How the generosity of donors transforms the lives of students

On 13 July 2017 Birkbeck welcomed donors, volunteers, students and staff for an ‘An Evening of Thanks’ for all they give to the College. Aziza Sentissi, a PhD candidate in Mathematics and Statistics, spoke at the event, and reflects on what the generosity of donors means for students like her, who may otherwise be unable to undertake their studies. aziza850x450My interest in Mathematics dates back to an early age at primary school. I achieved good academic results in Mathematics and I never felt that it was an effort to tackle my math homework or any math puzzle. I have always enjoyed the thrill of the mathematical challenge. It was (and it is still) like going on an adventure where your only tools are your logic and your instinct. I believe that we all have naturally a set of skills in which we reach our optimal potential. It is just matter of finding, nurturing and using them. In my case, it is definitely Mathematics.

Most of my academic and professional decisions were motivated by the need to use Mathematics on a daily basis. I studied industrial engineering for my undergraduate degree, focused on financial engineering when I studied for my MBA and spent more than a decade working in market risk management in both Toronto and London. My career allowed me to gain an expert-level experience in the field while using the mathematical finance skills I acquired through education and experience.

I know that I should have felt a certain degree of contentment with my academic and professional progression, but in reality, I felt frustration that I was still far from my intellectual potential. I felt that I needed to get back to ‘core Mathematics’. It was just about finding the right programme so that I could reconcile studies and work. Finding out about Birkbeck’s MSc programmes was already a big step toward my goals. Indeed, Birkbeck offered the best opportunity to join a recognized programme taught by an outstanding faculty while working in London.  A few years later, I graduated with distinction from the MSc Applied Statistics (2013) course, and with merit from MSc Mathematics (2015).

Studying at Birkbeck by far exceeded all my expectations. It has competitive programmes with strong curriculums, an outstanding faculty, and dedicated staff. Some companies I’ve worked at have spent a lot of money persuading employees to buy into their mission. Well, at Birkbeck, it is an achieved goal. You can sense the commitment to the university’s mission at each one of your interactions either with the professors or with the staff. I have always been amazed that everybody will make that extra effort to help you thrive in your studies and achieve your goals as you are trying to balance your work life and your studies.

My story with Birkbeck did not stop at the end of my second masters. Indeed, as I expressed my interest in joining the full-time PhD programme while highlighting my financial constraints, my supervisors suggested applying to few scholarships which I eagerly did. After a few weeks, I was approved for the Winton STEM PhD Studentship, which aims to promote gender equality in STEM subjects.

The support from Winton has indeed made it possible for me to join the full-time PhD programme in Mathematics. There are no words that really capture how grateful I am to Winton for their support and for giving me the opportunity to pursue a long-term ambition which is to build a career in research in Mathematics either within the academic world or within a research firm. The subject of my PhD is about optimizing one of the advanced approximation methods (Meshfree method) in multivariate setting.  It is a cutting-edge subject with multiple applications in several fields such as engineering, machine learning and artificial intelligence. I am extremely proud to be working on this subject with my supervisors who are experts in the field.

Through my PhD, I have also had the opportunity to take part in an outreach conference jointly organised by Birkbeck and Winton. At the conference, we encouraged young women from schools in disadvantaged London boroughs to consider studying mathematics at university. It was a privilege and an amazing experience to see the impact of the conference on these girls and to see how it changed their perspective on using their mathematical talent.

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Religion on trial

Dr Anton Schütz, senior lecturer at the School of Law reflects on the school’s annual ‘Law on Trial’ week, which this year focused on the theme of religion.lawontrial850x450From Monday 12 June to Friday 16 June, the School of Law, Birkbeck hosted the 2017 edition of its annual Law on Trial event.

The School of Law has staged a Law on Trial event each year since 2011, when it was introduced, on the basis of an original idea of Marinos Diamantides, by former Executive Dean Patricia Tuitt, who also contributed the formulation of the title. The theme for 2017 was ‘Religion on Trial’. Religion is generally understood as a human sphere with an existence and a concern very much of its own, though with a number of points of intersection with matters legal. Especially during the past two or three decades, matters of religion have provided an inexhaustible source for legal problems.

