Sep 29, 2018

Interdisciplinary International Workshop: ‘The Area Studies Controversy Revisited’

Even two decades after its inception, there is a clear need to revisit the so-called Area Studies Controversy (ASC) from multiple disciplinary angles. This insight guided the participants of the workshop “The Area Studies Controversy Revisited”, held at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon on 29 and 30 September 2018. The workshop took place with the support of the Arab German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA) as a project of its Transformation working group. It brought together a diverse group of scholars with different disciplinary backgrounds from Europe and the Middle East.

Aug 30, 2018

Language, Identity and Cultural Exchange: Early Arabic Studies in Europe and the Middle East

Fruitful encounters between Germany (and Europe) and the Arab world are closely related to the emergence of systematic teaching and philological studies of the Arabic language in early modern Europe. On the institutional level, this development was pioneered at the University of St Andrews in Scotland (UK) and the University of Leiden in the Netherlands with the introduction of the first Chairs in Arabic as early as in the sixteenth century. Similar centres of research and teaching of Arabic were later on established at other universities in Europe. Several universities in Germany, especially Leipzig, Halle, and Berlin as well as the University of Vienna in Austria played a crucial role in developing and promoting Arabic philology in Europe, which resulted also in the establishment of Arabic Studies in Russia at the universities in St Petersburg and Kazan by German professors and Russian scholars trained in Germany. The development of Arabic philology reflected not only important innovations in the academia, but represented a direct response to the growing interest in the Arab world and reflected wider intellectual discourses and cultural challenges of the time related to negotiating the European identity and such issues as colonialism and orientalism. Remarkably, the philological innovation fostered in European academia not only promoted a better understanding of the Arab culture by the Europeans, but also had a direct and lasting impact on the approach of Arabs towards their native language. The export of new philological methods to the Arab world was strongly stimulated by Arab intellectuals trained in Europe such as for instance Jirmānūs Farḥāt (1670 – 1732), who during his studies at the Maronite College in Rome got acquainted with the philological methods developed by Thomas Erpenius (1584 – 1624), one of the pioneers of Oriental studies in Europe. On the other hand, some European scholars of Arabic actively promoted new philological scholarship through their teaching and research in the Middle East, first of all in Beirut, Lebanon and Cairo, Egypt. Among them were Cornelius Van Alen Van Dyck (1818 – 1895), Vladimir Girgas (1835 – 1887) and Carlo Alfonso Nallino, (1872 – 1938), to name but a few. While the history of early Arabic studies in the Netherlands has been recently re-examined by Arnoud Vrolijk and Richard van Leeuwen in the book ‘Arabic Studies in the Netherlands: A Short History in Portraits, 1580 – 1950’ published in 2013, for the Arabic Studies in Germany and Russia one has still to rely on the publication from the year 1955 by Johann Fück ‘Die arabischen Studien in Europa bis in den Anfang des 20. Jahrhunderts’ and from the year 1950 by Ignaz Kratschkowski ‘Die russische Arabistik, Umrisse ihrer Entwicklung (Übersetzt und bearbeitet von Otto Mehlitz in 1963)’. In their AGYA project ‘Language, Identity and Cultural Exchange: Early Arabic Studies in Europe and the Middle East’ Academy AGYA members Kirill Dmitriev and Bilal Orfali revisited the foundations of Arabic Studies in Europe and the Middle East through investigating yet unstudied archival material at universities and research institutions in Scotland, Italy, Germany, Russia and Lebanon. The project’s findings will help contextualize the history of this academic field in the broader perspective of cultural exchange between Europe and the Arab world. Besides further exploring and evaluating the relevant archives at their home institutions, the University of St Andrews and the American University of Beirut, both scholars undertook research visits to the libraries and archives in Kazan and St Petersburg (Russia) as well as Rome and Venice (Italy). The aim was to collect additional research material in order to compare it with their findings in Scotland and Lebanon. At their research visit to Rome and Venice, Bilal Orfali and Kirill Dmitriev were accompanied by Prof. Ramzi Baalbaki (American University of Beirut), a distinguished scholar of Arabic Studies. In July 2018, the team met with Antonella Ghersetti, Professor of Arabic at the Department of Asian and North African Studies at Ca' Foscari University in Venice. With Prof. Ghersetti, the scholars also discussed the perspectives of establishing a research network and collaborative projects in the future. A few weeks later in August, academic networking in respect to the project was continued in Kazan, where Bilal Orfali and Kirill Dmitriev met with faculty members of the Kazan State University. The library of the Kazan State University is well-known for its bibliographical collections. The collection contains about 15000 manuscripts and 3000 unique rare books. The investigation of the Arabic manuscript collections preserved in Kazan proved to be of particular importance and interest for the project. As another result of their visit, both tandem partners were invited to join the editorial board of the newly established research journal ‘Eurasian Arabic Studies’ published in Kazan. All collected material will be published in an online publication and an exhibition on the topic of ‘The History of Arabic Studies in Europe and the Middle East in Early Modern Period’ will be realized in 2019. Two books will be published in 2019 as a major outcome of the tandem project: ‘The Claim of Arabic: Arabic Humanities at the American University of Beirut’ (Bilal Orfali), and ‘Ignaz Krackovsky (1883-1951), ein Arabist in seiner Zeit,’ a German translation of the biography of the Russian scholar Ignaz Krackovsky by Dolinina, Anna (Newol'nik Dolga. Sankt Petersburg 1994).

