Cultural Mobility in Near Eastern Literatures

Image Creation as a Problematic

28 to 29 April 2005, Villa Jaffé, Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, Wallotstr. 10, 14193 Berlin

Shereen Abou El Naga
(Cairo University, Fellow of the Working Group Modernity and Islam 2004/5)

1. Background

"We came here to correct the image of Arabs and Islam", said Amr Moussa, the general secretary of the Arab League, in the opening of the Frankfurt Book Fair. The seminars of the book fair were resonant with the rhetoric of image, which in itself was not exempt from an apologetic tone. It seems that the West - non West relations, -already built on a long colonial and anti- colonial history of images-, have come down to replacing one image with another.

Strangely enough, it is noted that creating an image of the Arab world is not anymore a task confined to the West, i.e., the white, superior, and civilized culture in colonial terms. It has become the task of the Arab world as well to provide an image about itself. Instead of unveiling and analyzing, scholarly and culturally, the process of mis/representation, some Arab scholars and intellectuals have resorted to consolidating a still image, similar to a fixed photographic cadre that lacks all the dynamics and politics of becoming. The problematic lies in the hegemony of the image to create the sole and only 'truth'. Therefore, reality is mediated through images where each party relates to the other through certain fixed shots that lack historicity, despite the ample and prolific historical background where relations have been, and still are, formulated. Simplicity also surfaces when the non-West tries to replace the old orientalist negative images with 'modern' positive ones, believing that this replacement is a means of resistance. It is of paramount importance here that the Archimedean point of creating those 'modern' images is based in Western culture. To explain, the non-West measures its own level of progress according to measures set by the Western philosophy and thought. Therefore, the history of colonization is relegated to the background and the culture of the "other" is stigmatized as "backward". Hence, the crisis of modernism, as a Western project, and the conflict of the authentic and modern are the preoccupation of Arab scholarship now. Gramsci who advanced and fathomed the concept of hegemony believes that "every relationship of hegemony is necessarily an 'educational' relationship and occurs not only within a nation, between the various forces that comprise it, but in the entire international and world field, between complexes of national and continental civilizations" (Further Selections from the Prison Notebook, p.157). Image production is, thus, taken by some non-Western scholars to be one of the forms of resistance to the hegemonic former colonizing gaze that still exercises a strong presence.

2. Rationale

It has become now the war of images, i.e., whose image will prevail and gain supremacy. Consequently, the international cultural scene has re-fallen into a long series of new binaries: peace/terrorism; democracy/dictatorship; freedom/oppression; tolerance/fanaticism; unveiled/veiled; Semitic /anti-Semitic.... etc. In such binaries one cannot disregard the relation between power, politics and knowledge as well as the politics of knowledge production.

Yet, even if the West's position in the paradigm of power can be balanced or changed, the non Western world's attempt at subverting this powerful position by supplying a constellation of fixed 'images' about itself is doomed to failure. The point is 'images' as fixed still signifiers of the Arab world completely undermine or rather obliterate the perpetual flux of the region along with a consistent denial of 'diversity'. The desire of some Arab scholars to produce a solid homogenous culture leads to the sterility of imagination when it comes to producing alternative ways of "seeing" the world. This zealous process of homogenizing the culture of the Arab world is a slippery ground. Not only it overlooks the richness that usually comes out of diversity, but also it falls into the very trap that it has been trying to avoid, i.e., the Western criteria of modernism. Most of the representations/ images coming from inside the Arab world are mere reactions to the misrepresentations/ images coming from the West, a fact that only consolidates the Eurocentric thought and vision. The result is culturally repulsive; there is no dialogue (a term so much in fashion recently), no exchange of views, no discussion, or mutual recognition. There is only a flat assertion of many positive qualities and features. These assertions, easily made to consolidate images, do not affect the West's claim to an absolute authority in shaping the 'other' and in producing knowledge. The Arab world becomes a silent entity combating the unfair and unjust perceptions of the West through images, whether literary images (ignoring all emergent new literary voices that re-question the history of colonization, and take issue with the concept of a political power that silences any resistance), or women's images (our women are not veiled, denying the rise of fundamentalism and its pressure on women) or social images (we do not ride camels, denying the touristic images) or even verbal images (Islam is the religion of tolerance, denying the assassination of Farag Fuda and the case of Nasr Abu Zaid that both emanated from the refusal of the mainstream religious powers to re-read the Islamic texts and history), as if the paradigm of power is as mono-dimensional and as simple as that.

