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Call for papers: Arabic and its Alternatives

Religious minorities and their languages in the emerging nation states of the Middle East (1920–1950)

Scholars, academics, experts, and especially PhD students from around the world working on the relationship between nationalism and language in the Middle East are invited to submit research abstracts of papers to be presented at the conference, entitled “Arabic and its Alternatives: Religious minorities and their languages in the emerging nation states of the Middle East (1920-1950).”

The conference committee is searching for two additional speakers to present a paper that addresses the theme of the conference. In order to ensure thorough discussion of the papers, we require draft papers a few weeks before the conference (May 30, 2016). Travel and accommodation will be provided for by the conference organizers.

Abstracts of 200–350 words are welcome and should be sent until January 15, 2016 to the conference committee via email: AAIAConference@hum.leidenuniv.nl. The same email address can be used for enquires regarding the conference.

The conference will start on Wednesday, June 15 in the late afternoon and will end on Friday, June 17 in the evening. The first two conference days will take place in Leiden, whereas the last day will be held in The Hague. The distance between the two cities is only 20 km and both places can be easily reached by train from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol.

Conference Description

In the years following the First World War, Christians and Jews were forced to rethink their position within the newly emerging political context. Before the war (and for some even during and immediately after the war), Ottomanism and Ottoman citizenship had seemed an attractive alternative to the earlier state built on the legal separation between Muslims and others in the so-called millet system as it had developed earlier in the nineteenth century. The war brought an end to the Ottoman Empire, whereas the genocide on Armenian and Syriac Christians had revealed the harsh edges of Turkish nationalism. Arab nationalism seemed like a more promising alternative, especially for those Christians and Jews that used Arabic in one form or another in their daily lives: as a vernacular or as a written language, for communication within and outside their communities. Within these communities, however, at the same time other loyalties vied for prominence, loyalties that could not be easily reconciled with that of pan-Arab or Arab-based nationalisms, such as those to the British and French Mandate governments, or to the separatist nationalisms of the Zionists, Armenians and Assyrians.

This conference seeks to delve further into the issue of the languages used in non-Muslim communities in the Mandatory period, especially in the states under British and French rule, as a way to understand how these different and often conflicting loyalties acted upon Christians and Jews in this particular period. The most important question to be addressed in the papers is that of the role of Arabic vis-à-vis other languages. How much Arabic was used, in what form (especially vis-à-vis earlier forms of communal Arabic, such as the so-called ‘Christian Arabic’ or ‘Judeo Arabic’), and in what functions? This question can also be taken on from the opposite direction, as to why languages other than Arabic remained in use, such as Hebrew, Armenian and Syriac, especially in their written forms. The last question in this respect would be how and why the colonial languages French and English enjoyed such popularity? Was it merely for pragmatic reasons of employment and educational possibilities, or were also ideological reasons at stake? In this we are interested in studies of actual language practice, as much as in studies of the ideological rhetoric that was used to justify one choice over another, pro- and contra Arabic, pro- and contra other possible languages.

The basic hypothesis of the organizers is that these three groups of languages each were used for a variety of reasons, varying from the ideological and identitarian, via the modernist to the ecumenical, educational and commercial. A study and comparison of these patterns will help us to better understand the complicated patterns of in- and exclusion, of belonging and distancing of non-Muslims in the emerging Arab states, as well as of processes of minoritization, whether initiated within these communities or by others.

The conference is part of a research project that has been working along these lines on the study and comparison of communal literary and linguistic practices of three groups, all in (post-) British Mandate contexts, that of the Catholic (‘Latin’) Christians of Jerusalem, the Syriac (Assyrian/Syriac/Chaldean) Christians of North Iraq and the Jews of Baghdad. Some early results will be published in the volume Common Ground: Jews and Christians in the Modern Middle East (Goldstein, Murre-van den Berg, under external review). One of the initial inspirations for this project has been Sheldon Pollock’s The Language of the Gods in the World of Men (2006), who discusses processes of ‘literarization’ (of ‘sacred languages’) and ‘vernacularization’ (of ‘vernacular’ languages) in Asia and provides interesting concepts to address similar issues for the Middle East.

Deadlines and Selection Process

In order to ensure thorough discussions of the papers, we would like to receive draft papers a few weeks before the conference (May 30, 2016) and during the conference encourage a brief presentation of its major points of discussion rather than a full reading. In this way we want to ensure in-depth discussion of the topics as well as papers that in their revised form speak to the overall theme and to each other. The draft papers will be circulated to the other speakers only. We plan to publish the contributions to the conference as soon as possible, in a peer-reviewed journal or series, so the submission date of the revised texts is foreseen somewhere in the fall of 2016.

- Participants will be selected based on evaluation of abstracts of 200-350 words.
- Deadline for submission of abstracts is January 15, 2016.
- Selected authors will be notified by February 1, 2015.
- Draft papers are due May 30, 2016.
- Circulation to other speakers on June 1, 2016
- Submission of full paper, October 1, 2016

Conference organization

The conference is organized by the Leiden University research project “Arabic and its alternatives: Religious minorities in the formative years of the modern Middle East (1920-1950),” which is sponsored by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

More information about the research project

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