Anthropology in Arabic

Nahed Nasr , Tuesday 15 Nov 2022

Nahed Nasr talks to visual anthropologist Farah Hallaba about the background to her recent exhibition on Egyptian migration to the Gulf


Among the many new initiatives that have emerged in Cairo in recent years is Anthropology bil-Araby, or Anthropology in Arabic, which in just a few years has made its mark by reconsidering issues that affect our daily lives from an anthropological perspective, exploring the intersections between what is subjective and what is objective through artistic and cultural practices.

The latest event organised by Anthropology bil-Araby is an exhibition entitled “Being Borrowed: On Egyptian Migration to the Gulf,” which was held from 2 to 31 October. Farah Hallaba, founder of the initiative, explained how the initiative originated, how it has developed, and how she sees its future in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.

Hallaba was born to an Egyptian father and mother who lived and worked in Saudi Arabia. She moved as a university student to Istanbul, where she studied political science, choosing cinema as a minor. After obtaining her Bachelor’s degree, she pursued a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies, but was not lucky enough to enter a university afterwards, changing her course of study altogether.

After graduating, she decided to stay in Egypt for a year to explore the field in which she could continue her studies.

“I had lived all my life in Saudi Arabia, but I was surrounded by Egyptians and Egyptian culture, and we used to visit Egypt twice a year. Egyptian films and Egyptian culture were part of my daily life at home,” she said.

“During my year in Egypt, I got closer to the Egyptian art scene and the creative worlds here. I’ve always had an interest in art and social studies, and perhaps that’s why I chose cinema as a minor during my political science studies. I came across anthropology by chance, while exploring a field of study for my Master’s, but I did not know before that anthropology as a field of study was closest to my interests.”

She discovered that the University of Kent in the UK had a programme to study Visual and Social Anthropology. “I was curious about this programme because it combined two areas that are very interesting to me and were similar to my field of study at university. I moved to the UK in 2019 to resume my studies,” Hallaba said.

There she faced challenges in studying the new field, compared to political science, especially as visa procedures disrupted her arrival at the start of the school year. “It wasn’t easy, but I got a scholarship and a lot of support from my parents,” she added.

“I’m the kind of person who prefers to absorb knowledge through visual means. In the field of political science, it was easy to find dozens of visual resources on the Internet that help you study in depth. But I discovered that this was not the case with anthropology.”  

The available visual resources were limited to recorded lectures that were no less complex than the course materials themselves. There were dozens of written sources, but all of them were difficult, and there was nothing available in Arabic.

Hallaba thus created her own method of study, which was to share with people on YouTube the information gained during lectures. She arrived in the UK in October 2019 and posted her first video on “Anthropology in Arabic” in November.

“It was as if I was studying with people. I would be taking notes during the lecture and have in mind that it would be the topic of discussion in my YouTube episode. This method helped me to focus in lectures and to grasp difficult terms and concepts. I was thinking about how I would be able to smoothly convey these things to my audience, so they entered my mind as smoothly as possible.”

This is how Anthropology in Arabic was born, as a participatory platform in which Hallaba shares what she learns with others, generating questions that push her to further research and understanding.


STARTING OUT: At first, the name Anthropology in Arabic did not carry connotations beyond Arabising what she was studying. But later the name acquired more connotations than just the language.

“I was aware that the history of anthropology has a reputation for unfairness and orientalism. My ambition was to view this science in a contemporary and expressive way related to our societies today. In other words, how do we understand anthropology in a contemporary context within our daily lives, as opposed to the idea that it is a science linked to distant places and exotic societies?”

“I was trying to answer the question of what am I doing here and why I was doing anthropology.” Her audience’s reactions to her episodes were surprising and encouraging, despite the poor quality of the videos. They were widely shared, and she found that people in her circle of friends and the friends of friends and relatives were engaged even though they did not study anthropology themselves.

During the preparation of the episodes, Hallaba said that she was looking for stories and films that could communicate ideas and concepts. She was reading more so that she could provide more information. She was helping herself to focus and comprehend, and this was what was happening to the viewers as well.

The duration of Hallaba’s study in the UK meant that she was able to collect many materials. Every week there was a new issue, a different discussion, and another angle. Her university soon found out about her videos and was proud of what it saw as a different contribution from one of its international students. “They were generous enough to lend me a microphone to improve the sound quality on the videos,” she explained.

In the second semester, the Covid-19 pandemic turned Hallaba’s plans upside down. Instead of doing projects based on direct interaction and communication with people, the students had to think of projects that could be implemented in the context of social distancing.

Hallaba’s thesis was about the middle class and was based on a participatory workshop that she would design, with its outcome being part of her thesis. But with the coronavirus, the benefit of Anthropology in Arabic appeared again because the workshop turned into a virtual world.

“My idea of anthropology is that it is like the glasses through which a person sees the world. There are a lot of researchers who actually wear these glasses without even being aware of them. My idea had always been to try to create an awareness of the presence of these glasses and also to invite others to experience the world through them,” she said.

She was interested in the middle-class topic because she belongs to that class herself and is interested in learning about its transformations. What is the class identity of the self-described middle class? What are its strategies and patterns?

In Hallaba’s workshop, each participant did a project with his or her family and put all the products on a website. “Gradually, a pattern appeared, and this is how my thesis was formed in which I referred to all the participants in the workshop. I eventually got high honours for my degree,” she said.

 Since then, she has believed that access to knowledge and knowledge transfer comes about through collaborative and participatory forms based on the contributions of participants. This later became the pattern that Anthropology in Arabic follows in all its activities.


WORKSHOPS: After completing her Master’s study, Hallaba started a series of virtual workshops in visual anthropology in 2020, a field that is not familiar in Egypt.

The workshops were based on the link between anthropology and the visual arts, including filmmaking. “It was about how filmmakers wear anthropological glasses, or how they become aware that they are wearing them in their practice,” Hallaba said.

One of the objectives of the workshops was to explore the anthropological tools that directors resort to, even unconsciously, in Arab and Egyptian films, among them directors like Tahani Rashed, Attiyat Al-Abnoudi, and others.

The idea was to discuss how filmmakers can become aware of and use these tools, as they create a more equitable relationship between filmmaker and participants. In the end, the anthropologist and the filmmaker are both storytellers, but the way the story is framed or obtained and the position the storyteller put himself into in relation to the owner of the story is crucial.

“The white man is an attitude, not a colour,” Hallaba said. “So, how can we make art without adopting a white attitude?”

There have been some 15 workshops in the series, some physical and some virtual, all taking place before the end of 2021. The enthusiasm of the participants in each workshop prompted her to announce the next one.

“Visual anthropology is a well-known field in many countries, and there are a lot of artistic productions based on it. It was important for me to prove that these practices exist here too and are used by filmmakers who are aware of their role in society. Making them more aware of the tools can make more people resort to them consciously,” Hallaba said.

At the beginning of 2022, she thought of revisiting a pressing issue that has always occupied her – the subject of the migration of Egyptians to the Gulf. This young woman, who has lived most of her life with her Egyptian family in a Gulf country, realised that this situation was common to thousands of sons and daughters of her generation and the generations that preceded her.

In February 2022, she announced a collaborative participatory workshop entitled “Being Borrowed: On Egyptian Migration to the Gulf.”

The workshop aimed to look creatively, anthropologically, and collectively into experiences of migration to the Gulf. It was a two-month workshop and was output-oriented. Although millions of Egyptians have migrated to the Gulf since the 1970s, Farah says, the experience is underrepresented in pop culture and the scholarly literature, “despite the ways in which it has impacted family dynamics, worldviews, feeling of temporariness, social class, aspirations, and much more.”

In the workshop, the participants were invited to not only look at the bigger contexts of Gulf migration (political, social, and economic), but also more deeply into the personal sense of belonging, of alienation, of the relationship to death and life, and visual/sensory memories, and into how all of this can help us to understand bigger social structures.

Moving to the Gulf has also influenced Egyptians who have never travelled, she said. “As we were looking into the different themes, we discussed and created personal projects inspired by the discussions, experiences, memories and ideas.”


EXHIBITION: 2 October saw the opening of “Being Borrowed,” a creative collaborative project that problematises the Egyptian migration to the Gulf, which has long been underrepresented and understudied.

This multi-output collective art-research project aims to create anthropological, visual, and sensory knowledge production on a “temporary” migration experience. The multimedia artworks engage creatively in aspects of this experience, including temporality, memory, death, social class, family dynamics, belonging, and aspiration through collective personal narratives.

With 23 artists and 23 artworks including installations, video, archival materials, photo albums, interactive games, drawing, typography, embroidery, music, multimedia, and virtual maps, the exhibition lasted for a month at the Contemporary Image Collective in Downtown Cairo. More than 6,000 visitors came to the exhibition during the month.

It also has a publication that is an attempt to contribute to creative knowledge production that addresses temporary Egyptian migration to the Gulf and how we engage creatively and artistically with anthropological questions and personal experiences.

According to Hallaba, the exhibition contained explanations of the artworks in it, interviews with the artists who contributed, and a presentation of the basic concepts and questions around which the workshops were built. She said the exhibition publications were not only an introduction to the contents of the exhibition, but also documents of what happened in the workshops leading up to it.  

“One of the existing problems is that there is no literature or artistic or non-artistic works that deal with the experience of migration to the Gulf in terms of the subjective and collective experiences of the migrants. Most of what is written are general and repetitive concepts and their true relationship to individuals or groups has not been tested,” Hallaba said.

“What we have done in Anthropology in Arabic is discuss the subject from a subjective point of view that intersects with what is general and what is collective. Documenting this in a publication is therefore a call for any future effort not to start from scratch, because there is a basis that now exists that can be developed and built upon.”

The exhibition also saw parallel events that included three curator and artists’ tours and two talks and discussion entitled “What did the Migration to the Gulf turn the Father Figure into?” and “Deferred Homes & Boxed Objects: From the Gulf to Egypt.” This was in addition to film screenings and discussions.

According to Hallaba, the parallel events are a second life for the exhibition. “People come loaded with questions, impressions, and experiences to share during the parallel events. They are a platform that enables the audience to have its own contributions and voice. This is the interaction for which Anthropology in Arabic was formed in the first place – creating an interactive, collaborative, and participatory space, in which the audience is a partner and a contributor.”

Hallaba believes that the most important outcome of the exhibition is that it has presented Anthropology in Arabic as a platform for production and not only for theoretical interaction. “Production in the sense of having a tangible physical and artistic content that can reach a larger number of people and which at the same time is an expression of a subjective experience that intersects with a collective experience. I think we will take this mechanism into consideration in the future in designing Anthropology in Arabic workshops and activities,” she said.

Now, fewer than four years after the release of the first videos on YouTube, she sees that Anthropology in Arabic has a tangible place in the artistic scene in Cairo.

“We will continue to work step by step. But it is important to note with gratitude the generosity of all those who have shared with us their experience, time, enthusiasm and faith. Without them, Anthropology in Arabic would not have achieved part of its ambitions to be a constructive, interactive, participatory and collaborative platform,” Hallaba concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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