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May 12, 2017

Insatiable Appetite: Food as a Cultural Signifier

Like no other item of daily life, food intimately connects the world's population to the process of globalization - a process that was by no means a recent development. Particularly Europe and the Mediterranean have been connected by alimentary exchange since antiquity. Yet while food serves to build bridges, it is also a potent marker of social, religious, gendered, and ethnic differences. This conference aimed at exploring the cultural as well as scientific ramifications of food and foodways in Europe and the Mediterranean in a longue durée and interdisciplinary perspective.

Apr 25, 2017

Winner of 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction: Previews Before Today’s Announcement

The final countdown to the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction — popularly known as the “Arabic Booker” — has begun: The prize is set to be announced this evening in Abu Dhabi, the night before the opening of the city’s international book fair. Last night, five of the six shortlisted authors were hosted by NYU Abu Dhabi in a discussion moderated by AUB professor Bilal Orfali. Writer Rana Asfour tweeted from the event, which Kuwaiti novelist Ismail Fahd Ismail (shortlisted for his Al-Sabiliat) was apparently unable to attend. The five who attended were Libyan novelist Najwa Binshatwan, shortlisted for The Slave Pens; Iraqi novelist Saad Mohammed Raheem, shortlisted for The Bookseller’s Murder; Egyptian novelist Mohammed Abdel Nabi, shortlisted for In the Spider’s Room; Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, shortlisted for Children of the Ghetto – My Name is Adam; and Saudi novelist Mohammed Hasan Alwan, shortlisted for A Small Death. Snippets from the night include Binshatwan saying: “The Arab character is decaying and we are trying to save what’s left through writing. Writing is my escape as well.” According to Asfour, Binshatwan also said, “For my book I collected folkloric stories because formal history never mentioned slavery in Libya, actually marginalised it.” Alwan, whose novel follows twelfth-century philosopher-poet Ibn Arabi, said, according to Asfour, “Writing on a real character was challenging yet I learnt as I wrote & it proved a joyous experience’.” Abdel Nabi, who was apparently asked about whether his novel presents stereotypical gay characters, perhaps in response to an online review of his In the Spider’s Room, which is set around the Queen Boat arrests of many in Cairo’s gay community. Abdel Nabi apparently said: “Let’s not burden literature with more than it can take!” Asfour clarified that she felt Abdel Nabi “avoided the question. He said that literature should not always be expected to carry the burden of reality.” In respones to a question about why only one woman was on the shortlist, Khoury apparently said: “A personal observation is literature in [the] world[,] not only Arab world[,] has male domination.” Khoury also reportedly added that the “‘trend now is 2 write about the present as if in revenge on authors who refused to break silence in the past.” Interviews with all six of the shortlisted authors can be found on the International Prize for Arabic Fiction website, where they all gamely answer questions about where they were when they heard they’d been shortlisted (at the office; at home; recovering from surgery) and who influenced them (shortlisted novelist Saad Mohammed Raheem generously names fellow shortlistee Elias Khoury). The National ran a short piece about each author’s chances, although without any fun numbers to gamble on. Short translated excerpts of each of the novels can be read in the current issue of Banipal magazine, along with a discussion of whether literary prizes are a positive or a negative for Arabic letters. Over on Bookwitty, I discuss this discussion, and recommend 10 reads from the prize’s first 10 years. As in other years, the six shortlisted finalists will receive $10,000, with an additional $50,000 going to the winner. Last year’s winner of the Prize was Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba by Rabai al-Madhoun. Other previous winners include Shukri Mabkout’s The Italian (2015); Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (2014), forthcoming in translation by Jonathan Wright in 2018; Saud Alsanousi’s The Bamboo Stalk (2013), translated into English by Jonathan Wright; Rabee Jaber’s The Druze of Belgrade (2012); Mohammed Achaari’s The Arch and the Butterfly and Raja Alem’s The Dove’s Necklace, co-winners, both in English translation (2011); Abdo Khal’s Throwing Sparks (2010), translated into English by Maia Tabet and Michael Scott; Youssef Ziedan’s Azazeel (2009), translated into English by Jonathan Wright; and Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis (2008), translated into English by Humphrey Davies. The IPAF does provide funding for English translation for its winners.

Dec 22, 2016

Hot Encounters: Glass Blowing and Glass Art in the Middle East and Europe

Glassblowing is believed to have been originated in the region of Syria in the 1st century BC, and rapidly spread throughout the ancient world. The use of the blowpipe and closed molds were important technical advances that revolutionized the glass production in the Roman Empire. Therefore, manual glass production has become an intangible cultural heritage shared between Europe and the Arab world. Contemporary glass artists follow the tracks of former craftsmen and have become global travelers between Western and Eastern glass art traditions. The Working Group has invited researchers and artists to bring attention to historical and contemporary approaches of glass art production.

Dec 4, 2016

Book panel focuses on the role AUB plays in the region

The American University of Beirut (AUB) and Dar Nelson have organized a panel discussion about the book One Hundred and Fifty at the 60th Beirut Arab Book fair held yearly at the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure center. The book, which is published by AUB Press, is a collection of articles examining the history of the University. The book was launched in March 2016 as part of AUB’s 150th anniversary celebrations, and was edited by Drs. Nadia El Cheikh, Lina Choueiri and Bilal Orfali. On the panel spoke Dr. El Cheikh, who has since been appointed dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Philosophy Professor Bashar Haydar, Director of the Issam Fares Institute Dr. Tarek Mitri, and AUB Alumnus Mohammad Mattar. The panel was moderated by Suleiman Bakhti. Bakhti opened the panel stating that in this book all sides of the history of the AUB were explored and portrayed objectively, showing the instances that made AUB an institution that changes the lives of people for the better. “AUB is a book that doesn’t end; it’s an institution that doesn’t stop growing and producing novelty,” he said. Dr. El Cheikh then took the stage to further elaborate on the content of the book, which she described as a token of appreciation presented by her and her co-editors to AUB on its 150th anniversary. “The book contains a photo essay showing the first females at AUB after it was an all-male university,” she said. “It shows the first female head nurse at the nursing school in 1905, the first veiled woman to join AUB in 1924, among other firsts, and this highlights the important role AUB played as the first university in the region to open its doors to women.” Dr. Mitri spoke about the relationship between the University and Ras Beirut. According to him, the university helped shape the old Ras Beirut, back when the area was quasi-empty. However, the modern Ras Beirut as we know it today is different compared with the old one, and the University has little to no effect on its modern constitution. The split between the once twins area happened after the civil war, he said, when AUB’s main concern was to survive the war, so the university’s focus became internal rather than open to its surroundings “What hit Lebanon and the Arab region of wars and hardships during the past few years hit AUB as well, but we should all be proud of what AUB was able to accomplish during the past 150 years despite all odds,” he concluded. Dr. Bashar Haydar added that AUB has entered a phase of individual success, stating that this success, although notable and important, should not preclude involvement of society outside or the wider picture of Beirut and the region. “AUB deals with itself as a knowledge generator, comparing itself with universities abroad, missing the point that we are not in the US, where communities are advanced, but we’re rather in Lebanon where the government doesn’t properly function and basic human rights aren’t applied,” he said. “We have to admit that we have failed on this level, and must start focusing on the role that AUB can play in the society, all while trying to overcome the obstacles and the hard circumstances the region is going through.” In his turn, Mr Mattar spoke about the important role AUB plays in providing its students with a degree of political awareness. According to him, AUB is multifunctional, it does not only provide its students with skills to take over the market place once they graduate, but it also equips them with tools to play important roles in their societies. He referred to the strike that happened in the 1970s and in which he took part, stating that although most universities in the region are apolitical, AUB allowed its students a chance to be political activists. “FAS is the spirit of this university, where social sciences and humanities are main components allowing students to learn about their societies,” he said. “Those fields provide the students with critical views on studies and theories that can later be applied in civic engagement and not only in the professional fields they choose to pursue.” The panel was followed by a book signing at the AUB Press stand in the fair, where Dr. El Cheikh signed copies of the book. One Hundred and Fifty is currently available for $40 from AUB Press. It is also available through the AUB Bookstore and other Librairie Antoine stores (including www.antoineonline.com).

