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Cover: 1891. View on Canal St., New Orleans (broadest street in the world), U.S.A. ( Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-16190 )

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We are just about two weeks away from the 47th Annual Meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (October 10-13, 2013) that will take place in New Orleans, Louisiana. We—Will Hanley, Børre Ludvigsen, and Maxim Romanov—are glad to present two panels and a roundtable on Digital Humanities in Middle Eastern Studies that will take place on Friday, October 11.

Digital Humanities in Middle East Studies I: Traditional Sources, Nontraditional Methods (Friday, 10/11/13 11:00am)

The last five years have witnessed a dramatic increase in digital humanities research in Middle East studies. When the last MESA session dedicated to the digital humanities took place in 2010, participants discussed possible lines of research. Now, the projects are real. This panel presents a number of studies that rely on such digital tools and methods as social network analysis, historical geographical information systems and text-mining. With these digital methods, scholars can now work efficiently with large volumes of data, which is helping them to find unique perspectives and ask research questions that have been inconceivable within the traditional paradigms of historical inquiry. The diverse geographical, chronological and disciplinary range of the projects presented at the panel means that the panel will focus especially on questions of methodology and how digital tools can be applied to pre-modern and early modern sources. Seeking to provide other scholars with a better understanding of both the potential and challenges of new digital methods, we hope to encourage them to step into the digital realm.

With their projects in different stages of development, the panelists will present their digital studies of traditional sources. The first paper focuses on early genealogical tradition, seeking to structure the narrative of Islamic origins by focusing on how Muslims balanced conflicting familial, tribal and ethnic loyalties. The second paper offers a genealogy of the idea of Jabal ‘Amil as the essential part of the identity of the Shi‘ite community of South Lebanon. The third paper attempts to create historical maps of the “connectedness” of the pre-modern Islamic world by bringing together itineraries of Islamic learned men. The fourth paper undertakes a study of cultural memory by tracing the inter-textual usage of memorable two-word phrases and cliches on pre- and early Islamic topics. The last paper looks into the decline of the Islamic textile industry by bringing together multiple complex factors through the use of historical GIS.

Abstracts are available at the MESA website.

Digital Humanities in Middle East Studies II: Digital Communications (Friday, 10/11/13 2:00pm)

The last five years have witnessed a dramatic increase in digital humanities research in Middle East studies. Since the last MESA session dedicated to the digital humanities in 2010, collaborative online publication venues such as Jadaliyya and the Ottoman History Podcast have become major players in the discipline. The content that these venues offer is traditionally textual, but the spirit in which they are produced—timely and addressing a broad public outside the academy—is new. Meanwhile, other scholars are using digital tools to approach traditional sources, often with an eye to broader dissemination of their research and broader discussion of their findings. Whereas the previous panel in this series considered the use of digital methods in traditional, solitary academic research, this panel will focus on digital humanities as a tool for new forms of communication.

Papers cover a wide range of disciplines and a broad scale of projects, but the common thread is an interest in reaching a broader audience than conventional methods allow. The first paper concerns an ambitious, collective project, now in its early stages, to develop a flexible digital atlas of Islam that will meet the needs of a diverse global readership. The second paper presents the work of an artist-scholar using digital methods to engage a broad audience beyond traditional academia. The paper describes efforts to archive and present the diverse digital voices involved in the Egyptian Revolution in a way that preserves their multi-vocal, revolutionary nature. A third paper describes an online project compiling a complex map of incidents in the 2006 war in Lebanon while it was taking place. The final paper describes an NEH-funded project which makes a nineteenth century manuscript available on the fullest range of interactive digital platforms. This paper offers valuable insights into the management of an advanced digital humanities project.

Abstracts are available at the MESA website.

Digital Humanities in Middle East Studies Roundtable (Friday, 10/11/13 4:30pm)

This roundtable is the culmination of a three-session sequence on digital humanities in Middle East studies. While the two panels that precede it present concrete projects which have been fairly thoroughly developed, this roundtable offers an opportunity to survey projects that are still in their preliminary stages as well as the state of the field in general. All of the presenters at the previous panels will be invited to attend as active roundtable, and we have also invited a number of scholars to present their own research ideas in this light. We have also invited brief contributions from four experienced digital humanities project leaders who will not be official members of the preceding panels.

In addition to its survey of the field and the general exchange of ideas that characterize most MESA roundtables (including the previous version of this roundtable, which took place in 2010), we aim to create an opportunity for those with a preliminary interest to make contacts who can help them to develop a digital humanities research agenda. Digital methods are not firmly entrenched in the field and rarely form part of graduate training. Most of the people involved in this series of sessions have worked in relative isolation. The roundtable hopes to employ the critical mass of scholars in order to offer support and mentoring for those contemplating new work of this sort. It is hoped that a community of mutual exchange can emerge from these sessions. To that end, the organizers are developing a website that will prepare participants for the sessions and provide a forum of exchange in the months that follow this conference.

The collective experience of roundtable participants constitutes a library of best practices that can be applied to the particular needs of our field, which range from the technical (its diverse languages) to the political (censorship and access to information) to the social (the broad use of digital communications in the Middle East today). One of the most exciting side-effects of digital humanities is its strong bias for collective and collaborative work, a trend that is already changing the field of Middle East studies in significant ways.

Abstracts are available at the MESA website.

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Posted by Maxim Romanov

Research fellow (PhD in Near Eastern Studies, U of Michigan, 2013) at the Humboldt Chair for Digital Humanities [Institut für Informatik], University of Leipzig. He studies Islamic historical texts with computational methods, currently focusing on the analysis of multivolume biographical and bibliographical collections.