The first event of the week was taken by our key-note speaker, philosopher Akeel Bilgrami (Columbia University). Akeel led the audience through the problems that the political and legal philosophy of liberalism encounters in dealing with religion, and increasingly so since the beginning of the 21st century. Referring historically to a choice among the main topics of his own widely known writing (see his Secularism, Identity and Enchantment), foregrounding Gandhi’s example-based, rather than program-based political action, Salman Rushdie’s exemplification of the divide of artistic and religious imperatives in dealing with identity but also the author of the most celebrated political doctrine of liberal justice during the late 20th century, John Rawls, and his difficulty related to identity politics and deep religious commitments.

The programme of our second evening was placed under the sign of Rastafari religion, music, and forms of life, and was based on an idea from Patricia Tuitt. Author and poet Kwame Dawes was speaking and indeed — in his quotes from Bob Marley — also, if only for short moments, also singing, in a fabulous feat of bringing to life what Rastafari poetry calls the ‘Babylon system’ (‘vampire system, sucking the blood of the sufferah’), relating spiritual, political, geographical, iconographical, prophetic and cosmological features to spot issues of diaspora, oppression and liberation in a relation that is at once timeless and highly contemporary. Kwame Dawes‘study on Bob Marley, Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius, is celebrated all over the English-speaking world. The session was chaired by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera.

The session on Rastafarianism was followed by two sessions on topics related to current issues relating to Islam. The first, on Wednesday 14 June, convened by Birkbeck scholar Qudsia Mirza, staged the long-awaited and hotly disputed topic of Islamic Law and Gender Justice. Interpretations of the Qur’an and the Hadith literature within the classical Islamic tradition have famously given rise, based upon theological, legal and ethical principles, to a normative gender hierarchy. The teachings of Sharia are not a secret and neither are the challenges to them by reformist and progressive scholars. Islamic feminism in general, and the participants of our session in particular, have taken measure of the distance still to be bridged with respect to current notions of gender equality. How do reformists/feminists conceptualise notions of gender or equality? How, on the other hand, do issues of gender, widely discussed today, relate to the notion of an Islamic ‘purity of origin’ and to a discourse of authenticity? The panel contemplated the wide spectre of Western and non-Western religious and not-so-religious positions.

Rather different in its outlook was the second Islam-related session, Thursday 15 June , convened by a BBK PhD student Daniele D’Alvia (who also works in a Max-Planck-Institute in Germany) and chaired by Maria Aristodemou, dealt with the topic ‘Islamic Finance: the Middle East, Malaysia, and the West’. Once again, a highly qualified and bespoke-tailored international panel offered a fascinating debate dealing with conceptions of gharar and riba, in contrast to current Western conceptualisations of risk and interest. Doing so, it showed the presence of two different, almost opposing views on the relationship between current Western financial habits and the relevant Sharia rules. Some speakers highlighted the Sharia framework as a possible alternative to the current habits of the global financial markets (with their widely felt instability), something of a global therapy for the latter’s increasing, world-wide exposure to structural, self-engendered crises Other panel members saw the primary problem in the obstacles that Islamic populations are facing, when they are precluded from being clients of Western style global financial institutions, ascribing highest importance to the search of viable strategies of circumvention of Islamic rules of finance.

The fifth and last day of the series, on Friday 16 June , saw the launch event of a study, co-authored by Marinos Diamantides and Anton Schütz, two School of Law academics, that had been released that same week — Political Theology : Demystifying the Universal. Differing from the two preceding sessions, this focussed not on one particular religion opposed to other religions, but on the apparently non-religious question of the secular. With Stewart Motha (chair), Diamantides and Schütz tried to explain how the very stakes of Western-Christian religion have worked as conditions, rather than obstacles, to a society defining itself as secular (liberal, social) and its world-wide success and imitation. They commonly stressed that the secular religion of the West consists in an ongoing effort of managing continuing procedures. The return of explicit religious references under such circumstances was the subject of one ‘case-study’ (Diamantides), while Schütz, focussing on the theologoumenon of the Trinity and its geopolitical fate, explored the politico-legal relationship of Father and Son within the Christian Trinity in its Western evolution. The doctrine known as the ‘filioque’ has, through more than a millennium, transformed the Trinitarian God by endowing Father and Son, by assigning identical ‘rights’ to both, thereby implanting an unresolvable tension, a principle of intranquillity, at the very heart of the Western Christian divinity, altering it from a principle of being into its contrary, a principle of action.

