Kamran Asdar Ali is chair of the Department of Anthropology and a professor of anthropology, Middle Eastern studies and Asian studies at UT Austin. He just finished a one-year term as president of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS), the oldest and most respected organization of its kind. Earlier this spring, as he neared the end of his term, Ali sat down with Life & Letters to talk about his research, his presidency, and how the work of his colleagues — both at UT and around the world — is helping to shape our growing and ever-shifting understanding of Asia.
Before we jump into the stuff about your presidency at the Association of Asian Studies, I’d love to hear about you. How did you come to anthropology? To UT?
Do you want the story that I used to tell my mom or the real story? [Laughs]
I’m from Pakistan originally, and I studied medicine there. Then I came to the United States to study anthropology at Johns Hopkins University because I had worked with some anthropologists in Pakistan and thought I could do public health/anthropology.
Initially I was persuaded to work on Latin America, so I did my MA on Mexico (and in the early 1990s I also worked as a human-rights monitor in El Salvador). After that I wanted to go back to studying South Asia, but in the eighties — I arrived in the US in ‘87 — it was customary for anthropologists not to study their own cultures. Now, everyone who comes from Uganda wants to study Uganda, everyone from India wants to study India, and we say, “yes, yes, go go.” But it was different then. I did my original research and Ph.D. on gender and reproductive health issues in Egypt in the early nineties. I then started teaching in 1995 at the University of Rochester. However, I wanted to be in a program that had more area studies focus and graduate students. I was lucky that UT hired me in 2001, and I kept on working on the Middle East. I published my book, got tenure, and trained students who worked on Egypt, Lebanon, and Turkey, among other cultures. Gradually I also started working on South Asia and on Pakistan.
I’ve worked on popular culture, urban issues and social and political issues in South Asia and the Middle East. My most recent book is on the political left and the Communist Party in Pakistan. Gender and sexuality have always been part of my research because of my earlier work on gender and reproductive health, and in recent years I’ve also published a few articles on Pakistani cinema. The book I’m co-writing with a colleague at Cornell is on sixties cinema in Pakistan. In between everything, of course, I train students. I think I feel pride most in training graduate students. None of them are working on what I work on, and they’ve all done a good job. Most of them are employed in academia, and I’m very proud of them.
So, when people ask, “What is anthropology?” Well, anthropology is what anthropologists do. This is what I do.
What about this organization, AAS? How did you be first become involved with them?
Since 2009 or 2010, I’ve been involved in some area studies associations. There are various organizations and consortiums of scholars working on particular countries or areas, including the American Institute of Pakistan Studies (AIPS). Several years ago, I became president of AIPS for six years (2011-2017). At the same time, I was also the director of the South Asia Institute here at UT. At both we did a lot of work with different universities in South Asia and facilitated scholars, graduate students, and faculty to do research in the region. We brought in junior faculty from Pakistan to be mentored and to take graduate classes, and we also persuaded faculty from UT and other universities under AIPS’ umbrella to go to Pakistan and — and this dovetails with what I’m doing now — give seminars or workshops for junior scholars or those in Ph.D. or MA programs on methodology on research and writing, on course development, and build up cohorts of scholars to compare notes and share resources.
When I came back in 2019 after a brief leave from UT, during which I served as a dean of humanities and social sciences at a university in Lahore for a couple of years, Ann Stevens [the dean of COLA] was very persuasive and wanted me to be chair of the anthropology department. It was around the same time I was persuaded to run for the presidency of AAS. Then I got elected.
So what is AAS? What are some of the things an area studies organization like AAS does?
AAS is almost 82 years old, the oldest scholarly organization dedicated to the study of Asia. Historically it was focused on China and Japan and Korean studies because that was the Cold War emphasis, but it’s expanded a lot from that time and now there are people who cover the entire region.
For seven or eight decades, AAS has published the most prestigious journal in the field, the Journal of Asian Studies. Then there’s Education about Asia, which is more geared towards high school and community college teachers. It’s freely accessible to the public and is a part of an effort to support and work with scholars at the community college or junior college level. We also have another publication called Asia Shorts, which is an imprint for short monographs. Historically, they were much more academic, but they’re also oriented towards the broader public. We also have a major bibliographic reference system, and several Asian librarians in different universities collaborate with us to put that together.
We have an annual meeting — this year it was in Boston — and then, because of Covid, we also started an online conference, primarily because people couldn’t travel but also because of the inner ethos that has started shaping us. As an organization we’ve been thinking about how we can serve our colleagues and scholars both here and in Asia, where most of us work, and the online version helps people who can’t travel just because it’s expensive. In 2014 we also started a yearly meeting we call AAS in Asia, for which we collaborate with a university in Asia. This year it’ll be in Korea, next year it’s going to be in Indonesia, and previously we’ve had it in Thailand, India, and Japan. Basically, for someone from Bangladesh, it’s not that easy to travel to Korea, but it’s still easier than traveling to Boston, right? So that’s our yearly commitment to the scholars primarily based in Asia.
I like that focus — on meeting area scholars in their actual area, rather than keeping the U.S. and the West at the center.
Absolutely. We’ve also started looking for funds so that we can shift a little focus towards Southeast and South Asia. Historically we’ve been more dominant in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean studies, but now we’re looking at places like Laos, Sri Lanka, or Cambodia, and figuring out how to work with scholars there.
