Updates, reflections, and a few new articles

This post will be part personal update, part promotional entry, and part reflection on the past few years and resurrecting a dormant blog. When I started al-Wasat with my good friend Aaron Zelin, we intended it to be a chance to explore at length some of the niche issues that interested us. In that time, many of these issues have become less niche, while we’ve also both moved on to some different but related things.

When I went back to school in the fall of 2013 to pursue a PhD in African History, I consciously took a step back from the kind of policy-related writing I’d done in the past. I’ve stayed active (too active) on Twitter, but while I’ve continued to occasionally write articles and short essays, much of my attention has been focused on my academic work. Now I’ve finished coursework, passed my language qualifications, and begun the process of applying for research fellowships and reading for my comprehensive exams in the spring. While this is a busy time, it’s also a good one for me to reflect a bit on the relationship between academic work and more contemporary research.

In my time in academia I’ve found that while many people are more open to engagement with the world outside, even though the stereotype of the Ivory Tower academic is only partly true at best. Many people instead already do engage extensively with non-academic subjects and themes, and others want to do the same but are not quite sure how. For historians in particular, it can be challenging to relate research into the past to contemporary life. It can also be difficult to find time for this work when academic programs and job markets do not generally reward things like blog posts, articles, and media appearances.

This is changing rapidly, and there are already fantastic examples of scholars doing deeply researched, rigorous work about the past and present that remain connected to the contemporary world in interesting and new ways, whether at Jadaliyya, Alex Thurston’s Sahel Blog, Malika Rahal’s Textures du Temps, or elsewhere. These blogs and the people who run them have helped inspire my own commentary and writing for years, and will continue to do so.

Along those lines, I’m going to take more time in the coming months and years to write publicly again about the issues and parts of the world that interest me the most, namely North and West Africa. My goal is to stay engaged in current debates while also using my historical research and training in different ways. In doing so, I want to explore not just the connections between the past and the present but also how historical methods can inform analysis.

Those kinds of reflections and the personal connections to events far away were part of a piece I co-wrote with Prof. Gregory Mann for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog on the recent attacks in Paris and Bamako. In that piece and another for Al Jazeera America, I emphasized the Malian context for the Bamako attacks and Mali’s eroding security environment. And in a wide-ranging conversation with Karl Morand for his excellent Middle East Week podcast, I talked about the history of jihadist mobilization in the Sahara and Sahel and the impact of France’s 2013 intervention in Mali, the resonance and explanations for this violence beyond a local framework, how people talk about politics and violence in Africa, and how I view the role of historical methodologies in understanding current affairs. I will continue to explore these and related ideas in some upcoming writing about Mali as well as Algeria and Morocco for different publications.

In the meantime, I’ll use this space to do some less formal writing, to flesh out ideas, and to continue the kind of dialogue I’d like to see take place about the concepts, issues, and places that are important to me. Stay tuned.

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