DI/VISIONS: Culture and Politics of the Middle East

Berlin, December 7, 2007 - January 13, 2008
House of World Cultures

A program of lectures, discussions and screenings.
Please find the screenings and part of the schedule below, the complete program here.
Content of publication, cover of publication and open access publication


In the Middle East, the long twentieth century has undoubtedly been a century of imperial and civil violence, partition, displacement and loss - from the partition of Palestine, the struggles for independence and the various histories of nationalism across the region, to the neo-colonial interventions heralded by the First Gulf War of 1990. After the events of 9/11 2001, this history of violence, including forms of Islamist violence, has become institutionalized both as the dominant ‘reality' of the Middle East and as the major frame through which the West perceives the region's social and cultural productions – including of course, the War on Terrorism, regional autocracy and sectarian conflict.  

The fundamental orientalist dichotomy between east and west is now associated – or disguised – by other fundamental divisions such as “secular” and “religious”, “moderates” and “extremists,” “democracy” and “tyranny” and so on. Gender divisions that transcend all distinctions are associated with class and ethnic divisions that permanently reproduce different forms of oppression and violence. Long before the Sykes-Picot British-French division of the Middle East, and certainly in the century afterwards, discursive divisions and material partitions have shaped the region's geography, institutions and social structures: divisions of territories and divisions within territories, colonial divisions as a mode of government and control served to sharpen existing tensions and existing sectarianisms. Division remains a fundamental Imperial strategy up to this day, as can even now be seen, most catastrophically, in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, as well as in other countries of the region.   Moreover, contemporary processes of globalization and economic neo-liberalism have superimposed new landscapes of division, partition and exile onto older imperial forms; landscapes that are socially reproduced in the languages and practices of architecture and urban planning, of media and of education, of literature and art.  

DI /VISIONS: Culture and Politics of the Middle East
 seeks to unfold and interrogate the cultural and political binarisms underpinning dominant visions of the region by examining the complex interplays of discourse, discipline and lived social experience and cultural production between the Middle East and Europe itself.  The aim of the project is to peel away successive layers of new meaning from the conventional vocabularies used to describe and analyze the region and its modernities through an intensive comparative and multidisciplinary inquiry into the contemporary sources, languages and mechanisms of crisis and equally, of resistance. 

Starting from the premise of the contemporary collapse of critical theories and ideologies, the project DI/VISIONS: Culture and Politics of the Middle East urgently responds to a contemporary state and sense of crisis; an understanding that the emergence of concrete vision can only be achieved by negotiating the boundaries constructed by and through division, without of course ignoring the very real differences and tensions therein acknowledged. In its global dimension, this is a zone of inquiry which is certainly not limited to Beirut, Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus or Teheran, but one that necessarily circulates through the major metropolitan capitals of the West as well, most notably New York and London but also Paris and Berlin – centers of the contemporary War Machine, of diasporas and innovative intellectual and aesthetic production and of powerful local activisms.  

The program will include a series of presentations  and discussions by authors from different disciplines (visual arts, architecture and urban studies, literature, political philosophy and social theory, film and performance), as well as film and video screenings. This elaborated forum will provide a platform for information, meeting and debate, bringing together a younger generation of rigorous analysts and actors who work to deconstruct the simplistic ‘Islamism / Democracy' equation (used in the West in order to discredit a radical or reformist agenda in the region) by throwing some light on the historic, political, social and cultural context that has led to the present situation and by suggesting  possible ways out of the nightmare that is everyday life in the region today. These discussions and readings will be centered around several key and interrelated concepts that have historically circulated across the material and discursive frontiers of ‘division' and whose resulting complexity and ambivalence makes them especially suited to the kind of critical reflection that the project seeks to encourage.

The program will be constructed around an opening and closing weekend of thematic presentations, panels and roundtable discussions (8 & 9 December/ 11, 12 & 13 January) and an ongoing month of film screenings.  Each of the five days of events will focus on a specific thematic axis and will open with the screening of a film directly relevant to the theme in question, a short lecture or multi-media presentation by a prominent voice in academia, journalism or the arts followed by two, hour-long panels on topics related to the broader theme of the day, and conclude with a round-table discussion that aims to bring together participants and audience in a lively forum for exchange and debate.  

