Magazine article Times Higher Education

The Doctoora in the Desert

Magazine article Times Higher Education

The Doctoora in the Desert

Article excerpt

Literary scholar Elisabeth Kendall tells Matthew Reisz how research on jihadist poetry took her from Oxford to Yemen, where, as abaya-clad Doctoora Aisha, she is welcomed by armed tribal leaders seeking her help and expertise

You know how in the Asterix books they form the turtle formation of shields?" asks Elisabeth Kendall (above), senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic studies at Pembroke College, Oxford. "It felt a bit like that."

She is describing the occasion late last year when she was invited to address about 260 people who were being sworn in as delegates to the first cross-tribal council in the Mahra region of eastern Yemen. After some of her minders had gone ahead to carry out initial reconnaissance, she set off across the desert in a convoy, with four cars in front of her and four behind. Once they reached their destination, she says, "the entrance to the election hall was so thick with Mahri tribesmen that you couldn't get a shot through".

After the end of her speech, her minders said: "'Let's not wait around for the end of the celebrations. Let's take you out now. We feel a sense of danger.' They literally marched me out, men to my left and right, one ahead and one behind, straight into the vehicle. As I came down the steps, they had all the tribes lining up. And then there was the Land Cruiser ahead, with all the guys with guns in the back of it."

Although at the time "it seemed like massive overkill", Kendall admits that subsequent events led her to think again. "There was a meeting a few days later in the next tribal region, Hadramawt, where they were trying to establish their own representative movement. The guy who organised it was assassinated on the way back from the meeting."

Little in Kendall's earlier research career was quite so dramatic. She spent almost a decade from the mid-1990s investigating a school of experimental writing that emerged in Egypt in the late 1960s, in the aftermath of Israel's victory in the 1967 Six Day War. She collected copies of long-forgotten magazines, interviewed the surviving writers and analysed their work as part of "a literary political movement", noting how they often portrayed "the depressed isolated individual at the margins of society, revealing the angst of defeat".

Yet working on such difficult poetry, recalls Kendall, began to feel "a bit like studying in a cocoon. I wanted to understand how cultural and literary products intersect with the world. I wanted to find out whether the decades of training I'd had in literary theory, literary criticism and Arabic language could be brought to bear on something that was a bit more real."

In parallel with this, Kendall spearheaded a successful bid to establish a language-based area studies centre at the University of Edinburgh, in collaboration with the universities of Durham and Manchester. This became the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World, where she served as director from 2008 to 2010, responsible for "a huge conference on jihad and martyrdom in 2009: we brought together scholars, academics, policymakers, spies and former terrorists to discuss the issues from a variety of perspectives".

The outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2010, however, spurred Kendall to refocus on her own research rather than directing other people's. She negotiated a research-based position at Oxford and joined forces with British and Egyptian political scientists to survey public opinion in Egypt in the aftermath of the revolution. By now very interested in jihad, she began to turn her attention to "the increase in jihadist journals being published in Yemen. I thought, I know how to research journals. I can use my expertise to look at the literary content of the journals, which everyone else is ignoring, and the role it plays in what governments call winning hearts and minds, where we are missing a very obvious component. …

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