Sharjah conference highlights significance of Indian Ocean in multipolar world

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A four-part conference season themed “Thinking the Archipelago: Africa’s Indian Ocean Islands” was organized recently by The Africa Institute, based in Sharjah.

Hoor Al Qasimi, President of The Africa Institute, who officially opened the event welcoming the leading scholars specializing in Africa’s Indian Ocean region. “The Institute’s country-focused seasons are an integral part of the year-round work to develop and support original scholarship and programming that expands understanding of African and African diaspora studies among the academic community and the broader public,” said Al Qasimi. “Indian Ocean Rim as a third season further adds to the understanding of the complex history of the African world while also providing a forum for creatively engaging its present and imagining new futures.”

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Dr. Salah M. Hassan, Director, The Africa Institute Sharjah, in his address contextualized the history of founding the Africa Institute with its current programs, fellowships, and future campus. Dr. Hassan also welcomed the convenors and leading scholars, opening the first conference of the season titled, “Reimagining Mobilities/Immobilities in the Indian Ocean.”

“Following two successful seasons focused on Ethiopia and Ghana in 2019 and 2021, respectively, The Africa Institute chose the Indian Ocean region due to its significance in the contemporary multipolar world. This season sees scholars, activists, and others from various disciplines and geographical locations highlight the complex history and rich cultural heritage of the Indian Ocean rim enabling us to center Africa within studies of global relations to an international audience,” said Professor Hassan.

Panel discussions on Africa's Indian Ocean Islands hosted by The Africa Institute. (Supplied)
Panel discussions on Africa's Indian Ocean Islands hosted by The Africa Institute. (Supplied)



Jeremy Prestholdt, Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego, in his opening remarks said, “Africa has occupied a central place in the Indian Ocean’s matrix of connectivity. The historical, cultural, economic, and geopolitical significance can hardly be overstated. This season represents a multi-disciplinary approach with the aim to raise the profile of Indian Ocean islands by examining and reimagining circulation, mobility, race and slavery, ecological change, and cultural production through the lens of Africa’s islands.”

The convenors of the conference: Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf, Professor of Anthropology, Georgetown University, Qatar; and Uday Chandra, Assistant Professor of Government, Georgetown University, Qatar; and Jeremy Prestholdt, Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego. (Supplied)
The convenors of the conference: Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf, Professor of Anthropology, Georgetown University, Qatar; and Uday Chandra, Assistant Professor of Government, Georgetown University, Qatar; and Jeremy Prestholdt, Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego. (Supplied)



The symposia saw four panels, 16 presentations, and discussions, a performance from scholars specializing in Indian Ocean studies from Mauritius, the United Kingdom, United States of America, Italy, Norway, Germany, India, Pakistan, Qatar, Canada, and the United Arab Emirates.

“When we think of the Indian Ocean, it’s important to think about how the two coasts of peninsular India speak to the western and eastern coasts of the Indian Ocean. This allows us to examine how the western Indian Ocean enabled inter-regional connections between Africans, Indians, and Arabs over centuries,” said Uday Chandra, Assistant Professor of Government, Georgetown University in Qatar.

"Islands have always been integral spaces of Indian Ocean exchanges, however, what is missing and recently being corrected by recent scholars is the critical role played by Africa and Africans to forge these inter-regional connections in the Indian Ocean. This conference aims to share knowledge and foster partnerships across geographies given the different forms of circulation, mobility, cultural production, ecological change, and cosmopolitanism,” he said.


The performance titled, Hamachi Gaani (‘The Songs have Spoken’) by the Afro-Indian tribe Siddi, showcased ancestral stories as part of their cultural heritage through ‘Dhamami’ songs and dance.

‘Monsoon’ biannual journal

The performance was followed by a moderated panel discussion explored nuances of Siddi identity, community, and culture.

Furthermore, to culminate the season and proceedings of the four conferences, a peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary, biannual journal titled, ‘Monsoon’ will be published by Duke University Press and the Africa Institute in 2023. With a distinct emphasis on Africa and the Western Indian Ocean, the journal will provide a platform for research on new ways of understanding Indian Ocean perspectives, networks, and the region’s global interfaces.

To resonate and represent the country-focused season, The Africa Institute collaborated with Pakistani artist Naiza Khan to use her images to visually depict the monsoonal circularities of the Indian Ocean and what it represents as a heterogeneous assemblage of power, colonial history, and collective memory.

The second rendition of the season titled, “Legacies of Race and Slavery in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans” is tentatively scheduled to take place in Zanzibar, in early June 2023. “At our next conference, we hope to stimulate a new scholarly dialogue between specialists working on key sites in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds and assess what the idea of racial justice might look like via a comparative lens,” said Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf, Professor of Anthropology, Georgetown University in Qatar.

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