[This is one of seven contributions in Jadaliyya`s electronic roundtable on the symbolic and material practices of knowledge production on the Arabian Peninsula. Moderated by Rosie Bsheer and John Warner, it features Toby Jones, Madawi Al-Rasheed, Adam Hanieh, Neha Vora, Nathalie Peutz, John Willis, and Ahmed Kanna.]
(1) Historically, what have the dominant analytical approaches to the study of the Arabian Peninsula been? How have the difficulties of carrying out research in the Arabian Peninsula shaped the ways in which knowledge is produced for the particular country/ies in which you have worked, and in the field more generally?
First, I would like to thank Jadaliyya for the opportunity to participate in this forum. Second, I am going to restrict my comments largely to the discipline of history, especially of the modern period, because approaches have varied widely by discipline. I think the modern history of the Arabian Peninsula, until recently, was empirically driven and written within a paradigm of "imperial history," both British and Ottoman. Much of that work was directed at the Persian Gulf and the elaboration of the form and function of British indirect rule in the region, with little regard to the developments in social and cultural history that were taking place in the history of Europe and elsewhere, let alone developments in the critical history of empire (the rise of the subaltern studies collective in the 1980s, for example).
Certainly, the archival sources played a limited role in establishing the somewhat narrow range of questions asked of the Arabian Peninsula`s modern history. The reliance on the records of the Indian Government, the British Foreign Office, and later the Başbakanlık archives ensured that the history written was largely that of the imperial state, both British and Ottoman. But in places such as Najd, Oman, and the Yemeni north in which there were vibrant indigenous historical traditions, greater attention has been paid to what one could call local "political" history (which often centered on the assumed antagonism between "tribe" and "state") and the history of religious thought, although much of this work still lacked a conceptual framework that might have made these local narratives speak to broader historical questions. During my work in Yemen, I certainly encountered the difficulty of locating sources—primarily because the central archive, the Markaz al-Watani li-al-Tawthiq, was not open to researchers (although the branches in the Hadramawt were).
One could argue that the tight control over the "archive," as the privileged site for the construction of the state`s past, is part and parcel of the post-unification state`s effort to silence historical narratives that might otherwise challenge a Sanaa-centered view of Yemeni unity. This certainly accounts in part for the looting of the southern archives in 1994, as well as the disappearance of the records related to the Mutawakkilite Kingdom (in the latter case, we have `Abd al-`Aziz al-Mas`udi`s description of the Mutwakkilite archive in his Georgetown University dissertation. He also happened to be one of the first soldiers to enter the palace archive after the coup in 1962, and, in his telling of the story, stuffed his shirt with random documents). But it is not only the narratives of the People`s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) or the Imamate that are potentially threatening: there are also the narratives of individual families with histories of state service. I have heard more than one case in which a family archive was purchased by the state, usually under some pressure, only to disappear into the Markaz al-Watani, which of course cannot be accessed by any researcher thereafter.
That being said, while the "archival politics" of the state may have prevented me from accessing the types of documentation that would have enabled me to write a certain kind of social history, I was still able to use various mosque libraries, archives in the United Kingdom, and some personal collections in Yemen—that is, the very same collections which many previous historians have used.
What I am trying to say is that although one`s source base may appear limited, it does not determine the types of critical questions one can and should ask of it. In fact, I think the issue of the historiography of the Arabian Peninsula is more basic than an absence of sources. It has to do with how scholars have thought about and written the history of the modern Middle East. The basic questions that have motivated our field have dealt with the formation of the modern state, the incorporation of the region into the world capitalist economy, the imposition of European rule through forms of direct and indirect imperialism, and the development of new forms of social and political subjectivities, often associated with forms of "secular reason" (or lack thereof). However, until recently, there was an unspoken assumption that the Arabian experience simply could not speak to the "universal" categories of state, economy, and ideology that were the primary focus of historians. The Arabian Peninsula`s history was exceptional, a history of absence, at least until the rise of the petroleum states and the revolutionary states in Yemen in the 1960s and 1970s. But even then, the Arabian Peninsula was exceptional in terms of oil wealth, and therefore subject to the analysis of the "rentier" state model, or exceptional in terms of the victory or near victory of radical leftist politics, as in the case of the PDRY and for a moment, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO) in Dhofar. So sources matter, for sure, but more important, at least in my opinion, are the questions we ask of the materials at our disposal.
(2) What are some of the new and innovative ways of thinking and theorizing the Arabian Peninsula and how has your work drawn on these approaches? How do these new theoretical interventions address elisions or tensions within more traditional approaches?
