Jadaliyya: A New Form of Producing and Presenting Knowledge in/of the Middle East (Interview by Julia Elyachar)

From the Series: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt a Year after January 25th


Julia Elyachar: Jadaliyya has quickly become the go-to place for information and analysis of what is going on in Egypt and the region. Moreover, Jadaliyya is the place where writing of a kind that we associate with the best of anthropology--in the moment, grounded in theory, capturing historical transformation through engagement in events as they unfold--has been published. It seems to provide solutions to many problems we have been engaged with in anthropology -- the production of knowledge in and about the region, particularly in this time of the massive uprisings. How and why do you think that Jadaliyya been so successful? How did it begin?

Bassam Haddad: Jadaliyya evolved out of a number of previous projects, such as the Arab Studies Journal which we founded in 1992. A number of the people working with Jadaliyya have been working together since then. Next we created a film collective, called “Quilting Point” which produced documentaries that won a number of awards world-wide. The project started with the film“About Baghdad”; we were the first team to enter Baghdad after the occupation.

Next, in 2007, I started a project with George Mason University, called “The Knowledge Production Project,” about scholarly production on the Middle East. That soon expanded to cover knowledge production in general about the Middle East. This became part of an independent research outfit we called FAMA (Forum on Arab and Muslim Affairs).

By 2010, my colleagues and I had gotten really irritated by the fact that, although the news cycle had narrowed and narrowed, there was no medium to capture the middle ground between daily blogs and peer-reviewed scholarly journals. At one end, were daily blogs. Often very creative, scholarly, and energetic, but they were also one-person efforts. On the other end were peer reviewed articles in journals that can take six months at best to get out information and analysis. There was a huge unoccupied vacuum between the two. We created Jadaliyya to fill that vacuum.

The website we created was not just another website. It is perhaps the closest thing to a peer-reviewed alternative to traditional scholarly journals that is produced and available online on a daily basis. We think that what we are doing will become part of the norm in the future. Very few people will wait a year, or even months, for a book to be produced. They won’t want to wait even 2-3 months for a peer-reviewed article to be published. We need to understand what is happening in much quicker fashion--without compromising substance. This is what we are trying to do at Jadaliyya.

JE: Jadaliyya seems to be responding to the collective’s long-term engagements in the region, but also to dilemmas and problems you see with the production of knowledge in academia in general. Is that correct?

BH: Yes, well, I spoke now mostly about the logistical dimensions of the need to produce knowledge, and the form of what we are doing. There is also the matter of content and I speak mainly for myself here because we don’t really have a manifesto. Jadaliyya gives a forum for important currents in the region that are critical of dictatorship, critical of the United States’ policy there, but don’t find the Islamist or any other identity-focused current as the solution either. Many people in the region hold views that are critical of all three, but they don’t have institutional representation. This residual category of people is itself very mixed; it can include secularists on the right and left, and many others who do not internally agree on fundamentals. We wanted to present an alternative that is: progressive, concerned with social justice, aware first and foremost with power relations locally and globally, not Islamophobic, concerned with issues of gender and sexual orientation, and progressive in regards to very sensitive issues that some progressives in the ME have not been able or free to embrace. We also wanted to help break the ghettoization of the Middle East, so we can connect more with scholars and movements outside the region. The spirit in which we write, publish others, and present ourselves leaves us open to collaboration with people concerned with other regions. Many people, think tanks, and movements have contacted us from Brazil, Australia, and many other countries for the purpose of collaboration.

JE: Jadaliyya has been the place where some of the best “ethnographic” writing about the region in this time of incredible transformation and change is to be found—and yet you are not anthropologists. I have wondered how much the mode of presentation and/or the form of engagement with the region and your material creates, for me an anthropologist, that sense of familiarity while reading Jadaliyya. Also, I have been really struck by your engagement with the politics of knowledge—and even more with your creation of solutions in the form of Jadaliyya as well as the content.

