“The First to Wake up Played the Music of His Choice” – 5in10 with Rasha Chatta
Rasha Chatta earned her PhD in Comparative Literature from SOAS University of London (2016), with a dissertation entitled “Marginality and Individuation: A Theoretical Approach to Abla Farhoud and Arab Migrant Literature”. She holds an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from SOAS and a BA in History of the Middle East and North Africa from Panthéon-Sorbonne (Paris I) and “Classes préparatoires” in Humanities. At SOAS, Rasha has taught courses on Arab women’s literature, Arab cinema, and the Arabic language. In 2009, she was Community Outreach Director at the Cairo-based Resettlement Legal Aid Project. Rasha’s research interests include visual aesthetics and memory, approaches to world literature, migrant and diasporic literatures, and war literature with a focus on Lebanon and Syria. Among her publications is the chapter “Mutations of the Trans-Migrare: Reflections on Individuation and Un-Homing on the Other Side of Belonging”, in: Kläger, F. and Stierstorfer, K. (eds.), Diasporic Constructions of Home and Belonging (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015), 53–69. During the academic year 2017/18, Chatta is a EUME Fellow with a research project titled “The Arab Migrant Graphic Novel: A Comparative Study of (Im)Migrant Stories, War Narratives, and Conflicted Memory between the Near East and Europe.”
What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?
I grew up in a family of music devotees, and music seemed to play an integral part in our everyday life. Music was played, sung, danced on every possible occasion. There was an unspoken ritual at our house: the first to wake up – especially on weekends and holidays when everyone is home in the morning – would get the unmatched privilege to play her or his music of choice. My parents owned endless numbers of records, tapes, and later CDs, smuggled, copied, carefully labelled and organised on the shelves next to the books. While my mother had an unmasked inclination for Western classical music, it was my father’s more eclectic musical taste coupled with his passion for history and particularly for popular movements that left a marked, indelible imprint on me. He would play melodies from around ‘our’ Mediterranean, but also well beyond, giving us a glimpse about what the songs translated into in terms of historical contexts and movements. The world opened up before us right in our living room in Damascus, through Jazz and Blues, Tango Canyengue, Cabo Verdan ‘morna’, Algerian ‘cha‘bi’, Greek ‘rembetiko’, Portuguese ‘fado’, Spanish anarchist songs, Son Cubano, Russian folk songs, Klezmer, melodies from the Balkans, Sufi dhikr music, Egyptian popular music, in addition to the local musical genres. My sister and I interpreted the world through melodies whose lyrics we rarely understood but which created a sort of communion (of community?) with something bigger, our exposure to the wider world. Perhaps this is what sparked my fascination for the way history with a capital H translates into more personal experiences and stories, and especially in terms of how it is represented in popular forms, music being one of them.
The other intriguing, almost existentialist thread during my childhood relates to the question of language: each one of my parents spoke to us in a different language, and we responded in the same, Armenian with my mother, French and Arabic with my father, and Arabic was the common language of the family. I remember being three years old and realising my father had no clue about what I was telling him in my mother’s language. At first a distressing thought, I soon realised the power I had being able to manoeuvre around stories, telling different versions in different languages and being able to get away with a lot…
How do you explain your current research project to your students?
I work on Arab comics and graphic novels addressed to adults. The conditions of emergence and development of these genres are intimately tied to the social and political situation in the Middle East and North Africa, especially from 2011 onwards, and a little earlier in the case of Lebanon. I’m interested in exploring the relationship between times of conflict, of political unrest and the emergence of this art form. More particularly, in these highly-broadcasted times, where certain narratives seem predominant in the public sphere, I explore the way migrant experiences are creatively articulated and visualised, the way different conflicts are represented, personalised, and depicted as a counterpoint to the official narratives we hear ad nauseam. Ultimately, this popular art form can contribute to the ongoing debates on immigration in Europe. The creative accounts and visual narratives portrayed in the graphic novels and comics tell us more about personal stories in the face of the collective.
Which stations of your academic journey were particularly formative to you?
Almost all stations were formative in their own right, but if I had to single certain ones out, I would say that the first two years following the end of high school were the years I learnt the most about new things – but also about myself. At the time, I found the required level in these classes préparatoires to be a gruelling experience, but in retrospect the work discipline acquired as well as the exposure to a variety of subjects in depth proved useful, at later stages. During my Masters year at SOAS, a class I attended on “Social and Political Dimensions in Modern Arabic Literature” opened unimaginable horizons and instilled long-time interest for literary analysis and critical theory. Last but not least, I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that my current fellowship at EUME has been a wonderful experience, truly the best so far in my short career. I am fortunate to be surrounded by colleagues and friends whose work I find to be really inspiring. This is the ideal scholarly community, where a junior scholar such as myself can benefit from discussions and feedback, converse with interlocutors, all the while having some fun, especially on the weekly post-seminar outings!
Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?
One of my favourite things to listen to in my spare time is the Ottoman History Podcast. Despite its name, the disciplines and topics covered in the hundreds of episodes sprawl well beyond Ottoman History. It’s a fantastic initiative and a tool conceived to offer an alternative way of approaching a variety of academic topics in a discussion format with a scholar.
I’ve recently developed an acute interest in the way both collective memory and personal memory are conceptualised and studied. In this vein, I found fascinating Marianne Hirsch’s work on ‘postmemory’, i.e., the memories of someone else or, in certain contexts, the way memory of traumatic events is transmitted generationally. Through “family frames”, photographs, images, and narratives, Hirsch articulates the relation of memory to family, and of the personal to the collective.
How is it to do research in Germany?
My experience has so far been limited to Berlin. I enjoy working at the Staatsbibliothek and the library staff at my host institution, the Freie Universität Berlin, have been helpful in finding relevant material for my project. Beyond the world of academia proper, I have taken advantage of the vibrant scene of Arab culture in Berlin, attending as many events as possible and meeting some prominent comics artists and authors.
Citation: “The First to Wake up Played the Music of His Choice” – 5in10 with Rasha Chatta, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 03.04.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/9294.