“On the Ruins of History” – A Walter Benjamin Moment in Arab Thought?


This article is part of the TRAFO series ”Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’”. Today, we put the spotlight on the workshop “On the Ruins of History” A Walter Benjamin Moment in Arab Thought?, which is organized by Atef Botros al-Attar and Ayman El-Desouky from the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies in cooperation with Europe in the Middle East—The Middle East in Europe (EUME). The event will take place on 1 and 2 December 2017 at the Forum Transregionale Studien, Wallotstraße 14, 14193 Berlin.

Please find the program and more information on the workshop here.

Atef Botros al-Attar, Picture: Private.

Atef Botros al-Attar is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, Qatar, and affiliated to the research project “Figures of Thought | Turning Points. Cultural Practices and Social Change in the Arab World” at CNMS, University of Marburg. Botros is author of ”Kafka – a Jewish Writer from an Arab Perspective” (Wiesbaden 2009), and editor of ”The Middle East-a Part of Europe? Reflections on Space and Cultural Conceptions in the Modern Middle East” (2006).

Ayman El-Desouky, Picture: Private.

Ayman El-Desouky is Associate Professor of Modern Arabic and Comparative Literature at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies and at SOAS, University of London. His most recent publications include ”The Intellectual and the People in Egyptian Literature and Culture: Amāra and the 2011 Revolution” (2014). Ayman kindly answered the questions in this interview.



Why did you organize the workshop “On the Ruins of History” – A Walter Benjamin Moment in Arab Thought?, and what are you hoping to achieve?

The workshop represents a constitutive moment in a larger project on the translatability of conceptual languages across linguistic and cultural borders. Benjamin’s work and thought has always been inspiring in this regard, and the scholarship on it continues to grow, quoting and building from his unique language as if from Holy Writ, in Scholem’s phrase, already coined in the 1970s. But then we began to witness a surge of creative interpretations of Benjamin’s thought, and unique language modes, in a variety of Arab contexts, revealing an afterlife of his work beyond its steady reception and interpretation in the academy. Following the various threads took us to Ramallah, Cairo, Alexandria and beyond. It became quickly evident we were following the traces of eruptive moment often now, and we therefore decided it would be best to gather them into a gestus right here in Berlin. The scholars, writers, artists and translators who will be gathering in the workshop are coming together for the first time, and they are coming together to explore the potential of a relation to Benjamin’s work in their own creative and constitutive localities. This is our primary aim in organising the workshop. In light of this gathering, the gathering of a bearing on Benjamin, as Heidegger would have put it, we also wish to produce fresh translations into Arabic directly from the German originals. With the planned translation project, we also hope to explore new modalities for translating conceptual languages, and a new mode of philosophising in words, in the now, and in sight of the collectivising energies that have been recently unleashed as the mark of our historical moment.

What are the reasons for the increasing cultural concern about Walter Benjamin’s work and thought in the Middle East in recent years? 

Workshop Poster

The answer to this question cannot and should not be narrowly political. What is converging on ‘Arab’ and ‘Arabic’ here is not the projection of a linguistic, cultural, ethnic or political imaginary. Nor should be the convergence of what is ‘Jewish’ on figures in modern thought such as Benjamin or Kafka. It is the gathering of a central thought, the thought of translatability, the radical potential of relating differently to one’s own moment of urgency, to the afterlife of loss, to ruins as open allegories of what is at stake and what is hoped to come to transpire in the unfolding movement of history. The recently unleashed revolutionary energy, originating in the social and gesturing at the political, at once aesthetic and political, have prompted fresh and radical reconfigurations, not only of politics and the political, but of the relation to time and the historical, as well as to space and place beyond the national. In the new creative works which have sprouted all over, pushing the boundaries of texts and genres, or performance, actant and spectator, of artistic media, of modes of social mobilisation and collective action, of new build much older forms of social cohesion, all these seem to have coalesced to produce a materiality for the mnemonic local − The local as against official histories and geographies. The thrust of Benjamin’s thought, concepts and language modes has always been radical and inspiring. He seems to have always written with an eye to the afterlife of the word, whence its inspirational force.  It is the expression of the thought of the radical outsider who is able to listen hard (to tradition, as he characterised the unique genius of Kafka), and in listening hard is able to not-see! One must be able not to see what overwhelms the present in order to be in the present, to be otherwise radical and radically committed. It is perhaps what led Mahmoud Darwish to Benjamin, and what led Sinan Antoon to Darwish, and writers as different as Sinan Antoon, Haytham Alwardani and Rabih Alameddine to Benjamin; what guided memories of the streets of Alexandria (a mode of not-seeing Cairo!) in the work of Kholoud Said and the choreographed movements and photographic eye of Yasmine Hussain; what led Benjamin to the open allegorical ruins of Ramallah (reference here is to the workshop that took place in Ramallah, and to Nashif’s reading of Speer and Benjamin), all tracing and détourning what is possible in the present… We are also hoping to pursue the traces more in Turkish and Persian.

What are the unique perspectives and insights that the participants will gain from attending your workshop?

Berlin may not have always been a one-way street! How do we remember for the future? It is in the nature of the unique conception of this workshop that the answer to this question must await the event, and its potential of translatability, of how we all relate to the emerging insights for the sake of the present. Ultimately, we hope there will be offered new spaces, and new languages, of reflection, not only on the thought and work of Benjamin, but also on Berlin, on Cairo, on Ramallah, on Alexandria, on Baghdad, on Damascus, on loss in time and in space, but equally on the hope of a cohesive ethics emerging as we contemplate the potential of translatable afterlives in different histories, languages and cultures. We also hope there will be offered fresh, linguistically and culturally attuned, reflections on key Benjaminian concepts, such as the ruins of history, Jetztzeit, tradition, violence, the photographic and the work of art, language and translatability, and so on. On an immediate level, the various panels offer a first glimpse of the range of translational personal, intellectual, aesthetic and political engagement with Benjamin’s thought and work from within diverse localities and moments of urgency, individual as well as collective.




Citation: “On the Ruins of History” – A Walter Benjamin Moment in Arab Thought? – Interview with Ayman El-Desouky in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 24.11.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/8299.

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