Research page Samuli Schielke

1 Curriculum Vitae /2 Research projects / 3 Lectures / 4 Films / 5 Writings / 6 Contact
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1/6 Curriculum vitae

I am a social and cultural anthropologist working mainly on contemporary Egypt. I was born in Helsinki, Finland in 1972. After finishing school in 1991 I spent some time travelling around Eastern Europe and the Middle East. I tried my luck in journalism but wasn't good at it, and instead went to study Arabic and Islamic studies in Bonn, Germany, from where I graduated in 2000. I did not feel home in the philological world of Orientalism, and changed to the discipline of anthropology with the help of a PhD position at the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) in Leiden, the Netherlands, and in 2006 I received my PhD thesis in social sciences from the University of Amsterdam. I worked as a postdoc at the Department of Anthropology and African Studies in Mainz, Germany and in the University of Eastern Finland. Since 2009, I work as a researcher at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin, Germany. From 2010 to 2014, I directed the research and exhibition project In Search of Europe: Considering the Possible in Africa and the Middle East, which is not about Europe. In 2017, I received the title of a docent in social anthropology from the University of Tampere, Finland.

The topics of my past and present research include: the contestation of festive culture and Sufi pilgrimages (read more in my book The Perils of Joy); the hopes, frustrations and ambivalence of religious, moral and aspirational lives (much of my new Book Egypt in the Future Tense is about this); the expectation and experience of migration and social mobility under conditions of local and global inequality (In Search of Europe was partly about this); and two projects I'm currently focussing on: the motivations and consequences of literary writing in Alexandria; and normal life as a utopian striving. I have also occasionally worked on the January 25 Revolution and its consequences ever since (see my blog); religious and political commitments; nonbelievers and secularism; and masculinity, love, marriage and intimacy.

From 2014 to 2017, I was a part-time visiting scholar at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina where I taught the study circle "Anthropological readings on our contemporary world." From 2010 to 2020, I was an adjunct lecturer in Visual and Media Anthropology at the Free University of Berlin where I taught photography and anthropology. Since 2018, I'm an associate primary investigator at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies. I am a keen amateur photographer, and I have been involved in some documentary and experimental films.

For the official record: my academic affiliation and job title is senior researcher at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO), where I'm employed since 2009. I am NOT employed at the Free University of Berlin.

2/6 Current research projects

You can follow my unfinished research work in process on my blog A Book of Unfinished Theories. For publications of completed research, look further below.

My current research circles around questions about personal trajectories, class and global inequality, morality and religion, as well as the relationship between intimate lives, literary imagination, political economy, and moral strivings. I'm also interested in the relationship between destiny and freedom, and in general I'm curious about contradictions, ambiguities and shifts in humans' social and intimate lives. I'm interested in understanding government from the point of view of the governed, and powerful discourses from the point of view of living a life marked by them. The concrete topics I am currently looking at include migration and work, love and marriage, moral and political conflicts and ambiguities, the way humans relate with God and destiny, and most importantly the following two:

The Writing of Lives

Writing poetry, prose and semi-literary texts is a fairly common activity among Egyptians who have received higher education, although the readership of fiction is very low. After 2011, such writing has become much more visible as many people have started writing or have started publishing online what they would have previously kept for themselves. Following the lives and works of writers in different milieus in Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, this research project looks at the practice, social conditions and possible consequences of literary writing from a long-term biographical perspective. Connecting literary works, their themes and their styles with questions of sociality, personal idiosyncrasies, political and social context, livelihoods and economy, the project is also an attempt to develop a non-reductionist understanding of imagination, cultural production, material conditions, relations of production and social change on the same analytical plane. The research, which is based on shared fieldwork with the Alexandrian novelist Mukhtar Saad Shehata, has a strongly collaborative aspect, debating and developing these theoretical directions in dialogue with the writers involved. This project comes to conclusion with the end of 2019, and a book will hopefully be published in 2020.

Publications from this project so far:
Is prose poetry a conspiracy against the Noble Qur'an? Poetics, humans and God in contemporary Egypt.
A City of Walls: A Photo Essay on Writing on Walls in Alexandria, 2011-2017
Where is Alexandria? Myths of the city and the anti-city after cosmopolitanism
أين تقع الإسكندرية؟ .. أساطير المدينة والمدينة النقيض بعد المرحلة الكوزموبوليتانية
The Writing of Lives: An ethnography of writers and their milieus in Alexandria
Can poetry change the world? Reading Amal Dunqul in Egypt in 2011

The Search for a Normal Life

At the heart of this project is a central paradox of the age of globalisation: the possibility of a stable, normal life at home relies on destabilising processes of growth, expansion, and mobility.

