Department of Middle Eastern Studies
Department of Middle Eastern Studies


Keynote address

Swarm. Or the problem of proximity in Alén Diviš’ prison paintings

Jani Scandura
University of Minnesota, Associate Professor of English and Co-Founder of the Space and Place Research Collective at the University of Minnesota

By the time Czech painter Alén Diviš landed in New York in 1941, he had spent almost two years in captivity: five and half months at the infamous la Santé prison in Paris, then a nightmarish 18-month trek through six different concentration, internment, and refugee camps in France, Morocco, and Martinique. For the next six years, living in exile in a small apartment in Manhattan, he worked on a haunting cycle of paintings that reproduced the graffiti, time-markings, and hallucinated images he had seen projected onto prison walls. The paintings are at once fantastic (reminiscent of childhood terrors, frightening folktales, giants and ogres) and realist (replicas of the walls at which he stared for months in solitary confinement). Through a reenactment of the clawing and scratching he used to mold the plaster prison walls, Diviš produces kinetic memorials to the never finishable masterpiece of stains, mold, cracks, scribblings, and imaginings he found, reworked, and left on la Santé’s cell walls and, as well, to the alleatory and archeological underpinnings of modern art. This talk draws on Diviš’s work to explore the relation between nearness (spatially or temporally proximate) and the nearly (almost, similar, gleich) and posit it as a major concern of philosophical, mathematical, and artistic modernism.



The Political Ecology of Places: An Archaeological Perspective

Ömür Harmanşah
Donald D. Harrington Faculty Fellow, University of Texas at Austin

Place has increasingly served as a connecting and overarching concept across the humanities and the social sciences in the recent decades, especially brought to prominence with the so-called “spatial turn”. From phenomenological approaches to locality and local landscapes to postcolonial empowering of local communities and to site-specific performance and environmental art, place has proven to be a fruitful concept to think with towards understanding human ecologies and cultural geographies across time. The conservative characterization of places as static, timeless, and apolitical has now largely been critiqued, and critical geographers and anthropologists have embraced place as a quickly changing, well-connected, and deeply political entity. The discipline of archaeology has also addressed the question of place relatively recently in the context of landscape archaeology, rock art studies, heritage research, and archaeological ethnographies. In this paper, I discuss various strands of archaeological research that contributes to place-based and place-oriented research, while arguing that archaeology as a disciplinary field and a mode of thinking about the past offer immense possibilities in tracing the genealogy of places in the Foucaultian sense of the term. I will also present the site of Nahr el Kalb in Lebanon as a place of long-term human engagement with a geologically wondrous locale and a site of memory and state spectacle from antiquity to modernity. 


Heterotopology for the Anthropocene

Tracey Heatherington
Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

The Global Seed Vault in Svalbard was once described by a European politician as “a Frozen Garden of Eden”. In the media, it has been dramatically labelled a “Doomsday Vault”, a “Fort Knox of food”, a “new wave bunker” and a “Noah’s Ark of seeds”. Its founder, Cary Fowler, prefers to describe it simply as “a backup system for world agriculture.” Given the implications of climate change, mass extinctions and ecosystems made fragile by a host of anthropogenic pressures, cultural senses of place are now often invested not merely in landscapes, but also in the very germplasm that is understood to represent a global heritage of biodiversity. For some, seeds come to stand in for the complex cultural histories of place where they are taken to originate, even where considerable genetic migration and exchange is historically apparent. As these seeds travel on new journeys to the remote arctic region where they are not meant to be planted, but rather, carefully kept in reserve to guarantee the viability of a larger system of gene banks and on-­‐farm conservation, they are imbued with the meaning of new contexts, including global debates on food security and the politics associated with corporate interests in agro-­‐biotechnology. The ex-situ conservation of heritage seeds thus suggests important memory work, where fluid and often contradictory, “local” and “global” visions of place, process and agency are brought into mutual engagement. This paper considers the potentials and limits of Foucauldian approaches to the Anthropocene, exploring the heterotopology of the Global Seed Vault as a ship of seeds.


