Many countries are now becoming aware of the effects of climate change worldwide and are seeking ways to curb damaging emissions. This concern has led Dr. Arianne Conty to teach environmental philosophy classes at AUS to raise awareness among students that anthropogenic climate change has pushed us into a new geological era called the Anthropocene.
Geologists have yet to confirm the exact date of the Anthropocene age—the start of human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems—but the most popular dates are the mid-18th century Industrial Revolution or the more recent 1950s’ Great Acceleration. “Such a new era undermines the Western dichotomy between nature and culture, since mosquitoes are now DEET-resistant and there is a hole in the ozone layer,” said Dr. Conty, who explores the subject in her forthcoming book An Ecosophy for the Anthropocene Age.
It looks at the ways different academic responses from the natural and social sciences contradict each other. “How can we find solutions to climate change,” she asked, “if we cannot even agree on defining the problems, causes and consequences? We are at a critical time in mitigating the effects of climate change, and I hope that in pointing out the academic contradictions and exploring the ethical repercussions of the breakdown of the nature/culture divide, we can find a unified response.”
During her sabbatical, Dr. Conty was a visiting scholar in Rome at The Center for the Study and Documentation of Religious and Political Institutions in Post-Secular Society in the Università Roma III, where she had access to their specialized library to carry out research. While at the university, Dr. Conty presented her research at seminars and travelled to four conferences to present papers. She also had a paper on the Anthropocene published in the Environmental Values journal.
The center facilitated a private audience for Dr. Conty with His Holiness Pope Francis in the Vatican. “I was able to have a discussion with the Pope about a book he wrote in 2015 on the environment and the religious responses to the Anthropocene. It was such an honor to meet him!”
In addition to teaching environmental philosophy, Dr. Conty works closely with students on projects that seek to make AUS more sustainable. “The rapid rate of climate change is the most pressing issue that the world is facing right now, and students tend to feel helpless and depressed at the lack of action to reduce pollution and fund sustainable alternatives,” she said. “We were able to work with AUS Sustainability to visit the largest organic farm in the UAE and Sustainable City, so that students could find hope in the efforts of both individuals and governments in making a difference.”
The growing impact of China has been felt strongly across the globe in the last decade, bolstered by the Belt and Road Initiative since 2013, which promises to provide an alternative route to development. As one of China’s most strategic trade partners in the MENA region, the United Arab Emirates has shown strong interest in strengthening its ties with the rising global power and has been successful in attracting Chinese investment over the past two decades. Today, the nearly 300,000 Chinese expatriates living here have created a vibrant community.
The deepening relationship between the UAE and China was reaffirmed when a comprehensive strategic partnership was announced following President Xi Jinping’s state visit in July 2018, sparking interest in China’s role in the region. It also drew Dr. Yuting Wang in the Department of International Studies to explore China’s economic and cultural influence, its so-called “soft power.”
“There has been no significant empirical study to allow the development of a nuanced understanding of soft power in the case of China’s growing influence in the region,” she explained. “I wanted to conduct a cross-sectional study to discover how UAE residents perceived China through their understanding of international news, their attitude towards globalization and through their experience of interacting with the Chinese community here.”
Dr. Wang carried out her study using mixed methods, including a survey, focus groups and personal interviews. The survey was distributed in areas around Sharjah University City and through social media channels such as LinkedIn, to an audience made up of Emiratis and expatriates above the age of 18. Two student assistants were involved in administering the survey and conducting focus groups.
The study garnered 627 completed surveys, which Dr. Wang was very pleased with. “While results varied on China’s political influence, they showed that people felt highly positive about China’s strong economic influence in the UAE,” said Dr. Wang. “The UAE is strategic for China; it needs to secure its investment and regional interest, and the comprehensive strategic partnership is mutually beneficial, with the UAE continuing to develop trade and tourism links with China.”
Cultural influence is the other element of soft power, and while opinions were positive about China’s rich cultural heritage, Dr. Wang conceded that language proved to be a barrier to greater engagement with China. “We don’t have the practice here of watching Chinese films or TV series, which would give insight into the daily lives of ordinary Chinese, so there is less mutual exchange culturally.” Nevertheless, she did point out that cultural influence would grow through the introduction in recent years of Chinese language classes in public and private schools.
Dr. Wang has presented her findings at the University of Cambridge in the UK, as well as at Shanghai University and Fudan University in China. In the UAE, she found that her assessment of the UAE’s perception of China has attracted attention from academics, diplomats and the media.
Growing up during the Cold War years in a small Montana town surrounded by nuclear missiles launch sites, Dr. Vernon Pedersen from the Department of International Studies had a heightened sense of an ever-present menace beyond the horizon.
Fear of a looming nuclear war with the communist Soviet Union was very much part of that time, but now it’s considered a relic of the past. However, the ideology continued to intrigue Dr. Pedersen, who is preparing to write a book about the influence of the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) in his home state in the 1930s, with particular emphasis on the party’s takeover of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (Mine Mill) in Butte and in his current hometown of Great Falls, Montana.