Through the five days of Religion on Trial the public has been guided through: (1) a portrayal, by one of its international top representatives, of the divide between religion and politics in contemporary scholarly interpretation; (2) an in-depth depiction of the vital link of art and religion in Bob Marley’s poetry and its indispensable relationship to the unique and uniquely complex and attractive religious tradition of Rastafarianism, provided by the top international specialist on the matter; (3,4) two matters of extreme actuality in relation of contemporary Islam, the issue of the normative gender dissymmetry and that of contemporary modes of Islamic finance, both presented by highly qualified specialist panels; all rounded up in (5) a series of suggestions concerning the specifically Christian input within the Western model, in its religious as well as secular dimensions.

I would like to thank all of our guest speakers and panellists who helped to make the event such a success and greatly look forward to next year’s events.

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Law, Race and Brexit Britain

This blog was contributed by Devin Frank, a graduate of the School of Law at Birkbeck. He will soon be returning to the College as a PhD candidate and part-time seminar tutor.

centreforraceandlaw

Credit: Cole Peters 2017.

On 15 May 2017 students and academics gathered for the launch of Birkbeck’s new research initiative, the Centre for Research on Race and Law, focusing on Law, Race and Brexit Britain.

After an introduction to the new Centre by the Acting Dean of the Law School, Dr Stewart Motha, and the co-director of the Centre, Dr Sarah Keenan, five speakers discussed how conceptions of race permeate law, politics and policy — not only in Britain, but across numerous jurisdictions.

At the heart of the discussion was an underlying paradox: conceptions of race and racism manifest through law, while law in itself is often a last defense against racism. Reflecting on my own experience working as a caseworker and paralegal, nowhere is this paradox more apparent than within the immigration systems of the Western world, particularly in the UK, US and Australia. Having endured the horrors of having to read and engage with Home Office refusal letters, it is abundantly clear that racism is not only tolerated within the diameters of immigration decision making, it is actively encouraged. When faced with a letter claiming that an individual’s immigration application is refused based on a legally accepted notion of race, the response of any lawyer is then to plead with the law, often in the form of an appeal or judicial review, to seek a legal remedy to the artificial and racist conception of law that allowed for injustice in the first place.

After Professor Patricia Tuitt, Executive Dean of the Law School, skillfully laid the foundation for considering how race and racism permeates all institutions, including that of law, the next four speakers showed how race matters in political discourse, immigration controls, EU trade policy and Brexit Britain. Tuitt’s opening talk had reminded us that the colonial dogma of race still infects the bureaucratic mechanisms of all aspects of society, including the university – a critique from which Birkbeck and the Law School are by no means immune.

Professor Gurminder Bhambra (University of Warwick) aptly highlighted the need to ‘get history right’ in order for concepts to have useful meanings — something that was an abysmal failure in the Brexit campaign. Bhambra began by examining the Brexit referendum data to debunk the myth that the Leave result was the resounding voice of ‘the left behind’ white working class. Rather, Bhambra showed that the vote to Leave was determined by property owners, pensioners, and well-off white middle class voters.

race-and-law-blog

The rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ lacks any kind of historical or political reality: Britain is not and never has been a nation, rather it is an imperial polity. British citizenship only came to refer primarily to people living in Britain in 1981, as this citizenship was formerly shared between Britain and its colonies. The British psychosis brought on by a fear of non-white migration goes to highlight the need for research initiatives such as the Centre for Research on Race and Law to further facilitate discussion based on sound research, with dignity and respect.

Following the EU referendum, it became all too common to ignore the underlining causes, divert attention away from blatant racism and xenophobia and pose a simpler question: ‘what about the economy?’. Professor Diamond Ashiagbor (Institute of Advanced Legal Studies) discussed the relationship between economic inequality, race and global trade in the context of ‘Empire 2.0’, encapsulated in Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox’s, plan to negotiate new trade deals with Commonwealth countries in order to compensate for the EU trade that will be lost with Brexit. Ashiagbor argued that leaving the EU against the backdrop of rewriting/forgetting histories of empire, migration and race will exacerbate the internal economic equalities caused by open markets and global trade.

Drawing on ideas stemming from the political economist Karl Polanyi, Ashiagbor argued that markets only work without destroying society if they are constrained, and if social redistribution is facilitated. Pre-Brexit, such constraints and redistribution were put in place by domestic British law and also by EU law. The irony of Brexit racism, Ashiagbor argued, is that much of the labour migration upon which Britain has relied and against which the Leave campaign rallied, has long been fuelled by European plunder of the rest of the world. The sense of ‘the left behind’ voting for Brexit fails to capture the reality that the industrialised working class (both white and non-white) in the UK has long been supported by extraction from colonised states. Only through the plunder of resources and exploitation of labour from the Global South has the UK been able to build its welfare state.

