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‘Academic Prisons’: Bahrain’s Nader Kadhim Rejects Disciplinary Silos

/ 16 Nov 2021

‘Academic Prisons’: Bahrain’s Nader Kadhim Rejects Disciplinary Silos

Nader Kadhim, a Bahraini cultural critic and professor at the University of Bahrain, declines to remain locked within the limits of an academic subspecialty. Such disciplinary silos, he says, are “academic prisons”.

“University is universal by nature, hence the name,” Kadhim argues. “It is a university and an association of many disciplines. However, this ended with locking up knowledge in disciplinary boxes that are getting narrower with time.”

Kadhim’s own research combines the methodologies of several humanities disciplines to critique the socio-cultural structure of Bahraini society. The Gulf Cooperation Council ministers of culture recently honoured him for his research into Bahrain’s modern history.

Kadhim, who is 48, was born Shia, which he calls a historical coincidence that “does not entail anything.” He refuses to be classified as Islamist, a Shia Islamist or a Shia intellectual, yet prominent Sunni and Shia scholars have praised his anti-sectarian writing.

“University is universal by nature, hence the name. It is a university and an association of many disciplines. However, this ended with locking up knowledge in disciplinary boxes that are getting narrower with time.”

Nader Kadhim  

While studying for a B.A in Arabic language and literature at the University of Bahrain in the early 1990s, Kadhim was particularly taken by the ideas of reading and reception of the late German critic Hans Robert Jauss (1924-1997). Jauss believed the reader was more important than the author or the text.

Kadhim earned a master’s degree in modern criticism in 2001 and a Ph.D. in Arabic literature from the Institute of Arab Research and Studies, in Cairo, in 2003.

‘Interpretive Tolerance’

Over his academic journey, Kadhim reached what he calls “interpretive tolerance”. By this he means the freedom to criticise all ethnic, religious, or social “racisms and prejudices”.

His 2007 book “Representations of the Other: The Image of Black People in the Medieval Arab Imaginary“, explored a topic that became a preoccupation: anti-black racism in the Arab world. (See a related article, “Black Saudi Author Focuses on Neglected History of African Migration and Slavery.”)

He followed up with other books criticising sectarianism, hate speech, the malicious use of collective memory, and the reduction of diversity in individuals and societies.

Kadhim’s criticism of locking knowledge into silos extends to universities themselves.

Nader Kadhim
Three of Nader Kadhim’s books. From the left: “Outside the Group” (2016), “Saving Hope: A History of Arab Hope in Two Centuries” (2020), and “Why Do We Hate?” (2017).

“The university, consciously and subconsciously, pressures academics to divert all their research energies into climbing the academic promotion ladder instead of making them seek to understand and think outside the boxes of their chosen subjects,” he said in an interview with Al-Fanar Media.

This has a fatal effect on creativity, he said. It forces young academics to conduct research and publish in a way that satisfies the devoted specialists in order to advance their careers. (See a related article, “Why the World Urgently Needs Interdisciplinary Research and Policy Making.”)

‘The History of Things’

Kadhim’s latest book, “The History of Things: On the Street, the Cemetery and Other Things”, came out in September. Published in two volumes by Dar Soual, in Beirut, the book reflects his fondness for the works of the French historian Fernand Braudel.

Braudel was a key figure in the Annales school of historical thought and the author of the classic text “The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II“.

“The university, consciously and subconsciously, pressures academics to divert all their research energies into climbing the academic promotion ladder instead of making them seek to understand and think outside the boxes of their chosen subjects.”

Nader Kadhim  

In 1981, four years before his death, Braudel wrote “The Identity of France,” in which he develops the concept of “longue durée,” or the long term.

“Thanks to that work, our understanding of history has radically changed,” Kadhim said. Braudel “dissects history into more than one level of time, to visualise what can be called the comprehensive history of a place, its population, beings, trees, and stone.”

This idea led Kadhim to search for what could be called history’s fourth layer” the history of things: streets, bridges, tunnels, landmarks, schools, libraries, temples, cemeteries, and everything made by humans. Braudel divided time into two: before and after a particular thing, to show that life is not the same after this thing comes into existence.

Nader Kadhim displays an award he received from the president of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities and the cultural ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. (Photo courtesy of Nader Kadhim).
Nader Kadhim displays an award he received from the president of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities and the cultural ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. (Photo courtesy of Nader Kadhim).

In his research for the book, Kadhim relied primarily on archives, both  public and private ones, including the British Archive, the Bahrain National Museum Archive, and documents from the Bahrain Petroleum Company, the Bahrain News Agency, newspapers and magazines. Kadhim found it a difficult task because most old archives are unindexed.

Beginnings Shape the Future

This research revealed to Kadhim the great changes that occur to ideas, people, and places.

“Contemplating something still in its early beginnings puts you face to face not only with the freshness of things, but with the genius of human action in creating new things, which establishes what will come in the future,” said Kadhim.

“These beginnings draw a line between what was and what will be. However, the tragic thing about the great things that we create is that they will make us in the end, and control us as if the plan backfired. It’s like an existential battle: we make things, but in turn these things make us.”

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Kadhim thinks that one of his most important discoveries is what social discourse and conflict divide is united by  cities, places, and things. This was the basis of his 2019 book “No One Sleeps in Manama”,   about the Bahraini capital’s culturally diverse past. His new book focuses on what he calls “the entanglement between individual time and social time.”

“If you think about building bridges, you will find that bridges have important overlapping political, collective, and geographic consequences,” he said. “A bridge does not only mean connecting what was separated by geography. It also means an easier flow of people.”

This means people can meet more easily and gatherings can become larger, he added. But it also means armies and security forces can move more easily “to suppress  or disperse such  gatherings.”




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Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام