Conference Report “Reconfigurations and Connectivities of the MENA Region: Contextualizing Upheavals, Transformations, and Lasting Crises”

By Igor Johannsen

A report of the Final Conference of the Research Network “Re-Configurations – History, Remembrance and Transformation Processes in the Middle East and North Africa” at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies (CNMS) at the Philipps University of Marburg, November 14-16th, 2018. A full program of the conference can be found here.

In mid-November 2018, the research network “Re-Configurations” of the CNMS in Marburg held its final conference at the historic city hall building in the center of medieval Marburg over the course of three days. The invited guests, arriving from Canada, the United Kingdom, and Lebanon, among others, were part of a program that was intended to shed light on and create a forum for discussion about the “reconfigurations and connectivities” of political, social, and cultural processes and practices in the MENA region with a decidedly international and interdisciplinary scope.

Photo: Anne-Linda Amira Augustin

The opening event, a panel discussion entitled 100 Years of Re-Configurations: Contextualizing the MENA-Region Globally and Historically, attested to these perspectives by including participants from a wide range of scholarly expertise: The historian Eckart Conze and the former Professor of Arabic Economy, Society and Language at the City University of Applied Sciences Bremen, Alexander Flores, delved into the historical and global entanglements of the MENA region during the last century with Heike Liebau, an expert of modern South Asia and coordinator at the ZMO in Berlin, and Rachid Ouaissa, the Professor for Politics of the Near and Middle East in Marburg, who also acts as the speaker of the “Re-Configurations” network. Reminding the audience about the lasting impact of the long 19th century on the MENA region and the heritage of European colonialism, Eckart Conze exemplified these historical connectivities with an image from an ISIS video, showing the slogan “the end of Sykes-Picot”, itself alluding to the partition of the Middle East according to a secret agreement (the Asia Minor Agreement) between Great Britain and France from 1916. Heike Liebau stressed the importance of widening the geographical perspective while researching the First World War. With millions of people recruited and sent into battle by the European empires, she took a closer look at the understudied issue of prisoners of war and their diverging living conditions according to their status as colonial subjects, as well as their enduring stigma in their own societies after their release and return. With that, Heike Liebau drew the attention of the audience towards one of the many aspects that connect geographical and historical spaces, which are often seen much more separate in conventional historiography.

Rachid Ouaissa hinted at the economic entanglements of the regions under scrutiny, especially considering natural resources and their political implications, and compared the global configurations of 1918 with those of today, 100 years later. Alexander Flores, on the other hand, stressed the significance of the Russian Revolution and its reverberation on colonized societies. Additionally, he dwelled on the still-prevalent problems that are directly connected to the colonial period, which appear strikingly obvious with regard to the open questions of Kurdish and Palestinian statehood.

The following discussion picked up on many issues raised by the panelists, who were chaired by Christoph Werner, himself Professor for Iranian Studies at the CNMS. The audience showed special interest in visions of a further expanding of the EU south of the Mediterranean, in matters of the agency of postcolonial societies and states, as well as in the consequences for researchers engaging with respective issues. The event was able to pique the curiosity of a big and heterogeneous audience, including a large proportion of people from outside the academy proper, and closed with a concert by the pianist Aeham Ahmad, who earned fame through viral videos of him playing the piano open-air in war-ravaged Syria and is now living in Wiesbaden. His performance moved many in the audience and presented a formidable aesthetic at the closing of the day and during the opening of the conference in the coming two days.

On the first of the two days, packed with panels and another roundtable discussion, the speaker of the research network, Rachid Ouaissa, and former coordinator, Achim Rohde, welcomed the gathered participants and guests with a recapitulation of the network’s activities, past events, and publications of its team over the course of five successful years. The project, funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, will end on January 31st, 2019. Accordingly, the introduction included outlining possible pathways of continuing the work that was done during its funding phase and carrying the results over into wider academic and public discourse.

The panels of the two days engaged with the diversity and depth of the research that was done by the team and associated researchers in and along the thematic focus of the network. It included questions of political activism and agency, transitional justice, considerations of space, adolescence and forms of representation. Already, the first panel covered a wide range of approaches and perspectives on a common topic, “transitional justice”: Mariam Salehi presented her findings from extensive fieldwork in Tunisia, delving especially into the complexities connected to the concomitantly unfolding political and social processes during phases of reconciliation to consolidate a transformed state and society. Irene Weipert-Fenner, senior research fellow at the Peace Research Institute in Frankfurt, then went on to compare the political consequences of socioeconomic protest in Egypt and Tunisia and, with a discussion of experiences made during comparable processes in Latin America, hinted at the topic of the final presenter in this panel, Anika Oettler, Professor of Sociology, who discussed possible lessons to be learned from the research on the Middle East by examining transitional justice in Colombia.

The apparent geographical scope, naturally focused on the Middle East and North Africa, but also incorporating a consideration of historical continuity and spatial connectedness, was accompanied by a decisive range of topics: The panel on Youth and Generation, for example, contained presentations on “Drinking Habits of Children and Adolescents in the Colonial Maghreb” by Nina Studer from the University of Bern, an analysis of the intergenerational transmission of a counterhegemonic narrative in the independence movement of Southern Yemen by Anne-Linda Amira Augustin, and an assessment of intergenerational relationships and collective memory in the context of the so called “Hirak” movement in Morocco and the Moroccan diaspora in Europe, based on ethnographic fieldwork by Christoph Schwarz. Another panel summoned research concerned with different aspects of what might be called “popular culture,” including hip hop, parkour, and the pivotal role of the chicken in nationalist discourse and consumption practices in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Additionally, participants tackled questions regarding the researchers’ conduct in fieldwork due to the political situations in a row of countries in the Middle East and North Africa and engaged in re-assessing conceptual challenges along the field of “Area Studies” and their implications for the academy. This assemblage of topics and perspectives may seem quite broad in one sense, and the conference was able to cover a lot of ground regarding questions connected to the overall theme and the research interests of the network’s members. In another sense, however, the geographical and discursive framing of those topics allowed for a constructive and productive environment and intriguing discussions. It became quite obvious that the wide range and the impressive scope of the presentations did not inhibit meaningful discussion or the realization of a sometimes broad, but often very apparent, connectedness and relatability of the subjects presented.

Thus, despite the wide variety of issues and the inter- and transdisciplinary character of much of the work that was presented, the presentations and following discussions were generally carried though concise and focused questions, enabling the presenters to lay out their arguments not only in great detail but also embedding them in the wider discourses aimed at in this conference. Much of what was talked – sometimes argued – about during the sessions was carried over into the breaks and over the course of all three days, there were ample opportunities for discussion with the panelists and presenters. The venue, the historic hall in the city hall of Marburg, suited these purposes perfectly. Equipped with the necessary technology and allowing a perfect view on medieval Marburg, the location additionally facilitated areas for casual gathering in the foyer and the entrance, and was in this way conducive to the overall success of the conference. The research network “Re-Configurations” is happy to have been able to facilitate this event as it is preparing to dismantle itself in the beginning of 2019 and sends their gratitude to all those who made their efforts worthwhile, in this case especially those that participated in its final conference.


Citation: Igor Johannsen, Conference Report “Reconfigurations and Connectivities of the MENA Region: Contextualizing Upheavals, Transformations, and Lasting Crises”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 15.01.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/17172.


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