Middle East and North Africa Research Paper

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1. Representations and Misrepresentations

The term, ‘The Middle East and North Africa,’ refers to a territory characterized by considerable diversity, extending from Morocco in the West to Iran in the East, spread over Africa and Asia and extending into Europe. This is a region that has given rise to the earliest forms of urban life and state organization in human civilization, produced three major monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), includes three major language groups (Arabic, Persian, and Turkish) as well as countless other languages and dialects, and exhibits sharp contrasts in physical and human geography. Since the eighth century AD, successive Islamic empires have ruled and to some extent united this geographical expanse, the most recent of which was the Ottoman. In other words, this is an area of great complexity, with its long historical record, literate traditions, and mixture of social and cultural groups.

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In the parlance of early anthropology, this was regarded as a ‘culture area,’ and from an area studies perspective it was seen as a region broadly sharing linguistic, religious, and cultural characteristics as well as a common geopolitical position in the world order. Yet, because of its complexity and diversity, the term and the territory associated with it are coupled in a shifting, unstable relationship. Afghanistan is sometimes included, sometimes not. The Sudan falls in or out depending on whether the emphasis is on the African heterogeneous south or the Arab Muslim north. Turkey is usually included, although many of its intellectuals and politicians prefer to find continuities with Europe and the Balkans, and or with Central Asia.

The first part of the term, the Middle East, originates from nineteenth-century European, specifically British, strategic military divisions of the world. Other terms also compete for the same territories or carve it up in different ways: older terms such as the Near East or the Levant still have occasional currency, the latter having been recently proposed as a substitute term that emphasizes linkages, rather than boundaries, between the societies and cultures of the Greeks, Turks, Arabs, and Jews (Alcalay 1993). Similar to this are arguments for the Mediterranean as a cultural unit. The term ‘the Arab world’ is often seen, especially indigenously, as more accurate in depicting an analytically coherent unit. In Arabic, the historical distinction between the Maghreb (the West, or North African countries) and the Mashreq (the East, or the Eastern Mediterranean countries) is widely used and this is reflected in French scholarship on the region, as exemplified by the journal Maghreb-Machrek. In German, the term ‘the Orient’ still largely refers to Islamic and Arab societies and the disciplines and learning related to them.

New regionalisms also compete with these designations in different ways. The renewal of historical and religious connections with Central Asia and the Caucasus, after a rupture of more than a century of Russian and Soviet rule, gives rise to new old redrawing of the boundaries of the region. The freeing of scholarly imaginations by theories of globalization leads to the investigation of historical and contemporary links across the Indian Ocean with South Asia and Southeast Asia. Finally, studies of diaspora communities (e.g., Turks in Germany, the Lebanese in South America and Australia, the North Africans in Europe, Arab Americans, and so on) are beginning to look at translocal and transnational linkages that are also part of the making and unmaking of the region. What these examples of shifting boundaries and their referents illustrate is the contested reasoning behind the proposed unity of the region. At the heart of this contest lies the role of Islam perceived as a unifying and even homogenizing force. Despite the demographic reality that the largest numbers of Muslims do not live in the Middle East, the region seems inextricably linked with Islam as its historical fount and heartland. The ways in which some scholars now subsume Central Asia within the Middle East, on the basis of the ‘Islamic nature’ of its societies, shows how Islam is considered as a unifying force that brings together societies and histories with widely disparate historical experiences. Yet, the question of whether Islam, or any religion, can be seen as providing the sociocultural cohesion of any geographical region remains a problematic issue, as does the question of where the cohesive quality of Islam is to be located. Islam as a belief system? Or an institutional framework? Or historical experience? The different answers lead towards different routes of comparisons and distinctions (Asad 1986).

This identification with a unified Islamic essence also led to an enduring interpretation of the region through dichotomous notions of East and West. Edward Said’s seminal work, Orientalism (1978), is the most prominent discussion of the relations of knowledge and power that accompanies this dichotomy and their implications. Other works have also carefully examined when the boundary between East and West was discursively set and how it shifted geographically throughout history, sometimes including the Balkans and Greece and sometimes not (Todorova 1997). The question of where the Near East begins inexplicably continues to bedevil some contemporary popular writers (e.g., Kaplan 2000), who see this boundary as explanatory of a range of phenomena from wars to political formations to economic structures to lifestyles and fashions.