Braiding Knowledge from Teachers of Earth and Stone

Sonya Atalay
Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Massachusetts Amherst

As with many Native Americans, Anishinabe worldview and philosophy are holistic and interconnected. Knowledge from Anishinabe people and cultures (as with other indigenous people) have been divvied up, separated in the academic world into distinct disciplines: material culture to archaeology; philosophy, health, and spiritual knowledge over to folklore, tribal histories relegated to “ethno”-history, and Anishinabe languages to linguists. These separations limit our scope of knowledge and understanding, and they impose a violent severing of a body of knowledge that was meant to be holistic. Countless examples from the history of colonization and the legacies of collecting by museums, anthropologists, archaeologists and others demonstrate how bodies, lands, materials and the knowledge they carry were segmented into ever smaller pieces that could be catalogued, stored, described and easily managed. This severing was painful for indigenous peoples, and led to extreme historical trauma, the clear impacts of which remain with us today. What happened to indigenous peoples is mirrored in indigenous lands and sacred places. Forests are cleared, lands mined, and sacred sites destroyed through development or handed over to archaeologists who remove or disturb ancestral remains, sacred objects, and materials.

In what I see as a (paradigmatic?) shift toward community-based research in partnership with indigenous peoples, we find threads of a way forward toward decolonizing knowledge production and a more ethical form of knowledge curation and stewardship. Through community-based research, the work of re-connecting, (re)membering, healing and community revitilization begins. In this paper I will discuss how this work of remembering and reconnecting is taking place in Anishianbe aboriginal territory (what is today the Midwestern United States and Canada). I will discuss efforts to recover knowledge that is held by earth and stone – two of the most powerful teachers in the Anishinabe knowledge system. I will discuss how ‘braiding knowledge’, a concept detailed in my recent book on community-based archaeology, produces a holistic understanding of Anishinabe peoples and the lands for which they hold familial responsibility.


The Historical Production of Place Identities in Istanbul

Amy Mills
Associate Professor of Geography, University of South Carolina

Contemporary place identities in Istanbul create an imagined cultural geography, among residents, that articulates an intimate knowing of the city and one’s belonging as “Istanbullu”. Commonly held ideas about the identities of particular neighborhoods in the city – their ethnic/class/pious-secular/political identities –normatively regulate who, or what, belongs in particular places, or which landscapes or people are thought of as “typical” of those places. Static notions of who and what belongs in particular places generate conflict when normative imagined boundaries of belonging are questioned or transgressed. Place identities may engender specific social or economic activities – like gentrification – that, in turn, transform the ethnic/class/pious-secular/political identities of places. While the place identities of neighborhoods of Istanbul are widely known, they are also taken for granted. My research examines the historical production of place identity in early and mid-twentieth century Istanbul. I examine satirical representations of urban life in Turkish satirical journals to understand the discursive formation of normative meanings of place in Istanbul in an early nationalist context. A core theme of my work is the emergence of notions of an Istanbullu urbanism and of a urban belonging as a form of Turkish national modernity. Modern urbanism in Istanbul involved complicated relationships to ethnic minorities as well as to the city's Ottoman past, and this is produced, in the satirical journals, through representations of particular places (as 'European', as 'urban', as 'traditional', as 'Islamic’, etc) and representations of humorous social interactions among different types of people, in place. Places and landscapes set the stage for caricatures or humorous essays that relied on commonly held understanding of the norms embedded in place to convey a particular joke - and to enforce a particular Turkish, masculinist, ethnicist, Istanbulite sense of modernity.


Dark Jerusalem: the Gothic Cityscape in Hebrew Literature

Karen Grumberg
Associate Professor of Hebrew Studies, University of Texas at Austin

“Jerusalem is a remote city, even if you live there, even if you were born there,” remarks Hana Gonen in Amos Oz’s My Michael. Jerusalem in the contemporary Jewish-Israeli imagination is uncanny: it is both home and exile, familiar and strange, present and past. The presence of history accounts for much of the city’s character, but it is the attempt to maintain a particular narrative of antiquity that reflects the anxious relationship between the city’s past and present as well as its apprehension regarding the future. Both an anomaly in comparison to other Israeli cities and a metonymy representing the whole of Israel, Jerusalem is a contradiction reflecting the anxieties of Israel writ large. The heart of the city, East Jerusalem, constitutes the political core of this apprehension, but literary representations of “modern” West Jerusalem reveal much about the tension that characterizes the city. It is this perpetual anxiety, expressed in the attempt to preserve a particular picture of the past, which lends the city a distinctly Gothic hue.

Twentieth-century Hebrew literature has mapped Jerusalem’s fraught temporal and political dynamics as well as its topographic and architectonic Gothicism. Fortresses, forests, mountains, ruins, churches, and cemeteries provide amply Gothic settings; foreign names of streets and quarters trace the specters of the vanquished. The Gothic mode constitutes an ideal vehicle for the expression of these barely suppressed fears hovering beneath Jerusalem’s apparently solid façade. The utilization of the narrative of the distant ancient past to cultivate a teleological story of an enlightened and civilized present demands the suppression of a more recent past and its attendant violence, political and otherwise.

