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Anthropology of the Middle East and North Africa: Into the New Millennium

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This volume combines ethnographic accounts of fieldwork with overviews of recent anthropological literature about the region on topics such as Islam, gender, youth, and new media. It addresses contemporary debates about modernity, nation building, and the link between the ideology of power and the production of knowledge. Contributors include established and emerging scholars known for the depth and quality of their ethnographic writing and for their interventions in current theory.

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1. State of the State of the Art Studies: An Introduction to the Anthropology of the Middle East and North Africa

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STATE OF THE STATE OF THE ART STUDIES: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF THE MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA

Susan Slyomovics

In the present state of the art, this is all that can be done.

—H. H. Suplee, Gas Turbine

In both everyday and academic discourse, as noun or adjective, the phrase “state of the art” has come to mean “incorporating the newest ideas and most up-to-date features” (Oxford English Dictionary online). The first usage, dated to 1910 according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was recorded in Gas Turbine, an engineering manual authored by H. H. Suplee, who issued this laconic observation: “In the present state of the art, this is all that can be done.” Wikipedia’s definition is:

The state of the art is the highest level of development, as of a device, technique, or scientific field, achieved at a particular time. It also applies to the level of development (as of a device, procedure, process, technique, or science) reached at any particular time usually as a result of modern methods. (Wikipedia, 1 October 2011)

 

2. Occluding Difference: Ethnic Identity and the Shifting Zones of Theory on the Middle East and North Africa

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OCCLUDING DIFFERENCE: ETHNIC IDENTITY AND THE SHIFTING ZONES OF THEORY ON THE MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA

Seteney Shami and Nefissa Naguib

Not so long ago, in the late 1970s, the Middle East was in an oil boom, on the brink of the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and a decisive military coup in Turkey. Ruling regimes were facing powerful new challenges in consolidating their power bases and boundaries. The wars in Lebanon had destroyed Beirut as the financial center of the Middle East and labor migration within the region was at its height. On the eve of Egyptian president Sadat’s historic visit to Israel, this is how societies of the Middle East were represented in the Annual Review of Anthropology (ARA):

The winds of change have by now penetrated even the more outlying, isolated communities. The process blurs the traditional boundaries between the component pieces of the Middle Eastern “mosaic of people,” but the mosaic does not disappear: new and larger pieces are formed and imposed upon the older ones as new boundaries are forged and older ones reassert themselves in new disguises. (Cohen 1977, 385)

 

3. Anthropology’s Middle Eastern Prehistory: An Archaeology of Knowledge

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ANTHROPOLOGY’S MIDDLE EASTERN PREHISTORY: AN ARCHAEOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE

Jon W. Anderson

Interesting work is most likely to be produced by scholars whose allegiance is to a discipline defined intellectually and not to a “field” like Orientalism defined either canonically, imperially or geographically.

—Edward Said, Orientalism

What makes anthropology in the Middle East possible? For a generation, the answer has been complicity with power as anthropologists focused on power (and the powerless) in a paradigm of multidisciplinary area studies that Title VI of the National Defense Education Act of 1958 linked to power-focused disciplines. However, modern anthropology arrived in the Middle East under an older model of area studies with a different agenda and reference group, not on the coattails of power but of archaeology, which provided inter alia legitimacy, local contacts and connections, and often actual bases for fieldwork, which is the profession’s other bracket. Fieldwork begins before we get into the field; for a generation it has often begun at and through institutes established for archaeological research, as well as under the Title VI paradigm. Such institutional arrangements have themselves evolved along with their reference groups, which mediate relations linking “the field” that Said flags with quotes to the ethnographic sense of a site and activity of work. These arrangements matter for the kinds and conduct of anthropological field research in, and production of knowledge about, the region. Some of these intersections belong to a fuller ethnography of the state of the art.

 

4. The Pragmatics and Politics of Anthropological Collaboration on the North African Frontier

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THE PRAGMATICS AND POLITICS OF ANTHROPOLOGICAL COLLABORATION ON THE NORTH AFRICAN FRONTIER

