AUC-AUB CASARs Meeting
Summary of Key Issues and Recommendations
Meeting of 3-5 May, 2012
On May 3rd to 5th, 2012 the Prince Alwaleed American Studies Center at the American University of Cairo (AUC) hosted a three day long conference with colleagues from the Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR) at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Five AUC faculty met with three colleagues from AUB to discuss how AUC/AUB American Studies centers can collaborate in areas of research, teaching and outreach. In attendance on the AUC side were Professor Magda Shahin, director of the Prince Alwaleed American Studies Center at the AUC School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, Dr. Ira Dworkin, Associate director of CASAR and Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Dr. Amy Holmes, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology and Egyptology, Dr. Amy Motlagh, Assistant Professor and the Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of English and Comparative Literature and Dr. Ebony Coletu, Assistant Professor, Department of Rhetoric and Composition. In attendance on the AUB side were: Professor Alex Lubin, director of AUB CASAR, Dr. Sirene Harb, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at AUB and Dr. Waleed Hazbun, Associate Professor of International Relations and director of the AUB Center for Arab and Middle East Studies (CAMES). AUC and AUB faculty attendees discussed their research and teaching interests, methods and resources for Transnational American Studies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and future collaborative projects. The meeting is the first in a series of planned conferences between the AUC and AUB Centers to be held over the next two years. Scholars identified key points and questions that were conversed and will be further investigated into the future.
Over the course of the two-day brainstorming sessions, faculty members sought to clarify and articulate the advantages of conducting American studies in the Middle East and the contributions of American studies scholars in this respect. Sustained and highly diversified themes, such as The Arab Spring and American Power, the American Overseas Military Presence in Europe and the Middle East, African Americans and U.S. Policy and the Arab World were extensively addressed during the conference. These themes were unique opportunities that AUC and AUB CASARs offer young students in the region to critically and analytically view U.S. culture and political influence regionally and globally as well as offering an academic window onto American cultural forms and society. It was also stressed that AUC and AUB American Studies centers offer a platform for young Arab intellectuals to interact with American scholars and help achieve the broader mission of AUC and AUB to offer excellence in education while bridging the gap between the Middle East and wider world. The discussion throughout the two day conference was open and demonstrated the strong characteristics and independence of the two Centers. Attendees emphasized their level of autonomy, which allows them to examine topics objectively while serving their students and remaining faithful to the CASAR mandate.
On the night of May 3rd, conference attendees held an informal opening dinner discussion at the Tahrir Diplomatic Club. AUC and AUB attendees were joined by Cairo University English department professors Mounira Soliman, Walid El Hamamsy, and Maha El Said. Professors Soliman, El Hamamsy, and El Said had participated with their colleagues from AUB and AUC at AUB CASAR's 2012 conference on shifting borders, where they presented research on Egyptian popular culture and poetry in relation to the 2011 Egyptian revolution in addition to American political cartoons and their relation to the revolution.
2. The Arab Spring and the American Studies
Professor Dworkin chaired the morning session that revolved around questions of methodology and the influence of the Arab Spring on American studies in the region. Acknowledging the limitations of U.S. knowledge on the Arab Spring and the American desire for information about recent developments, it was emphasized that AUC and AUB CASAR were uniquely positioned to shed more light on events in the Middle East and MENA.
It was also felt that the Arab Spring will affect our prospective research and new topics will enter into the debate. Therefore, AUC and AUB centers should become pro-active in influencing the agenda of American studies in the region and embracing the Arab Spring as a new topic of research. The attendees discussed the ways that the Arab Spring has both raised new topics of study and created new methodological opportunities for and obstacles to research. It is important for American studies to become strategically engaged in this area. It was agreed in principle that American studies centers at AUC and AUB had a vital role to play. They can be vehicles for highlighting areas in which U.S. profoundly misunderstood regional dynamics, shifting the global center of knowledge production away from the U.S. and facilitating the dissemination of local knowledge.
