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The Nahrein Network

Eleanor Robson
Professor Eleanor Robson, University College London

A new historical project aims to prove the value of the arts and humanities to education and post-conflict development in Iraq and neighbouring countries.

The Nahrein Network, led by Professor Eleanor Robson from University College London, is funded by the AHRC and will be one of five major new international academic networks being set up by universities in the UK and the ‘Global South’ to conduct collaborative research into some of the world’s most pressing development challenges over the next four years.

The Arabic word nahrein means “two rivers”, a reference to the Tigris and Euphrates, as well as to the two challenges post-conflict development and the social value of history and heritage - that the network aims to tackle.

Through the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) these networks will together access more than £9 million from the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), a £1.5 billion Government fund that supports the UK’s role in global development research.

Iraq map
The Nahrein Network spans the country and its neighbours. Copyright: The Nahrein Network

Professor Robson, who has studied the history of Iraq since 1990, said: “The network will foster the capacity of Middle Eastern universities, museums and cultural heritage organisations to better serve local needs and interests.

“From an academic point of view, our aim is to turn 'history' into local history in a way that it hasn't been for decades.

“Because of the dictatorships and the wars in the region, Syrians, Iraqis and Iranians have been cut off from the mainstream research community in the rest of the world. This is particularly a problem in Iraq, where isolation has persisted since the war finished, due to the chaos of the post-war period and a sense that it wasn't a safe place to go to.”

One of the key goals of the project is to reintegrate Iraq into global discourse and demonstrate that history has a vital role to play in rebuilding the country, its identity and its sense of itself.

“There has always been this idea that history is somehow the icing on the cake, a luxury that some countries can't afford,” says Professor Robson.

“Most of the development work around education has focused on things like basic maths and literacy – which is obviously important – and from there into areas like medicine and engineering.

“All of that is very worthwhile. But there hasn't really been much thought about what the humanities mean for things like social cohesion and developing employability skills, such as critical thinking. And we need to change that.”

According to Professor Robson, one of the barriers to challenging educational orthodoxies in Iraq has been the management of universities there, which can be very traditional, hierarchical and resistant to change.

“There is still a lot of very centrist management around and a reluctance to take risks and innovate,” she says. “But we can nudge against this because of the prestige attached to an international collaboration.”

Plus, the AHRC funds will be allocated through the ‘Network Plus’ model, which is designed to bring together a wide range of UK arts and humanities research expertise with researchers and non-academic partners – something vital in a project like this.

“What GCRF funding has allowed us to do is get people together away from traditional hierarchies and think about how the humanities can improve the lives of both their students and the wider community,” says Professor Robson.

“It will enable us to get local voices, speaking local languages to contribute to post war reconstruction in a social way.”

Security is still a problem and, although Professor Robson insists things have improved markedly since the war ended, she admits that it was only recently that she hadn't heard from colleagues in Mosul for over three years because of the IS occupation.

“When I was in Mosul towards the end of the war, I was having conversations in one half of the city while bombs fell in the other half,” she says.

But overall the mood among academics in Iraq is optimistic and there is a strong belief in what can be achieved. “I was very lucky that, when this call came out I was just about to go to Iraq again. So, I put together an itinerary and visited my colleagues out there while the call was open and asked them: 'how can we make this work?'

“At the moment,'world heritage' is often synonymous with colonial heritage and there is a sense that we in the West get to decide what is important, what is preserved and who it is preserved for. Local expertise gets cut out of that conversation and ignored.”

If that is to change, Professor Robson believes the academic infrastructure in places like Iraq needs to develop. “Because of decades of war there aren't these communities of practice that we have in the UK, whether in academia or within the heritage world. So, for instance there is no equivalent of the Council for British Archaeology. I believe it is really important to help establish these kind of reflective networks with our colleagues.”

And then together we can create real impact on the ground - for example in places like the traumatised city of Mosul where Professor Robson is working with local colleagues to explore how to rebuild the city in a way that has meaning for local people.

Find out more on the
Visit www.ucl.ac.uk/nahrein
The Nahrein Network

“At the moment there is an empty museum in the city,” she says. “Through the Nahrein Network, what we are asking is: Can we create histories that represents the people of Mosul and not just the agenda of dictators? Until recently history has been presented as a succession of empires ruled by violent men.

“Finding a new way of talking about history is just one way to make it an economically - and socially - meaningful part of society.”

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