How the region was imagined and hence ‘made’ brings together a number of different actors besides the Great Powers and their strategic interests. The ‘sand-mad’ English men and women, like Sir Richard Burton, Charles Doughty, and Gertrude Bell, who traveled the region as explorers and spies, wrote accounts that, alongside the textual and philological studies of the Orientalists, became part of the discursive universe called the Orient and fired European and American imaginations. Some of these nineteenthcentury accounts were highly ethnographic, as in the case of Edward Lane’s classic An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836) and W. Robertson Smith’s Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia (1885). The French colonies in North Africa were a particular destination for colonial ethnographers. Missionaries, among whom Americans figured largely, were another source of information that shaped the contours of this world for the Western imagination. Finally, novelists from Flaubert to Mark Twain took part in filling in the details of the imagined Orient as the region opened up to Western infiltration and then domination with the gradual demise of the Ottoman Empire.

However neutral the use of the term ‘the Middle East’ in contemporary scholarship, it is important not to deny the power of the images of the East, the Orient, and the world of Islam in which this scholarship is rooted.

2. Meta-narratives and Their Critiques

Within the framework of area studies, scholarship on the region was marked, as in other parts of the world, by modernization theory and ‘developmentalism.’ Following World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, various states were carved out by European colonial powers and came under their direct rule, with a few notable exceptions such as Turkey and Iran. Most of the colonial states became independent after World War II, again with a few notable exceptions such as Algeria, which gained independence only in 1962. The region held a prominent place in illustrating the debates of the time on emergent states and nation building through such studies as Daniel Lerner’s The Passing of Traditional Society (1958). This makes the current eclipse of the region in theoretical and comparative works, particularly in political science, and its perceived ‘exceptionalism’ from global currents of liberalization and democratization, all the more noticeable.

Another founding text, especially for anthropologists, was Carleton Coon’s Cara an: The Story of the Middle East (1951). This powerful text, which has been critiqued at many levels, provided a long-enduring framework, explanation, and diagnosis for the region through the concept of the Middle East as a ‘mosaic society.’ It was instrumental in creating a vision of the Middle East as a region united by Islam (as belief, law, and ritual), made interdependent by ecology and an ethnic division of labor, and with its inherent disorder kept at bay through successive authoritarian empires and states. Ethnicity (loosely deployed to refer to all sorts of groups whether linguistic, religious, sectarian, or occupational) was seen as a primary divisive factor, offset by a traditional market exchange economy and a strong state that lends society a rigid stability.

However flawed and ahistorical its narrative, Cara an was the perfect textbook, presenting a clear story-line (as the subtitle indicates) but permitting digressions and discrepancies. Many of the textbooks, reviews, and encyclopedia articles that followed the publication of this work employed its handy tripartite division of the region into ecological zones of pastoral rural urban, each with its economic, social, and cultural traits. Islam—as a ‘high’ tradition—was largely left to the purview of scholars trained in Orientalist studies with their knowledge of language and written texts; so too, to a great extent, was the study of the city and of urbanism as the crucibles of this high culture. However, ethnographic documentation of ‘traditional society’ did include the study of local forms of worship and ritual, focusing mainly on rural and pastoral groups. The study of social change focused largely on the transformation of rural economies, as in the influential compendium by Antoun and Harik (1972). Anthropologists generally paid little attention to national politics and modes of political participation, although perhaps noting the ‘accommodation’ of traditional social structures, and more importantly cultural values, to modernization.

Alongside this, however, was a number of works and circles of scholars who were gradually transforming the notions governing the understanding of Middle Eastern societies, and also more generally of many of the basic tenets of anthropology and social science. One strand of literature developed the critical approach to colonialism, neoimperialism and knowledge within which Said’s Orientalism can be situated. This included works by Abdullah Laroui, Anouar Abdul-Malek, and Talal Asad, as well as the contributors to journals such as the Re iew of Middle East Studies and Khamsin (‘the desert wind that scorches’), which were published in England.

