Modern-day Socrates

A PARADOXICAL JOURNALIST AND RESEARCHER, Mongi Abdennabi articulates inspiring analysis that he never shares, other than through oral exchanges. A Tunisian intellectual who lived much of his adult life in Syria before moving to Egypt, he has traveled to and has friends in most Arab countries. Although he hardly writes himself, he has a keen eye for what others publish. Meanwhile, he forms his own opinions through an ad hoc process that makes him a modern Socrates: he spends hours with random people hearing out their narratives, bringing their contradictions to the surface and exploring alternatives with them, using one tool only-questions.

As someone who reads or scans much of what is written on the region today, what do you feel is most missing?

To me the greatest gap in most publications is sociology! In this part of the world, we need, now more than ever, to understand the social dynamics at work. That cannot be done without first getting rid of any form of orientalism. Tribes and sects have changed dramatically in nature. The urban and the rural have been profoundly transformed. All conflicts are deeply informed by social undercurrents, and we lack a lucid analysis built on a much stronger, contemporary and locally-rooted understanding of them.

Where do foreign publications in particular, which continue to play a disproportionate role in shaping narratives on the region, fail to make themselves relevant to a local readership?

Beyond the language barrier and the issue of poor translation, which are obvious, I think we face two problems. On one side, foreign writers almost inevitably address foreign audiences, and that shapes everything they say and how they say it. The view is generally top-down, with a focus on topics, categories, interlocutors and formats that make most sense abroad. The bulk of the work available is based on encounters with usual suspects who serve as “entry points” to the region, such as officials or intellectuals, through which you cannot access the more relevant dynamics in societies that have changed beyond their ability to keep up.

On the other side, texts tend to be either short and shallow or long and unreadable. Some are very rich in detail, sophisticated in their analysis, and potentially of great interest to people in the region, but miss their audience because they are not packaged the right way. Format is key right now, and you can’t ignore the filter imposed by social media.

Indeed, so how do social media affect the way analysis will reach its audience in the region?

I feel that analysis, to become relevant, must be very different in how it interacts with the concerned. Fieldwork will be more granular, digging deeper into societies, and more dynamic, sensitive to new factors of change or even shifts of mood. Any elitist approach, based on high-level interviews, great paradigms and static conclusions, will fall flat.

You should be nimble even in the way you convey your analysis. Of course in-depth work is necessary to support your views, but in the end, what will reach the public are discreet but compelling insights: three great paragraphs will carry more weight than the twenty page document they belong to. I believe the best of our thinking must be pulled out and shared effectively, through shorter pieces that will circulate on social media. That can be 2mn videos too, entirely devoted to unpacking one key aspect of a phenomenon or answering a question that is really on people’s minds.

It goes without saying that format is not an end in itself. Superficial thinking won’t improve from being packaged for social media. But deeper analysis loses from not doing so. It’s not just that it won’t be heard. In today’s confusion, it must in fact be built in constant interaction with the concerned, whose feedback is indispensable. That connection brings the researcher closer to being an activist. But I have become convinced that, in this time and age, the researcher who doesn’t have the heart of an activist, at the end of the day, won’t understand a thing.

Illustration credit: Brett Jordan Typewriter by Flickr / licensed by CC.  

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