My name is Ali Hamdan and I study transnational politics, civil war, and popular geopolitics in the Middle East. Through the ongoing conflict in Syria, I approach how rebels and opposition forces collaborate and construct “exile-capitals” from which resistance to an incumbent regime can be conducted, with three specific foci: 1) the legitimating practices of Opposition groups (as embodied in language, institutions, and rituals); 2) the material and collaborative relationships that bind them together and to third parties (states and INGOs); and 3) the cross-border operations that they conduct within Syria from outside it. For a more focused discussion of my project, click here.

Ongoing Projects

Exile, Place, and Politics: Syria’s Transnational Civil War

As I mention elsewhere, my dissertation project studies the emergence and adaptation of Syrian opposition networks to the condition of exile, looking specifically at Amman, Jordan and Gaziantep, Turkey. Investigating these processes ethnographically represents an attempt to break down the terms “transnational,” “exile” and “refugee” into the more concrete categories of lived experience and political engagement as Syrians see them. At the same time, it aims to show how these networks effect change inside Syria from a distance. Drawing inspiration from assemblage theory and John Allen’s notion of topologies of power, this dissertation examines how exile shapes the capacities and self-conceptions of rebels pushing for political change inside Syria from beyond its borders.

Breaker of Barriers? Notes on the Geopolitics of the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham

A short side project has been observations on the rise of the variously-named ISIS, IS, tanzeem al-Dawla, DA’SH, or simply Islamic State. The last two decades have witnessed an increased interest by the Western world in understanding politics in the Middle East, with a great deal of emphasis on the role of religion as a motivating ideology for radical, violent movements. Indeed, “political Islam” has become an acceptable explanation for a staggering array of phenomena ranging from gender relations to territorial politics to the rise of insurgencies in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Lost in the shuffle is an awareness of what differentiates self-described groups of “Islamist” radicals from one another or, for the more geographically inclined, how these groups construct political orders that challenge or flourish within the Westphalian state system. To this end, a paper of mine titled “Breaker of Barriers?” is undergoing review at Geopolitics, and I will continue commenting on this issue in this medium.

Beyond Orientalism: New Political Geographies of the Middle East

A final, slow-burning project of mine involves increasing ties between the discipline of Geography and Middle Eastern Studies more broadly. Despite the rich theoretical and conceptual debates within geography, a surprisingly small amount of empirical, ethnographic research in the discipline studies the Middle East. Indeed, the absence of geographers conducting long-term fieldwork in the region or trained in Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, Kurdish, etc., is in sharp contrast to the number of publications on the region by geographers. Moreover, the focus of these publications is confined to specific “prestige zones” like Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan, mostly due to their relevance to American foreign policy. This is particularly the case within “critical geopolitics,” which is dominated by a discourse-oriented approach that leans heavily on the writings of Edward Said as well as secondary sources. In this indirect way, the Middle East remains framed through the discourses and counter-discourses of Western academics from a distance.

For this reason I hope to encourage the development of ties between geographers studying the region, the increased acceptance of ethnographic fieldwork as a research method for certain topics, and a deeper engagement with the politics of place in the region that is focused more on the messy transformations to local life than on grand geopolitical narratives and statecraft.


Contact & Institutional Affiliations

Ali Hamdan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, and is currently a fellow at the American Center for Oriental Research in Amman, Jordan. He is a member of the American Association of Geographers (AAG) and the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), and has several publications in various stages passing through the journals Geopolitics, The Geographical Journal, the Arab Studies Journal, and Sociology of Islam. He can be contacted at ahamdan@ucla.edu. If you wish for other forms of contact information, do not hesitate to reach out.


I was born and raised in rural Western Massachusetts, before attending Middlebury College in Vermont, where I was introduced to Geography as an academic discipline. I am Lebanese-American, with roots in southern Lebanon (Jabal ‘Amil) and Beirut. I speak Arabic, stammer in French, and mumble in English.

I spend much of my free time in Los Angeles practicing an Indonesian martial art called Pencak (“Penchak”) Silat, cycling non-competitively throughout the city, and drinking entirely too much tea. As one of America’s stranger cities, Los Angeles constantly bombards the geographer with the reasons to rethink conventional approaches to the subject.

At the Temple Mount. March 2016 — Occupied East Jerusalem, Palestine.
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