Paul A. Silverstein

Collaboration has emerged as a salient metaphor for describing the ethnographic method in general, and the anthropology of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in particular. It simultaneously calls forth a colonial history, where anthropology all too often functioned as the handmaiden to imperial rule (Asad 1973; Lucas and Vatin 1975), as well as a postmodern fantasy of post-authorial writing characterized by “studying up” (Nader 1969), dialogical representation (Crapanzano 1980; Dwyer 1982), and cultural critique (Clifford and Marcus 1983; Marcus and Fischer 1986). The latter project, in the name of decolonizing the social sciences (Stavenhagen 1971), called attention to the co-production of knowledge that necessarily characterizes all fieldwork, whether recognized or not (Rabinow 1977). In general, fieldwork collaboration has been insightfully characterized as an unequal exchange, where the anthropologist extracts value (in the form of “local knowledge” [Geertz 1983] subsequently transformed into academic capital) from his “subjects” with little long-term reciprocity in terms of either symbolic or commodity goods. While critics like Paul Rabinow (1977, 28–29)—or even their less critical disciplinary ancestors (e.g., Evans-Pritchard 1940; Malinowski 1989 [1967])—never denied the agency of anthropology’s indigenous interlocutors, and if anything bemoaned the material “testing” or even blackmail to which they were subjected by their “informants,” they nonetheless regarded the two sets of interests as ultimately incommensurable. The dialogue was one characterized by inherent, if sometimes productive, misunderstanding; the collaboration operated across a seemingly impassible gulf of differential knowledge and experience.

 

5. The Post–Cold War Politics of Middle East Anthropology: Insights from a Transitional Generation Confronting the War on Terror

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THE POST–COLD WAR POLITICS OF MIDDLE EAST ANTHROPOLOGY: INSIGHTS FROM A TRANSITIONAL GENERATION CONFRONTING THE WAR ON TERROR

Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar

How can we assess the state of Middle East anthropology today? One way is to turn the ethnographic lens on Middle East anthropologists themselves, to examine how we think about and do our work in relationship to the broader politics in which our field is embedded—the politics of our discipline, of academia, and of national and international relations. And so, like many ethnographies, this one begins with an anecdote about a group of anthropologists who came of age at the end of the Cold War and launched their professional careers in the context of the emerging War on Terror. Examining this generation reveals a great deal about the relationship between anthropological practice, geographical region, and post–Cold War politics as they play out in U.S. academe.

At the 2001 meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), a group of five anthropology graduate students and postdoctoral scholars who research the Middle East began a conversation about the challenges of writing and teaching about the region after the events of 9/11. This conversation continued over email, and led to a survey of other anthropologists’ experiences teaching about the Middle East at that time, and to a meeting held during the AAA conference in 2002. At that meeting, the six young anthropologists in attendance, including the authors, quietly inaugurated what they privately, and with a tongue-in cheek reference to early independence-era Arab governing groups, called the Revolutionary Command Council or RCC. Their first two projects were to plan, for the 2003 AAA meetings, a teaching workshop about the “Middle East, North Africa, and Islam” and to ghostwrite and submit four resolutions for consideration by the AAA membership. These addressed the invasion of Iraq, academic freedom, civil liberties for Arab and Muslim Americans, and human rights in Israel and Palestine. Three RCC members signed their names to the academic freedom and Iraq resolutions, other young anthropologists were recruited to sign the civil liberties resolution, and senior anthropologists who work on Palestine signed the Palestine resolution, in order to protect the graduate students who had written it. The group was very disappointed that only the resolution on academic freedom passed.

 

6. Anthropology of the Future: Arab Youth and the State of the State

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ANTHROPOLOGY OF THE FUTURE: ARAB YOUTH AND THE STATE OF THE STATE

Suad Joseph

The Arab Spring began in January 2011 in Tunisia, and moved quickly through Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria, with rousing applause from many corners of the world. It was a ringing indictment of authoritarian governments, corruption, unemployment, inadequate educational institutions, and the lack of political will on the part of Arab national leaders to address the real and urgent problems of their peoples. Throughout the Arab Spring countries, the majority of those engaged in the protests and in critical leadership positions were youth. The Arab Spring and its constituent elements should not have been surprising; yet it caught scholars and political commentators off guard.

This chapter, originally presented as a paper in April 2010 at the University of California, Los Angeles conference from which this volume is drawn—a year before the Arab Spring—calls upon anthropologists to address the pressing problems of Arab youth. Quickly, after January 2011, a surfeit of papers, lectures, online discussions, and panels at professional conferences emerged analyzing the questions presented by the Arab Spring. Most of these drew on commentaries and the expertise of journalists, political scientists, and public intellectuals from different disciplines. Some of these projects, preliminary in their formulation and empirical depth, began to examine the conditions facing Arab youth. Sociologist Samir Khalaf and English scholar Roseanne Khalaf quickly produced the insightful collection Arab Youth (2011). The volume included the works of five political scientists, five anthropologists, three journalists, and one each from the fields of demography, history, urban planning, creative writing, and Middle East studies.

