Jul 19

A reflection on the ESCAS conference

The 16th Biennial European Society for Central Asian Studies Conference was a vibrant and sparkling collation of people, ideas and cultures.  It is rare to see an academic community so interwoven and familiar; with old friends coming together, sometimes after years apart, and new acquaintances being made. 

This invigorating intellectual environment was well situated among the hospitable June sunshine, plentiful beverages and nourishing food that accompanied the abundant debate, discussion and laughter. 

I find this is best captured by the evolution of the reception desk as it was gradually filled with sweet treats and souvenirs from all over the world: succulent dried apricots delicately packaged in a carved box from Armenia; deliciously bitter-sweet dark chocolate from Kazakhstan and the presence of a traditional Kyrgyz whip that garnered the interest of many who came and went from the foyer.

The essence of this enticing atmosphere, however, lay in the people who converged on Exeter to retain and deliver the knowledge there was to offer.  Indeed, the conference was somewhat akin to a scholarly tennis match – no idea was ignored, and, yet, no idea passed unchallenged. 

Herein lay the guiding spirit of the ESCAS where the promise of joint research and interdisciplinary cooperation infinitely bloomed in the spirit of each conversation. 

Within panels and discussions, Central Asian guests raised questions on potential orientalism inherent in Western modes of thought and research; concerns over authoritarian practices and academic freedom were voiced; anthropologists divulged into their ethnographic experiences whilst historians delivered temporally informed suggestions.  Never before had I seen such a desire to support the study of a region from every angle – from every possible perspective.

This vigour for Central Asian studies could be felt as the first day of the conference came to pass yet the conversation did not.  Cold drinks and delicate canapés were shared amongst conference-goers (those who weren’t cheated out of sustenance by sea gulls) – enthralled with each other’s work, passions and simply each other’s company.  Personally, the feeling of standing amid the crowd that evening, finally being able to put smiling faces to a plentiful list of names and papers I have read, was rewarding and wholesome in good measure. 

Truly, there is much irony to be found in this ESCAS Conference being held at the University of Exeter.  For one, this year’s theme The Globality of Central Asia is perhaps best exemplified by the event being held at the greatest physical distance from Central Asia to date. Secondly, Exeter is a small city.  Indeed, the hosting of a tight-knit academic community in such a location contributed to the intimacy of the occasion in its totality.

This true warmth came to fruition most vividly throughout the second evening.  After the panels had finished, and Nicola Di Cosmo delivered his truly enlightening lecture on this year’s theme, we slowly marched up the hill to Holland Hall where a lively and abundant meal was enjoyed.  Conversation and laughter filled the room as the sun set over the lush fields and woodlands neighbouring us on the horizon.