Alternative Histories: Narratives from the Middle East and Mediterranean

AHA Session 238
Sunday, January 5, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Nassau East (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Sargon Donabed, Roger Williams University
Sargon Donabed, Roger Williams University

Session Abstract

This session examines new directions in the study of Middle Eastern history as panelists discuss and compare recent and forthcoming publications in the Alternative Histories series from Edinburgh University Press. This new series provides a forum for exchange on a myriad of alternative histories of marginalized communities and individuals in the Near and Middle East and Mediterranean, and those of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean heritage. It also highlights thematic issues relating to various native peoples and their narratives and—with particular contemporary relevance—explores encounters with the notion of “other” within societies. Moving beyond the conventional state-centered and dominant monolithic approach, or reinterpreting previously accepted stories, books in the series examine and explain themes from inter-communal relations, gender, environment, health and society, and explore ethnic, communal, racial, linguistic and religious developments, in addition to geopolitics.

The aim of this conference session highlighting three ground-breaking books in the Alternative Histories series is to enhance scholarly perspectives on Middle Eastern and North African history by applying various methodological approaches to dilemmas that have in the past been treated as the exclusive concern of a single given discipline. We aim, further, to open a dialogue for alternative intellectual narratives as we compare and contrast the histories of the regions’ many minorities, including Andalusians in Tunisia, Arab Protestants in Syria, the Kurdish diaspora, black citizens in Bahrain and Jews in North Africa. These groups, marginalized within their own societies, have also been largely overlooked in scholarship on the Middle East. Thus, this session and the books we shall discuss prompt tough questions such as: What does it mean to be Middle Eastern? Whose histories are included in Middle Eastern studies? And what stories have we become invested in not telling?

Panelists’ responses to such questions will expand current notions of Middle Eastern history. Beginning with North Africa, Marta Dominguez Diaz will explore Andalusian identity in Tunisia as an ethnic category continually in the making, a category marking Andalusians as “other” despite their conversion to Islam. Then moving to the Levant, Deanna Ferree Womack will address the reverse phenomenon of converts to Protestantism in Ottoman Syria who shared the Arab heritage of other Syrians but were labeled by their peers as Westernized. Finally, Virginie Rey will consider the role of museums across the Middle East and North Africa in both creating and denying opportunities for ethnic and religious minorities—including Kurds, Jews, Africans, Palestinians, Armenians and Sufis—to preserve their histories. The chair and commentator, Sargon Donabed, will open the session with an overview of the book series and conclude with remarks on the books’ common themes and the place of marginalized communities in the study of history.

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