The Syrian intellectual life after 2011: fieldwork in Beirut

By Adélie Chevée, CBRL 2016 and 2017 Travel Grant awardee and PhD candidate in politics and international studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

In Syria, past movements of intellectual dissent used to be associated with the cultural elite. However, starting in March 2011, a cross-class intellectual nebula formed inside war-torn Syria, marked by the emergence of popular intellectual figures. An understudied phenomenon of this mobilization is the explosion of the number of ‘traditional’ media launched at the local level, in the form of print leaflets, pamphlets, newspapers and magazines, coming with a rich content of editorials, cultural and opinion columns. Their authors, editors or printing places are often located abroad, in neighbouring Turkey and Lebanon.

My PhD research aims to understand how these new Syrian writers and journalists participate in a re-structuration of the Syrian intellectual field after 2011. In doing so, I look at the writings of these young Syrians, their social trajectories in exile and the structures where their work is published and shared: the new Syrian newspapers, Pan-Arab newspapers such as Al-Hayat, universities, research centres, cultural events, etc. After writing a literature review at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) during the first year of my PhD research, I travelled to Beirut in September 2016. More than one million Syrians found refuge in Lebanon, and around 300,000 in Beirut. Between 2011 and 2016, and because of its old cultural ties with Damascus, Beirut became an intellectual hub for Syrian artists, writers and intellectuals.

With the support of the CBRL Travel Grant, I conducted fieldwork in Beirut between September 2016 and February 2017 to understand how this intellectual hub was structured. The specific purpose of travel was to collect data for discourse analysis and compile a qualitative case-study of young Syrian intellectuals. I focused on women intellectuals and their publications; I wanted to find out whether the 2011 revolution was followed by an evolution of their own participation to the intellectual field. In total I conducted 36 semi-structured interviews, 15 non-participant observations of intellectual-related events, and I collected 35 pages of op-eds, editorials and opinion articles for text analysis.

This fieldwork not only helped me to collect this invaluable data, but it also helped me to better understand the dynamics that linked the new and old generations of Syrian intellectuals, such as processes of knowledge transmission, and the relations between intellectuals living inside Syria and those who live in exile. Ultimately, my research will contribute to the formation of a new generation of Arab intellectuals which appeared with the 2011 Uprisings.

I presented preliminary findings of this fieldwork at a conference at the Orient Institut Beirut in January 2017, and at Hacettepe University (Ankara) during an International Symposium on Migrations in Turkey in April 2017.

Adélie Chevée graduated in European Affairs from Sciences Po, Paris and in International Relations from Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Her MPhil at Oxford University focused on the political activism of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Since 2015, Adélie has been a PhD candidate in politics and international studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Her doctoral research focuses on the evolution of the Syrian intellectual field since 2011 with a particular focus on Beirut, Istanbul and Gaziantep. She teaches Comparatives Politics at SOAS.

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