Monthly Archives: February 2016

“Middle East-ness”: (Auto)-Mobility, Synecdoche and the Region

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Kurtulus, Istanbul, August 2015. Photo courtesy Sam Dolbee

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This week’s guest post emerges from a Modern & Contemporary History Workshop held in November 2015, and also looks ahead to a major conference scheduled for June 2016 at the Institute for Advanced Studies, on the Middle East in the Age of Speed. Our guest is Sam Dolbee.

Sam is a fifth year student in the joint program in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and History at NYU. His dissertation explores the environmental history of the end of empire by following locusts, cholera, and tribes as they moved from the Ottoman Empire into the post-Ottoman nation-states of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.

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Some three months after the Centre for Modern & Contemporary’s foundational workshop on this topic, and with a view to the upcoming ‘Global Middle East in the Age of Speed’ conference in June, here are some thoughts and questions on the categories in play: first the global Middle East and then (auto)mobility.

 

Back in November, as discussions of Cairo/Beirut gave way to discussions of the Middle East /Europe, I wondered what might get lost when we scale up conversations in a way such that Cairo, for example, stands for the entire Middle East. Surely there ought to be a way to move beyond Eurocentric narratives and promote comparative work without resorting to reductive typologies. So what does synecdoche – the part representing the whole – expose and what does it obscure? Put differently, what holds together the Middle East as an analytic category when it is characterized by such tremendous diversity? Ought we be thinking of Cairo and Riyadh and Beirut together so much as Cairo and Mumbai, Riyadh and Las Vegas, Beirut and Belfast? And ought we be thinking of the spaces in between these car-clogged metropolises? How does rural space figure into these processes?

 

On another level, we might even ask how synecdoche acted as a historic process. Because even if the Middle East’s coherence breaks down upon close inspection, the region as an entity has nonetheless loomed large in the minds of world policy makers, corporations, and the region’s residents for a good century now. Indeed, the term is not simply an abstract Eurocentric reflection of early twentieth-century geopolitics but a category shaping everyday possibility. As On Barak has shown, the infrastructure of the Middle East today bears the imprint of having been defined as “the Middle East” in that colonial moment. For Barak, this enmeshing of geopolitical structures and infrastructures informs his claim that “England and India were officially hyphenated by Egypt.” So rather than using the “region” as an analytic, we might use it as an object of analysis in its own right, by asking how corporate, state, or non-governmental organizations might have relied on ideas of the Middle East as a coherent cultural or economic zone to promote cars. And how might these strategies – rather than or in addition to a priori regional coherence – have reified or transfigured Middle East-ness?

 

Second, just as we ought to be careful in invoking the term Middle East, we might do well to explore automobility in terms of longer historical patterns, too. What did notions of mobility look like before cars and to what extent did they leave traces the period of automobility? After all, as Frédéric Abécassis’s presentation at the first workshop nicely demonstrated, automobiles did not – and have not – cleanly displaced animal-powered forms of transportation. And when it comes to horsepower coinciding with horse power, here, too, Barak provides an instructive example. Observing how economic changes catalyzed by rails necessitated more camels to carry goods to those rails, Barak writes, “Put plainly, Egyptian trains could not run without camels.” In these hybrid worlds where fossil-fuel consumption begot intensive reliance on animal-power, the hegemony of the car might have seemed far from clear.

 

Questions of scale and analytic focus, of course, loom in any scholarly endeavor. The fact that these sorts of questions emerged from the first gathering of the conference points to exciting possibilities for how, as the second conference approaches, the study of (auto)mobility in the global Middle East might involve rethinking what we mean by the Middle East and mobility in the first place.

 

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Spring 2016 Week 7 Seminar: Robert Brier (LSE), ‘Contested Icons: Poland, Chile, and the Global Politics of Human Rights in the mid-1980s’

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Please note later than ususal start time: 5:15 pm

Abstract: In the course of the ‘human rights revolution’ of the late twentieth century, some cases of repression and resistance became icons of the struggle for individual rights—dissent in the Soviet bloc, opposition to Latin American military dictatorships, the fight against Apartheid. But why did these instances garner such broad international attention? An answer, this presentation argues, had not only to do with the degree of repression in those cases but also with how they resonated with the ideas and values of international supporters and with the latter’s attempts to shape the emergent global language of human rights. The presentation’s focus is on how two such iconic cases—the Polish Solidarity movement and the human rights movement in Chile—featured in different mid-1980s human rights discourses. Reconstructing debates held at the level of the UN, the Nobel Prize Committee or the international labor movement, the presentation will characterize Poland and Chile as “contested icons”—powerful symbols unto which various Western actors tried to project their competing understandings of human rights. But while the presentation shows how Poland and Chile became the subject of a global politics of human rights it will also demonstrate how Polish and Chilean activists skillfully used the moral authority of their movements to strike symbolic alliances and thus keep international attention focused on their countries.

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M&C Annual Lecture 2016: Prof. Alison Bashford, ‘Malthus & China’

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Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798/1803) is in the process of being thoroughly re-thought. The famous book was a universal history, a world history which sought to demonstrate the principle at work in all places and all times. In this lecture, Malthus’s work on China is analysed: the claims he made, the Jesuit sources he used, and the significance of China’s great population for his principle. China was the counter example to America, I argue. Malthus’s views on China are significant in two current contexts: first, the enduring and difficult relationship between Malthusian ideas and Chinese policy on population; and second, the historiographical conversation on an English-Chinese ‘great divergence’. Assessing China circa 1800, Malthus sat, unwittingly, at the temporal and geographical point of divergence.

