Department of Middle Eastern Studies
Department of Middle Eastern Studies

In and Out of Syria: A Conference on the War and the Refugee Crisis

Scholars and practitioners from the US and abroad whose professional expertise is the study of contemporary Syria and the present-day Syrian refugee crisis will discuss comparative Arab politics, war and state formation, the state of the Syrian opposition, etc.

Mon, February 15, 2016 | CLA 1.302B

9:00 AM - 6:00 PM


In and Out of Syria: A Conference on the War and the Refugee Crisis

Monday, February 15th, 2016 

In Room CLA 1.302B at the Julius Glickman Conference Center


9:00 – 9:30  Welcoming Remarks


Sofian Merabet, Anthropology, UT Austin

Welcome from the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, UT Austin, Randy Diehl

Welcome from the Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, UT Austin, Karin Wilkins


Chair: Kate Maddox Middle Eastern Studies, UT-Austin

9:30 – 10:00    “Nation Against State: Popular Nationalism and the Syrian Uprising”

Yasser Munif, Liberal Arts, Emerson College

This paper examines the significance and implications of Syrian nationalism in the context of the ongoing uprising. It argues that the emergent popular nationalism in Syria since 2011 should be understood both as a discourse of rupture with state-centric Baathist nationalism, and a continuation of the early nationalism of the 1920 revolt and the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925-27. The process consists of the creation of various vital institutions and spaces such as revolutionary courts, councils, committees, newspapers, and schools, many of which were also created by nationalists in the 1920s. Popular nationalism is not operating in a vacuum. Since the beginning of the uprising, it is repressed by the war and the discursive apparatus of the Syrian state. In addition, it is competing with a number of subnational and supranational ideologies such as regional, ethnic, and sectarian loyalties as well as global Salafi and Shia discourses. Since 2011, nationalism has been undergoing structural transformations and its contours are renegotiated and challenged. This analytical task is particularly urgent in a region where a self-appointed Islamic State is dismantling century-old national borders and building what it claims to be a post-national paradigm. This paper examines the case of Manbij, a city in the Aleppo Province located in Northern Syria. The city provides an interesting site for the study of the different aspects of popular nationalism. Manbij shows that the construction of a new national community is a vital site of resistance without which the revolt is bound to fail. This explains why the Syrian regime is using all tools at its disposal to counter popular nationalism as it takes place in the streets and the liberated neighborhoods.

 10:00 – 10:30  “The Politics of Sectarianism in Syria”

Friederike Stolleis, Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation, Berlin

In its more than forty years in power, the Syrian regime has learned to play off the various sectarian groups against each other in order to maintain its hegemony. With the collapse of social, economic and political order and stability, sectarian identities are today assuming an unprecedented importance while civil war and regional power struggles are changing the realities on the ground. After decades of enforced silence on the topic, discourses on sectarianism or religious and ethnic “minorities” are now subject of many heated debates. 

10:30 – 10:45  Coffee/Tea Break

10:45 – 11:15  “Wars, Lies, and Videotapes”

Ziad Majed, International and Comparative Politics, American University of Paris

Two years ago, I published an essay on Syria entitled “Syria, the Orphan Revolution.” Many critics said I should have entitled it “Syria, the Betrayed Revolution.” Around that same year, the Syrian dissident and brave intellectual Yassin Al-Haj Saleh called the revolution “The impossible revolution.” A year ago, the term “revolution” disappeared from the media when talking about Syria. It was replaced by other terms, such as “Civil war,” “Conflict,” “Crisis,” “Proxy war,” “Disaster,” etc. Why did these changes happen and what do they reveal? What are the images and perceptions of the “Syrian question” or of the “Syrian cause” in the media today? What was/is the role of culturalism in shaping those images and perceptions, and what are their political implications? My presentation will address these questions and analyze some of the dynamics of the on-going struggle in and for Syria.

