I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic
It’s not often I leave an academic conference having had a genuinely fun, stimulating, thoughtful three days. By the end of a three-dayer I – and I know this stands for other colleagues – am generally tired, longing for home, and am mentally balancing out the good papers or panels against the ones that drained my will to live. The will to live is, of course, drained by the prospect of returning to a Brexit Britain, but that’s a whole other issue…
Sitting at Schiphol airport after several brilliant days at Leiden University’s Centre for Islamic Studies and their conference Interfaith Love: Love, Sex and Marriage in the Islamicate World, however, was a chance to stocktake three terrific days. Partly this has been luck – a mix of interesting, generous-minded, open people and (despite some shakey logistics) friendly, open and communicative organisers. Perhaps a subject like this makes for a lighter feel than the average academic gathering (although there was plenty of discussion of dark subjects such as rape, forced marriage and relationship breakdown as well as of romance, love and cross-cultural encounters). Certainly this was a conference with a real sense of intellectual passion and openness.
I was presenting on my ongoing side-project and growing body of research on Muslim-Jewish romantic relations in Arabic novels and novels by writers of Arab origin – in this case, on death and nostalgia in a pair of novels by Ali al-Muqri (Yemen) and Mahmoud Saeed (Iraq).
Other stand-out papers, for me, included:
Feras Alkabani on the ‘Uranian’ roots of Lawrence of Arabia’s conceptions of Middle Eastern sexuality, especially homosexuality;
Kirsty Bennett on Isabelle Eberhardt, the Francophone Russian writer who spent much of her adult life in colonial Algeria and Morocco, joined a Sufi order and eventually married an Algerian army officer, before being drowned in a wadi flood;
Nadezhda Alexandrova on portrayals of Janissaries in literature and folktales from the Balkans;
Müge Özoğlu‘s fantastically-titled paper “Sacrificing Lesbianism on the Altar of Heteronormativity”, on the 1910 Ottoman Turkish translation of Le Roman de Violette, a French pornographic novel;
Hilal Aydin‘s discussion of Turkish (and Yezidi) nationalism and identity through the novel The Daughter of Yazid;
Annalies Moors‘ rock-solid keynote on concepts of love, marriage and romance in the Islamicate world;
Eric Dursteler‘s exquisitely detailed and at times highly amusing history of interfaith homo- and heterosexual relations between Venetian diplomats, dragomans and translators in early modern Istanbul;
Miklos Sarkozy‘s intriguing excavations of interfaith relationships amongst the Nizari Ismailis of Alamūt – better known as the Assassins;
Mark Wagner‘s fascinating overview of Muslim-Jewish sexual encounters in twentieth century Yemen;
Remke Kruk‘s sometimes traumatic, sometimes entertaining breakdown of inter-religious sexual encounters – both consensual and not – in the medieval popular Arabic epic of the Princess Zananir;
Fatima Sai‘s examination of Christian-Muslim relations in Iraq through Sinan Antoon’s novel Ya Maryam/Ave Maria;
Keren Abbou Hershkovits‘ search for women’s agency in sexual relationships and marriage in early Islam.
And that’s just out of the papers I managed to see…
Unexpected sub-streams that emerged included a half-joking, half-serious discovery between some of us of the wide range of uses of the word zunnar – Arabic for a belt or strap, often used to indicate the belt worn to differentiate non-Muslims in the early Islamic states, appearing then in Persian in a similar meaning (as discussed by Matthias Kappler), possibly the root of the name of the Princess Zananir (see above) and used in Ali al-Muqri’s novel Al-yahudi al-hali in its Yemeni sense of orthodox Jewish peyyus or sidelocks. Geeking out to the most excruciating level, but so much fun.
To compare the atmosphere of the conference with events back home – the victory of fear, ignorance and bigotry that has headed Britain onto its course to exit the EU – is trite and obvious, but obvious for a reason. To see so much interaction and exchange is to tempt contrast with its opposite. Certainly the level of shock amongst European colleagues, not just British ones, was informative. But we were sitting in our comfortable academic bubble, and even in the Netherlands, with its patina of bicycle-riding, multilingual civilisation, there are strong far right voices too. The fear is not only that Britain has chosen to cut itself off from full involvement in this kind of initiative, but that it will have a domino effect which will break up the basis for such opportunities even more.