“My link to the Middle East is very much connected to my childhood” – 5in10 with Nadia von Maltzahn
Nadia von Maltzahn joined the Orient-Institut Beirut (OIB) in 2013, having previously organized the international conference Inverted Worlds: Congress on Cultural Motion in the Arab Region for the OIB in 2012. She holds a DPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from St Antony’s College, Oxford, where she wrote her thesis on the role of culture in Syrian-Iranian relations since 1979. Nadias research interests include cultural policies and cultural diplomacy, urban governance, civil society and development, history and international relations of the Modern Middle East with a focus on Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Iran. Nadia’s main research project at the OIB revolves around governance of culture with a particular focus on cultural policies and space.
What was surprising to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?
I have always been curious about my surroundings. I was born in Damascus and spent my childhood in Bonn, Algiers and London. Growing up in different countries has marked me, I always felt very much at home in diverse cultures. I studied Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and started learning Arabic at university because I wanted to go back to the city of my birth and spend some time there to really explore it and understand it. My interest and link to the region is very much connected to my childhood, I always felt a part of it and it has always been a part of me.
How would you explain your current research to a stranger in an elevator („elevator pitch“)?
My current research project deals with cultural policies in Lebanon, and how we can understand cultural policies in the context of a country with many private and few public initiatives. I am looking at questions such as who makes culture and cultural policies, what are the dynamics between different actors and centres of power, what are the legal frameworks. I am looking in particular at cultural institutions and their role in the public sphere. My case studies range from a national cultural institution – the National Library that is in the process of being reopened after thirty-five years of being closed to the public – to an institution independent from the state and in fact closed down, but fighting to survive and improve legislation for culture. For the last few years, a regional debate around cultural policies has started, and I look at Lebanon also against the backdrop of what is happening in other countries in the region that operate in very different contexts.
Which stations of your academic journey were extremely formative to you?
I spent the third year of my undergraduate degree in Damascus, and fell in love with the city. I studied Arabic at the Institut français d’études arabes à Damas (later Institut français du Proche-Orient), and lived in the old town of Damascus between the Umayyad Mosque and the shrine of Sayida Ruqayya, the daughter of Imam Husayn (a central figure in Shia Islam). Both places were main pilgrimage sites for Iranians visiting Syria.
Passing by crowds of Iranians shuffling back and forth between the mosque and the shrine on my way to class every day, I got intrigued by their presence. I started to wonder about the role of culture in the Syrian-Iranian relationship, which I later wrote my DPhil about. In general, all stations of my academic journey have been formative, my years in England, my extended research periods in Syria and Iran, my time at the Orient-Institut Beirut. One takes something from each station.
How is it, to do research in Lebanon?
Access to information and sources can be quite obscure and not always very straightforward. Depending on the subject, it is very important to establish relationships with people, who can then point you onwards or introduce you to others who can. This can be quite time-consuming and one needs to be patient, but in the end it is usually rewarding.
If you had one wish, what would you wish for the further development of your subject?
With some exceptions, the higher education sector in the region is in need of development. In Lebanon, for instance, most students who think of an academic career leave after their BA or MA to complete their studies abroad, and often do not return. In many subjects, doctoral degrees are not even offered. The system is not tailored towards research, but towards teaching. Humanities and social sciences are often neglected. Some initiatives, like the newly created Arab Council for the Social Sciences, are trying to work towards improved conditions in the field, but I wish for more to be done in this direction.