11:15 – 11:45  “On Uncertainty in Syria”

Lisa Wedeen, Political Science, University of Chicago

Lamenting the disappearance of Facebook pages belonging to Syria’s opposition, an Atlantic Monthly article of February 4, 2014 raised important concerns about the social networking giant’s adjudication of content, but it also laid bare the difficulty involved in judging evidence or ascertaining the nature of truth claims circulating in Syria’s “media wars” since the uprising began in March 2011. Far from establishing “what really happened,” the multiplication of sites, the ease with which digital photos can be doctored, the speed with which “news” gets circulated and then displaced, and the presence of rival discourses registering moral outrage have led to new forms of uncertainty in this information-awash era. Displacing an outmoded, brittle Ba‘thist party rhetoric with increasingly sophisticated modes of ideological reproduction in the first decade of Bashar al-Asad’s rule, the regime has been able, in the course of the uprising, to counter human rights activists’ and citizen journalists’ efforts to document “the truth” by putting forth its own evidence—no more obviously believable than the opposition’s—which nevertheless serves to sow doubt about what is actually going on.  Competing images, rumors, conspiracy theories, the divisive testimony of “eyewitnesses” have raised questions about whether the political alternatives on offer would spell improvement over the regime, which personalities or sensibilities best represent the opposition, and how the veracity of images circulating can be determined. Here I take as exemplary two moments: 1) the mysterious controversy over who might have murdered the well-known singer Ibrahim Qashshush, or indeed if he was killed at all; 2) the chemical weapons attack in eastern Ghouta, a devastating event, the “evidence” for which has pointed in different directions, animated a global community of politicians, activists, and scientists, and served to polarize those with already firm positions even while regenerating uncertainty (as to accountability) for those who were not so sure. The paper ends by putting Syrian artists who are unsettling the conventions of documentary into conversation with Hannah Arendt and Ludwig Wittgenstein, drawing out these theorists’ relevance for our understanding of politics in the local Syrian as well as more global present.

11:45 – 12:30  Discussant: Jason Brownlee, Government, UT Austin

Questions & Answers

12:30 – 2:00    Lunch Break


Chair: Ece Sultan, Anthropology, UT-Austin

2:00 – 2:30      “Sounding Home: Music and Nostalgic Dwelling among Displaced Syrians in Turkey”

Jonathan Shannon, Anthropology, Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center

This paper explores the contradictions in the lived experience of Syrians in Istanbul, Turkey. Some 300,000 Syrians currently reside in Istanbul, including those from a wide array of walks of life: musicians and artists, laborers and business owners, transients and permanent residents, young and old. I conducted preliminary research among Syrian musicians and artists who have relocated to Istanbul in the aftermath of the ongoing violence in Syria. My research focused on two related sets of questions: First, how do musical performance and listening contribute to the production of a sense of home and affective community for displaced Syrians? Second, what is the role of displaced Syrians in the preservation and transformation of their endangered musical traditions? In conditions of displacement, music plays an important role in refashioning affective regimes in new homelands, serving not only as a source of comfort and nostalgic remembrance, but also as a touchstone for debate and contestation over collective memory and the meanings of belonging. Music can even be a source of conflict among Syrians in Turkey, echoing the contradictions displaced Syrians face when managing new lives in novel political-economic and moral infrastructures, and a music market with variegated subcultures and scenes. At the same time, displaced Syrians play an important role in the transformation of their musical heritage, both as performers and listeners. Far from passive victims, displaced Syrians in Turkey are active agents in refashioning their lives and their cultures, reshaping and re-signifying the concept of “musical tradition” in circumstances that promote not only preservationist projects but also innovation, fusion, and even loss. My research thus hopes to add to our understanding of the important role of music in “sounding” home in conditions of displacement, as well as of the role of exilic and diasporic communities in cultural preservation, revival, and innovation.

2:30 – 3:00      “Facing Death a Million Times: Syrian Refugees’ European Journey”

Maurizio Albahari, Anthropology, Notre Dame University

This contribution focuses on the course full of obstacle that internationally-displaced Syrian refugees have to face. Following a brief overview of the routes allowing transit to neighboring countries, the paper examines the often lethal maritime passage to Italy and Greece, and the dangerous journey on European soil. It argues that the ongoing refugee “crisis” is largely policy-made, and it critically engages the emerging cultural-political constructs that purport the inevitability of the violence inflicted upon Syrian refugees.