Schedule of January 11-13, 2008: 

Friday, 11 January 
4.00 - 5.30 pm 
As'ad Abu Khalil, Widerstand gegen die (imperialistische) Globalisierung der Medien: Strategien zur Flucht vor den Denkmonopolen 

6.30 - 9.00 pm 
Mona Anis, Medien, Staat und Gesellschaft: Zwischen Zensur und Besatzung
Afterwards: Round-Table-Discussion with Pierre Abi-SaabAs'ad Abu KhalilSherif Younis

Saturday, 12 January
4.00 - 6.30 pm 
Kultur, Repräsentation und Widerstand  
Radwa Ashour, Polifonie als narrative Strategie in der Literatur des Widerstands
Afterwards: Round-Table-Discussion with Pierre Abi-Saab, Youssef RakhaOussama GhanamSamah Selim 

7.30 - 9.00 pm 
Kultur, Repräsentation und Widerstand: Der Fall Irak 
Round-Table-Discussions, screenings and lectures with Kasim AbidNadje al AliScheherazade HassanNizar Rawi. Films from Independent TV and Film College, Bagdad. Texts from Nuha al Radi ("Baghdad Diary"), Riverbend ("Baghdad is burning") as well as from current blogs.

Sunday, 13 January
4.00 - 6.00 pm 
Identitäten im Wandel: Exil, Diaspora und die Poetik der Globalisierung 
Presentation: Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin
Afterwards: Round-Table-Discussion with Tamim Al-BarghoutiAbdul-Rahim Al-ShaikhGil Anidjar 

7.00 - 10.00 pm 
I am the One Who Brings Flowers to Her Grave 
Director: Hala Al Abdallah and Ammar el Beik, Syria 2006, 110 min. Screening in presence of the director


Samia Mehrez, Professor of Modern Arabic Literature at the American University in Cairo, has made cultural-political struggles in 21st century Egypt the focal point of her recent research. In her research, she employs the analytical approaches of cultural studies, translation theory and gender studies. Her latest publication is Egypt’s Culture Wars: Politics and Practice (Routledge, 2008). In 2011 she edited Translating Egypt’s Revolution: The Language of Tahrir.

Safaa Fathy was born in Egypt in 1958 and is a poet, filmmaker and essayist. She studied theatre at the Sorbonne and gained her doctorate with a thesis on Bertolt Brecht. In 1994 she started working on her first films. Her co-operation with the philosopher Jacques Derrida for the filmed biography D’ailleurs Derrida attracted considerable attention. Derrida and Fathy reflect on their experiences with the film in their joint book Tourner les mots. Au bord d’un film. She has also made a name for herself as a poet and theoretician.

Mona Abaza born in Egypt in 1959, is a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo. Her research fields include religious and cultural networks between the Middle East and South Asia, and consumer culture and the art market in Egypt. In 1996/97, she was a fellow  of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.  Among her publications are  The Cotton Plantation Remembered: An Egyptian Family Story (2013), Twentieth Century Egyptian Art: The Private Collection of Sherwet Shafei (2011) and Changing Consumer Cultures of Modern Egypt (2006).

Etel Adnan was born in Beirut in 1925. She is a very versatile artist and writer. In her native town, she studied comparative literature. Later, she studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, Harvard and Berkeley. She writes lyric poetry, prose and plays in English and French, and also paints. Her books have been translated into Arabic, Italian and German; her poems have been set to music by notable musicians, In 1985 she worked with Robert Wilson on his opera "CivilwarS". She lives in Paris and Beirut. Selected books: "Marie Rose" (Paris: Des Femmes 1978), "L'apocalypse arabe" (Paris: Papyrus Editions 1980), "Ce ciel qui n'est pas" (Paris: L'Harmattan 1997).

Yassin al Haj Saleh was born in Syria in 1961. He is one of the most important dissidents in Syria. In 1980, while he was studying medicine in Aleppo, he was arrested for belonging to the Communist Party and spent sixteen years in prison, the last of these in the much-feared Tadmur Prison. In 1996, he was released. In 2000, he took his final examination as a general medical practitioner. He has never practised his profession, however. After 21 months of hiding in Damascus and whole Syria he fled to Turkey. Since 2013 he lives in exile.

Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, Professor of Jewish History at Ben-Gurion University, is one of the most prominent advocates of binationalism  as an intellectual frame to rethink the relationship between Arabs and Jews in Israel/Palestine. His main subjects are Christian-Judaic discourse of the early modern age and the history of Zionism ideas. In 2003/4 Raz-Krakotzkin was a fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, and he is a member of the Collegium of “Europe in the Middle East—The Middle East in Europe.” His publications include: Exile et Binationalisme (Paris); Orientalism, Jewish Studies and Israeli Society (in Hebrew). And he is the author of „The Censor, the Editor, and the Text: The Catholic Church and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon in the Sixteenth Century“ (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), for which he received the Zalman Shazar Prize for Jewish History, and „Exil et souveraineté. Judaïsme, sionisme et pensée binationale“ (Paris, 2007).