An intense debate took place between the scholars to what extent should AUC and AUB be setting the research agenda for future American studies in the Middle East and MENA region, while encouraging self-reflexivity in studies of the Arab Spring. Topics such as linkages between the Arab Spring and social movements and methodological issues concerning the degree of involvement and influence of the U.S. took center stage. Scholars emphasized the privilege inherently associated with the "global citizen," and the relationship between faculty members' activism and the production of scholarly knowledge. Participants discussed the ambiguous position of the AUC/AUB CASAR scholar as regional studies specialists who must address issues of global scope.
Nevertheless it was concluded that the two CASAR centers can be natural leaders in this respect. AUC and AUB CASARs faculty members acknowledged their unique influence in the task of defining American studies stemming from their geographical location and the US-Arab world political context. They also realized that as scholars in the region who have observed the shift happening, the focus should not be on the uprisings inasmuch as contemplating seriously the location of the U.S. in shifting geopolitical circumstances. Faculty members discussed the merits of two methodological approaches: broad, holistic studies as opposed to scholarship relying on analysis of case studies.
Professor Amy Austin Holmes referred to living through the revolutionary process in Egypt, witnessing many of the key events first-hand. Her research in this respect resulted in an article entitled: “There are weeks when decades happen: Structure and Agency in the Egyptian Revolution”, which appears in the international journal ‘Mobilization’. This paper provides an in-depth analysis of the January 25 uprising in order to understand how an entrenched autocratic ruler could be toppled in a mere 18 days. In doing so, Holmes refutes several of the existing explanations that focus on the role of the social media, divisions among the elite, or the alleged neutrality of the Egyptian military.
The first session also addressed briefly questions of the Diaspora, American political and cultural influence, and race and refugee studies. The discussion identified areas of study that American studies is unique suited to accommodate, including comparative transnational Diaspora studies or Arab-American literature. These fields are potentially fruitful sites for American studies scholars because they engage these scholars' expertise in analyzing the melding and adaptation of immigrant populations within the American context and abroad.
Participants had circulated abstracts of their research before the meeting, and consequently considered how the experience of working with an American institution in the MENA has shaped these research projects, and the practice of American studies as both a subject and methodology. AUC's position as an American institution has raised pressure on the university to manage its profile during a period in which associations with the United States are generally politically sensitive. In an environment when foreign institutions are approaching AUC and AUB to ask for direction in pursuing research projects in the region, to what extent should AUC and AUB be setting the global research agenda, while encouraging self-reflexivity in studies of the Arab spring and resisting efforts to impose foreign narratives and ill-fitting comparisons on events in Egypt and Lebanon.
3. Alex Haley's Roots in Egypt, 1979-1989
Professor Coletu presented her research on Alex Haley's Roots and the ways it was integrated into Egyptian popular culture and subsequently used in criticisms of President Anwar Sadat's policies. She explained that as mini-series Alex Haley’s Roots was embraced enthusiastically by the Egyptian people. The way the American dealt with slavery had – in her view – had a broad appeal in the region in general and in Egypt in particular. For the next ten years the mini-series aired regularly and became a part of Egyptian popular culture, used as a reference in music, jokes, and genre. Remembered as a pivotal television event, it exposed the viewing public to a family portrait of black suffering and survival during slavery from the coast of West Africa to America that enlarged popular conception of the scale of the Atlantic slave trade and the entanglement of intimacy and violence that shaped American subjectivity. Professor Coletu's paper explores the complex affective ties Egyptian audiences had to Roots and the significance of race to that reception unlike Dallas series or Falcon Crest, which were more of upper class series.
Professor Coletu argued that the popularity of Roots, and publicly expressed sympathy that shaped moral attachment to Kunta Kinte, signaled a powerful political critique of Sadat’s new policy and the Camp David Accords as much as it interjected an American vocabulary for race relations in a vacuum of imperial language to describe racial status and subordination in Egypt.
Roots was aired toward the end of Sadat’s presidency and the early years of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency, both of which embraced a neoliberal model of political economy heavily underwritten by the American government. Discussion of Professor Coletu's project focused on the ways in which comparison is drawn between disparate political contexts and formulation of transnational solidarities through the recurrence of common tropes. Is the space where comparisons break down where productive and generative politics comes from, as Fred Moten suggested in In The Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition? The discussion of breaking these comparisons also acknowledged the privilege that characterizes a number of American studies scholars and the erasure of this privilege in scholarly output.
