Middle East Graduate Students Explore Frontiers in UCLA Conference

Middle East Graduate Students Explore Frontiers in UCLA Conference

Nosheen Ali of Cornell answers a question. Jusur editor Hassan Hussain (far right) looks on.

Jusur, UCLA's graduate student journal of Middle Eastern Studies, sponsors conference on "Limits to the Frontier."

"British media presented the coming invasion as a civilizing mission." She suggested there were parallels with American press coverage of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Fourteen graduate students in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies from eight universities and as from as far away as Montreal and Istanbul presented papers at a two-day conference April 7 and 8 in the Kerckhoff Grand Salon on the UCLA campus. The conference was hosted by the graduate student journal Jusur, published since 1985 under the sponsorship of the Center for Near Eastern Studies. The topic of the conference was "Limits to the Frontier: Peripheralization, Boundaries and Liminality in the Middle East and the Islamic World."

The first day was devoted to the history of border areas in Middle Eastern states, while the second day explored art, music and media in the formation of national identities. The conference was organized principally by Hassan Hussain, Jusur's editor in chief, who also presented a paper of his own.

The Borderland between Byzantium and Islam

The conference opened with a paper by Ian B. Straughn of the University of Chicago, who looked at the life of the border region between the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world in northern Syria. He focused on two small towns southwest of present-day Aleppo, the former Roman town of Tell Chalcis and the Arab town of al-Hadir. Until the Muslim conquest in CE 638, he said, this location had been a highly fortified military outpost of Byzantium. Afterward, according to the archaeological evidence, the Muslim conquerors felt more secure and dismantled most of the fortifications. Aleppo became a commercial center while the two towns declined into agricultural villages, where a certain bucolic intellectual life took place that marked it as a frontier but not an endangered one. This ended with the Byzantine reconquest in 963, when the area reverted to a new age of fortresses.

Self-Evangelized Christians in Nineteenth-Century Anatolia

Zeynep Turkyilmaz of UCLA presented a paper on "Missionaries among the Kizilbash Communities in the Ottoman Empire." The Kizilbash are one of the various mountain peoples of eastern Anatolia. They were friendly with the Armenians and the Persians and adopted an eclectic form of the minority Shi'ia form of Islam prevalent in Iran but regarded as traitorous in Sunni-dominated Ottoman Turkey. Turkyilmaz traced the efforts of American missionaries to reach this isolated people in the 1850s and 1860s. From the Nestorian Christians among the Armenians, the Kizilbash (the name means red headed, from the red turbans they wore during a revolt in the 16th century) adopted elements of Christianity, stories of which intrigued the Western Christian missionaries. One Kizilbash leader without benefit of external instruction proclaimed himself a "Protestant." Having been "self-evangelized," as Turkyilmaz put it, his group became a magnet for missionary activity, but the Ottoman state put heavy pressure on the Kizilbash to renounce their claims to be Christian for fear this could invite intervention on their behalf by Western governments. "There were everlasting efforts by the Turkish state to correct this group," she concluded.

Looking Down the Imperial British Nose at an Egyptian Leader

Shauna Huffaker of UC Santa Barbara offered a scathing account of British portrayals of Egyptian leader Ahmed Urabi on the eve of England's invasion of Egypt in 1882. Urabi was a colonel in the Egyptian army who had led a populist revolt against the ruling khedive and his European backers in 1879. In the run-up to England's invasion three years later, the British press was demeaning of the Egyptian leader, as Huffaker illustrated with slides of issues of Punch and other publications of the day. "The British media," she said, "presented the coming invasion as a civilizing mission for Europe with little discussion of other interests." She suggested that there were parallels here with much of the American press coverage of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Urabi, Huffaker said, "was contradictorily portrayed as both a cunning and unprincipled traitor and as a naive child." The British press, she said, denied legitimate Egyptian grievances, claimed that the Egyptian population did not support Urabi's military reform government, and "compared him to Robespierre, the Ku Klux Klan, and 'wild beasts of the jungle.'" The drawings she displayed portrayed English soldiers and sailors as tall, noble and alert, while Urabi and other Egyptians were depicted as short, shifty and idle. Huffaker also noted that British engravings of the period almost universally chose to depict Egyptians in exotic native costumes set against distinctive traditional Middle Eastern architecture, although many Egyptians in fact wore Western suits and there were many modern buildings in Cairo.

