Cultural Exchange and Education at the Arab Crossroads

"In one sense, all of my work so far has been about forms of cross-cultural encounter," said Shamoon Zamir, NYU Abu Dhabi associate professor of Literature and Visual Studies. Indeed, for the past 30 or so years, this has been his primary academic focus. An Americanist working in the areas of literature, photography, and intellectual history, Zamir turned to cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural studies after studying with Professor Eric Mottram, a pioneer of American studies at the University of London and a key figure in the experimental poetry scene in the UK.

Zamir arrived in England from Pakistan when he was ten and developed an interest in literature, in part under the influence of his father who was a journalist and fiction writer. "I had a passion for Milton and wanted to study the 17th century, but the encounter with Mottram fundamentally transformed everything that I was doing as an undergraduate and, therefore, as a graduate student,” said Zamir.

Despite the fact that he professes to being "dangerously a dilettante," Zamir's interest in
American studies has been a constant throughout his academic career. "It allowed me to deal with issues of cultural difference and identity without falling into what I saw as the traps of identity politics," he explained. "I was not interested in studying Urdu literature because I was Pakistani, in doing Asian studies because I was Asian, or in pursuing Islamic studies because I was born a Muslim. I very consciously made a decision that, for me, that would be a pitfall — a self-reflective study that would lead to a kind of identitarian politics that I wasn't interested in. Although I don't think I was fully aware of this when I was a student, I think that the complexity of American cultural history and the sheer vitality of the American achievement in the arts allowed me to negotiate both the experience of being an immigrant and to think of the meanings of the arts within an emergent international and global culture. American studies has been an indirect way of dealing with these issues, and, for me at least, a more creative way." This is not to say that American culture has been Zamir's only interest. He has also translated fiction from Urdu and, as a graduate student, co-founded Talus, a small press journal and book series that published contemporary writers and critics from around the world.

Zamir's first book was Dark Voices: W.E.B. Du Bois and American Thought, which, he explained, "attempts to read Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk (1903), a landmark of African American literature,
 in the context of American pragmatism, European philosophy, and the development of social science in America." Recently, he completed his second book, a study of portraiture and photography focused on the work of Edward S. Curtis. Continuing the investigation of early-20th-century American culture begun with the work on Du Bois, the book reassesses Curtis' portraits of Native Americans and explores the relationship of ethics and aesthetics in photography.

Zamir is now in the stages of launching what he hopes will be a long-standing, collaborative, and international research project on Arab photography based in the region. Named Photography at the Arab Crossroads, the multi-part project will endeavor to develop a series of publications, exhibitions, and archival collections based on photography from the Arab world and the surrounding region. As Zamir explained, "The field of research in Arab photography is relatively poor, by comparison, say, with even African or Asian photography. The scholarship is fragmented and not easily available." And despite photography becoming a preferred medium of expression for many artists in the Arab world, the history and variety of Arab photography are not well known or sufficiently understood.

I believe there is a hunger, in Europe, America, and in the Arab world, to find out about photography from the region. The idea is to contribute to both worlds in a useful way.

Shamoon Zamir, NYU Abu Dhabi associate professor of Literature and Visual Studies

Working closely with the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut as well as, potentially, cultural authorities and institutions in Abu Dhabi, the project will bring together scholars, photographers, and curators
 with a wide range of expertise in order to develop a long-term, sustainable research and publication plan in this field. The project was kicked off in May 2012 with a two-day colloquium, conceived as the first of a series and convened by Zamir, which began the establishment of this network of scholars and institutional partnerships. "We had people from America, Europe, Lebanon, Egypt, Qatar, as well as the UAE," said Zamir. "We had people who were experts in Arab photography as well as scholars who worked in other areas of photography; we had scholars from a range of disciplines; and we had academics, practicing photographers, curators, and local cultural organizers talking with each other around the same table. It was a very encouraging beginning."

Photography at the Arab Crossroads will be an international venture, but remain of the region. "I believe there is a hunger, in Europe, America, and in the Arab world, to find out about photography from the region," Zamir explained. "The idea is to contribute to both worlds in a useful way."

Planned contributions will come not only in the form of publications, but also as exhibitions, the first of which opened at NYUAD's Downtown Campus during the fall 2011 semester with The Undispossessed, a large photographic exhibit of selected works by Egyptian documentary photographer Yasser Alwan. In the fall semester of 2012 the campus also hosted the work of Paris-based Algerian photographer Nadia Benchallal. Zamir is at present in conversation with Abu Dhabi cultural authorities about the possibilities of a much larger exhibition or photographic festival.

Additionally, the project plan includes the development of photographic archives. There are, according to Zamir, a number of private expat and citizen collections in the UAE that are of cultural and historical importance. "My worry is that because they may not fit the model of national history or symbolism, they may leave the country before they are collected or documented," he explained. "Whatever the level of interest in them today, I am pretty sure in 20 or 30 years they'll be absolutely crucial to the writing of the history of the country and the region. Everything will depend, of course, on whether we can organize the resources to successfully undertake such a venture."

Zamir sees the Arab photography project as part of a larger commitment on the part of NYUAD to developing an understanding of and dialogue with the region. The University has established an undergraduate major focused on the historical, social, and cultural aspects of the region, titled Arab Crossroads Studies. And the NYUAD Institute's Library of Arabic Literature project, which will constitute the first comprehensive library of translations of the major works of Arabic literature into English, will without doubt prove to be one of the institution's signature contributions. It is Zamir's hope that Photography at the Arab Crossroads will also be able to contribute meaningfully to NYUAD's aims to be in and of the city of Abu Dhabi, and that it will be able to do so by representing the experiment in international cultural exchange and education that is driving the development of the University.