“I want to explore the relationship between a conservative community in rural Montana and this radical communist party which espoused a fierce loyalty to the principles of the Soviet Union,” he said. “I find it fascinating that they were hiding in plain sight and that they didn’t consider themselves traitors!”
Dr. Pedersen first became interested in the growth of communism in America after his graduation from Indiana State University, when he was offered the job of curator of a house-turned-museum on campus once owned by Eugene B. Debs, the founder of the American Socialist Party. His time there led him to take as his master’s thesis the history of the communist party in Indiana.
Dr. Pedersen’s fascination grew from interviews with veteran party members and he eventually went on to complete his PhD at Georgetown University with a dissertation on the complete history of the Communist Party in Maryland. “In 1993, one month after defending my dissertation I got a call from John Haynes, my dissertation advisor, telling me he was going to Moscow, along with Harvey Klehr, a Professor of Political Science at Emory University, to examine the files of the American Communist Party, long thought lost, but, in fact, sent to Moscow for secure storage,” he said.
“I begged him to let me come along. This was just after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Moscow was open for business, so we had the opportunity of exploring the archives of the CPUSA, the Communist International and the Red International of Labor Unions without restriction. We were even allowed to copy OGPU (an early name of the KGB) files that had been sent to different party organizations.”
In Moscow, Dr. Pedersen found the virtually complete records of the Maryland Communist Party, which led him to develop his dissertation into a book, The Communist Party in Maryland, 1919-1957 (University of Illinois Press, 2001), conclusively demonstrating the close ties between the American party and the Soviet Union.
He continued to visit Moscow throughout the 1990s, a task made easier by the fact that he was teaching at the American University in Bulgaria. He carried out research on the history of the Marine Workers Industrial Union, a radical union created in 1928 dedicated to organizing the American waterfront workers. The research resulted in several articles and his just-published book The Communist Party on the American Waterfront: Revolution, Reform and the Quest for Power (Lexington Books, 2020), which details the party’s successful takeover of two major waterfront unions in the late 1930s.
His current project combines aspects of the two previous books as it is both a state-level study of the Communist Party and a record of the party’s take-over of the Mine Mill local in Butte, Montana. “I’ve published a number of papers on the Communist Party’s activities in Montana in the past, but this book will bring it all together for scholars of the genre,” he said. “However, as I write in an accessible style, I hope it will also attract the interest of the general public.”
Photo 1: An in-depth record of the Communist Party’s successful takeover of two major waterfront unions in the late 1930s.
Photo 2: Dr. Pedersen’s book conclusively demonstrating the close ties between the Maryland Communist Party and the Soviet Union.
Tesfa Seyon is pictured on the far left of this painting of Pope Paul III and Saint Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order.
The relationship between Europe and Africa is usually viewed in terms of the Atlantic slave trade and later colonization of the continent. However, according to Dr. Matteo Salvadore from the Department of International Studies, his research on an Ethiopian monk in 16th Century Rome shows that, in rare instances, early European-African relations also entailed experiences of reciprocal intellectual discovery.
Tesfa Seyon (1508–1550), also known as Pietro Abissino, was a highly educated Orthodox Christian monk who fled to Jerusalem during the invasion of the Kingdom of Ethiopia by the Sultan of Adal. The conflict became part of a larger confrontation that the Portuguese and the Ottomans fought throughout the Indian Ocean. He made his way to Rome and lived in the Ethiopian community who worshipped at the Church of Saint Stephen of the Abyssinians, behind St. Peter’s Basilica in what is now known as Vatican City.
“The first half of the 1500s was a challenging time in Europe for the Roman Catholic Church and popes were looking for allies in other parts of the world, specifically seeking the Ethiopian king’s help against the Ottomans,” explained Dr. Salvadore. “Tesfa Seyon was the most accomplished Ethiopian in Rome to serve the papacy, working as an advisor, an interpreter and a translator of sacred texts, which is why his story is an important one to tell.”
Currently, Dr. Salvadore’s overview article on Tesfa Seyon is under review with a leading academic journal. This will be followed by a book documenting his rising stature within the papal circle, and his association with Saint Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556), founder of the Jesuit order.
While Amharic is the official language of contemporary Ethiopia, Ge’ez is a liturgical language used by the Ethiopian Orthodox church. Tesfa Seyon taught Ge’ez to the Italian clergy and intellectuals, and advised personalities such as Bishop Paulo Giovio (1528–1552), an author of celebrated works, who was writing about Ethiopia. Tesfa Seyon was also a scholar: he edited the first printed edition of the Ethiopian New Testament, translated the liturgy of the Ethiopian Mass and Baptism and collaborated with Mariano Vittori, who wrote the first Ge’ez grammar printed in Europe.
Dr. Salvadore has been working on the book with his colleague, Dr. James De Lorenzi, a professor at City University New York (CUNY). As part of his research, he has been conducting research in Rome in the Vatican Archive. He is also conducting research in the National Library, where ledgers from the era document the financial support that the papacy granted to Tesfa Seyon and other monks. Reading, transcribing and translating hard-to-read manuscripts in European and non-European languages entailed collaboration with language experts.
