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New Texts Out Now: Toufoul Abou-Hodeib, A Taste for Home: The Modern Middle Class in Ottoman Beirut

Toufoul Abou-Hodeib, A Taste for Home: The Modern Middle Class in Ottoman Beirut. Stanford University Press, 2017.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Toufoul Abou-Hodeib (TAH): The book started with the idea of using extant homes as a material archive, which grew out of my experience as an architecture student and a practicing architect in Beirut in the 1990s and early 2000s. The frantic post-war reconstruction of Beirut in the 1990s was accompanied by a pace of deconstruction that literally transformed whole neighborhoods overnight, not least in and around the city center, where many of the residential buildings from the late Ottoman period were located. Using homes as a material archive was an attempt to counter the disappearance of those buildings as well as to underline their value for the writing of history in the absence of organized archives. But as I started conducting research I discovered new kinds of material related to the home in various archives and realized that there was another story to be written around the Beiruti home, and not just about it—one that placed it in the context of global changes such as urban reform ideals, trade, and the emergence of a middle class in various places around the world. The focus, thus, shifted to writing a cultural history of the middle-class home from that perspective and to using a much more varied archive.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

TAH: A Taste for Home is a cultural history of the middle-class home in late Ottoman Beirut with emphasis on its material aspect. Like many port cities and like many members of the late Ottoman middle class living in those port cities, the two are often described both by contemporaries as well as by later historians as “Europeanized” or “Westernized.” But what does this actually mean? Often, this is shorthand for the consumption of commodities imported from Europe or the West and the adoption of European or Western lifestyles, ways of clothing, entertainment, education, etc. But at the same time, there was a very explicit attempt among members of the Ottoman middle-class, regardless of religion, to navigate these new forms of being in the world while at the same time to localize modernity in something more authentic, in this instance the home. The book looks at these attempts and at how the very idea of “westernization” (tafarnuj) was understood in this period in connection to imperialism, cultural authenticity, tradition, and domesticity. I use the work of Jürgen Habermas, Pierre Bourdieu, and postcolonial theory critically to see how the notion of “taste” becomes a carrier of these ideas from the most globalized level of production and consumption in to the most private spaces of the home.

This book is also an archival intervention with an elementary question always in the background: how would the history of a city that has been dominated by upper-class merchants, elites, and intellectuals change when the archive is diversified and supplemented by material sources on homes, urbanization, and consumption? I use archival sources from five different countries, including the archives of the Muslim Hanafi court and the Municipal Council of Beirut. At the same time, by placing the middle-class home at the intersection of local and global transformations, the book traces out tensions in the abstract ideas of middle-class authenticity as they were propagated at the time. Even as it functioned as a mark of distinction in contemporary debates on class, taste linked the Beiruti middle-class home to its urban, imperial, and global contexts. By tracing how popular commodities were debated, contested in court, and manufactured, I show how the most popular domestic items involved labor, raw material, and stylistic influences that cut across the local, regional, and global levels. This crisscrossing not only rendered the line between “ifranji” (Western) and “Oriental” difficult to trace in reality, but also complicated the intellectual project of a localized, middle-class modernity.

There are two topics that remain mostly implicit throughout the book. First, the choice of home as a topic is an attempt to bring women into the foreground of the history of the city. So although this book is not about women per se, many women naturally play central roles in this history of domesticity as educators, intellectuals, housewives, and consumers. Second, the book attempts to challenge the history of a city commonly understood in terms of sectarian divisions. This is not to say that such differences did not matter when it came to how people lived at home, but rather that sectarian differences couldn’t be taken as a starting points of analysis. Instead, I bring in a panoply of inhabitants of the city—Muslims, Christians, and Jews—indicating differences where they arise, on the one hand, and looking at shared anxieties, spaces, and consumption habits, on the other.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

TAH: On the most general level, this book belongs to a growing body of work on processes of globalization and their influence on modernity in various locations across the globe. The mode of writing in the book goes back and forth between a very specific place—Beirut—and more encompassing processes that influenced and shaped places as diverse as Brazil, Japan, Zimbabwe, and Sweden. I look at these processes generally, but also at how they transformed and manifested themselves in late Ottoman Beirut. For the same reasons, A Taste for Home would also be of interest to scholars and students of material culture, cultural history, and urban history. Taking industrialization as an example, whereas previous research has stressed Beirut as a city that consumed imported (read: European) commodities, I look at how industrialization in specific European countries affected both local tastes and local labor in Beirut, and how local labor adapted and survived even as it was undercut by cheaper imports.

