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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Scholars Confront a Silence About Blackness in Middle East Studies

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Deciding Whose Stories Matter

It is not only in academia that Black Middle Eastern lives are rendered invisible, but also in the news media, panel members said. Several drew attention to the contrasting attention media outlets have paid to the human toll of the August 4 explosion in Beirut and that of the catastrophic September 2020 floods in Sudan. While one received an international outpouring of attention and support, the other barely made headlines.

Troutt Powell said that, when media editors decide “whose tragedies are worth monumentalizing, most of the time it is not those who are Black.” (See a related article, “Sudan’s Floods Destroy Schools and Dreams.”)

Seikaly added that she was particularly struck by a widely shared video of a woman playing the piano in her damaged apartment after the explosion in Beirut. As the video pans around the apartment, it briefly shows “a Black domestic laborer who’s picking up the shards of the glass,” Seikaly said. When the video went viral, the pianist was lauded as a symbol of Lebanese and human resilience. The domestic laborer, however, went largely unseen, unmentioned and unnamed.

‘Our Very Presence Is Important’

In order to shift discussions in academia, panelists said, it’s important to draw on not just theory, research, and archives, but also on people’s lived experiences.

Çakmak said that, without pioneering works by Black Middle Easterners, it would have been hard for her to begin her research at all. In order to follow and trace your history, you need to know that you have existed in that geography,” she said.

Troutt Powell said that, at times, scholars have avoided issues of race because it is so deeply entangled with lived experience. “This is not a field or a set of questions or an issue that you come to cold,” she said. “This is a very personal issue.”

She added that she has run across a number of people in academic circles who are shocked to find a Black person working in Middle Eastern studies, and also shocked to discover that there are Black Middle Easterners. For these reasons and more, she said, “I think that our very presence is very important.”

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Preparing to Be Uncomfortable

Idris stressed that there was important knowledge production happening outside academia: on blogs, among activists, and on social media. She said that, if she wanted people to take away something from the 90-minute panel, it was “the conclusion that they need to listen to Black people in the Middle East. We should be pushing ourselves to have more and more interesting and more and more inclusive conversations about Blackness in the Middle East through centering Black people.”

Seikaly said that her takeaway was that race is key to understanding the Middle East. While race has often been treated as “somehow beyond the scope” of Middle East studies, she said, it should instead be “a central category that must be engaged with, as centrally as we think about gender, as centrally as we think about class.”

She added that, in challenging ourselves to see what’s hidden in plain sight, we need to “be prepared to be uncomfortable. That’s what this conversation requires.”

In a related conversation, the Middle East Librarians Association has launched a lecture series titled “Stories and Silences: Research on Race in the Middle East,” set to run from this fall through the spring of 2021.

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