What Makes a Man? Sexuality and Representation in Europe-Middle East Encounters

This article is part of the TRAFO series Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’. Today, we put the spotlight on the workshop „What Makes a Man? Sexuality and Representation in Europe-Middle East Encounters“, which will take place on May 18, 2017 in Berlin. It is an ICI Event, organized by Peter Rehberg (ICI Berlin/ DAAD), Tarek El-Ariss (University of Texas at Austin), and John Borneman (Princeton University), in cooperation with Europe in the Middle East – the Middle East in Europe (EUME).

Please find the program of the workshop here.

Tarek El-Ariss (Photo by: Zeina Halabi)

Our guest is Tarek El-Ariss, one of the workshop organizer. He is Associate Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at University of Texas at Austin. He received a BA in Philosophy from the American University of Beirut and a PhD in Comparative Literature from Cornell University. His research interests include contemporary Arabic literature, visual culture, and new media; 18th- and 19th-century French and Arabic philosophy and travel writing; and affect and poststructuralist theory. In 2012/2013 he was a research fellow of Europe in the Middle East—The Middle East in Europe (EUME)

Why did you organize the workshop and what are you hoping to achieve?

When Ken Seigneurie approached me as publications committee chair and series editor for the CMES/UT press with the idea of publishing his translation of Rachid al-Daif’s The German’s Return to his Senses, I immediately understood that this publication could generate a productive debate about perceptions and questions of gender and sexuality in a transregional context. When it was clear that we could also include Joachim Helfer’s response to Rachid, The Queering of the World, in the publication, I thought of approaching scholars to reflect critically on this encounter. As someone who theorizes the encounter in my own work (Trials of Arab Modernity) and reads it not only as the lens for an objective perception of the other but also as a site of breakdown, hallucination, projection, and textual production, the encounter between Rachid and Joachim and the texts and controversies it produced was precisely the kind of encounter that is ripe for reading and analysis, and for understanding the role of literature as the product and condition of this cross-cultural encounter.

Book cover of Rashid al-Daif and Joachim Helfer (2015): What Makes a Man? Sex Talk in Beirut and Berlin, University of Texas Press

The idea of holding a workshop in Berlin came about when discussing this with my co-organizers Peter Rehberg who was my colleague at UT Austin and had contributed to the shaping of the book, and John Borneman who read the book when it came out and sent me and Peter questions/comments that became the nucleus of the project proposal. When What Makes a Man came out in 2015, I had a conversation with Georges Khalil about an event around the english publication of the Helfer/Daif texts as a way of repatriating this debate that took place more than a decade later within the framework of EUME’s predecessor programme „the Working group Modernity and Islam“. Everyone was eager to participate in this project and the final program is the outcome of discussions and deliberations that involved the different scholars and institutes as well as the authors themselves.

The discussion refers to an author exchange in 2003/2004. Did the debate on sexual identities between Europe and the Middle East change during the last 13 years?

This is the question that is at the heart of the workshop and one that I hope participants will help answer. Historically, the amorous and sexual encounter between Europe and the Middle East has occupied a privilege position in the representation of and encounter with the other from Suhayl Idris and Tayeb Salih in the Arab context to Jean Genet and Paul Bowles in the European one. Today, the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe and recent representations of the refugee as sexual predator brought this historical representation to a whole new level, incorporating yet moving beyond the orientalist framework often deployed to reflect on this relation. The questions that we asked the participants to address concern the nature of otherness beyond the orientalist model of representation. There is a biopolitics of displacement that has moved the traditional bourgeois Arab exile from the elegant cafes of Paris to refugee centers in Scandinavian and other European countries, but also to Berlin, the new capital of Arab exiles and I would add Arab cultural production outside the Arab world.

Based on the topics and questions that have been discussed so far: what are the key arguments for conducting  transregional research? What are the unique perspectives and insights that the participants will gain from attending your workshop?

Transregional research is key as it examines contemporary issues and encounters yet also engages their historical context. But in „transregional“ there is the word „trans,“ which makes transregional research a producer of quantifiable research (democratic change in Tunis, economic conditions in Egypt, etc.) but also of non-normative and non-quantifiable research that needs to contend with questions of sexuality, desire, fantasy, etc. In this sense, transregional research has the potential to identify the texts and encounters that require further reading and analysis such as the one we’ll be dealing with in this workshop. Questions of phobia, fascination, and desire are as much part of this transregional but also non-normative knowledge production that fundamentally questions what is to be known and how it is to be known. Misperception, collapse, and misrepresentation are not only to be condemned and dismissed but also texts to be read, analyzed, and scrutinized in the hope of identifying new levels of cross-cultural understanding. I hope that the participants get a chance to reflect on the role of fantasy and fiction in staging and mediating the political and the cultural. Finally, transregional studies is not so much an investigation of a region of the world in an attempt to understand and categorize it and therefore are relevant only to those focusing on a particular region (like the Middle East) but also a conduit for critical inquiry that deals with questions that are at the heart of philosophical inquiries pertaining to literature, sexuality, language, and writing that comparatively ties in the regional focus with other forms of investigation. Thus the EUME/ICI collaboration is key in delivering this message.

 

Questions: Moritz Buchner (Forum Transregionale Studien)

 

Further contributions to the TRAFO series „Emerging Topics“: 

Sabine Stach (2017), Stepping Back in Time. Living History and Other Performative Approaches to History in Central and South-Eastern Europe, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research

Practices and Processes of Space-making under the Global Condition– Interview with Steffi Marung (2017), TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research

Making and Changing Spaces of Action under the Global Condition – Interview with Martina Keilbach (2017), TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research

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Citation: What Makes  a Man? Sexuality and Representation in Europe-Middle East Encounters – Interview with Tarek El-Ariss, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 07.04.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/6393.

 


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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