Professor Iyiola Solanke (University of Leeds) sought to address the question: what of the forgotten groups that will be affected by Brexit? In the news and within mainstream discussion many rightly pose the question: ‘what status will EU citizens have in the UK and what status will UK citizens have in Europe?’. While this is a pertinent question, Solanke noted that it fails to address the situation of third country nationals, such as spouses and family members of European citizens in the UK, and so-called ‘Zambrano families’ (those who care for EU/UK citizens). While it seems likely that predominately white men, coming from the United States and earning high incomes working in London’s financial centres will find the legal categories to remain in the UK regardless of the ultimate Brexit deal, the future status of black parents from Nigeria, Ghana and Jamaica currently in the UK caring for their British children is much more ominous.

Finally Dr. Nadine El-Enany, Senior Law Lecturer and Co-Director of Centre for Research on Race and Law spoke about the importance of taking critical race scholarship seriously. With explicitly racist far-right movements on the rise in many parts of the world (including but not limited to the Brexit and Trump victories), El-Enany argued that it is more important than ever for legal academics not only to offer analyses which critique the role of law in upholding racism, but also to be creative about the strategic use of law for immediate survival of the most vulnerable in society. Drawing Mari Matsuda’s work, El-Enany argued that we have much to learn from critical race feminists who have written about the need to be strategic in relation to law in order to survive in a structurally violent world.  El-Enany recounted that during her own PhD studies she was told that race was not a useful analytical concept for scholarship on migration law, and that her intellectual development and psyche were significantly hindered by this falsity for many years. The new research Centre will lead the way, and provide a much needed space, to support the study of the relationship between race and law.

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Kebab and Mezze in London – A preview to Late@BBK

This post was contributed by Emeritus Professor in Politics and Sociology at Birkbeck. This text first appeared in The Middle East in London Volume 9 – Number 5 October – November 2013.

Prof Zubaida will be in conversation with Dr Alex Colas on the topic of ‘A Life Through Food’ on 25 February at Late@BBK – a special event open to staff and students of Birkbeck’s School of Social Sciences, Philosophy and History. Find out more here

Mantoo

Mantoo

A recent survey revealed that 41% of British households have hummus in their fridge (Guardian Shortcuts Blog 7 August 2013). This is an astonishing index of the degree to which Middle Eastern food, alongside curry and other selected items of world cuisine have been globalised, and in the process, transformed.

Taboule, essentially a Levantine parsley salad dotted with bulgar/burghul grains and tomatoes, is widely eaten in France, only transformed to a couscous salad. Supermarket shelves display a wide range of hummus, many unheard off in its native land, chilli, sun-dried tomatoes, cream cheese and Moroccan hummus, which must come as a surprise to Moroccans. Kebab shops are on every high street, mainly offering doner kebab in the form of rotating meat loaves made in factories. European supermarkets now offer packets of ‘kebab’, slices of pork or turkey ready for the microwave. This globalised cornucopia is surely to be welcomed, but the discerning diner will also search for authenticity and depth, which can be found in plenty in the diverse range of Middle Eastern restaurants and groceries in London.

London’s landscape of Middle Eastern food

Hummus

Hummus

Middle Eastern food establishments dot the geography of London, following patterns of diaspora, settlement and commerce. At the heart of London’s West End is the Lebanese/Arab enclave of Edgware Rd and Marble Arch, into parts of Mayfair. The sound and smell of narguila smoke pervades the area, from the many Arab café terraces when the weather permits.

Groceries and supermarkets are emporia of every sort of Middle Eastern food: vegetables, olives and pickles, meat counters, cheeses, bakeries offering flat breads and pizza-like crusts of cheese and herbs, called manaqish, and jars and tins of everything. Restaurants, snacks and juice bars intermingle with pharmacies, hair dressers and estate agents, all announcing themselves in Arabic. These are mainly Lebanese establishment, catering to a clientele of Arab residents and visitors for whom that part of London is a focus, especially during the tourist season in summer.

