Skip to Georgetown India Initiative Full Site Menu Skip to main content
August 27, 2019

Indian Ocean Research Rethinks Borders, Leverages Cross-Campus Expertise

A working group led by faculty at Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q) brings together scholars from across Georgetown and other universities to redefine traditional understandings of the Indian Ocean region.

Cinnamon, compass, and beads on an old map.
Cinnamon, compass, and beads on an old map.

Led by GU-Q faculty Rogaia Abusharaf, Amira Sonbol, Phoebe Musandu, and Uday Chandra, the group hosts an annual symposium, convenes a monthly reading group of faculty and students, offers classes, and works on special projects that fill the gaps in current scholarship on the Indian Ocean, particularly as it relates to the Gulf and East Africa.

“The goal is really to make an impact, to elucidate some of the issues that are ignored in the discussion of the Indian Ocean,” says Abusharaf. “The issue of these Gulf connectivities with Africa needs to be addressed more systematically in terms of the population, migration, of the circularities of people, ideas, and objects.”

Annual Symposium in Qatar

Each year since 2014, the group has convened experts from Georgetown's Qatar campus, Georgetown’s Washington, DC, campus, and other institutions in the Middle East and North and East Africa to explore a different theme in Indian Ocean scholarship.

Participants at the first symposium recognized that the pattern of movement around the Indian Ocean is much richer and more reciprocal than current research suggests. The group named this phenomenon “circularities,” and it has animated their work since.

“Circularities means the movement of people, of goods, of ideas, of humanity,” says Sonbol.

Cross-campus Collaboration

Uday Chandra, assistant professor at GU-Q and coordinator of the most recent annual symposium, recognizes the comparative advantage cross-campus collaboration gives Georgetown in advancing interdisciplinary research on this topic. He says,

“Our location in Doha presents us a unique opportunity to gain a practical immersion in the sociocultural dynamics of this vast oceanic region.”

“Together, Main Campus and GU-Q combine to offer a uniquely rich insight into the Indian Ocean,” says Cóilín Parsons, associate professor in the Department of English in the College and a member of the working group. Parsons will lead a bi-local seminar for students in Qatar and DC in the fall 2019 semester.

The India Initiative, a university-level platform for research, teaching, and dialogue around India and world affairs, has also collaborated with experts at GU-Q, recently convening a two-day conference comprising scholars from Georgetown's DC and Qatar campuses and other institutions. Participants discussed nation-building, nationalism, democracy, and international relations in the region.

“Through its considerable interdisciplinary faculty expertise, Georgetown University is uniquely positioned to lead policy-relevant scholarly inquiry into various aspects of the Indian Ocean region, and the India Initiative is proud to support the efforts of our colleagues in Doha and DC to do so,” says Irfan Nooruddin, director of the India Initiative and Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor of Indian Politics in the School of Foreign Service.

Arabia and Indian Ocean Goos Map 1666 A.D., Koeman IV (Maritime Atlases), Goos pp. 190 ff.
Arabia and Indian Ocean Goos Map 1666 A.D., Koeman IV (Maritime Atlases), Goos pp. 190 ff.

Re-mapping the Region

A priority for the working group was the establishment of a web repository of maps of the Indian Ocean and Africa in an effort to rethink the history of these areas outside of dominant paradigms, according to Sonbol.

“Remapping goes beyond thinking in terms of borders, but thinking in terms of people, movements of peoples,” she says.

“The core of our focus for the mapping is really to broaden the scholarly scope of understanding the Indian Ocean as it relates to the Gulf, as it relates to Eastern Africa,” says Abusharaf.

In addition to the repository, the website is a place of online discussion and dissemination for scholars and students’ interdisciplinary research on the Indian Ocean.

“We’re onto the edge of something new, and that is a new form of publication, a new form of getting information out,” says Sonbol. “Not only do we research, but we disseminate.”

‘Beyond Nation States and Borders’

In addition to faculty research, the working group encourages students at both campuses to rethink borders and consider new perspectives on the Indian Ocean region through classes and special programs. Sonbol says,

“Everything we do has the school in mind, has the students in mind, has innovative teaching in mind. It’s bringing all of these things together.” 

“I hope that our students learn to think beyond nation states and borders, and beyond the stereotypes we hear of East Africa and Gulf region, and understand the fascinating and converging stories of a region that has shared languages, cultural practices, and histories for over 1,000 years,” says Parsons.

In addition to Abusharaf, Sonbol, Musandu, and Chandra, the working group core team also includes GU-Q faculty Firat Oruc and James Reardon-Anderson, as well as Ahmad Sikainga (Ohio State University), Abdalla Baabood (Qatar University), Sandra Richards (Northwestern University), and Tukufu Zubairi (University of Pennsylvania).

Related News

Indian Ocean scholars view a presentation while seated around a table

February 7, 2019

Georgetown University in Qatar hosted a multidisciplinary panel of local and international scholars at the sixth annual Indian Ocean symposium to explore and redefine the cultural, economic, and historical ties between the Gulf, Southeast Asia, and Africa.