“I learned to become a person who excavates the past in order to understand the present” – 5in10 with Diana Abbani

Diana Abbani received her PhD in Arabic studies from the Sorbonne University with a dissertation entitled, “Music and Society in Beirut during the Nahḍa Period”. She holds an MA in History from the Sorbonne University and an MA in Political Science from Saint-Denis University (Paris). Her work focuses mainly on the social and cultural life in the Levant, particularly in Beirut, at the turn of the 20th century. In her dissertation, she draws a social and cultural history of Beirut’s musical scene in the first quarter of the twentieth century. She offers a historical rethinking of the cultural and musical history of Beirut, by looking at the relations between music, technology and society through the analysis of a set of primary sources. Diana is a EUME Fellow of the academic year 2018/2019.

What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?

My childhood memories are closely related to my summers and vacations spend in my native village, Soultanieh, south of Lebanon, where we used to explore our surroundings freely. What marked me most in these moments, spent away from urban Beirut, were the stories we used to hear about abandoned sites in the region. I was always fascinated by these stories that gave a parallel life to places, intriguing my imagination. One of the most unforgettable stories was a story that mixed a popular myth to the general political context of south Lebanon. This history told about a small hill that upholds my village was a way to express local resistance. People claimed that an ancient Jewish queen ruled this mountain a long, long time ago. They believed that she left a big treasure hidden somewhere there. This mythical queen, who chose my small village to rule the region from, has always fascinated me. I was mostly impressed by the way people repeated her story while emphasizing the fact that, during the Israeli invasion of south Lebanon in 1982, Israeli soldiers and archaeologists excavated the whole mountain to find traces of this queen, while looking at the same time for the treasure. Whether these stories were real or false didn’t really matter. What mattered was how proud they felt when repeating: “The land, faithful to its roots, did not give them any satisfaction in finding traces of this Jewish queen or her treasure”. These kinds of stories marked my childhood and inflamed my curiosity to follow people’s oral histories and stories. I became more and more interested in following the histories of places and people, and curious to hear the meaning people put on some places.

How do you explain your current research project to your students?

I start by explaining that my research is a study of an unknown aspect of Beirut’s social and cultural history, its musical life at the beginning of the twentieth century. Through the study of music archives and newspapers, I follow the changes in Beirut’s musical scene, tell the stories of forgotten singers and music entrepreneurs, and uncover the reasons why we lost today traces of an essential history of our popular culture. This will be an opportunity for me to start questioning their ideas about archives, history and memory in general: what do they consider as the archive, what kind of materials can one use to understand history, how could the study of popular culture enable us to uncover people’s histories and stories, how and why were certain archives erased or forgotten, and what does that tell us about our own collective memory and history? This leads me to explain my interest in silences over the cultural and social history of Lebanon that made me investigate Beirut’s musical life. I thus try to explain the making of nationalistic narratives that eclipsed a part of the region’s history while encouraging the students to think of other examples, in order to formulate a historical critique of nationalist and official narratives that erase the memory of unwanted voices. My aim would also be to set some methodological issues like the importance of the study of music and popular culture from a historical perspective in general, questioning what its study means for us today.

Which stations of your academic journey were particularly formative to you?

The most formative academic journey for me would be getting my MA in History and Archaeology from the Sorbonne University. In these years, I learned to become a person who excavates the past in order to understand the present. I also improved my reading, writing and argumentation skills. My postdoctoral fellowship here with EUME is providing me with the opportunity to meet with people working on various themes and fields, which allows me to broaden my work and helps me to think of new ways to bring academic knowledge into a more general public.

Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?

I have spent the last ten years moving from one place to another between Europe and the Middle East. Although, it is tiring on a personal level, it has provided enrichment to my academic work, being able to take some distance from my home town, while also meeting new scholars working on different subjects and through different perspectives. These international exchanges have definitely broadened my research, and my own experience of living abroad has especially helped me rethink my own perceptions of history and culture making.

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series etc.) have inspired you recently?

One of the academic events that recently inspired me was a symposium organized in October 2018 in Berlin “Revisiting Archive in the Aftermath of Revolution” by Khaled Saghieh in collaboration with EUME. The presentations and discussions between not only academics, but also writers and artists, around the questions of memory, the ways and purposes of archiving, and politics and society were of great interest for my work. They provided me with new questions and approaches to my study of music as archival material to understand history and society in the early 20th century.


Citation: „I learned to become a person who excavates the past in order to understand the present“ – 5in10 with Diana Abbani, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 24.01.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/17603.


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