Last year we got a large grant, about $2.4 million, from SIDA [the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency] to create hubs at universities in Pakistan, India, Thailand, and Cambodia. The idea is to support them financially so that they can recruit junior scholars from less-resourced universities in their respective regions and conduct a series of workshops on research methodology and academic writing. This process encourages and enables the junior scholars to conduct original research and then present the findings in international conferences or publish in scholarly journals. There is also a relationship between the four hubs so that people from these different areas can meet. For example, there is very little faculty exchange between India and Pakistan, because of the political situation. However, last winter the program organized a conference in Thailand and colleagues and junior scholars attended from India and Pakistan, and in their various exchanges they of course realized that they have similar cultural or social problems (UT can also play such a role of cross border dialogue). So, there is a way in which we are also encouraging a certain kind of South-South dialogue. We are creating an intellectual synergy through this forum by focusing on junior scholars, half of whom have to be women. There are also requirements to include scholars who are minorities and from less recognized communities, from LGBTQ communities to religious and racial minorities.
We also have some money for grants to encourage the humanities in these regions, and we’ve done the first round already. We had an open call to all the countries of Southeast and South Asia and said, if you are translating poetry or making short films or writing oral histories and you don’t have the resources to take time off or to do research, apply for funding from AAS. We recently gave 19 grants of up to $10,000 each, and we had about 600 applications. All the recipients are based in the region; none of the applicants were in the global North. We will try to keep this going for a few more rounds. It’s meant to be an encouragement, because nobody usually cares much about this kind of funding. Everyone wants to give money to technology and AI and computers and medicine, right? And we’re trying to really think about the visual arts and humanities and literature and the social sciences.
Finally — and this is the most difficult thing — we are working with scholars at risk. If, for instance, in Myanmar or Afghanistan or wherever, there are issues of academic freedom or people feel threatened, we can bring scholars out of their countries and place them at a university in a different place. We have one person who was in North Pakistan and she was threatened by the emergent Taliban, so we brought her out. She was in Thailand and has recently received her visa to go to Canada, where she will be placed at a university on AAS’ grant funding.
This process remains a bit tricky as there are so many layers and questions around how to help people leave their countries, where they will go, and whether they will get their visas. Sometimes there is family involved and we have to do a little bit more thinking, but we do have the money. In this sense, we have become very involved with academic freedom all over Asia and even in the United States. AAS also just came out with an edited volume on academic freedom in Asia, and I wrote the preface. Sometimes in our large universities these kinds of discussions don’t happen, but this is very much part of what we do — we’re thinking about how to persuade US universities and organizations to transfer some of their resources for those scholars who are at risk in various countries. It’s also a mutual learning process, it’s not just we’re up here and they’re there.
What are you personally most proud of from your time as president of AAS?
The presidents of AAS only come in for a year — though we have a four-year commitment and we serve on the AAS board as past-presidents — so many accomplishments really belong to a number of us. For example, the person who was just past-past president really introduced this whole notion of a global Asia: the idea that Asia is not isolated and has always been connected. The geographical boundaries that we use are, at best, tenuous and artificial; they’re not real. Things, people, and ideas move around. And Hy Van Luong, who’s at the University of Toronto and was our past-president last year, worked hard on our strategic initiative for the next five years, and some of the issues we formalized were around this commitment to scholars in Asia moving forward.
During my turn as president of AAS, I took on parts of that initiative as I’m really interested in this global Asia idea. I’ve also been thinking about Sharjah, in the UAE, which is an interesting site because the Middle East is in Asia in our geography books, but it’s considered another region because of the quirks of the Cold War and post-World War II period. Academic colleagues in Sharjah are also interested in expanding the idea of linking Asia and Africa, and I went there in December and had a discussion with the head of the Sharjah Art Foundation about starting an Asia Studies Institute in Sharjah.
We also discussed hosting AAS in Asia in Sharjah. UAE is a travel hub, for one, but I also wanted to think precisely in a global-Asia way about Asia and the Indian Ocean, Asia and Africa, Asia and North Africa and the Middle East. Sharjah would give us a way of starting that dialogue. So that’s kind of an intellectual vision, something I’ve been working on and maybe we’ll get it done. Somebody else will lead it, but I’ve started the ball rolling.
What’s the intersection between your work with AAS and your work for UT’s anthropology department, the South Asia Institute, and the other work that you’re doing at the college level? What does your AAS presidency mean for UT?
Historically my colleagues here at UT who are involved in knowledge production about Asia, whether it’s China or South Asia or Korea, have been members and very closely associated with the Association of Asian Studies. They are either represented on AAS’ area councils, have received awards or been on book award committees. So, it’s been an interesting evolution now that one of our own faculty members was recently the organization’s president.
Having said that, I also think it’s really important that our broader Asian studies program, which is a very deep program, not only in South Asian studies, is helping the university think of itself as a global university. In history and in Asian studies, in anthropology and sociology, in political science and economics, in the Moody school and in the College of Fine Arts and in music, we have excellent Asia scholars everywhere. This is also a recognition of UT, its diversity, and its contribution over the years to the study of Asia.