4. Transnational American Studies in the Middle East: Perspectives on Iran
The meeting on May 4th concluded with a session on transnational American studies in the Middle East led by Professor Motlagh. Professor Motlagh began the conversation with a discussion of two texts, "Watching Shrek in Teheran" by Brian Edwards, and "Native Informers and the Making of the American Empire" by Hamid Dabashi. Professor Motlagh used these texts to initiate a conversation about the place of the American scholar in foreign contexts, considering Dabbashi's criticisms of Azar Nafisi's methodology and Edward's piece on encountering Iranian cinema in Teheran. Attendees discussed the degree to which scholars such as Nafisi or Edwards may be aware of their complicity in American imperial designs, and conversely the degree to which scholars can accept invitations to speak and talk in Iran without being coopted by Iranian political projects. Professor Motlagh emphasized the importance of the American scholar consistently foregrounding the privilege inherent in the production of the American scholar's work in Iran. Gayatri Spivak's work on Arabic texts was also referred to as an example of the limits of self-reflexivity, and Edwards' piece provided a point of entry to more nuanced discussions of American studies as both an extension of American soft power through the propagation of American forms of education while still trying to de-centralize American exceptionalism.
Professor Motlagh's previous research has focused on the connection between the development of prose fiction in Iran and the coeval production of a discourse of civil law in twentieth-century Iran, as well as a study of gender, genre, and authority among members of the post-1979 Iranian diaspora in the United States. Professor Motlagh is currently working on projects dealing with the literary production of earlier diasporic Iranian communities (particularly in Cairo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) and the history of domestic service in twentieth century Iran. Professor Motlagh is interested in the willful forgetfulness among Iranian diasporas about the role played by class in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and more broadly the scholarly utility of “diaspora” and how the term is and has been deployed, and to what ends.
5. Imperial Outposts: the American Military Presence Abroad
Conference participants met at the AUC New Campus for the final substantive session on the morning of May 5th in the AUC CASAR meeting room. Professor Holmes screened her film entitled Imperial Outposts: the Secret History of the US Military Presence in Turkey and subsequently led a discussion on her research. Imperial Outposts is an extension of a larger project on the intersection of democratization processes and social unrest in countries where the United States has a strong security commitment. Professor Holmes' research on US military bases abroad has resulted in a book manuscript entitled Contentious Allies: Social Unrest and the American Military Presence in Turkey and Germany 1945-2005 and the film Imperial Outposts. This research aims to understand the causes and consequences of opposition to the American overseas military presence through in-depth case studies of two important NATO allies. Professor Holmes compares the protest culture of these two countries by focusing on four different types of contentious politics: civil disobedience, labor unrest, opposition parties, and violent attacks. Professor Holmes' current research examines the American military presence in the Middle East and de-democratization, particularly in Bahrain, in addition to analysis of the post-revolution political scene in Egypt.
Professor Holmes' work and the resulting film provides a strong example of public scholarship and highlights the causes and consequences of opposition to the American overseas military presence. Professor Holmes led a discussion that touched on legal jurisdiction issues and SOFA agreements, land use policy within military bases, and congressional oversight of overseas military bases. Professor Holmes indicated that the degree of local political sensitivity and popular resistance to American military presence informs the efforts to which American officials attempt to camouflage military installations abroad. The conversation concluded with a discussion of American bases in light of the changing nature of American engagements abroad, with drone attacks on Yemeni territory as an example of a new military model that necessitates a different kind of American military presence, combined with the effects of military budget cuts and local resistance to the U.S. military presence.
Following Professor Holmes' presentation attendees gathered for a tour of the AUC Rare Books and Special Collections library, a concluding lunch together and tour of the AUC New Campus.
6. Future Collaboration
Moving forward, participants identified a number of possible areas of shared research interests. A follow-up meeting in Beirut was proposed for fall 2012, with work organized around shared research projects. Specific areas of shared research are:
1. U.S. policy / encounters with the MENA, particularly in the context of the Arab uprisings
2. Overlapping histories of Diaspora / or Race and Diaspora
3. Transnational American Studies / methodological and theoretical considerations
Participants proposed organizing research symposia, mini-conferences, and publications focused on these areas of research. In fall 2012, the group will reconvene in Beirut, on the campus of AUB to follow up on the May conference and in order to develop working groups in these three areas of research. These working groups may include a broader range of faculty on both campuses, but will be organized by participants in the fall meeting. AUC and AUB faculty will plan a two-year series of events in Beirut and Cairo in which the working groups organize symposia, public events, and publications around these working areas.