Another means of exporting images to the West in the feverish struggle of the power of image creation is what is called 'the culture of hiding and denial'. That is to say, instead of developing the faculty of self-critique, self-analysis, and a thorough examination of the infra-epistemological structures, most Arab intellectuals usually resort to hiding and denying any flaws. The more such denials are made by one party, the more routinely they are confirmed by the other. The lack of any institutional self-critique is not without consequences. Edward Said has noticed that "the irony is that far from endowing the Western ethos with the confidence and secure 'normality' we associate with privilege and rectitude, this dynamic imbues "us" with a righteous anger and defensiveness in which "others" are finally seen as enemies, bent on destroying our civilization and way of life" (Culture and Imperialism, p. 310).

The diverse politics of identity are, thus, reduced to fixed homogenous images. In the Arab world, any attempt at deconstructing those exported images in order to unveil the complex diversity of the region is perceived as betrayal and compliance with the West. On the other hand, the West is not to be disturbed with perceptions that stand in stark opposition to its own secure niche through which the Arab world has always been shaped, perceived, and dealt with - a problematic that involves stereotypes, orientalist scholarship, the rise of postcolonial studies, the mushrooming of the concept of empire, Huntington's theory and the recent violence all over the world with the name of 'al Qaida' in the center.

3. Aim and Format of the Workshop

This workshop aims at problematizing the concept of image as formulated by the West and East by focusing on various scholarships and their influence on the cultural scene. Images will be examined through a wide interdisciplinary spectrum, of which the point of departure is TEXTS, to reveal their hegemony and dominance over the representation of the "other". The problematic is to be tackled from two perspectives:

I Strategies of Knowledge Production

  • The relation between theory and practice.
  • "Third Worldism" as a term that designates disciplines' deconstruction.
  • Lack of absence of non-Western critical scholarship in the Western
  • process of knowledge production.
  • Western criteria of canonizing the knowledge of the "other".

II Texts

  • Image production of the "other" in/via/through literary texts, media, arts, visual culture.

During two days the workshop will deal with the problematic of image production from an interdisciplinary point of view. Abstracts (one page length) will be circulated in advance. Presentation/Lectures should be no longer than 35 - 40 minutes followed by a discussion. The main language of communication is English. The presented papers will be collected in book, which is to be the final output.

4. Programme and Abstracts

Thursday, 28 April

10.00 - 12.30 h - Session 1

Introduction and Moderation:
Shereen Abou El Naga (Cairo University, Fellow of the Working Group Modernity and Islam 2004/2005)

Cloning Terror
W.J. Thomas Mitchell (University of Chicago, Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin 2004/2005),

In the months before September 11, 2001, the cloning debate was the leading issue in American newspapers.   After September 11, terrorism dominated the news.  This paper explores the logic that connects cloning and terrorism as the twin phobias of our historical epoch.  The clone and the terrorist are cultural icons linked by the fear of the "uncanny double," the mirror image of the self as its own worst enemy.  The terrorist is the enemy who doubles as a friend or countryman, pretending to be "one of us"-or just the opposite.  He appears as the Evil Twin, the dark other, masked, invisible, but racially stereotyped or "profiled."  The clone is the figure of biological doubling as such, the inverted, perverted mirror image of a parent organism, an artificial simulation or twin of a natural person.   The terrorist is the "evil twin" of the normal, respectable citizen-soldier, and the clone is the "evil twin" as such.  The "war on terror" therefore is also a "war of images" that draws its vocabulary from the language of epidemiology, of plagues, sleeper cells, and viruses, on the one hand, and from iconoclasm, iconophobia, and holy wars over images on the other. Tracing the "war of images" in mass media and popular culture from the cloned Schwarzenegger of The Sixth Day to the clone armies of George Lucas, from the destruction of the World Trade Center to the Abu Ghraib torture photographs, this paper explains why the war on terror is actually "cloning terror" by breeding more terrorists, and suggests some ways that this war might be managed and brought to an end.

