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Imaginary Divides: The Middle East and Africa Across Empires, Oceans, and Borders

Imaginary Divides


Conference Description

The conference interrogates the naturalized boundaries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). It seeks to understand the relationship between the region and its adjacent spaces, particularly sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean. How can we reimagine the relationship between the MENA and other alternative geographies, challenging the imagined divides between them? We bring together a diverse group of scholars to think through the entanglements between, across, and beyond categories of region, nation, and language, and to foreground the uneven power relations that exist between particular regions, and the possibilities for transcending them. To do this, we consciously invite scholars whose research may not fit perfectly within regional categories or a single discipline. The conference brings together emerging and established scholars to think through these engagements across space and time, foregrounding scholarship that has not historically been spotlighted, and creating new conversations across specializations.


There will be brief intermissions from 11:00am – 11:30am (between panels 1 and 2) and 1:00pm – 2:00pm (between panels 2 and 3) to allow for a coffee break and lunch.

1) Third Worldism and South-South Solidarity


Panelists will explore how people in different parts of the world imagined the possibilities for solidarity across borders among dispossessed, colonized, and/or racialized subjects. Are there particularities that characterize forms of solidarity that cross-cut MENA and Sub-Saharan Africa and how are such solidarities constituted?

Paraska Tolan Szkilnik (Suffolk University): Maghreb Noir: Pan-African Futures in North Africa
Zachariah Mampilly (Baruch College)
Yousuf Al-Bulushi (University of California – Irvine): Solidarity and the Dar School
Rosie Bsheer (discussant, Harvard University)

Anaheed Al-Hardan (panel chair, Howard University)

2) Maritime Spaces and Global Mobilities

11:30am – 1:00pm

Maritime spaces are often conceptualized as barriers that separate, or as conduits that connect the MENA and sub-Saharan Africa regions.  How significant are such spaces to the types and tenor of interrelation between these regions?  How have these interrelations and their relative significance changed historically?

Matthew Hopper (California Polytechnic): Liberated Africans in Aden 1861-1897
Jatin Dua (University of Michigan): Stuck: Chokepoints and (Im)mobility in the Indian Ocean
Renisa Mawani (University of British Columbia): Enemies of Empire
Laleh Khalili (discussant, Queen Mary University of London)

Sara Rahnama (panel chair, Morgan State University)

3) Power Politics within the Global South

2:00pm – 3:30pm

This panel examines different types of interrelations, both past and present, that connect MENA and sub-Saharan Africa, and scrutinizes the asymmetrical forms of power that both animate and are produced through these interrelations.  Forms of interrelations include, but are not limited to the movement of goods and peoples, systems of governance, investment and resource extraction.

Nisrin Elamin (University of Toronto): Toward a method and theory of emergent forms of empire-making in and beyond Sudan
Mostafa Minawi (Cornell University): Reading Difference: Inscribing Race in the Late Ottoman Empire
Beeta Baghoolizadeh (Princeton University): Circuitous Freedom: narratives from a so-called abolition
Eve Troutt Powell (discussant, University of Pennsylvania)

Mona Oraby (panel chair, Howard University)


  • Nisrin Elamin is currently an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and African Studies at the University of Toronto. She received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from Stanford University in 2020. Her doctoral research looked at the ways Saudi and Emirati corporate investments in land reconfigured everyday social relations between landless and landholding stakeholders in Sudan's agricultural heartland: the Gezira. In addition to scholarly articles, Nisrin has published several op-eds for Al Jazeera, the Washington Post, Okay Africa, and the Cultural Anthropology Hot Spot Series. Before pursuing her Ph.D., Nisrin spent over a decade working as an educator, community organizer and researcher in the US and Tanzania.

  • Mostafa Minawi is an associate professor of history and the director of Critical Ottoman and Post-Ottoman Studies at Cornell University. He has published on technology and imperialism; International Law and colonialism; and contemporary geopolitics in Turkey, the Levant, and the Horn of Africa. He held several fellowships in Hungary, Lebanon, Turkey, the US, and Canada. His first book, "The Ottoman Scramble for Africa: Empire and Diplomacy in the Sahara and the Hijaz," was published by SUP in 2016. It was translated to Turkish and Arabic. His most recent book, "Losing Istanbul: Arab-Ottoman Imperialists and the End of Empire," came out in December 2022 with SUP.