BH: Our politics are mirrored by the design content in our website. We had no money, so I had to design everything that you see on Jadaliyya at the start. Thankfully, we are moving away from that. We mix everything together--long analytical documented pieces, together with what are usually called “opinion pieces,” together with poetry, literature, and art. We do not separate these into different “sections” on the main page. We publish in different languages on the same page; we have articles in French, and lots in Arabic. We are not producing our work with an eye to the market, nor to two different markets: one “western” and the other “Arab.” We have one version that goes everywhere, just like with the films we make with “Quilting Point.”

What you say about anthropology is interesting. We are actually committed to the overcoming of disciplinary boundaries. We ran a conference of 39 participants last year about teaching the Middle East, which we organized for the purpose of bringing together people from various disciplines, to blur the boundaries between disciplines, and to generate a new kind of conversation that comes out of sitting in the same room for two and a half days.http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/2795/report-on-jadaliyyas-conference-on-teaching-the-mi

Also, we wanted to help end the defensive posture of people who teach the Middle East in the United States and beyond, to help us move past getting engaged in a posture of defense against Orientalist claims. Even before the uprisings, but certainly now, we can finally move beyond the defensive. We don’t have to give disclaimers all the time about Arabs and Muslims not being this or that stereotype. The outcomes of this conference, we feel, can be adopted by anyone, anywhere.

JE: Well here too you seem to be addressing Mona Abaza’s article and the issues she forcefully raises about the politics of knowledge, criticizing westerners who come and use local informants and publish under their own authorship. These questions are regularly debated in anthropology, and are raised here forcefully in regards to revolutionary Egypt and the Middle East. In this light too, do you see Jadaliyya as addressing these kinds of issues in the ways it creates new forms and methods of working, and what I would call a new infrastructure for the production of knowledge?

BH: Mona’s article may have gone a little far, but it raised something that is very important about serious imbalances in structural relations of power. It is not a question of individuals who comes from the United States and are as white as apple pie and protestant as could be, and shouldn’t come or shouldn’t write.

So, even though most of us working with Jadaliyya are Arabs, or have long and intimate relations with the Arab world, we mainly live in the United States. We decided to work to produce “country pages” that are based, to the extent possible, on indigenous groups and teams. So right now we have the Egypt page – one reason I was in Egypt now was to work with our editor there, to assemble a team that could reflect local concerns. When Egyptians read Jadaliyya this year, as opposed to a year ago, they will notice that the content approximates their shared concerns. Their concerns—or equally important, their different sense of priorities about shared concerns--might not be the same as those of Arabs who live outside the region. We don’t feel that having similar politics is enough. We feel that having some kind of indigenous understanding of the prioritization of issues really matters. Issues that affect people there viscerally, and are important right now, at this particular point, can be reflected on the country pages. We are expanding those pages now to more than Egypt. Right now I am in Lebanon working with Syrian writers to produce the Syria Page. Then we will have a page from the Maghreb, an area that is generally neglected in the production of knowledge about the region, and also the Western Sahara, an area that is often unfamiliar even to people in the region. Then we will do a page from the Arab Peninsula. This will be the first experiment in a truly independent publication writing about the Arab Peninsula, rather than one sponsored by the countries of the Arab Gulf, or by CNN or the BBC. But it’s a long process constrained by logistics.

You can also see on our website a page “on media and reporting,” what, and how, regions are being reported on from within and outside the region.

JE: You are all doing incredible work.

BH: We are not geniuses. There is such a vacuum of coverage of these issues and perspectives. So we are doing what we can to fill the vacuum. There’s only 15 of us Co-Editors at Jadaliyya. It will take a while!

JE: What is your policy about postings of the pieces you produce on Jadaliyya?

BH: Anyone can (and many do) post our articles. All we ask is that a link to the original in Jadaliyya be included.

Bassam Haddad is Director of the Middle East Studies Program and teaches in the Department of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University, and is Visiting Professor at Georgetown University.