“In the face of a systematic erosion of memory, I was intrigued by the preservation of what was gone” – 5in10 with Sana Tannoury-Karam
Sana Tannoury-Karam is a historian of the modern Middle East, writing on the intellectual and cultural history of the Arab Left. She is a EUME fellow 2020-2021 at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. Before, she was an Early Career Fellow at the Arab Council for Social Sciences (2019-2010) and a Post-Doctoral Fellow in History at Rice University (2018-2019). Sana received her PhD in History from Northeastern University in 2017. Her work has appeared in a range of publications including the Journal of World History, Jadaliyya, Megaphone, and TRAFO Blog. Her most recent publication is a co-edited volume, The League Against Imperialism: Lives and Afterlives, which came out with Leiden University Press in September 2020.
What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?
I came of age in post-civil war Lebanon, and this defined the childhood and adolescent experiences of my generation. For me, there are two main features of that historical moment that shaped my childhood and my interests. First, there was the rupture in time and memory that perpetuated our existence in a post-war society, which enforced erasure and refused to acknowledge any continuity with the past. The other defining feature of that era was the issue of mobility, or rather immobility, brought about by the persistent regional divisions of the city and the country, and financial conditions that did not allow me to travel much as a child.
Books, and particularly stories, were my way of being transported anywhere and meeting anyone. They also became a tool by which I could start to formulate notions of memory and remembrance so crucial to that time period in Lebanese history and to my development as a child. In the face of a systematic erosion of memory, I was intrigued by the idea of preserving things that were being erased and gone. I would spend hours as a child browsing through family photo albums, asking grandparents and parents about stories and songs. I formed a habit of collecting random and often strange people’s postcards and discarded photos. As a historian, I later became aware of the importance of ‘knowing’ the past and of teaching it, but I also became conscious of the oppressive and often conservative nature of preservation in the face of progressive and emancipatory movements and ideals, which in fact became my area of research.
How do you explain your current research project to your students?
One of the main things a professor of the modern Middle East does in a classroom is break the stereotypes and archetypes of the Middle East that students most often have about this region and its people, starting with questioning the notion of ‘Middle East’ and moving on to deconstructing the East/West binary and the complexities of modernity. One great way to do so is telling my students about Arab intellectuals and activists who sought to establish social and political justice, to counter Western imperialism, to fight fascism and reactionary movements, and to counter sectarianism and exclusionary politics in their societies and across the world. I therefore always insert my research into these narratives about the Middle East that I emphasize in my classes.
Which stations of your academic journey were particularly formative to you?
For historians, the answer to this question tends to always involve the archives. As a graduate student at the American University of Beirut, working under the supervision of Samer Frangie, I became intrigued about the writing of history, genealogies, and historiographies. The first time I ordered a microfilm and sat in front of a microfilm reader, I was ecstatic. This is funny because most historians tend to complain about microfilms and, generally speaking, archives have moved away from this form of preservation into the digital world. To me, however, the microfilm represented my first insight into a past that I was eager to excavate. This would constitute probably the first major formative event in my academic career.
A long and fruitful PhD program at Northeastern University under the supervision of Ilham Khuri-Makdisi helped shape and influence my academic career in numerous ways, including directing me towards my research interests in the history of the left and of global history. But more than the PhD program itself, it was the experience of living and working as an Arab in the United States between 2010 and 2019 that shaped my academic journey.
The latest and possibly most poignant ‘station’ in my journey would be the Lebanese October revolution of 2019. It is one thing to research and write about revolutionary thought, but it was quite another thing to live, teach, and write amidst a revolutionary uprising.
How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods?
In technical terms, I use a prosopographical approach to tell the story of a group intellectuals that were active in Lebanon and the Levant during the Mandate era. I actually write a biography of a milieu by following the life trajectories, choices, and activism of individuals, thus combining biographical and intellectual history approaches to illuminate the private and the public narratives alongside each other. This way of ‘doing’ research allows me to shift between different scales—micro/macro, global/local, and public/private—while emphasizing the dialectical nature of the relationship between these scales. This method also enables me to explore what I am most interested in: Why do people make certain choices and where do these choices lead them? How do individual stories add up to form parts of a historical canon, in this case Arab thought?
Which academic or public debates inspired you recently?
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, academics started lamenting the loss of scholarly engagement caused primarily by the elimination of conferences and talks that usually bring people together. And although most of the intimacy and spontaneity of these encounters has been unfortunately lost, we are however seeing what seems to be an increase in online talks and engagements now that physical and travel restrictions do not hinder the planning and execution of such events. So, in short, it is hard to choose the most inspirational debate I have been engaging with in the last few months. However, if I were to think of a debate that has moved me personally the most, I would say that one of EUME’s first seminars this year on “Making Arabic Music in Times of Upheaval” has particularly struck a note on the issue of living and producing in ‘exile.’ Ten years after the ‘Arab Spring’ and amidst continuous upheaval in a region that has displaced Arabs and made their return almost unfeasible if not impossible, we continue to question what it means to be ‘out of place’ in the Saidian sense, but also to negate exile through creating a new and non-binary living experience. I am personally grappling with these questions and issues and I believe will continue to do so for a long time. I do hope, however, that my fellowship here in Berlin will offer some insights into these questions and dilemmas.
Citation: “In the face of a systematic erosion of memory, I was intrigued by the preservation of what was gone“ – 5in10 with Sana Tannoury-Karam, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 08.12.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/25601.