 

7. The Memory Work of Anthropologists: Notes Toward a Gendered Politics of Memory in Conflict Zones—Sudan and Eritrea

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THE MEMORY WORK OF ANTHROPOLOGISTS: NOTES TOWARD A GENDERED POLITICS OF MEMORY IN CONFLICT ZONES—SUDAN AND ERITREA

Sondra Hale

To remember is to know that you can forget.

—E. Valentine Daniel, “The Coolie.”

Introduction

A salient method of anthropologists in dealing with the military and civil conflicts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been memory work.1 It has become an indispensable approach to reading the conflicts of the last fifty years or so. Memory work in the ethnography of conflict situations is one way of reading the slippery “truth” of violent encounters and generating theoretical ideas that enhance our thinking about the politics of memory.

The memory work of anthropologists has been in the avant-garde of the field for more than a decade, perhaps propelled into greater visibility and significance with the rise of self-reflexive and narrative anthropology and the contribution of allied fields and methods such as oral history and person-centered ethnography. Although memory-as-ethnography was not at the core of the field of anthropology until recent years (at least not under the rubric of “the politics of memory”), in its recent iterations, especially within postcolonial theories, memory work is very much an epistemological, theoretical, and political force for the future of the field. After all, it is in the heart of ethnography where people may confront each other with the past and refute each other’s telling of the past.

 

8. Rejecting Authenticity in the Desert Landscapes of the Modern Middle East: Development Processes in the Jiddat il-Harasiis, Oman

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REJECTING AUTHENTICITY IN THE DESERT LANDSCAPES OF THE MODERN MIDDLE EAST: DEVELOPMENT PROCESSES IN THE JIDDAT IL-HARASIIS, OMAN

Dawn Chatty

Nomads throughout the Middle East have been viewed through a lens of romantic attachment or, latterly, uncomfortable disdain and disparagement. For decades they have been subjected to state-sponsored as well as international settlement efforts in the name of modernity, progress, and more recently environmental protection. Peoples who move have challenged the neocolonial projects of the League of Nations Mandate era as well as the post–World War II independent nation by the sheer fact of their mobility. Movement, as Ernest Gellner pointed out, made these peoples “marginal” to the state, in that they could move out of the orbit of state control (Gellner 1969; also see Scott 2009). Despite efforts by central authorities to control and extend authority over these peoples, a political order outside the state continues to characterize nomads of the Middle East, with their tribal, kin-based social organization.

 

9. Notable Families and Capitalist Parasites in Egypt’s Former Free Zone: Law, Trade, and Uncertainty

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NOTABLE FAMILIES AND CAPITALIST PARASITES IN EGYPT’S FORMER FREE ZONE: LAW, TRADE, AND UNCERTAINTY

Christine Hegel-Cantarella

Al-Sawy stationery store on Gumhurriya Street in Port Said is notable for its tall ceilings and dark wooden shelves stacked neatly with a vast assortment of office supplies.1 The proprietor is a small man in his seventies dressed neatly in a suit, standing behind the glass display case, who thoughtfully regards each request before retrieving it for the customer and placing it alongside the register. Unlike most of the other stationary shops in town, this one caters to professionals and carries expensive leather desk sets, briefcases, and fine pens. Yet Al-Sawy also stocks the typical array of inexpensive pencil sharpeners, colorful notepads, two-hole punches and other office supplies, as well as a full range of booklets of commercial documents. These include booklets of shkt shkt (non-bank issued checks), kambiylt (bills of exchange or drafts), and iylt amna (trust receipts). These single-copy (non-carbon) forms produced by small Egyptian printing companies are used to inscribe and secure various types of delayed transactions.

 

10. Will the Rational Religious Subject Please Stand Up? Muslim Subjects and the Analytics of Religion

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WILL THE RATIONAL RELIGIOUS SUBJECT PLEASE STAND UP? MUSLIM SUBJECTS AND THE ANALYTICS OF RELIGION

Sherine Hafez

The Oriental is irrational, depraved (fallen), childlike, “different”; thus the European is rational, virtuous, mature, “normal.” … The Oriental lived in a different but thoroughly organized world of its own, a world with its own national, cultural and epistemological boundaries and principles of internal coherence.