Omar Amiralay (1944-2011)  was a Syrian documentary film-maker who was renowned for his critical work as well as for his commitment to civil society. He played a prominent role in the Damascus Spring, an incipient movement for democracy that was suppressed in 2001. As director and manager of a film academy in Damascus, he was concerned, above all, with handing down the historical experiences of his society. His films include: „Par un jour de violence ordinaire, mon Ami Michel Seurat ...“ (1996), „Il y a tant de Choses encore à raconter“ (1997), „A Plate of Sardines (or the First Time I Heard of Israel)“ (1997), L'homme aux semelles d'or (2000), „A Flood in Baath Country“ (2003).

Nabil Abdel Fattah is a political scientist. He works at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, an important think-thank in Cairo. His main areas of research include political Islam and educational policy.

Rabih Mroué is a performance artist and filmmaker who travels between the Middle East and Western Europe. His endeavours to deal directly with political and social reality are formulated in a well-thought-through formal language. In his semi-documentary works, the boundaries between reality and fiction are blurred. He studied theatre at the Université Libanaise in Beirut and has been producing his own plays since 1990. He has been a much celebrated figure since his appearances at festivals such as the Theater der Welt and In Transit in Europe. Mroué is a board member of the Beirut Art Center. His most recent plays include The Pixelated Revolution (2012), Photo-Romance (2009), The inhabitants of images (2009) and How Nancy Wished That Everything Was an April Fool's Joke (2007). In 2010, he got the Spalding Gray Award.

Kadhim Jihad Hassan is a poet, translator and academic. He was born in Iraq in 1955 and has been living in Paris since 1976, where he teaches at both the Sorbonne and the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales. He has translated into Arabic not only Arthur Rimbaud, Rainer Maria Rilke and Dante’s The Divine Comedy, but also Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Jean Genet, Juan Goytisolo and Philippe Jaccottet. He is the author of „Chants de la folie de l'Etre et autres poèmes“ (Tarabuste, 2001), „Le Roman arabe (1834-2004): bilan critique“ (Sindbad/Actes Sud, 2006), „Le Livre des prodiges, anthiologie des Karâmât des saints de l'islam“ (Sindbad/'Actes Sud, 2003), „La Part de l'étranger_La traduction de la poésie dans la culture arabe“ (Sindbad/'Actes Sud, 2007), among other publications.

Hala al Abdallah was born in Hama, Syria in 1956. A sociologist who studied in Syria and Paris, she has been working as a film-maker since 1985. She has made feature and documentary films as a producer, author and director in Syria, the Lebanon and France.

Sinan Antoon is a poet, writer, filmmaker and academic. He was born in Iraq in 1967 and went into exile during the rule of Saddam Hussein in 1991. In 2004, Antoon returned to his home country with a film team to shoot About Baghdad, a documentary about the life of Iraqis in the period after the invasion. He teaches at New York University, does research on pre-modern Islamic and contemporary Arab culture and is a founding member of the online platform Jadaliyya. Antoon is the author of The Poetics of the Obscene in Pre-Modern Arabic Poetry: Ibn al-Hajjaj and Sukhf (New York, 2014) and a number of novels and collections of poetry, some of them translated into English as The Corpse Washer (Yale University Press, 2013), I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody (City Lights Books, U.S., 2007) and The Baghdad Blues (Harbor Mountain Press, 2007). In 2009, he was a fellow of the research program ‘Europe in the Middle East – The Middle East in Europe’.

Saadi Youssef, was born in Basra, Iraq, in 1934. He is one of the most highly regarded Iraqi poets. Because of his political commitment, he was forced to leave the country when Saddam Hussein came to power. During his life in exile, he has stayed at many different places. He now lives in London. He has translated Walt Whitman, Constantine Cavafy, Federico García Lorca and George Orwell, among others, into Arabic. His publications inlcude „Nostalgia, My Enemy“ (2012), „Without an Alphabet, Without a Face“ (Minnesota 2002) and „Fern vom ersten Himmel“ (Verlag Hans Schiler, Berlin 2004).