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No Spaces without History

Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Gulf Cities between Area Studies, Art History and Media Studies

In: Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication
Authors:
Bettina Gräf Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU Munich) Germany München

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https://orcid.org/0000-0003-4933-6202
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Laura Hindelang University of Bern Switzerland Bern

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Abstract

Research on urban spaces in the Gulf region has increased substantially over the last two decades, particularly with a strong focus on contemporary phenomena. However, this focus often overlooks entangled histories and past trajectories that are formative for the present. Moreover, it perpetuates the notion of the region’s ahistoricity. To challenge the Gulf cities’ presumed lack of history, we have used a media-historical approach engaging with the history of a medium (e.g., architecture, film, magazine, photography, social media) in relation to a specific city. The article first provides an overview of recent research on the Gulf’s urban cultures in various disciplines. After introducing our approach, the article then considers temporality and spatiality as research perspectives in media studies and subsequently shifts to established media-historical approaches within Middle Eastern and South Asian area studies. It evaluates the complexities of writing on the art and architectural histories of the Gulf as specific forms of media. Finally, it addresses the potential of transdisciplinarity and collaboration as methods resituating the Gulf within the Arab region, the Persianate world and the Indian Ocean, respectively.

Abstract

Research on urban spaces in the Gulf region has increased substantially over the last two decades, particularly with a strong focus on contemporary phenomena. However, this focus often overlooks entangled histories and past trajectories that are formative for the present. Moreover, it perpetuates the notion of the region’s ahistoricity. To challenge the Gulf cities’ presumed lack of history, we have used a media-historical approach engaging with the history of a medium (e.g., architecture, film, magazine, photography, social media) in relation to a specific city. The article first provides an overview of recent research on the Gulf’s urban cultures in various disciplines. After introducing our approach, the article then considers temporality and spatiality as research perspectives in media studies and subsequently shifts to established media-historical approaches within Middle Eastern and South Asian area studies. It evaluates the complexities of writing on the art and architectural histories of the Gulf as specific forms of media. Finally, it addresses the potential of transdisciplinarity and collaboration as methods resituating the Gulf within the Arab region, the Persianate world and the Indian Ocean, respectively.

The goal of our special issue is to use a media-historical approach to examine the Gulf cities’ presumed lack of history. Research on urban space in what has been called the Persian Gulf and is now sometimes referred to as the Arabian or Arab Gulf has significantly increased over the last two decades, attracting specialists from varied disciplines, including anthropology, architecture, geography, history and Islamic studies (e.g., Elsheshtawy 2004, 2008a, 2010; Fuccaro 2001, 2009; Fraser and Golzari 2013; Limbert 2010; Ramos 2010; Scharfenort 2009; Wippel et al. 2014). In the early 2000s, scholars such as Yasser Elsheshtawy, then professor of architecture at United Arab Emirates University, Al Ain, set out to resolve ‘the absence of the Arab city from the global/world city discourse’ and to reassess Arab cities’ relationship to modernity and postcolonialism (Elsheshtawy 2008b: 23). The two volumes on the contemporary Arab City edited by Elsheshtawy (2004; 2008) were influential because they integrated studies on ‘emerging’ cities from the Arabian Peninsula with analyses of well-established but ‘struggling’ Arab metropolises. Moreover, around the same time, Nelida Fuccaro, an urban historian of the Middle East, then at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, specifically called for an investigation of in situ artistic, cultural and media practices in the Gulf: ‘in fact, the prevailing “modernist” vision of the city does not sufficiently highlight the development of urban forms in relation to culturally specific socio-economic, political, and ideological structures, especially at a micro-level’ (2001: 179).

The critical engagement with urban cultures in the Gulf, characterizing new scholarship that emerged then, and in the years following, strongly contrasted with previous research, which had typically focused on rentier state theory, international relations (mostly with the UK and the US) and questions of oil security. Still, some argue that the ‘Arab Gulf remains a marginalized, even unfashionable, area of research in the Middle East academy’ (Kanna 2014: 169).

