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Haunted Futurities: Cases from the Arab Gulf States

Panel IX-22, sponsored byAssociation for Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Studies, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
This panel explores the notion of “haunted futurity” through the research of four academics writing from within the Arab Gulf States (AGS). Through their graduate research and/or postdoctoral work, these scholars expose the ways in which “the pasts casts a shadow over (im)possible futures” in the AGS (Ferreday & Kuntsman, 2011). The different research projects are from diverse disciplines— sociology, literary and educational studies. Despite this, they all find a fleeting past haunting their research and leading them in search of “impossible memories and unwritten histories” either in their fieldwork or literary analysis (Ferreday & Kuntsman, 2011). The papers use various theoretical and conceptual tools, some purposefully, but others emerge from the scholars’ messy fieldwork experience and/or as a result of the literary fissures they come across. Hence, the panel contributes to broadening methodological and analytical ways to understand the AGS from the margins and silence(d), especially amid the current resurgence of state-led oral history projects. To do that, the panelists address different topics and historical moments of the AGS’s past. Topics span from the representation of the pearling traditions in literary narratives on the region to labor movements of the 1950s and 1960s in Qatar. They also examine different settings, such as the erasure of the black girl in modern schools in (post)colonial Bahrain, to institutional erasures of Third-Worldist and anticolonial histories at Qatar University. Overall, these presentations bring to light not only marginalized his/herstories, but also the mechanisms by which these narratives have been erased, reappropriated, and physically destroyed in institutional archives and from future generations’ imaginaries. This remembering of the forgotten is not a reminiscent activity but rather a political act grounded in the material experience of the scholars in an ever-evolving space. Through the practice of exposing the ghosts, silences, or erasures in the dominant narratives, the authors are driven by a commitment to more inclusive horizons in the region.
  • In 1981, Qatar University’s first president wrote, “[a] modern university obviously exists in the present, but it has roots in the past, and aspirations for the future” (Kazem, 1981, p. 5). In this presentation I seek to unpack what the past means to present-day higher education spaces amid rapid internationalization processes that govern academic (im)mobilities. In the first part of this presentation, I use the writing of Dr. Mohammed I. Kazem, an Egyptian scholar and the first president of Qatar University, as a point of departure to understand how QU’s academic space was configured spatially in the 1970s and early 1980s. Resorting to archival research, I map the international networks the university was embedded in by reviewing the affiliation of speakers, academics, and the associations the university participated in during its founding phase. The Third-Worldist ethos encapsulated by Amado M’bow’s UNESCO, the leading international partner in establishing the university, would interact with the already existing Islamist and Arab Nationalist connections in Qatar’s government and ministry of education, as well as the wider currents in the developing Arab states, to fundamentally reflect the “international” character of QU at its inception. Perhaps no one embodied the amalgamation of these currents more than Kazem, who had already played a significant role in setting up institutions elsewhere in the Arab region, most notably founding the College of Education of Al-Azhar University, In the second part, I discuss the ‘noisy silences’ in the archival material and supplement this with interview data with the first wave of Qatari academics that worked at the institution. Through this process of both archival excavation and oral history, I shed light on what was erased and purposefully forgotten from the institution’s founding history, and from the imaginaries of subsequent generations of Qataris. Overall, I argue that by understanding QU’s past, the ethos driving it, and the nature of solidarity networks it was enmeshed in, we can envision an internationalization of higher education unlike that governing academia today — one built on notions of solidarity rather than competition. Furthermore, by welcoming the ghosts of the past — the academics erased from the institutional archives and the topics flagged as contentious — we can begin to challenge constraints imposed on our academic spaces and envision a more epistemically inclusive one.