The book will be a short volume on the monk’s life in Rome, of interest to scholars, teachers and students. “It’s important to tell African stories that depart from commonly held assumptions and popular views of the African past; it’s refreshing to talk about a free agent who survived and thrived far away from his homeland.
Dr. Mohammed Ibahrine, Associate Professor of Mass Communication, American University of Sharjah, in class.
From banning single-use plastic to wind farms, the world is moving away from the use of fossil fuels, and this collective effort is leading the Arabian Gulf region to plan its future in the post-oil era. Central to the plans of both the United Arab Emirates (Vision 2021) and Saudi Arabia (Vision 2030), is the use of digital technology for stronger community development and youth empowerment.
Dr. Mohammed Ibahrine, from the Department of Mass Communication at American University of Sharjah (AUS), is exploring how this focus on social media is encouraging the region’s youth to be part of this drive, as well as investigating the relationship between social media usage and civic participation.
Dr. Ibahrine studied in Germany and received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Hamburg, going on to consult for technology companies such as Google and Microsoft. He is a Google-certified digital marketer and has a Stanford Graduate Certificate on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. During his upcoming six-month sabbatical, he will work with colleagues at the London School of Economics and the Free University of Berlin to investigate social media platforms and map relevant bloggers and influencers, to gauge the impact of such activities on youth empowerment.
The collated data, said Dr. Ibahrine, will clarify how these platforms can help in building the region’s creative economy. “My research will focus on popular claims that young Emirati and Saudi people have moved on from just consuming media, as with earlier generations, and are now generating their own digitally mediated culture,” he said, adding “it will be worthwhile exploring how this new practice can lead to their personal development, civic participation and business acumen.”
In addition to his research, Dr. Ibahrine is working with the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center (Sheraa), which is based at AUS, to help students develop their digital mindsets and skills. “I want to introduce students to the positive concepts of new and disrupting technologies and present opportunities for their careers.”
Dr. Ibahrine pointed out that social media platforms can become digital eco-systems, helping young people to create their own content, and for peer-to-peer collaboration. “The UAE government is paving the way for its citizens to take the lead, as well as creating an environment for them to generate content specific to the local community for civic engagement,” he said. “It encourages them to participate and feel free to fail, but fail fast and try again!”
Jazirat Al Hamra Fort in the Old Village
Al Jazirat Al Hamra Old Village, an abandoned village in the nearby emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, is the focus of an ethnographic study of life in the UAE before the discovery of oil in the early 1960s.
Zlatan Filipovic from the Department of Art and Design and Dr. Suheil Dahdal from the Department of Mass Communication will use virtual reality (VR) platforms and location-based augmented reality (AR) experimental technology to document the oral history of the former residents and virtually recreate the historical buildings as they were at that time. “We want to capture the pre-1948 era of the UAE while it is still fresh in the minds of the original village inhabitants in order to provide a reference for future generations,” said Filipovic. “Using an immersive medium such as VR will help connect people in the UAE with their heritage and give them an effective way of re-imagining their history.”
Jazirat Al Hamra had been inhabited by the Al Zaab tribe. Their leader, Rajib bin Ahmed Al Zaabi, was one of four independent signatories to the original 1820 treaty between the Trucial States and the British government. The tribe had livestock and tended palm tree groves in neighboring Khatt, and maintained a fleet of some 25 pearling boats, the principal source of income for the tribe until the crash of the pearl market in the 1920s. In the late 1960s, some 2,500 residents closed up their homes and went to live in Abu Dhabi, where a suburb is named after them.
Point cloud visualization: a location-based overlay of the segment of Jazirat Al Hamra Fort
In recording the history of Al Jazirat Al Hamra, Filipovic and Dr. Dahdal are exploring the process of creating alternative modes of viewing historical sites. They will eventually build a database on the value of using new AR technology to document oral history, as well as on the process of creating an experimental AR location-based project. “Collecting oral histories and finding the ways of presenting this information in an interactive, audio-visual form is our goal,” said Dr. Dahdal. “This process will include producing a range of digital surveys of the village topography and researching the already collected data from the UAE’s National Archives in Abu Dhabi. We will then select individuals for interview and film them as they take us on a tour through the village.”
They are working with Fouad Bleibel, Project Manager and Design Team Lead at the Ministry of Public Works, in connection with the Department of Antiquities and Museums in Ras Al Khaimah, as well as Maitha Salman Al Zaabi, Head of the Oral History and Genealogical Studies Section in the National Archives. They are also collaborating with Felix Beck from New York University in Abu Dhabi.
3D model reconstruction using photogrammetry of Al Jazirat al Hamra watchtower, known as the Tower of the Owl
“AR technologies are normally based on the ‘image tag’ or ‘location-based’ overlay presentations, which means that the existing buildings are shown overlaid with an image of how the buildings had been in the past,” said Filipovic. “We are researching both of these methods and also considering how the VR segment will enable the use of the storytelling elements.”
The story of Jazirat Al Hamra will be presented in a VR environment using head-mounted displays, and they hope to set up their experimental, location-based VR installation as part of a visitor center experience in one of the two museums currently in development at Jazirat Al Hamra.
Al Jazirat Al Hamra Old Village