Be that as it may, we have observed that recent research is more frequently addressing cultural practices in the Gulf on different levels—either in the form of cultural politics implemented by the monarchies-cum-nation-states or as media and artistic practices performed by Gulf citizens and other permanent residents (see, for example, the conference Culture Made in Arabia in April 2021).

‘Culturally specific’ research had slowly made its way into Middle Eastern studies since the end of the 1980s and during the course of the cultural turn (see Abu-Lughod 1986, 2005; Armbrust 1996, 2000). The very journal that our special issue has been published, inaugurated in 2008, is itself an expression of this change. When it comes to the Gulf, MEJCC since its establishment has given researchers a place to publish their work on media and cultural practices—for example, on Internet use by Saudi youth (Samin 2008), the traveling exhibition Edge of Arabia: Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia (Determann 2009), the discussion culture of Al Jazeera Arabic (Suleiman and Lucas 2012), the music genre kasra—a re-reflection of Jeddah’s famous Tahliyya street (Menoret and Samin 2013; cf. also Wynn 1997)—, the Gulf television series Iftah ya Simsim (Open Sesame) (Sakr 2018), tweeting practices by journalists in Kuwait (Dashti et al. 2019), the case study of Dubai’s pan-Arab drama series ‘04’ (Zero Four) (Haddad and Dhoest 2020) and a special issue dealing with photography, film, television and social media (Yunis and Hudson 2021).

What’s striking about these examples but the last, they all deal with contemporary issues. This is also the case with other journals that cover the Gulf and approach culture seriously as an analytical category, whether in terms of artistic practices (Allison 2019; Bahoora 2020; Mikdadi 2008; Powers 2020; Ulaby 2006), cultural politics (Kanna 2009; Peutz 2017) or activities related to new and social media (for example, see the special issue on the Online Public Sphere in the Gulf, Khamis 2019). Additionally, there has been a lot of academic attention on transnational satellite TV, especially when financed with Saudi and Qatari monies, and its news, entertainment and education programs, which started airing in the early 1990s (for pioneering work, see Sakr 2001, 2004, 2005; see also Kraidy and Khalil 2009).

This brief survey indicates that this academic focus on contemporary media and culture unfavorably fosters the general assumption that developments in cities of the Gulf region are a recent phenomenon without unique independent histories. ‘Contemporary’ in the context of the Gulf usually means after 1990, although urban cultures in the Gulf—depending on which smaller and larger environments we consider—can of course be traced much farther.

The above observation was recently acknowledged in the collaborative book Beyond Exception: New Interpretations of the Arabian Peninsula by sociologist Amélie Le Renard and the two anthropologists Ahmed Kanna and Neha Vora. The authors highlight, amongst other things, the fact that the prominent focus on rentier state theory in research on the Gulf has fostered the dominant perspective whereby ‘the beginning of oil exploitation is often seen as the beginning of history in the Arabian Peninsula, as if nothing had happened there since the seventh century (and before)’ (Le Renard et al. 2020: 5).

The authors suggest that the systematic production of oil from the mid-twentieth century—although initial oil exploration and discovery had taken place back in the early twentieth century—can be considered merely the final factor determining the transformation of the Gulf region’s cityscapes. The book makes a decisive contribution to the questioning of exceptionalizing tropes in studies about the Gulf. Their interrogation includes a recognition of the Gulf region’s specific local trajectories and historiographies. It requires us to acknowledge that

the officially sanctioned picture of the Gulf as (bedouin) Arab, Islamic, capitalist, traditional, religious, and patriarchal is not (…) an unbiased description of the supposed cultural essence of the societies in the region, but a result of the massive and long-term, often bloody, struggle, in which the most reactionary forces in the region, with the assistance of international reaction (mainly in the form of Britain and the United States), have, at least for the moment, triumphed

Le Renard et al. 2020: 9

In actuality, the Gulf area has been a transregional trading hub for centuries, while the misleading and persistent assumption of absent historicity is problematic per se. Amongst other things, it deprives the region of its history and the resulting historical void creates ample space for exceptionalizing, nationalistic and orientalizing projections. Furthermore, the supremely eye-catching media presentation of ‘booming’ Gulf cities, especially Dubai, has eclipsed more differentiated perceptions (for example, see Schmid 2007).