  • In 1937, with the support of government scholarships, the sisters Sherifa and Lulwa al-Zayani, along with their companion Za’faranah Sa'eed, became the first Bahraini female cohort to study abroad in Beirut, Lebanon. Since then, the stories of Sherifa and Lulwa as girl pioneers continue to be summoned as evidence of girl empowerment--a monumental accomplishment of the nation-state. Yet, Za’faranah remains peculiarly absent from this narration of the nation. Subjected to quadruple disciplinary forces of gender, age, class, and race, little is known about who Za’fanarah was, the conditions of her journeys, and what meanings can be deduced from her transgressing color-lines and borderlines. Za’faranah’s story becomes the point of departure for my presentation. Specifically, my presentation emerges from a curiosity about the deafening silence on the histories and lived realities of black girls in existing literature on the politics of schooling and the legacies of the Indian Ocean slave trade in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf states. I ask: How do we explain the perpetual erasure of the black girl from the social imaginary of (post)colonial Bahrain? How does this erasure invite us to grapple with anti-blackness as a condition of “coloniality/modernity” organizing social life on the islands? In what ways does Za’faranah’s story help us pursue “radical hope” and alternative futurities in education? To interrogate and articulate the historical (de)construction of black girlhood as a social category, I employ discourse analysis. I examine ethnographic fieldnotes along with a myriad of primary and secondary archival texts. My analysis traces an ever-emerging discursive tension in Bahrain’s origin myth--i.e., the hypervisibilization of the “Arab” girl citizen-subject and the invisibilization of the black girl citizen-subject. Thus, this presentation aims to: a) disrupt a dominant configuration of ideal girlhood in (post)colonial Bahrain as racially ambiguous; and b) invite a reconceptualization of black girlhood as a plural and fluid category, marked by expansive coordinates of time and place intersecting dynamically with axes of social difference. Recognizing the school as a key institution of nation-building, I argue for a serious engagement with anti-blackness as a disciplinary force operating in and through schools. Also, by centering the stories of school-aged girls racialized as black and learning about the creative ways in which they navigate and negotiate social difference in their everyday lives, critical education scholars can begin to re-imagine education justice in schools from the vantage point of those most marginalized.
  • Since the demise of the maritime economy in the mid 20th century, there have been many attempts in which maritime tradition has been aesthetically reinvented and culturally reinterpreted in the Gulf. These attempts have mainly coincided with the rise of the modern nation state and building cultural capital. However, local practitioners and historians involved in maritime life have constantly expressed their apprehension towards any form of appropriation or subsumption of their local understanding of their history into the different modernist discourses or cultural forms. The paper will examine two seminal cultural works that offer a contested understanding of the history of the maritime tradition. The first case is the first Kuwaiti feature film titled Bas Ya Bahar (The Cruel Sea) (1971) directed by Khaled Al-Siddiq, which presents the pearling tradition within a general leftist perspective as a history of capitalistic exploitation. The second case is Muhammad al-Fayez’s epic poem Muthakarat Bahhar (Memoirs of a Seafarer) (1964), which aimed to translate the vernacular pearl-diving poetry to the register of Fus-ha Arabic within a modernist Pan-Arab outlook. The paper will present a critical analysis of these attempts and their reception to highlight the tensions between the vernacular specificities of the maritime tradition and the modernist reinterpretations of it. Understanding these contested representations of maritime culture allows for a more nuanced understanding of the identity shifts in the Gulf from a maritime vernacular deeply rooted in the Western Indian Ocean culture to a purist Pan-Arab identity. More recently, the Gulf has seen a significant shift away from an Arab nationalist persuasion to more localized and regional notions of national identity. Contemporary attempts at gaining cultural capital in the Gulf aspire to situate the region within a more global context by representing culture in the register of Global English. In all these shifts, maritime culture continues to be culturally reinvented in accordance with the different shifts in Gulf identity.
  • This paper aims to address a key question pertaining to the reproduction of historical erasures through processes of silencing in the context of Qatar’s social mobilisation history. I ask, ‘how do processes of silencing operate?’ ‘What story silence tells?’ And ‘how the unspoken stories in question are part of and produced within a systematic process of silencing and historical erasure?’ Here, I understand silence not just as acts of refraining from speech but as a story in itself, with a history of its own. To answer these question I draw on ethnographic fieldnotes and oral historical accounts, to trace marginalised narratives articulated by members of the 1963 national movement in colonial Qatar; a movement that was swiftly repressed by the twin forces of local and British colonial authorities. Since then, Qatar has not witnessed any form of social mobilisation of a similar scale and appeal, speaking to the grievances, agitations, and aspirations of diverse social actors independent of the state. Despite its historical significance, the 1963 movement underwent a form of historical mnemonicide, such that any traces of the movement could potentially cease to exist with the passing of all its contemporaries. Drawing on my own encounters in the field, it became evident that erasure, as a form of repression, extended beyond the event and its omission from the official narrative and instead to the everyday life of citizens in Qatar and their future. To interrogate this imposed collective amnesia, my study attempts to identify and analyze a constellation of disciplinary tools and regulatory practices involved in reconfiguring Qatar’s modern history. Specifically, I examine closely the histories of social and labour movements of the 1950s and 1960s colonial Qatar, culminating in a popular uprising in 1963. In this presentation, I offer ‘the walls have ears’ as a concept that captures the manifestation of everyday state violence, signifying the discursive and material entrenchment of the surveillance structures. In the context of my fieldwork, the walls were not a mere metaphor for surveillance; they were the exemplars of disciplinary structures; that managed to pass down the feeling and embodiment of being listened to all the time from one generation to the next.