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Studying the Future: Scholars Explore the Topic from an Arab Context

How do we approach studying the future? A recent research symposium held by the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Middle East Centre explored that question in the context of the Middle East and North Africa.

The symposium, held on May 20, was titled “The Future in Arab Media and Cultures”.

Its four panels took up topics such as public opinion in Arab news media and themes about the place of the future in relation to anti-colonialism, neoliberalism, revolution and counter-revolution.

Before discussions began, there was a tribute to the late Shireen Abu Akleh, the Al Jazeera journalist who was killed in Jenin, in the West Bank, on May 11.

Dialogue Between Scholars and Journalists

Scholars at the symposium were able to study the future by looking at the past, drawing insights from the perspectives of Arab media and culture.

The first panel, on Future Trends in Arab News Media, brought together two scholars, Zahera Harb from City University of London and Abeer Al-Najjar from the University of Sharjah, and two journalists, Rima Maktabi from Al Arabiya television and Rasha Qandeel from BBC Arabic.

Omar Al-Ghazzi, of the London School of Economics, was the panel’s chair.

Al-Najjar, who is a co-author with Al-Ghazzi of a study titled “What Role for a Digital Future? Exploring Arab News and Publics”, talked about how mobile phones are changing journalism.

It is becoming the norm for reporters to use their phones to capture a story, she said, and this is giving rise to individual journalists rather than media organizations.

Maktabi agreed that the role of journalists has become much more than just reporting the news. They have to film, report and update all the various social media platforms tied to the news channel they work for, she said.

Qandeel added that it could be a challenge to know what the audience wants to see and hear in the media.

Maktabi said dialogues between academics and journalists were important. Scholars “do the research that opens journalists’ minds and to learn how to move forward.”

Contemporary Arab Political Cultures

Al-Ghazzi, who also organized the symposium, spoke on another panel about his research in Lebanon, where he met artists who were managing to create art amidst the country’s multiple crises.

He discussed many facets of how art is used in the public arena and how it affects people’s memories. “It is very important to discuss contemporary cultures of futurity and how the state and activists think of the future,” he said.

Discussing her research into “Utopian infrastructures”, Sara Salem talked about a former plan to build a “Cairo to Cape Town highway”, which only partially materialized because it was felt to be too colonial.

This panel’s talk centered around the contemporary positions of futurity in political life. Ross Porter, from the University of Exeter, discussed his research into the beginnings of the revolution in Yemen and how one lieutenant he met managed to gather members of his army to try to overthrow the Yemeni government.

Porter’s research is the product of long-term fieldwork at the heart of the revolutionary movement in Sana’a.

Sara Salem, from the London School of Economics, discussed her research into “Utopian infrastructures.” She talked about Egypt and the period of decolonisation in the mid-twentieth century, with the focus on highways in the African continent.

One idea she discussed was a plan to build a “Cairo to Cape Town highway”, which only partially materialized because it was felt to be too colonial.

Representations from the Middle East

Further panels looked at how political futures are imagined in novels, magazines and intellectual thought, as well how the concept of the future sits in Middle East studies. This is particularly important when approached from cultural studies, comparative literature and media studies, speakers said.

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The symposium’s organisers noted that future is always unknown and seems more difficult to imagine at some times than others. Yet the participating scholars were able to study and talk about the future by looking at the past.

While they may not have had answers to all the questions that were raised, they could draw useful insights, especially through the lenses of Arab media and culture.

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