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Academic tourists sight-seeing the Arab Spring
While the Arab Spring has enhanced global interest in the Arab world, local academics have often been reduced to service providers for Western "experts" who jet in and jet out
Mona Abaza , Monday 26 Sep 2011
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I would like to share with this short piece a concern that several of us in academia in Cairo have been facing with the impact of the Arab Spring, to point to some frustrations regarding the continuing unequal academic relationship between so-called “local” and Western experts of the Middle East, between broadly speaking the North and the South (although this classification is clearly clichéd), and the reshuffling of the international division of labour in the academic field whereby inequality is and will still be prevailing.

Without sounding xenophobic, which is a growing concern that personally worries me more than ever, there is much to say about the ongoing international academic division of labour whereby the divide between the so called “theoreticians” of the North and the “informants” who are also “objects of study” in the South continues to grow.

I am indeed speaking of frustrations because “we” as “locals” have been experiencing a situation, time and again, of being reduced to becoming at best “service providers” for visiting scholars, a term I borrowed from my colleague, political scientist Emad Shahin, at worst like the French would put it, as the “indigène de service”, for ironically the right cause of the revolution. To rather cater for the service of our Western expert colleagues who typically make out of no more than a week's stay in Cairo, a few shots and a tour around Tahrir, the ticket to tag themselves with the legitimacy and expertise of first hand knowledge.

It is no secret that the Arab revolutions have revived academic interest in the region in a clearly positive manner. This is to be certainly welcomed because it has marked a new phase that will possibly end the dreadful misdoings of the 9/11 effect. It is certainly a promising new phase that will hopefully be unmaking the evil damage of Bin Laden.

But for the local community of academics, in particular what concerns my colleagues at the American University in Cairo, many of us have come up recently with similar observations. Namely the bewilderment at the lavish grants and scholarships that many of our Western colleagues have recently benefited from to research our beloved revolution. Many of us have been bombarded by emails from Western colleagues for such service providing.

Now, I do not mean to express any sort of unjustified resentment towards our Western colleagues, who enjoy definitively far better conditions regarding teaching load, travel allowances and research grants. Never mind still, if in the academic international division of labour, we as “locals” are still struggling to scale up to buy time to undertake research and to write. Nevertheless, I think that there is a price to be paid for being on the spot of events and for not being at Princeton, Harvard or Oxford universities. Indeed, I think that AUC ought to be proud of its younger generation of politically and socially committed academics I personally know, and who made a conscious choice to return back and live in Cairo and work there.

This said, it is no coincidence that many belonging to our scientific community have recently felt somehow “misused” through being overwhelmed by Western tourist-revolutionary academics in search of “authentic” Tahrir revolutionaries, needing “service providers” for research assistants, for translating, and newspaper summaries, for first hand testimonies, and time and again as providers of experts and young representatives for forthcoming abounding conferences on the Arab Spring in the West. “Cherchez”, the authentic revolutionary in each corner of the city, is the fashionable mood of these times. In theory, there is nothing wrong with providing services, had the relationship been equal, which was unfortunately never the case.

Another point of concern was made clear to me through my ongoing dialogue with Emad Shahin who pointed to the following issues: the level of commitment of some Western academics to their subject matter, and the return the region gets on the provision of service. Many overnight Middle East experts show a remarkable tendency to pursue sensational and market-driven topics and readily switch interest as the market forces fluctuate. One day they are self-proclaimed experts on “political Islam” or “Islam and gender” and another, they are authority on “the Arab Spring” and “pro-democracy revolutions”. This superficial and business-oriented handling of crucial developments and changes in the area affects how the peoples of the region are perceived and how policies are shaped in the West.

Malaysian sociologist S Farid Alatas argued as he promoted the idea of the necessity of establishing an indigenous sociology through a modern reading of the work of Ibn Khaldun and state formation that such a move has to be undertaken parallel with the rethinking of curricula and syllabi in non-Western academic contexts. Furthermore, he argued that until today, textbooks specialising in sociological theory reveal a flagrant subject-object contradiction, which has been previously highlighted in the debate on Orientalism.

Namely, that European thinkers remain pervasively as the “knowing subjects” whereas non-Europeans continue to be the “objects of observations and analyses of European theorists”. Unless these issues are not brought up on the table of research agendas I am afraid that much will be said in the name of the revolution while perpetrating the same inequalities and Orientalist attitudes that are mostly felt in the job market, and in evaluating “whose knowledge counts more” in academe.

The writer is a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo.





