Post by: Brittany Landorf, Graduate Assistant (GA)
Hello there! I am a current GA in the Office of Admissions at Harvard Divinity School. When I’m not working in the Office of Admissions, I am pursuing a Masters of Theological Studies degree focusing on Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Islam at HDS. Now that the semester is in swing and the air outside is a little chilly, I have been reflecting on my time spent in the (significantly warmer) city of Tunis located in Tunisia over J-Term and wanted to share my experience. This post is particularly helpful for considering the vast array of resources presented by studying at Harvard University and how to continue learning beyond the classroom.
One of the wonderful advantages of studying at Harvard Divinity School are the myriad opportunities offered throughout Harvard University. As a HDS student, not only can you take classes at other graduate schools at Harvard and in the Boston area, but you can participate in organizations, journals, and school sponsored initiatives and programs. This past January, I, along with two other Harvard Divinity School students Abdul Rahman Latif (MTS ‘18) and Lillian McCabe (MTS’18), had the opportunity to partake in a three week long excursion to Tunisia arranged by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard. The trip offered a broad cultural, religious, social, historical, and political introduction to Tunisia for graduate students interested in conducting research in the country or Maghreb region.
Abdul Rahman, Lillian, and I all focus on Islamic Studies at HDS, yet have differing interests within the field. While traveling in Tunisia, it was exciting to see how we were all drawn to different aspects of the country while sharing the same exhilaration of learning through lived experience. Abdul Rahman noted that being in Tunisia helped him move past more restrictive area studies paradigms. His firsthand experiences enabled him to transcend academic barriers to expand the purview of his work on Ottoman history and Islamic practices. Lillian, who specializes in North African medieval Islamic literature, was struck by how Tunisians learn the history of their country in school and in the country. In speaking with me, she reflected:
The trip reminded me why I love what I study so much, and I returned to campus this semester with renewed energy and new curiosity. Sometimes our classrooms can feel so far away from what we are studying (literally and figuratively); I think that immersive learning experiences like this are invaluable.
Like Lillian, the trip reaffirmed my passion for what I study. Being able to practice my Arabic and learn first-hand about the expansion of contemporary social movements since the revolution was instrumental for my research. Speaking with Tunisian youth who have been turning to new expressions of identity-making through artistic practices and participate in cultural events has led me to a deeper understanding for my own research.
Besides being introduced to the research offerings of the National Archives and National Library—which boast an impressive collection of Ottoman, French, and Tunisian documents–we loved being able to travel throughout the country. Tunisia is incredibly diverse in terms of geography, culture, history, and architecture. Roman and Byzantine mosaics and ruins abound, interweaving with exquisite examples of North African Islamic architecture. French colonial influence is also evident in the new city of Tunis extending outside the medina walls. Some of our favorite places were the Great Mosque of al-Qayrawan (also known as the Mosque of Uqba) in Qayrawan and the Berber town of Takrouna in southern Tunisia.
Three hours south of Tunis, Al-Qayrawan (670 AD) is considered one of the holiest mosques in the Islamic world and is one of the oldest in North Africa, serving as an architectural model for subsequent mosques. Built during the Muslim expansion into North Africa in the year 50 of the hijra, Al-Qayrawan is both a sacred place as well as an emblem of Islamic architecture and art. In addition to visiting the mosque, we wandered through the Al-Qayrawan medina which is famous for both sweets called makroudh and Berber carpets.
A little over an hour to the southeast of the capital, Takrouna is a Berber village believed to have been founded by a group of Berbers and Moors who had immigrated to Andalusia in the 8th century and returned after being expelled in the early 17th century. The village rests upon a large hill overlooking an arid valley dotted with olive trees. While many of the houses below the cliff are abandoned, the ones leading up the road and atop are still inhabited. The Andalusian influence is evident in the open architectural style of the houses. We spent our morning walking through the old village, drinking espresso, Turkish coffee, and traditional mint tea, and eating warm bread made in a cast iron pot. From our seats outside of the café, we could catch a glimpse of the still mostly intact Roman aqueduct that runs 132 km from its source in the town of Zaghouan to Tunis, making it one of the longest Roman aqueducts.
In addition to our introduction to the classical and medieval history in the region, we were able to partake in, and gain a greater understanding, of the lasting effects of French colonial influence and the Tunisian revolution in 2011. We attended several lectures discussing the impact of the Tunisian revolution and witnessed the growing culture and artistic movements in the country. It was especially interesting to hear how education and knowledge surrounding the Ottoman rule and early modern history of Tunisia has changed following the revolution. Now, there is a renewed interested and openness of speech about the early modern history of Tunisia, represented in a new art exhibit of the last Ottoman Beys at the Qasr Al-Said Palace affiliated with the Bardo Museum. There has also been an explosion of culture and investment in Tunisian society. When visiting the medina of Tunis, we met several different organizations that are working to preserve the cultural heritage of Tunisia, including showcasing the former Jewish quarter of the medina called ‘El Hara.’
For Abdul Rahman, Lillian, and I, the trip reaffirmed our passion for what we study and exposed us to new directions of thought and research. I hope to return to Tunisia in the summer to pursue research that explores how Tunisian youth are expressing identity and negotiating their relationship with Islam in new ways, looking particularly at conversations surrounding art, music, and queer movements. Furthermore, I intend to continue pursuing this research in a doctoral program after concluding my studies at MTS degree. Lillian is also hoping to return to Tunisia and thinks that taking advantage of Center for Middle Eastern Studies’ Office in Tunis will be particularly helpful for her work. This semester, she plans on learning more about the Shi’i history of Tunisia under the Fatimid Empire and how memories of the past are intentionally constructed and selectively included or removed from national history. Abdul Rahman plans to combine his study of Ottoman Turkish language and history with research about Ottoman rule in Tunisia. Traveling to and study in Tunisia has directly impacted and enriched our studies at HDS, helping connect our academic courses and theories with lived experience.