Rural-urban and international migrations in and from the Global South are often socially conservative projects: strivings to actualise conventional ways and ideas of a good life. They are grounded in the imagination and practice of what in Arabic is widely referred to as “a normal life” (hayah 'adiya), “a life worthy of humans” (hayat bani adamin), or “stability” (istiqrar). Generational continuity and reproduction are central to such dreams of a normal life. This project follows trajectories of men from a rural region in northern Egypt that will become uninhabitable by the end of the 21st century due to climate change. The research accompanies them along a trans-local migratory network stretching to Egyptian cities, western Europe, and Arab Gulf states where they work to build the means of a normal, settled adulthood at home. Becoming an adult man in Egypt is a path of largely pre-determined steps such as financial independence, housing, marriage, offspring, and their education. This is the prime nexus of social reproduction, and at the same time also the context where generational shifts and transformations are likely to occur.

The first phase of the project, which is funded by Fritz Thyssen Foundation from 2020 to 2021, focusses on their efforts to build houses in their regions of origin. These houses unite strivings for moral and material comfort, upward social mobility, and rootedness in local communities. And yet the builders of these houses often only live in them during vacations. They dwell and raise their children in cities that gradually may become their homes as well. In the process, their dream of a good, normal life at home appears to be unsettling itself by the virtue of its own success.

Publications from this project so far:
Migrant Dreams: Egyptian Workers in the Gulf States.
حتى ينتهي النفط: الهجرة والأحلام في ضواحي الخليج

3/6 Recorded lectures

The power of God. Four proposals for anthropological engagement. Lecture to the workshop “The 'Ethical' and the 'Everyday': Interrogating analytical turns for/in the study of Islam and Muslims in Europe” at Cambridge University, 29 November 2018. Watch.

Secular powers and heretic undercurrents in a God-fearing world. Lecture at the conference of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, King's College London, 5 July 2018. Listen or read.

قصة علم الإنسان. حوار مع أحمد سعد زايد في مركز الجزويت الثقافي، الإسكندرية، 20 فبراير 2017.
شاهد الجزء الأول. شاهد الجزء الثاني

Stability as a utopia. Revisiting Egyptian youth as they grow older, and the future tense as time passes. Lecture at the Department of Anthropology, Aarhus University, 21 September 2016. Listen.

Dreaming of the Inevitable. How Money, Morals and Destiny Come Together When Young Egyptians Search for Love and Marriage. Lecture at Boston University, 8 February 2016. Listen.

4/6 Films

The Secret Capital. With Mukhtar Saad Shehata. 28 min. Egypt, 2013. Watch the film online

The Other Side. With Mukhtar Saad Shehata. 9 min. Egypt and the Netherlands, 2010. Watch the film online

Messages from Paradise #1, Egypt:Austria, About the Permanent Longing for Elsewhere. With Daniela Swarowsky. 44 min. Austria and the Netherlands, 2010. Watch the trailer online

5/6 Selected writings

Migrant Dreams: Egyptian Workers in the Gulf States. American University in Cairo Press, 2020.
Buy the book!
"A vivid ethnography of Egyptian migrants to the Arab Gulf states, Migrant Dreams is about the imagination which migration thrives on, and the hopes and ambitions generated by the repeated experience of leaving and returning home.What kind of dreams for a good or better life drives labor migrants? What does being a migrant worker do to one's hopes and ambitions? How does the experience of migration to the Gulf, with its attendant economic and legal precarities, shape migrants' particular dreams of a better life? What do those dreams-be they realistic and productive, or fantastic and unlikely-do to the social worlds of the people who pursue them, and to their families and communities back home upon their return?"

"Where is Alexandria? Myths of the city and the anti-city after cosmopolitanism." In: Hilal Alkan and Nazan Maksudyan (eds.), Urban Neighbourhood Formations: Materialities, Networks and Contested Places. Routledge. Read online

"Wie, es gab eine Revolution? Niederlage, Mythenbildung und Kontinuität in Ägypten nach 2011." In: Martin Sabrow (ed.), Revolution! Verehrt - verhasst - vergessen (Helmstedter Colloquien; 21) Download/Read online

"Is prose poetry a conspiracy against the Noble Qur'an? Poetics, humans and God in contemporary Egypt." Historical Social Research, vol. 44 (2019), issue 3, pp. 101-126. Download/Read online

