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Brushing History against the Grain

[Detail from the cover of [Detail from the cover of "Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976"]

Abdel Razzaq Takriti, Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and

History to the defeated

May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.

- W.H. Auden, “Spain

It is now trite to say that as long as colonialism has existed, so has resistance to it. Yet the history of colonialism and resistance is still incomplete. This is because—traditionally—historical accounts were written from primarily two points of view: that of the colonizer, and that of triumphant nationalist movements that replaced colonial power in one of the many waves of decolonization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Both accounts neglected resistance movements that were not co-opted into the mainstream nationalist discourse, whether because they took place at the wrong time, or because their values and ideals were inconsistent with the former. Such movements were dismissed by both colonial and nationalist historiographies as irrelevant distractions, proto-movements at best, not worthy of serious analysis and thus relegated to the periphery of the discourse.

Over the last few decades, a growing body of literature has sought to remedy this. Two examples illustrate how this has been attempted. In Event, Metaphor, Memory, Shahid Amin demonstrates how an incident of revolutionary violence in India in 1922, which was dismissed by the colonial British authorities as random gang thuggery and disowned by the nationalist movement as an aberration, was actually motivated by impulses and sentiments that can only be classified as "political." Amin accomplishes this by interviewing the few remaining survivors of the incident and the descendants of various families that were caught up in it, sixty years after the fact. Indeed, the effort of the famous subaltern school of Indian historiography has been to demonstrate precisely how, side by side with the national movement that was led by the elite, there existed a distinct mode of “subaltern politics,” practiced—and yet unacknowledged by—the nationalist elite and the colonial rulers.

A similar effort is made by Joan Rappaport in The Politics of Memory. Taking her cue from James Scott’s path-breaking The Art of Not Being Governed, which posits that many of the practices of hill-folk that are regarded as pre-civilizational, such as the absence of fixed property institutions, are actually deliberate techniques to resist occupation by lowland powers, Rappaport analyzes the various methods used by Colombian hill tribes to resist the pervasive influence of Spanish domination. These methods relied upon the telling of history in a way that made it indistinguishable from what is popularly perceived to be myth. While it is commonly argued that these tribes were primitive precisely because they lacked a concept of history organized around linear time, Rappaport shows—again, by detailed ethnographic analysis—that this was a conscious political choice, one that served as a strategy to resist dominance, and therefore is just as worthy of analysis and scrutiny as are the dominant independence movements throughout Latin America.

To this body of literature, we can now add another crucial intervention: Abdel Razzaq Takriti’s Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-76. The winner of two prestigious academic prizes, the MESA and BRISMES Awards for the Best Doctoral Dissertation in the Humanities, Monsoon Revolution seeks to reshape the debates around the Gulf’s decolonization movements and post-colonial history and British colonial legacy. Its importance lies in the fact that it brings the methods of the particular brand of postcolonial history discussed above to the specific context of Gulf historiography. It also comes at a particularly germane time, when many of the gains of the Arab Spring appear to have been either reversed, or suspended indefinitely.

Takriti’s book explores the “Dhufar Uprising,” a sustained rebellion against colonial and sultanate authority in Oman between 1965 and 1976. The accepted narrative thus far relegates the rebellion to a localized uprising, limited to the Dhufari highlands, that eventually burnt itself out. That narrative also views the Omani history of the period through the lens of the Sultan and his reformatory and modernizing policies, which changed the character of the State. Monsoon Revolution seeks to challenge both these complementary strands, through “retrieval, revision and contextualization,” in order to “free [Arab revolutions and revolutionaries] from their current imprisonment in colonial accounts, counterinsurgency studies, official histories, and contemporary auto-critiques.

As part of the first prong of this approach—retrieval—Takriti applies hitherto-unused primary sources, extensive regional travel, and the tools of oral history to reconstruct the lost world of the revolutionary movement from the inside—or, in James Scott’s language, to reveal the “hidden transcript” of the oppressed. In so doing, he illuminates some fascinating aspects of the revolution. For example, he documents the extensive participation of women, on equal terms with men. Takriti also notes the confluence of—and, occasionally, tensions between—ideologies as diverse as Marxism-Leninism, Maoism, pan-Arab nationalism, Nasserism and even Islamism, all of which found a fertile breeding-ground in the monsoon-soaked highlands of Dhufar.

However, Takriti is careful to chart a safe course between the Scylla of an individual-centric great-man view of history, and the Charybdis of determinism. He shows us, for instance, how the geographical dislocation caused by the Sultan’s economic policies created a class of young Dhufari migrants who, placed beyond the traditional tribal and imamate structures of their homeland, were particularly amenable to constructing and developing a supra-tribal nationalist ideology. This was to go on to define the first phase of the Revolution. Similarly, when exploring Sultanate action immediately after the coup that brought Qaboos to power, Takriti analyzes both the logic of British colonialism, and the Sultan’s own personal history and character, in understanding the events that unfolded. By juxtaposing broad structural concerns with richly detailed individual stories, Takriti deftly illustrates how a confluence of individual trajectories and structural backgrounds plays an indispensable role in shaping history.

Takriti’s primary locus of retrieval is the essentially republican character of the Revolution. This republican character lasted through multiple ideological splits and divisions, and continued to be a motivating factor even after the military suppression of resistance. He argues that the Revolution was ultimately defined by its quest for citizenship, against which was placed the Anglo-Sultanate ideology of monarchical absolutism and corresponding subjecthood. It is crucial to note—especially in light of the debates surrounding the Arab Spring—that Takriti views monarchical absolutism as an idea that was essentially imposed from above by the British, who saw it as the best structure of authority to protect their interests in the Gulf, both while they were physically present and after they withdrew. Through his research, Takriti demonstrates, as Sudipta Kaviraj has done in the Indian context, that pre-colonial authority structures were polycentric rather than absolutist (or, as Sugata Bose has it, “layered and shared”). The centralization of power in the figure of the Sultan was thus a result of deliberate British colonial strategy, as opposed to being an embodiment of local conceptions of political authority.

This, naturally, leads Takriti to his second objective, which is to revise the dominant strands of historiography—or, in Walter Benjamin’s words, to “brush history against the grain.” He does this in two ways. Through the aforementioned strategy of retrieval, he accords to the revolutionary movement the political agency that was hitherto denied it in the historical literature. But he is not only concerned with political agency: Takriti also makes a detailed study of the culture, iconographies, and day-to-day struggles that defined the Revolution. In an extensive chapter, he analyzes how the Marxist character of the Revolution pushed it towards a head-on conflict with traditional structures of patriarchy and domination, especially concerning the role and status of women as political and individual agents. He examines how religion was then used as a primary weapon of counter-revolutionary ideology, through direct appeals to the status quo, and how, in response, revolutionary poetry appropriated religion by contextualizing it within the framework of resistance to empire and authority. He goes on to examine how poetry, cinema, and photography all played a part in creating “an intersecting web of global words and images that constituted the repertoire of revolutionary culture, and formed the basis for an alternative world view.” In Takriti’s prose, we can hear the voice of the historian, Natalie Zemon Davis, when she says that “we can take heart from the fact that no matter how dire the situation, some will find means to resist, some will find means to cope, and some will remember and tell stories about what happened.”

Parallel to revising the story of the revolution, Takriti also focuses on uncovering the pivotal—yet unmentioned—role of a multitude of participants. He shows how the coup that replaced Sultan Said with Qaboos was demonstrably orchestrated by the British, acting in response to the pressures and strains caused by the revolutionary movement. In this way, Takriti revises the assumption that the revolution accomplished nothing, showing that it was, indeed, responsible for transforming Oman into an absolutist monarchy, as well as compelling the Sultan to undertake widespread modernizing initiatives that permanently transformed the economic bases of the State. He also—importantly—pushes back against the idea that the transition to absolutism was something inevitable, arguing that even in the immediate aftermath of the coup, a constitutional monarchy was a realistic option, represented in the person of the reformatory Prime Minister Sayyid Tariq. The triumph of absolutism is owed—again—to a conscious choice by the British, who saw it as the form of government most conducive to maintaining their interests in the Gulf. By demonstrating the possibility of options at the moment of significant transition, then, we can understand that the eventual route taken was contingent—and if contingent, by extension, reversible, even today.

The task of revision seamlessly merges with Takriti’s final objective—to contextualize. Admitting that his area of study is “the periphery of a periphery,” Takriti nevertheless reconstructs the story of Dhufar by placing it within the broader context of contemporary Pan-Arab nationalism, worldwide decolonization, and imperial hegemony. The task of contextualization involves a two-way feedback loop. For example, Takriti traces how the 1967 Arab defeat at the hands of Israel, and the subsequent auto-critiques, triggered a fundamental shift in viewpoint within the revolutionary movement, from Nasserist-nationalism to a more radical Marxism-Leninism. This, in turn, accelerated the movement’s supra-tribal character, with its dismantling of traditional tribal authority structures. At the same time, he draws linkages—ideological, political, economic, and military—between the Dhufari revolutionaries and Nasserism, the Palestinian revolution (a poem by Sakher Habash titled “Palestine is Dhufar” is a particularly striking example), the successful uprising in South Yemen, and, further off, events in Vietnam, Cuba, China, and even the Soviet Union. Correspondingly, he shows us how the Sultanate was supported not only by the British, but also by other Gulf monarchies such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia; by the Shah of Iran, who was seeking to increase his influence in the broader region; and, of course, by big oil companies seeking to exploit the region’s mineral wealth. The Dhufari Revolution thus becomes a synecdoche for a much wider conflict, involving a whole host of interests playing out upon the world-stage of decolonization.

It would be dangerous, however, to reduce the conflict to a binary clash of opposites. As Takriti demonstrates compellingly by showing us deep ideological splits within the Revolution, the interests at stake were multi-layered and complex. Takriti also avoids the dangers of hagiography, taking meticulous care not only to detail the violent suppression of internal mutinies, but also informing us about the numerous compromises made by the revolutionary leaders in the late stages of the movement, compromises that substantially rolled back its most progressive aspects, in the face of the pragmatic need to keep more conservative elements on board. The revolution, then, is not presented as a unitary movement, but one that—like most movements—was fractured and split, one in which progressive and regressive elements were regularly in equipoise and tension.

Nonetheless, the signal achievement of this contextualization is a deep challenge to the assumption, especially in light of the recent events in the Middle East, that democracy is fundamentally unsuitable to the area, and that monarchy is an as ancient and settled a feature of the landscape as the desert. Takriti shows, to the contrary, that monarchical rule was imposed from above, and furthermore, was contested every step of the way by a sustained democratic/republican revolutionary movement that took eleven years, and the combined forces of the Sultanate, the British, the neighboring monarchies, and Iran to ultimately snuff out. In doing so, he retrieves for us a revolutionary tradition, the experiences, successes, and failures of which present examples that revolutionary movements can draw upon, as a source of both inspiration and caution. Perhaps it would be appropriate, then, to end with Benjamin again: “To articulate what is past…means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger...the danger threatens the stock of tradition as much as its recipients…in every epoch, the attempt must be made to deliver tradition anew from the conformism which is on the point of overwhelming it.” If the moment of danger is the Arab Spring, then in Takriti’s work, we have the tools to deliver it anew from the conformism of absolutism that is even now on the point of overwhelming it.

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