Q&A with CMES Tunisia’s Sihem Lamine

May 9, 2022
Sihem Lamine with Yo-Yo Ma

Sihem Lamine is the Administrative and Program Manager of the Tunisia Office of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Prior to officially joining CMES, Sihem worked as a consultant for CMES and Harvard Global Research and Support Services and played a major role in the transformation of the office space in Tunis from an empty shell to a functional and beautiful multi-purpose facility. For over six years she has been welcoming students, faculty, and visitors to the office, the city of Tunis, and the country of Tunisia, facilitating research projects, organizing public events, and generally helping visitors navigate and enjoy the resources and opportunities that Tunisia has to offer.

Sihem Lamine with Yo-Yo Ma in the Medina of Tunis
Sihem Lamine with Yo-Yo Ma in the Medina of Tunis

What is your professional background?

I studied architecture at the Ecole Speciale d’Architecture in Paris. I worked as a project architect in a ship-construction practice, Seine Design, in Paris for three years. Then, in partnership with fellow architect Jean Baptiste Barache, I co-founded Arba, a design practice specializing in sustainable residential architecture. We worked together for more than a decade building wooden houses in the Alps, Normandie, Burgundy, and the suburbs of Paris and won several awards.

In 2013, having always been particularly drawn to the urban history of Islamic cities, I decided to go back to university and study the history of Islamic art and architecture at SOAS, London. I wrote a dissertation that explored the formation of the early medieval Zaytuna Mosque of Tunis. What I thought would be a nourishing break in my architectural path proved to be a turning point in my professional life: It drove me back to the academic and publishing worlds.

That is how, in late summer 2015, I found myself taking a job interview with Professor William Granara, CMES Director, and Lauren Montague, CMES Executive Director, in a hotel in Tunis for a position that consisted in the implementation of the first branch of Harvard CMES in Tunisia. Despite having spent most of my early professional years in construction fields dealing with artisans and construction companies, and drawing more than writing, I found an immense interest and inspiration in the project, and in CMES programs and vision.

As a child and teenager, my family lived in campus residences, first at the Ecole Normale Superieure of Bizerte, then in the Faculte des Lettres of Manouba. Our house was constantly filled with students and scholars of various nationalities. The gardens, amphitheaters, and libraries of these campuses were our playground. I grew up intuitively familiar with the backstage of higher education structures: how they function, how they look when they are empty and when they are filled with the flow of students. I saw and lived the 1980s tensions and protests in Tunisia’s universities from the ground.

It has been more than six years since I joined CMES as the Administrative and Program Manager of the Tunisia Office. It took me some time to draw clear links between these childhood years and my CMES Tunisia experience, but university campuses are somehow a natural milieu for me, and this might explain the passion that has been driving my work at the Tunisia Office.

What attracted you to the CMES Tunisia Office position?

It is useful to keep in mind the context in which the inception of CMES Tunisia took place: Such an initiative would have never been possible in pre-2011 Tunisia, a country where individual and academic freedoms were arbitrary, not to say nonexistent. The idea of implementing a research center in the humanities and social sciences embodied a lot of what I believed in and dreamt of. I saw the project as a powerful signal proving that a substantial change was really taking place in the country.

After meeting the CMES team for the first time in Tunis, I knew that I wholeheartedly wanted/had to help the CMES Tunisia Office project to exist, succeed, and grow, with all the means and skills I had. Needless to say it was not any random Middle Eastern studies research center, it was part of Harvard University, an institution I have always admired and respected. I was thrilled to be part of a team committed to building bridges between academic communities, creating a multidisciplinary environment that values the lived experience, a team convinced that knowledge continues beyond the classroom, on the ground, and that studying societies and communities cannot ignore their arts, literature, cinema, theater, built environment, and culture.

What have been the best parts about managing the CMES Tunisia Office and programming?

The best moments in the last six years have doubtlessly been meeting the Harvard community, students, faculty and staff, learning about diverse research interests, and catalyzing connections with local academic communities. Programming and hosting for the successive trips, visits, and academic events has been a truly rewarding and rich experience. One of the greatest rewards is seeing students return to the country after a first visit, use the office resources as a remote place they can benefit from and where their work can thrive.