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Samira Ali BinDaair
21-07-2013 10:26pm
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Retired Development worker and education specialist
Indeed this article has rung many bells in my own professional life both in yemen and elsewhere in the arab world. Quite often we locals who know the realities on both sides of the fence are expected to give all the ideas which are then taken and presented in the ready made frameworks to fit into the requirements of the different mandates and agendas. In the process a lot of arm chair philosophy goes on within these academic circles with their flying visits to our countries. The crux of the matter is that for them it means meeting with the requirements of "publish or perish" and possible promotion whereas for local academicians it is more of a genuine search for solutions to real problems and thus it isnot pure academics but something that touches one emotionally too. Thus it is either we all surive together or perish together.
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Ahmad
24-06-2012 03:43pm
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Beyond 'orientalism'
'Western colleagues, who enjoy definitively far better conditions regarding teaching load, travel allowances and research grants'. This is a myth. Teaching, research, and admin. work is intensive in western universities--especially the UK. Research grants are not available for free; these involve tough competition. On a different note, no one stops 'locals' from: a. generating theories; b. writing and publishing on these issues in international journals. I am sure many in the 'west' would visit Egypt to show off that they have been in the 'field' and to publish (or perish!) on a topic that they might not know enough on; but many others go there, as scientists, to study a political event that is dear to their research. I don't like the victimisation that underlies the main argument of this article.
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11



Doron Pely
05-10-2011 12:01am
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Don't Complain, Research, Submit and Publish!
This article invites the counter-labeling of Occidentalism. If you don't want to be victim, stop being one. Nobody forces you to become "informants". Nobody prevents you from writing and submitting your own papers to peer review journals (where they will be judged by their content and not by their origin). Instead of blaming the West again, why don't you direct your energy toward presenting your original, knowledgeable, research, your data and your analysis and conclusions. Then we may have a chance to learn something of value, and be able to conduct a constructive debate instead of a useless exchange of cliches.
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Richard Moench
02-10-2011 09:38pm
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sojourner/experts
Joint studies may try but can't erase the distinctions. Western scholars reap the benefits of their poorly paid but knowledgeable native collaborators, return with their new "expertise" and live off it long after it has become obsolete
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Larry Rothfield
01-10-2011 08:33pm
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Orientalism or "expertise"?
Excellent article. This is something I worry a lot about, and that needs to be thought about very carefully by Western academics trying to understand what is really going on elsewhere in the world. I wonder, though, if it is accurate to label all such use of "native informants" as stemming from Orientalism. No doubt some Western academics are guilty of Orientalist assumptions that support neo-colonialism. But even if one has not defined the Other as inferior, irrational, etc., even if one is in fact a progressive anti-colonialist, to be an expert per se already necessitates distinguishing between evidence and argument, practical and theoretical knowledge --- between knowing what is happening and knowing what it means. That alone might account for why academics from the West may tend to treat Egyptians as "mere" sources. The appropriate response in those cases should be to challenge the interpretations made of the information one has provided, which you can do often at least with onl
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Daniel Drennan
30-09-2011 04:51pm
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Even worse?
It is about time. Thanks for pointing out this continuation of Orientalism and colonialism from the outside. But it goes further than this, and it might be worth pointing out as well the internal comprador academic—referred to by Akbar Ahmed as the "First World contemporary colonial"; the kala sahib; the black sahib. They are the inside enablers of outside intervention, whether from academics, NGOs, foreign governments, etc. He says: "[This colonial] visits these people with a set objective in mind: he is extracting a new book from their lives. He cannot be distracted by humanity and its suffering." Here's to a renewed focus on research AND praxis in the field; one that requires a continued and continuous engagement, not hit-and-run opportunism. Daniel Drennan American University of Beirut
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Mark Allen Peterson
30-09-2011 12:53pm
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The expert is not honored in her own land...
While I agree in principle with Mona's comments, I'd add that not all "experts" are "self-appointed." What expertise I have was won by extended research in the country over time--but I've not been back since 2010. Yet because my book (set in pre-revolution times) just came out, and because I maintain a blog in which I speculate on what's going on in Egypt, the media contacts me and asks me to pontificate as an expert. It's one thing when it's local news media--many companies are trying to survive by "localizing" even the international news--but just this week I was contacted by a European journalist stationed IN CAIRO calling me to speak as an "expert." I did redirect her to AUC and to a colleague at Cairo University, but clearly many in the media privileges our academic affiliations in North America above people with greater immediate expertise in the region.
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JSR
29-09-2011 06:03pm
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Debunking Native Imaging
Dear Mona, thank you. It is a thoughtful and strong reflection on the historical imagining of the "natives," their role, and their locality and affairs.
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Reader
29-09-2011 03:49pm
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Pertinent view
What a relief to have lucid thoughts on the reinvention of academic orientalist reflexes. The frustrations expressed by Mona Abaza and her colleagues in Egypt are also shared by a good number of scholars from the region who currently live and teach in Western universities. Lest we forget, access to lavish resources for researchers is based on an unequal division of labor even within Western centers of learning and research. Having the highest degrees from Cairo University or Tunis do not always or necessarily open doors to research privileges even if you teach at Oxford, Harvard or Stanford.
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non-egyptian academic in egypt
29-09-2011 03:31am
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where to go from here
professor abaza raises very important concerns, not least of which that people who do tourism-research are not likely to produce good scholarship and contribute to building the kind of knowledge that she and other egyptian scholars are devoted to building. the question of how much time one must spend in a place to produce legitimate scholarship is a hard one. this also applies to scholars who never leave their country of origin - academics in the humanities and social sciences are always foreigners, visitors and interlopers. while no amount of time reading about or living in a place guarantees good scholarship, a certain amount of background and time-spent is prerequisite, and abaza is right to sound the alarm about the recent wave of speed-researchers in egypt. but good scholarship – and more importantly, good teaching – demands that we seek opportunities to talk with people who know better than we do. and it demands that we exchange knowledge and expertise. while there are
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