While numerous Hebrew literary studies have considered Jerusalem’s representation, its Gothic tendencies have remained unremarked. I will draw on works by S. Y. Agnon, Amos Oz, and A.B. Yehoshua to analyze Jerusalem’s dark side. A Gothic poetics of haunting, terror and victimization marks some of the most canonical Hebrew literary representations of the city and, by casting shadows over political and historical certainties, unsettles the representation of the present. Such works use Jerusalem to elicit terror or horror in readers regarding the past’s potential to spring forth and threaten a seemingly stable present. Significantly, their use of this distinctly Western European literary mode in itself ultimately signals these texts’ participation in precisely the same suppression of the past that they represent.


The Memory of Violence against Shrines and Temples in Sixteenth-Century Iran and India

A. Azfar Moin
Research Fellow in Religious Studies, University of Texas at Austin

As Sufi shrines grew in size and significance in Iran and Central Asia from the thirteenth century onward, they became anchors of local, transregional, and-- in a few important cases--universal sovereignty. As such shrines of Muslim saints became targets for desecration and destruction during times of war. How was this violence remembered or forgotten? How did it compare to similar acts of temple desecration in early modern India, and were these phenomena perceived as similar by early modern actors across these regions? These are the questions taken up in this paper, which will compare two narrative accounts from the sixteenth-century, the memoir Baburnama composed by the Timurid ruler Babur and the Bidayi‘ al-Waqai‘ of the Timurid littérateur Vasifi.


‘Beseech God Almighty on this land, and I will bear witness for you’
Christians, Muslims, and the Generation of Sacred Topography in Medieval Syria 

Stephennie Mulder
Assistant Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin.

Medieval Muslims experienced sacred history through the land.  Put differently, for medieval Muslims, sacred history was emplaced: it was situated in space by means of ritual actions and behaviors that had material consequences.  Indeed, despite the prodigious textual output of the era, for the majority of ordinary Muslims, the crucial point of interaction with Islamic history was not literary, but physical: through contact with holy places, by means of ziyāra, or visitation of holy sites.  Beginning in the twelfth century, Islamic history, and thus a distinctly Islamic sense of self, was reified through the production of a new, conspicuously Islamic topography – a great, interconnected network of individual shrines that functioned as focal points of holy power.  These shrines appear to have been built in response to a recently revealed, massive building campaign in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.  Using the framework of the numerous shrines for al-Husayn that were created in this period, and employing art historical, archaeological, and anthropological methods, this paper argues for the generation of a distinctive Muslim sacred topography in medieval Syria that was focused on the ʿAlid shrines.  These sites represent a little-studied point of transmission and exchange between Christians and Muslims in the Eastern Mediterranean.

(Re)Placing the Medieval Anatolian City of Ani

Rachel Goshgarian
Assistant Professor of History, Lafayette College

The city of Ani (on the banks of the Arpa Çay) was a thriving metropolis with an active architectural program for several hundred years.  With a population of around 100,000, inhabitants of the city spoke a range of languages (Armenian, Georgian, Greek, Persian and Turkish), and the city (and surrounding region) was administered by Armenians, Georgians, Kurds, Mongols and Timurids at various points in time.  Abandoned at the end of the 14th century, travelers to the Kars region often commented on the eerie qualities of the city.   Most of the medieval monuments in and around the city of Ani were constructed by Armenians, from the 5th through the 13th centuries.  Until recently, the city was closed to tourists and had been virtually abandoned by scholars and restoration architects in Turkey.  Recently, efforts have been made to restore a series of buildings at Ani and the Turkish government has enacted policies that encourage tourism to Ani and the Kars region.  This shift in policy is not without its problems; until today, the word “Armenian” is not present on any of the signage throughout the city; for example, a 13th-century Armenian Church is incorrectly identified as a caravansaray.   Beyond city walls, in the Kars region there are several Armenian churches and monasteries (many of which were active through the 19th century) located in villages where they are still used, for various purposes.  Some Armenian buildings were destroyed, some due to natural causes and others, intentionally.  Many of the Armenian buildings are significant architectural feats and still standing after several hundred years of relative neglect.  And, yet, their Armenian “identity” has stripped them of their relevance and, in some cases, recalled a past place that does not coincide with the overarching national historical narrative prevalent in Turkey.  This paper considers the status of these Armenian monuments in Turkey’s Kars region from governmental and local perspectives and begs the question: what happens to monuments when they lose their monumentality? 

Place Memory, Place Politics

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