“But knowledge is not only desire; it is also necessary to commit to what we know” – 5in10 with Eman Elnemr
Eman Elnemr received her PhD in modern and contemporary history (2017) from the University of Tanta, Egypt. Her research interests address hegemonic elite projects and so-called modernization transformations, their effects on society, modes of resistance or responses to them, and public/people’s interventions in shaping them. More specifically, she is concerned with the daily practices of various forms and practices of art and expression that are linked to the transformation of the political economy and modernization, including the discourse-making mechanisms that partake in is construction. She published her first book, Egyptian Theatre from the Renaissance to the Revolution of 1919 in 2019 with Dar al-Kutub wa al-Watha’iq al-Qawmiya. She is currently an affiliated Europe in the Middle East—The Middle East in Europe (EUME) Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien.
How would you explain your research to someone who’s not an expert?
In 1913, Abu al-Lail Rashid, a reader living in the Minya governorate in northern Upper Egypt, sent an angry letter to a daily newspaper. He titled his letter “Keep Morals, please” and was deeply upset by a performance of the theater play Laylat al-zafaf (The Wedding Night, in Arabic), performed by Aziz Eid’s troupe. Rashid wrote that this kind of play was “not suitable for respectable ladies and young students”. According to him, it was licentious because it “awakened desires and [it] was not appropriate for our civil country” to encourage such an art: “The government and the wise men must forbid it in order to preserve public morality. It is not decent for people in public to see a woman sleeping in her bed in her see-through clothes”.
Rashid’s letter still represents a large segment of Egyptian society. Occasionally, there are wide social debates about the normativity of art and the need to subject it to public moral control. These arguments eliminate the free space of art and fantasy. I am interested in analyzing and interacting with these mechanisms of hegemony, including behavior control discourses. I believe that, even today, the moral discourse as a historical problematic requires complex scholarly engagement. In my initial project, I was interested in theater that was described as licentious, like the kind that angered Rashid. I see theater as a form of discourse but one that entails unpredictable practices.
What was surprising to me was that what some people considered immoral or corrupt was, in the views of others, a mechanism for their emancipation and an opportunity to raise their voices. Through this extra-standard theater, people learned to express their feelings and desires to build a better reality. This cannot be called rebellion because I refuse to reduce wide and diverse practices to mere hegemony and resistance. The case of Rashid is an example that reveals to us that ethical behavior in the public sphere is historical. It was imposed through authoritarian practices aligning with Rashid’s demand that the Egyptian government ban this type of art.
What intrigued you when you started your academic journey?
I became interested in theoretical disciplines, especially philosophy and sociology, during my early years of education. My way of thinking is to look for the causes of things and to analyze them, always asking why did this become this way? Additionally, I love to read. I have a strong desire to see books I have written myself among other books that I like. But knowledge is not only desire; it is also necessary to commit to what we know. In this regard, I had a sense of responsibility to my community. Sometimes I wonder, for example, what is the use of studying the history of theater for the ‘ordinary people’ I meet in everyday life? I believe that a play like Laylat al-zafaf can, at the very least, be seen as a voice of the past that must be understood and sometimes restored.
What were formative encounters or challenges?
I am a researcher living in a part of the world that some have settled to call the ‘Global South’. Any researcher there, who respects their work and wants to present it creatively, will face weak infrastructures and scarce resources. This same South also reproduces inequality politics. Rural areas suffer more consequences than big cities and capitals. I myself come from a rural area. There, people also face poor conditions in education at the level of curricula and institutions. Moreover, the values and norms of social life in the countryside allow only extremely limited choices, especially for women. For example, for my postgraduate studies, I could not move far away from my home village but had to enroll at the nearest university in Tanta, a city located in the north of Egypt. However, I had to go to the National Archives in the capital (Cairo) to study historical sources and documents, which took about eight hours of travel and also was against manners and customs.
I think there are many others who suffer from poor education infrastructure and inequality, and wait for better opportunities. Notwithstanding all the struggles, sometimes individual strength pays off. My determination and passion for research always pushed me forward. But, I actually owe much of my knowledge to two revolutions: the electronic knowledge revolution that allowed me to access unlimited free libraries and archives; and the second revolution, in 2011, which sparked a wide debate in the humanities. The latter inspired us, as a generation, to look deeper into the tough questions imposed by reality – yet, this time, not out of passion for knowledge per se, but in search of salvation.
What do you consider to be the role of the humanities and social sciences in times of upheaval, fragmented publics, and authoritarian transgressions?
I’ll start with where I ended the previous answer. Some may think that the humanities are academic theorizing detached from the reality that most people live in. During turmoil, tough times, and political authoritarianism, people’s priorities in life are different; they think only of ways to survive. On the one hand, the world today is going through many crises: starting with the Corona epidemic, to the Russian war in Ukraine, and the threat of an imminent global economic collapse. Hundreds of international companies are laying off their employees to reduce costs. Poverty levels are increasing across the world, while wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few. Add to this the challenges of climate change. Meanwhile, we see revolutions here and there failing. I belong to one of these failed revolutions. On the other hand, there is a considerably large interest among young people in the humanities.
After the 2011 revolution in Egypt, reading rates in history, philosophy, political science, and anthropology increased. Many young people of all backgrounds wanted to understand what happened. Why did we fail? What was missing for our revolution to succeed? What political and organizational competencies did we need? Many of these people turned to reading the histories of revolutions and political dictatorships. Thousands of young people discussed issues of religious criticism, and individual and gender freedoms. They approached these arguments to claim democratic politics, justice, and equality. The Arabic translation market has grown in the fields of political economy, gender studies, and the theory of political and social sciences. Social media witnessed countless discussion groups sharing books, recommendations, and reviews. All of this consisted of individuals and their self-motivated efforts, free from the curricula and institutions of official authority. This shows the power of the humanities and why we our need it in such challenging times. It shows that today, modernity and one of its most important ideas is still appreciated: the value of the human mind and its ability to organize and interpret the world.
What book, article, film, exhibition, or song would you recommend, and why?
It is difficult for me to pinpoint a particular book or thing that has influenced me. However, I can nominate the quartet of the great historian Eric Hobsbawm, from The Age of Revolutions to The Age of Extremes. I really appreciate Hobsbawm. Since I have been in Germany, I have sincerely wished that he could have lived longer, so that I might have had the chance to meet him. I consider these four volumes to be an amazing summary of the world during the 19th and 20th centuries, and it is difficult to limit his work to a single idea or example. It is true that he did not focus much on the Middle East or the Arab region. Nevertheless, this series and his other books remain among the most important references for understanding the world today. Anyone who is looking for a brief and thoughtful analysis of the modern world and the most important social, political, scientific, cultural, and artistic theories and their ‘master-narratives’, must read Hobsbawm. Another book I would recommend is Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. It analyzes the history of production processes and their changing patterns in contemporary imperial reality, including what the authors call the ‘emotional/immaterial’ work. Both authors are Marxist but are not dogmatic. In the second part of their book, they focus on the contemporary public and its ability to form affective and creative networks. I have been fascinated by this book since reading it and many of its remarkable ideas have stayed with me.
Citation:“But knowledge is not only desire; it is also necessary to commit to what we know” – 5in10 with Eman Elnemr, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.12.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/44448