Report on the Inaugural Conference “Relations in the Ideoscape: Middle Eastern Students in the Eastern Bloc 1950-1991”

by Max Weber Stiftung · Published 24. April 2019 · Updated 12. November 2019

By Ala Al-Hamarneh

The inaugural conference of the research project “Relations in the Ideoscape: Middle Eastern Students in the Eastern Bloc, 1950-1991” took place at the Orient-Institute Beirut on the 19th and 20th of May 2019. The two-day conference in the form of a workshop was the first meeting of the international research team following the official commencement of the research project in March 2019. Scholars from Germany, Azerbaijan, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Lebanon, Poland and Russia are contributing to the cutting-edge research project on knowledge relations. The research group is part of a larger research project of the Max Weber Foundation and funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) in Germany.

Group picture of the participants.

The subproject “Relations in the Ideoscape: Middle Eastern Students in Eastern Block 1950-1990” is concerned with knowledge relations between the Middle East and the Eastern Bloc in the context of the Cold War. Numerous students from the Middle Eastern region studied at universities in the USSR and countries of Eastern Europe, a space created by a common ideology, an ideoscape (Appadurai). The complex relationships which were forged through the mobility/migration of students from the Middle East and North Africa to the Eastern Bloc have often been highly persistent, far beyond the end of the Cold War. With the opening of the archives in Russia and other countries of the Eastern Bloc, research on the high number of Arab, Iranian and Turkish students is now possible.

Perspectives from Beirut, Moscow and Warsaw

Prof. Dr. Birgit Schäbler, head of the research team and director of the Orient-Institute Beirut (OIB), opened the conference by welcoming the attendees and by emphasizing the innovative character of the research project. She pointed out the importance of synchronizing and coordinating the various methodological approaches within the case studies carried out by the members of the team in order to reach the expected and projected goals. Prof. Schäbler highlighted the geographic, cultural, historical and disciplinary diversity of the research project that covers students of the social sciences, humanities, fine arts, and architecture from Arab countries, Iran and Turkey who studied in the countries of the Eastern Block after WWII until the fall of the Soviet Union. Ex-Yugoslavia and Cuba are also included. 

During the workshop.

The first session chaired by Prof. Schäbler focused on conceptual approaches, methodology and research methods that are of importance to the research. Various aspects of oral history, biographical research, and life-story methods were extensively discussed, especially within the methodological lines and trajectories of the research project. Dr. Sandra Dahlke, the director of the German Historical Institute in Moscow, and Prof. Dr. Miloš Řezník, the director of the German Historical Institute in Warsaw, gave deep and comprehensive insights about the structure and the organization of different archives in Russia and Poland, possibilities of accessing the archives, and conceivable limitations of working with the documents in those archives: analyzing the available material and looking for non-systemized biographical and institutional historic documentations are two of the core research aspects of the project. 

Various case studies approaching the ideoscape

Members of the research team presented outlines of their individual research case studies, highlighting their own experiences with archive materials and interview partners. The team demonstrated their ideas of team work and research cluster building, and discussed the further conceptualization of the research as a whole. Dr. Olga Nefedova, who is studying the knowledge relations and networks of the Iraqi fine art students in the Soviet Union, explained the importance and limitations of using various types of interview techniques and concepts to receive comprehensive information. Dr. Mikuláš Pešta from Charles University in Prague, who is working on the image of Prague as an intellectual hub of knowledge production and international publications in the Socialist era, explained the importance of biographical research to his case study. Dr. Constantin Katsakioris discussed the comprehensive relations in higher education between Algeria and some countries of the Eastern Block, namely the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. The research of Dr. Dorota Woroniecka-Krzyżanowska aims to explore the relations and impacts of the Polish architectures and architecture institutes on the urban design and esthetics of Iraqi cities, and the impact of the Iraqi architecture students who studied in Poland on the (re-)configuration of knowledge relations in an ideoscape. Dr. Zaur Gasimov presented his research on the production of knowledge concerning Iran in institutions of higher learning in Poland and Hungary by two intellectual Iranian communists in exile. He pointed out the importance of discussing the ideoscape as a space of knowledge relations and productions in all its complexity and interaction. Elmin Alyiev explained the differences between the political and historical framing of the Turkish and Iranian students in the Soviet Union, where international relations, the “Azerbaijani discourse”, the Turkish internal politics, exiles and migration redefine the relations in the ideoscape between the two countries and the Soviet Union. The research primarily done and presented by Olga Nefedova, Zaur Gasimov and Elmin Alyiev demonstrates the importance of oral history and biographical research, and thus delivered a solid base for discussions on field research and research clusters.

During the discussions.

Various case studies are focusing on the role of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the knowledge relations in the ideoscape. Two PhD research projects carried out by the young scholars Stella Kneifel and Ekaterina Vasileva are focusing on Arab students of social sciences and media studies in the GDR and the Soviet Union. Another PhD research project by Parang Niakan focuses on various gender aspects within the relations in the ideoscape by exemplifying female Kurdish students from Iran, Iraq, and Turkey in the GDR.

Two OIB doctoral research fellows shared their field work experiences in Lebanon with the members of the research team: PhD candidate Molly Oringer discussed her research on the legacy of Lebanon’s Jewish community and its spaces after the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), and PhD candidate Samuel Dinger presented his field work on the practices and ethics of brokerage and exchange between Syrian and Lebanese residents in the Bekaa Valley. Susanne Polek, Nikita Volkov and Dr. Haggag Ali contributed to the discussion by pointing out different research questions, approaches and methodologies that could be used either in specifically designed case studies or in future research projects. 

The two-day workshop came to an end with a set of theoretical and methodological conclusions and practical recommendations outlined by Prof. Schäbler and Dr. Ala Al-Hamarneh, the research project coordinator.

Conference on “Relations in the Ideoscape: Middle Eastern Students in the Eastern Bloc, 1950's to 1991“

In the project ”Relations in the Ideoscape: Middle Eastern Students in the Eastern Bloc (1950's to 1991)“ within the research project “Knowledge Unbound”, the OIB cooperates with the German Historical Institutes in Moscow and Warsaw within the Max Weber Foundation, and external supporters. The conference which had been planned for Moscow in March 2020 could not take place because of the Corona pandemic and was now held as an online videoconference. The whole team of about a dozen international researchers met between 2 and 5 June 2020 to discuss the presentations of the individual research projects.

The program of the workshop was divided into eight sessions, including a final discussion round. Prof. Birgit Schäbler (Director of OIB Beirut) and Sandra Dahlke (Director of GHI Moscow) opened the conference. In the first session “Students of Social Studies and Journalism”, Stella Kneifel talked about Marxism-Leninism in study programs of social studies in the GDR, and Ekaterina Vasileva about Arab journalism graduates in the USSR. In the following session “Students of Fine Arts”, Olga Nefedova shed light on Arab art students in the USSR and Mustafa Switat talked about the interactions between Polish and Syrian students in arts education. The second day saw two sessions. The first one covered Turkey and Algeria with Elmin Aliyev and Constantin Katsakioris as speakers, and the second one covered Poland, Iraq and a special case study on Kurdish women in the GDR with Dorota Woroniecka and Parang Niakan. On the third day Zaur Gasimov talked about Iranian communist exiles in Poland and Ala al-Hamarneh about the history of Soviet/Russian alumni associations in Jordan and Lebanon.

Even though everyone is looking forward to meet in person again the video-conference worked out very well. Since it was spread out over a longer period of time participants had the chance to engage in very lively and inspired discussions.

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