Imaging a ‘Middle East’ – Interview with Saima Akhtar
This article is part of the TRAFO series ‘Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’. Today, we put the spotlight on the international symposium “Imaging a ‘Middle East’”, which will take place on 6–7 July 2017 in Berlin. It is an ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry event organized by Saima Akhtar, Walid El-Houri, and Banu Karaca in cooperation with Europe in the Middle East—The Middle East in Europe (EUME), a program at the Forum Transregionale Studien.
Saima Akhtar is a Postdoctoral Associate in Computer Science and at the The Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage at Yale University. There, she works on a project to digitally document at-risk heritage sites in Syria and Iraq before they are altered or destroyed. She is an urban historian and architect by training and holds a PhD in Architecture from UC Berkeley. In 2016-7, she was also an Irmgard Coninx Prize Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien and an affiliated fellow at the ICI Berlin.
The symposium explores the continued seductiveness that Orientalism seems to hold over the production of images of the contemporary ‘Middle East’. Edward Said’s seminal work on ‘Orientalism’ was published in 1978. How did the idea of the symposium emerge? Why is it so important to examine representations and images of the contemporary ‘Middle East’?
This symposium is a follow-up to ‘Middle of Where, East of What?’, held in July 2016, which brought up questions about the real and imagined boundaries of a region of the world we know as the Middle East. The conversations were broad-ranging but much needed, particularly in Germany, which became the most sought-after final destination in Europe for Syrian refugees in 2015-6. We thought it was important to hold events like this at an academic and research-oriented institution, where the production of knowledge has the potential to veer into topical matters and spark public debate, and we were pleasantly surprised to see so many young people attend and actively engage the themes at hand. At the same time, we saw an opportunity to further pursue an underlying thread in the discussions that specifically addressed images and representations — the conversations took a natural turn from the politics of borders and migration, to the ways in which the ‘Middle East’ has, and continues to be, mapped and pictured through travel literature, photographs, cartography, mapmaking, and so on. We also touched on contemporary modes of image-making that shape perceptions of the region today, such as through news media, 3-D visualization, and filmmaking/Hollywood. There is no doubt that these modes of visualization have an impact on the ways territories and people are perceived, imagined, treated, and governed – and we see the effects of this in a very real way today.
We [the organizers] thought that the most productive way to frame a conversation on the imaging of a Middle East is through the lens of Orientalism – though not necessarily limited to it. Said’s 1978 study continues to be incredibly relevant and we’d benefit from turning back to it. If we take, as Said suggests, Orientalism as a way of seeing, as a way in which ‘the West’ constructed and ordered ‘the East’ from the age of European Enlightenment, then the deconstruction of images and representations becomes central to the way we understand the Middle East as a geopolitical space. In the world of digital media that we live in today, images constantly surround us and are constitutive for our thinking with or without us having the tools or time to absorb or critically distill their meanings. In this sense, it’s important for us to pay attention to reductive images and representations dealing with the contemporary Middle East and the narratives they establish or sustain – as we have seen in instances like the controversial Charlie Hebdo illustrations of Arabs and refugees, the photographic depictions of migrants and Islam as a threat to Europe, the appearance of Islamophobic advertisements in major U.S. cities, or Hollywood’s insistent reliance on Muslim, South Asian, or Arab characters as terrorists and perpetrators. We also see instances of self-Orientalism in the construction of oil-rich mega cities of the Arab Gulf, in diasporic communities or elsewhere as representations of ‘authenticity’, as justifications to maintain patriarchy, or as modes of strategic positioning in a global cultural marketplace.
During the symposium you will look at the production of images of the ‘Middle East’, both inside and outside the region. How can transregional perspectives enrich the debate?
We intend to discuss how images produced in Orientalist traditions have traveled, are mirrored, and subverted through a variety of mechanisms. As I mentioned, the production of such images isn’t contained to an ‘East’ or ‘West’, but there is a genealogy to Orientalist representation that is rooted in the preservation of certain power structures that maintain an incommensurability between an ‘East’ and ‘West.’
As such, we are excited to feature speakers on a wide range of case studies through interdisciplinary perspectives, including a Tintinologist, architect, activist, anthropologist, photographer, performance artist, and filmmaker. They will present research on topics such as the representation of ‘Arabs’ in 20th century European and Arab graphic novels, imaging techniques used in the mapping of Syria and Iraq, representations of the ‘Global East’ in British soap operas, resistance to Orientalism in Egyptian cinema, the use of Orientalist imaginaries in the urban development of Kuwait City, and so on. By discussing these case studies over two days, we hope to draw out thematic connections or parallels between different modes of image-making and the geographies in which they take place or circulate. The idea is to also shed light on the existence (and sometimes subtle nature) of contemporary Orientalist image-production and the ways in which it is challenged and questioned today.
The symposium invites scholars, artists, activists, and practitioners in the fields of architecture and archaeology to discuss the modes and politics of visual production that contribute to the making and unmaking of a ‘Middle East’ and its standardized frames of perception. What kinds of discussions do you want to encourage and what would be an ideal outcome of the event?
We hope that the symposium stimulates discussions on how Orientalist images/representations (and the power differentials they reflect) pervade contemporary politics and media coverage, can fuel localised racism, and sustain anti-democratic measures established in the course of the ‘refugee crisis’ or the ‘global war on terror’. Ideally, through interviews like this, and our partnership with Open Democracy, we hope to publish articles in the lead-up to and following the symposium to raise awareness about how Orientalist images and representations shape public opinion, politics, and policies with regard to immigrants, refugees, and anyone who identifies or is represented as Muslim, Arab, or Middle Eastern. Through our discussions, and a series of rich visual presentations, we hope to also explore alternative practices of imaging a Middle East at this critical conjuncture of rising right-wing politics, authoritarianism, and Islamophobia. The event is designed as an interdisciplinary forum that addresses both young and established scholars, artists, activists, media, and human rights workers. As always, participation at the symposium is free of charge and open to anyone. All sessions will be recorded and publicly available on the ICI website.
Further contributions to the TRAFO series „Emerging Topics“:
- Postcolonial Legacies, Scholarly Mobility and Research Capacity Building – Interview with Daniele Cantini, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 29.05.2017.
- Reading the ‘1979 Moment‘ in the Middle East – Interview with Amir Moosavi, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.05.2017.
- Konfiguration des Säkularen. Einblicke in die kritische Säkularismusforschung – Interview with Schirin Amir-Moazami, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 09.05.2017.
- Transregionale Verflechtungen: Räumliche Zusammenhänge jenseits etablierter Metageographien – Interview with Steffen Wippel, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.04.2017
- Heritage, Decolonisation and the Field – Interview with William Carruthers, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.04.2017.
- „What Makes a Man? Sexuality and Representation in Europe-Middle East Encounters“ – Interview with Tarek El-Ariss, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 07.04.2017.
- Making and Changing Spaces of Action under the Global Condition – Interview with Martina Keilbach, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 31.03.2017.
- Practices and Processes of Space-making under the Global Condition – Interview with Steffi Marung, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.02.2017.
- Stepping Back in Time. Living History and Other Performative Approaches to History in Central and South-Eastern Europe, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 17.02.2017, guest contribution by Sabine Stach (German Historical Institute Warschau).
Citation: Imaging a ‘Middle East’ – Interview with Saima Akhtar, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 06.06.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/6820.