Elena Chiti

Elena Chiti – Associate Professor in Middle Eastern Studies at Stockholm University

Elena Chiti is an Associate Professor in Middle Eastern Studies at Stockholm University. She is a literary translator and a cultural historian of the Middle East, with a particular focus on Egypt and a parallel interest in Syria and Lebanon. She holds a PhD from IREMAM/Aix-Marseille University, with a thesis on Alexandrian literary milieus in an epoch of transition (1879–1940). She completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Oslo in the framework of the project “In 2016: How It Felt to Live in the Arab World Five Years after the ‘Arab Spring’”. Her work analyses cultural productions as sources to explore identity-making in times of social and political turmoil, whether at the end of the Ottoman empire or in the phase that follows the 2011 revolutions. She is now pursuing this path in the framework of DREAM. 

About Elena

What are your discipline(s) of attachment ?  

I’m a cultural historian, with a strong interest in popular culture.

What are your geographical area(s) ?

I’m a specialist of contemporary Egypt, with a parallel interest in Syria and Lebanon.

Keywords that characterize your research and areas of interest ?  

Cultural history ; History from below ; Popular culture ; Revolutions ; Crime narratives ; Criminal myths ; Bandit myths ; Meaning-making in times of turmoil.

What about your current research project(s)?

  • My work focuses on cultural productions as sources to explore the link between nation-building and belonging in times of turmoil.

I am particularly interested in the colonialist-nationalist epoch in Egypt and the revolution of 1919. After the first wave of the recent Arab revolutions in 2010-2011, I have embraced a long-term perspective to study phenomena that have emerged in the colonial-nationalist epoch but are connected with present dynamics. In a similar way, my focus has shifted from the socio-cultural elite to popular culture, in particular the study of narratives of justice and injustice in post-2011 Egypt. This is the path I have pursued within the DREAM project. My current research project stems from that. It aims to study Egyptian crime narratives from the 1920s until today in order to explore the construction of public morals and the vision of justice during and beyond revolutions.

What is the title of your PhD ?

I hold a Ph.D. in History of the Middle East from IREMAM-Aix Marseille University, in France (with a co-direction at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy).

The title of the PhD dissertation, in French, is: Écrire à Alexandrie (1879-1940). Capital social, appartenances, mémoire (“Writing in Alexandria, 1879-1940. Social capital, categories of belonging, memory”). I carried out this research mostly before the revolutions of 2010-2011 and defended it at the end of 2013.

What projects do you carry out within the framework of DREAM ?

The main project I have worked on in the framework of DREAM is the collection, selection, and analysis of cultural sources from different Arab countries that has led to the collective publication “L’Esprit de la révolte. Archives et actualité des révolutions arabes” (Seuil, 2020). This has been a stimulating experience, because of teamwork. We have been not only conceiving but structuring and co-writing this book together, with nine other colleagues, under Leyla’s direction. In my case, I focused in particular on Egypt and Syria, although I also covered different countries in a more marginal way. I worked on entries dealing with justice and injustice, and the opposing sides during a revolution, namely “Le martyr de la révolution” (“The martyr of the revolution”) and “Miliciens et autres agents civils du pouvoir. Shabbiha, Baltageyya” (“Militiamen and other civil agents of the power. Shabbiha, Baltageyya”). I also covered some aspects of the circulation of the revolutionary repertoire, with “Lorsqu’un jour le peuple veut vivre” (“If, one day, a people desires to live”), “Chaussures” (“Shoes”), and “Kafranbel. Une ville entière” (“Kafranbel. A whole town”).

Do you have a website where you report on your activities ?

Could you give a few lines of background information about your experience ?

I have a Master’s degree in Arabic language and literature from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and have studied Arabic at Birzeit University in Palestine and the University of Jordan. I started my professional life as a literary translator from Arabic and French into Italian. However, I was not satisfied with the literary perspective from an academic point of view. I was interested in literature as part of the social world. This is the reason why I chose to pursue my studies in history and in France, where I found – at IREMAM – the guidance, the colleagues, and the environment that I needed to go ahead. For my Ph.D. I focused on Alexandrian literary circles between the late nineteenth century and the 1930s. Through both fictional and non-fictional sources, in different languages, I studied how Alexandrian cultural actors defined themselves in a period of multiple, and sometimes conflicting, horizons: Ottomanism, communitarian belonging, British colonial occupation,French cultural influence, and Egyptian nationalism. As I said before, the recent Arab revolutions made me realize that I wanted (and could) apply the same method to contemporary sources and approach Arab cultural fields in the present to explore identity-making in conflictual times.

What makes you dream and motivate you about the DREAM project ?  

We apply a long-term perspective to Arab revolutions without hiding the fact that we take sides with the revolutionaries, against the authoritarian regimes. Both elements help me stick to the dream of seeing a Middle East that enjoys peace but also justice, where human rights are respected, political and civil freedoms are fully granted to men and women, and powers are accountable to the citizens.

How did you come to work at DREAM? What brought you here ?

One of the paths that led me to DREAM is the encounter with Kmar Bendana in 2011, when she came to Lyon, where I  lived, to launch her book “Chronique d’une transition”. I was intrigued by the reflection on her self-posturing. As a historian, she found herself acting as a witness during the Tunisian revolution and started exploring the shift in her method and perspectives. After that, I read a paper written by Leyla Dakhli, sharing the same interrogations as Kmar, not only methodologically but also on an ethical level. I was already in touch with Leyla and the dialogue with her was enriched by the revolutions, which brought me to DREAM.

Could you tell us an anecdote about your field, your work or your training ?

Well, the only anecdote that comes to my mind is rather embarrassing. Right after my graduation, I was an intern at the Italian Cultural Centre in Cairo. Once, I was serving as an interpreter from Italian into Arabic for an Egyptian delegation. I was so tired after a long meeting that I found it difficult to articulate even the most basic words and ended up saying “el-buldan el-na’ima” (“the sleeping countries”) instead of “el-buldan el-namiya” (“the developing countries”). The diplomatic crisis was avoided, I immediately apologized and everyone laughed, but many made fun of me for days. When I greeted someone in the morning, I could be told: “Lower your voice, some countries are still sleeping”.

What did you want to do when you were a kid ? 

As far as I remember, I wanted to be an archaeologist. My parents claim I used to say I wanted to learn Arabic.

What is the book that have marked you?

I enjoyed the book “Egypt 1919. The Revolution in Literature and Film” by Dina Heshmat (Edinburgh University Press, 2020). I find it fascinating how she highlighted the parallel between the revolution of 1919 and that of 2011, when it comes to the high expectations but also the deep frustration they unleashed.

What is the last article/book you published ?

Approach through Alexandrian Francophone Literary Milieus (1880-1940)”, in a book edited by Anthony Gorman and Sarah Irving, called “Cultural Entanglement in the Pre-Independence Arab World” (Bloomsbury, 2021).

I’ve just realized I’m again half in the present and half in the past. I have an article forthcoming in “Historical Sociology”, titled “National Robin Hoods and Local Avengers: On Two Shifts in the Criminal Myth of Raya and Sakina in Present-Day Egypt”. This one tries to connect the past and the present.

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