Nov 14, 2017

Media Transitions and Cultural Debates in Arab Societies: Transhistorical Perspectives on the Impact of Communication Technologies

Digital technologies have affected literature and culture, their authors and audiences. So has the transition from oral to script culture – many centuries ago. The AGYA conference explores the impact of ‘new media’ on modes of cultural expression and debate cultures in Arab societies. The conference is organized by the AGYA Members Barbara Winckler (Junior Professor for Modern Arabic Literature, University of Münster), Carola Richter (Professor for Inter-national Communication, Freie Universität Berlin) and Bilal Orfali Associate Profeesor for Arabic Studies, American University of Beirut), in cooperation with Teresa Pepe (Associate Professor at the Institute for Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo). In the last decades, the Arab world has witnessed the emergence and broad diffusion of 'new' media, most prominently the Internet. The opportunities provided by these new communication technologies have not only inspired and empowered a younger generation for political dissent, but have also fostered the emergence of new modes of cultural expression, literary styles and genres as well as new layers of readers and writers. Digital media, however, is not the first ‘new media’ to appear in the Arab world. The adoption of Internet technologies in recent times could be compared to the transition from oral to script culture that took place in the 9th century, the spread of print technologies after several centuries of a flourishing manuscript culture in the 19th century, or the emergence of audio-visual media (radio, TV, photography, film) in the 20th century. The transhistorical perspective has proven useful in the field of media studies in general, but requires further exploration with specifics to the Arab region. With regard to different media at different historical moments (9th - 21st century), the conference aims at exploring how the emergence and diffusion of ‘new media’ or communication technologies in Arab societies have affected the (conditions of) literary and cultural production, distribution, and reception and how cultural debates are shaped by the use of different media. The conference will involve scholars of various disciplines specialized in different time periods and practitioners in the cultural field. It seeks to provide an interdisciplinary, transhistorical perspective and to reach out to a wider public beyond the academic sphere.

Oct 3, 2017

AGYA International Bilingual Summer School Practicing ‘Blickwechsel’: Entangled Perspectives on Theory, Arts and History in the Field of Arabic Literary Studies

