Academic tourists?

This opinion piece by AUC sociology professor Mona Abaza raises some interesting and uncomfortable questions about the inequalities between local and foreign academics who study the Middle East -- especially now, as the Arab Spring has made the region the object of increased scholarly interest: 

Without sounding xenophobic, which is a growing concern that personally worries me more than ever, there is much to say about the ongoing international academic division of labour whereby the divide between the so called “theoreticians” of the North and the “informants” who are also “objects of study” in the South continues to grow.

I am indeed speaking of frustrations because “we” as “locals” have been experiencing a situation, time and again, of being reduced to becoming at best “service providers” for visiting scholars, a term I borrowed from my colleague, political scientist Emad Shahin, at worst like the French would put it, as the “indigène de service”, for ironically the right cause of the revolution. To rather cater for the service of our Western expert colleagues who typically make out of no more than a week's stay in Cairo, a few shots and a tour around Tahrir, the ticket to tag themselves with the legitimacy and expertise of first hand knowledge.

I cover higher education in the Middle East and I know there are a lot of academics and students of the Arab world who read the blog, and I'd welcome your reactions. Have you experienced these kinds of frustrations -- or misgivings? In the rush to assert one's professional credentials on the Arab Spring leading to superficial work? Is this just sour grapes or is there a power imbalance between visiting foreign scholars and their local colleagues? How could it be addressed? 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.