'American democratisation of the Arab world': images versus paradoxical realities 
Khalid Hroub (Cambridge),

The image-loving US Administration is in a state of recent euphoria watching 'democratic' images flooding in from Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt, attributing them to its own influence. In each of these countries there is an unfolding process of controversial events which are seen and valued differently by different people. Central to these events is the emphasised image by the US officials that democratisation in the region is finally on the move. Cleverly and constantly this image is exploited and used to prove that the so-called 'American project to democratise the Arab world' has started bearing fruit. The images that have shown millions of Iraqis exercising their right to vote freely and democratically, as portrayed in the media, were undoubtedly powerful. The Palestinian elections of the past January, conducted peacefully and in a civilised way, were also impressive. Equally stunning was the flood of images of Lebanese and Egyptian people demonstrating in the street, calling for the freeing of Lebanon from Syrian control and ending the authoritarian mode of politics in Egypt, respectively. Driven by these images, global media and many politicians have been prompted to predict that the dawn of Arab democracy is looming close. Away from these image-based constructs, the realities of the 'project' and its complexities provide a different story.
In the grey area between those images and realities the end result of this passing period of American interest in democratising the region is the reproduction of the status quo. Behind the mask of cosmetic democratic clothing that will be brought about in several countries; the US simply cannot afford having fully fledged democratic systems in the region. There are many American strategic interests at stake in many of those countries where the democratic demand is allegedly called for.
This paper attempts to deconstruct the image-reality confusion that overloads this 'American project'. It maintains that the 'project' is imbedded with several paradoxes and unanswered questions that reveal the emptiness of the image-made currently celebrated 'democracy'. In the first place, there is the paradox of the continuity of the pervasive and standard 'trade-off American foreign policy' where the US demand for democracy is dropped in return for guaranteeing certain strategic interests, such as cooperation in the so-called 'war on terror'. Also, there is the unanswered question regarding the prospective victory of Islamist movements in any democratic elections if they were conducted freely and fairly. Then, there is the paradoxical position concerning the rise of the relatively free and democratic Arab media (such as Al-Jazeera) where American pressure is mounting on governments to silence what is seen by many to be almost the only active democratic forum in the region. Another paradox is the indirect discrediting and harming of indigenous Arab democratic forces, where these forces are increasingly perceived as American proxies at a time when American foreign policy is deeply hated across the region. However, the most damaging paradox for the US 'democratisation project' remains its unparallel support of Israel, and the decidedly undemocratic US insistence on imposing the more or less status quo Israeli formula of occupation on the Palestinians. Military foreign occupation of any people, as is the case of the Israeli military rule over the Palestinians, is against the very basic notions of democracy. It is the most flagrant mode of authoritarianism. Leaving this most disastrous case unresolved while focusing on other countries' 'more pressing need for democracy' is hypocritical.

12.30 - 14.00 h Lunch

14.00 - 17.00 h - Session 2

Friederike Pannewick (Free University Berlin)

Nations and their Iconic Memories
Monika Flacke (Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin),