Against this background, the authors of our issue engage with the past and present of the Gulf region’s urban cultures viewed through the lens of one selected medium from a historical perspective. We bring together four contributions reflecting the history of one medium and its defining characteristics in relation to certain Gulf cities. The examples range from the Kuwaiti magazine al-ʿArabi in the 1950s and ’60s, critical writings by local architects and urban planners on townhouses in Jeddah during the 1980s and ’90s, and the use of Dubai Media City in the YouTube videos of Saudi influencers throughout the 2010s, to the Saudi film Roll’em (2019), which revisits Jeddah in conjunction with the history of film production and public film screenings in Saudi Arabia.

To be clear, these articles do not necessarily deal with the history of so-called old or analog media, namely manuscripts, print publications, radio or audiocassettes. Rather, each analysis traces a media-related history according to the respective city. As a result, we see Gulf-specific historical accounts of architectural criticism, magazine culture, narrative feature films and social media simultaneously situated in wider Arab, transregional and global histories of the media and the cities in question.

In this special issue, we will follow an expanded notion of media. Most radically in this regard, the German media theorist Friedrich Kittler (1996, orig. 1988: 772) has suggested an elementary definition: ‘media record, transmit and process information’. Thus, in his conception, the city itself can also be understood as a medium. Similarly, in his review of Scott McQuire’s work on the ‘media city’, where he also discusses Kittler’s ‘city as a medium’, Takaaki Chikamori (2009: 147) asserts that ‘media are no longer just devices for producing images of representation—they are increasingly interconnected with the architectural structures of cities’. McQuire (2008) terms this historically rooted, synthesized co-constitution the ‘media-architecture complex’. Based on these definitions, it would seem media matters not only for urban history and vice versa but also for the history of architecture.

Therefore, our proposition centers on the relationship between one medium corresponding to one Gulf city from a historical perspective. The city is understood here as an urban space of multisensorial experiences and social interactions. Although each article concentrates on one city(-state), our goal is not to reinforce the nation-state paradigm or relegate the Gulf region to something exceptional and distinct. Rather, we investigate the Gulf’s media and cultural history in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by acknowledging its vernacular specifics and transregional networks.

We find it fruitful to explore how modern media have manifested in the Gulf and the Gulf in them, which social practices they have invited and prohibited, how they have shaped the cities and how the cities have shaped the form, format, use and meaning of artistic, architectural, cultural and other media practices. This approach can possibly shed light on the ‘khaleeji’ way of doing things from a historical perspective. Consequently, the notion of ‘khaleeji’, derived from the Arabic al-khalij al-ʿarabi for the Arabian Gulf, hints at the form of a complex, dynamic rhizome rather than a neatly defined and static container involved in a process of national self-identity.

In the following sections of the introduction, we will address four topics that not only bring the articles together but also seem important to us, beyond this special issue, in relation to the study of urban cultures in the Gulf. These topics include (1) spatiality, temporality and media studies, (2) media-historical approaches within area studies, (3) (histories of) art and architecture as specific forms of media in the Gulf and (4) transdisciplinarity and collaboration as methods.

1 Spatiality and Temporality in Media Studies

To begin, when we speak of the Gulf, we are referring to member states of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC), namely Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). We acknowledge their individual but entangled pre-nation-state trajectories, including experiences with Dutch, English, Portuguese and Ottoman colonial politics and contemporary American-led neocolonial policy, while Iran, Iraq and Yemen form part of the wider Gulf region. Sometimes we refer to the geographical category of the Arabian Peninsula, which then excludes Iran and Iraq. Moreover, we are conscious of different urbanization patterns, placing the capitals of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, coastal towns symbolizing the modern Gulf states, in one basket, and cities in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen with substantial nomadic and agricultural hinterland in another (Fuccaro 2001: 176–177).1

Regarding spatiality and media, Hatim El-Hibri, assistant professor of film and media studies with expertise in Beirut and the Middle East, mapped an enlightening path through the nexus of place, space and media in Arab-speaking countries based on the following line of enquiry: ‘what questions do the “spatial turn” in the humanities and the social sciences pose for the study of the media and culture of the Middle East?’ (El-Hibri 2017: 24; see also Tawil-Souri 2012).