Second, this books addresses topics central to historians of the late Ottoman period and of the Arab world. Particularly the middle class has received a lot of attention this past decade regarding the way it perceived itself, presented itself, and attempted to find a place for itself in the modern world. By bringing in material culture against the intellectualized self-image of the middle class, the book questions the extent to which the self-perception of the middle can be taken at face value and what tensions existed in this self-image. Positing an Oriental or Arab identity in contradistinction to “Western” is in some ways a legacy of the intellectual project referred to as the nahda, and it is a history that remains relevant today. Finally, I hope anyone who is interested in the history of a city that never seizes to challenge preconceptions would find the book accessible and informative.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

TAH: I am currently completing a small project that looks at amateur history writing in South Lebanon in the 1950s and how it relates to an imagined past of Christian tribes emigrating from Yemen and the more recent past of emigration to the Americas. In addition, I am developing two interrelated projects. The first looks at leftist solidarity movements with Palestine from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. It places Palestinian nationalism in a global context and tries to understand it in relation to Third-Worldism, anti-imperialist movements, and the global circulation of political aesthetics. The second related project is longer term and focuses on the idea of folklore. It continues my previous work on material culture as a method for diversifying the archive and providing a new angle on cultural history. Looking at folklore in the Middle East during the first half of the twentieth century and the international networks of scholars and publications around it, the project aims at tracing the formation of folklore as an academic field as well as its popularization through material cultural production and practices. 

Excerpt from the Introduction, “Beirut, City of the Levant”:

We are in Beirut in 1910, a bustling port city on the Eastern Mediterranean coast. ‘Aysha al-‘Aris, a resident of the Bab Idris neighborhood, walks out of her home on a clear spring day in April. Fifteen years ago, ‘Aysha had risked losing the home that sheltered her, her husband, and children, after the municipal council demolished parts of their house and then demanded an urban improvement tax she could not afford. After ‘Aysha had made numerous petitions to the Sublime Porte and endured long years of conflict with the local and provincial authorities, the municipal council had finally decided earlier that month to reduce the tax she owed by half.

Not far away that same spring, in the government building housing the Muslim Hanafi court, pregnant Hasiba brings a case against her husband, Yusuf, a tramway company employee, for not having paid the remainder of her dowry. When Yusuf puts forward his prized possessions, a phonograph and sixteen records, as leverage in the bargaining process, the private life of the young couple is suddenly pried open to the disapproving scrutiny of the court. The case comes to an abrupt halt, with the judge rebuking Yusuf over the worthlessness of the phonograph and ruling in Hasiba’s favor.

On June 3rd of that same year, Julia Tu‘ma is delivering a speech before the Greek Orthodox Benevolent Society in Tripoli while on a visit from Beirut, where the twenty-eight-year-old Protestant educator will soon take up the position of academic administrator of the Maqasid Islamic School for girls. Referring to the home as al-sama’ al-ula, the first heaven to be attained before actual heaven, Tu‘ma describes the home as a kingdom and woman as its queen with a responsibility for the happiness and welfare of the family. Many in her audience were versed in at least two languages, and Tu‘ma addresses her speech to the “Oriental woman,” using the English word home to give her topic a more precise meaning.

At the center of these three vignettes of daily life in Beirut stands the middle-class home. Beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, the relatively new Beirut municipal council initiated urban improvements and projects based on a legal corpus that was the product of late Ottoman reforms. Aysha’s home, like many other homes in the city, was caught up in the feverish rush to reshape Beirut as a modern city, with wide avenues and a well-ordered urban fabric. From within, domestic life reorganized itself around new commodities streaming into the city, with its growing prominence as an Eastern Mediterranean port city and first point of contact for many of the ships coming from Europe. At a time when consumption was politicized in terms of the changing economic and political balance between the Ottoman Empire and the European powers, these commodities often elicited reactions such as that of the judge in Hasiba and Yusuf’s court case. At that same historical juncture, a group of educators and writers based primarily in Beirut spread novel ideas about the home in cities and towns across the region, using the lecterns of societies and the pages of the press as their fora. For the first time, “home” was being discussed as a building block in society and the educated woman was being seen as responsible for that home’s management and for the upbringing of future citizens.

An emerging middle class was implicated in these processes through its material and moral investment in the home, as a consumer of domestic fashions, and as a target for a body of literature aimed at shaping a specifically middle-class domesticity. Focusing on the period stretching from the second half of the nineteenth century until World War I, this book argues that middle-class domesticity took form in a matrix of changing urbanity, the politicization of domesticity in public debates, and changing consumption patterns. My aim is to write a cultural history of domesticity that is at once global in the widest sense of the term and local enough to enter the most private of spaces. 