"The power of God: Four proposals for an anthropological engagement." ZMO Programmatic Texts, vol. 13 (2019). Download/Read online

"Islam." Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology, 2018. Read online

"Destiny as a Relationship." Afterword to the special section Anthropologies of destiny: Action, temporality, Freedom. HAU: Journal for Ethnographic Theory vol. 8 (2018): pp. 343-346. Read online

"لا بد من الدم: ترقُّب العنف وأخلاقياته في موسم مصر العاصف" (There must be blood: The expectation and ethics of violence in Egypt's stormy season, in Arabic). Transl. Mustafa al-Fiqi. Ma'had Dirasat al-'Alam 18 July 2018. Read online

"A City of Walls. A Photo Essay on Writing on Walls in Alexandria, 2011-2017." Égypte/Monde arabe vol. 17 (2018): Everyday Alexandria(s) — Plural experiences of a mythologized city, ed. by Youssef El Chazly, pp. 157-191.0. Read online

"أين تقع الإسكندرية؟ .. أساطير المدينة والمدينة النقيض بعد المرحلة الكوزموبوليتانية." (Where is Alexandria? Myths of the city and the anti-city after cosmopolitanism), transl. Abdelrehim Youssef, Tara al-Bahr 3 (2017), pp. 12-27. Read online

"There will be Blood: Expectation and Ethics of Violence during Egypt's Stormy Season." Middle East Critique 26 (2017), pp. 205–220. Read online

"حتى ينتهي النفط: الهجرة والأحلام في ضواحي الخليج ." (Until the End of Oil: Migration Dreams in the Suburbs of the Gulf), Transl. Amr Khairy. Safsafa, 2017.
Read a preview and buy the book!

" في أحد أيامي الأخيرة في الدوحة، عام 2009 ، صادفت زيد المشرف، أمام البنك، وكان يتحدث على الهاتف إلى ابنه في مصر. بعد المكالمة، بدا عليه التأثر. قال لي: "أنا تعبت. أنا تعبت هنا. نفسي أرجع. لكن مقدرش أرجع، هنعيش منين؟ لازم أستحمل سنة كمان." كان زيد وقتها في قطر منذ سبع سنوات. تزوج بالفلوس التي ربحها هناك، وكانت أسرته تعيش على دخله. عندما انتهيت من مسودة هذا الكتاب في ربيع 2015 كان ما زال في قطر. وقبله، كان والده الراحل قد عاش في قطر لعقود كعامل مهاجر.. في اليوم التالي قابلت زيد وعنتر، المشرف الآخر، عند البنك، وسألتهما إن كانا سيعودان قريبًا حقًا. أجابا: "إحنا قاعدين هنا حتى آخر ريال. لغاية ما النفط يخلص."

"On one of my last days in Doha in 2009, I encountered Tawfiq's supervisor Zayd outside the bank, speaking on the phone with his son in Egypt. After the phone call he was visibly moved. He told me: "I can't take it here anymore. I want to go home so much. But I can't return yet, what will I live on? I will have to hold on for one more year." Zayd was in Qatar since seven years. He had married with the money he had earned there, and his family now lived from his income. Last time I heard of him in spring 2015, he was still in Qatar. Before him, his late father had lived for decades in Qatar as a migrant worker as well. The following day, I met Zayd and the other supervisor Antar again in the bank, and I asked them whether they really were going back soon. They answered: "We will be here until the last rial. Until the oil runs out.""

"The Writing of Lives: An ethnography of writers and their milieus in Alexandria.", by Samuli Schielke and Mukhtar Saad Shehata. ZMO Working Papers 17 (2016). Read online

"Can poetry change the world? Reading Amal Dunqul in Egypt in 2011.", In: Islam and Popular Culture. Edited by Karin van Nieuwkerk, Mark LeVine, Martin Stokes. University of Texas Press, 2016. pp. 122-148. Read online / Buy the book

"دفاعاً عن معاييرنا “العالمية” المزدوجة: الأخلاق والنقاء والارتباك والعداوة بين “نحن” و”الآخرين” " (In defence of our "universal" double standards: Morality, purity, confusion and enmity between "us" and "them"). Transl. Amr Khairy. Qira2at 9 March 2016. Read online

"In defence of our universal double standards." Allegra Lab 7 December 2015. Read online

"Living with unresolved differences: A reply to Fadil and Fernando." (My reply to an ongoing debate on anthropology, Islam and everyday life) Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5 (2016), pp. 89–92. Read online