World War II has never faded away from the memories of the European nations. It has been moulding these collective memories to the present day. The split between fellow travellers, collaborators and those who resisted was so deep-seated that rebuilding the unity of the nations was of predominant importance when the war had come to an end. Civil wars had either to be prevented or brought to a close, nations split up in themselves since World War I had make peace with themselves. This meant that in the memories of nations allied with or occupied by Germany  collaboration and fellow travelling had to be pushed into the background by a myth of resistance. Germans considered themselves either betrayed and innocent victims or, as in the GDR, members of the Resistance.
The myth of resistance nations had such a power of persuasion that most of the people accepted it only too willingly. The media of transformation were images. Actuating imagery ("Bildakte") made the reconstruction possible that was so essential to Europe after the Second World War. The fabricated memories became manifest in various forms - in photos - schoolbooks - books - medals and coins - posters - postcards - souvenirs - paintings - sculptures and, above all, films. Roberto Rossellini's Roma città aperta - Rome, open city, produced in 1944-45 to show that the whole nation offered resistance, may serve as a perfect example.

Politics of Interpretation: From the Image of the Harem to the Image of the Veil
Shereen Abou El Naga,

Scholarship on the harem is so wide that it has become an essential component in the humanities (literature, anthropology, history, cultural studies, women's studies...). Basically, this scholarship has come to specific conclusions: that the harem was an expansion of the colonial imagination, that it was used to create the exotic other and that it was used as the stereotype of Oriental women. However, the harem really did exist. Yet, it was all the time seen by the outsider, the traveller, and the orientalist. This paper is not about the harem. It is about how the image of the harem (paintings, travel accounts, fake translations...etc) was used culturally to produce the image of the nation (Europe in this case). That is to say, the paper will look into the politics of making an image and then the politics of interpreting it. On the other hand, the way this image was justified by the Orient that held the harem will also be analyzed.

It is not a coincidence that the battle of the veil in modern times has replaced the battle of the harem. Women's sexuality has always been the focus of representation and identity formation. This paper is not about the veil. It is about the strategies Muslim women living in Europe employ to mark their own identity through consolidating the image of the veil; how the veil becomes an image of the nation; how the image of the veil is interpreted, sometimes, from within the Islamic world as a sign of backwardness; and, how the popular culture in Europe has co-opted the image of the veil and the harem for its own benefit (sex ads, internet, belly dancing, films, music, ...etc).
Identity formation and representation of the self and the other have used and abused women's sexuality in an everlasting battle over either 'fixing' images or 'subverting' them. Somehow, these images have become like a commodity that targets the market and thus, it needs buyers/ spectators. Moreover, images circulate in a socio-economic system, a fact that defines and determines the meanings they generate. Through this assumption one could track the similarities between the politics of interpretation in relation to the image of the veil and that of the harem, without ignoring the fact that each is to be historicized.

Friday, 29 April

10.00 - 12.30 h - Session 3

Samah Selim (Marseille, Fellow of the Working Group Modernity and Islam 2004/2005)

The Image of the 'Egyptian' in Art: Local and Global Encounters
Marie-Therese Abdel-Messih (Cairo University)

Egyptian art was revived in the early twentieth century as a result of global and local encounters. Contact with the west coincided with massive archaeological discoveries. The process of re-presenting the 'Egyptian' in art has brought into alignment the quest for origins and anxiety about modernization. Although the 'Egyptian' in art appeared as a resistance to academism and the different versions of orientalism, it has explored possibilities of reconciling imported techniques with the local. The coordination between particular and universal has aroused different re-definitions of space and volume, as in Mukhtar's (1891-1934) monumental sculptures. Mahmoud Said (1897-1964) crossed the difference between the western canon and the local to re-present the identity of the painted subjects. Margaret Nakhla (1905-79?) combined between Parisian sites and Egyptian landscapes, foreign and popular locations.