He suggests directing attention to ‘the spaces and spatiality of media’ in order to reach a better understanding of what he calls ‘the historical present’ (El-Hibri 2017: 25). One can trace the term ‘historical present’ to Walter Benjamin’s critique of the ‘homogeneous empty time’ of the capitalist system of production. It acknowledges the very specific trajectories each place has followed to reach the present (Jetztzeit) with its particular temporality (Benjamin 1972; see Fermanis 2017). El-Hibri refers in his article to three areas of research that merit further investigation: domestic media and mobility (26–30), representations of places and spaces (30–34) and geographies of media industries (34–40). His understanding of media as spatial and geographic phenomena relates strongly to McQuire’s notion of the ‘media-architecture complex’ (2008), and we have consciously enlarged it for our purposes by adding the temporal dimension.

Within this special issue, we address the particular cases of Dubai, Jeddah and Kuwait City as suitable sites for the application of media-historical approaches to urban cultures in the Gulf. The specific interplay of the city and the media industry in the Gulf is tackled in Sabrina Zahren’s interpretation of Dubai Media City, a free trade zone and hyped media production center (see also Kraidy and Khalil 2009; Khalil 2013). Her critical analysis of YouTube videos by Dyler, one of the most popular Saudi YouTubers, enables her to view the media capital Dubai (Curtin 2003) as something more than an apparently innocent touristic site and place of entertainment for the Saudi youth watching. With an eye to the historical ties between these new media geographies, Zahren explores the marketing strategies behind Dyler’s supposedly self-constructed image of Dubai, revealing an adroit understanding of the television industry in the Arab region over time.

Two articles in this issue deal with Jeddah and its representation in different media. The port town is not a global city but can be considered one of the global downtowns (Peterson and McDonogh 2011) of the Gulf, the Arab region, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and the world. Who exactly forms part of the production of a specific place like Jeddah, past and present? Ulrike Freitag and Stefan Maneval have offered different answers to this question based on the respective medium they choose as a lens to view the city. They each engage with ways of envisioning old Jeddah (also known as Balad) and reappropriating it, via contemporary filmmaking (Freitag) and architectural writings in the 1980s and 1990s (Maneval). For both authors, it’s important to understand the social actors actively involved in the placemaking of Jeddah, while highlighting the importance of an ongoing historical involvement from within. Both authors subsequently go beyond questions relating purely to the media representation of Jeddah as a cinematic city in one case and an Islamic city in the other.

We (Bettina Gräf and Laura Hindelang) trace yet another conjunction of media and urbanity in the illustrated magazine Al-Arabi, produced since December 1958. We are especially interested in discussing the role of photography as a means of portraying Arab cities such as Kuwait City or Dubai in the magazine’s illustrated travel report section. Reading the city through photographs of the 1950s and 1960s offers a stylistic and narrative account quite different from the view proposed, for example, by the Saudi youtuber Dyler in the 2017, as analyzed by Sabrina Zahren. Seemingly, both portraits of Gulf cities are very much determined by the media, and how the city is explored and presented, alluding to the specific creation of the ‘media-architecture complex’ through social action over time. Additionally, these different forms of media—the magazine Al-Arabi and Dyler’s videos—exemplify the character of the city as a vehicle that dialectically displays and produces social realities.