Apr 5, 2015

AUB Assistant Professor named member of prestigious Institute for Advanced Study

Bilal Orfali, assistant professor of Arabic studies and director of the CAMES Arabic Summer Program at the American University of Beirut, was recently named a visiting member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey for the academic year 2011-12. The Institute for Advanced Study, a private academic institution, independent of Princeton University, is, as its website states, “one of the world’s leading centers for theoretical research and intellectual inquiry.” Founded in 1930, the institute encourages and supports “fundamental research in the sciences and humanities—the original, often speculative thinking that produces advances in knowledge that change the way we understand the world.” The institute brings together a community of top rank scholars, enabling them to pursue research at their own time and pace, free from teaching and other university obligations. Past faculty members have included distinguished scientists and scholars such as Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Erwin Panofsky, John von Neumann, and George Kennan. Some twenty-five Nobel laureates, thirty-eight Fields Medalists, and many winners of the Wolf and MacArthur prizes have been affiliated with the Institute. Orfali’s research contributes to understanding key literary and social issues of the fourth through tenth centuries such as the significance and nature of the genre of Arabic literary anthology, patronage and courtly life, the working and reworking of books in classical Arabic literature, oral versus aural and written transmission of literary reports, as well as prose and poetry and the several ways in which they are combined and juxtaposed. His project at the institute will focus on the genesis and development of early Sufi poetry by examining the origins of the early Sufi poetic motifs in light of other genres of Arabic poetry such as wine, ghazal, and madih poetry.

Dec 8, 2011

International academic publishing house releases volume in honor of AUB Professor Ramzi Baalbaki

Brill, a distinguished academic publishing house founded in 1683 and based in Leiden, announced the publication of a collection of articles dedicated to AUB Professor Ramzi Baalbaki, in honor of his scholarly contributions to the Arabic language. Titled In the Shadow of Arabic: The Centrality of Language to Arabic Culture, the volume is dedicated to Ramzi Baalbaki, the Margaret Weyerhaeuser Jewett Professor of Arabic at the American University of Beirut, on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday. Bilal Orfali, editor of the volume and assistant professor of Arabic studies, explained that it is common practice in academia to honor prominent scholars for their remarkable career and enduring contributions. This is the second time such a volume is prepared in honor of a professor of the Arabic Department, the first is the 1981 volume dedicated to Ihsan Abbas on his sixtieth birthday edited by Wadad Kadi and published by AUB. “Such volumes honor not only the dedicatee, but his department and institution as well, and Ramzi Baalbaki, the Arabic Department and AUB are worthy of many such volumes,” said Orfali, who is also former student, co-author, and current colleague of Ramzi Baalbaki. "This publication proves that Ramzi Baalbaki is a remarkable scholar whose impact on Arabic studies will be felt for years to come," added Orfali. "Many members on campus experienced Ramzi Baalbaki as an exceptional colleague, a selfless collaborator, a humane administrator, and an inspiring teacher, and this volume is a tribute to him from the whole AUB family as well as from a large number of scholars who hold his academic achievements in high esteem." Orfali said he had to limit topics of contribution to the areas that formed the core of Baalbaki’s scholarly work, to which the present collection pays homage. Nevertheless, the volume has swollen to a considerable size, attesting to the scale of Baalbaki’s influence and reputation. The volume reflects the central themes of Baalbaki’s scholarly work: history of Arabic grammar, Arabic lexicography, Arabic linguistics, comparative Semitics, Arabic epigraphy, and textual editing of classical texts. It provides intellectual, literary, and social historians, as well as Arabists, philologists, and linguists with an interesting glimpse into the early medieval and modern traditions related to the Arabic language, its grammar, historical development, and demonstrates its centrality to other fields of study such as Qur’anic studies, adab, folk literature, sufism, and poetry. Several of the articles of this volume were inspired by Baalbaki’s own research and address topics and questions first explored by him. Orfali thanked all contributors, acknowledging debt to the staff of the Jafet Library at AUB who spared no effort in providing him with the books he depended upon, and to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, represented by Dean Khalil Bitar and Dean Patrick McGreevy, for supporting the publication of this book.