Dr. Katty Alhayek is an Assistant Teaching Professor at Georgetown University and part of our Displaced Scholars Peer Mentoring Program. Here, she talks about her work and experience, saying ‘Pursue the research you are passionate about.’
What are you working on now and why?
My projects have been innovative, interdisciplinary, and inspired by such sub-fields as audience research, feminist media studies, technology and social change, performance studies, and critical cultural studies. A central theme in my scholarship is how forcibly displaced people use social media to wield power and cope with unjust life conditions. I work to understand the successful strategies that media activists use for social change in challenging environments of war and displacement. My scholarship is inspired by my lived experience as a displaced woman and activist from Syria as well as my work with international organizations like the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.
You recently explored the interplay between forcibly displaced audiences of Syrian television drama series Ghadan Naltaqi (We’ll Meet Tomorrow) and the writer/creator of the show, Iyad Abou Chamat. Can you tell us more?
The series ran during Ramadan in the summer of 2015. As I wrote in ‘Watching television while forcibly displaced: Syrian refugees as participant audiences’, it is particularly interesting because it provides a case where Syrian refugee audiences used social media as a space to engage with the producer of a TV show that represented their diverse experiences.
Indeed, this show focuses on the daily lived experiences of a group of forcibly displaced Syrians who rent separate rooms in one modest building in Lebanon. The characters come from different social positions in pre-war Syria with diverse political views vis-à-vis the conflict. The show depicts many of the political, economic, and cultural challenges that face displaced Syrians who live in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon while they try to find ways to emigrate to Europe. It also provides insights into the cultural production environment of Syrian drama after the Arab Spring and the 2011 Syrian uprising and the challenges that face drama producers.
I was interested in how audiences interpreted this series in relation to their lived experiences. The responses were interactive, emotional. Why were they motivated to engage online with the show’s creator? How did that influence the content? I wanted to describe what happens when non-Western refugees and internally displaced people bring their experiences to bear on the production of interpretation by engaging online. The article shows how this interplay not only with each other, but with television writers and producers, helped them to find a healing space from violent and alienating dominant media discourses.
What’s the best thing about being a researcher? What are the biggest challenges?
As a researcher, I hope that through public engagement I intervene as an active agent in the efforts to solve the significant social problems that I study. I am inspired by the work of critical theorists such as Stuart Hall (2007) who saw that ‘organic intellectuals’ are responsible for transmitting theoretical knowledge to ‘those who do not belong, professionally, to the intellectual class’.
One of the biggest challenges that faced me as a researcher is being a displaced person myself who was affected by difficult conditions in both my home country, Syria, and my country of residency, the United States of America.
I started my PhD program (Fall 2015-Spring 2016) with the rise of Trump and suffered personally under his administration's rhetoric and policies that terrorized asylees, refugees, and other vulnerable immigrants and queer communities. I had to write and finish my doctoral dissertation in this difficult context. Thus, in a culture dominated by political violence in Syria and the United States, my research shifted to focus on survival and thriving strategies that media producers and audiences develop to overcome the negativity of war and displacement. In this way, my research becomes my own survival and thriving strategy.
What advice would you like to give other early career researchers?
Pursue the research you are passionate about. Be mindful of your own way of seeing the world. Even if you are a displaced scholar, try to be reflexive about the material and cultural privileges that we inhabit as researchers and how we produce knowledge about subaltern, displaced populations within the larger structures of power in our societies.
What impact do you hope your work will have?
I hope to contribute with mindfulness and empathy to the efforts to create more inclusive and just societies.
What do you hope to achieve by participating in the Displaced Scholars Peer Mentoring Program?
I hope to expand my network with global scholars who do research on forced displacement, and I look forward to finding opportunities to work collaboratively with colleagues in research and creative projects that contribute to social justice for forcibly displaced people and other vulnerable communities.
Read Katty Alhayek’s 2020 article: ‘Watching television while forcibly displaced: Syrian refugees as participant audiences’ (2020) 17(1) Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies 8-28.
• Twitter: @kattyalhayek
• Google Scholar: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=Ms1WP4YAAAAJ&hl=en
The Displaced Scholars Peer Mentoring Program is a joint program of the Kaldor Centre and the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, Lund University. It has received generous support of the Universitas21 Research Resilience Fund.