Egypt in the Future Tense: Ambivalence, Hope and Frustration in Egypt before and after 2011. Indiana University Press, 2015.
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"Against the backdrop of the revolutionary uprisings of 2011–2013, Samuli Schielke asks how ordinary Egyptians confront the great promises and grand schemes of religious commitment, middle class respectability, romantic love, and political ideologies in their daily lives, and how they make sense of the existential anxieties and stalled expectations that inevitably accompany such hopes. Drawing on many years of study in Egypt and the life stories of rural, lower-middle-class men before and after the revolution, Schielke views recent events in ways that are both historically deep and personal. Schielke challenges prevailing views of Muslim piety, showing that religious lives are part of a much more complex lived experience."

"I want to be committed: Short-lived trajectories of Salafi activism in Egypt." Ricerca Folklorica 69 (2015). Read online

"هل يقدر الشعر على تغيير العالم؟ قراءة أمل دنقل فى 2011." (Can Poetry Change the World? Reading Amal Dunqul in 2011), transl. Amr Khairy, al-Shi'r 155 (2014), pp. 82-89. Read online

"عيد الحب في مصر: قراءة في الجدل الديني والثقافي." (Aymon Kreil and Samuli Schielke: "Valentine's Day In Egypt: A Reading in Religious and Cultural Debate"), transl. Omria Sultani, Marased 7, Bibliotheca Alexandrina 2011. Read online

"هتتأخر على الثورة: دفتر يوميات عالم أنثروبولوجيا شهد الثورة " ("You'll be late for the revolution!" An anthropologist's diary of the Egyptian Revolution). Transl. Amr Khairy. Al-Nafisa, 2011. Read the book online

In Search of Europe? Art and Research in Collaboration: An Experiment. Daniela Swarowsky, Samuli Schielke, Andrea Heister (eds.). Heijningen: Jap Sam, 2013. Buy the book

"The Writing on the Walls of Egypt." With Jessica Winegar, Middle East Report 265 (2012), pp. 13-17. Read online

The Global Horizon: Expectations of Migration in Africa and the Middle East. Knut Graw and Samuli Schielke (eds.). Leuven: Universitaire Pers Leuven, 2012. Buy the book
"The focus here is on the deep existential dilemmas of migration; how young people at great peril to their lives set out to take part in a globalized world that reaches them only in the form of ‘absence’ or as Knut Graw argues, as a ‘non-arrival of change’. [...] At the heart of many African migration journeys, even the high-risk forms that we see today in the Mediterranean and in the Sahara Desert, lies a continues struggle for a life worth living that is in a constant flux between local and global, between tradition and modernity, between what one has been given and what one must achieve in order to make the world one’s own. In this excellent book, the dilemmas are given ethnographic context and challenge what we know about African migration." (from review by Hans Lucht)

Ordinary Lives and Grand Schemes: An Anthropology of Everyday Religion. Samuli Schielke and Liza Debevec (eds.). New York: Berghahn, 2012. Buy the book / Read the introduction online
"Everyday practice of religion is complex in its nature, ambivalent and at times contradictory. The task of an anthropology of religious practice is therefore precisely to see how people navigate and make sense of that complexity, and what the significance of religious beliefs and practices in a given setting can be. Rather than putting everyday practice and normative doctrine on different analytical planes, the authors argue that the articulation of religious doctrine is also an everyday practice and must be understood as such."

The Perils of Joy: Contesting Mulid Festivals in Contemporary Egypt. Syracuse,NY.: Syracuse University Press, 2012. Buy the book / Read the conclusion online
"Mulids, festivals in honor of Muslim "friends of God," have been part of Muslim religious and cultural life for close to a thousand years. While many Egyptians see mulids as an expression of joy and love for the Prophet Muhammad and his family, many others see them as opposed to Islam, a sign of a backward mentality, a piece of folklore at best. What is it about a mulid that makes it a threat to Islam and modernity in the eyes of some, and an indication of pious devotion in the eyes of others? What makes the celebration of a saint’s festival appear in such dramatically different contours? The Perils of Joy offers a rich investigation, both historical and ethnographic, of conflicting and transforming attitudes toward festivals in contemporary Egypt. Schielke argues that mulids are characterized by a utopian momentum of the extraordinary that troubles the grand schemes of order and perfection that have become hegemonic in Egypt since the twentieth century. Not an opposition between state and civil society, nor a division between Islamists and secularists, but rather the competition between different perceptions of what makes up a complete life forms the central line of conflict in the contestation of festive culture."

