IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Dena A Al-AdeebInterview with CAPAS Fellow Dena A Al-Adeeb
Dena A Al-Adeeb: “I really liked the way the fellowship was framed: embracing interdisciplinarity and valuing varied methodological and theoretical approaches.”
“Apocalypses are not in the future! Apocalypses are happening now!” Scholar, artist, educator, and cultural worker Dena A Al-Adeeb knows this first-hand; after all, she experienced the apocalyptic reality of war several times throughout her childhood and youth in Iraq and Kuwait. Consequently, she has dedicated herself to the interdisciplinary study of global war geographies, militarisation, and oil economies as they manifest in the work of contemporary artists, collective memory, material and visual culture in West Asia, particularly in Iraq and the Gulf region. As a member of the first CAPAS fellowship class, Dena spent four months in Heidelberg during which she was free from other commitments to devote herself to her research. Shortly before the end of her fellowship, she spoke with us about her work, her life path, and her stay at the Centre for Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Studies.
You are one of the first CAPAS fellows. Why did you apply for a fellowship?
Dena A Al-Adeeb: I appreciated CAPAS embracing of interdisciplinarity and valuing varied methodological and theoretical approaches towards research concerning ideas, narratives, and experiences of the doom of worlds and their aftermath. I expected that I would be able to explore heterogenous imaginaries, lived experiences, and epistemologies of the apocalypse through a relational analytic that go beyond unitary Eurocentric ideas and normative Universalist frameworks that maintain established orthodoxies and theological approaches. Its transcultural focus and emphasis on collaborative research methods relevant to society at large, particularly in areas beyond traditional academic boundaries, made it especially appealing. Thus, I anticipated the fellowship as an opportunity affording a structural framework to reconceptualize end of the worlds to account for plurality, range of scales, and non-liner apocalyptic temporalities by widening the set of actors, histories, and geographies that employ re-worlding.
Reading your CV, apocalypses are not only the subject of your studies but also lived experiences. Is that why you chose to work on them?
Indeed, my research interests are a reflection of my lived experiences. I was born in Iraq and as a child my family was forced to flee Bagdad just before the Iran-Iraq War broke out. We escaped to Kuwait and as a child this experience definitely resembled the end of a world as far as I knew it. When I was a senior in high school—a crucial developmental phase in which life is “typically” perceived as expansive —we were displaced for a second time. Due to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent 1991 First Gulf War we had to involuntary relocate to San Francisco, California. Again, the world as I knew it came to an end. Moreover, I found myself out of place, estranged from the country wreaking havoc on my homeland. I was confronted by media coverage, images, and narratives dominated by a Eurocentric worldview and informed by Western geo-political and economic interests. Furthermore, media portrayal of the war was horrifically disconnected from the embodied lived experiences of violence and destruction on the ground. The footage of the war strategically taken from above depicted an aerial view of the bombing campaign, which allegedly portrayed a ‘targeted and sanitary operation with minimal collateral damage’. The smouldering explosions must have obscured the bloodbath on land while the smoke overshadowed its memory. The absence of bodies, memory, experiences, and expressions was in itself traumatically affecting. For those of us who survived the wounding experiences of war the imaginative and transformative force of thinking with and through the post-apocalypse may produce emancipatory and creative potentials that engage our political demands, desires, and dreams of expansive futures. These experiences led me to be involved in the anti-war and social justice movements as well as community organizing.
After the 2003 US-led invasion, I returned to Iraq and between 2003 and 2010, I conducted fieldwork in Baghdad and Karbala (Iraq) as well as in Dubai and Abu Dhabi (UAE). In 2004, I relocated to Egypt where I pursued an MA degree in sociology and anthropology at the American University of Cairo. Six years later, in 2010, I moved back to the United States to complete a doctoral degree in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the New York University. Since then, my research focuses on global war geographies and oil economies as they manifest through visual culture, material culture, and collective memory. Basically, I ask how art, architecture, archaeology, and the built environments have been affected—invented, destroyed, and reimagined—by imperial geopolitics, neoliberal processes, and techno-utopian projects often aspiring to omniscience and omnipotence. Analyzing the effects of war, militarisation, and oil economies on that which is visible and materially tangible, I account for transformations in collective memory, urban space and petrocultures that are ineluctably tied to global processes of armed violence and wealth creation.
Coming back to your stay at CAPAS: On which topics were you working during your stay in Heidelberg?
I am in the process of writing a book tentatively titled “The Architecture of War: The Destructions of Iraq and the Rise of Petro-cultural Imaginaries.” While at CAPAS, I developed a new chapter that explores the artwork of contemporary artists who reconceptualize ends of worlds by employing “alternative” collectives and imaginaries potentially promising more expansive futures. Their creative practice is inspired by SWANA (South/West Asia and North Africa) futurism aesthetics rooted in empirical histories, cultural memories and political movements towards rebuilding collectivity and solidarity while imagining new types of collective futures. I draw on comparative philosophies and practices such as Afrofuturism, Latinx futurism, and techno-orientalism, to explore diasporic concepts of time and temporality, futurity, technology, and culture.
In her research, Dena A Al-Adeeb focuses on global war geographies and oil economies as they manifest through material and visual culture, architecture/infrastructure, and collective memory. She holds a Doctor in Middle Eastern, and Islamic Studies from New York University which she completed in 2018. In 2008 she finished her Masters in Anthropology and Sociology at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. Her Bachelor in International Relations was received from the San Francisco State University, CA (US) in 1998. She has undertaken many leading academic research positions throughout her career including her role as Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of American Studies at the University of California, Davis in 2018 to 2020, and as Research Assistant at the Department of Near Eastern Studies at New York University, NY in 2015 to 2016.
Dena A Al-Adeeb was born in Iraq and raised there and in Kuwait. She and her family had to flee the war twice. Her lived experiences as a refugee, immigrant, and woman of colour inform her scholarship and art and inspire her engagements in movement building with the peoples and struggles whose histories, societies, and cultures are under attack. She is ethically committed to making the humanities and social sciences meaningful to communities outside the academy through long-term educational collaborations and community organizing initiatives.
Following her time at CAPAS, she joined the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration as a Mellon Artist and Practitioner Fellow.