Cfp: Navigating northwest Africa: towards an analysis of Saharan connectivity?

1 March 2008

Navigating northwest Africa: towards an analysis of Saharan connectivity?
An interdisciplinary workshop. Magdalen College, Oxford. 18-19 September, 2008.

Conventional wisdom once assumed that the Sahara functioned in history and in contemporary social, cultural and political relations as a barrier, dividing the Mediterranean world from Africa ‘proper’, isolating the countries of the Maghrib from their southern and eastern neighbours, and demarcating entirely distinct areas of study for scholars. The Sahara has generally been conceptualised as a space of marginality: the desert ‘wastes’, outside of history, incapable of change and arid of ‘events’. Academic categories, dividing fields of research and literature between Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Arab/Islamic, and African studies, often replicated the region’s political divisions and reproduced this vision of the relationship between North and West Africa, and of the Sahara between them. It has more recently become commonplace to argue that the Sahara has been a ‘bridge’ as well as a ‘barrier’.

Yet despite long-standing interest in trans-Saharan trade, and recent interest in contemporary migration (fuelled by concerns over clandestine immigration and international security), more far-reaching, conceptually innovative and empirically detailed research on connections between North and West Africa has not been much pursued. Historically deep and enduringly vigorous aspects of life in the region which may not only connect, but in fact enable the constitution of, the various, complementary, and interdependent spaces of northwest Africa have attracted little attention. Research has often proceeded from the older notion of the Sahara as an empty interior, seen only from the outside— focussing, for example, on ‘trans-Saharan’ rather than on ‘Saharan’ trade. Such an approach has perpetuated isolatable notions of place, space, race, social and geographical interaction that can be marked on maps but that, already in colonial times, proved badly adapted to comprehension of the subtler realities of regional interdependence.

This workshop aims to rethink the history of North and West Africa both ‘from the bottom up’ and ‘from the inside out’, taking as its focus the Sahara as a shared environment of social, cultural and political interaction at the centre of a region that has been historically, and remains today, characterised by multiple and enduring connections and commonalities. Can we see the desert, and the regions connected by it, as a dynamic ‘shared world’ of human history and change? Might this provide a framework for rethinking research agendas for North and West Africa, and for revitalising our view of the Sahara? Contributions are invited from scholars whose subject matter has led them to open up questions about northwest African connections and mutual influences, in both the past and the present. Proposals might address any of the following thematic areas:

* ecological spaces and patterns of human habitation
* production and commercial exchange
* social mobility, migration, population displacement
* shared, conflicting and changing systems of human and geographical classification
* cultural and intellectual transmission and exchange; shared artistic, architectural, musical and spiritual traditions
* language communities and communicative interaction (oral and/or written)
* perceptions of legitimate or illicit power and knowledge; epistemologies, worldviews and thought-worlds
* non-state legal frameworks shared throughout the region
* political communities, state forms and state-society relations

Participants will be asked to submit their papers before the workshop for pre-circulation. Abstracts of proposed papers (up to 1 A4 page) should be sent by post or e-mail to: James McDougall, History dept., School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, LONDON, WC1H 0XG, UK. email: jm56@soas.ac.uk. Closing date for receipt of proposals: Friday 25 April 2008.

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