Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

History days in Paris

The borders of the Arab world were the theme of this year’s Arab History Days at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris, writes David Tresilian

  History days in Paris
History days in Paris

The borders of the Arab world, internal and external, historical or present-day, were the theme of this year’s third edition of the Arab History Days at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris from 18 to 21 May, with dozens of mostly French academics and commentators specialising in the Arab world gathering at the Institut’s landmark building on the left bank of the Seine to share their thoughts with a wider public on this unusually pressing and always fascinating theme.

As has been the case in earlier years, the three days of the History Days were also an opportunity for recent academic work in French on the Arab world to be discussed and more widely recognised, with keynote lectures and discussions from the event being broadcast live over the French radio station France Culture and eventually being made available as podcasts or video files on the Institut’s website. 

While the public response to this year’s History Days was perhaps less evident than it has been in previous years, and there seemed to be fewer guests from abroad, this was nevertheless an enormously enjoyable event that will have left behind it much food for thought, as audiences digest the vast amount of expertise on display and work slowly through reading lists constructed from the dozens of lectures, round tables, and discussions that featured many of France’s leading experts on the Arab world. 

As has also been the case at earlier editions of the History Days, reviewed in Al-Ahram Weekly in May 2015 and May 2016, the event saw the award of what has become a major prize for academic work in French on the history and civilisation of the Arab world. This year’s Grand Prix des Rendez-Vous de l’Histoire du Monde Arabe, decided by a jury chaired by professor of the contemporary history of the Arab world at the Collège de France Henry Laurens, went to two works, which, though contrasting in style and theme, perhaps in their different ways have much to say about the thoroughness and methodical rigour of French work on the Arab world.

The first, Les Arabisants et la France coloniale, 1780-1930 (The Arabists and Colonial France) by Alain Messaoudi, examines the role played by French Orientalists and students of the Arab world during a crucial period of French colonialism when the country ruled directly or indirectly over most of the Arab Maghreb and, under the mandate system put in place after World War I, also over Syria and Lebanon. 

The second, a translation with critical introduction of De l’éthique du Prince et du gouvernement de l’Etat (tashi al-nazar wa ta’gil al-zafar fi akhlaq al-malik wa siyasat al-mulk) by the Arab writer Abul-Hassan Al-Mawardi (954-1058 CE), known in Latin as Alboacen, by Makram Abbas makes this important work of political theory available to French-speaking audiences in a modern translation. It also usefully contextualises it in the tradition of the “advice to princes” works that fed into later European political thinking and notably the works of the 16th-century Italian political theorist Machiavelli. 

In his comments on this year’s Arab History Days before the presentation of this year’s Grand Prix, President of the Institut du monde arabe Jack Lang said that the event, now well-established on the Paris calendar, had this year benefited from exceptionally close cooperation with France Culture in making the discussions more widely known. It took place against a background in which borders, walls and frontiers had taken on particularly urgent meanings worldwide, he said. 

Commenting on the Grand Prix, Abdeljalil Lahjomri, permanent secretary of the Académie royale du Maroc, as in earlier years the major sponsor of the prize, said that the Moroccan Académie royale was particularly pleased to be involved in the work of the Arab History Days and in the award of the Grand Prix because it was determined to support research on the history and civilisation of the Arab world, whether it took place within the Arab world or without, as learning of this sort was “a value that has no frontiers”.

Henry Laurens, awarding the prize, said that this year had seen a particularly strong field and that the jury had felt that both the winning works were fully deserving of the prize. It had had no hesitation in recommending that the 2017 prize be shared in an exceptional gesture of recognition, he said.

History days in Paris

HISTORY DAYS: As was the case in previous years, the proceedings of the History Days, taking place in multiple spaces in the Institut and running each day from 10 in the morning to seven at night, could only be dipped into, it being physically impossible to be in several places at once.

That being so, the Weekly was only able to attend a selection of the programmed events, each one of which suggested different interpretations and applications of the theme of borders in the Arab world. 19 May saw French academics Anna Poujeau, Emma Aubin-Boltanski and Nisrine Al-Zahre discussing confessional and political frontiers in contemporary Syria and the ways these have been affected by the ongoing crisis in the country. 

Reporting on recent fieldwork in the Bekaa Valley in neighbouring Lebanon, Aubin-Boltanski said that the frontier between the two countries had at least temporarily been set aside by refugees coming over the border from Syria, drawing in some cases on long-standing confessional and other links that transcended political boundaries.

Following this, and also on 19 May, the focus turned to de facto borders in contemporary France, where, according to speakers Jérémy Robine, Mélusine, Samir Ouazzene and Faiza Zerouala, a mix of French academics, journalists and activists, ghettos had emerged concentrating chiefly French people of North African or Sub-Saharan African descent. 

In a wide-ranging discussion taking in the aftermath of the 2005 riots in France in which poorer suburban areas surrounding some French cities had gone up in flames, the presentation of French people of North African or Sub-Saharan African origin in the mainstream media, and the recent French presidential elections, the speakers said that France may be seeing the re-emergence of “dangerous areas” peopled by populations that have been excluded from mainstream society because of their racial or religious origins.