Further up the Edgware Rd into Maida Vale and beyond to Kilburn and further west, there sprung many Iranian and Iraqi (mostly Kurdish) eateries and shops. Arab establishments have also spread in many suburbs: Shepherds Bush and further west to Acton and Ealing is a mixed area featuring foods of many nationalities, including Maghrebis alongside more Lebanese. One Moroccan food stall there has recently been written up in the food columns and awarded prizes.

Kensington, long frequented by the richer Middle Easterners, is home to many Iranian and Arab establishments. Turks have inhabited NE London, Hackney and Stoke Newington, and further north and east, where you find many ocakbasi grills, as well as restaurants catering for local workers and offering stews and pilafs (rice or bulgar). There is even an iskembe (tripe) saloon. From these original areas of settlement and commerce, Middle Eastern restaurants have now spread into all areas of London.

On the menu of these restaurants are diverse regional foods, but meat grills, kebabs, and mezze are constant items. Kebabs, of course, go beyond the vertical skewers of Turkish doner and Lebanese shwarma (also derived from Turkish), the best and original form being layers of meat and fat and not an industrial meatloaf. Cubes of meat and ground meat patties on skewers are common to all, though with different composition and seasoning, reflecting regional origin: the Iranian ground meat koubide tastes quite different from the Turkish or Lebanese kofte. Iranians also have distinct genres such as barg, sheets of meat rolled over a skewer. Chicken kebabs are ubiquitous, but, to me, lack distinction. Other grills include liver, kidney and sweetbreads. Garnishes and accompaniments are another source of regional variations.

Khosh mezze

Middle Eastern flatbread

Middle Eastern flatbread

Mezze is a Persian word, meaning ‘taste’, khosh mezze means delicious. It is widely, and wrongly, translated as hors d’oeuvres. It is not an opening course in a multi-course meal, but specifically related to drink, usually alcoholic. Items of the mezze repertoire can be meals in their own right, such as hummus, vine-leaves, bourek pastries (stuffed with cheese or meat), and so on. But they only qualify as mezze when served in small portions with drink, which is also the case with Spanish tapas.

The mezze repertoire is offered primarily by Lebanese and Turkish restaurants, as well as the many Middle Eastern and North African restaurants who have adopted these modes. Iranian restaurants have their own particular ‘starter’ dishes: aubergines in different combinations, wild garlic, musir, in yoghurt, sabzi paneer, an abundance of fresh herbs with white cheese, and kuku sabzi, a kind of herb frittata. Typically, prosperous Middle Eastern diners would not have considered the mezze as a meal, but would have proceeded to more meaty dishes. Now, however, especially in the globalised dining fashions, meals consisting of a variety of small dishes are popular and superseding the three-course meal: Spanish tapas, Italian cicchetti, Russian zakuski, and the ‘tasting menus’ offered by many restaurants. Mezze fits in very well with this trend. Many other restaurants are now eclectic in including items from all these different regional traditions.

Beyond kebab and mezze

Bulgur koftesi

Bulgur koftesi

There are, of course, many other genres of Middle Eastern foods, beyond kebab and mezze: stews, breads, pies, pastries and sweets, some of them offered in restaurants and leaking into globalised menus. Of the flat breads pitta has become most common in eateries and markets, convenient for sandwiches and wraps; lavash, thin flat bread, is especially good for wraps; Persian noun, is now more recognised in Indian naan. Pies and dumplings, especially kubba/kibbe/icli kofte, typically made with bulgar (cracked wheat) and ground meat, entered the mezze repertoire, and are also served as snacks and take-away, as has bourek, wraps or pies of filo stuffed with cheese or meat. Sweet pastries of the baklava family are widely offered in Middle Eastern establishments, and now in supermarkets, not always of appetising quality.

The typical everyday meal for many in the Middle East is a stew of meat and vegetables eaten with rice and/or bread. There are endless variations in modes of cooking, spicing, ingredients of vegetables and herbs, and rice cookery. This genre is not so well represented in restaurants. Iranians are justly proud of their refined rice cookery, and their restaurants reflect this taste: rice served with grills or the khoresht, stew, of the day. Turkish eateries in London’s ethnic enclaves, where local workers eat their lunch, offer a display of different stews and rice or bulgar.

London is now home to so many diasporic communities and their food, and the Middle Eastern contingent is very well represented, at both the gourmet and the mass catering levels, and items of their food are now prominent in the ‘fusion’ cuisines of the global scene.

Find out more

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