“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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