A second strand, sometimes featuring the same authors, focused on political economy and modes of production, well demonstrated by the US journal MERIP (Middle East Research and Information Project) in its early years. Works by authors like Samir Amin brought the region into central debates on dependency and unequal development. In this vein were studies of the oil economy, which was gaining importance in the 1970s, focusing on the structure of oil-based rentier states as well as the regional and international migration of labor. This focus was well placed. Labor markets within the Middle East, and migration more generally, worked to integrate the region in ways that states could not. Integration, however, did not mean the easy accessibility of different societies to one another but, rather, painful competition over economic and social goods, discoveries of cultural disjuncture, the rise of racist stereotyping and the creation of entirely new hierarchies of status and power. In addition, the impact of migration and of remittances was wide ranging, which changed household structures, local economic patterns, authority relations, and perceptions of identity.

A third strand of scholarship, building upon the first two, set about revising the received wisdom on the Ottoman and colonial periods, and focused on the incorporation of the region into the world capitalist system as well as on nationalism and ideological currents in the area. Turkish scholars were particularly productive in this literature, which also helped encourage the turn to social history, local history, and the study of class and family.

In anthropology, scholars working on the region now included such distinguished names as Pierre Bourdieu, Ernest Gellner, and Clifford Geertz. In their very different ways, these theorists laid the foundations for new departures in scholarship through an emphasis on social relations and cultural symbols, a focus on field research, and an appreciation of the diversity of historical and contemporary sociopolitical formations. Work by Geertz’ students particularly challenged formal notions of social structure, kinship, and neighborhood by focusing instead on the fluid, transactional, and negotiated nature of the ties that form the basis of social solidarity and networks. Morocco particularly became the site for early explorations in reflexivity, intersubjectivity and the questioning of long-held notions of ethnographic objectivity, as seen in works by Vincent Crapanzano and Paul Rabinow.

It is worth noting that these anthropological works are all on North Africa and, with the exception of Bourdieu’s work on Algeria, focus on Morocco, and indeed on particular towns and locations. This highlights the fact that generalizations about the region tend to be based on the accumulation of knowledge from very specific sites. Countries that act as especial poles of attraction for anthropologists are Morocco, Yemen, and Egypt as well as Iran before the Islamic revolution. Another privileged site of research is Israel, which has attracted a fair number of scholars in addition to having its own well-developed research community. However, scholars working on Israel tend not to be in dialogue with scholars of the rest of the Middle East. This is not merely a reflection of actual tensions in the region but is also due to the fact that these scholars often adopt frames of analysis for Israel that are very different from those developed for interpreting the ‘Islamic’ Middle East. For example, only in the literature on Israel do we find the serious study of ethnicity. Yet much of this work is conducted within US-inspired frameworks with the focus being on the immigrant nation, the melting pot, and the frontier society. Furthermore, this work remains largely focused on relations between various Jewish groups with hardly a mention of Arabs, whether Muslim, Christian, or Druze, within Israeli society.

Excluding these sites, the literature on all other countries of the region, including even Turkey, was sporadic until recently, spread out in time and topical focus. Thus it did not contribute to the creation of schools of thought or to central concerns in theory and methodology. It is also interesting to note, that even in the 1980s, overview courses of the Middle East showed a significant time lag from actual scholarly production and did not abandon their tripartite schema of nomads villagers urban dwellers, except for the occasional addition of a unit on women, sometimes entitled ‘women and the moral order,’ apparently thus concerned with putting women in their place. Yet this rider onto the course outline is a harbinger of important changes that, over the past two decades, may be finally putting to rest the master narrative, the ‘story’ of the Middle East.

3. Directions, Trends, and the Resurgence of Islam

With the availability of new frames of interpretation, researchers on the region have begun increasingly to work within cultural, feminist, and postcolonial perspectives. Current research shows a healthy diversity, with interests varying from oral history to identity, to health practices, to urban politics, to everyday life. However, there appears to be a too sanguine assumption that the ghosts of Orientalism have been laid to rest. Works that have explicitly met the challenge of examining and historicizing the politics of representation are rare, the most prominent being Timothy Mitchell’s Colonizing Egypt (1988).

