Learning Lebnani in Beirut

Nikolett Puskas (PhD, International Development)

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Beiruti sunset

Sabaho! – Bonjourein! – Kifak? Ca va? – Yalla bye!

Such phrases you will find flying around in Lebanon all the time and if you notice, it is a unique cocktail of Arabic, French and English, particularly characteristic to the one-of-a-kind city that Beirut is.

Thanks to the DTP’s Difficult Language Training initiative, I could study Lebnani – which is a form of the Levantine Arabic – in Beirut for four months and it has truly been a transformative experience.

There are languages, there are dialects, and then there is something else, like Lebnani, which has evolved to something very peculiar in the streets of Beirut. It is true to such extent that, my language teacher explained to us the Fusha grammar (that is Modern Standard Arabic) where relevant, then the Lebanese – and then ever so often deconstructed the Lebanese and told us what will we actually hear on the streets, as opposed to the theoretical sentences and grammatically correct expressions. Therefore, I was really in for the most fascinating language courses of my entire life so far. This is not such a grandiose statement if you look at my research background, but I did venture to languages like Korean and ancient Greek for example.

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Our diverse language class

The language courses I undertook at ALPS in the very popular Hamra neighbourhood provided invaluable knowledge for the fieldwork that I have now commenced for the comparative case studies in my PhD. There really is no way to learn this from books – well, there are no books to begin with. ALPS’s current managing director who is also a creative mind, realized their own course books, which are the fruit of years’ worth of teaching and notes and stories collected, completed with funny illustrations. The dialogues, short stories are all built around very realistic ‘beiruti life’ experiences and scenarios (e.g. taxi ride). The classes I participated in were truly diverse, from grammar to reading, conversations amongst ourselves focusing on topics chosen by us (very often it included Lebanese food and cooking, natural sites around the country and even heavy topics such as politics and environmental issues), reading stories and describing pictures and events. We even watched two short movies and actually learnt to sing two songs by the very talented and famous Fayrouz (‘Ya Ana Ya Ana’ and ‘Katabna w Ma Katabna’), and of course the ‘pop corn song’! (‘Tayr We Frqa Ya Boshar’)

My stay in Beirut has been much more than merely studying the language, I immersed myself in the culture and participated in local life as much as I got the opportunity to, feeling enabled to communicate, shway-shway, then more and more, observing and understanding, then due to the oral practice at ALPS, feeling confident enough to speak. People here are really kind and friendly and there are plenty of opportunities to practise one’s language skills. During my adventures I actually ended up joining the Lebanese national sport – the marathon training! Here I met with lots of nice people, we do activities together besides running four times a week at ungodly hours, inspire each other, and they provide me with endless opportunities to extend and keep polishing my Lebnani skills! Somehow by the end I really gained much more than the language training – soon I will also be a Beirut marathon finisher. In conclusion, I strongly recommend my fellow PhD colleagues to take up on this wonderful opportunity, venture out of your comfort zone and you will find a truly enriching experience, and tons of fun.

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Beirut Marathon 542 Team Rocky

Internship at the Royal Institution

Hannah Rachel Scott (PhD, UCL Division of Psychiatry)

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The Royal Institution of Great Britain

Thanks to funding available from the ESRC, I had the opportunity to do a three month internship at the Royal Institution (Ri) this summer. The Ri is a charity that promotes engagement with science, and has an extensive history of research and public lectures. It’s now best known for its annual Christmas lectures for children each year; but also has a year-long programme of lectures by academics from all areas of STEM, produces online science communication content and runs education programmes for school students.

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Producing engaging science content for YouTube

My internship was with the digital media department, who are responsible for creating all of the Ri’s digital content. As part of my time at the Ri, I helped manage their social media accounts, film public lectures, and produce science videos for their YouTube channel. With limited previous experience, I learnt on the job how to produce marketing materials and engaging science content, and was also able to use my existing research methods experience to analyse factors that impacted the performance of their videos on YouTube.

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Hannah filming during the placement

I’ve always been interested in science communication so it was an incredible opportunity to learn about this from a leading organisation in this area. I’ve gained a lot of experience in terms of how to make complex scientific concepts accessible and interesting to a non-expert audience (and, as a social scientist, refresh the physics and chemistry knowledge I haven’t used much since leaving school).  I learnt a range of practical skills including how to use video editing software and lighting, sound and camera equipment. Should my career take me out of academia, these skills will add to my employability, and also have a more immediate application for the final part of my PhD thesis, in which I will develop the basis for a public resource using the data that I have collected.

27th Annual Popfest Conference

Alyce Raybould (PhD, Demography)

PopFest is the annual population postgraduate student conference organised by PhD students for PhD students studying fields related to Population studies. It is an interdisciplinary conference, with students coming from backgrounds such as Demography, Human Geography, Anthropology, Statistics, Sociology, Social Policy, Economics, Public Health, International Development, Computer Science and more. This year, a group of UBEL DTP students from LSHTM (Alyce Raybould, Anushé Hassan and Judith Lieber) together with ESRC-funded students at LSE (Michaela Šedovič and Joe Strong) organised the conference at the London School of Economics and Political Science from 28-30th May with the kind support of the UBEL interdisciplinary fund.

To get the event rolling, we started the conference with a keynote speech from Helena Nordenstedt who travelled from Gapminder in Stockholm. Gapminder is the organisation of the late Hans Rosling, which he set up with the aim of fighting ‘factual ignorance’. He found that due to ingrained biases people tend to answer factual questions wrong at a higher percentage than chimpanzees answering at random. Even as a group of population studies students we were not very good at getting the answers right (for example, most of us out of 3 possible answers, thought 17% of the world’s population live outside their country of birth… the answer was 3%). However, we were comforted that apparently bankers, business experts and academics don’t do much better!


Helena presenting theGapminder infographic as part of her Keynote

Following on from this, Helena and her colleague Maike Winters led us in a workshop ‘Mind the Gap!’, where they taught us how Gapminder finds these facts that suffer particularly from ignorance. By the end of the session each group had generated a couple of ‘ignorance hunting’ questions, which we tested on each other. The winning question that generated the most ignorance was ‘What % of UK nationals live outside the UK?’. The correct answer is 10%, but 80% of us thought it was either 2 or 5%. Gapminder kindly gave the winning group each a signed copy of ‘Factfulness’ by Hans Rosling as a prize.


Helena and Maike from Gapminder leading the ‘Mind the Gap!’ Workshop

We then started our diverse programme of presentations, including sessions on inequality, wellbeing, labour market and employment, health, fertility, sexual and reproductive health, migration, family and households, ageing and education. Thank you to all the students that presented and chaired these sessions. We also held a poster session on the second day with a diverse range of topics including migration, social media, health, fertility and education. Overall, there were 60 registered participants attending from around the UK, Europe, America, Nigeria and Mexico.

On the second day, we also held a panel discussion on “Rights-based approaches in sexual and reproductive health: the role of demographers” chaired by Joe Strong from LSE. Tiziana Leone (LSE), Joanna Busza (LSHTM), Katy Footman (Marie Stopes International) and Carina Hirsch (Population and Sustainability Network) discussed the importance of language when speaking to policy makers, whether needs-based approaches were more effective for promoting policy change and winning grants, and the importance of rights-based approaches as an ethos for guiding research and policy.


The rights-based approaches to sexual and reproductive health panel discussion

On the final day, we started with a workshop led by Alyce and Michaela on how to promote interdisciplinary discussion in population studies. To everyone’s amusement we found that not one person in the room identified as a student of ‘population studies’ at a population studies conference! The majority of the participants identified with the discipline of their supervisors, their previous degrees, theories that appealed to them, or specific research topics. As an exercise in collaboration, we then gave each group a broad research question where each member of the team had to contribute to the project in some way. The students were therefore able to hear a little more about the diverse range of expertise and experience of the other participants.

Finally, after a rather filling pub lunch, Karen Glaser from King’s College London gave a great closing keynote on ‘The Health and Wellbeing of Grandparents Caring for their Grandchildren’.


Karen Glaser presenting her closing keynote

We also had time for a couple of social events, including an evening reception on the LSE rooftop common room, and a guided tour of the barbican estate (the weather just about held) followed by drinks. As the first modern social housing development, it was great to hear a little more about the urban planning and socio-economic considerations of the estate as students interested in population issues.


PopFest participants on a guided tour of the Barbican estate

We would like to say a big thank you to UBEL DTP for supporting this student-run event, alongside our other sponsors. With their generous support, we were able to waive the registration fee for all participants and financially support 12 students to attend the conference. Whilst there was no official theme for this year’s conference, our aim was to make the programme as interdisciplinary as possible. With our sponsors’ support, we were able to gather a diverse group of students from around the world and from many different disciplines, and hear from a fantastic group of speakers with expertise in different population issues. Next year, PopFest will travel to Florence in Italy, not to be missed!

Piecing together logistical landscapes across Georgia and Armenia

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Gyumri Railway Station

Evelina Gambino (PhD, Human Geography)

My PhD project seeks to examine and interrogate logistics’ development in Georgia. It does so by looking at two separate but interwoven levels: dominant narratives on infrastructural investments and the expectations and lived experiences of local people affected by these developments. Overseas fieldwork has constituted the main pivot around which my research has taken shape. While my project focuses in depth on two specific sites, the port of Anaklia in the north-west of the country and the Georgian hub for the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway line in the south-west, a large portion of my inquiry has been concerned with tracing the spatial, socio-economical and discursive relations between these sites and the broader logistical networks to which they belong. These networks are both global and regional and project lines of connections at once to desired futures – such as the inclusion into the Belt and Road Initiative – and to the past.

In the latest period of my fieldwork I have been concerned with tracing past infrastructural networks, interrogating their relevance for understanding contemporary developments. In particular I have travelled across the railway that used to connect Baku in Azerbaijan with Kars in Turkey, passing through the Armenian town of Gyumri. This railway provides the skeleton for the current BTK trainline on which my project focuses. However the contemporary connection diverges from the old one as it bypasses Armenia, a result of the still unresolved conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Since the conflict, in fact, the borders between Armenia and its neighbours – Turkey and Azerbaijan – have been shut and the rail connection suspended.

