CONFERENCE: How Communities Imagine the Sea & How the Sea Creates Communities (Reflections)

On Wednesday, November 28, FLOATS gave a cross-oceanic briefing titled “How Communities Imagine the Sea and How the Sea Creates Communities.”

The briefing featured four speakers from various background that presented an array of approaches to the social sciences of the sea and was live-streamed from the American University of Beirut campus and its headquarters in New York City. Themes discussed included maritime solidarity, ocean governance of the high seas, the impact of climate change, the precarious privatization of the shoreline and the sea, and the sea as a source of livelihood.

The session was a prelude to FLOATS’ first Winter Meeting, a two-day conference, organized by the Center for Science and Society at Columbia University and The New School for Social Research and the Multiple Mobilities Group, that took place on November 29 and 30 in New York City.

 The briefing commenced with an introduction of FLOATS by Dr. Marwa Elshakry, an associate professor at the Department of History at Columbia University, and co-navigator of FLOATS. Elshakry defined FLOATS as an experimental platform that sought to focus on the sea for three reasons; the first is that “the sea is one of the last earthly commons.” She also clarified that the term “commons” refers to a cultural and natural resource that is owned by all people, as opposed to being owned privately, or publicly owned and managed by the state, and is currently under threat.

 “The second significance of the sea is that it is a little studied space for the exploration about our past and present human and non-human habitats, and national and international political spaces,” said Elshakry. “Finally, the third and final reason we decided to focus on the sea is that we can consider it to be a vibrant realm for imaginary futures [collectively], which in itself is an exercise of politics.”


 Following the introduction, Dr. Yaser Abunnasr, assistant professor at the Department of Landscape Design and Ecosystem Management at AUB presented his perspective on “The Shoreline as a Sink, Source, Habitat, and Conduit.” Abunnasr highlighted the importance of the shoreline as the interface between the sea and community and land, and has been involved in proposals for the planning and development for the coast zones in Beirut that have sought to curb the “unsatiated appetite to illegally privatize the sea.”

 To Abunnasr, the idea of the dynamic sea is fundamental to the relations across the sea and communities; the shoreline is a symbol of static human habitat and a place of interaction between the sea and the community. “The sea is also a spiritual place, it is a place that captured your imaginations.”

 The third speaker was Jina Talj, an activist, marine ecologist, and the founder of Lebanon-based NGO Diaries of the Ocean. She explained that although there is no ocean in Lebanon, “all sailing water bodies are connected and form one World Ocean.” Talj invited the audience in Beirut and New York to reflect on “our World Ocean and sustainable development.”

 “Above all, I think we need to improve ocean literacy around the globe. Everyone should be aware of the importance of the ocean, and life would not exist without a healthy ocean,” said Talj.

 Dr. Nikolas Kosmatopoulos, assistant professor at the Department of Political Studies and Public Administration & Sociology, Anthropology and Media Studies at AUB spoke next and remarked: “Transoceanic events like this underline the interconnectedness of our world today.”

 Kosmatopoulos illustrated the significant role that the sea can play in solidarity movements; this is especially in the case of the Gaza Strip and the Israeli embargo. In 2010, the Israeli Navy attacked the Gaza Freedom Flotilla ships that were carrying humanitarian aid to the besieged Gaza.

 “International analysts approached the event mainly from the perspective of maritime law, regional security, and state antagonism. However, the overwhelming focus on state violence and geopolitics largely eclipsed the emergence of a maritime solidarity movement,” said Kosmatopoulos.


 Two years prior to the incident, the SS Free Gaza and SS Liberty fishing boats [led by activists] were the first ever vehicles to reach Gaza through international waters in 42 years, since 1967. “The shores of the Mediterranean [sea] are never stable, rarely static. They are always moving in one or the other direction. In this movement, they reveal communal forces that can leave traces on the maritime maps of international politics,” he concluded.

 Elshakry’s proceeded with a detailed description of FLOATS, and its aims and aspirations. “The discussion that we had today shows how a focus on the sea can bring together many people from different disciplines, from landscape architecture or people interested in environmental science to anthropology, and history, and others, which is exactly what we had in mind when we started this research consortium or experimental platform […] for collective political action,” she said.

 Elshakry also announced the establishment of the Summer Institute for the People’s Histories and Ethnographies of the Sea (SIPHES), an upcoming conference and summer school to learn about the sea that will challenge the traditional hierarchical student-teacher relationship to make room for a more inclusive space for presentations, discussions and debate. “We would invite academic instructors, students, alongside activists and artists to work collectively […] for theories and action at the sea,” she explained.

 The briefing concluded with a round table discussion that demonstrated the audience’s fervent interest in the topics that were explored. It also highlighted the variety of social scientific approaches to an essential resource such as the sea, and provided an insight into the objectives FLOATS aims to accomplish.