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 research fellow 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. For the official record: my academic affiliation is research fellow at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient.

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 also occasionally work 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." I am also an external lecturer in Visual and Media Anthropology at the Free University of Berlin where I teach photography and anthropology, and 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.

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.

Publications from this project so far:
A City of Walls: A Photo Essay on Writing on Walls in Alexandria, 2011-2017
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

What happens when the pursuit of the known good undermines the possibility of a rooted way of life? In northern Egypt today, traditional livelihoods have become devalued in face of a strong pressure to realise consumerist and globalised aspirations for a decent life – or as Egyptians call it, "a life worthy of humans." The possibility of such decent life was key to the promise of "change" (taghryir) that spirited the defeated revolution of January 25, 2011. And yet many of the same people who dreamed of change, also have been busy striving for "stability" (istiqrar which also is a key condition for a decent life. Not only a political but also a moral ideal, stability is a masculine virtue of full conventional adulthood: regular income, housing, the means for marriage and family needs, a responsible and moral conduct of life. This is a socially conservative ideal, but it does not mean that nothing changes. Stability requires constant improvement and growth – in both family livelihoods and global capitalism. This can have unsettling consequences. First, to build a good life at home, one must look elsewhere. Cross-border migration in particular has transformed Egyptian villages from close-knit communities into suburbs of the Gulf, as it were. Second, stability is based on growth, which is an unstable state. On the one hand this requires constant adaptation and flexibility; on the other hand it reduces the flexibility of the ecosystem, with potentially catastrophic consequencess. The Nile Delta region has already experienced large-scale ecological damage that is further aggravated by the region's exposure to rising sea levels in the near future. Third, the decent life that is realised is not quite the same as intended, and it may generate demands that exceed the known good. Those who are more successful in pursuing the means of a normal life in stability, also may gain resourses and experiences that compel them to ask critical questions about the process.

Starting point of this project is my long-term fieldwork in northern Egypt and my comparative research collaboration with the anthropologists Paola Abenante and Aymon Kreil. While taking Egypt as its starting point, the project will be translocal in focus, following also the movement of people across borders to the Arab Gulf states and elsewhere. I aim to follow trajectories of people from rural origins who seek to build a decent life through international and rural-urban migration, small businesses, education, marriage, and house-building. How do they live the unsolvable contradictions they face? What moral, spiritual, educational and economic means can they employ in their search, and with what consequences?

Publications from this project so far:
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

"The power of God: Four proposals for an anthropological engagement." ZMO Programmatic Texts, vol. 13, 2018. 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.
Release date: 5 March. 2015. Buy the book!
"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

5/6 Resources

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