 

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Alison Bashford is Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History, University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Jesus College. She is author most recently of Global Population: History, Geopolitics and Life on Earth (Columbia, 2014) and The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Re-reading the Principle of Population (Princeton, 2016), co-authored with Joyce E. Chaplin. She is also series editor of Cambridge Oceanic Histories, with David Armitage and Sujit Sivasundaram.

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Guest Post: The Imperial Sociology of the ‘tribe’ in Afghanistan

 This week’s guest blog-post comes from our Modern & Contemporary History Research Seminar speaker this week,

Dr. Nivi Manchanda (Leiden)

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‘Pashtun Tribal Map’ Source: University of West Florida.

 

“When one says “Afghan people” what I believe they are really saying is “tribal member”. Every single Afghan is a part of a tribe and understands how the tribe operates and why. This is key for us to understand. Understanding and operating within the tribal world is the only way we can ever know who our friends and enemies are, how the Afghan people think and what is important to them. Because, above all, they are tribesmen first.”[1]

 

For 200 years, from the time of the first engagement of the British imperialists with the country, to debates and strategies connected with the post 9/11 occupation, the “tribe” has been a notion intimately related to the West’s study of and involvement in Afghanistan. A particular lens through which the early East India Company administrators made sense of the alien people they were encountering, “the tribes” soon became the irrefutable marker of Afghan society, polity, and culture.

 

Indeed, the “tribe”, as a generic signifier for most relations and identities in Afghanistan appears to have displaced the need for a deep theoretical engagement with the changing political and social configurations in the country. This concept, widely used in the British Empire and initially deployed to capture a specific network of relations at a given historical juncture, has become increasingly de-historicised, losing any conceptual purchase and clarity it may once have had. Exemplified in the above statement by US General Jim Gant in 2009, it remains a dominant trope in the Western analysis and understanding of Afghanistan.

 

Even those such as Barnett Rubin and Thomas Barfield, that have recognised that the discourse of tribalism is problematic have not fully acknowledged its historical pedigree as a practice borne out of imperial violence. A key aim of my research then, is to unearth and make explicit the ways in which colonialism inheres within the very concept of tribe.

 

Tribes in Afghanistan are read as having a “potted history”. Popular images of Afghans, or more precisely Pashtuns, on whom the bulk of historiography has focused, have changed in line with the rise and fall of outside interest in the country[2]. Indeed there still exists considerable confusion about who exactly the Afghans, the Pashtuns, and the Pathans are and what their relation to each other is. For Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, for instance, Afghans, Pashtuns, and Pathans are distinct and separable groups because each group comes to “textual light and social life” in different historical contexts, and each group has its own dynamic historical relationship to Pashto and other languages, including Persian and Indian and Turkic languages. In the nineteenth century, meanwhile, “Pathan” frontier tribesmen were depicted as independent warriors in the British Empire and were prominent in the British (and possibly wider) consciousness as actors in the Great Game that was assumed to define Central Asia at the time.[3]

 

More recently, there has been a return to the original nineteenth-century narrative – or what Richard Tapper has called the “Kipling version” – of the Afghans first and foremost as tribesmen, driven by tribal logics and “ethnic” concerns.[4] In this vein, prominent Afghanistan scholar Olivier Roy has argued that the rise of the Taliban should be seen as “la revanche des Pachtounes”, or the revenge of the Pashtuns, especially the Durrani, currently considered the biggest and most prominent “tribal group”, in spite of the Taliban’s own insistence that they are an anti-feudal and “anti-tribal” movement.[5] This notion has become so widely accepted that it could be blithely remarked in 2010 that “[t]o be a Taliban today means little more than to be a Pashtun tribesman who believes that his fundamental beliefs and customary way of life, including the right to bear arms or defend the tribal homeland and protect its women, are threatened by foreign invaders”.[6]

 

In my research and in my talk at the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History, then, I map the way in which the term “tribe” has been deployed in the Afghan context, further problematising the concept and showing how a monolithic and unreflective body of work has become the norm in reference to Afghan social organisation.

[1] Jim Gant, “One Tribe at a Time: A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan” (Los Angeles, CA: Nine Sisters Imports, 2009), 11.
[2] See Hanifi, “Quandaries of the Afghan Nation”. Here I use the words interchangeably to remain consistent with the spirit in which they were employed by the British at the time.
[3] Contrary to popular belief, The Great Game was far from the only or even the most important narrative at the time. For more on this see: Benjamin Hopkins, The Making of Modern Afghanistan, 34; and Martin Bayly, “The ‘Re-turn’ to Empire in IR: Colonial Knowledge Communities and the Construction of the Idea of the Afghan polity, 1809–38”, Review of International Studies 7, forthcoming.
[4] Tapper, “Studying Pashtuns in Barth’s Shadow”, 228.
[5] Roy, cited in Tapper, “Studying Pashtuns in Barth’s Shadow”, 227.
[6] Scott Atran, Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values and What it Means to be Human (London: Penguin, 2011), 262.

 

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