“Violence, Be It Visible or Invisible, Shapes All of Our Lives”
Interview with Sarah El Bulbeisi
- How do you explain your current research projects to your students?
I don’t teach at the moment, so currently, the people I have to explain my research to are mainly my colleagues at the Orient-Institut Beirut. Since I am interested in how systemic experiences of violence influence conceptions of the self, as well as parent-child and intimate relationships, my research is far from being alien to everyday human experience. I think it is a topic relevant to more or less everyone, because violence, be it visible or invisible, shapes all of our lives. This is why I think the topic doesn’t require particular methods of explanation – as more traditional topics of the academic ivory tower often do. Rather, one needs a kind of consciousness and readiness to engage in reflections that challenge the comfort zone you build up to arrange yourself with the violence you were/are confronted with. I am exploring these questions in different regional contexts, with different actors and different forms of violence: In my PhD thesis, I wrote about first and second generation Palestinians in Germany and Switzerland from the 1960s to 2015 and about how the negation and oppression of their identity in the societies they live in influenced them. Now, I am tracing the repercussions of systemic and political violence on subjectivities as well as on family and gender relations in Lebanon.
- What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?
To be honest, I think the academic inspiration you are referring to was in my case rather the opposite: it was the structural exclusion from the personal and affective realm in academia which frustrated me and made me leave orthodox ways of doing research in my discipline, Islamwissenschaft. As a teenager I attended a college dedicated to classical humanities, offering Greek and Latin classes, because I was fascinated by this ancient world and thought of myself very romantically as someone in search of the truth hoping to find it in those old manuscripts. I left college with the feeling that I didn’t find what I was looking for and that I wouldn’t find it in the written text, but nowhere else than in life itself. However, when I studied Arabic at university, I found myself rather unexpectedly on a very similar path as I did in college: A crucial phenomenon of the Arabic language is its diglossia and the hierarchical separation between spoken and written Arabic. The Arabic we studied was not the colloquial Arabic, but the established literary canon of the historical elites and the powerful discourses they created. I felt strangely detached from the lives and thoughts of ordinary people, be it back in time or nowadays. Another thing which alienated me from my studies was the impression that scholarly objectivity was defined by distance to your sources, distance meaning a sort of emotional unrelatedness to the world you study. This perspective also influenced the way students from Arabic diaspora communities were perceived by the academic elite who taught them. Still somehow obsessed with the notion of truth – not at all a child of postmodern thought obviously – I decided to shift my research to the contemporary and to my own subjectivity. This is why I wrote my PhD on the Palestinian experience in Germany – where I worked – and in Switzerland – where I was born and grew up. So much for my academic inspiration.
The personal inspiration for my PhD study was a feeling that I had observed among many second generation Palestinians in Switzerland, including me: a deep concern with the violence – systematic, often multiple expulsions, separation from their families as well as surveillance and negative-stigmatization in exile – their parents had suffered from, and this even though the parent generation barely talked about their experiences and feelings. I couldn’t let go of the question why the Palestinian people’s history in general and the parents’ history in particular played such an important role in our lives.
- How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations.)?
I am working with so called narrative-biographical interviews, and even though this is the technically correct term, I prefer expressions like conversations and life stories because “interview” doesn’t really apply to what I do: I try to work with psychoanalytical methods and concepts like the evenly-suspended attention, free-floating listening and (counter-)transference. Important to all of these concepts is a careful and empathetic listening with as little intervention as possible, and every question represents a sort of intervention.
- Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series.) did inspire you recently?
I think what inspires me the most at the moment are the presentations and discussions which take place in the framework of our weekly virtual research colloquiums. I also liked the lecture series of the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL) which had a focus on gender in the Middle East.
- Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?
I would say this is a very subjective matter. I tend to perceive academic mobility rather as a privilege than a curse. Therefore, I would say of course it enriches and changes me in every aspect of my life, both in scientific contexts and outside of academia.
Sarah El Bulbeisi joined the Orient-Institut Beirut in November 2019 after completing her PhD at the Institute for Near and Middle East Studies at the LMU Munich, Germany. Prior to that, she worked as a lecturer and research associate at the Institute for Near and Middle East Studies at the LMU Munich. Her PhD thesis “Taboo, Trauma and Identity: Subject Constructions of Palestinians in Germany and Switzerland, 1960 to 2015” draws on conversations, life stories and participant observation and explores the tension between the (family) histories of first and second generation Palestinians, which are characterized by the experience of expulsion and dispossession, and the reshaping of this experience in the Western European representation of the so called Middle East conflict. El Bulbeisi`s postdoc research at the OIB revolves around the interrelations between systemic violence and gendered subjectivities as well as family and gender relations in Lebanon.
First publication of this interview in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 04.03.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/26827.