Domesticity in Turn-of-the-Century Beirut

The second half of the nineteenth century was characterized by a set of relations between Beirut, on the one hand, and its regional surroundings, the imperial center, and the world beyond the Ottoman Empire, on the other, that had particular effects on domesticity. Ottoman reforms during the latter half of the century redefined the meaning of “public” and instituted a new dynamic between domestic space and its urban setting. Beirut’s growing importance as an economic and intellectual hub and port city also entailed rapid changes on the level of daily decisions taken by people in their private lives.

Old and new classes who had access to the city’s newly acquired wealth and to the new array of commodities brought forward by the industrial revolution in European countries, witnessed a change of lifestyles in their public and private lives alike. One of the most visible manifestations of this shift was the sight of horse-drawn carriages on Fridays and Sundays, the city’s weekly days off, carrying the city inhabitants to parks located on the outskirts; these parks were referred to as muntazahat, from nuzha (promenade or outing). If the word promenade evokes thoughts of the flâneur, this is for good reason. While such retreats outside the city were not an entirely new phenomenon, they fused into modes of leisure that linked to new modes of transportation and new patterns of consumption. Weekend outings to some of those parks were also sexually mixed and developed a reputation for providing the opportunity to exhibit the latest fashions for men and women alike.


Given the impact of new modes of consumption and lifestyles, the changes characterizing turn-of-the-century Beirut have a strong material dimension to them, and changing tastes constituted an important link between the public sphere and the lives the middle class led at home. For that reason, the home stood at the intersection of debates considered central at the time on the topics of public benefit, eastern modernity, and ifranji (Western or, more specifically, European) cultural influence. Here, the home was not just a sphere where ideas about modernity were negotiated, tested, and contested, it also took an active part in giving form to these ideas, in general, and to the middle class, in particular.

This took place against an Ottoman modernity that stamped the face of the public sphere, making the home a contested space in terms of both the aesthetics of urban modernity and the commodities within the home. In addition, contemporary debates foregrounded the role of taste in articulating the shape and position of the middle class. What I mean by domesticity is, therefore, a constellation of ideas and lifestyles in which the home played a crucial part both as a concept and as an actual material object. Such an approach takes the home beyond intellectual discourses and state reforms, bringing in the question of capital and how it transformed both the way domesticity was thought of and the way it was lived.

Although women do not constitute the explicit focus of this work, the home as a topic of study brings them into the mainstream of history both as objects and as subjects. The central role assigned to women, and articulated by female participants in the discourse of domesticity, integrated women into a modern vision of society where, through their domestic work, they complemented and challenged the transformations in the public sphere. As middle-class women, they were implicated in inculcating children, the future citizens, with ideals of behavior, moderate consumption, and proper taste—all meant to better define the middle class and reinforce its political and economic relevance in society. The topic of home also brings women forth into history as educators, mothers, housewives, consumers, and property owners. Thus, they appear at various junctures in this book as vocal advocates of a new role for the modern woman, active contestants in urban municipal projects, and litigants in court cases involving domestic possessions.

Starting in the 1870s with the burgeoning of the Beirut press, a debate centered in Beirut but drawing in other cities in the region, such as Tripoli, Hama, and Damascus, placed the woman at the center of domestic life as manager, mother, and wife. The result was a vigorous debate on modern woman’s position in society through her role at home. Several scholars refer to this body of literature as making a “cult of domesticity”—that is, consisting of a repetitive, mantra-like set of prescriptions put forward in the press and aimed primarily at women. But following the critique of both Afsaneh Najmabadi and Lisa Pollard on the use of the word cult, I see the publication of this literature as a process that carved out a larger place for women in public life, not just at home, and as a debate that tied the home to more encompassing discussions of the time. As Pollard argues, debates on the domicile and the family “formed a basic framework through which abstract concepts such as nation and, along with it, loyalty and citizenship were imagined, articulated, and debated,” and through which both men and women learned how to be modern citizens.

Modern domesticity constituted part of wider shifts in thinking not only about politics but also about society as a whole and the position the middle class occupied in it. Fresh ways of conceiving of domesticity centered on several main concerns circulating in intellectual circles and in the press at the time: the necessity of educating women; the importance of the family, as the smallest unit of society, to the welfare of the whole; the upbringing of modern citizens; and the cultivation of an ethics of consumption. For the men and women writing and lecturing on the topic, the home was posited as key to bringing together these disparate notions about society. The home became implicated not only in reconceptualizing woman’s role in society but also in the very understanding of this society.

[Excerpted from A Taste for Home: The Modern Middle Class in Ottoman Beirut, with permission of the author, (c) 2017.]

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