by Quinn Coffey
In late May, I was fortunate enough to attend the DIMECCE project conference, ‘Middle Eastern Christians in Diaspora: Past and Present, Continuity and Change’, at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. This conference was designed to not only give the DIMECCE team a chance to present some of their findings, but also for academics and community members to engage in thoughtful dialogue about the situation of Middle Eastern Christians, both in the Diaspora and in the Middle East.
This conference was the culmination of nearly two years of effort by the DIMECCE research teams in Denmark, Sweden and the UK, and also several months of planning by the project leader Dr Fiona McCallum. In my capacity as research assistant for the UK DIMECCE team, I began in February to assist Dr McCallum in organising the project conference. With the help of the School of International Relations secretary Gillian Fleming, the patience of our university travel agents and numerous St Andrews guest houses, we (almost painlessly) arranged for more than 30 international experts and community members to travel to our little town by the North Sea. We are particularly grateful to Gillian, who was instrumental in this effort!
The conference began with a wine reception on the evening of the 25th in Parliament Hall. After having corresponded with conference participants for the better part of four months, it was good to put faces to names – a typical introduction that evening: ‘Welcome to St Andrews, I’m Quinn’… ‘Oh you’re Quinn – I’ve had many emails from you!’ After a lovely wine reception and visiting with colleagues, I took an evening walk around the cathedral and along the sea with the Danish DIMECCE team. Despite having worked on the DIMECCE project for the better part of a year, this was my first proper introduction to the rest of the team. Needless to say, it was great to finally meet them.
The conference included presentations and panel discussions from community members and academics from as far afield as the US and Australia. On Tuesday morning, the conference began with an introduction from the DIMECCE team, followed by the keynote presentation of Prof. Ghassan Hage entitled, ‘The Maronite Diasporic Condition: questions of specificity and universality’. Prof. Hage’s paper, which was a highlight for me, was illuminating in terms of novel ways to approach identity and disaporic studies. The DIMECCE team then presented their findings on internal dynamics of the case study communities, followed by a panel discussion from three community members. This was a valuable format in terms of creating an active dialogue between the DIMECCE findings and the case study communities themselves – particularly in terms of the more nuanced issues that the communities face such as their name, their political and social positions, language and generational issues, etc. Indeed, the participation of community members has provided useful feedback for the DIMECCE team ahead of publications and follow-up fieldwork.
Although the first day of the conference went rather seamlessly, Dr McCallum had tasked me with resolving any potential IT-related issues for the conference. Having some experience with this in the past, I did not expect any major issues to occur. Much to our surprise however, during the final presentation of the day, by DIMECCE team member Dr Sara Lei Sparre, the projector mysteriously switched from Dr Sparre’s presentation to an angry blue screen. Expecting to be able to quickly fix the issue, I rushed up to the lectern to see the projector control panel buttons blinking rapidly… this was more serious than I had thought! I tried a few different solutions to no avail. Beginning to panic, I looked back out at the audience as sweat began to bead on my forehead – out of options, I pressed the ‘off’ button. Suddenly the screen itself began to roll at a snail’s pace back up to the ceiling. I frantically hit ‘on’, ‘on’, ‘on’, but nothing happened. I glanced at Dr McCallum who looked unimpressed by my efforts and instead came up to join in the discussion. A few minutes later I managed to get the screen back down and the projector up and running, but not without damaging my ego. I don’t know that I’ll be pursuing a career in conference planning!
After Dr Sparre’s enlightening presentation on Transnational Actors, we hosted a dinner in Lower College Hall, where we had a chance to meet and talk in more detail with our international colleagues. My table included, amongst others, Dr Marta Wozniak, the Polish Principal Investigator, Anne Rosenlund Jørgensen from the Danish team, Dr Carsten Walbiner, Dr Nicholas Al-Jeloo, and Daria Vorobyeva. One thing can be said about academics – we have no shortage of things to discuss, particularly after a glass of wine. It was fascinating to hear about Dr Wozniak’s fieldwork in Södertälje, Sweden, as well as Dr Al-Jeloo’s recent initiative in organising a tour to Hakkâri. Again in terms of nuance, the personal insights of Dr Al-Jeloo and Dr Wozniak in regards to both their research and my own research on Palestinian Christian identity were very useful.
The following morning the conference resumed with a fascinating panel discussion on Diaspora views of the homeland, in which the panellists discussed the duality between integration into European countries and the pull of the ‘homeland’. This was followed by a second keynote entitled, ‘Who will save the Christians of the Middle East?’, by Prof. Yvonne Haddad. This paper focused on the particularities of the American political response to the plight of the Christians of Iraq and Syria.
In addition to three presentations on the DIMECCE conference findings, the DIMECCE team also produced a multi-lingual booklet (English, Danish, Swedish and Arabic), which serves as an excellent overview of the Middle Eastern Christian Diaspora in Europe.
Although this booklet is a draft of a future publication, it was a great supplement to the conference presentations for attendees who were perhaps less familiar with Middle Eastern Christian communities.
I was impressed by the wide variety of topics presented at the conference – from the Lebanese Christians of Senegal (Dr Mara Leichtman), to the Chaldean community in Detroit, Michigan (Dr Erin Hughes). Although I wasn’t presenting any of my own findings at the conference, it was invaluable in terms of discussing my research with world experts on Middle Eastern Christianity. The DIMECCE project conference was the largest gathering of such scholars that I have attended and it was a great opportunity to both build relationships and broaden the field. I would like to thank Dr McCallum for including me in this conference, and the conference participants for their contributions.