The special issue’s overarching goal is to investigate the complex histories of Gulf cities entangled with the media practices of people living there and with a specific political economy of media in place. Its objective, inviting others to unearth media-related trajectories leading to the ‘historical present’ in Gulf cities, thereby complexifies the (research) narratives around the Gulf and its urban spaces. Following Walter Armbrust, this special issue works in tandem to counter what he calls the prevailing ahistoricism in Arab media studies (2012b: 33) as well as its presentism and technological determinism (2012b: 48–50), ignoring what people have actually done with various new technologies developed over the last 150 years. In order to situate our approach within different academic disciplines, we will next discuss media-related research institutionalized within Middle Eastern and South Asian area studies, followed by a discussion of histories of art and architecture in specific media.2

2 Media-Historical Approaches within Middle Eastern and South Asian Area Studies

In the preceding passages we have mentioned, on the one hand, how media-historical studies of the Gulf and its urban cultures are rare, and on the other, that Arab media studies, in general, tend to be preoccupied with post-1990 phenomena. The latter is especially true when it comes to the Gulf region. While the literature on the history of printing and publishing in the Arab language, as well as in Persian, Urdu and other languages, is now extensive (for some examples, see Al-Bagdadi 2010; Ayalon 1995 and 2016; Dallal 2019; Glaß 2004; Green 2011; Winckler 2022),3 and the transition from manuscript to print culture during the course of the nineteenth century is well investigated, the Gulf has not been considered thoroughly in that sense. Concerning the discourse and practice of Islamic law and manuscript culture, only Yemen has been studied intensively (see Messick 1993, 2005). Cultural anthropologist and professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford University, Walter Armbrust’s critique of Arab media studies obliges us to acknowledge what is still missing: ‘but we suffer from serious deficiencies in a number of key areas, including the histories of illustrated magazines, radio, cinema (as a medium), and television’ (Armbrust 2012b: 42). In our view, this point can be understood as a plea to expand the ‘thematic frame’ of Arab media studies beyond the investigation of manuscript and print cultures, to operate a wider notion of media.

Some of these gaps have already been filled, not least by Armbrust himself (1996, 2000, 2006, 2012a), and other anthropologists such as Lila Abu-Lughod, who looked at female poetry and oral history (1986) and the history of Egyptian cultural practices ‘after television’ (2005), Arvind Rajagopal, who studied the transformation of Indian politics and culture through television (2001), and Charles Hirschkind, who investigated cassette sermons, Islamic counterpublics and soundscapes in Cairo (2006). New street sounds associated with technologies of the twentieth century, e.g., trains, gramophones, loudspeakers and automobiles and their connected practices of hearing and listening, have also recently attracted the interest of historians in the region (Fahmy 2011, 2020; Stanton and Woodall 2016).

Generally, the city is to be understood as multisensory, and the Gulf cities and their histories are no exception. In the case of the Gulf, the visual and material histories of advertising, architecture, film, handicraft, painting, photography and poster art, entangled with the history of institutionalized media, including newspapers, magazines, radio, satellite TV, Internet and social media, open important fields of research. Investigating the cities with a focus on various media technologies and involving all the senses—established by media anthropologists and researchers of visual culture for around thirty years—will allow us to understand the trajectories of the Gulf cities beyond very recent developments. For one possible approach, we assess architecture, art and visual culture as specific forms of media and contextualized within what might be called the art and architectural histories of the Gulf region.

3 Art and Architectural Histories of the Gulf

The process of instituting histories of art and architecture of the Gulf as a disciplinary field with a developed theoretical and methodological toolset is still in the making. However, over the last decade, a substantial body of research on urban history (Al-Nakib 2016; Freitag 2020; Maneval 2019), urban planning and architectural history (Al Qassemi and Reisz 2021; Bani Hashim 2018; Elsheshtawy 2010; Fabbri et al. 2016; Menoret 2014; Salama and Wiedmann 2013; Stanek 2020), cultural heritage (Exell and Rico 2014), urban visual culture (Assaf and Montagne 2019; Hindelang 2022) and modern and contemporary art and the museum (Exell 2016; Foley 2019; Kazerouni 2017; Wakefield 2021) has emerged. Nevertheless, research on architecture and art histories prior to the 1950s remains almost nonexistent. Although case studies in this special issue do not deal with histories earlier than the 1950s, we understand our endeavor as an invitation to think further in this direction.