AGYA International Bilingual Summer School Practicing ‘Blickwechsel’: Entangled Perspectives on Theory, Arts and History in the Field of Arabic Literary Studies Academic cooperation between scholars of Arabic literature based in Germany and the Arab world has increased in recent years. However, they still mostly act in separate spheres, due to epistemic, linguistic and practical reasons. To what extent do the research questions and methods used by scholars based in the Arab world differ from those used by their colleagues in other countries? How can we enhance sustainable academic exchange between scholars and institutions? AGYA members Bilal Orfali (American University of Beirut), Barbara Winckler (University of Münster) and Christian Junge (University of Marburg), organized a summer school which brought together scholars of Arabic literature and culture from Arab and European universities to discuss these issues and explore further cooperation. The AGYA summer school '‘Practicing ‘Blickwechsel’: Entangled Perspectives on Theory, Arts and History in the Field of Arabic Literary Studies' which took place in September 2017 at the American University of Beirut, is part of the international summer school program 'Arabische Philologien im Blickwechsel –نحو دراسات عربية برؤى متعددة ' ( The program has a twofold agenda. It aims to facilitate the systematic exchange of perspectives and experiences between scholars based in the West (Germany in particular) and in the Arab world and to foster the use of Arabic as an academic language. Addressing young scholars (PhD students, postdocs) in the field of Arabic literary studies based in Germany and other European countries and the Arab world, it provides them the opportunity to present their own research in an international academic context, to discuss current, innovative approaches to Arabic philology, literature and culture, and to practice the respective foreign language (English or Arabic).

Aug 30, 2017

Dynamics of Cultural Impact: Arab and German Cultural Heritage of Zanzibar

The history of the Apfelstrudel cannot be told without taking a look at the history of cultural exchange and trade between Zanzibar and Germany in the 19th century. But then, neither without acknowledging Zanzibar’s very long Arab merchant tradition since the 7th century. Zanzibar became an overseas territory of the Sultanate of Oman in the 16th century, in 1832 the royal court of Sultan Sayyid Said was even moved from Muscat to Zanzibar. The conference 'Dynamics of Cultural Impact: Arab and German Cultural Heritage of Zanzibar' explored contemporary and interdisciplinary aspects of Cultural Impact, Cultural Memory and Cultural Heritage from a general perspective as well as a comparative historical perspective on the “case study” of the cultural entanglements of Zanzibar, Oman, and Germany. The conference tackled the following questions: Which are the ways, forms, and consequences of colonial Arab and German cultural impact on Zanzibar? How did Arabs and Germans shape local cultural identity on Zanzibar? What was their impact on language and literature, art and architecture, music and dance, cinema and theatre, food and cuisine, dress and fashion of Zanzibar? How did Arab and German cultures interact on Zanzibar with each other? What were the impacts of Arab-German cultural contacts on Zanzibar, and how have they been preserved and represented in cultural memory in Germany and the Arab world?

Jul 11, 2017

Workshop 'Buddha: The Story of a Christian-Muslim Saint'