One of the highlights of the CMES Tunisia programs is the J-term Introduction to Tunisia three-week annual trip. The CMES Tunisia Office hosted five successive winter trips (2016–20). All of them were supervised by Professor Granara, and were fascinating moments of discovery and interaction for groups of students who visit the region, sometimes for the first time. Each of these trips represented an opportunity to witness the students’ tremendous curiosity and thirst to learn and understand, and rediscover my own environment through their eyes.

The Arabic Language Summer Program is also a wonderful moment of the year at the office. Groups gather for a five- to six-week period. It is an opportunity for them to learn the language while being in an Arabic-speaking environment and while enjoying Tunisia’s summer atmosphere.

Spring faculty visits are also rewarding and humbling moments in the office’s life. They offer, of course, the opportunity to hear from Harvard’s incredible talents, and to host lectures by Harvard faculty that are open to everyone. They are also moments of rich exchange and connection. Professors Granara, Malika Zeghal, Gülru Necipoğlu, Cemal Kafadar, Roy Mottahedeh, and Gareth Doherty all gave fascinating lectures attended by the Tunis academic community.

The CMES Tunisia Office also organized two major academic gatherings in the field of Mediterranean studies: The first, “Mediterranean Cousins: Tunisia and Italy on Opposite Shores,” was held in October 2019. A group of scholars from Tunisian, American, and European universities met in Tunis to present and discuss their work on history of the relations linking the northern and southern shores of the Central Mediterranean Sea. The second, “Mapping Tunisia in Mediterranean Studies: Approaches to Research and Professional Development in the Humanities and Social Sciences,” was organized in March 2020, in collaboration with the Mediterranean Seminar. It offered a great opportunity to students in the humanities studying in Tunisian universities to hear from guest professors such as Julia Clancy-Smith, Professor of History at the University of Arizona, and Brian A. Catlos, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

In addition to these major programs, visiting scholars have contributed actively to building and maintaining a local academic community with lectures or series such as Al-Jisr Academic writing workshop, initiated by Laura Thompson, Eyalet, Discussions on Ottoman Tunisia, moderated by Youssef Ben Ismail, or the Urban in North Africa Workshop, led by Myriam Amri.

What have been some of the challenges, and in particular the challenges in the COVID era, and what kinds of programming have you been able to pursue given the ever-changing protocols regarding travel and gatherings in Tunisia, the United States, and other countries?

As an off-campus remote office, the biggest challenge we encountered was the Covid pandemic and the travel restrictions it generated. This caused a great deal of uncertainty and successive program cancellations. However, it forced us to substantially adapt our functioning mode and programs to keep the community together, connected, and involved ­remotely.

In summer 2020, we launched a digital humanities program supervised by Professor Granara with a group of Harvard CMES researchers. The initiative’s aim is to research a corpus of press publications from the interwar period in Tunisia, and to make the content available to the community of researchers with interest in the intellectual, social, and literary history of Tunisia and the region. The corpus was collated and digitalized in collaboration with the CDN (Archives of the Tunisian Press), the National Archives of Tunisia, and National Library of Tunisia. The program has been running for four terms, and we are hoping to see the results of the research published in collaboration with Widener Library.

Also in reaction to the first Covid lockdown, we worked in collaboration with the Center for Hellenic Studies in Greece to co-produce #After Lockdown: Very Short Stories about Enduring a Global Pandemic, a 50-minute animated film presenting individual stories about living through the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic in different places in the world. The film, designed by Mr. Sebs, an animation studio co-directed by CMES alumnus Mohamad Saleh AM ’18, premiered at 24 Hours of Harvard 2020, the first online version of Harvard Worldwide Week. It features testimonials from students and professors, but also contributors from outside the academic community, narrating their personal experiences with lockdown, travel restrictions, switching to new forms of education, displacement, isolation, job loss, and more broadly, adapting their lives to the new circumstances imposed on them and on their communities. When we look back at the film today, it is incredibly rewarding to have this collective scrapbook documenting a moment of change for all of us.

The switch to online programming was also the opportunity to launch Tunisia Newsreel: Notes from the Ground, a webinar series on contemporary Tunisia in which selected guests discuss the country’s economy, international and regional politics, public health, crisis management, policy making, social justice, race, gender, history, heritage, and arts.

