Thinking big in a global digital age forces you, as a scholar from the global South, either to make the best use of the limited access to knowledge and scientific information available within your national bounderies or to be a troublemaker. I have chosen to be a troublemaker.
TROUBLEMAKERS ARE MADE NOT BORN!
I was not born as a troublemaker, I was made one by those medieval policies of visas and modern-day borders and walls separating us humans from one other. The fact that I was born, raised and studied in Egypt, a part of Africa, makes me, in the eyes of my former colonizers, a “potential” troublemaker. They, or their diplomatic missions in Cairo, have to make sure that I am tied to my country of origin, Egypt, and will be financially able to cover my travel expenses into and out of my destination. The fact that I am an Egyptian scholar who studies Egyptian historical documents and teaches them to Egyptian students in an Egyptian university while hired by the same Egyptian university in an Egyptian permanent contract of teaching and research is not enough proof to them that I am professionally and mentally tied to this country. I have to provide financial statements like a bank statement of the last six months’ transactions, a plane ticket and confirmed hotel booking so that the officer grants me leave to enter. Preparing these papers and writing my application to travel to London, I wondered who on earth gave the British fleet leave to enter, actually bombard, Alexandria in 1882. It seems that they, and their European and American allies, needed, and still need, no permission to do so in Egypt, the Middle East and Africa in general.
We Egyptians and Africans had no choice back then, and we excuse them now for treating us as troublemakers. After all, our former occupiers know perfectly what the consequences are when a foreigner takes the full liberty of entering your land, bringing his family, language and culture, and tries hard not just to impose them on your people, but to rule and subject your country too! In the end the tremendous amount of public money used to process visa applications is not wasted. It is used for the public good of protecting the people from troublemakers coming from the global South.
AFRICANS’ MOBILITY AND GLOBALIZATION
Globalization has brought with it global challenges that are, by definition, “beyond any one nation’s ability to solve “. Therefore solutions “require cooperation among nations”. In a global era, outbreaks of epidemics, like the Western African Ebola virus epidemic, are issues that require international cooperation between think tanks and researchers from all over the world, especially from Africa. The UK Government is committed to the UN’s SDG in tackling these issues. The Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) is a £1.5 billion fund announced by the UK Government in late 2015 to support cutting-edge research that addresses the challenges faced by developing countries.
Yet the news came that the Home Office is … damaging British research projects through increasingly arbitrary and “insulting” visa refusals for academics from Africa.
“In April, a team of six Ebola researchers from Sierra Leone were unable to attend vital training in the UK, funded by the Wellcome Trust as part of a £1.5m flagship pandemic preparedness programme. At the LSE Africa summit, also in April, 24 out of 25 researchers were missing from a single workshop. Shortly afterwards, the Save the Children centenary events were marred by multiple visa refusals of key guests.
There are echoes of the wider hostile environment across the Home Office, with MPs on a parliamentary inquiry into visa refusals hearing evidence that there is “an element of systemic prejudice against applicants”. In a letter in today’s Observer 70 senior leaders from universities and research institutes across the UK warn that “visa refusals for African cultural, development and academic leaders … [are] undermining ‘Global Britain’s’ reputation as well as efforts to tackle global challenges”.https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jun/08/home-office-racist-refusing-research-visas-africans
OPEN ACCESS VERSUS LICENCING AND COPYRIGHTED BARRIERS
I am not working in a health profession, but am a person who is committed to quality education, which is the fourth of UN’s SDGs. I am also a person who is committed to the Open Access of scientific information about classical antiquity and cultural heritage, my main fields of expertise in research, study and teaching at Ain Shams University in Cairo; one of Egypt’s leading higher institutions in research, training and dissemination of scientific information in all modern fields of study in general and in cultural heritage in particular. Ain Shams is a public university and as such is committed to Open Access in research and education. As a tenured lecturer of Classics and papyrology at this university, Open Access is for me an intellectual, professional, global and national commitment.
At the international level, the UNESCO describes its initiative of open access to scientific knowledge and information as follows:
Scientific information is both a researcher’s greatest output and technological innovation’s most important resource. UNESCO promotes and supports OA—the online availability of scholarly information to everyone, free of most licensing and copyright barriers—for the benefit of global knowledge flow, innovation and socio-economic development.
At least 10 out of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) comprising the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development require constant scientific input. Given that these goals must be achieved globally, there is an absolute need to remove restrictions in order to disseminate research outputs to intended stakeholders. UNESCO thus believes that OA has a fundamental role to support the SDGs and is committed to making OA one of the central supporting agendas to achieve the SDGs.
UNESCO’s OA initiatives are built around the SDGs to recognize the need for ensuring that scientific research addresses the needs of society and responds to current and future sustainability challenges.
DIGITAL CLASSICS IN A SCARY LANGUAGE:
“DIGITAL CLASSICS IN ARABIC”
After months of intensive communications, preparations and project processings with Prof. Greg Woolf, Dr. Gabriel Bodard at the School of Advanced Study (SAS) of the University of London, and Prof. Charlotte Rouche at King’s College London, I was awarded one of the UK’s most prestigious national and international awards in the Humanities and Social Sciences: a British Academy Visiting Fellowship. The main aim of the project “Digital Classics in Arabic” was to to develop new research collaborations and deepen existing partnerships in digital humanities and cultural heritage. The Digital strategy of the Institute of Classical Studies (ICS) London is available here and “Digital methods are a key component of the fulfilment of the national and global remits of the ICS and SAS.”