Uprising on the Persian Border in 1880: Nationalist, Tribal or Religious?

Metin Atmaca, University of Texas at Austin, critiqued the existing literature on an 1880 uprising led by Shaykh Ubeydullah in Turkey's Hakkari Province. The area is on the border between Turkey and the largely Kurdish areas of Iran and Iraq. He said the revolt is considered by some scholars as a nationalist Kurdish revolt, and by others as a tribal conflict. Atmaca proposed that both of these positions were wrong and that the Shaykh was principally a Sunni religious leader, and within that tradition head of a mystical Sufi order. His rebellion arose from religious differences with Shi'ia Muslims and Nestorian Christians to the east of his domains. "Shaykh Ubeydullah was considered a mahdi (messiah) by his followers," Atmaca said. "It was Kurdish Muslims versus Nestorian Armenians and Sunni versus Shi'ia. It was not nationalist but an outbreak of millenarianism dominated by religious rhetoric."

Pakistan's Orphaned Northeast Areas

The second panel on "Borders and Boundaries among Nation States" was opened by Nosheen Ali of Cornell University, who spoke on the treatment historically and currently of what is today called the Northern Areas of Pakistan. This is a rural mountainous region at the foot of the Himalayas. As a case of frontier history, she said, the real power of local rulers of petty states in the area in the nineteenth century has been underestimated, particularly by British historians who viewed the region as a pawn in the Great Game in which Britain contested with Russia to keep the Russian bear as far away from its Indian colonies as possible. Today, in contrast, Ali said, the Northern Areas comprise 86% of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, one of the two disputed border areas with India. Pakistan abolished the feudal kingdoms in 1973 and since then the Pakistani military have dominated the region. The consequence, Ali said, has been that the peoples of the Northern Areas have significantly less representation and rights than citizens of Pakistan proper. "They have no autonomous states, no right to vote. They are an internal colony, subjects without citizenship. The Pakistan press is silent on the status of the people of the Northern Areas."

Shifting Reinterpretations of the Iraqi Past

Conference organizer Hassan Hussain then presented a paper on how history has been taught in different periods in Iraq in the country's schools. Iraqi historians and textbook writers have had varying ideological agendas that have highly colored their portrayal of the past, said Hussain. Ottoman Turkey ruled Iraq for four centuries, from 1534 until Turkey's defeat along with the Central Powers in World War I. After 1918 Iraq came under British domination. The first postwar generation of Iraqi historians, Hussain said, "used Ottoman history to portray the Ottoman period as one of stagnation and decline." In fact, he commented, there was a "lively literary life in Iraq under the Ottomans." This took two forms: literature produced under military patronage and religious writings. Most of the religious texts were written in Arabic and Persian -- because of the large Shi'ite community in Iraq and their coreligionists in nearby Persia -- while the works sponsored by military functionaries tended to be in Turkic and Arabic. Works of history written during the Ottoman period were likely as their expected readership to have circles around the Turkish governors. "The Turkic administration was portrayed in these works as pursuing a civilizing mission among tribal peoples." He conceded that Iraq was a "volatile frontier" in the 1700s, but added that many accounts focused on tribal insurrections and border wars rather than other aspects of society "to justify their jobs as frontier officers." Iraqi historians of the mid-twentieth century, particularly after the end of British rule, undertook still another revision of the past, looking for more positive elements in the Turkish period, now trying to interpret many officials who served under the Ottomans as crypto Iraqi nationalists.

