Friday,24 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1440, (25 April - 1 May 2019)
Friday,24 May, 2019
Issue 1440, (25 April - 1 May 2019)

Ahram Weekly

All about the body

This year’s Arab History Days at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris focused on the multiple meanings of the body in the Arab world, reports David Tresilian 

 Guglielmo Zocchi (1874-1974)
Guglielmo Zocchi (1874-1974)

Continuing in a tradition established in 2015 with the first of the Arab History Days at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris on the theme of the city in the Arab world, this year’s edition of this successful series of debates and lectures brought appreciative crowds to the Institut’s landmark building on the left bank of the Seine for a further three-day event from 11 to 14 April.

The 2019 History Days, the fifth in what is now a well-established series, looked at the multiple meanings of the Arab body, with some 150 mostly French academics, commentators and practitioners taking time out from their usual schedules to address an audience made up of visitors to the Institut, the general public and other interested persons. 

As has been the case in previous years, the event was an opportunity for speakers to reach out beyond their usual audiences of students and the academic community to the general public, with some of the debates also being relayed on French radio station France Culture.

 The History Days started on 11 April with the award of this year’s Grand Prix des Rendez-vous de l’Histoire de l’Institut du monde arabe by the Institut in cooperation with regular sponsor the Académie du Royaume du Maroc for the best recent publication in French on the history of the Arab world by a young researcher. 

La politique musulmane de la France: un projet chrétien pour l’Islam? (French Muslim Policy: a Christian Project for Islam?) by Moroccan researcher Jalila Sbai, the winning volume this year, was chosen from a rich field that included works by emerging scholars such as Mathieu Tillier (for his L’Invention du cadi: la justice des musulmans, des Juifs et des chrétiens aux premiers siècles de l’Islam), Nabil Mouline (Le Califat: histoire politique de l’Islam), and Morgan Corriou and M’hamed Oualdi (Une histoire sociale et culturelle du politique en Algérie et au Maghreb, an edited volume).  

Sbai’s work, a study of French policy in former French colonies or protectorates in the Arab world between 1911 and 1954, looks at attempts made by the French governments of the period to “Christianise” Islam and bring the populations of the areas under French control closer to priorities set out in Paris. It looks at some of the institutions set up to carry out this policy both in France and overseas and examines the involvement of some of the French academic orientalists of the time, including Louis Massignon, translator of the work of the 10th-century mystical poet Al-Hallaj and later a member of the Arabic Language Academy in Cairo.

Among the many meanings of the body set out for discussion at this year’s Arab History Days were questions regarding its representation in literature, painting, film and other media and its place in religion and spirituality. There were also discussions of the relationships between the body and love and sexuality as well as in relation to questions of sex and gender.

Caring for the body, both through medicine and in other ways, provided a rich sub-theme for investigation. The social role of the body, particularly when seen in groups or crowds, was another topic discussed by speakers at the History Days, perhaps particularly with regard to codes governing movement, behaviour, clothing, and revealing or concealing the body in private and public spaces. 

As is inevitable at events of this type, the sheer number of talks and other events available, many of them going on concurrently, meant that visitors to the History Days had to ration their time in order to benefit the most from the three days of the event, with this unfortunately meaning that many worthy sessions may have escaped attention. However, on the day Al-Ahram Weekly visited there was a reassuring buzz about the Institut building, with this increasing as the day wore on as larger and family groups began arriving.

Among the rewarding discussions attended were sessions on the “Body and Revolution”, expertly chaired by Manon-Nour Tannous, a researcher at the Collège de France in Paris, and the body in Egypt in the 1920s and the body in contemporary Arab art, each featuring the indefatigable Mercedes Volait, a leading French specialist on modern Egypt. 

“The Body in Colonial and Post-Colonial Algeria” was a valuable opportunity to think about the body in public and private space as seen in a range of French film materials from the 1950s and 1960s, while a debate on “gender trouble” was an opportunity to be brought up to date on recent thinking on transvestism and gender. 

A session on “Homoeroticism and

Homosexualities in Arab Cultures” presented recent North American and French thinking on these subjects, together with an intervention by Egyptian novelist Mohamed Abdel-Nabi.


All about the body

BODIES IN SPACE: While the Arab History Days are designed to take in the whole of the Arab world, Egypt tends to receive pride of place, perhaps because of the long history of French academic study of the country and the presence in Cairo of major French research institutions such as the Institut francais d’archéologie orientale (IFAO) and the Centre d’études et de documentation économiques, juridiques et sociales (CEDEJ).

This emphasis was certainly apparent on the day the Weekly visited, when a panel led by Director of the IFAO Frédéric Abécassis and including Mercedes Volait and young researchers Sylvia Chiffoleau and Philippe Pétriat discussed representations of the body in 1920s Cairo and the question of “competing modernities”. A further panel later the same day on the body in contemporary art also gave particular attention to Egypt, not least because of the presence of young Egyptian painter Hend Sabri, who discussed the representation of the body in her work.

In the first of the two panels, Volait presented a fascinating historical study on the “making of modern Cairo” that draws on an archive of vintage photographs put together by researcher Max Karkégi now in the French National Library in Paris. Much can be learned from these, Volait said, not only about the changing built environment of the city from the late 19th century onwards, but also about the changing ways in which this environment was occupied and invested by its human inhabitants. 

This theme was continued by Chiffoleau in her presentation of a part-academic, part-educational project designed to help contemporary audiences understand 1920s Cairo. The period between 1918 and 1939 was fundamental to the construction of modern Egypt and the definition of the country’s place in the Middle East and the wider world, Chiffoleau said. As such, there has been growing interest in the period, not only among academics, but also among wider audiences that have often gained their sense of it from the way it is presented as a setting for films and TV series. 

Public and private spaces changed rapidly, not only in terms of the construction of new streets, squares and buildings and the destruction of others, but also in the ways people negotiated these spaces, particularly after the introduction of private cars in the 1920s, and the ways they interacted with each other. In order to bring home the changes that were taking place in the period and their importance for the formation of modern Egypt, Chiffoleau described a TV series she was working on that would use 1920s Cairo as a backdrop and follow the fortunes of a set of interacting characters.

It focused on a young doctor, Chiffoleau said, since this allowed the introduction of a broad cross-section of the population (as patients) and could link their health conditions back to welfare issues in the 1920s. Large-scale historical changes could be dealt with through the doctor’s engagement in public-health emergencies, such as the arrival of tens of thousands of Armenian refugees in Port Said from the Ottoman Empire after 1915, while smaller-scale changes such as the development of the professional classes in Egypt after 1918 and the spread of national education and certification could be addressed through the doctor’s career and interactions.

All this must have sounded fascinating to many at this session, with Chiffoleau’s projected series sounding like a cross between the UK’s “Downtown Abbey”, a re-imagining of themes from the post-1918 period in the shape of a successful TV series, and an older UK series, “All Creatures Great and Small,” which focused on a veterinary surgeon to map social changes in the north of England in the 1930s. 

Perhaps in the same way as at last year’s History Days (reviewed in the Weekly in July 2018), there was a feeling that the proceedings could have benefited from greater representation from the region. However, perhaps budgetary or other reasons prevented the kind of wider involvement that was so striking a feature particularly of the first History Days in 2015. 

But with discussions of the quality of those attended by the Weekly this year, all provided for free to general audiences, congratulations are due to the Institut du monde arabe on another successful edition of this valuable series. 


Les rendez-vous de l’histoire de l’Institut du monde arabe, 5e édition: le corps, 11 to 14 April 2019. 

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