In July 2017, AGYA Members Bilal Orfali and Kirill Dmitriev brought together academics from different disciplines to discuss the peregrination of the biography of Gautama Buddha in time, space and imagination. The Christian-Muslim Adaptation of the Buddha Once upon a time there lived a prince. His father, the king, wanted him to succeed as ruler of the kingdom. But as astrologers predicted that the prince might turn to religion, the king shielded his son from religious teachings and from knowledge of human suffering. Despite being isolated and surrounded by luxury and pleasure, the prince finally learned the truth, became renunciant and in the end a great spiritual figure. This narrative is recognizable to most Buddhists as a retelling of the life story of Gautama Buddha. Ultimately based on the life story of Buddha, the legend has traveled in time, space and language, providing the prototype for the Islamic story of Bilawhar wa-Budasif and the Christian legend of Barlaam and Josaphat. In the Christian legend, the prince is named Josaphat (or Josafat, Iosaf, Iodasaph). His virtue lies in converting his father’s kingdom to Christianity and living as a Christian ascetic with his teacher, Barlaam (or Barlam, Varlaam). Tracing the Legend through Space In their Tandem Project AGYA Members Bilal Orfali and Kirill Dmitriev got on a research journey to track the travel route of the sacred tale of these two saints: In Rome they studied several relevant (middle Persian and Arabic) manuscripts in the Vatican Library. In Moscow and Saint Petersburg they used the manuscript libraries and researched the liturgical and musical tradition of the story of Josafat and Barlam in its Slavonic transmission. Moreover they visited the Assumption Cathedral within the Kremlin Museum in Moscow to study icons and wall paintings of Varlaam and Iosaf there. They shared their results with other experts at a workshop in Meteora in Greece. There, they brought together scholars from the fields of philology, iranology and art history to look at the legend of Barlaam and Iodasaph on different textual, artistic, theological, performative and interpretive aspects. The workshop venue was right below the famous monastery dedicated to Barlaam that rests on a monolithic rock pillar in the Greek mountains. The focus of the workshop lied on a comprehensive study of the Legend of Barlaam and Josaphat not merely as a text transmitted in various linguistic contexts, but as a phenomenon of cultural history crossing boundaries and transcending identities of multiple ethnic, religious, and artistic systems. The workshop participants agreed that due to the missionary aspect of the text, describing mystical knowledge and the persecution of religious minorities, the legend was primarily appealing to marginalized faiths instead of dogmatic state religions. Therefore, the early Arabic and Christian versions were created in Ismaili Muslim Culture and in Muslim-ruled Georgia – and not, for example, in mainstream Sunni Islam. The Search for the Oldest Text Source In presentations and discussions, the experts approached the topic from different angles. While there is a rich history of oral transmissions of the legend of Barlaam throughout different cultural settings, the workshop concentrated on analyzing the written versions. Iranologist Andrea Piras (University of Bologna, Italy) opened the conversation by discussing his research of a stemma to trace the text’s versions trough time, analyzing the Manichaean transmission, a gnostic religion of the early Middle Ages. While he agreed that it had little direct influence on the later Arabic and Greek texts, he nevertheless stressed the value of the Central Asian life of the story more generally for understanding the missionary and didactic aspects of the text in later incarnations. Alexey Muraviev (National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow) argued for the possibility of a Christianized Arabic predecessor to the Georgian version – a point that was controversial discussed by the other participants. Arabist Isabel Toral-Niehoff (Freie Universität Berlin, Germany) concentrated her work on the extant Arabic versions of the text in the search for the oldest Arabic source. She rejected orientalist Daniel Gimaret’s claim of his edition to resemble the oldest non-Christian, non-Muslim precursor of all other versions. She pointed out that the manuscripts upon which Gimaret based his text were primarily of the 19th century and stemmed from the Ismaili tradition in Bombay. While this does not rule out their preserving older elements of the text, it does make it less likely, particularly given the degree to which the text was changed by copyists in other versions. Toral-Niehoff summarized that we must conclude the picture is complicated and we do not presently have the oldest Arabic version in any definitive form’. Following Dr. Toral-Niehoff’s talk, the Christian Arabic version – clearly a translation of the Greek text – was discussed, observing the extremely high quality of language, in contrast to many other Christian Arabic religious texts. Tracing the Legend through Art Art historian Francesca Tagliatesta (Université Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle, France) approached the story from a visual rather than textual perspective. She focused on the depiction of several episodes from the story in medieval Italian frescoes and mosaics, to see which versions of the story they are based on and how people understood these images in their respective epochs. For example, she examined the symbol of the “three living and three dead,” representing the worthlessness of the worldly life compared to enlightenment and afterlife, to demonstrate how an originally Buddhist story could spread with ease throughout Christendom. Outlook: a Detailed Comparison of Texts In a final round led by AGYA member Kirill Dmitriev, the workshop participants discussed how to integrate new perspectives into the traditionally philological discussion of the story. All participants agreed that an episode-by-episode comparison of the various versions, tracking the small changes of dialogue and plot, might reveal new information about the process of transformation across various versions of the story. AGYA member Bilal Orfali summarized: ‘The literary complex known as the Legend of Barlaam and Josaphat is a remarkable document of the history of contacts between civilizations. It mocked all boundaries and enjoyed a popularity attained perhaps by no other legend. Like all good stories, it has something to teach. We hope to continue our exploration in future workshops that tackle different aspects of the story from different angles, the aim is to learn about how similar we humans are, how different, but also why and how this happened.’