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Reading and Discussion with Mark Prince and Yvonne Albers | On the Edge of the Empty Quarter

Oct 19, 2023 | 06:00 PM
A construction site near Homs, ca. 1980.

A construction site near Homs, ca. 1980.
Image Credit: Yvonne Albers Personal Archive

Organised by Regine Ehleiter, Research Area 4: "Literary Currencies".

Exponential developments in the technology that conveys information about places and cultures that would formerly have seemed inaccessible, the availability and abundance of that information, along with the advent of quick and affordable means of long-distance travel, have tended to dilute our sense of the otherness of the foreign. The prevailing dogma that all geography is locatable, and by extension, it seems, knowable, through the omniscient eye in the sky of GPS software, corresponds to an emphasis, in the highly charged field of contemporary identity politics, on the coercive myth that our relation to our origins, however tenuous they may be, should define our identities.

'On The Edge Of The Empty Quarter' will feature recent work by writers responding to the contemporary equation of information and experience by exploring the unreliability of their own access to their roots – or familial roots – in the Middle East. A structuralist emphasis on how knowledge of a past, which one has not experienced at first-hand, is implicitly mediated offers an antidote to the colonialist hubris of 21st Century globalism. It is complicated by an auto-fictional take on the relation between a writer's construction of a self through language and the essential constructedness of the immigrant self, its assimilation to a contingent setting never more than provisional.

The title of the event is drawn from Wilfred Thesiger's 'Arabian Sands' (1959), a British outsider's account of his perilous postwar travels in and around the 'Empty Quarter', a vast, mostly unpopulated desert in Saudi Arabia. Viewed from a broader perspective, the regions surrounding this area not only include the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, but Iraq and Syria, which, to a remote vantage, are also empty in the figurative sense of not having been fleshed out by first-hand experience, or in many cases even first-hand information.

Yvonne Albers is a postdoctoral researcher in the EXC 2020 Temporal Communities. Her research focused on how the arts have emerged in Lebanon after the civil war, and how print magazines enrich and complicate our reading of 20th century Arab intellectual history. Having grown up in Germany, her exploration of her father's background in mid-century Syria comprehends how his spoken testimony constitutes the limits of her access to that history, if not to contemporary war-torn Syria itself.

Mark Prince is an English writer and critic, who joined the EXC 2020 Temporal Communities in 2022 as a Dorothea Schlegel Artist in Residence. The fellowship supported his work on 'The Beirut Picture', which he describes as an anti-memoir, in that it approaches his mother's experience as an exile from Iraq to England, during the anti-Jewish purges, only through material related to her – images, objects, language – which happens to have come down to him.

Time & Location

Oct 19, 2023 | 06:00 PM

Freie Universität Berlin
EXC 2020 "Temporal Communities"
Room 00.05
Otto-von-Simson-Straße 15
14195 Berlin