One of the most rewarding sessions of the History Days as a whole also took place on 19 May in the shape of “Ma thèse en cinq minutes” (my thesis in five minutes), an opportunity for seven French graduate students to present their work before an audience made up of established academics, the general public, and their peers. Fortunately, this session, moderated by journalist Emmanuel Laurentin with moral support from Maurice Sartre, professor of the ancient Middle East at the Université de Tours, allowed the students to go over the five-minute limit when circumstances warranted it, giving rise to stimulating exchanges between the young people and their audience.

Julie Goy presented her work on copper mining and refining in ancient Oman, research that turned out to lead to important conclusions about a society that has left no written sources behind it and thus has to be reconstructed solely from its material remains. Ludwig Ruault explained what he had learned from studying early Arabic graffiti in what is now north-western Saudi Arabia, this having implications for the understanding of the development of the Arabic language and the extent of literacy and the purposes of writing in early tribal societies. 

Aurélian Montel talked on the economic and other links between Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain, and Morocco during the period of the Andalusian Umayyad caliphate (ninth to 11th centuries CE). Hanadi Abokadejah gave an intriguing presentation of her research on elite Meccan families in the mediaeval period, building up a prosopographical analysis of a unique documentary database. In one of the most enjoyable of the presentations, and possibly also one furthest from the academic beaten track, Nessim Znaien presented his research on alcohol consumption in Tunisia during the French protectorate (1881-1956). 

Mehdi Sakatni presented his work on the settlement of the Bedouin in Syria under the French colonial mandate (1920-1946) and the implications of this for the building of a modern state, economy and society. Finally, Raphael Gourrada, also working on the modern period in the Levant, talked on the ways in which the religious authorities in contemporary Lebanon, in this case the Maronite Patriarchate and the Sunni Muslim Dar Al-Fatwa, have sought to manage sectarian relations in the country.


CHANGING BORDERS: Later sessions of the History Days attended by the Weekly returned more obviously to the theme of borders or frontiers, with sessions on 21 May looking at the dismantling of Syria, Palestine and Sudan in recent years and the more general question of the emergence and survival of political and other boundaries in the Middle East.

Speaking during the first of these sessions, Mathieu Cimono, a researcher at Oxford University in the UK, said that the ongoing crisis in Syria had called into question the country’s existing frontiers and had seen the emergence of centripetal or fragmenting pressures that could lead to the political break-up of Syria. 

While the Syrian opposition movements that had led the protests against the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad from 2011 onwards had not desired any revision of the country’s internal or external borders, things had changed as the conflict had become internationalised, he said, with various groups within Syria, supported in some cases from abroad, wanting to see the establishment of autonomous areas or even the dissolution and reconfiguration of existing frontiers.

Speaking on the division of the Sudan into North and South Sudan in 2011 at the end of protracted periods of civil conflict, researcher Elena Vezzadini said that the border established between the two Sudans had followed the earlier British colonial-period provincial boundaries and had stored up problems for the future. Not only was there the problem of disputed areas claimed by both North and South Sudan, but there were also problems of the division of natural and other resources, previously the property of the unified Republic of Sudan, and populations that had been used to moving freely between, for example, Juba, now in South Sudan, to Khartoum, now the capital only of North Sudan.

In an account that may have reminded some at least in the audience of what is turning out to be the nightmarish separation of the UK from the European Union, where similar squabbles about financial obligations and citizenship and other rights are emerging, Vezzadini said that the unpicking and division of the Sudan in 2011 had led to enormously complicated decisions about who was and who was not either Northern or Southern Sudanese and what kind of rights or obligations such people had in either North or South Sudan. Chaos had been the result for many, she said.

Finally, in a kind of keynote session, also on 21 May, Henry Laurens, professor of the history of the contemporary Arab world at the Collège de France in Paris, Peter Harling, Middle East director at the International Crisis Group, an international think tank, and Mathieu Rey, lecturer at the Collège de France, reviewed changing conceptions of political and other boundaries in the Middle East from the establishment of the region’s modern political borders in the Sykes-Picot Agreement between the British and French colonial powers during World War I to what may now be their contemporary unravelling with the rise of fragmenting pressures.

This session summed up many of the themes of the History Days as a whole, with Rey speaking interestingly about the ambiguous notion of “national independence” in the Middle East after the end of colonial rule, since the nation-states that emerged from the ruins of European colonialism in the 1950s did not for the most part correspond to any pre-colonial reality on the ground. The priority of the post-colonial states was the building of centralised state institutions, military, schools and bureaucracy, as if to flesh out what were still mostly ghostly aspirations, he said. Two generations on, these institutions have in many cases been called into question, and, with them, the regimes that constructed them.

In his contribution, Peter Harling said that what we may be seeing in the Middle East today was either a “dismantling of Sykes-Picot”, as previously rigid borders apparently disappear, or the “imposition of a new Sykes-Picot” as new boundaries are set up to replace them. Iraq and Syria, in particular, both creations of the Arab state-system set up after World War I, have shown signs of decomposition in recent years, he said, leading the regimes in place to follow a “logic of reconquest” — a rigid insistence on returning to the previous status quo despite its evident fragilities and in some respects artificial character.

It was on this note that the Weekly left this year’s Arab History Days, with the feeling that, in hosting these unusually rich and wide-ranging discussions, the Paris Institut du monde arabe has once again shown itself to be perhaps the flagship institution on the European continent for fostering public understanding and debate on the Arab world.

Les Rendez-Vous de l’Histoire du Monde Arabe, Frontière(s), Institut du monde arabe, Paris, 18-21 May. 

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