Ideas and Futures is an e-journal that focuses on “re-imagining our societies beyond the pandemic”. The journal, edited by Sadia Abbas and Raza Rumi, features literary essays, scholarly musings, artwork, and commentaries that cater to an international and US-based readership. In this exclusive interview, Sadia Abbas discusses the genesis of Ideas and Futures, the spirit of comparative humanities that fuels this initiative, and the scope for scholarly collaborations with Pakistan.
TK: Ideas and Futures, the interdisciplinary e-journal that you set up last year, emerged as a response to the pandemic and is driven by a quest for “just and vital societies”. What can you tell us about its genesis?
SA: I have long been interested in the potential role of the humanities, especially in a comparative and methodologically intersectional vein, where we rethink disciplinary boundaries. I started thinking about how to implement different versions of it in 2014 after I got tenure and had a little bandwidth. So, I started developing the idea of a comparative humanities. One early instance of it was an Islam and Humanities cluster hire of which I led the design at Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N). The idea was to shift the focus from Security studies. This thinking also shaped the Postcolonial Questions and Performances Speaker series I founded in 2015 and directed for several years at RU-N on which I collaborated with the Honors College at Rutgers-Newark.
I started pursuing various collaborations. I worked with Profs, Dimitri Krallis and Eirini Kotsovili at Simon Fraser University and we did a wonderfully successful conference underpinned by a comparative humanities vision, Space, Sovereignty and Aesthetics, in Lesbos under the rubric of a series known as Island Sessions. We are hoping to have a second phase of that once travel is possible again.
When the pandemic hit, I convened the Society and Covid-19 working group. Around the same time, Raza Rumi and I started thinking we shouldn’t wait on launching a platform and he brought his extraordinary energy, capacity for reinvention and expertise to the table and we launched the e-journal. The Covid group, which was supported by the Center for COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness (CCRP2 ) at Rutgers and the Chancellor’s office at Rutgers-Newark.
Raza, Professor RA Judy (University of Pittsburgh) and I also started talking about a non-profit so we could work across and with different institutions. So we launched Ideas and Futures: A Collaborative for Just and Vibrant Societies. We brought Professor Dimitri Krallis (Simon Fraser University), artist Shahzia Sikander and Professor Faisal Devji at University of Oxford as co-directors and we got together a magnificent advisory board/collective. And here we are!
TK: In what ways has the initiative been successful in shaping public discourse during COVID-19?
SA: Shaping might be a little ambitious, but I hope that our insistence on a socially holistic approach with an emphasis on the structures of austerity, neoliberalism and neofascism that have fed and exacerbated the health crisis is useful for others, and reinforces wonderful work being done by so many across the world. Ideas and Futures has also highlighted international crises related to the refugees and displacement.
TK: What are some of the challenges you have encountered in this regard and how do you plan to address them?
SA: Setting up a collaborative forum amid the pandemic was not that easy but we managed to stay the course. Another challenge was to strive for internationalism in our approach. This is why we have been reaching out to thinkers, writers and academics from different parts of the world. Another issue has been the funding, but that’s always a problem with humanities-related projects, especially those that don’t fit disciplinary boundaries and are comparatist in conception and execution.
TK: Comparative humanities remain at the heart of the initiative. Why are the humanities so important to discussions about contemporary challenges?
SA: Well, I think that, among other things, the humanities express different kinds of thinking about what it means to be human, and how humans have navigated and continue to navigate being in the world. At the same time, they intersect with creativity, existence and even beauty in ways that can push towards other measures of value than the ones that have come to consume our lives in capitalist modernity. Historically, humanism has been implicated in that very structure of capitalist modernity, which complicates things. So, while being critical of that genealogical complicity, I think there are ways of re-imagining the humanities as both critical and generative, so that we can think of how art and history and literature and rigorous conceptual thinking across disciplinary and media boundaries can help us re-imagine polity, society, and a respectful relationship with the planet, which is dying through our indifference and our relentless extraction and consumption. Some might think that is utopian but when the species is on the verge of extinction what was once utopian is now merely necessity and pragmatism.
TK: The editors of Ideas and Futures are Pakistani. To what extent are you actively pursuing scholarly collaborations with Pakistani intellectuals?
