Jun 15 2018

A benevolent crossroads

Philippe Peycam

We are currently entirely captivated by the preparations of two major events, both of which promise to stand as important new steps in the pursuit of IIAS’s global engagement. The first is the upcoming Africa-Asia conference in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (20-22 September 2018). It will be the second edition of the Africa-based event after the success of Accra 2015, in Ghana. Following that historical event, IIAS, ICAS, the African Association for Asian Studies (A-ASIA) and their multiple partners were encouraged to think about turning the event into a regular one and with it, facilitating the development of a vibrant pan-African network of institutions and scholars wishing to build their capacity to respond to the everyday more conspicuous crossing of influences between political and economic actors of the two continents. Together with A-ASIA, we contacted the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM); an obvious choice given the central role the Tanzanian capital and its university once played in nurturing a spirit of African intellectual engagement in the post-independence period, and because of its geographically close connection to Asia through the Indian Ocean rim.

Already, the 2017 ICAS event in Chiang Mai saw three roundtables openly discussing the position of Asia and its interactions with other regions of the world including Africa, the Indian Ocean and Latin America. This interest in Asia’s global connections is here to stay and to grow. Take for instance the interest in Asia’s relations with Africa. Its range has expanded to embrace a multiplicity of spaces of inquiry as shown by the number of topics to be covered at the Dar es Salaam conference. An average of ten to twelve panels or roundtables will be organized under each of the following nine broad themes:

  • Transcontinental Connections and Interactions
  • Histories and Genealogies
  • The Indian Ocean World
  • Economy and Development
  • Intellectual and Educational Encounters
  • (Im-)Migrations, Diasporas, Refugees, and Identities
  • Knowledge Production and Exchanges
  • Cities, Urban Communities, Architectures
  • Arts, Crafts and Cultural Interventions

The material is still ‘raw’, but with at least one hundred panels and roundtables expected on subjects as varied as ‘Comparison of the Policies of the Two Koreas and Africa’, ‘Cuisines, Mobility and Criminality’, ‘African Communities in Guangzhou’, ‘Siddies in Karnataka, Gujarat, Hyderabad and Goa’, ‘Building a Francophone Centre d’Études Afrique-Asie’, ‘Writing Modern Architectural Histories of Africa, Asia and the Indian Ocean’, the Dar es Salaam conference is set to continue what was pioneered at Accra, where aspects of connections and comparisons go hand and hand to weave a new trans-regional framework of intellectual inquiry.

For UDSM and IIAS, the principle organisers, new encouraging developments have occurred with a number of institutions willing to sponsor the event, by supporting a substantial number of participants or by contributing to a travel support fund for participants in need. I take this opportunity to thank our colleagues from Muziris Institute for the Indian Ocean Studies, University of Calicut (Kerala, India), Leiden University (the Netherlands), University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, U.S.), Observatoire des Sociétés de l’Océan Indien, Université de la Réunion (Réunion), National University of Singapore (Singapore), Social Sciences Research Council (New York, U.S.), Centre for Asian Studies, University of Ghana (Accra, Ghana), Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (China), the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (New York, U.S.), the Henry Luce Foundation (New York, U.S.), University Mohammed V (Rabat, Morocco). Behind these institutions are passionate people who believe in the importance of sharing and collaborating in an inclusive fashion.

The Dar event will be preceded by a two-day working meeting in Zanzibar, in collaboration with UDSM and local partners, on the subject of inclusive collaboration around the growing field of ‘Indian Ocean Studies’. Here too, the institutions involved see the importance of pooling resources in view of developing an open Indian Ocean-focused consortium with at its heart, universities and communities from this vast maritime region.

The second forthcoming event is of course ICAS 11 in Leiden, in July 2019. With the general theme ‘Asia and Europe, Asia in Europe’, this ICAS event will be exceptional. Not only because it will be the first time in nearly two decades that such a mega conference takes place in Europe - in the city where it was born – but also because the terms of knowledge production and collaboration developed in, on and with Asia in Europe have dramatically changed. The event of Dar es Salaam is a reminder that Asia in its definition or in its influence is increasingly pervasive. Europe for its part, as a world region in all its diversity, continues to be a major scholarly concentration of expertise on and with Asia. It also includes within its populations important segments of people with an Asian background whose voices and experiences are becoming more potent. Today, the mayor of one of Europe’s most important cities, London, is of Asian background; so is the prime minister of Ireland. The modes of collaboration, even academic, are evolving, with more fluidity and balance in the exchanges, with more centres of excellence, and an ever-diversified range of connections, experiences and perspectives among scholars.

An illustration of this intensification and diversification in collaborations is the revamped European Alliance on Asian Studies. Originally a small ‘club’ of institutions, the Alliance has grown to represent almost all the regions of Europe where Asia is a focus of interest. This diversification is also true for the increasingly differentiated collection of institutions, from topically focused think tanks to generalist language-training based universities. The Alliance today represents 18 members or would-be members. It was never meant to be exhaustive. It works rather as a group of institutions who share a common interest in collaborating (not just in competing), in facilitating mobility across Europe and with Asia, and in working towards potentially meaningful shared initiatives, free from bureaucratic entrapments. On numerous occasions, the Alliance’s members have expressed frustration over the lack of structural EU or national funding mechanisms that truly encourage collaboration and inter-European exchanges.

This is an issue the partners hope to discuss at ICAS 11. For the Alliance members as for many other participating institutions, Asians, Europeans, and others, ICAS 11 in Leiden will be an opportunity to display their work and to contribute activities (‘events within the event’) in an open setting and a desire for cross-fertilization and a mutually beneficial partnership. In so doing, ICAS 11 should help to position Europe and European institutions in relation to Asia and Asian partners as an open space or meeting ground, less fixed in past certitudes, rich in multiple intellectual traditions and possibilities; a more benevolent crossroads between Asia and other regions of the world.