“Dialogues of Faith and Food”

By Zacharie Mochtari de Pierrepont

Last February, I was invited to an international conference called « Légendes and Pèlerinages » (Legends and Pilgrimage), organized by Saint Joseph University (USJ), in Beirut. The main thematics of this conference were centered on sainthood, rituals and sanctuaries, both pre-modern and modern. While the conference was not about Medieval Islamic history or Mamluk Studies persay, it was still an interesting opportunity to discuss interdisciplinary approaches with a number of specialists (mostly anthropologists and historians) who work on notions of holiness.

Since I hadn’t heard of the USJ before the conference, I must say that visiting this university was an experience of its own. Saint Joseph University is led by the Catholic Jesuit Order. You may already be aware of some prominent Jesuits including Guy Consolmagno (winner of the 2014 Carl Sagan Medal) as well as the current Pope Francesco, who both belong to the Society (the Societas Jesu, their official name). For most people who have grown up in Western Europe, USJ would seem a peculiar institution : the university did not undergo a process of secularisation like most European universities. It belongs to the Order itself and the lead managment is composed of Catholic priests and monks. The Jesuit Order has had a strong anchoring in Lebanon for at least 200 years, and, with the institutional communitarianism and religious identities upon which Lebanon has developed itself as a state, the Societas Jesu maintains deep ties with the Catholic community in the country. It is also deeply embedded in the French-speaking cultural area, and French is the official language of the University. All the participants in the conference presented French papers and participated in French discussions that followed. (Alas, we did not go out for French food). This is, outside of French-speaking countries, something of an oddity. It creates of course a natural pre-selection among the participants of such a conference, but it is also a nice opportunity to develop relationships and create inroads with the broader French-speaking academic world.

That USJ organizes this conference, by itself, implies two important things :

First, it’s going to be a warm welcome. You see, Christian orders in the Middle East have a strong reputation of generously welcoming their guests (if you go to Cairo and visit the Dominican Institute, for example, you’ll find a rare bastion of peacefulness and serenity that still exists in the heart of the megalopolis). Besides that, the location is also a real bait. Beirut is one of the most lively cities of the Middle East with an impressive culinary tradition and cultural life.  For its location alone, you would not think twice about saying yes.

Second, it would ensure that most of what would be discussed would concern the Middle East and common religious practices. A religious institutional presence such as the USJ (in a Muslim majority country) implies that inter-religious dialogue is almost unavoidable. Thus my own research topic on questions of religious environment, sacred spaces and identities in Medieval Yemen was a nice fit. On top of that, the conference was also a good opportunity to meet other scholars of Religious Studies, and push out beyond the confines of my own field of medieval Islam.

The conference itself was of a particular interest considering the great wealth of information and plurality of methodology used in the study of pilgrimages, ranging from the anthropological and historical study of Nabî Yûnis in Jiyyeh by anthropologist Nour Farra Haddad to today’s France’s regional site of Capelou by the famous specialist of contemporary religions, Bernadette Rigal Cellard.

Two days of work and encounters were certainly worth the travel, not to mention the warm welcome of Thom Sicking, the organizer of the conference. While I didn’t come back with a new case study to work on or a better understanding of medieval Islam, my horizons of reflection were nevertheless widened, which serves as a small reminder that comparative and interdisciplinary approaches also have their bright sides for enriching our work.