  • Beeta Baghoolizadeh (PhD, History, University of Pennsylvania) is an Associate Research Fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at Princeton. Her first book, The Color Black: Enslavement and Erasure in Iran, forthcoming with Duke University Press, examines constructions of race, memory, and erasure through the lens of enslavement and abolition in 19th and 20th century Iran. Prior to joining Princeton, Beeta was an assistant professor of History and Critical Black Studies at Bucknell University. Her research has been supported by the Social Science Research Council. She has also been a Research Fellow at the Bard Graduate Center, and a Regional Faculty Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wolf Humanities Center.

  • Mona Oraby is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Howard University and Editor of The Immanent Frame (TIF), a digital publication of the Social Science Research Council that advances scholarly debate on secularism, religion, and the public sphere. She is the author of Devotion to the Administrative State: Religion and Social Order in Egypt (Princeton University Press, forthcoming) and coauthor of A Universe of Terms: Religion in Visual Metaphor (Indiana University Press, 2022).

  • Matthew S. Hopper is Professor of History at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. His book, Slaves of One Master: Globalization and Slavery in Arabia in the Age of Empire (Yale University Press, 2015), was a finalist for the 2016 Frederick Douglass Book Prize. He received his Ph.D. in History from UCLA and has held fellowships at Yale, the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and Cambridge. His writing has been published in Annales, Itinerario, and the Journal of African Development. He is currently writing a history of liberated Africans in the Indian Ocean world.

  • Jatin Dua is an associate professor of Anthropology and Director of the Interdepartmental Program in Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. His research explores maritime mobility in the Indian Ocean, and its perils and possibilities. He is the author of Captured at Sea: Piracy and Protection in the Indian Ocean, (2019). His current research projects continue this emphasis on maritime worlds and their entanglements with law, sovereignty, economy, and sociality through two main projects on chokepoints and port making in the Indian Ocean and a research project on the lives of seafarers from the Global South.

  • Renisa Mawani is Canada Research Chair in Colonial Legal Histories and Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia, located on the unceded territories of the Musqueam (xʷməθkʷəy̓əm) peoples. She works at the intersection of critical theory and colonial legal history and has published widely on law, colonialism, and legal geography. She is the author of Colonial Proximities (2009) and Across Oceans of Law (2018), which was a finalist for the U.K. Socio-Legal Studies Association Theory and History Book Prize (2020) and winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Prize for Outstanding Contribution to History (2020).

  • Laleh Khalili is a professor of international politics at Queen Mary University of London, and most recently the author of Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula (Verso 2020).

  • Sara Rahnama is an Assistant Professor of History at Morgan State University and the author of The Future is Feminist: Women and Social Change in Interwar Algeria, forthcoming with Cornell University Press. Her writing has appeared in both academic and popular spaces, including Gender & History and The Washington Post. She was formerly a fellow at the Library of Congress’s Kluge Center.

  • Paraska Tolan-Szkilnik is Assistant Professor of History at Suffolk University, in Boston. Her first book, Maghreb Noir: The Militant-Artists of North Africa and the Struggle for a Pan-African, Postcolonial Future is forthcoming in July 2023. She has published for Monde(s), The Arab Studies Journal, World Art, and the International Journal of Middle East Studies, amongst others.

  • Zachariah Mampilly is the Marxe Endowed Chair of International Affairs at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, CUNY and a member of the doctoral faculty in the Department of Political Science at the Graduate Center, CUNY. He is the Co-Founder of the Program on African Social Research.

  • Yousuf Al-Bulushi is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Global & International Studies at the University of California, Irvine. He received his PhD in Geography from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his BA from the Program in Literature at Duke University. His research draws on political geography, political theory, political economy, and social movements. He serves on the International Advisory Board of the journal Antipode, and is a Contributing Editor for the journal Transforming Anthropology. He is currently co-director of the year-long Mellon Sawyer Seminar at UC Irvine, "Black Reconstruction as a Portal."

  • Rosie Bsheer is Associate Professor of History at Harvard University. She is the author of Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia (Stanford University Press, 2020). Rosie is a member of the editorial board of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East (CSSAME), Associate Producer of the 2007 Oscar-nominated film My Country, My Country, and a co-editor of Jadaliyya E-zine.

  • Anaheed Al-Hardan is an associate professor of sociology at Howard University. She is the author of Palestinians in Syria: Nakba Memories of Shattered Communities (Columbia University Press, 2016). She is also Principal Investigator on Afro-Asian Futures Past, a Mellon-funded collaborative research program on the African-Asian decolonization era between Howard University, the American University of Beirut, the University of Ghana, the University of Cape Town and the University of the Witwatersrand.