Category Archives: Automobility

“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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Workshop Announcement: “(Auto)-Mobility in the Global Middle East: Defining the Field.”

Automobility Workshop Poster JPEGThe Centre for Modern & Contemporary History is hosting a research workshop on Friday 6 November, on the theme “(Auto)-Mobility in the Global Middle East: Defining the Field.”

Programme

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This one day workshop, held in the “motor city” of Birmingham, UK, a centre of car production and of expertise about (auto)-mobility, brings into conversation historians and social scientists who investigate the histories, politics, and social, visual and aesthetic meanings of (auto)-mobility, primarily across the Middle East but also in global and comparative perspective in the twentieth and twenty first centuries.

A transformative phenomenon of the twentieth century, (auto)-mobility in its various incarnations globalized unevenly after World War One, altering a variety of social practices and inflecting the wider dynamics of production and consumption. From new roads, production lines and showrooms, to traffic jams, garages, advertisements, car accidents, joy riders and (counter-) insurgency techniques, to name just a few salient aspects, motorized vehicles and the conditions they provoked altered conceptions of time, senses of place or authenticity, and the production of space.

Our title makes use of parenthesis advisedly, since regardless of whether people took the wheel, loitered at the curb, hitched a lift or crossed the road, (auto)-mobility transformed practices of gender, class, and domesticity, most notably, though not exclusively, in urban and suburban contexts. (Auto)-mobility also refigured international and regional dynamics in contexts such as pilgrimage, even as national road networks worked to produce national space, and urban roads re-segregated newly ‘historic’ inner cities and downtowns from suburbs that became both gated communities and laboratories for religious and political organization.

Via a case study or a historiographical intervention, participants will present their evaluations of the state of this burgeoning field as part of wider (auto)-mobility studies, and will engage in debate on its potential and future direction, whether as scholars of the Middle East or of other sites and networks of (auto)-mobility around the world.

The workshop will operate as a prologue and agenda-setting session for a larger conference, gathering original research, to be held at the University of Birmingham in June 2016. Please contact Simon Jackson with any questions: S.Jackson.1@bham.ac.uk

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9h: Coffee and Registration

09:30-10h: Welcome and Introductory Comments

Simon Jackson and Lucie Ryzova (University of Birmingham, History)

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10-12:30h: Panel 1: Regional Cases & Comparisons

Chair: Lucie Ryzova (University of Birmingham, History)

  • Pascal Ménoret (Brandeis, Anthropology): “Learning from Riyadh: Joyriding, Infrastructure, and Politics”
  • Frédéric Abécassis (ENS, Lyon, History): “The Creation of the Moroccan Road Network: A History”
  • David Sims (Cairo, Urban Planning/Economics): “The Private Car in Greater Cairo”

Discussants: Shane Hamilton (University of Georgia, History) & Simon Jackson (Birmingham, History)

12:30-13:30h: Lunch

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13:30-15:30h: Panel 2: Urban (Auto)-mobility between History and Social Science.

Chair: Samuel Dolbee (NYU, History/Middle East Studies)

  • Kristin Monroe (University of Kentucky, USA, Anthropology): “Driving Then and Now: The History and Anthropology of Automobility in Beirut”
  • Andrew Arsan (Cambridge, History): “On Driving – and Not Driving – in Contemporary Lebanon: Mobility, Stasis, and the Decay of the Commons”

Discussant: Sara Fregonese (Birmingham, Geography)

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15:30-16h: Coffee

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16-17:30h: Panel 3: Comparative and Global Approaches

Chair: Nathan Cardon (Birmingham, History)

  • Simon Gunn (Leicester, History): “‘The Car and the City: New Approaches to Automobility in Britain and the West”
  • Gijs Mom (Eindhoven, Industrial Engineering/History): “How to Approach Middle Eastern Mobility? Prolegomena for a Recipe”

Discussant: Frank Uekotter (Birmingham, History)

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17:30-18h: Concluding Discussion and Planning for 2016 Conference.

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19h: Drinks and Dinner

Please contact Simon Jackson with enquiries – S.Jackson.1@bham.ac.uk

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