"Surfaces of longing: Cosmopolitan aspiration and frustration in Egypt.A photo essay." City and Society 24 (2012), pp. 29-37. Read online

"Being a non-believer in a time of Islamic revival: Trajectories of doubt and certainty in contemporary Egypt." International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 44 (2012), pp. 301-320. Read online

"Living in the Future Tense: Aspiring for world and class in provincial Egypt." In: The Global Middle Class: Theorizing through Ethnography, Carla Freeman, Rachel Heiman, and Mark Liechty (eds.), Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press, pp. 31-56.. Buy the book / Read the chapter online

"Second Thoughts about the Anthropology of Islam, or how to make Sense of Grand Schemes in Everyday Life. " ZMO working papers, Vol. 2 (2010). read online

"Ambivalent Commitments: Troubles of Morality, Religiosity and Aspiration among Young Egyptians," Journal of Religion in Africa Vol. 39 (2009): 2, pp. 158-185. read online

"Being good in Ramadan: Ambivalence, fragmentation and the moral self in the lives of young Egyptians," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute Vol. 15 (2009): Special issue 1 (Islam, Politics, Anthropology), pp. S24-S40. Read online .

"Policing Ambiguity: Muslim saints-day festivals and the moral geography of public space in Egypt," American Ethnologist Vol. 35 (2008): 4, pp. 539–552. Read online .

"Boredom and Despair in Rural Egypt" Contemporary Islam Vol. 28 (2008): 2, pp. 251-270. read online

Georg Stauth and Samuli Schielke (eds.): Dimensions of Locality: Muslim Saints and Their Places (Yearbook of the Sociology of Islam; 8), Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2008. Buy the book. Read the introduction(PDF document).

"Mystic States, Motherly Virtues, Female Participation and Leadership in an Egyptian Sufi Milieu" Journal for Islamic Studies (Capetown) Vol. 28 (2008), pp. 94-126. read online

"Hegemonic encounters: Criticism of saints-day festivals and the formation of modern Islam in late 19th and early 20th-century Egypt" Die Welt des Islams Vol. 47 (2007), number 3-4, pp. 319-355. read online

Review article of Charles Lindholm: The Middle East: Tradition and Change, 2nd ed., Oxford: Blackwell, 2002, in The Muslim World Book Review, Vol. 26 (2006), number 3, pp. 70-72. read online

"Sakralisierung des Alltags und Banalisierung des Heiligen: Religion und Konsum in Ägypten" Working Papers of the Department of Anthropology and African Studies of the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz Vol. 69. read online

"On Snacks and Saints: When Discourses of Order and Rationality Enter the Egyptian Mawlid" Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions vol. 135 (2006), pp. 117-140. (This is a revised version of the article first published in the edited volume Archeology of Sainthood.) read online

"Mawlids & Modernists: Dangers of Fun" ISIM Review 17 (Spring 2006), pp. 6-7. read online

Review article of Catherine Mayeur-Jaouen, Histoire d'un pélerinage légendaire en Islam: Le mouled de Tantâ du XIIIe siècle a nos jours, Paris: Aubier, 2004, Die Welt des Islams Vol. 46, Number 1, 2006, pp. 105-107. read online

"Habitus of the Authentic, Order of the Rational: Contesting Saints Festivals in Contemporary Egypt" Critique. Critical Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 12 (Fall 2003), Nr. 2, pp. 155-172. Link to journal homepage (subscription required)

" ما الشعبى فى المعتقدات الشعبية ؟ " (What makes popular beliefs popular - in Arabic) Fusul, transl. Ibrahim Fathi, Vol. 60 (summer-autumn 2002), pp. 166-176. read online

Review article of Marco Schöller: "Methode und Wahrheit in der Islamwissenschaft" (in German), DAVO-Nachrichten 15 (Juni 2002), pp. 114-115. Read online

"Pious Fun at Saints Festivals in Modern Egypt", ISIM Newsletter 7 (2001), p. 23. Read online

"Johdatus yleiseen sikailuun. Sikailuteoreettinen perspektiivi filosofiaan sekä politiikkaan narratiivisen struktuurin kreatiivisen destruktion kontekstissa" (A travesty of the history of philosophy and political theory. Deconstructs just about everything. In Finnish. Sorry.) In cooperation with Harri Juntunen. Originally published 1997 and 1998 in various Finnish student magazines. read online

6/6 Contact: s c h i e l k e @ r o c k e t m a i l . c o m

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Copyright 2001-2014 by Samuli Schielke / Link to the unscientific section