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(Auto)-Mobility in the Global Middle East (Part 1)

[The Stunt Biker by Walid Rashid. Copyright by permission of photographer,] [The Stunt Biker by Walid Rashid. Copyright by permission of photographer,]

They believe, O Tramway, that we are powerless against you and that we cannot do without you – MISTAKE – the automobiles are there and the oil too.
Listen to me, O Tramway; it’s too much even when you come and go empty. You’ve given the world a headache with your hooting and ringing.

You’d be better off giving in, or else it’s bankruptcy. 

Popular tram boycott song by Assad Hatta, sung during the Beirut tram boycott of 1931.[1]


Moving Towards (Auto)-Mobility?

The workshop “(Auto)-Mobility in the Global Middle East” was held at the Centre for Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Birmingham (UK) on Friday 6 November 2015. Driven by a varied set of premises, it aimed to survey the state of this emerging field of study, and evaluate future directions, in anticipation of a major conference, gathering original research, to be held in June 2016 in Birmingham. What follows below is an analytical summary of the workshop, placed into the context of the literature. It is written to equip interested readers with the main elements of the discussion that took place, and furnish an overview of some of the most exciting work currently being done in this field. In closing (in the second part of this essay to be published later), there is a set of provisional conclusions, and paths for further research, which it is hoped will stimulate further debate and act as an invitation to other researchers.

Among the premises for the workshop were the successive spatial and temporal turns in modern Middle Eastern history in recent years. These might be represented in the first instance by a work such as Jens Hanssen’s Fin-de-Siècle Beirut, written under the sign of Henri Lefebvre, and in the second by Vanessa Ogle’s book on the global history of time and temporal regimes, with its emphasis on the Middle East and South Asia as the “core of modern globality.” (Auto)-mobility as a field of study, we felt, might draw on the insights of these successive turns while developing a more synthetic spatio-temporal approach that seeks to account for the production of space in contexts of temporal heterogeneity.

A second premise was the recent efforts to move past an analytic focus in Middle East Studies on national states. Studies of individual countries have proved exceptionally enduring, in part due to the resilience of organizing metropole-colony binaries in studies of the colonial era, and in part due to the influence on the field of policy-oriented disciplines that pre-suppose (and fail to problematize) national country units. Work such as Cyrus Schayegh’s on cross-border narcotics smuggling, or Andrew Arsan’s on Lebanese diaspora political culture in West Africa have helped to pave the way in this respect, identifying the uneven layering of sovereignty in border and urban zones, or its networked articulation along migratory pathways. Indeed forms of migratory and cross-border mobility offer a productive means of interrogating national-state focused analysis, and of thinking more regionally and even globally, while still acknowledging the rising force of nationalist political logics in the twentieth century. The establishment of new journals such as Mashriq and Mahjar: Journal of Middle East Migration Studies, or one university press’s recent decision to launch a series of books on the “Global Middle East” are symptomatic of the appeal of such approaches.

But, notwithstanding the merit of these advances, a third premise emerged precisely from a critique of approaches to Middle Eastern migratory and diaspora mobility. Rarely, we felt, have such studies devoted attention to the apparatuses of mobility themselves—what Cotten Seiler has called, drawing on Foucault, a ‘“multilinear ensemble” of commodities, bodies of knowledge, laws, techniques, institutions, environments, nodes of capital, sensibilities and modes of perception.” Studies of migratory and regional mobility have in this sense remained wedded to a largely spatial and networked interpretive framework, in which what Sudhir Chella Rajan calls the ‘”mammoth social institution”’ of (auto)-mobility has remained largely submerged.[2]

This is not to say that sociological and historical studies of (auto)-mobility have not flourished, produced both by scholars of the Middle East writing in Arabic, Turkish etc., and by urban historians, historical sociologists, and anthropologists writing in many languages on various areas around the world. A fourth premise of the workshop was therefore simply to take stock, to evaluate these diverse approaches to (auto)-mobility, and to discover which ones a study of Middle Eastern (auto)-mobility might profitably work with or contest. The tradition of Saudi Arabian criminology focused on road violence is just one example of work done in the region. And, the growing literature devoted to the “car system” and its urban, social and cultural history, exemplified by Simon Gunn, Emma Rothschild, John Urry and Joel Wolfe, is just one sub-section of an increasingly global field. Indeed, historians of economic development, of capitalism and of colonial rule have all recently contributed important studies of (auto)-mobility, as attested by the varied work done by Josh Grace on cars and the politics of development in Tanzania, Jennifer Hart’s investigation of Ghanaian motorization and labor politics, Saima Akhtar’s work on Ford’s corporate perceptions of the Middle East, and Stephanie Ponsavady’s work on aspects of auto-mobility in colonial Indochina. 

Meanwhile, literary and cultural scholars such as Enda Duffy and Ricarda Vidal have continued to engage with the quintessential modernist experience of motorized speed, while Lee Jared Vinsel is brilliantly examining speed’s constant familiar, the car crash, and its haunting cast of extras, including (male) test dummies and laboratory animals. These diverse and proliferating efforts, anchored in various disciplinary frameworks, have found one expression in the development of (auto)-mobility studies as a distinct sub-discipline, with its own journals and conferences, one formalised by Gijs Mom, Mimi Sheller and others through the critique of more traditional modes of transport history and indeed economic history.

The workshop therefore combined a core of Middle East Studies scholars, primarily in history and anthropology, with others working on Britain, the US and elsewhere. We explicitly favoured an “inter-modal” approach, with concurrent, antagonistic and segregated forms of mobility assessed together. Walkers, (motor)-cyclists, loiterers, town planners, the road beneath the rubber, and even the juxtaposed portraits of saints and offspring bobbling on taxi dashboards—all found roles in the discussion.

Overall, we aimed to grasp and start to build on the state of the art, and to dispense with older narratives of the motorcar’s Whiggish rise from aristocrat’s “toy” to popular “tool.” We also sought to retain a sociologically and anthropologically informed focus on dynamics of legitimation and domination, rather than succumb to complacent metaphors of circulation and networked arterial proliferation, or merely rehearse the Middle East’s established strategic role in maintaining oil scarcity and contributing to carbon-democratic politics.

Beyond Diffusionism and Domination by Machines?

Framing comments by Simon Jackson set out the points above. He also emphasized the influence of Heideggerian perspectives on the sociology of mobility, and the longstanding preoccupation in studies of (auto)-mobility with the domination and discipline exercised by machines over people. Historians have systematically contrasted the illusions and utopias the car system has fostered with the realities of anomie, indebtedness, pollution, checkpoints, tolls and all-purpose subjection that it has instead entrenched. As Cotton Seiler neatly encapsulates the Frankfurt strand of this analytic tradition: “need it be said that by all evidence Adorno refused to learn to drive?” [3]

But more recently scholars such as Shane Hamilton and Seiler himself have stepped away from these binaries by looking at the ways (auto)-mobility as a dispositif fostered and built new subjectivities and ideologies of aggressive freedom. In Hamilton’s account these emerged through the rise of neo-liberal, de-unionized economy and big box retail as permitted by long distance truck haulage, but in this vein we might equally investigate comprador capitalism focused on automobile imports as a flexible, mediating juridical-political system.

One way to historicize and develop this promising critique, Jackson suggested, is to pay attention to the reality of ‘roads not taken’ in the past, such as the late 1970s perception that China was on the brink of becoming the first post-automobile and post-oil country in history.[4]

A second might be to disaggregate the standard binary of personal and collective vehicle ownership and to attend instead to types of shared and improvised (auto)-mobility, and the way different life-worlds form around the same technological artefacts. Such disaggregation could be synchronic, for instance in the case of Cairo parking entrepreneurs, or diachronic, for example in the case of the trans-Mediterranean car recycling networks currently studied by Yann-Philippe Tastevin or the Fordist circulations between the US and Persia currently studied by Nile Green.[5]

A third possibility is to attend to forms of mobility in times of emergency and transformed norms—military occupation, armed attack, states of emergency, natural disaster, and even civil war as in Hady Zaccak’s film Marcedes. How do such scenarios alter practices of (auto)-mobility and the affective, sensorial dynamics intermeshed with them? 

Lucie Ryzova underlined these opening speculations with the salutary reminder that a critical approach to Middle Eastern (auto)-mobility ought to seek ways to counter and upend conventional diffusionist accounts of the spread of motorized transport outwards from the North Atlantic world to gradually encompass the globe. Rather than a model of liberal pluralism in which various regions contribute “their” (auto)-mobility stories to a global mosaic, or in which pioneering drivers—often royal, as in Alaa al Aswany’s recent novel on the automobile club of Egypt—tackle ‘new terrain’ in the Middle East at the wheel of a Ford or Rolls, we must look at the dynamic interplay of multiple (auto)-mobilities and vernacular modernities.

Private Cars on National Roads?

The first panel navigated between a trio of regional cases from Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, interrogating the connections—or lack thereof—between very different histories of (auto)-mobility, and thereby encouraging reflection on the uses of “Middle East” as an analytical category and pre-supposed descriptive term. All three papers, in different ways, posed the question of the relationship between the power and spatial imaginaries of colonial or national states as they engaged with and worked to legitimate (auto)-mobility, and the complex social appropriations of the car system from below. Pascal Ménoret gave the opening paper, titled “Learning from Riyadh: Joyriding, Infrastructure, and Politics.” Speaking precisely twenty-five years after forty-seven women drove down ‘Ulaya Avenue in Riyadh, prompting an ongoing ban on women driving, Ménoret emphasized the wealth of knowledge Saudi scholars have produced on this topic over several decades, partly in response to the regulatory and coercive measures governing Saudi mobility. He gave a history of utopian and neoliberal urban planning in the Middle East and South Asia after World War Two, with its pretention to create legible, vehicle-based Islamic cities of the future, and in which the main destinations were to be mall and mosque. He then described the dynamics of joyriding (tafheet) in Riyadh, with its predominantly young, unemployed men operating forms of “demonstrative escape” at the wheel of ordinary Hyundais. Extraordinary control of the vehicle and ordinary contestation of police authority are performed in nascent suburban carscapes—and mediated, he added, by internet videos made in genres including aestheticized instances of ‘crash porn’.

Working with a concept of “abuse value” Ménoret noted that for the joyriders he studied, speed did not correlate with power and that comparison to other joyriding “carscapes,” such as the streets of Belfast in Northern Ireland, was a promising avenue of further research. Importantly, against a liberal-diffusionist model of automobility featuring more or less early/late adopting countries or regions, Ménoret instead proposed a convincing spatial interrelationship: the interplay of empire, capitalism and expertise in an interconnected global “carscape,” a term with Appaduraian connotations. He also advanced a heuristic chronological distinction between colonial (auto)-mobility, in which cars could become an aspect of anti-colonial activism in the Middle East (during tram boycotts for instance), and imperial (auto)-mobility, in the era of the Cold War, when the region became an “Empire of Drivers.” 

In a second paper Frédéric Abécassis discussed “The Creation of the Moroccan Road Network: A History.” But, prefacing his remarks on Morocco, and recalling Ménoret’s comparative efforts, he explained the genesis of his research in a prior comparative project on traffic safety in Egypt and in France. Here he drew on his own observations as a cyclist in Cairo, during the growing state effort in the early 1990s to segregate urban transport and sponsor suburbanization. In this period highways spread, flanked by billboards that subsidized road construction and that showed glossy images of fantasy lifestyles in the new suburbs. Abécassis noted the way Cairo's roads refused to align with these plans; instead they became a sphere of intensifying social conflict and of the bricolage of access points and local modifications to rework spatial segregation. Importantly, he offered a heuristic distinction between three successive but also (at times) parallel modes of social domination on the roads: a traditional form based on inertia and social precedence in which (auto)-mobility was hedged in by the performance of class status (vehicles preceded by servants for instance); a charismatic mode in which the motorist acts as pasha, skilled pilot, and middle class effendiyya engineer; and finally a bureaucratic mode of domination based on surveillance, internalization of norms and moralizing governmentality. Abécassis observed that his research had frequently been obstructed by official concern, against the backdrop of rising levels of mortality on Egypt’s roads in the 1990s, that he was blackening the country’s international reputation. 

Pivoting to Morocco here, he argued persuasively against metaphors of organic circulation in the analysis of road traffic, preferring to focus on the contested legitimation of social hierarchy through a study of decisions to expand the Moroccan network across the twentieth century. Here again state plans met contestation and appropriation. Abécassis noted the pre-colonial distinction that existed between triq as-sultan roads, protected by the Makhzen, and local mule roads—triq al-hammara—on which a local escort—ztata—was a constitutive aspect of travel. Citing important work by Moroccan scholars including Mohamed Sijelmassi and Abdelahad Sebti, Abécassis noted the colonial effort to expand imperial control and foster settler agriculture through road building, in the quest to constitute a “useful Morocco.”[6] Indeed the road network launched by Lyautey fashioned a landscape newly available to the touristic gaze in the interwar period, and helped assert a paradigmatic colonial dualism of archaic, indigenous stillness and high speed European modernity. Trans-regional connections between the Atlantic port cities of Rabat and Casablanca and the imperial military bastion of Algeria proved equally important in determining French road-building decisions in the Protectorate. Indeed, increasingly in this period the only “passenger” taking the train in the Protectorate was phosphate rock, traveling to the ports from mines at Khouribga and elsewhere.

Crucially, aspects of these colonial strategies were continued by the national authorities after independence. As in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where royal families acted as cheerleaders for and advertisers of automobile use as part of national orders, in Morocco royal authority was lent to trans-Rif road-building in the period after 1956, as part of an effort to expand the road network so as to secure the national territory or even, as in the case of Western Sahara, expand it. By the 1990s and the time of IMF-led retrenchment, Abécassis noted, motorways with private concessions for toll-collection had made their appearance, creating parallel and relatively sealed highways, even as rural villages often failed to obtain tarmac local roads, finding themselves disconnected from the wider network.

In the final paper of the session David Sims turned back to Egypt with a paper on “The Private Car in Greater Cairo.” Sims documented the triumphant rise of the private car on the roads of Cairo, despite its obvious inefficiency and reservation for the wealthier classes inspired by Gulf and American lifestyles. Sims also noted the role of law in arbitrating formality and informality on Cairo roads and the “battle” between dedicated “car roads” and multi-use “general roads” in and around the metropolis. He further emphasized the relationship to law as crucially constitutive of everyday mobility practices and attendant hierarchies—woe betide the policeman who stops the son of a powerful government official for speeding. He also underlined the intimate knowledge required to navigate informal space, including parking spaces, which are an important commodity operated by the sayes parking guards: veritable entrepreneurs of (im)mobility. 

Drawing on his cross-disciplinary experience as urbanist, economist and consultant, Sims explained the successive general plans to alter Cairo’s layout and reduce density, and dwelt on the role of software-generated imagery in the subtending imaginaries of such plans. Explaining the political hegemony of car-based suburbanization, even as the Cairo metro network expands at snail’s pace, he noted the power of the car firms, banks, import agents (e.g. Ghabour Autos) and construction businesses that make up the compradorial car lobby, pointing out that the easily repossessed car made it a preferred loan vehicle for banks chary of mortgage lending but keen to capitalize on urban living.

Though integrated national vehicle production did take place in the nationalizing economic space of Nasser’s Egypt, at Al-Nasr automotive, contemporary production is instead organized around the massive arrival of cheap Chinese motorbikes and, in a return of 1920s practice, of Egyptian quasi-manufacturing (assembly) of pre-fabricated car kits by foreign brands, thus allowing for the avoidance of import duty. Sims also explored the class politics of driving for women in Cairo—in Sims’ shorthand “the hannem factor”—for whom the private car is both a performative stage and an instrument of class privilege, as well as a means of avoiding public transport that is considered disrespectable. He closed by noting that cycling in Cairo had become a polarized activity in class-terms, engaged in either by working class delivery boys or by middle class enthusiasts militating to reclaim road space. 

Responding to the panel, Shane Hamilton raised some key conceptual questions, asking whether Ménoret’s idea of “abuse value” was a type of de-fetishization and de-abstraction of the automobile, or simply an alternative form of use value. More generally he wondered to what extent an analysis of automobility as a means of depoliticization must still seek out and describe politics—for instance, in Egypt should the ability of the state to impose the preferences of the five percent of households that own private cars be seen as dysfunction or as a type of “effective” if highly unjust action? In addition, meditating on the trope of the “open road,” he made the first of several comparisons to emerge in the day between (auto)-mobility and its subjectivity in the US and in the Middle East, taking the two as commensurable and delimited geographical and analytical units with distinct if related histories. The politics of comparison, and the categories of analysis required to critique standard diffusionist accounts of the rise of (auto)-mobility were thereby placed on the table, and would recur in the second part of the workshop.

[This is Part 1 of a two-part article. To access Part 2, click here.] 

[1] Centre des Archives Diplomatiques (Nantes, France), Fonds Beyrouth, Premier Versement-Cabinet Politique, Dossiers de Principe 1920-1941, Carton 378, Sociétés Concessionaires, Sureté Report, No. 1387, 11 April 1931. Popular boycott song by Assad Hatta. See Simon Jackson, Mandatory Development: the Global Politics of Economic Development in the Colonial Middle East, manuscript in progress.
[2] Cotton Seiler, Republic of Drivers. A Cultural History of Automobility in America (Chicao: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 5-6.
[3] Ibid, 143.
[4] Atle Midttun and Nina Witoszek, eds., Energy and Transport in Green Transition: Perspectives on Ecomodernity (London: Routledge, 2015), 143.
[5] Nile Green, "Fordist Connections: The Automotive Integration of the United States and Persia", Comparative Studies in Society and History (forthcoming).
[6] Mohamed Sijelmassi, La C.T.M., Epopée des transports au Maroc (Casabanca: éditions Oum, 1999); Abdelahad Sebti, Bayn al ztât wa qâta‘ al tariq, amn al turuq fe Maghrab ma qabl al isti‘mâr (Casablanca, éditions Dar al Toubkal, 2009). 


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