SA: Technically, I am a Pakistani-American. I left thirty years ago. I do recognise the Pakistani as an integral part of my formation, but one could also say I’m more accurately a Karachiite, as I have a profound love for the city and think it shaped many of my attitudes. I did also grow up in Singapore (also an integral part of my formation) and now spend a great deal of time in a Greek village.
Raza, of course, has a different background and is a recent immigrant to the United States and is still navigating his path. The digital platform is one facet of the non-profit. Ideas and Futures and the founding directors are from all over the world. It is an international and internationalist collaborative.
I have pursued various collaborations as I said earlier. In 2019, I met Wasif Rizvi, president of Habib University, and I offered my idea of the Comparative Humanities to him and the CLS Faculty when I visited Habib. We thought we would start with a conference and I lined up a bunch of interested scholars and colleagues here, but a senior faculty member at Habib stalled the project. The Dean, Craig Phelan, I had initially connected with left. The new dean seemed to emanate a rather racialised and gendered condescension and I figured I had enough of that to deal with here. In the end the tipping point was the lack of professionalism and a sense that my probono engagement was being undervalued. So that didn’t end terribly well. But Habib has great students and a wonderful junior faculty so I’m sure they’ll do terrifically. I wish them well — because, ultimately, it’s the faculty and students who matter. Administrations come and go. I’m hoping it will become an important and solid institution for Karachi.
Then I took the project to IBA and was working on it with the wonderful Naveen Minai but she left to take a post-doc at Toronto. We are still in conversation, as I am with the fabulous Hasan Karrar at LUMS. At the moment, we are thrilled that Hasan has joined our advisory board and we are looking forward to working with him in multiple capacities. Niilofur Farrukh, art critic and curator, who is wonderful, has also done so and we are hoping to pursue collaborations there as well. We are always open to ideas and will happily collaborate if people want to and bring us a solid, analytically deep project.
TK: More often than not, Pakistani scholars from the diaspora are criticised for not ‘giving back’ to their country. Do you plan to rectify this perception through Ideas and Futures?
SA: Not directly, no. First of all, because I don’t accept the premise of the accusation. Pakistan took a lot from my family as well. My father was dismissed from PIA under MLR 52 under Zia, and the family was destroyed in the process. He was someone who came to Pakistan on a bus at the age of 15 following the dream of a Muslim homeland, against his Congress-supporting father and this betrayal of his dream, by his dream, was devastating. I grew up in the shadow of that violent grief. So, quite frankly, I think Pakistan owes my parents an apology and my family reparations before it can demand anything. Moreover, since giving back implies the return of something given, I’m not sure what a “return” would look like in this context.
Aside from this personal history, I think the language of giving back accepts a patronage structure and there’s too much of patronage-related hierarchy in Pakistan. There’s a lot of talk about charity and not enough about getting rid of extant hierarchies. I am, however, happy to collaborate with people in a mutually respectful way over shared visions and ideas.
Finally, we are an internationalist organisation and I for one don’t believe in nationalist blackmail, which I believe underpins the accusation. Having said that, I, and we, would love to work with people in Pakistan, especially young working and lower middle-class students with passionate ideas and interests.
TK: Have Pakistani scholars been receptive to scholarly collaborations?
SA: Not always. The crash-and-burn at Habib is a case in point. People say they want Pakistanis abroad to work with them but frequently, when we try, they stall and stymie and then accuse us of not engaging. Many of my friends and colleagues have brought scholars and artists and contacts from abroad and what happens is that people run after the white people and the Westerners and cut us out. It’s a little pitiful and becomes hugely embarrassing because people see it’s the kind of colonial attitude some of us are fighting here in the States. Quite frankly, it’s become a bit of a joke.
TK: Moving forward, how do you plan to expand the scope of Ideas and Futures?
SA: We have a bunch of ideas and are thinking about a series of initiatives. An immediate project we are considering is on translation, which would also lead to multilingual work being available on our website. This is a project that Samah Selim, the ace translator of Arabic literature and member of the Turjoman collective in Egypt, would be leading with the scholar of Black studies and Arabic literature, and Critical Theory, who is one of our founding directors, RA Judy. We have also just added the terrifically versatile Bilal Hashmi, Editor of Quattro Press and President of the Canadian Translators Association to our board. Bilal translates from Urdu, Hindi, Persian among other languages, so we are hoping he will be part of whatever transpires. We are still in exploratory stages on that one but are optimistic.