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19th Century Locomotive, Gyumri Station

Thanks to an ESRC DTP fieldwork expenses grant I was able to spend some time in Gyumri alongside my local research assistant Shushanik Gazaryan. In this town, formerly one of the most thriving logistical centres of the Soviet Union, connecting the USSR with the outside world through Turkey, we were able to observe the traces of a different logistical system, one not based on the competition between different corridors, financed by international banks and private capital but centrally planned and built by the Soviet state as a way to distribute manufacturing across its vast space and manage trade channels with its exterior. Interviewing those who worked across that system, many of whom are now still employed in the railway, we collected stories of the transnational encounters that emerged across the railway, amongst workers from different countries and provinces of the Soviet Union, including Armenia and Azerbaijan. These accounts allowed us to reflect on the changing meaning of infrastructural connections and disconnections across the post-Soviet temporal and spatial divide. Most importantly visiting this former logistics hub allowed me to piece together the complex map of logistical connections within which the current hub of the BTK railway is coming into existence. This is a logistical map informed by past relations, at once social, economic and geopolitical that are translated into current arrangements. While some of these relations are made explicit in the justification of the current route of the train, as in the case of the conflict between Armenia and its neighbours, others are obscured. At the end of my overseas fieldwork, I will build upon these accounts and the spatial relations observed to piece together the diverse connections making up current logistical routes.

Investigating the development of progressive Islam in Indonesia


With Khanis Suvianitia, an Indonesian friend currently conducting research on transwomen and religion

Diego Garcia Rodriguez (PhD, Gender and Sexuality)

Since 2016, LGBTIQ Indonesian citizens have been object of unprecedented attacks from both state officials and radical religious organisations. In the late months of 2018, after a phase of relative calmness, several incidents took place soon after the start of the presidential campaign for the elections taking place in April 2019. On November 2nd, a group of transgender women were hosed down by the local police in Lampung, Sumatra, using water from a fire truck. On November 17th, another group of transgender women were expulsed from a village in East Jakarta after the emergence of a campaign against LGBT people in the area. Soon after, another group of transgender women was attacked by dozens of Islamic fundamentalists in the city of Bekasi, near the capital Jakarta, until they were stripped naked and beaten. Following these events, a Sumatran city passed a new regulation to fine gay and transgender citizens for “disturbing public order”. Several other attacks on sexual minorities have taken place after the start of the new year 2019.


Interviewing a school teacher on gender, sexuality and religion

While these attacks often take place in the name of Islam, queer Indonesian Muslims are finding ways to live their religion, gender and sexuality in positive ways. With the term ‘queer’ I refer to a variety of ways of being such as waria/ transpuan/ wandu/ mak cik/ wadam/ sachi/ siwar (roughly translated as male to female transgender), trans laki-laki/ priawan/ transman (roughly translated as female to male transgender), gay/ binan, lesbi/ lines and biseksual individuals. Their lived realities illustrate a dissonance between mainstream homophobic discourses and the personal experience of religion, faith and spirituality. Using the Indonesian island of Java as my key fieldwork site, I spent 7 months, from May to December 2018, mainly in the cities of Jakarta, Surabaya and Yogyakarta to conduct an ethnographic study that will form the core of my PhD analysis. During my time in Indonesia, I conducted around 90 interviews with religious leaders, scholars and queer Muslims as well as observations at religious institutions and events. While before starting my fieldwork I had a set of clear objectives, being “in the field” helped me improvise and adapt to new topics and situations. For example, a new emergent issue was the passing of local laws such as the Perda Gepeng in Yogyakarta, which has been used to arrest transgender women who are often “re-educated” through conservative readings of the Islamic teachings.


Dressed in local attire with a group of students living in an Islamic boarding school in Central Java

Through my empirical data, I aim to challenge the assumption that queer Muslims are “oppressed subjects” in need of saving by conceptualising queer religious agency as part of potential contingent and fluid ‘empowering’ processes and outcomes. As a reaction to the increasing conservatisation of religious discourses, NGOs and civil society groups have started to organise an increasing number of workshops and discussions linking gender and sexuality with religion, a conversation that was not as common in the past. Due to the critical importance and consequential status of new Islamic hermeneutics to accommodate sexual minorities within Islam, a significant aspect that my fieldwork has also sought to investigate was the development of progressive Islam in Indonesia to advance knowledge on the development and role of those discourses in relation to the queer Muslims’ everyday experience of gender, sexuality and religion.

A fieldwork grant kindly provided by the UBEL-DTP ESRC allowed me to conduct my fieldwork and gather the large amount of empirical material that I am now trying to make sense of. Getting used to being back in London is being a difficult experience after my time in Java. I cannot thank enough those individuals who chose to share their experiences, opened the doors of their houses to welcome me and had a smile even when the situation was not always the best.