It is important to draw attention to scholarship in the languages of the region itself, which are often marginalized in Western scholarship. These works have followed global theoretical trends but also exhibit particular interest in issues of national identity, political and economic underdevelopment, intellectual heritage, and the rewriting of national histories, as exemplified in works by Mohamed Arkoun, Abdullah al-Jabiri, and George Tarabishi, to name but a few. A powerful trend of ‘indigenization’ represents an important experimental moment in this scholarship. In the 1980s, the slew of writings on the ‘Arabization’ of the social sciences, the possibility of alternative epistemological frameworks, and the challenge to universalist notions of science presented a formidable task for many social scientists in the region. It is important to note that these discursive trends were empowered through funding, institutional support, and channels of dissemination, such as that provided by the Center for Arab Unity Studies in Beirut, Lebanon. Interestingly, a similar energy, but bolstered by much larger resources and global rather than regional networks, now calls for the Islamization of the social sciences. This literature can be traced from the works in the 1970s of the Iranian scholar, Ali Shariati (see Algar 1979), to current Egyptian and South Asian thinkers who are linked in ways previously not possible in the East West division of knowledge and power. Islam is once again a central concern of scholars working on the region and now stands firmly within the purview of anthropology as well. The Iranian revolution and the rise of Islamist movements both across the region and globally present particular challenges to the understanding of sociocultural change. Often this literature seems driven by a sense of political urgency or, as in the case of European scholars of immigration, by a sense of impending doom. While what constitutes the object of study in an anthropology of Islam has continued to be a problematic issue, as discussed by Asad (1986) and Gilsenan (1982), various works usefully look at the practice, significance, and power of Islam in different settings, such as education, village politics, expressive culture, or pilgrimage.

The study of gender is one area where tensions with past representations have worked to help transcend old debates and open new horizons. Whereas exotic notions of femininity were at the heart of Orientalist constructions of the Orient, critical approaches to gender have worked to analyze, subvert, and transcend these representations. Gender and gender inequality, have been studied in a multitude of ways: as colonial experience, as underdevelopment, as identity, as representation, as memory, and as embodied practice. This literature, which is growing at a great pace and now includes research on masculinity and sexuality, is among the topics most in dialogue with theoretical writings in anthropology specifically and the social sciences generally. It provides routes and models that other research topics, similarly fraught with long and contested genealogies, could usefully follow (AbuLughod 1989, 1993).

Clear trends within the region include such global processes as structural adjustment, the opening up to world markets in unprecedented ways, and the intervention of international organizations into the microcosms of the family, the neighborhood, and local authorities. Migration and displacement continue to frame the lives of a majority of the population of the region, directly and indirectly. Refugee studies is now a growing field, given that the region has produced as well as hosted some of the largest refugee populations in the world. Large numbers of peoples in the region, most famously the Palestinians, conceive of their identity through collective memories centering on dreams of a lost land (Said 1986).

The Palestinian case also shows clearly the intimate intersections of a multitude of local, national, and global levels as refugee camps, dispersed refugees, militias, governments, international bodies, and ad hoc alliances all function to govern and determine the fates of several million people. Less studied are diaspora populations—as one important link between nationalism and transnationalism, between the global, the national, and the local. The Iranian case is one exception where the emergence of diasporic public spheres have been studied, as well as the creation of ethnic virtual realities embedded in concrete social and economic exchanges. Los Angeles, or Irangeles, forms a crucial node in the relations that link Iranian communities in many European cities, in India, and in Japan (Naficy 1993).

Finally, one promising trend is the increasing number of works attempting to locate the appropriate intersection of history and ethnography that can interpret the layers of complexity in Middle Eastern societies. Past and present worlds mirror one another through connections and disconnections (Ghosh 1992), while the objects of memory range from village homes to artwork to oral narratives (Slymovics 1998). Furthermore, the growing focus on the construction of local social worlds, of everyday life, of popular culture, and of interpersonal relations opens up the scope of inquiry to bring out the multiple sites of modernity in the Middle East.


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