Establishing our DAWLA: The long journey to a podcast

By Kenneth Goudie

In October 2019, we launched DAWLA: New Histories of the Medieval Middle East. Our first two episodes are available here and here, and in lieu of an episode this month–we are all very, very busy preparing for a sequel to our December 2018 workshop–I’ve been asked to write a reflective piece on the genesis of the whole idea, and the long road it took to get there.

Our story begins in the hazy days of June 2018, when some of us were fresh-faced postdocs and others not yet members of the MMS–II team.[1] Back then, we were in the throes of familiarising ourselves with the historiography of the Cairo Sultanate and with all of the theoretical work which had inspired the project itself.  We were also in the midst of preparing our first presentations on the research we were doing as part of MMS–II. It was, in a word, busy.[2] As a break from this, Jo and Maya suggested that we listen to an episode of the Ottoman History Podcast, a suggestion which was gratefully and eagerly accepted. I cannot remember which episode we listened to, but it made us very excited about the prospect of making a foray into the world of podcasting.

So 9 months later, in March 2019, we sat down to record; 7 months after that, the first episode launched.

The timeline is, on reflection, not exactly heartening, but we learned a lot and did a lot during those 16 months. We thought about what the podcast would do–modelled on the Ottoman History Podcast but pitched for a more popular audience–and came up with the name. We should have realised when it took us so long to decide on a name that this wasn’t going to be a quick process. If there is one thing that we’re all very good at, it’s nit-picking. The “Mamluk History Podcast” was out, for reasons which we make abundantly clear in our first two episodes, and after a long summer of thinking and debating and considering, we finally alighted on DAWLA, the meaning of which is explained in the first episode. The subtitle, New Histories of the Medieval Middle East, was eventually chosen because it suggested exciting revisionism (!), chronological ambiguity, and broad regional scope. This was important because we have the modest hope that the podcast will eventually grow and develop into an important hub for all things Middle Eastern and Islamic in the middle ages. So we didn’t want at the very beginning for it to be so closely tied to MMS–II that it couldn’t have a life after the project.[3]

By the far the longest part of the process was coming up with the script. That took months of writing, critiquing, and trying to find some time to record it all. The first version was…not great.

I’m re-reading it just now as I write this. It was definitely well-intentioned. We had written a bona fide script, with lines and everything for each of the then four postdocs. It was going to explain the term “mamlūk”, give an overview of the term “Mamluk Sultanate” and how we understand the history, and then introduce the revisionism by thinking about the sources. It was designed to be perfectly balanced, with each of us speaking for the same amount of time. But we’re not trained performers: it came across a little stilted.

The biggest issue was, however, that we ended up spending way too much time explaining what we wanted to argue against (i.e. “Mamluk Sultanate”) and little to no time on what we were arguing for (i.e. “Cairo Sultanate”). It was muddled. Our intention was not to tie it too closely to MMS–II but to still introduce the ideas of the project. We failed at both. It was an unhappy marriage of traditional scholarship and revisionism which served neither of these particularly well. I have the recording still: it was cut and polished to the best of my abilities.[4] The effort which went into it makes me loathe to delete it, though it will likely never see the light of day.

The failure of that first attempt was deflating and–coupled with another period of extreme business getting ready for conferences in Tokyo and Leeds–meant that the podcast was put on a backburner until October 2019 when, reenergised after our summers and–for me, at least–a desire to get something done before the 18-month anniversary of the initial idea, we got stuck back in. We scrapped everything we had done, dropped the four-person format, and decided to just focus on the project. It is, after all, the reason we’re all here.

So instead, I sat down with Jo to interview him about the project. We had no script, just some notes, and spent an hour and fifteen minutes talking about the project, why we should talk about the Cairo Sultanate and not the “Mamluk Sultanate”, and about where the ideas came from. My plan was originally to find the episode in the edit, making a much more focused overview, but the conversation was free flowing and interesting enough that there was little that could be cut. So instead of one episode, we now had two. More surprisingly, we had recorded and produced two episodes within the space of a month! Optimism was restored.

It’s hard to judge how well it’s doing, but we feel optimistic about it. Okay, the editing still needs some work and we need to find a better place to record, but we have plans for the future. From January onward, we’re going to be devoting episodes to the historians we’re studying, and thinking about their lives and works, what made them tick (or–in the case of one historian–what made him explode his career in spectacular fashion). We also have a laundry list of ideas for episodes on different themes and topics. I think we have enough to last until MMS–II ends in 2021: it remains to be seen if our ambitions beyond the project will be realised.

If you haven’t already listened, please do! We’re on SoundCloud, iTunes, and Spotify. We’d love to hear what you think. Please be kind, though: we have no experience with any of this and although we are trying to climb down from the ivory tower of academia, we may have got stuck on the stairs…

[1] Zacharie and I joined the team in January 2018 with our then colleague Tarek Sabraa. Rihab joined the team in August 2018, and Mustafa September 2018. Dan, the final addition to the team, joined in July 2019.

[2] It’s not all reading books and pontificating as a postdoc…

[3] The logo came together quite quickly during this period and let me break out my antiquated copy of Photoshop to come up with something.

[4] I am not, I think, a natural sound technician.