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Jamal Provokes Lively Discussion

Date Released: Tue, 31 August 2010 10:55 +0200

As an initiative of this year's second semester the Department of Politics and International Relations has been holding thought-provoking monthly seminars, the second of the series being “Deep Diversities – The Indian Ocean as Idea” by Ashraf Jamal, Senior Lecturer in the Fine Arts Department. Jamal lists maritime studies as one of his major interests.
He is the author of 'Predicaments of Culture in South Africa' and 'Love Themes for the Wilderness' and received the Sanlam Prize for short fiction for his story 'The Shades'. He is described as a philosopher and theorist at large by Richard Pithouse, who also referred to the paper as “provocative and admirably promiscuous,” a claim laughingly referred to by Jamal during his talk.
His paper, says Jamal, situates into the International Relations arena, and focuses less on the Indian Ocean as a geographical location than as a poetic idea, an idea which, Jamal confesses, proves irresistible not just to him but to many other inter-disciplinarians. The Atlantic trope is dark and cold, evoking trauma and exile; that of the Pacific, apathetic and slothful. The trope of the Indian Ocean however, says Jamal, is Rapture, evoking, as per Bailyn's term, great joy and delight.
Jamal is aware that this is a contentious claim, and indeed, some probing queries and doubts were raised during the question and answer session after his talk. In his response, Jamal said that ultimately it is the trope of the Human he is trying to bring into oceanic studies. He refers to anthropologists, literarians and historians as inter-related disciplines which allow people to find and to tell their stories. Jamal admits he has a strong belief in Edward Said's “open secular element”, and an interest in how people can find language to express their ideas within this space while experiencing what James Clifford refers to as “a pervasive condition of off-centredness.”
Quoting Geertz, who proposed that what was required was ways of thinking responsive to what Charles Taylor called 'deep diversity', Jamal goes on to say that what he seeks to awaken in his readers is a realization that the Indian Ocean and the cultures which exist around its rim have, perhaps more than any other ocean, generated a cosmopolitanism which teaches us how to cope with, and thrive in, our present post-colonial reality.
Having been questioned on his perceived tendency to emphasise the utopian aspects of the lived world of the Indian Ocean, Jamal referred to his paper where he states that he by no means intends to dismiss violence and violations perpetrated in the area, such as those of the Western colonial powers. He stresses though that his point remains that expressed by Ranajit Guha, which is that British rule achieved merely “dominance without hegemony”; it did not succeed in wholly controlling the lived experience of the region.
Speaking to a packed seminar room, Jamal succeeded in holding the attention of over twenty attendees, and in provoking a lively discussion thereafter.

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