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Red Sea and Its Discontents: "Afrabia" in Middle East Studies
This paper seeks to understand the applicability of the concept of “Afrabia” underpinning twentieth century histories of Afro-Arab connections. In 1000 Years of Suez, the British author R.E.B. Duff remarks that “the isthmus of Suez, that narrow neck of land dividing the Mediterranean from the Red Sea, was seen from the earliest times as one of nature’s most irritating mistakes.” On the other hand, leading African historian, theorist, and public intellectual Ali Mazrui offers an alternative framework of conceptualizing the red sea region as a bounded unit of historical, political and economic analysis validated by the arena’s centuries old religious, linguistic, and commercial ties. In contrast to Duff and common European sentiment of separation- one that is reaffirmed by the distinction of artificial disciplinary borders that Middle East and African area studies suffer from- for Mazrui, “the Red Sea has no right to divide Africa from Arabia.” Mazrui’s theory of “Afrabia” offers a key intervention for the study of transnational Afro-Arab histories, one that has found little purchase so far in Middle East studies. Unlike the burgeoning field of Indian Ocean studies, the concept of the Red Sea as a site of centuries old cross-connection between northeast africa and the arabian peninsula is one that remains understudied in Middle East historiography, especially in the contemporary period.
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