BRISMES Graduate Section Annual Conference 2012
Established in 1973, The British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) is the leading umbrella organisation for Middle Eastern and North African Studies in the UK. Partnering with London School of Economics' Middle East Centre, this year's BRISMES graduate conference, entitled Change and Continuity in the Middle East, invited Master's students and PhD candidates to submit papers concerned with 'Rethinking West Asia, North Africa and the Gulf after 2011'. The culmination was a range of over 50 papers spanning a wide area of study from economics and politics to history and culture.
Divided into four sessions, the conference was opened by the President of BRISMES Alastair Newton, Robert Lowe of LSE Middle East Centre, and Filippo Dionigi, who was credited with organising much of the conference in his role as acting President of BRISMES Graduate Section.
Dr John Chalcraft of LSE chaired the first panel, which presented five papers discussing the structures of recent oppression and social uprisings across the region. Topics of discussion included Algeria's apparent immunity to the recent revolutionary fervour, Social Movement theories in relation to Yemen, and the 'tense stability' in Jordan. Addressing questions of change, security and the lack thereof, each graduate presented for 15 minutes and responded to questions from fellow academics.
One of the most interesting papers of the day was given by Anthony Silkoff, a former student of the University of Glasgow whose Master's dissertation explored the apparent conflict between feminist and nationalist identities among Palestinian women. As part of a panel entitled 'Palestine and the Changing Regional Context', Silkoff outlined a convincing argument for the need to create an alternative framework within which feminism can strengthen the national struggle rather than compete with it. Jane Jackman of the University of Durham focused on the power of metaphor in political discourse used in and about Israel/Palestine, referencing Sharif Waked's To be continued (2009), which was shown recently as part of the exhibition Subversion at Cornerhouse in Manchester.
The 'Art of Revolution' panel was comprised of four papers evaluating the visual art, literature and theatre produced in the region before, during and since the uprisings. Catherine Sophie Cornet from the University of Rome spoke on the new agency of art in the Egyptian public sphere, citing the example of revolutionary activist Aliaa Al Mahdy, 'The Naked Blogger', and the resulting fall-out from her provocations. Princeton University's Nancy Demerdash attempted to locate different strands of recent 'Arab avant-garde' cultural production, highlighting in particular what could fall under the labels of 'commercial' and 'politically active'. The small but focused audience posed valid questions to the panellists, generating a vibrant discussion that touched on notions of censorship and the democratisation of art.
The final session brought together ideas of symbolism, identity and memory in a discussion about the changing shape of the Middle East. Identifying the shift in perception of the Syrian people as a 'cultural revolution', Mohammad Magout from the University of Leipzig highlighted the interesting psychology behind the 'cult' idolisation of Syria's former President Hafez Al Assad and its lingering effects on the current Syrian uprising. Staying with Syria, Julio Moreno Cirujano of Leiden University analysed the political and social symbolism of the national flag and its historical changes.
BRISMES asserts that as the MENA develops politically and socially, it is more important than ever that academic study of the region evolves at the same pace. This conference and others demonstrate that there is an abundance of ongoing research that attempts to understand the region's complexities; bodies such as BRISMES and LSEMEC are vital to ensure that this continues.