—Edward Said, Orientalism (1979, 40)

Despite the critical impact of Said’s Orientalism (1979) on scholarship dealing with Muslim and Middle Eastern cultures and practices, deeply seated assumptions that revolve around conceptions of difference and rationality still persist today. Whereas Said’s work has urged scholars to think beyond cultures as “watertight compartments whose adherents were at bottom mainly interested in fending off all the others,” (ibid., 348), predominantly Muslim societies and cultures continue to be decontextualized and uprooted from their historical logic. They are framed in terms that Said describes in the above quote, as encapsulated, isolated, and preoccupied with staving off competing ideologies.

 

11. Defining (and Enforcing) Islam in Secular Turkey

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DEFINING (AND ENFORCING) ISLAM IN SECULAR TURKEY

Kim Shively

The place and role of Islam in the public sphere has long been an issue of intense contention in Turkey. This conflict finds persistent expression in the media, political and public discourse, as well as in private conversations and religious discourse. The debate about religion in Turkey has tended to crystallize around several key points of conflict: the nature of religious education, the presence and role of the tarikats or cemaats (religious organizations) in public life, and the “headscarf question”—when and where are women permitted to don the Muslim veil, if they so choose. Religious education of all types has progressively come under greater and greater state control, thereby limiting the dissemination of unauthorized religious knowledge. The cemaats have been officially outlawed but still continue to be popular and wield considerable social and political influence. And finally, regulations restricting veiled women in public institutions have spurred street demonstrations and political conflicts that have brought down political parties. The Kemalist establishment1—especially the military and the judiciary—has been concerned that allowing certain Islamic practices in the public sphere would endanger Turkish-style laicism, and so has been diligent in maintaining at least the semblance of control over religious activities and practices. On the other hand, those who oppose government policy agitate for the freedom to practice religion as they see fit.

 

12. Shari'a in the Diaspora: Displacement, Exclusion, and the Anthropology of the Traveling Middle East

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SHARI'A IN THE DIASPORA: DISPLACEMENT, EXCLUSION, AND THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF THE TRAVELING MIDDLE EAST

Susanne Dahlgren

Any Western politician, judge or religious leader desiring instant fame or a dose of controversy has an easy option. All you need do is say “Shari'a” in public.

The Economist (16 October 2010)

How is the Middle East “present” in today’s world? The question began to interest me as I followed the burgeoning anti-Muslim debates in Europe and North America sparked by the 9/11 terror attacks. The Middle East and its people, labeled “Muslims,” are increasingly visible on other continents, particularly in Shari'a controversies—debates over how much of “their religion” “we” can accept in “our” societies. What Shari'a, the divine law of Muslims, is, and how it has become the subject of some of today’s fiercest public debates, are the questions I address in this chapter. When looking at today’s debates, I compare them to similar controversies that took place during the colonial era when European countries extended their empires to the Middle East and North Africa, and in this endeavor, took Muslim law as a means of strengthening the legitimacy of the state. Similarly today, as I argue here, at issue is how the Western hegemonic state is attempting to control the bodies and minds of its subjects. For contemporary anthropologists, today’s Shari'a debates represent a barely explored field that can broaden our understanding of how legal practice, in terms both of actual practice in and outside of courtrooms and of the discourse concerning that practice, can be studied ethnographically to show how subjects from different power positions participate in struggles for hegemony, control, and exclusion. Typical to our era, these debates often take place on the internet and satellite TV, where new meanings of Shari'a, devoid of a particular grounding place, are created and contested.

 

13. A Place to Belong: Colonial Pasts, Modern Discourses, and Contraceptive Practices in Morocco

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A PLACE TO BELONG: COLONIAL PASTS, MODERN DISCOURSES, AND CONTRACEPTIVE PRACTICES IN MOROCCO

Cortney L. Hughes

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has often been portrayed in popular and scholarly discourses as a homogenous entity comprised of countries linked together through culture, ethnicity, and religion. Places as far west as Morocco and as far east as southwest Asia have been included in or excluded from the region in its various definitions. Charles Lindholm points out that “in terms of square miles, the Middle East is the largest ‘culture area’ of any of those that generally are included in the anthropological division of the world” (1995, 805). How is the MENA conceptualized as a theoretical construct and a geographical place? How do individuals living in the region see themselves as belonging to a nation-state and to the larger region?

