Dick Douwes

Current projects

Shrine Politics: Sacred Space and Public Religion in Syria and Lebanon

Many shrines in the Mediterranean have a history of intercommunal worship. The most widespread network of shrines attracting a multi-religious audience are those dedicated to the occasionally overlapping saintly entities of Nabi Khidr (Islamic), Mar Jurjus (Orthodox Christian, St. George) and Mar Ilyas (Jewish in origin, yet also Christian and Islamic, Prophet Elijah). These and other saintly entities are the epitome of a historical awareness of a shared sacredness, transcending communal, as well as present day national borders. In contrast to the more formal religious institutions of assembly, such as mosques, churches and synagogues, shrines attract a more varied audience in terms of gender and age. Larger shrines often function as community centres offering social services. Shrines function next to and in association with more formal religious institutions, including those created by the modern nation-state. The veneration of saints, however, is contested, both by secular and fundamentalist voices, and in past and present war conditions many shrines in the region have been subjected to violence engendered by sectarianization. But saints and shrines, however contested, continue to offer space for communal and intercommunal exchanges, for alignment within and between.

This project studies shrines as historical sites of negotiation of communal  heritage and present-day agency. Some minority communities were engaged in the refurbishment and enlargement of sacred sites over the last decades, mainly as a consequence of emergent religious tourism (Christians from the western diaspora and Shiites from Iran and Iraq). For communities that are not public religion, shrines (not mosques) constitute the main material and spatial expression of their community of faith. In an effort to address various ‘orthodox’ concerns about these tentatively ‘heretical’ sites, various shrines have been cleaned of more overtly ‘superstitious’ artefacts and rituals, such as magic salt or healing rolling stones. The war in Syria has accentuated the meaning of shrines; many have been destroyed, some have been defended by militia from outside of Syria.

Syrian Refugees’ Heritage: Recreating the Past to Prepare for the Future

Heritage and memory provide tools to connect to the present while not forgetting the past, to accommodate to conditions of diaspora and to prepare for a post-war Syria. This project aims to study the ‘mobile’ heritage of refugees; artifacts - many material carriers of memory having been lost in war and dislocation -, social media texts and images, and memories that they carry with them, that they share and find relevant for future purposes, be it in the setting of a continued existence in asylum, but most particularly in view of the post-war possibility of return and of contributing to reconstruction and reconciliation.

Memories and expectations are individually distinct, yet some patterns appear to be more common. Refugees from the warzones in the Middle East bring with them traumatic memories of war and displacement. Yet, many share ‘good memories’ of the period before the war and are proud of Syria’s impressive heritage and its contributions to mankind (first wheat growers, first cities, first alphabet, first music annotation, etc.) as well as of Hellenistic culture, being the foundation of European culture. Moreover, they often mention the contributions made by Arab scholars during the heydays of Islamic culture to the sciences. However, most good memories are about family life, friends, fellow students, colleagues, work and leisure. Bad memories often remain silenced, sometimes for the sake of keeping/creating harmony among the refugees themselves, sometimes out of fear of possible negative consequences that may harm their family and relations in Syria, or in view of their possible return.

A PhD position on this project will be advertised shortly.


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