinds and Markets of the Mind

Markets, Manthia Diawara has written, are the best reflections of society. His discussion, in the West African context, emphasizes markets as grand public spaces of experience and exchange, “a meeting place for the employed and the unemployed, the young and the old, women and men, the intellectual, and the peasant. They are a site for new generative forces, for the transfiguration of old concepts, and for revitalization.”

Travel writing from Ibn Batutta to today’s Rough guides has often chosen to use bazaars and other markets as emblems for distant, chaotic and antique lands. In reality, these spaces of intense human interaction form an intersection where the world presents itself to the heart of local societies. One would not be surprised to find, in a village market in Northern Ghana, a Lebanese merchant selling Chinese goods. Diawara reports the West African saying: “visit the market and see the world.”
Baraza is the modern academic avatar of the timeless market space. Created for intellectual exchange, the forum focuses on issues relevant to the past, present and future of the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. The forum’s name mirrors the long history of intellectual, commercial and cultural exchange between these three regions. The Swahili word baraza traces its lineage from Persian and evokes the sense of a public meeting as well as the physical space where meetings take place. It finds a cognate in the Hindi/Urdu word bazar that is commonly employed across South Asia.
As a salon-styled forum, with both online and on campus elements for students at the Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies Department at Columbia University, baraza will not content itself with disciplinary or geographic borders nor will it limit itself to well-established genres of academic and popular discourse. Through the intersection and interaction of the timeless and timely, the local and the global, the dynamic and the rigorous, from the market of ideas and exchange that baraza offers, the intellectual can expect to leave with new units of analysis, new methodologies, and new forms of presentation responsive to contemporary social realities and current technological imperatives.
Message from the Editorial Collective 2011-2012
Since the first post, Baraza has facilitated critical reflection on the Middle East, South Asia and Africa through short and longer form writing, streaming web video of discussions of publicly-engaged scholars, and hosting collaborative events events on Columbia University’s campus.
While our old web site peaked with respectable levels of traffic, we have decided to scale down the operation from a quasi-journal format to more of a blog for academics. In the meantime, we have  moved the website to Columbia University’s servers as well as filed an eISSN number to insure the longevity of our our content. In other words, as far as most mainline bibliographic resources are concerned, we are official!

Digitalization Project Turns a Page in African History

Dr. Livingstone, may not be such the hero we once presumed.

New digital imaging technology and a team of scholars have recovered David Livingstone’s faded journal entries from the period when the colonial era explorer had lost contact with his European benefactors 140 years ago.

As the introduction of Livingstone’s 1871 Field Diary: A Multispectral Critical Edition states, the digital project “reveals for the first time the original record of a remarkable and traumatic period in the life of David Livingstone, the celebrated British abolitionist, missionary, and explorer of Africa.”

While on an expedition to find the source of the Nile River, Livingstone encountered illness and other types of hardships. He had lost contact with his European suppliers and required the benevolence of traders and locals to survive. His experiences would be later immortalized by Henry Morton Stanley’s dispatches to the New York Herald. The journal materials cover his most challenging crisis, the one that helped encourage the Crown’s crackdown on the slave trade in East Africa and thus, cementing Britain’s dominance in the region.

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Resolving Differences in the Desert


Bab’Aziz, the Prince who Contemplated His Soul. Directed by Nacer Khemir. Switzerland /Hungary /France /Germany /Iran /Tunisia /UK, 2005.

“Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervis (sic) in the desert.”Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Whether Thoreau really understood the religious ecstasy of Sufi practice firsthand or was offering an off-hand orientalist reference may remain debatable, but what strikes one as most compelling in the above quote is the acute contrast of the simile: a bustling intellectual center and the starkness of an exotic locale.

The desert, that powerful setting, is just the type of place where contradiction, like the one Thoreau offers, seem to resolve themselves and where paradoxes shape reality. It is a landscape where the unseen is as undeniable as the awesome forces of nature that cut the extreme terrain. Nacer Khemir evokes this leviathan of the desert sea and then tries to wrestle a harness over the beast by contrasting it against an alienating modern world.

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