My ethnographic fieldwork in Rabat, Morocco on reproductive healthcare challenges the idea in some popular and scholarly discourses that the MENA is a seamless body of nation-states. For example, my interactions with Salima, a lower-middle class Moroccan woman living in Rabat, and with an Imam at a mosque in the Mid-Atlas Mountains, contest this generalized notion of the Middle East and North Africa.1 One afternoon Salima and I walked from a health clinic tucked away in a working-class neighborhood in Rabat that is run by a non-governmental organization (NGO) with close ties to the London-based International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). We made our way through a very busy open-air market where people buzzed about buying fruit, vegetables, and other household items. Salima was dressed in a long black coat and donned a matching black hijab on this chilly day in February 2008. She had come to the health clinic to see the gynecologist for a contrôle, or follow-up visit, for her intra-uterine device (IUD). On our walk I asked Salima if she had children, but she responded with “pas encore” or “not yet.” Salima was twenty-six years old at the time of our conversation and had been married for only a short period. I then inquired if she and her husband wanted to have children in the future, to which she responded “inschallah,” or “God willing,” a phrase I had become accustomed to hearing in Morocco on a regular basis from nearly everyone: practicing Muslims, non-practicing Muslims, Americans, and other foreign residents alike.

 

14. “Our Master’s Call”: Mass Media and the People in Morocco’s 1975 Green March

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“OUR MASTER’S CALL”: MASS MEDIA AND THE PEOPLE IN MOROCCO’S 1975 GREEN MARCH

Emilio Spadola

On 16 October 1975, at 6:30 in the evening, the king of Morocco, Hassan II, addressed the nation via state television and radio regarding Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over the then Spanish-occupied Western Sahara. The address followed more than a year of extraordinary diplomatic action by Morocco to secure recognition of its claim, including sending left-wing emissaries to convince European leftists of Morocco’s rights, and public and secret negotiations with Mauritania, Spain, and Algeria. Hassan II’s address referred more immediately to that morning’s judgment by the U.N. International Court of Justice (ICJ), which acknowledged the historical allegiance of Saharan peoples to the Alawite Sultanate, the ancestors of Hassan II, but nonetheless denied Morocco’s historical sovereignty (Vermeren 2002, 69; Dessaints 1976, 460). Sitting in an ornate chair, in an elegant blazer, before a bank of microphones, and speaking to his “dear people” (sha'bi al-aziz), Hassan II, with punctuated vehemence and godfatherly calm, demanded a national act.

 

15. The Construction of Virtual Identities: Online Tribalism in Saudi Arabia and Beyond

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THE CONSTRUCTION OF VIRTUAL IDENTITIES: ONLINE TRIBALISM IN SAUDI ARABIA AND BEYOND

Sebastian Maisel

For the contemporary anthropologist, the word “tribe” is often a reference to the past, where its forms and settings were studied extensively, frequently in combination with the idea of state formation. However, in the twenty-first century, it seems that the “old” tribe no longer fits and is excluded from the process of building national identities. Especially from the official perspective of countries with large tribal communities, the idea of tribal narratives or influence has been considered an obstacle in the development of a modern society.

A current analysis of tribes and tribalism in Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries, however, reveals that tribes have not vanished from the public sphere. A surge in different forms of self-representation and accounts of tribal practices and concepts is clearly evident. Tribal communities and individuals struggle successfully to find their position in the civil society and hierarchy, especially in countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan. Due to the rapid and profound changes in lifestyle, interaction, and communication experienced in the modern era, a new chapter in the relationships between tribal and non-tribal members of society has opened. Concurrent social change has brought along with it generational conflicts and new pressures that tribes have to acknowledge and respond to. The proliferation of new technology and media throughout the entire Middle Eastern region started a new process of public discourse and participation. The tribes have found a way to contribute to this ongoing debate by using some of these powerful communication tools while at the same time challenging traditional ways of interaction between tribal members and the authorities.

 

16. Youth, Peace, and New Media in the Middle East

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YOUTH, PEACE, AND NEW MEDIA IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Charlotte Karagueuzian and Pamela Chrabieh Badine

The current situation in the Middle East brings to light the increasing role of internet technologies in shaping the dynamics of societies and politics at the local, regional, and international levels. Indeed, new media accelerate the building of bridges among a plurality of identities (national, ethnic, religious, social, economic, and cultural). This chapter explores the results of a study on the Iranian blogosphere, and then expands to comment more briefly on the uses and impacts of other social media. This new constellation of internet technologies constitutes a «shift» away from traditional structures characterized by centralized power toward a more horizontal distribution of power among individuals and communities from a variety of affiliations (Sheriffadeen 1997). It is, therefore, necessary to lay some groundwork in the academic understanding of new media in the Middle East to assess its potential at democracy-building in the region, as blogs run by young Arab and Iranian activists promoting interfaith dialogue, human rights, constructive war memory, and peace create alternative spaces to promote a diversity of social identities and political voices or paths.

 

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