Seeing Iraq's Side in Its Recent Border Disputes

Mesut Ozcan of Beykent University in Istanbul took up Iraq's borders under Saddam Hussein. In a very quiet and polite presentation, Ozcan suggested that there was considerable historical right on Iraq's side in its dispute with Kuwait that led to the 1991 Gulf War and in the long war with Iran in the 1980s. Iraq, he pointed out, "has limited access to the Gulf" and an imperative of Iraqi foreign policy has been the attempt to gain access to open waterways. The Iraqi government had questioned the legitimacy of Kuwait as a separate state long before Saddam Hussain, and, he said, had long had the expectation of an eventual unification of Kuwait with Iraq. Kuwait began to affirm its status as an independent state and move away from previous consideration of unification with Iraq when it became a major oil producer in the 1930s.

Ozcan also noted that the Shatt al-Arab, the channel to the Gulf on the border between Iraq and Iran and an important point of contention in the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-88, "was all Iraqi until the Algerian agreement of 1975." Similarly, Iraq's borders with Turkey "were only settled five years after the founding of Iraq." He concluded that Iraq's borders "do not provide good conditions for stability. Given the current war the borders are not on the agenda today, but they may emerge again in the future."

Hizbullah Attempts to Fuse the Founding of Shi'ism to Its Struggle against Israel and the West

Mathew R. Johnson of the University of Texas at Austin offered a paper on the recent increase in religious rhetoric in the public statements of the Hizbullah party in Lebanon. Hizbullah came to international prominence for its role in contributing to Israel's 2000 withdrawal from the security zone it had occupied in southern Lebanon since 1978. Hizbullah, sponsored by both the Iranians and the Syrians, has claimed a major victory in Israel's abandonment of its Lebanese positions. In the period since then, Johnson said, the organization has undergone an ideological transformation involving an "invented tradition" in which Hizbullah "tries to tie the present to the past." This mainly consists of promoting a public analogy with the founders of Shi'ia Islam for its fight with present-day Israel. He cited speeches by Hizbullah's central leader Hassan Nasrullah invoking a central martyr of Shi'ism, Hussain, grandson-in-law of Muhammad, who was killed at the battle of Karbala in a struggle with the Sunnis, who were regarded by the Shi'ites as usurpers. Nasrullah recently declared, "The same blood runs through our veins." Johnson noted that in speeches meant for broader circulation than the Shi'a faithful Nasrullah stresses more universal themes rather than ones so openly adversarial to Sunnis. Hizbullah casts its current politics in a backward looking religious form, although the politics are quite contemporary, mainly stressing military confrontation with Israel in support of the Palestinians, and opposition to the U.S. war on terrorism, where Hizbullah presents itself as a "champion against the West."

Emigrant Groups, Art and Music

The reminder of the conference took up case studies of local Middle Eastern groups and artistic and musical boundaries.

Panel 3 included presentations by Mahmoud Hallak of McGill University in Montreal on "Spatial Boundaries and Privacy Patterns in Homes of Middle-Class Shaamy Immigrants in Montreal." Camila Pastor of UCLA presented on "Arab Communities and Migration in Mexico." And Lauren Wagner of the University of Texas at Austin read a paper on "Situating Moroccan Tour Guides in the International Linguistic Market."

On the second day of the conference there was a panel on "Artistic and Musical Boundaries" that heard papers on "Shaykh Imam and the Student Movement in Egypt" by Shawki Elzatmah; on "Arab Language Music Videos and the Mediation of Identity" by Laith Ulaby; and on "Visual Representation of a Hunting Scene in Medieval Central Asia and Iran" by Marina G. Zona, all of UCLA. The conference then heard a talk by Doris Bittar, a Lebanese-American artist who exhibits widely and lectures at the University of California, San Diego.

The conference concluded with a concert by well-known oud players Naser Musa and Souhail Kaspar and members of the UCLA Near Eastern Ensemble. The oud is an ancient Middle Eastern stringed instrument similar to the lute.

Published: Friday, April 09, 2004