3:00 – 3:30      “Refugees In-Motion and Spaces Along the Way: Theoretical and Methodological Challenges of a Changing Field”

Julie Peteet, Anthropology, University of Louisville 

This presentation explores the in-motion-ness of the displaced and the varied spatial devices that contain them from the standard UNHCR-administered camp across the border, site of humanitarian interventions and host state regulations, to the transit centers, detention centers and the spontaneous, do-it-yourself encampments that spring up long routes of movement. In this paper, I suggest a turn to empirical, grounded research where we finally put to rest the Agambian framework, now well-critiqued but that still, for some reason, we feel must write against, setting it up as what our research challenges, responds to, and that will eventually supersede it. The focus on abstract, ungrounded theory may have led to a glossing over of other aspects of refugee lives. Perhaps it is time to forge ahead by crafting more empirically derived theory. For anthropology, such an agenda presents challenges, not insurmountable, to our methodological formulas on intensive prolonged engagement with our interlocutors. How does one research the in-motion-ness of refugees? How can one map and configure space in motion? Syrian refugees provide examples of continuity with other refugee situations and yet portend changes as does each new refugee crisis. The goal here is to locate Syrian refugees within larger global dynamics of displacement and rupture with the state. The move away from the camp as a device of containment and site of humanitarian interventions to a trajectory of prolonged, often harrowing flight through multiple states with multiple spaces of refuge with varying levels of reception, interdiction, and the granting of asylum has brought into focus new spaces of simultaneously containment and creativity. Are refugee camps as we know them–along border areas as in Palestinian camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan and more recently Syrian camps in Jordan (which only house a minority of refugees)–being superseded and if so by what? What kinds of political subjectivities take shape in the new variegated spaces of refuge?

3:30 – 4:15      Discussant: Benjamin Claude Brower, History, UT Austin

Questions & Answers

4:15 – 4:30      Coffee Break


Chair:Deina Rabie, Anthropology UT-Austin

4:30 – 5:00      “Palestinians and the War in Syria: Governmental Responses and Refugee Activism”

Nell Gabiam, Anthropology and Political Science, Iowa State University

I this paper, I focus on the effects of the Syrian war on the Palestinians of Syria, including those who have fled the country, becoming once again refugees. In addition to news and research data, I draw on approximately 40 interviews conducted in the spring and summer 2015 with Palestinians from Syria who are now living Lebanon, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, France, Sweden and the United States.  The paper is divided into three parts: first, I give an overview of the situation of Palestinians who remain inside Syria; then, I examine the experiences of Palestinians who have fled Syria to other Middle Eastern countries and those of Palestinians who have gone further afield, to Europe and the U.S. While much of the paper focuses on the ways in which Palestinians from Syria have been treated by various governments within and outside the Middle East in the wake of the Syrian war, it ends by looking at the resources that have been mobilized by Palestinian refugees themselves in order to address the devastating effects of the Syrian war.

5:00 – 5:30      “Palestinian Refugees from Syria: The Kafala System and New Formations of Jordanian State Power”

Sarah A. Tobin, Middle East Studies, Brown University 

The kafala (sponsorship) system is most frequently associated with the large influx of migrant labor to many Gulf countries. Through this system developed in the 1950’s, laborers are moved from their home countries in typically South and Southeast Asia to a new Gulf country through the sponsorship of the in-country employer, who is responsible for the workers’ visa and legal status. This system has recently seen an alteration and new usage in the form of sponsorship by Jordanians and Palestinian-Jordanians of Syrian refugee families, by which local families could “bail-out” refugees from camps, taking responsibility for their legal status and moral comportment in Jordan. Through ethnographic research in the only refugee camp for Palestinians from Syria in Jordan, Cyber City, this paper follows the ways by which the Jordanian government enacted the kafala system for all refugees, and then discontinued the system for Palestinians as a way to enact new formations of state power. One the one hand, the system continues to presumably give ethnic Syrians a way out of the camps and integrate into urban life upon the responsibility shouldered by them and their sponsors. On the other hand, for Palestinians from Syria, the discontinuation of the system re-establishes the Jordanian state as the arbiter of refugee acceptance and mobility, public health, racial and ethnic – as well as religious - purity, and class privilege. The paper concludes by discussing the implications of using a seemingly “ancient” or “Islamic” form of governance in a modern and contemporary context, and in the cultivation of new refugee subjectivities. 

5:30 – 6:00      Discussant: Stephennie Mulder, Middle Eastern Studies, UT Austin

Questions & Answers

The Conference is organized by Sofian Merabet, Department of Anthropology, and generously sponsored by the following academic units at The University of Texas at Austin: College of Liberal Arts Dean’s Office, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Center for European Studies, South Asia Institute, Department of Anthropology, Law School’s Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, Humanities Institute, Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, Department of History, Department of Sociology, Department of French and Italian, Department of Germanic Studies, Program in International Relations and Global Studies, and the Department of Geography and the Environment.

Sponsored by: COLA, Anthropology, CES, CMES, History, The Rapoport Center, Sociology, South Asia Institute, and Center for Women and Gender Studies.

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