Interestingly, ongoing heritage debates in the Gulf often set modern art and architecture aside and instead concentrate on pre-modern or pre-Islamic archaeological sites and pre-oil vernacular architectural and material cultures (e.g., pearling, Sadu weaving, pottery, wood carving, shipbuilding, Bedouin culture). Many of these have become integrated into the branding of the Gulf as Arab or tribal (e.g., Cooke 2014; Khalaf 2008; Krawietz 2014, 2000). Cultural festivals, heritage villages and merchandise articles attest to this type of branding of the Gulf, passing without a thorough media-historical approach and often stimulated by touristic and nation-building agendas. Against this background, private and public initiatives have emerged attempting to revive modern architecture through reuse (for example, Fire Station Doha, an artist residency and gallery, or Warehouse421, a gallery and workshop space in Abu Dhabi’s port area of Mina Zayed) or preserving and culturally valorizing the Gulf and the Arab region’s artistic and architectural movements by collecting, exhibiting and researching them (Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah; guided tours by Madeenah, Kuwait; Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha; Sultan Gallery, Kuwait; workshops and interventions by nonprofit initiative Mawane, Bahrain; among a myriad of others).

Historical research on art and architecture today is impeded by the scarcity of archives and collections, and at times, the challenges of accessing the few existing public and private institutions. This is one reason why personal knowledge, private archives and oral history are even more important and have become inevitable points of access, even for historians who would otherwise not rely on interviews and personal memoirs. However, these alternative sources are brief and ephemeral, so the long-term accessibility of sources and knowledge is endangered. Therefore, conducting research on the transnational and transregional networks facilitating architectural and artistic encounters in the Gulf since at least the nineteenth century can be a serendipitous undertaking and a costly one.

Another challenge is the ongoing pace of urban transformation within the Gulf region from the mid-twentieth century. The fast-forward overhaul of urban space has become even more accelerated since the early 2000s, turning the Gulf into a futuristic present, as reflected upon critically by artist collectives such as the GCC. Currently, Gulf states seem to strongly identify with the steadiness of constant makeover, and the region has become acknowledged as progressive or innovative, while simultaneously it’s been critiqued as hyper-modern, superficial and neoliberal. Either way, this tendency runs the risk of easily burying or even destroying the histories of (pre)modern art and architecture, the visual and material cultures that have come to characterize and stimulate the Gulf’s modernity. The gigantic contemporary development projects and hosted events celebrate speed and an orientation toward the future as the dominant global currency (see Bromber and Krawietz 2013). As a result, the rapid urban transformation of the Gulf feeds into a misleading ahistoricity, while in tandem, fostering the Gulf’s contemporary image as a trailblazer.

Our understanding of visual-material media in relation to histories of art and architecture also relies on a broader definition of what ‘art’ means. It includes visual or material artifacts with a specific functional purpose, high seriality and reproducibility or commercial interest—i.e., the material, visual and popular cultures of the Gulf region that are often not part of a Western art canon (see Gruber and Haugbolle 2013). Acknowledging the plurality of visual arts or visual and material cultures also resonates with the self-understanding and lived reality of artists and architects in the Middle East and the Gulf. It is not unusual for people to identify as an architect or artist while also working professionally as a doctor, lawyer, teacher or writer. Chad Elias recalls how Lebanese artists including Akram Zaatari were obliged in postwar Lebanon ‘to develop multiple competencies and roles’ not only for economic reasons but also because their relationship to society was in flux (as paraphrased in Elias 2018: 19, n. 47). The result is people who are ‘interested in histories without being a historian, collecting information without being a journalist’ (as quoted in Elias 2018: 19, n. 48).