The objectives of the working groups will be to expand AUC and AUB faculty research impact and to disseminate research in publications. One goal will be to work toward developing a special issue of a journal (perhaps the Journal of Transnational American Studies) around the above three research areas.
The AUB/AUC meeting resolved to work on a number of other projects in collaboration. One area mentioned was translation and digitization, for example with regards to English language press in the Middle East or Arabic language press in the U.S. Participants also suggested sharing curricula or courses from AUB’s MA program in Transnational American Studies and pursuing faculty exchanges between the AUC and AUB American Studies centers. The AUB and AUC centers also plan to exchange guest speakers and to coordinate regional visits of international scholars.
7. Research Interests of Other Attendees
Dr. Ira Dworkin, AUC CASAR Associate Director and Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature, is the editor of Daughter of the Revolution: The Major Nonfiction Works of Pauline E. Hopkins. Professor Dworkin's teaching interests include American Literature, African-American Literature, American Studies, and Literature and Culture of the African Diaspora. Professor Dworkin's most recent project, entitled “‘Congo Love Song’: African Americans and the Congo” examines the role of the Congo in the African American experience and the role that African Americans played in the emerging international campaign against human rights violations in the Congo State even before the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference granted King Leopold II personal sovereignty over the Congo. Professor Dworkin examines particularly the role of the Congo in Malcolm X's politics and the formation of black nationalism, challenging one-dimensional notions of romantic African American identification with Africa. Professor Dworkin has also examined the role of the Middle East and North Africa as critical sites for Malcolm X's engagement with the larger Pan-African world, and as central to the development of his alliances with the Congo.
Dr. Alex Lubin, AUB CASAR Director, is a cultural historian with interests in U.S. racial formations and U.S./Middle East cultural politics. Professor Lubin is completing his second monograph, Geographies of Liberation: African Americans Encounter the Arab World, which is forthcoming from University of North Carolina Press. Geographies of Liberation examines the history of African American engagement with the Arab world within the context of shifting colonial borders and racial ideologies, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Geographies of Liberation situates African American encounters with the Arab world in the context of shifting colonial frameworks of governance in the U.S. and throughout the Arab world. Changing colonial regimes were, Lubin argues, changing racial projects that transformed the geographies of African American and Arab belongings. I track the ways that cultural pluralism supplanted Ottoman conceptions of race, the ways that nationalism emerged out of cultural pluralism, and how neoliberalism replaced nationalism.
Professor Lubin's previous scholarship focused on the historical intersections between African American Islam, Arab nationalism, and Black nationalism, often focusing on the second half of the twentieth century.
Dr. Waleed Hazbun, Director of the AUB Center for Arab and Middle East Studies and Associate Professor of International Relations, is a leading authority on the political economy of tourism in the Middle East and the author of Beaches, Ruins, Resorts: The Politics of Tourism in the Arab World, a study of how Arab states use tourism for their own ends. In Beaches, Ruins, Resorts, Professor Hazbun argues that the expansion of travel in the region has allowed states to encourage integration into the global economy while simultaneously expanding control over their society. Professor Hazbun's work draws on questions and approaches from a number of fields, including political geography, cultural studies, tourism economics, and constructivist international relations theory. Professor Hazbun's current work critically engages US policy in the Arab world through an analysis of the partitions erected between the US and the Arab world that suppress and deny the agency of postcolonial actors in international politics.
Dr. Sirène Harb is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the AUB Department of English. Professor Harb's research focuses on inscriptions of race, gender, class, and sexuality in ethnic American, Francophone, and postcolonial literatures. It also probes theories of resistance, acculturation, and hybridization and their role in shaping identity and memory. Professor Harb is at work on an examination of the role of African-American literary figures in shaping the literary vision/career of a number of Arab-American writers, including Haas Mroue, Dima Hilal, and Suheir Hammad.