What opportunities have you had to collaborate with other Harvard departments and Schools? The CMES Tunisia Office is committed to serve as an outreach, promotion, and recruitment platform for other Harvard Schools, departments, and programs with relation to the Ben-Gacem Fund at Harvard or with specific interest in the country.

In past years, we have organized information sessions on applying to Harvard College, held in person at the Tunisia Office and livestreamed to audiences in multiple locations around the country in collaboration with AMIDEAST and local education institutions. We have provided assistance to Harvard Kennedy School for recruitment for fully sponsored opportunities for the ­Master in Public Administration and Master in Public Policy programs in collaboration with Tunisia’s Ecole Nationale d’Administration. The office has also served as a connection and development platform for the implementation of HMX online courses in Medical ­Fundamental Sciences in four medical schools of Tunisia, a program that is developed and run by Harvard Medical School. The Tunisia Office also supported establishing connections between Harvard Business School and Tunisian companies. And we have been an active partner of the Crossroads Program, an opportunity open to first-generation college students in South Asia, Africa, and the MENA region, initiated by the the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute.

You recently published an article in the journal Muqarnas (edited by Gülru Necipoğlu, Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Art in Harvard’s Department of the History of Art and Architecture and a core CMES faculty affiliate). What was the piece about? Do you hope to publish more work in the future, in Muqarnas or elsewhere?

It was such a pleasure and honor for me to have my article on the minaret of Zaytuna Mosque published in Muqarnas, after having presented the preliminary findings of the research at the 2019 MESA Annual Conference in New Orleans. The article is titled “Colonial Zaytuna: The Making of a Minaret in French Occupied Tunisia.” It explores the complex and fascinating context of the construction of a monumental minaret for the city’s Great Mosque, the Zaytuna, in the late nineteenth century while the country was gradually transitioning from its Ottoman past and surrendering to the newly established French colonial rule. The article questions the presence of a colonial structure where it is less expected to be found. The article is also meant to be a humble tribute to the architects, artisans, and builders who contributed to the construction of this beautiful piece of architecture.

The production and publication of this article was a team work that would never have been possible without many members of the CMES community. I am grateful to my colleagues and friends who helped me to accomplish this work by offering opportunities, connections, advice, revisions, or simply words of encourage­ment. I do hope I will be able to write and publish more work on Tunisia’s urban history and ­history of architecture. I am drawn and concerned by questions related to heritage preservation. I belong among those who believe that our relationship to the land, the built environment, and to memory of place can be key to building ­creative and sustainable environments and economies. And I do believe that academic research and publication can serve as a tool for advocacy: Telling the stories of buildings is a way to protect them.

Celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76 was in Tunis recently, and CMES Tunisia hosted a panel conversation with him. Can you tell us more about it?

Sunday, March 27, was an unforgettable day, indeed! The Harvard CMES Tunisia Office took part in the North Africa edition of Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Project, organized in Tunis on March 26 and 27, 2022. On the first day, Ma gave an exceptional concert at the Cité de la Culture of Tunis. Then the second day was dedicated to action and dialogue on how culture connects people and how hope can be (re)built through creative heritage. In the panel discussion entitled “Finding Beauty in What We Call Home,” Yo-Yo Ma conversed with two Tunisian artists: painter and sculpturist Sonia Kallel and urbex photographer Mourad Ben Cheikh Ahmed. The three of them talked about their work and projects; they spoke on themes as diverse as beauty, memory, heritage, war, and the role of artists in society and in the world. It was an immense pleasure for me to moderate this discussion.

What is fantastic is that the very first connection with the Bach Project’s team happened thanks to two Harvard CMES Tunisia alumni, Dustin Klinger, NELC PhD ’21, and CMES PhD candidate Salmaan Mirza, in early 2020. I remember responding to the introduction email saying that Yo-Yo Ma’s visit to Tunisia would be a “dream come true.” Then, after two years of Covid, the dream became reality! And all of us at CMES are most grateful to Yo-Yo Ma and everyone who contributed to putting Tunis and the CMES Tunisia Office on the Bach Project’s map.

What are you up to at the office for the coming spring and summer?

I am thrilled to be relaunching in-person programming with such a celebration, and in music! And we are very much looking forward to resuming the in-person Summer Program after two years of interruption. The return of students to the CMES Tunisia Office will be a delightful moment! 

Photo: Austin Mann