Decolonizing the Digital

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On February 28th and March 1st 2013, the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University will be hosting its annual graduate conference. Titled “Paradigmatic Conflict and Crisis,” the conference seeks to showcase the work of emerging scholars whose research is concerned with the spaces between conflicting, emerging, and established paradigms, and with new possibilities for our understanding of paradigm as both a discursive formation and a set of practices.

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Modernities of Turkey’s Past

booknostalgiaI was raised in Turkey in a practicing Muslim family dedicated to fighting against the Kemalist secular ideology of the state, and attended a public school where this official ideology was taught with a passion. I quickly learned to keep my critical comments about the regime to myself. At school, Kemal Ataturk was depicted as a brilliant commander of the national war of independence, who had saved the country and fashioned Turkey into a modern Western republic. At home, my beloved grandfather would speak about the manner in which “that apostate (kafir)” betrayed the only true Islamic state, the Ottoman Empire.

This opposition was vivid in my mind as I read Esra Ozyurek’s Nostalgia for the Modern: State Secularism and Everyday Politics in Turkey.

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Recording: A Public Conversation between Professor Hamid Dabashi and Professor Ashis Nandy

The recording is now available for the public conversation between Prof. Hamid Dabashi and Prof. Ashis Nandy.

The two eminent scholars raised crucial questions revolving around the theme of “state, culture, and human imagination.”  Professor Dabashi and Professor Nandy brought to this discussion their respective conceptions of these central ideas.  Of particular interest was the nature of the modern state and its viability within the context of changing epistemological, discursive, and temporal spaces.  Professor Nandy suggests that the advent of the modern state has wreaked devastation upon societies by imposing the necessity of a cultural homogenization project.  Building upon this idea, Professor Dabashi questions the viability of the modern state, in the Weberian sense, suggesting that the amorphous state has a greater tolerance for critical thinking than a totalitarian nation-state. The public conversation between Professor Dabashi and Professor Nandy is crucial to Baraza’s own work, which seeks to imagine – and create – a space that not only facilitates engagement within the geographic and disciplinary boundaries of Area Studies. It also encourages the production of new discursive modes around which these engagements can be centered.

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Libya’s Sufi Character Cannot Be Erased

libya_09052012Multiple attacks on Sufi religious and historical sites last week highlight two threats to Libya’s democratic transition: Islamic extremism and the failure of the government to take action. On 25 August, Salafist extremists destroyed a Sufi shrine and library in Zlitan. The following day, Salafist extremists attacked the Sha’ab Mosque in Tripoli, which contained the graves of revered Sufi figures. In response, Libyan activists, local civil society groups, and international organizations, such as UNESCO, have protested these attacks, calling on the government to protect historical Sufi sites.

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Arabic and the Divine in South Asia

How to Read an Image


My father is an art historian. One of the criticisms I remember him leveling against non-art historians over breakfast was that “x doesn’t know how to read an image.” I had always assumed this was one of those criticisms that don’t really mean anything like: “x totally misrepresents Foucault here” or “x’s discourse is hegemonic.” The past few weeks have given a couple of examples, however, of just how right my father was and how wrong I was. It seems no-one, including myself, really knows how to read an image.

The first is the case of the Swedish Culture Minister and the racist cake. Lena Liljeroth was photographed smiling as she cut into a cake that depicted a racist caricature of a black woman. This has been taken as, at best, a misjudged, ill thought-out stunt and, at worst, a deeply problematic symbol of lingering racism in Swedish society. My first reaction was that it was a provocative post-colonial critique. The head of the cake was replaced by the head of a real person who was screaming with pain throughout the proceedings. My interpretation: Europe has been gleefully cutting up the proverbial African and eating their very flesh oblivious to the human being in pain underneath the surface (vel sim).

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Hamlet’s Arab Journey Review

hamlet_04042012In 1949, Ali Bakathir published The Tragedy of Oedipus. His Oedipus was not the one that we are familiar with. This Oedipus knows from the beginning of the play that he is Laius’ murderer and that the Oracle says he is the cause of the pollution that has lead to Thebes’ plague. As a mid-twentieth century Oedipus, he believes that the corrupt priesthood only wants to fill their pockets and do not care one iota for the people who are suffering. This is until Tiresias, who has been expelled from the priestly order for suggesting that maybe it would be nice to give some money to the poor, talks to him. Tiresias convinces him that the cabal of Theban priests are all false prophets and that the one true God is the God of Islam. Oedipus is convinced, and together Tiresias and Oedipus defeat the corrupt religious authorities and save Thebes by bringing the message of Islam.

This kind of ‘Arabicization’ of a ‘Western classic’ like Oedipus Rex may sound rather bizarre, or unlikely. However, alterations of this kind to texts considered part of the Western classical canon are central to the twentieth century Arabic tradition of engagement with seminal works of theatre. From the lowbrow to the sophisticated, every Western theatrical import was given a distinctly Arabic character. To give another example, one of the most respected poets of the age, Ahmed Shawqi, created a version of Antony and Cleopatra, called The Death of Cleopatra (Masra’ Kliobatra), in which the character of Cleopatra is turned into a patriotic, virtuous Egyptian who dies for the sake of her country.

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The Good Fight: Combating Misconceptions of Islamic Studies

islamic_04042012A recent feature article published in the McGill Daily–my alma mater’s independent newspaper–recounted the detainment of Islamic Studies PhD student Pascal Abidor during a trip home to New York from Montreal via Amtrak. Abidor presented his passport to the border patrol officers as the train entered the United States, and when asked where he lived and why, Abidor explained that he was a PhD candidate in Islamic Studies at McGill University.

This was enough to arouse the suspicion of the officers, who then looked through files on his laptop and found images of Hamas and Hezbollah rallies. Abidor explained these were a part of his research on Shiism in contemporary Lebanon. Abidor was then removed from the train, handcuffed, detained, and interrogated.

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