On Location

Tim Garrett, MENA Alumnus (History)

I decided to spend the second summer of my Northwestern undergraduate career studying Arabic at a small school in Alexandria. I arrived solely for language study, yet while I was there, I found the city awash in graffiti celebrating and critiquing the uprising that had only months before toppled Hosni Mubarak from the presidency. In between my classes I made a point of traversing the city, photographing all the graffiti I could find. At the time it was nothing more than a hobby, yet eventually I realized that I had tapped into an important cache of largely overlooked primary sources on Egypt’s popular uprising. The following year I won several grants that allowed me to return to Alexandria, photographing the same locations and analyzing how the messages had evolved. This fieldwork allowed me to write my honors thesis, Alexandrian Political Graffiti: New Insights into Egypt’s Ongoing Revolution.

Traveling to Egypt in 2011 was a frightening prospect, yet it yielded fantastic results. My thesis was one of these; so too was being hired the following year to manage my former school’s Cairo branch. While working there, I witnessed the 2013 uprising firsthand as yet another Egyptian president was overthrown, my first experience watching live history. An Islamic hadith declares that if you take a single step towards God, he will come running towards you. I believe studying in the Middle East is similar- choosing to travel there can be daunting, but the rewards of living there can change your life forever.

For analysis of Egypt’s revolutionary graffiti, check out The Writing on the Walls of Egypt, co-written by Samuli Schielke and Northwestern’s own Jessica Winegar, or Mia Grondahl’s Revolution Graffiti: Street Art of the New Egypt published by AUC Press.

On Location - Sean Lee

Sean Lee, MENA Graduate Student (Political Science)

I’ve just returned from Lebanon, where I’ve been doing fieldwork for my dissertation on ethnic and sectarian minority groups in times of conflict. I’m currently working on Lebanon and Syria, but due to the current situation in Syria, I have been unable to travel there since March 2011 and have had to conduct my interviews on that conflict in Turkey and Lebanon. My latest trip to Lebanon focused on interviewing members of the Druze community in Syria, predominantly from al-Suweida in the south and the Damascus neighborhood of Jaramana. As there are a lot of connections, familial and otherwise, between the Druze communities of Lebanon and Syria, it has been possible to gain access to interviewees from Syria currently residing in Lebanon, in particular the Chouf Mountain, which is a mixed Druze and Maronite Christian region, and Aley, which is a Druze city outside of Beirut on the way to Damascus. So while based in Beirut, I took day trips outside of the city to conduct my interviews.

While it is still too early to draw concrete conclusions from my interviews, I have been struck by some of the important differences between the situations of the Druze communities during the wars in Lebanon and Syria. In each case, the Druze are a small minority in both countries, but in Lebanon, the community’s largest political institution, the Progressive Socialist Party, led by Kamal Jounblatt and then later his son Walid, was an important belligerent during the conflict. While in Syria, the Druze community has done its best to stay out of the conflict. One of the primary differences, it seems, is the political leadership structure for the communities, because Lebanon’s oligarchical confessional system left room for Druze political leadership, whereas the Ba’ath Party in Syria left little room for political representation outside of the regime system.

For analysis on Syria and Lebanon online, you can check out the following blogs:

Otherwise, for a great discussion of the Lebanese civil war, you can read Theodor Hanf’s Coexistence in Wartime Lebanon, and for a better understanding Syria, you should take a look at Lisa Wedeen’s Ambiguities of Domination and Thomas Pierret’s new book, Religion and State in Syria.

Nazlı Özkan, MENA Graduate Student (Anthropology)

My dissertation project is about how televisual news media emerges as a key arena of political activism for the religious minority of Alevis in Turkey. Alevis are a non-Sunni Muslim community who are excluded by the official hegemony of Sunni-Islam. During preliminary research trips to Istanbul in the summers of 2012 and 2013, I realized that news production practices at Alevi television networks are very interesting venues to explore both the possibilities and the limits of the group’s media activism. Therefore, I am now doing my dissertation fieldwork in Istanbul, working as a correspondent/editor for Alevi television channels. 

Working for a minority network in Turkey with a clear political agenda is not an easy job. Representing the demands and the problems of the community requires a constant struggle in the wider media field that usually renders such issues invisible. As low-budget, small-scale television networks, Alevi media also face serious economic challenges partly because they have almost no share in the advertisement revenues. In this sense, through my engagement with these networks, I have learnt the creative ways the reporters find to overcome the various political and economic challenges they encounter in their quests to carve out a space for themselves in the highly controlled and commercialized field of Turkish news media. 

For a more detailed discussion that elaborates on the historical and the contemporary context of Turkey and Alevi activism, check out Being a Muslim at the Margins by Kerem Öktem.

Please also check out this journalistic piece to have an ethnographic handle of the situation: Breaking the Mold by Hannah Lucinda Smith

Wendy Pearlman, MENA Faculty Member (Political Science)

What can Syrians’ personal stories teach us about the revolt in their country? Toward an answer to that question, I have carried out extended interviews with Syrians who have participated in or supported the uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Due to acutely dangerous conditions inside Syria, citizens who have fled the country offer the most feasible entrée to accounts about life there. I have thus done 3.5 months of field research with displaced Syrian during two trips to Jordan (summers of 2012 and 2013) and one to Turkey (fall 2013). These two countries have together absorbed nearly 50 percent of the 3.3 million Syrians who have become refugees in neighboring countries (look here for most current numbers). The majority are “urban refugees” who struggle to make ends meet as they rent apartments, squat in abandoned buildings or, as I saw in one dusty town in northern Jordan, pitch tents in unclaimed lots. In addition, there are 22 refugees camps in Turkey run by the Turkish government and two camps in Jordan managed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

I visited Jordan’s Zaatari camp two months after it opened in July 2012, when it was a series of impromptu rows of tents in the dessert, filled with kids kicking up sand, women in line to fill jugs at water stations, frightening stories about scorpions and lawlessness, and families’ endless discussions about whether life there was better or worse than under the bombs in Syria. Today, Zaatari is the fourth largest city in Jordan, with some 400,000 people having lived there at some point. It boasts a range of shops and businesses initiated by industrious refugees and signs of urban planning that suggest it is becoming an increasingly permanent settlement. Yet its residents are still shut off from the rest of Jordan by a barbed wire fence and, from Syria, by the brutal war for whose end they wait and wait.

Read Wendy Pearlman’s narrative essays, Love in the Syrian Revolution and Fathers of Revolution, telling the stories of some of the remarkable Syrian men and women she met in Jordan.