“Electronic media are fundamental to our publication operations, to making our events as widely available as possible, and as a means of publicising and engaging the public in our work. Digital infrastructure contributes to our provision of resources for the national community, to training in and promoting best practice in digital methods, and to the development of the Combined Library. The ICS also has a role in coordinating Digital Humanities research in Classics, in promoting national and international collaborations, and in curating their outputs .”https://ics.sas.ac.uk/about-us/ics-digital
In addition to fostering a training workshop on digital editing for graduate students from Cairo, a core component of the project proposed and generously approved for six months by the British Academy is the idea that “Classical Studies should go beyond the grand narrative of the classical heritage as being exclusively European or Western in order that the modern Arab/Islamic societies recognize the classical heritage, art and architecture not as foreign or European but as part of their own cultural heritage and modern identity.” I have even argued frurther that:
“while the digital age gave us in the field of Classics the tools to reach out a global audience, we are still challenged by the fact that many of our print publications, as well as the body of knowledge they represent, are addressed to a European/Western audience (mainly in English, French, Italian and German). The digital age provides us however with an unprecedent chance of opening Classics to populations and societies beyond Europe and/or the West. The Arab population of my home country and of the whole Arab world deserves attention in the present moment in history. They need to be included, not to continue to be excluded from our audience when we speak about their Greco-Roman heritage… So to achieve the above-mentioned goal, a tremendous amount of traditional and digital work has to be done, not only because of the grand narrative that is dominant in the print culture, but also because of many technical problems of the Arabic script itself (running from right to left).”
A HISTORICAL TROUBLEMAKER
Applying for entry clearance to the United Kingdom as a British Academy Visiting Fellow, I did not submit this proposed plan of action, but my letter of award and a certificate of sponsorship from the University of London. Yet my application, according to the Entry Clearence Officer (ECO), failed to meet the qualifying criteria and was refused. In addition to mistaking me for a religious worker, the financial reasons that led them to refuse my entry were, according to the Refusal Notice I received on 10 June 2018, the following.
“You are required to demonstrate you have held £945 for a consecutive 90 day period demonstrating bank statements dated within 31 days of application or your UK sponsor is certifying your maintenance for 1 month. The Certificate of Sponsorship (COS) you have demonstrated does not show your sponsor University of London is certifying your maintenance for one month. In addition, you have failed to demonstrate bank statements which confirm you have met the maintenance requirement. In light of the above, I am not satisfied you met the requirements as stated in Appendix C of the Immigration Rules and I therefore refuse your application under paragraph 245ZO(c) of the Immigration Rules.”
This is entirely incorrect. Under Tier 5 government authorised exchange schemes, I was only asked to provide a Certificate of Sponsorship (COS), which I have submitted. The ECO did not take into consideration the fact that my COS clearly states my job’s monthly salary which exceeds the amount stated of £945. The idea that they overlooked the award letter of the British Academy was disturbing. Worst is the fact that they had mistaken me for a religious worker, probably because of my name. The Certificate of Sponsorship issued to me from the University of London stated clearly the catogry of the visa I was applying for. I was applying for for a Tier 5 (TEMPORARY worker- GOVERNMENT AUTHORISED EXCHANGE) not a Religious worker. Nevertheless the fortune and prestige of the British Academy’s award did not outweigh the misfortune associated with my biblical name Gad and given name Usama. It is true that I and many other Usamas in my region, including Usama bin Laden, are named after Usama ibn Zayd whose expeditionary campaign to Syria in June 632 was the first Muslim force to successfully invade and raid Byzantine territory, thus paving the way for the subsequent Muslim conquest of the Levant and Muslim conquest of Egypt. Yet applying for a leave to enter the UK as a British Academy Visiting Fellow in 2018, I have had no intentions to repeat these troubles in London or any other part of the United Kingdom. Overlooking such an important piece of information has led the person in charge of processing my application to, of course, turn it down. Who could argue then that my work is invalid or that “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there“?
“The immortal first line to L. P. Hartley’s THE GO-BETWEEN wistfully condenses the problems inherent to memory and history. Distant, intangible, unreliable, lost, our histories, at the levels of personal and national, are at best half-remembered and at worst actively misrepresented. “http://www.thewhitereview.org/feature/the-past-is-a-foreign-country/
GLOBAL CHALLENGES AND GLOBAL OPEN-ACCESS SCIENTIFIC INFORMATION
After a whole year and the submission of a new application, I was finally granted leave to enter the UK. The experience has however taught me that there are always partners on the other side of the globe who are willing to cooperate for a better future. These colleagues both in the UK and globally not only share the approach of building bridges but work in both deconstructing barriers and constructing bridges. My Italian colleague Nicola Reggiani, commenting on the digital approach I proposed, wrote the following in Digital Papyrology I https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110547474, to which I can not agree more.
I am deeply grateful to him and to all my colleagues who are committed to constructive cooperation across the constructed borders and walls of the present-day supposedly postcolonial world. Global challenges need international networking and global scholarship both in the Humanities and Sciences.
by Usama gad
British Academy Visiting Fellow, Institute of Classical Studies, University of London, UK.
Tenured Lecturer of Classics and papyrology, Ain Shams University in Cairo, Egypt.