Arab history at the Institute

David Tresilian , Tuesday 22 Jun 2021

This year’s Arab History Days at the Institut du Monde arabe in Paris focused on the themes of commerce and travel in Arab civilisation, writes David Tresilian


While Paris in the spring has perhaps inevitably lacked something of the characteristic atmosphere that makes this season in the French capital justly famous this year, the lifting of most of the restrictions associated with the Covid-19 coronavirus and the reopening of cultural institutions, restaurants, and cafes have started to bring people out of their shells.

While there are still some restrictions on international travel, visitors have started to fill the city’s hotels and cultural and other venues, among them the Institut du Monde arabe, the Arab World Institute, on the left bank of the Seine in Paris a few km down river from the Cathedral of Notre Dame and within easy walking distance of the Paris Mosque.

There was a busy atmosphere at the Institut over recent weekends, particularly on 6 and 20 June, when in addition to taking in the current Arab Divas exhibition (reviewed in the Weekly on 3 June), visitors were able to enjoy a drink or light meal in the pop-up café that now fills the Institut’s ample forecourt before joining the appreciative audiences for this year’s Arab History Days, a series of lectures, readings, and discussions on aspects of the Arab world spread over two weekends with more promised for later in the year.

The Arab History Days, an annual event started in 2015, has established itself in the Paris events calendar as a way of bringing together academics and others working on aspects of Arab history with interested general audiences. While this year’s Days had to be scaled down from previous years owing to earlier Covid-19 restrictions, the overall format has remained the same – to ask of academics and researchers that they set aside their usual student audiences and address members of the general public instead, bringing them up to date on current questions, methods, and approaches in researching and writing about the history of the Arab world.

This year’s twin themes of commerce on 6 June and travel on 20 June produced a range of responses from those invited. On 6 June, the Weekly was able to join discussions on “the Arab Diasporas – Advantages and Disadvantage for Home Societies,” “History, State, and Commerce, a Tumultuous Relationship,” and the “Role of Others in Arab Self-Construction,” for example.

On 20 June, once again having reluctantly to select from a long list of sessions all of which looked interesting, the Weekly attended discussions on “Arab Philosophy, A Journey in the History of Ideas” and a “Connected History of Mediaeval Texts” as well as a session in which advanced French students were invited to present their doctoral research on aspects of the history of the Arab world to an interested general audience.

In the Arab Diasporas discussion, Farida Souiah of Aix-Marseilles University in France, herself of Algerian descent, and Fanny Christou, of Palestinian descent and currently based at Lund University in Sweden, began by clearing some conceptual ground on the notion of a diaspora in the company of moderator Beatrice Giblin. While diaspora came from the idea of dispersion, it differed from the idea of simple migration since diasporas typically retain connections with their places of origin whatever the specific circumstances of their departure.

Things can become more complex after the second generation of individuals living in a diaspora, particularly if they have not themselves lived in or visited their families’ place of origin and may not speak its language with facility. But the important thing, the participants said, is that members of a diaspora should think of themselves as claiming a particular heritage and the right to be recognised as such.

Examples from the Arab world include the Palestinian diaspora, a special case because of the circumstances of its formation and its wide geographical spread, along with the Lebanese-Syrian diaspora that started in the later decades of the 19th century leading to significant communities of Lebanese-Syrian descent in the United States, South America, and West Africa, along with other parts of the world, including Europe.

Souiah spoke particularly of the Algerian diaspora in France, with many of its second or third-generation members retaining strong connections with Algeria even if they themselves have no memories of living or growing up in the country, being born and educated in France.

The involvement of many French Algerians in the recent hirak protest movement in Algeria was one example of what diaspora populations could contribute to the countries with which they identify, in this case mobilising for political and societal change.

Temporal scope: The session on Arab Diasporas at this year’s History Days was in some respects an outlier in that many of the other discussions focused on earlier, sometimes much earlier, periods.

The session on the relationship between the state and commerce, for example, looked at examples taken not from modern Arab history, but from the history of the early modern or even mediaeval past. Chaired by Julien Loiseau, professor of mediaeval Islamic history at Aix-Marseilles University with contributions from Eric Vallet, professor of Arab Studies at the University of Strasbourg in eastern France, and Hayri Ozkoray, lecturer in modern history at Aix-Marseilles, the session raised questions about the role of the state with regard to what is now called the private sector of the economy, asking about the ways in which it may historically have assisted it, frustrated it, or even acted as a “predator” of certain business interests.