Finally, our focus on visual-material media and the city from a historical perspective can help challenge value judgments based on authenticity, avant-garde or originality. The Gulf cities, as recent scholarship has established, transition from the status of pre-oil coastal village, oasis or town into ‘modern’ cities when both oil industrialization occurs and modern (mass) media, including modern architecture and visual arts, take a foothold and become locally produced on a broader scale. In this context, it is not advantageous to linger on questions of originality or origin—lamenting for example, that the radio was not invented in Kuwait or architectural styles characterizing the first wave of detached private housing in concrete, steel and glass referenced Lebanese, Egyptian, and more broadly Western building practices (misleadingly) known as the ‘international style’, rather than ‘authentic’ or vernacular Bahraini or Kuwaiti styles. Instead, more productive questions are to be asked about audiences, local media practices and processes of adaption and alteration in a particular media-historical context. In this regard, Armbrust asserts that ‘mass mediation was a prominent stage on which this dialectic of replication and difference was performed’, in his example, between Egypt and Europe (Armbrust 2012b: 37). El-Hibri also highlights ‘the importance of understanding the historical contingency of the meaning of the domestic or public location of media use’ (El-Hibri 2017: 28), and in our cases, this location means the (historical) city as a multifaceted and multisensory space.

This special issue’s media-historical approach centers on the idea that each article explores a chapter in the urban history of one medium and the media history of the urban relating to architectural writing, film, illustrated magazines and social media. This perspective-cum-method is informed by the fields of both Arab media and cultural studies and art and architectural histories of the Gulf. Neither exists (as yet) in terms of institutionalized chairs but they each form subfields situated in between the academic disciplines of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, media and cultural studies, media anthropology and architectural and art history. The issue aims to challenge the perception of the Gulf region coming of age overnight through the industrialization of fossil fuels, giving an account of genealogies dating back to the pre-oil period and suggesting that rapid urbanization witnessed in the region during the second half of the twentieth century be read more as a transformative acceleration than as a generative moment with cities created from scratch.

4 Transdisciplinarity and Collaboration as Methods

In the last section, we turn to the methodological matters of collaboration and transdisciplinarity, which are interwoven in manifold ways with our media-historical perspective on the Gulf. Ulrike Freitag’s analysis of a contemporary film on Jeddah is informed by the discipline of Middle Eastern history and her involvement in an urban studies research group at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin. Her research and long-term observation of the city’s development is enriched by informal conversations with Jeddawis. Bettina Gräf has her background in Islamic studies and her research has been informed by methods, reflections and themes relating to media and cultural studies. Laura Hindelang is an architectural and art historian specializing in the Gulf region, interweaving archival sources, fieldwork observations, informal interviews and visual objects. For their joint article, they combined analysis of images and texts with interviews and investigated a broad range of material, from videos to websites, online archives of illustrated magazines and numerous physical magazine issues. Stefan Maneval works in the field of Islamic studies but focuses on Saudi architectural historiography. Methodologically, he integrates a variety of sources, arguing that different knowledge traditions, namely oral and written, can complement each other to provide a fuller picture. Sabrina Zahren’s work is situated in Near and Middle Eastern studies and she combines this background with theoretical reflections and methodological instruments of critical social media studies.

Each researcher in this special issue relies on more than one discipline and integrates theories, methodological tools and material usually fostered in other discipline(s) or knowledge culture(s), which is characteristic of both interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity: the former indicates collaboration of researchers from at least two disciplinary perspectives and aims for the ‘integration or synthesis of (disciplinary) insights’ to varying degrees, while the latter ‘also involves actors from the field outside of the university, thereby allowing for the integration of academic and non-academic or experiential knowledge’ (Menken and Keestra 2016: 31–32).

Retracing the growing complexity of many phenomena on the globe is evidently one reason for undertaking transdisciplinary research. All the major paradigm shifts and turns of the last forty years have highlighted the indispensability of considering the plurality of voices and multiplicity of perspectives. Reality consists of so many small, medium and large spaces, and though intertwined, each is a vessel for a specific history moving forward to a ‘globalized present’ (cf. Appadurai 2020). Consequently, they cannot be subsumed under any arbitrary (grand) narrative ‘from elsewhere’ as was often the case within (neo)colonial structures of knowledge production on the Arab world (see Gräf et al. 2013).

Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches brought together in this special issue seek to generate and test the critical potential of our academic fields by deviating from what has long been considered worthy of research. Working in this manner means doing things together, which can assume numerous forms, e.g., collaboration, cooperation, co-working, dialogue and exchange (see Schielke and Swarowsky 2013: 8). It can mean taking knowledge production in local languages seriously. It also can mean acknowledging and integrating the concepts, names and institutions of the sites researched—for example, the term hawsh for an informal open space in Jeddah, as used in Freitag’s article. This localized knowledge in the language of the spaces under investigation can certainly be enriching and may help to counter English as the hegemonic language in international academia.4 Yet another form of collaboration may involve working in teams and undoing the lone wolf mentality that the competitive academic system and the separation of disciplines breed. For us (Gräf and Hindelang), it has led to a process of co-authoring—i.e., writing and rewriting each other’s sentences in the production of a jointly composed article.

It is striking to see in the production of this special issue that detail-rich descriptions feature in each article. In research on the Gulf region, where contemporary studies appear to be momentarily favored over historical research and where historical material is often hard to come by, we see accurate and detailed description as a strategy for challenging exceptionalist tropes and narratives. Moreover, detailed descriptions provide accessibility and traceability, culminating in transparency for future academics and an interested public. Given that all five authors originate from German-speaking academia, the focus on describing details might also come from an overall acceptance of excursus (Exkurs), resulting from ‘the focus in German academic writing (…) on subject-matter knowledge and content rather than form or style, and (…) a greater tolerance of digression’ (Siepmann 2006: 134, 136). There is critical approbation in German-speaking academia, especially in historical disciplines, for detail, highlighting a document’s footnotes and understanding that a historian works on unearthing archival material or hidden knowledge. This may or may not be the case, but these descriptions enable us to retain for a moment the ‘historical present’ of a certain place as a way of building up an archive in writing—an academic archive in the making.

5 Conclusion

This special issue makes a case for media-historical approaches to Gulf cities offering serious consideration to three principles: 1) the importance of media and cultural practices in shaping specific urban environments and the formative influence these environments, in turn, hold; 2) the situating of the urban cultures of the Gulf in the Arab region, the Persianate world and the Indian Ocean respectively; and 3) the concomitant engagement in collaborative and transdisciplinary work. These principles allow us to capture the interplay of media and the city as well as the temporalities intrinsic to each location. Tarik Sabry (2012: 10) has argued that ‘the deficit in Arab cultural temporality (…) cannot be resolved through the re-organization of Arab cultural history alone. An anthropological approach is needed to claim the present tense of Arab everydayness in all its cultural manifestations’. However, when looking at Gulf cities, it seems to be the other way around: it appears as if there is still an urgent need to challenge the idea of ‘spaces without history’, an endeavor best realized by specialists from different fields and knowledge traditions working together.

1

Further research is needed to bring the hinterlands of the Arabian Peninsula into consideration, which has been exemplified by the Kuwait Pavilion’s Space Wars theme at the Venice Architecture Biennale (2021/22). See ‘The Kuwait Pavilion at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia’, https://www.kwtpavilion.com/, accessed 31 May 2021.

2

One could probably say that Middle Eastern and South Asian area studies were institutionalized as Islamic Studies (Islamwissenschaft) in the (West) German academic tradition, alongside Near Eastern Studies (Nahostwissenschaften) and Indology (Indologie), see Johansen 1990; Poya and Reinkowski 2008. The Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies (BGSMCS) exemplifies a recent transregional and transdisciplinary approach within German academia for studying Islam, including regions in Africa and Southeast Asia, see Gräf et al. 2018.

3

One of the first scholars studying this field was Ignaz Goldziher (1892), a contemporary observer of the Arab print revolution and an important reference figure for (German-speaking) Islamic and Oriental studies.

4

For example, see initiatives of the Arab Council for Social Sciences founded in Beirut (2010) to promote and sponsor social science research on the Arab region from within the area: http://www.theacss.org/pages/history, accessed 31 May 2021.

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