Interview with Arezou Azad on the Invisible East Programme and its Digitisation of Documents from the Medieval Islamicate East, part 1

This is the first part of an interview with Arezou Azad, Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University’s Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. Dr Azad leads  the  Invisible East programme at Oxford.

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Q1. Theodora Zampaki: Dr Azad, could you please say a few words about your academic profile?

Dr Arezou Azad: I am Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University’s Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. In my first career, I served as a UN peacekeeper in various conflict zones around the globe. I have a DPhil from Oxford University’s Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, after which I co-directed the Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage Project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust between 2011 and 2015. I was Lecturer of Medieval History at the University of Birmingham from 2013 to 2019. My first book, Sacred Landscape of Medieval Afghanistan (Oxford, 2013), explores the ways in which the multicultural region of Balkh in northern Afghanistan became “the dome of Islam.” My second book is a co-authored annotated translation and commentary of the medieval local history of Balkh, the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh (Gibb Memorial Trust series, Oxbow/Casemate 2021). 

Q2. How did you get involved in the ‘Invisible East’ programme?

I founded the Invisible East programme after receiving two major grants from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the European Research Council aimed at giving a major boost to the study of documents, in particular, to cross-reference them with literary sources, and material culture from medieval Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asia. I applied for these grants because it struck me during my studies that the field of medieval Islamic history was heavily dominated by Arabic sources, “universal history” narratives, and the imperial history paradigm. I designed the Invisible East programme as a response to this observation, and now we are able to engage in the Islamic history debate using non-narrative sources in Iranian languages from the eastern Islamicate lands, and one that offers a social history of the first 500 years of Islamic rule in the region.

Q3. Could you say how you selected people to work with you as a team? 

The university administration and faculty issued calls for applications for post-doctoral research and administrative positions. We had challenges like everyone else during the pandemic, which made the recruitment of colleagues based outside the UK difficult, but in the end, we were able to start the project through remote working until lockdowns were lifted. The selection of researchers was based on their CVs, reference and cover letters, interviews, and a test in working through primary source texts. Another challenge we faced in selecting our people was the lack of a solid tradition of senior scholars who had worked in the way documents have been studied by historians in other areas of the Islamicate world. We had no “Persian documents experts” who were also historically trained and had developed a publication profile in this area in western academic institutions. And so, we hired colleagues with field and discipline expertise, and together engaged in an “up training” by inviting speakers to talk to us over Zoom on their related research, and by reading their works and discussing and learning from them together. In this way, we were able to develop expertise in synthesizing themes and paradigms in important secondary sources within an interdisciplinary forum and break out of conceptual and traditional stovepipes in our relevant fields and disciplines. Thus, our selection criteria for researchers included not only technical expertise, but also willingness to learn, to work in a team and in an interdisciplinary fashion, and to engage with a wider public to boost this new area of research.

Q4. Would you like to describe what you do in the ‘Invisible East’?

I carry out documentary research, plan, and implement outreach activities in communities in the UK and abroad, and manage the Invisible East team which now makes up a dozen colleagues. Our research team has included myself and a wonderful group of scholars, including Hugh Kennedy, Tommy Benfey, Zhan Zhang, Majid Montazer-Mahdi, Arash Zeini, Pejman Firoozbakhsh, and Nabi Saqi with expertise in seven languages—New Persian, Middle Persian, Judeo-Persian, Arabic, Bactrian, Sogdian, and Khotanese—and six scripts. We have identified and sourced images and have begun transcribing and translating 1,000 documents written in all these languages used in the eastern Islamicate world between the 8th and the 13th century CE. 

We apply a quality control pipeline through which we drive silver and gold standard first-time editions and translations. The way we work is that each researcher transcribes and translates a set of documents if scholars haven’t done so already—which is the case for most of the Persian documents that make up a third of the corpus. This is a complex iterative process in which we read and decipher difficult palaeography, orthography, and grammar: not once, but three, four or even five times until we get it right. The reading needs to be done on a case-by-case basis, then batched, then re-read in groups to capture genres, formats, patterns, recurrences of names and places. The reading is first done by one researcher, then by a team of IE researchers. If the documents have been published already, we revise the editions if necessary or appropriate. We also use a common glossary, and record locations, measurements, and other important data during the reading process to enable prosopographical and geographical analysis.

We then seek further quality control input from disciplinary and subject specialists around the world before we enter our readings in the digital corpus. Our digitization team, trained by our DH manager Arash Zeini, encodes each document using a tailor-made TEI-XML code. The files form the raw data for our digital corpus. 

We also extrapolate content and format data from the documents to cross-reference them with comparative and complementary evidence in the narrative sources and material evidence for assessing the political, economic, social, legal, and cultural aspects of Islamisation in the eastern Islamicate region. We are drafting these interpretations and studies into peer-reviewed articles and books, and are holding larger conferences. Our first conference in 2021, “Future Philology: Digitisation and Beyond”, organized by Zhan Zhang, was a forum in which more than a dozen DH projects presented their backend and frontend modalities and best practice. We were able to benefit from this sharing of what worked and what didn’t when designing our own DH model. Our next IE conference will be in December 2022 in Oxford, in which we examine documents that tell us about land management across the wider medieval Islamicate world. 

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