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It’s Complicated: Cultural Memory and Hope in Impermanent Landscapes

RoundTable X-4, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 5:30 pm

RoundTable Description
Perhaps human aspects such as hope and aspiration, which are among the most vital and elusive of qualities, are also the most complicated to write about. Yet the remedy, we think, lies not only in becoming better writers. As Michael D. Jackson explains, the irreducibility of experience poses a challenge that is epistemological and moral as well as aesthetic. His way of meeting this challenge is to concentrate on the ingredients of experience that link ethnographer and informant, and much of his work interweaves personal thinking with an intense rendering of the ethnographic moment. With this viewpoint, the intricacies and details of fieldwork take on various dimensions, opening out toward broader human concerns, rather than sideways toward comparative theory building (Jackson 1996). With this roundtable we want to have a conversation about what it means to have a world of overlapping social networks, with crosscutting boundaries and flows of meaning. Human experiences in different periods are touched by "global" social processes, but at the same time our interpretations of such processes vary widely and produce a variety of localized adaptations and responses. This roundtable brings together scholars from Middle East studies who will bypass the static and recognize how individuals, and their attachments and thoughts are brought together, or disconnected, or transformed by forces that can be very local, global, historically contingent, and even sometimes individually idiosyncratic. The world, we know, is a fluid place, where people live unpredictable lives and where memories and relationships are complicated.
  • For this roundtable, I would like to bring some questions on the intricacies of fieldwork from my ethnographic research connecting South America and the Middle East, specifically Brazil, Syria and Lebanon. I have been studying how Muslim identities and religious authorities in the Middle Eastern diaspora in Brazil are crafted between local and global processes, focusing on different senses of belonging and flows of meaning concerning their “Arab layers”. Historical contingencies, however, such as the Syrian war and Lebanon's recent economic crisis, have pushed relations and people into local transformations which are messing and segmenting transnational ties and modes of solidarity. In this regard, my intention is to discuss how fieldwork and its complexity can contribute to a better understanding of local social changes in a global context of urgency and unpredictability.
  • The Suez Canal is “a terraqueous predicament”, to borrow the words of Campling and Colaás (2021), meaning “consisting of land and water”, and it is also a connecting point between lands and seas. From the accounts in the Diasporas and layers of imperial histories we learn that neither arrivals nor departures from the Canal to seas beyond were straightforward, intentional or predictable – it’s complicated and often messy. Alongside messiness, the canal and its connected seas can be imagined as worldmaking spaces that offer a composite lens through which to scrutinize broader issues of migration, free seas and circulations of jurisdiction through different histories of afterlives. I am concerned with the enduring questions about which people are allowed to get off the boat and step out onto land and how long they’re allowed to stay; and which people get pushed back onto the boat – instantly or much later, after many generations.
  • In the wake of the Suez Canal: Cultural memories and shifting relations to a sea undergoing irreversible change In 2008, Egyptian newspapers reported eight members of a family dead after consuming a meal of seafood (Ali 2008) in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Located on the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea and home to one of Egypt’s largest fishing ports, Alexandria is famous for its many seafood markets and restaurants. Everyone visits Alexandria to eat fish and so in this regard, the family did nothing out of the ordinary. But the tragedy was bewildering. A sea creature of such poisonous potency was not to be found in the sea; if it were, it would be well-known and infamous. After centuries of cohabitation with the sea and fish consumption, fishermen and fishmongers know which fish are tasty and edible and, indeed, which fish are poisonous and potentially lethal. Was it some kind of sea monster? The culprit was a bulky silver-dotted pufferfish (Lagocephalus sceleratus), an alien species and newcomer to this part of the world. Native to the Indian Ocean, the pufferfish is only one of over 600 species that have drifted north through the Suez Canal from the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. More will come. While the Suez Canal has been open for some 150 years, it is only in the last decades, due to dredging and enlargement of the passageway, that the influx of species is changing Mediterranean marine worlds fundamentally. New species keep on appearing, old species perish. In this roundtable, I will talk about cultural memories and current affects among people living with a sea that is changing beyond recognition. Based on research in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin, it dwells on people’s shifting relation to the Sea, people who are witnesses and adjusting to one of the world’s largest species transformations.
  • Is there hope in a hopeless place? Until some 20 years ago, the shabāb, or lads, from the Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp, in the outskirts of Beirut, used to raise pigeons as a past-time. This presentation speculates as to why the Shatila shabāb selected birds, of all animals, as objects of their affection. Immersed in the social immobility dictated by utter poverty, without the means to travel, in spite of constantly queuing up in embassies in Beirut only to have their visa applications rejected, and with their capacity to dream of a future overshadowed by the political-economic complexities of the refugee situation in Lebanon, it seems very telling that the Shatila shabāb have come to find pigeons, with their unencumbered freedom to fly, as indeed so appealing. May this be an exercise in hope in an otherwise hopeless place?
  • Home as a place, an idea or an aspiration has been a category for social research on migration, space appropriation and everyday experience. It is both a geographically located and an imagined place. As a place, home may be understood as a house or dwelling, with its materiality and objective indicators, domestic routines and social reproduction. It may also be connected to a specific territory and its meanings (ethnical, cultural, historical, religious), and associated to blood and soil. In this sense, home usually relates to an origin, a place that was left behind (Cohen 2007). But what happens when the place “where one best knows oneself” (Rapport and Dawson 1998) rejects one`s existence? What happens when homeland refuses to be home? Drawing on a long-term multi-sited fieldwork with forced migrants, this presentation proposes a debate on exile as “death” and “rebirth”, where the present home embodies a hopeful engagement with the future. When there is a disruption in the homeland-home equation, home needs to be reimagined and rebuilt. In this context, the religious notion of hicret is articulated as a discursive repertoire to index experiences of exile and make sense of the changing situation. But it`s complicated, because much of the religious repertoires and the nationalistic imaginaries of homeland and home conflate.