Nour A. Munawar

Full name and title: Dr. Nour A. Munawar
Nationality: Dutch & Palestinian-Syrian
Current position: Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Institution: Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, Qatar
Member of the EAA since: 2016

TEA: Why do you do archaeology/How did you decide to do it?

N. A. Munawar: My fascination with archaeology, heritage, and the material culture of the past is due to different reasons. One of which is the fact that I come from a multi-ethnic background. Being born to a Palestinian father and Syrian mother (who each had diverse ethnic backgrounds themselves) inspired me to learn more about how tangible and intangible heritage is passed on from one generation to another.

For instance, I still remember stories of my grandfather, who fled Palestine on May 15th, 1948, and came to Aleppo, Syria. My family still has the key to our house in Safad in Northern Palestine. My relatives hold to the belief that we will return one day and will be able to use our old home once again, although none of us are sure about the status of the house or who may occupy it now.

While pursuing my education and conducting research in archaeology and heritage studies in different European, American, and Middle Eastern universities, I began to wonder what I would come to pass on to future generations of my own. This led me to wonder about my own heritage. Is it Palestinian, Syrian, Dutch, American, or Qatari? Such questions keep me stimulated and motivated to continue doing research and fieldwork on the meanings and values of cultural heritage and memory, as well as the practices of preserving, promoting, and rebuilding heritage, and the management acts and policies of cultural resources across the world.

TEA: What is the most important and relevant part of your work?

N. A. Munawar: Hearing and making heard the stories of individuals, voices of the displaced and disempowered and the wishes of indigenous populations regarding how their cultural heritage should be managed, by whom and for whom is absolutely vital to my work. I feel that connecting the material culture of the past as well as heritage, archaeology and memory to people is the most important element of my research.

TEA: How do you see archaeology changing in the future? 

N. A. Munawar: Archaeology, heritage, and memory studies all have the ability to revive the past, evoke the future and be promoted and represented in present time. Over the past few years, we have started to witness a new tendency to decolonize archaeology and heritage in various places across the world. By giving voice to the often-unheard, disempowered, and actual owners of the past, archaeology and heritage are becoming powerful tools which have a great potential to raise awareness and grant opportunities to people who have been hitherto seen as the ‘fieldworkers’ merely assisting professional archaeologists in excavations. Understanding archaeology and heritage as empowering tools allows local and indigenous people to participate in making decisions on issues related to presenting, promoting, protecting, and reconstructing the material and immaterial components of the past. This transformation in the discourse of studying the past has the capacity to make the process of history writing a mutually-inclusive process that feeds into establishing equality and building just societies.

TEA: What is the biggest issue facing European archaeology? 

N. A. Munawar: I think the biggest challenge facing European archaeology is the extension of warfare and hostilities to the eastern borders of Europe. The war in Ukraine and the tensions in the Balkans endanger archaeology and cultural heritage. These conflicts create division and hatred in societies and academic communities which may last for a significant period of time. For instance, providing assistance to Ukrainian colleagues in order to help them learn how to protect museum collections, archaeological sites and monuments, and World Heritage Sites is certainly an admirable duty. However, by excluding Russian scholars or those affiliated with Russian institutions will not have positive consequences for archaeology and heritage in Russia nor in areas under Russian control. The case of the armed conflict in Syria and the exclusion of particular partners from capacity-building training, grants, scholarships and giving such opportunities to other actors in the war have not been shown to be beneficial for either antiquities nor those institutions responsible for heritage protection. Therefore, I believe we should learn from such lessons and work to neutralize archaeology and museums in times of conflict. Otherwise, we may witness repetitive examples of dealing with archaeology and archaeologists in times of war. Excluding certain colleagues due to their nationalities from capacity-building training, grants, scholarships or other opportunities is detrimental for all parties involved.

TEA: What archaeology literature are you reading right now? 

N. A. Munawar: The Past is a Foreign Country by David Lowenthal.

TEA: Briefly describe your workspace

N. A. Munawar: White, sunny, clean, overcrowded with books, nice view of the campus.

TEA: What is the one piece of gear that you can't live without in the field? 

N. A. Munawar: A trowel and a device to play nice music.

TEA: What is your best/worst archaeology story? 

N. A. Munawar: During my last dig (with Brown University in Sardinia), I was plagued by the local mosquitos. One time they had to take me to a hospital as I developed a sudden allergy, and my hand became terribly swollen! Nevertheless, the excavation was a nice experience, and I met many lovely people.

TEA: If you could have a conversation with any archaeologist living or dead, who would it be, and what would you choose as the topic? 

N. A. Munawar: James Symonds, Professor of Historical Archaeology (North of the Alps) at the University of Amsterdam (UvA), Netherlands and Lynn Meskell, PIK Professor of Anthropology at University of Pennsylvania, USA. I learnt a lot from both and would love to learn more and talk to them about the possibilities of decolonizing the past, from theory to practice.

TEA: If you could go back in time, would you go? Where and when?  

N. A. Munawar: Yes! I would love to go back to the period of the Arab-Muslim rule in Andalusia (modern-day Spain), specifically 8th – 11th centuries AD.

TEA: Any advice to new archaeologists just starting out?

N. A. Munawar: Bring a lot of mosquito repellent to the field and carry on with your dreams – the field has a plethora of opportunities, so don’t give up!

Image courtesy of N. A. Munawar

Fieldwork in Qatar, image courtesy of N. A. Munawar