In his contribution, Vallet pointed out that the relationship between state action and private wealth was a very old question in European historiography, with the state often taxing private commercial transactions in order to raise money, notably through its control of borders and thereby either facilitating or frustrating private trade, or clearing away obstacles, sometimes through the use of military means, in order to create a privileged position for national businessmen, as the European colonial states did in the 19th century through their imposition of free trade.

Given the position of the Arab states in international trade networks, it was worth asking about the ways in which these states had historically capitalised, or failed to capitalise, on their positions in order to facilitate the accumulation, or prevent the accumulation, of private wealth, Vallet said.

The medieval Mameluke state in Egypt, for example, while it had perhaps not pursued policies of economic development as far as the wider population was concerned, investment decisions probably being made more to promote the prestige of the military caste running the country than the development of an entrepreneurial bourgeois class, it had certainly had a keen sense of the revenue possibilities of taxes on international trade. An elaborate schedule of customs duties was applied on goods entering or being shipped through the port of Alexandria, for example.

Later on the same day, the session on the role of others in Arab self-construction, also featuring contributions by Loiseau, returned to the mediaeval and earlier periods of Arab history to ask about the ways in which the Arabs had seen their relationships with the outside world. Had they defined themselves against others, for example? Or had they somehow incorporated elements of others within themselves in a developing conception of self-identification?  

Introducing the session, Gabriel Martinez-Gros, professor of the history of the medieval Muslim world at Paris Nanterre University, raised questions about who the “others” had been for mediaeval Arab and Islamic civilisation, since Europe at that time would have played a negligible part in producing contrasting self-definitions, having little or no purchase either on intellectual life or trade. Conceptions of self and other would thus likely have been played out in the closed space of the Islamic world, with contacts between the Arabs and other Muslim peoples being decisive when it came to developing ideas of the self.

In his contribution, Mohammad-Ali Amir-Moezzi of the Paris Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes explored the relationship between the early Arabs and the Persians, suggesting that the Persians, unlike the other cultures conquered by the Arabs in the early centuries of Islam, retained their language and their culture and made important contributions to Arab statecraft and other areas, notably during the Abbasid period.

For Ziad Bou Akl, a philosophy teacher from the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, the Arabs had drawn upon another internal other in Islamic civilisation, being the inheritance of ancient Greek and Roman civilisation, in shaping their philosophical traditions and even aspects of their language. The drive towards abstraction, so marked a feature of Greek philosophical thinking, was taken over by the Arabs in their translation programmes into Arabic, with the result that Arabic itself became conceptually richer.

This discussion of classical Arab philosophy was continued on the second of the two History Days on 20 June, when French specialists in Arab philosophy sat down for a discussion of the Arabic translations of Greek philosophy made in Baghdad between the 8th and 10th centuries.

For Cristina Cerami, director of the French Centre for the Study of Arab Science and Philosophy, the translations, which included all of Aristotle and much of other writers, had involved a formidable scholarly effort in terms of collecting, comparing, and collating manuscripts, the agreement on possible translations into Arabic of technical and other terms, and a research programme aiming fully to understand the Greek intellectual background with a view to translating the full meanings of the texts and not just their words.

The idea was to advance and “complete” Greek philosophical thinking, absorbing and replacing it by philosophy in Arabic.

The second of the History Days saw a particularly rich programme of discussions, often raising new questions about the past in the light of contemporary preoccupations. The present interest in “connected history,” a way of escaping from the traditional history of nation-states towards a history of regions and processes, had informed the decision by participants at a discussion on the circulation of texts in the mediaeval Islamic world to test such connectivity in these special circumstances, eventually drawing conclusions about the scope and limits of such connections and what these might have to say about the idea of adjacent civilisations, often religiously defined, in the mediaeval period.

Finally, there was an opportunity to hear a group of young French researchers presenting their doctoral research on aspects of the history of the Arab world. No doubt next year the History Days will have returned to their more usual format, with the Grand Prix des Journées de l’Histoire, a prize for the best work on Arab history to appear in French that year, returning as part of the sequence of lectures and discussions (this year’s prize is scheduled for December).

For the time being, however, this year’s History Days, competing with the Paris sunshine and the lifting of most Covid-19 restrictions, provided much food for thought for those who attended in person or online.

Journées de l’Histoire de l’Institut du Monde arabe, Paris, 6 & 20 June.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Search Keywords:
Short link: