By Georges Khalil
The uprisings in the Arab world have challenged traditional paradigms for understanding culture and politics in the region and have opened up new sets of questions in both spheres. The 2014 Summer Academy in Rabat on “Conflict and Mobility in the City: Urban Space, Youth, and Social Transformation” was part of an ongoing interest of the research program Europe in the Middle East – The Middle East in Europe (EUME) in Berlin and the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies (CNMS) in Marburg in investigating the interplay between culture and aesthetical practices, new social movements and revolutionary processes in the Middle East.
The 2014 Rabat Summer Academy had been a follow-up of the EUME 2012 Summer Academy at the American University in Cairo, and of a series of seminars and workshops dealing with the current transformative processes in the Middle East and their impact on the scholarship on the region. Under the title “Aesthetics and Politics” the 2012 Cairo Summer Academy addressed “Counter-Narratives, New Publics, and the Role of Dissent in the Arab World”. “Aesthetics and Politics” and “Culture and Politics” were also the themes of the regular EUME Berliner Seminar in the Winter Term 2012/13 and the Summer Term 2013. Seminar sessions included presentations by EUME fellows such as Tarek El-Ariss on “Fiction of Scandal: Literature, New Media and Revolutionary Politics in the Arab World” or round-tables on “Culture, Class, Youth, Performativity and the Transformation of the Public Sphere in the Arab World”, where a group of scholars from the CNMS in Marburg presented their work to colleagues in Berlin. Questions of the intellectual, the role of literature, and artistic production in the political process that had been addressed at the 2012 Cairo Summer Academy were further investigated in a joint EUME-CNMS workshop on “Commitment and Dissent in Arabic Literature since the 1950s” that took place on June 27-29, 2013 in Marburg. The proceedings of this workshop will be published in an edited volume under the same title by early 2015. Questions of conflict, violence and mobility in the cities around the Mediterranean are central questions of the regular “Urban Studies Seminar”, which is chaired by Nora Lafi and Ulrike Freitag (both Zentrum Moderner Orient) and organized in a cooperation between EUME and the ZMO.
The 2014 Academy in Rabat took up several threads and questions developed in these contexts and enlarged the focus on the city and urban studies, various forms of mobility and conflict, not only in the Middle East and North Africa but also in neighbouring regions or countries.
The Summer Academy
The Summer Academy has brought together 37 doctoral and postdoctoral scholars as well as more established scholars from more than fifteen countries and various disciplinary fields for two weeks to discuss topics and questions related to the agenda of the summer academy. Discussions were based on the participants’ ongoing research projects. Debates occurred also in thematically structured groups and in panel discussions on questions relating to youth, social movements, protests, and urban and social transformations in the Arab world, Argentina, Greece, Spain, Turkey and Iran.
Specialists in Architecture, Urban Planning and Human Geography contributed insights on how the different structures of cities, questions of access and physical mobility influenced forms of protest in these sites, and on how developments in urban design have affected or facilitated new forms of protest. Historians examined historical contestations over public spaces (including aspects of their control) and the current trend of gated or walled communities, and discussed historical precedents for the types of mass mobilization seen in the last few years, and the ways in which the uprising challenges national historical narratives or complicates national historiographies.
Social scientists adressed the question of political economy of urban development, legal anthropology of urban tenure, as much as the urban governance or economy itself and the social profiles of people laying claim to public space. They further inspected the roles of changing demographics, gender, youth and migrants, both groups which might conceive of the city as a space offering advancement, development, entertainment, and social change, but also as a source of frustration.
Daily and ordinary usages of urban spaces in relation totimes, activities, professions, mobility, housing, business, etc. have been questioned. How do people not only conceive of the city but also inhabit it, develop specific types of dealing with it, coordinate with one another, produce and play with local norms, contribute to a sense of belonging or exclusion, develop specific competences, and participate in the production of local orders?
These issues were related to explorations of aesthetic forms reflecting urban space, mobility and civic imaginations – not only in literature, but also new media, music, film, performance, fashion and street art. How have these aesthetic forms facilitated the imagination of forms of political practice and an urban public sphere? And how should we conceive of the place of literature and art in urban spaces and processes of social and political transformations from the early 20th until the early 21st century?
The Summer Academy also included two afternoon panels led by representatives of the two Marburg-based research networks Re-Configurations and “Figures of Thought | Turning Points. Cultural Practice and Social Change in the Arab World”, that gave their members the opportunity to present and discuss their concepts and research questions in an international setting. Moroccan scholars were invited to give talks at the Summer Academy. Zakaria Rhani (Mohammed V University) discussed Moroccan youth and the will for secularization during the 2011 uprisings. Najib Bounahai (Ibn Toufail University and EGE) talked about the politics of performance and the performativity of politics in revolutionary North Africa. Mohammed Bensalah (École de Gouvernance et d’Économie) spoke on transformations of political Islam and the Arab Spring. Finally, Mohamed Tozy (EGE) delivered a talk on current social transformations in Casablanca.
The city in the conceptualization of the academy has been perceived as an urban and social structure that facilitates the imagination and proliferation of citizenship and social mobility, not only by its space and structure but also by the culture that is produced within the city. The participants addressed questions of how cultural forms inflect the political imaginary in contested urban space, and discussed traces, and echoes of a new (or revisioned) political vocabulary in novels, art, poetry, songs and films of the last decades. They asked how public space might be understood not solely as a stage of protest and politics, but also of everyday life. The city serves as a site of negotiation between cosmopolitan consumerism and local traditions, but also as a site for experimental living and utopias. Its gated communities, stalled avenues of mobility, the dreams and nightmares of migration are just as prevalent as alternative forms of solidarity and mechanisms of control and survival. The Summer Academy addressed some of the new terms, frames of understanding, and transformations that have begun to crystallize through the political and cultural changes in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings and questioned how and in what ways the uprisings across the Arab world reformulate the relationship between politics and culture in and outside the region.
Georges Khalil is the Academic Coordinator of the Forum Transregionale Studien. He is also responsible for the research program Europe in the Middle East – The Middle East in Europe (EUME). He has been the Coordinator of the “Group Modernity and Islam” from 1998 to 2006 at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.