Global encounters raised the problems of image making which artists had to contest, by resisting western academism. On the other hand, local encounters, in the thirties, among emergent vanguard movements experimenting to represent the popular subject brought up the multiple faces of identity, and competing critical discourses of the aesthetic. By associating with the cosmopolitan surrealist movement, the 'Art and Freedom' group represented the conflict between rootedness and displacement. Meanwhile, the 'Contemporary Art Group' brought popular interiors to the forefront, the interior being the site of the spiritual and the erotic. The popular interior did not simply adopt 'folkloric' motifs, but represented the mystical in the everyday. Popular spirituality has been taken up by later generations, and practiced in both, figurative and abstract art.
The dilemma confronting the 'Egyptian' in art has always invited the beholder's participation in issues of authenticity and the aesthetic. The 'Egyptian' and the popular have sometimes become interchangeable, and the problematic entailed has remained the site of exchange until this day. The archaism of the popular still attracts the global market, while in the local context there remains a gap between the artist and the multitude, his subject of representation.
Nevertheless, new formal and informal spaces for dialogue are emerging. The Aswan Symposium, a state-sponsored project, claims such a space. It hosts native and non-native sculptors in the mountainous zone of Upper Egypt, a location away from the metropolis, where the stone may provide a medium that initiates a dialogue between indigenous and outsider. We need to consider its potential for interpellating viewers in a new space, where the 'Egyptian' is not a 'naturalisation' of a culture or a geographical environment, rather, it is in a constant process of flux and exchange.

Now that the contemporary scene is overwhelmed by images of the 'Egyptian', partly imposed by the state, and partly controlled by the technologies of the global market, the 'Egyptian' in art is at a juncture where strategies for survival need re-thinking. Perhaps by providing a location beyond the imagined 'Orient' and away from constructed 'images', this workshop may become an encounter re-visioning the 'Egyptian' through local and global perspectives. 

14.30 - 16.30 h - Session 4

Richard Tapper (SOAS, London)

Film Images: America and the Arab World
Viola Shafik (American University in Cairo)

Since decades American film industry has produced a variety of largely xenophobic and racist stereotypes of the so-called Orient in general and the Arab World in particular. However, what about the Arab representation of the USA? What has the Arab art house film on the one hand and popular Arab (largely Egyptian) cinema to tell about America, also in the light of the recent political events, such as 9/11 and the US led intervention in Iraq? One of the first results is that despite of the political importance and presence of the US in the region as well as the pre-dominance of Hollywood's cinematic products in the Arab world on the level of distribution and consumption and as much as the latter has formed a source of inspiration for glamour, technical achievements and popular film genres, the representation of the US and its people has been absent on the narrative level. This absence-presence will be the major focus of my study along with a thorough textual analysis of those few recent cinematic exceptions - that is a very limited number of commercial Egyptian feature films including Youssef Chahine's latest Alexandria-New York -  that deal in fact with the US and with what it seems to embody to their film characters. The study will also attempt to contextualize the highly apologetic orientation of some of these films in the light of a larger body of very recent popular film-industrial works set in Europe, Asia and Africa whose ideological implications can be only assessed through looking at the problematic issue of so-called globalization.

Challenging Images of Muslim Women
Ziba Mir-Hosseini (London, Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin 2004/2005)

Between March 1996 and April 1998, I was involved as co-director of the documentary film Divorce Iranian Style with an independent British film-maker, Kim Longinotto. The film was inspired by my book Marriage on Trial (1993), based on ethnographic research undertaken in family law courts in Morocco and Iran. This, my first exposure to film-making, involved me in a long series of negotiations, not only with the Iranian authorities for permission and access, but also with myself: I had to deal with personal ethical and professional dilemmas as well as with theoretical and methodological issues of representation and the production of anthropological narratives. The film's subject-matter inevitably entailed both exposing individuals' private lives in a public domain, and tackling a major issue which divides Islamists and feminists: women's position in Islamic law.
My paper gives an account of these negotiations, exploring the problem of ethnographic representation generally, as well as the complex politics involved in representing 'Iran' and 'women in Islam'. I start with an account of my own involvement in the politics of gender in Islam, which as we shall see came to leave its traces on the narrative of the film. Then I will summarize the reactions of various audiences to the film - that is, a final series of negotiations of meaning. Through these narratives, I want to show the ways in which 'the reality' of Iranian women as portrayed in our film came to be constructed, and how this 'reality' came to be interpreted by the viewers.

16.30 - 17.00 h Closing Session

Shereen Abou El Naga