World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies

Barcelona, July 19th - 24th 2010

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Thinking about Violence: History, Poetry, Ethics (115) - NOT_DEFINED activity_field_Panel

· NOT_DEFINED date: TUE 20, 2.30-4.30 pm

· NOT_DEFINED institution: Department of Rhetoric, University of California Berkeley, USA

· NOT_DEFINED organizer: Samera Esmeir

· NOT_DEFINED language: English

· NOT_DEFINED description: The Middle East and the Muslim World have entered the twenty-first century accompanied with new formations of war and violence. The perpetrators and the critics of this violence present the citizens of these geographies with two main options: Submitting to the authority of sovereign violence, or aspiring to a world beyond violence. Both options make violence, in its multiple formations, unthinkable, the first by confining it to the structure of sovereignty and the second by insisting on a world beyond violence. Our panel moves beyond the justification, positivisation, or condemnation of violence, and advances, instead, historical and literary methods to investigate the following questions: How do different traditions, particularly the modern secular land the Islamic, define violence and establish distinctions within it? What are the power operations and the ethical sensibilities of such distinctions? If we move beyond offering ideological or sociological explanations of violence, what other reflections are available to subjects who inherit a history of violence? And finally, how are we to conceive of an ethical and political life in the midst of violence? To answer these questions, the papers in this panel take us from the British settlement of Malabar in the nineteenth century through Palestine (Ottoman and contemporary) to occupied Iraq.

Chair: Charles Hirschkind, Department of Anthropology, UC Berkeley

Discussant: Charles Hirschkind, Department of Anthropology, UC Berkeley

Paper presenter:Wilson Chacko Jacob (Department of History Concordia University, Montréal), “Saintly Sovereigns: Islam, Colonial Rule, and 'Moplah Outrages'”
Settlement of Malabar (in northern Kerala today) and the Ottoman Empire’s dismemberment through the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, there were at least 40 violent uprisings by Mappila Muslims, culminating in the bloodiest rebellion of all in 1921. Various explanations have been proffered by historians of Kerala, of Islam, and of the British Empire for why there was such a sustained period of violence in this region. While some pointed to traditional Hindu-Muslim rivalries and their exacerbation by the entry of a new party, others eschewed communal explanations in favor of material ones related to colonial changes in land tenure and taxation. Some looked to the transoceanic linkages of Mappilas with the Arabian Peninsula and the Ottoman Empire facilitated by the sayyids of Hadhramawt (descendants of Prophet Muhammad), who established themselves in Malabar from around the 17th c. However, all have skirted or denied the relationship between Islam and violence, perhaps because contemporary British accounts had fixed the ‘Moplah Outrages’ as signs of Muslim fanaticism. In this paper, I examine the changing nature and conditions of sovereignty that made possible some forms of violence while rendering others if not impossible increasingly unintelligible and even immoral.

Paper presenter: Sinan Antoon (The Gallatin School, New York University), “Recognizing Violence: On the Poetry of Sargon Bulous (1941-2007)”

The ongoing US-led occupation of Iraq, and the sectarian militia and state violence it institutionalized, have added new layers to an already complex and crowded history of violence with multiple villains and multitudes of victims. Much of the scholarly discourse on Iraqi violence has tended to essentialize it by generally attributing it to two problematic sources. The first being the resilience of trans-historical, ethno-sectarian conflicts and identities (Sunni vs. Shi`i) which are considered side effects of an inherently violent transhitorical Islam. The second is the Iraq-as-a-failed-state model, which approaches Iraq as a particularly weak and doomed state cobbled up by British colonialism in 1917. Most Iraqi intellectuals have tended to counter these two trends by adopting a nationalist discourse of an imagined transhistorical Iraq, but performing multiple elisions when they confront its violent and complex history. Sargon Boulus stands out as one of a handful of Iraqi intellectuals who manages to resist these ideological traps. My paper interrogates the strategies he adopts in his poetry in order to come to terms with this history of violence but without filtering it through nationalist or neo-Orientalist.

Paper presenter: Abdul-Rahim al-Shaikh (Department of Cultural Studies and Philosophy, Birzeit University), “Palestine: The Violence of (Dis)placement”

This paper examines the Arab poetic imagination in relation to Palestine and its violent destruction in 1948. I focus on the poetic rendering of war, victory, defeat and enmity as it moves between the catastrophe of Palestine and the historical record of wars. A panoramic reading of contemporary Arab poetry on Palestine’s tragedy under Zionist occupation reveals two proximities of the enemy, and, therefore, of victory and of defeat in wars. While the first manifests a strong desire to reconcile with the enemy at the expense of redefining the self, the other insists on transforming the identity of the enemy by refusing reconciliation so as to rid him of bestiality. Both, however, draw on symbolic historical events and in the process rearticulate them in an effort to redefine the self and the enemy, as well as the meanings of victory and defeat. Accordingly, in their recitation of past violence and wars, both proximities exercise a form of violent (dis)placement against both the past and the present. To represent the two proximities respectively, this paper examines the poetry of Mahmoud Dariwsh and Amal Donqol. I argue that the violence of (dis)placement is a higher order of symbolic violence that does not eternally celebrate politics of triumph, mourn poetics of defeat, but rather tames both so as to master the temporal game of succession, and to carve out a space of political and ethical life in the midst of destruction.

Paper presenter: Samera Esmeir (Department of Rhetoric, UC Berkeley), “Formations of Violence in Ottoman Palestine”

During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Palestine witnessed a number of rebellions against the Ottoman Sultan. These rebellions generated legal and intellectual discussions among jurists and theologians about the meanings of violence rebellions engendered. In addition to rebellions, shari’a courts issued legal rulings on the actions of bandits, as well as of local Ottoman governors engaged in the work of security. Next to these archetypal events and practices of ‘violence,’ there were events that do not readily fall under the rubric of violence — natural disasters, such the earthquake that visited Palestine in 1837, which were articulated as measures of ‘divine violence.’ My paper traces the legal and theological writings about these events, while inquiring into the practices that merited the signifier of violence, and how these practices related to each other and contributed to distinctions within the concept of violence.