Department of Geography

Past events

'Sons of the soil’: land, mud and the modern national subject

Wednesday 22 May 13:00 until 15:00
Arts C233
Speaker: Dr Aya Nassar
Part of the series: Geography Research Seminars: Beyond the Fringe

Chair: Prof Divya P Tolia-Kelly


“A relationship with the soil invokes an essence of a place. Beyond the European experience, this relationship - it is a poetic of political and agentic horizons related to anti-colonial struggles and independence movements. Yet, beyond the promised futurities of the moment of decolonisation, how are soil, mud and land deployed as promises of sovereignty and modernity for a national subject? In this seminar I draw on material from my PhD thesis that focused on postcolonial Egypt. I focus on ways in which Egyptian nationalism has been woven into the spatial discourse of architecture and geography. I explore the discourses and imaginations of ‘experts of space’ to show how they informed and were informed by the broader political anxieties of the postcolonial/post-independence/national subject. Centrally, I want to show how the very materiality of the nation itself was used to make a claim on the post-independence subject – as the anticipated authentic and ‘pure’ character of Egypt – a ‘son of the soil’ (S. Selim 2004, 30) and a subject of spatial imaginings, onto which desires for knowledge, unearthing, reform and social uplifting were projected. In this seminar I will present two case studies; the voices of two Egyptian experts: the architect Hassan Fathy and the geographer Gamal Hamdan. Fathy is known as a defender of mud architecture and is associated with the movements of Islamic architecture revivalism, vernacular architecture (Steele 1988; Serageldin 2007) and, more recently, earthen and eco-architecture (Miles 2006). He had sought to reinvent modernity and nationalism through materials and an aesthetic that derive from the soil, countryside and peasants, whom he, also, sought to salvage and reform. Hamdan’s work represent an Egyptian geographical discourse that was published after the defeat of 1967 and formulates a ‘distinctive character of Egypt’ based on its material geography and geology. These two voices are not the typical anti-colonial or postcolonial texts, they are guised as expert discourses that nevertheless target a public audience. More importantly, the texts themselves inhabit different times. Although these thinkers differ in their professional and disciplinary horizons, they articulate a common quest for an authentic Egyptian subject. Unlike those who pursued this quest in the cultural, political and historical debates, this quest took my two interlocuters  through the materiality of Egyptian sovereign space, which was in flux. This specific focus is meant to generate discussions that go beyond the case of Egypt. Primarily, I want to go beyond the aim including voices from the beyond the west in geography to focus on negotiations and hesitancies that postcolonial geography had to navigate in the decades following independence.”

ALL WELCOME (Coffee/ tea and cake is provided)

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By: Martin Wingfield
Last updated: Friday, 5 April 2019