Ancient Inspiration for a New Marketplace of Ideas
Inspired by a seventh-century model, a new “souq” at CCAS brings together thinkers and scholars to discuss current regional events within their historical and global context.
By Azza Altiraifi
During the fall semester, the CCAS launched a new roundtable discussion series called “Souq Al-Fikr”, meaning “marketplace of ideas.” The title of the monthly series is a play on the name “Souq Okaz”, a market in what is current-day Saudi Arabia where Arab leaders from across the peninsula gathered during the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries to discuss politics and culture, and—most famously—to host poetry competitions. Although many important historical developments can be traced to Souq Okaz, one of the most notable is the formalization of the rules of Arabic grammar and syntax.
Inspired by this famous gathering place for thinkers, leaders, and scholars, the Souq Al-Fikr series at CCAS grew from the need to address current events in the Arab world as they unfold, and to frame these events within their greater historical and political context. Far from being just another lecture, however, the Souq Al-Fikr events feature guided discussions and a true exchange of ideas between attendees and subject-matter experts.
From the Trump administration’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to the killing of former Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh, to the crisis of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq, the Souq Al-Fikr series has brought people from across the Georgetown community and beyond to unpack the historical and socio-political precursors behind today’s headlines.
CCAS Director and Associate Professor Rochelle Davis inaugurated the series in September by presenting the findings of a longitudinal study of 4,000 internally-displaced families in Iraq. The study, conducted in conjunction with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), sheds light on the lived experiences of refugees and displaced people and points to the need for durable solutions. In October, American Druze Foundation (ADF) 2017-2018 Fellow, Dr. Amir Khnifess, presented on the Druze politics of survival in Palestine.
Also in October, CCAS visiting scholar and MAAS alum Mouin Rabbani led a roundtable with his presentation “Palestine: Anatomy of an Abyss.” Rabbani discussed the prospects of the recently-concluded reconciliation agreement and President Trump’s declared objective of pursuing “the ultimate deal,” while attendee questions underscored the challenges presented by President Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy.
In November, Professor Mohammad AlAhmad of CCAS led the first Arabic-language roundtable of the year, in which he discussed the works of Syrian poet Mohammad Omran and how poetry has been used as a means of social resistance. In addition to the engaging topic, Dr. AlAhmad’s talk provided a unique opportunity for students of Arabic to engage with the language outside of the classroom.
January’s Souq Al-Fikr featured Yemeni journalist and political commentator Sama’a Al-Hamdani and Attorney General of the State of Qatar, His Excellency Dr. Ali Bin Futais Al-Marri. Al-Hamdani discussed the Saudi-led war in Yemen and the death of Ali Abdallah Saleh, while HE Dr. Al-Marri presented in Arabic on the legal impact of the diplomatic rift targeting Qatar.
In February, CCAS Associate Professor and Sheikh Sabah Al Salem Al Sabah Chair, Dr. Joseph Sassoon delivered a talk entitled “The Global Merchants: The World of the Sassoons.” In a refreshing change of pace, Dr. Sassoon traced the 300+ year history of the Sassoon family, an Arab-Jewish family that settled in India, traded in China, and aspired to be British. Their story provides a unique vantage point into the ways globalization impacted the rapidly changing world in which the Sassoon family lived and prospered.
Over the course of the year, the Souq Al-Fikr series has drawn nearly 200 attendees from across the Georgetown community and beyond. Delivered in English and Arabic, the diverse range of content offered during these discussions has equipped our community to understand the full story behind today’s headlines. The Souq Al-Fikr has continued monthly throughout the spring semester.
Azza Altiraifi is the CCAS Events Coordinator.
This article was published in the Winter/Spring 2018 CCAS Newsmagazine.