In the 175 years or so since photography's inception, a rich history has been accumulating in the Arab World that has yet to be written.
Shamoon Zamir, associate professor of literature and visual studies, is working on many fronts to develop Akkasah: Center for Photography at NYU Abu Dhabi, a research archive that is gathering vernacular and documentary images dating back to the 19th century from around the Middle East and North Africa.
Zamir and his team at Akkasah have accumulated an archive of some 15,000 regional photos, mainly from Egypt and Turkey. These come from local photographers but also from secondhand book stores, flea markets, and so on.
Akkasah aims to develop a special focus on the UAE, said Zamir: “We hope to acquire family photos from the diverse communities of the UAE, to scan them and do life narratives. Working with families gives us the rare opportunity to accumulate detailed meta-data, whereas when we get photographs from flea markets we have no data at all.”
“We are also commissioning new documentary work in the UAE, which after 10 or 20 years will accumulate into a valuable archive” on both Emirati and expatriate communities.
With the help of the NYUAD Library, “we are building a collection of first-edition photo books."
We meet Arab families in the UAE and we hope to acquire their photos, to scan them and do life narratives.
Some of these projects, Zamir noted, involve "two kinds of challenges. The political situation in parts of the region makes it difficult to build the archive, and yet even more imperative, because so many collections are under threat. Secondly, the region has little commitment to photographic culture. It's rare for an institution of our calibre to take this material seriously. Just persuading people that this is worth looking at is part of the challenge."
Next, Zamir said, "I want to see if we can raise funding to enter troubled areas and take out personal or institutional archives. We would preserve them, scan them, do the metadata, and when the person or institution was ready, we would return the material, and keep a complete scan.
"I'm hoping this custodial archiving, as I call it, will become a defining feature of Akkasah," said Zamir. "It is important that NYUAD come to be seen as committed to the region, and I can't think of a better way to do that."
Historic Arabic Literature
Maurice Pomerantz's research goes much further into Arab and Muslim history. He studies maqāmāt, an Arabic literary form that began in the 10th century in central Asia, and started to peter out in the 19th century. The form endures but only barely ("I've seen a maqāmā about Facebook").
Typically, maqāmāt are short trickster tales, "mostly in prose but sometimes in poetry. The prose tends to rhyme, so when I translate them they can sound a little like Dr. Seuss," he said, laughing.
Pomerantz said he and a colleague have recently struck gold while researching manuscripts of the 1,000-year-old Seances of Hamadhānī, known to scholars as "the foundational work of the maqāmāt." Well-known editions are from the 19th century and later, but Pomerantz believes he and Bilal Orfali of American University of Beirut have unearthed a lost tale, in the second-oldest known manuscript. In the world of maqāmāt, this is like the discovery of a new Shakespeare play.
Separately, Pomerantz has also recently edited a volume for the Library of Arabic Literature (LAL), in which NYUAD plays a leading role. He worked with prominent translator Bruce Fudge on the volume, which he speaks of as "101 Nights — a version of the famous One Thousand and One Nights.” This volume, he said, "offers a version of the tale that some scholars believe is earlier than better-known versions in the original. That's the scholarly payoff," he said. The Arabian Nights — as the collection of tales is commonly known in English — "is so popular that any little thing about it is immediately a big deal."
The LAL is important for NYUAD and the region, he said. "The better these texts are, the more enjoyable they are. That's our job in the LAL, and generally as scholars: to give people Arabic texts that they can rely upon, but also to give English readers translations.”
The University is working across borders and disciplines to tell the story of the UAE and Middle East region as it has never been told before, and also developing important programs that will contribute to the country’s next chapter, particularly for young Emirati scholars.
NYUAD’s research assistantship program gives Emirati university graduates first-hand experience working with a faculty mentor on important research projects ranging from arts to science to engineering, often with a regional focus, and in preparation for master’s or PhD programs abroad.
There’s a lot of unrecorded oral history still extant in the UAE and if it is not systematically collected over the next few years this lived experience will be lost to future generations of Emiratis and scholars.
Born and raised in Dubai, Ayisha Khansaheb graduated with a degree in international studies from Zayed University and will spend two years at NYUAD working as a research assistant with Marzia Balzani, professor of anthropology, examining how the lives of senior Emirati women in all parts of the UAE, including remote and mountainous regions, have changed over time: before and after the discovery of oil and post-independence.
“We want to talk to ordinary women and hear their stories,” said Khansaheb, “Women who maybe didn't go to school, who speak Emirati Arabic, and listen to them describe their own lives and the dramatic changes that have occurred during their lifetimes, in their own words.” These types of interviews are rare among UAE communities and particularly among Emirati women who are typically very private.
Khansaheb and Balzani aim to build a comprehensive archive collection of audio and film interviews, photographs and even family recipes that few people ever get to see. “It’s important research because there’s a lot of unrecorded oral history still extant in the UAE, and if it is not systematically collected over the next few years this lived experience will be lost to future generations of Emiratis and scholars,” said Balzani.
The project is an “exploration of Emirati gender, identity, and nation building,” she added, as seen through the life histories of senior Emirati women.
Khansaheb hopes the two-year project made possible by the research assistantship program will help her develop graduate-level research skills to prepare her for graduate school in the US or the UK: “I want to apply to the top programs, so my research here will help me develop relevant skills,” she said.
Modern Day Dialogue
While a significant part of understanding Middle Eastern culture involves unearthing the past, NYUAD scholars are also creating original works in a variety of media that capture the region’s contemporary and emerging cultural identity.
“Where are you from?” is a common question for people who come to Abu Dhabi from all over the world, and it sits close to the heart of Joanne Savio’s short film Home Sick.
Savio, arts professor of film and new media, made Home Sick along with her husband and NYUAD Senior Lecturer in the Writing Program Jim Savio. The 26-minute film begins with an animated sequence of her childhood in a New York suburb where, she said, she felt like an outsider, “not unloved, just different.”
Savio came to NYUAD in 2010, and the following March made her first visit to her mother’s home village of Amioun, Lebanon.
The resulting mixed media film intercuts glimpses of Savio’s Lebanese heritage with comments from the international community of NYUAD students, and from other people throughout the region. It asks the question: what does home really mean?
The discomfort she and many people feel around this question, she said, is also reflected in the space between the words in the film’s title. The conclusion she reaches is that home has little to do with geography: “Now I know where home is, and it’s a comfort."
Many students share her view, “We create satellite homes wherever we go,” Savio said.
“I assign a memoir project every semester when I teach Sound, Image, and Story, a required filmmaking class, and I share the project with them, encouraging them to explore their own vulnerability.
Savio’s next project will be an installation piece. “It’s about a man who ended his life at Guantanamo, a United States military detention facility in Cuba. He was never charged, yet was imprisoned for nearly 10 years,” she said. “When NYUAD was downtown, we lived high up in Sama Tower. I had recorded the layered sounds of garbage falling in the chute, and later I thought about this man, who was treated like trash. I call the project, Garbage Man.”
The Savios are hoping to curate a show around the idea of home, with artists working in a variety of media.