I agree with Ahmed Kanna’s estimation of the importance of the late Fred Halliday`s work. I think all of us engaged in the study of the Arabian Peninsula in one way or another are indebted to his extraordinarily brave intervention in the field. After reading Ahmed`s comment, I was just thinking that Arabia without Sultans was published in 1974, a year before the first issue of the Review of Middle East Studies (Ithaca Press), that would be central to formulating an early critique of Orientalism from the standpoint of Marxian analysis, a good five years before Said`s Orientalism. It really is such an impressive piece of work in terms of its breadth and the single-mindedness of its analysis (which I mean as a compliment). Even more so, it came out toward the end of period of relative optimism on the left with `Abd al-Fattah Ismail`s shift toward communist state building in South Yemen after the ouster of Qahtan al-Sha`bi in 1969 and the outbreak of Dhofar revolution in southern Oman in 1964 and its radicalization after the formation of the PDRY. That this trend was already on the defensive in the face of a conservative counter-revolution by the time the book was published is, I think, part of its tragedy. That being said, the relative uniqueness of Halliday`s work (or Fawwaz Traboulsi`s in Arabic) and the absence of comparable historical work in this area also says something about the concerns of historians working on the Arabian Peninsula. They have been much less interested in the peninsula`s revolutionary moment in the 1960s and 1970s than in religious thought, imperial history, or tribal politics (This is obviously not the case with the large number of historically minded anthropologists and political scientists who having written the more interesting historical work, certainly on Yemen). As a result, the radical leftist moment has been relegated to nostalgia or missed opportunity rather than as a moment of potentiality that was opposed by an array of forces set against it (sometimes from within as in the case of the violence of 1986 in the PDRY). It`s worth revisiting Heiny Srour`s 1974 documentary on the Dhofar revolution, Sa`at al-Tahrir Daqqat, to get a sense of the politics of hope that were prevalent in the early 1970s. If someone does not beat me to it, perhaps I might write a "people`s" history of the Arabian Peninsula sometime in the future (and I am really hoping someone beats me to it!) that would be centered on the types of radical political moments that came out of the labor movements, radical leftist politics, and revolutionary guerilla warfare, especially in southern Arabia. That being said, I am eagerly awaiting Abdel Razzak Tikriti`s forthcoming Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976 (OUP 2013), which I hope initiates renewed interest in this period.
What has been important for me, in terms of thinking about the Arabian Peninsula, has been to take its marginality to the field of modern Middle East history as a way to problematize the state and nation as universal subjects of history. The later work of the Subaltern Studies collective has been extremely important for this, especially that of Partha Chatterjee, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Ranajit Guha, and others. Once you remove the formation of the modern nation and the autonomous subject as the endpoint of a universal trajectory of historical progress, you can shift to what for me has been the more productive ground of questioning how particular apparatuses of governance and reform, comprising the discursive and non-discursive, come into being at particular moments and constitute such categories as religion, tribe, subject, and geographic space.
I think Nathalie Peutz, Toby Jones, and Ahmed Kanna have hit on one of my principal concerns, which has been thinking critically about the space of Arabia. Space as an analytic has also been particularly useful for me in light of the importance of the geographical imagination to a number of struggles in Yemen`s past and present. I have found critical geography (the work of Lefebvre, de Certeau, Harvey, Soja, Smith, etc.) extremely useful in thinking about how geography is produced as an object of knowledge/power and becomes productive of new forms of power. I think that if we reject space as an a priori category, we can think more critically about geography as a contested domain, as historically constituted. From the perspective of a critical geography, at what point do we begin to talk about the "Arabian Peninsula" as a coherent object of analysis, with particular social, political, and religious characteristics that set it apart from the rest of the Eastern Mediterranean, the "Middle East?"
In the period with which I am most familiar, I think it is far more useful to look at particular regions and their integration into scalar geographies of commerce, religious learning, human mobility, and empire. Scholars writing on the Hadramawt region have already suggested this (the work of anthropologists such as Engseng Ho and Michael Gilsenan and historians such as Ulrike Freitag, Natalie Mobini-Kesheh, and Anne Bang), although not all have explicitly theorized it. Other historians, such as James Onley (writing on empire) and Amal Ghazal (on movements of religious reform), have written Bahrain and Oman into broader imperial structures and movements of Islamic reform. For my part, I have tried to demonstrate the extent to which the Yemeni south, for example, was incorporated into the language and practices of imperial association that characterized British India after 1857 and the failure of colonial liberalism. The form of indirect rule that developed in the south in the late nineteenth century assumed that, as in the Indian princely states, Yemeni society was governed by a number of "ruling chiefs" who were targeted as the natural rulers of an otherwise tribal society and were considered part of a transregional native aristocracy under the suzerainty of the British Queen-Empress. Most illustrative of this ethnographic and political imagination was the participation of a number of Aden`s "native chiefs" in the imperial "durbars" in Delhi in 1902 and 1911 as members of greater India`s native ruling class.
But we could also consider how "Arabia" is constituted in the early twentieth century not only as the object and effect of imperial ambition and governance (or even an imperial bio-politics with reference to Hajj management), but also as the site of potential liberation in the thought of interwar salafi activists. They saw, for example, jazirat al-`arab and the holy cities as counter-sites in which the exclusionary politics of empire and nation were overturned. Mecca was at the center of `Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi`s imagined Islamic conference and future Arab caliphate in his earlier Umm al-Qura, and it became the site of various anticipatory projects after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the abolition of the caliphate. The Indian Khilafat activist, Abul Kalam Azad, to cite one example, described Mecca in his 1920 work on the caliphate as "a universal and shared home (mushtarik aur `alamgir ghar) for the whole human race where nations would be mended after disintegration and scattered peoples united after dispersion." He quite explicitly contrasted Mecca with the nation form, which he argued is characterized by forms of racial exclusion (nasli imtiazat). In his formulation, Mecca stood as a Foucauldian "heterotopia"—a counter site that is just as well-ordered, just as perfect as the rest of the world is disordered and chaotic. His obviously was not the only position, but I have found the interwar debates surrounding Mecca`s future—as a site of pilgrimage, political community, and space of devotion/ritual practice—extremely useful in thinking about how the Arabian Peninsula became a productive site for articulating critiques of empire and nation.
Both Toby Jones and Nathalie Peutz referred to Sheila Carapico`s earlier essay, "Arabia Incognita," which was first presented at a workshop organized by Madawi Al-Rasheed and Robert Vitalis in 2001 and laid out a potential agenda for the study of the Arabian Peninsula. I remember being the discussant for the paper and found the opportunity extremely useful to think about the virtue of delineating another "area" to study at a moment when the very concept of "Area Studies" was rightfully subjected to critique. At the time, it seemed to me that the only point of speaking in terms of "Arabian Studies" was to do so with subversive intent, to use the idea of Arabia as a means to undermine some of the conventions of Middle Eastern Studies in general, rather than map out another area in need of deep empirical investigation (which is the approach of the journal Arabian Studies and the Seminar for Arabian Studies). As a space often marginal to the broader debates of the field, yet central to a particular kind of historical, religious, and literary imagination, I`ve found this ambivalence to be a useful point of departure to question some of the basic categories of analysis that have been central to the writing of the region`s modern history.
What this meant for me, as a historian, was beginning with the assumption that it is impossible to talk about an "Arabian Peninsula" without discussing its place in a broad range of historical processes, to admit that "Arabia" came into being as historical subject in the modern period at the intersection of projects of imperial power, networks and genealogies of religious learning, activist politics, and literary imaginings. My book, Unmaking North and South, was a result of this earlier thinking in which I tried to use the supposed isolation of Yemen, especially under the late Zaydi Imamate, as a point of departure for an investigation of geography as a mode and effect of various forms of governmental power. This meant reconsidering a number of otherwise localized political formations in the context of post-1857 British Empire, the late Ottoman state, and movements of Islamic reform and anti-imperialism. In short, I argued that Yemen`s modern history cannot be extricated from histories of empire, both Ottoman and British, the languages and practices of government that accompanied them, and the discourses and practices of anti-imperialism that they engendered. I`ve mentioned my more recent work, which considers how the Arabian Peninsula and Mecca figure in inter-war projects of anti-imperialism and religious form (particularly in South Asia), but it is worth noting also that there were South Asian Muslim scholars/activists who explicitly rejected formulations of universal Islamic community centered on particular places. Muhammad Iqbal often used the phrase "Arabian imperialism" in reference to projects that sought the Islamic umma`s revival in a particular geographical space or a particular ethnic group. Drawing as heavily on Bergson`s thought as he did, it was the liberatory potential of durée, of time rather than space, that was important to him. For that reason, he was also an outspoken supporter of Atatürk`s abolition of the caliphate in 1924 when the Khilafat movement was actively campaigning for its restoration. This move on Iqbal`s part, I think, was extraordinarily important at that historical moment, which was dominated by the activities of the Khilafat movement in India and the convention of conferences in Cairo, Mecca, and Jerusalem, organized with the express intention of achieving some form of Islamic unity in belief and practice. It was his way of provincializing Arabia, of removing Arabia and the Arabs from the center of belief and practice.
(3) "Sectarianism" seems to have reemerged in popular and academic work on the Arabian Peninsula as both the label for and analytic of a socio-political phenomenon. What is the utility of both past and more recent formulations of "sectarianism" as an analytical tool for the study of the Arabian Peninsula? What challenges or problems have these formulations created?
I agree that reference to "sectarianism" in both academic and popular analysis of politics in the Arabian Peninsula has become much more prominent in recent years, especially in relation to movements of popular opposition in places such as Yemen and Bahrain. The utility of sectarianism as an analytic, however, is problematic, especially if it assumes an a priori existence—that is, claims truth value prior to its emergence in discourse and practice in particular historical moments (the old sect-as-primordial or sect-as-immutable-identity argument). To that end, we have still not seen an adequate historical investigation into exactly how particular sectarian identities emerge as the primary locus of religious or political identity in a specific historical context. I am not sure why scholars have not really looked, for example, to Ussama Makdisi`s work on Lebanon as a model of how to think about this issue historically or genealogically. I should add, to return to a point from my response to the previous question, that Makdisi drew productively on the pioneering work of the Subaltern Studies collective (such as Gyan Pandey`s work on communalism) in framing his investigation.
Thinking historically and genealogically about sectarianism, I believe, would allow us to approach the issue of "sect" in a more tentative and critical fashion, especially concerning its emergence as a form of truth. It is easy to forget, for example, that in the broader movement of salafi thought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially as it intersected with anti-imperialism, there was always an explicit rejection of sectarianism as a force of division (Rashid Rida used the term ta`assub madhhabi), which was often paired with forms of ethnic or racial identity (what Rida called ta`assub jinsi). Similarly, if one looks at the conflict between the Huthis in northern Yemen and the state, especially in terms of the anti-Huthi discourse of the state, one would never understand the often minimal differences between Zaydi and Sunni jurisprudence as it developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Bernard Haykel`s work is, of course, indispensible for its careful attention to the broader political and economic contexts of intellectual production). Indeed, the British in Aden in the early twentieth century were forced to admit that the language of sectarian difference (between Sunni and Shi`i) that they had brought from India did not make legible the types of social and political coalitions they encountered in the Yemeni south.
So, in my opinion, we have to ask how does "sectarianism" emerge as a form of truth politics as opposed to a mere juridical position? How is it mobilized as part of projects of governance or emancipation? And how does it come to intersect with or displace other forms of political association and action, especially those that offer class-based visions of economic and political liberation?
(4) What is the relationship between local scholarship produced in the Arabian Peninsula and the work done by academics in the United States, Western Europe, Russia, etc.? What kind of attention has been given to local and regional knowledge production, if any?
Speaking solely to my experience in Yemen here, I can locate several points of cooperation and engagement with local scholarship, though only in a limited fashion. While there is great cooperation in the study of Yemen`s "antiquity," primarily through the discipline of archaeology, and of the study of religious texts through informal links with religious scholars (not necessarily in the academy), I have seen less engagement in my own discipline of history. In part, this has to do with the very asymmetric position of Yemeni academics in the larger political economy of knowledge production/dissemination. Yemeni historians do not have the equivalent state or private institutional support for research and publication that western scholars enjoy (the financial support for visiting foreign archives, international conferences, etc.) and they certainly do not enjoy greater access to archival collections locally unless they are already in their possession.
Moreover, I think Yemeni historians, in my experience, are involved in a very different intellectual and political project. There is a great deal of history written as a form of national recuperation—recovery of a historical narrative as part of a project of national heritage or, sometimes, regional reclamation. Much of this is positioned within broader claims to Yemeni unity, either in support of or in opposition to, and tends to involve somewhat dated critiques of empire or the state of Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din. That is not meant to denigrate the discipline as it is practiced in Yemen, as much as it is meant to highlight the extent to which history is deeply embedded in a political context and this context determines the horizons of what can and cannot be narrated as "history."
What this means is that certain histories are silenced if they cannot be easily subsumed in the triumphalist vision of Yemeni unity. Histories of the late Imamate, the Aden Colony and Protectorate, and even the PDRY find no discursive space in the Yemeni academy, in my experience, if they suggest an outcome other than Yemeni unity. If this were only about the academic discipline it would not be as tragic, but the silencing of these histories informs a politics in which assertions of other political possibilities, whether informed by the social revolutionary vision of the south or the ethical/legal vision of the Zaydi juridical tradition, are deemed a threat to state sovereignty. The Southern Movement and the Huthis are an effect of the broader policy of marginalizing particular segments of the population, part of which is marginalizing their pasts.
I think Nathalie Peutz`s point about "para-experts" or those intellectuals working outside of the institutional academy is very well taken. In many ways, it has been the publications of amateur historians and archivists that have been most useful to my work. Tribal, family, or regional histories, often accompanied by reproductions of documents from personal archives or verses by local poets, have been most useful in deconstructing much academic history inevitably written as the history of the Yemeni nation (such as the work of Sayyid Mustafa Salim or Husayn `Abdullah al-`Amri). I should add that even work by members of the `ulama are often recast in implicitly nationalist frameworks; it is generally recognized, for example, that certain biographical dictionaries written by scholars of the qudha class have often excised prominent sayyid scholars as part of their general social and political marginalization after the 1962 revolution. One discovers very quickly, however, that to draw on any one "para-expert" is to enter a debate over history that is fraught with political significance. At times, individuals with collections of historical documents would refuse access due to the appearance of "cooperating with Americans," as I was once told. Other times, I found I was dangerously close to being marked as the foreign historian of the ancien régime, and was contacted by members of the former ruling family in Saudi Arabia. Navigating historical memory was always, by necessity, in integral part of conducting research and writing about Yemen.
(5) Some argue that the Arab uprisings changed the ways in which the Middle East can and will be studied. What has been the immediate impact of the Arab uprisings on scholarship on the Arabian Peninsula and what are likely to be the long-term effects?
I think one of the issues we will have to revisit is the meaning and practice of sovereignty. I do not think the Arab uprisings mark a rupture. Rather, they are an effect of the changing meaning of sovereignty practiced locally and on a global scale. When I look at Yemen, I think it was actually the global "war on terror" more than the uprisings that acted as a form of rupture. This is in part because we saw a clear declaration, on the part of the United States, of the end of absolute state sovereignty in the rest of the world (insofar as it ever existed) and the beginning of an international order in which sovereignties are established over various geographic scales, which themselves are temporally and spatially specific.
It was the US claim to the "sovereign exception" (in Giorgio Agamben`s reading of Carl Schmitt) globally that indicated the end to this order. But the US self-declared right to kill globally is not sufficient itself to understand the shift in the sovereign order. What we see in the Yemeni case is the formation of a varied order in which powers (the state, the army, Saudi Arabia, al-Qaeda—in addition to the United States) claim the right of exception over shifting geographies and populations that no longer correspond to the nation state. The ambiguity over what constitutes sovereignty over which area at which moment, the multiplication of powers which claim the "sovereign exception," generated, to a certain extent, its own mirror image: a broad opposition movement in which we saw the union of diverse social and political groupings with equally diverse interests and visions of social and political change. Like the sovereign power(s) these movements oppose, we see oppositional power coalesce and disperse at particular nodal points at particular moments, in national, diasporic, and virtual space. It is not my intention to romanticize the uprisings, but to note that they took place in a particular global political moment. It is important to note, as well, the resilience of the coalition of powers that have struck back against this opposition, especially in the Arabian Peninsula. The collusion of US and Gulf state interests is powerful and the means of repression they are able to mobilize in defense of the sovereign order is very real.
What this means for the future of scholarship on Arabian Peninsula states, especially in terms of their histories, is a good question. I think it will definitely push scholars to think more closely about how sovereign power operates, both in its productive and repressive capacities. The history of the Arabian Peninsula has long been resistant to modes of inquiry more quickly embraced in other disciplines (I still remember a scholar accusing me, in a footnote, of applying "fashionable paradigms" to the study of Yemen) and think it has been at the expense of the field in general. The uprisings as they have taken place in the peninsula make the critical appraisal of this area an urgent task, now more than ever.
Theorizing the Arabian Peninsula electronic roundtable contributions:
Thinking Globally About Arabia by Toby C. Jones.
Knowledge in the Time of Oil by Madawi Al-Rasheed.
Capital and Labor in Gulf States: Bringing the Region Back In by Adam Hanieh.
Unpacking Knowledge Production and Consumption by Neha Vora.
Perspectives from the Margins of Arabia by Nathalie Peutz.
Writing Histories of the Arabian Peninsula or How to Narrate the Past of a (Non)Place by John Willis.
Towards a Critical Cartography of the Political in the Arabian Peninsula by Ahmed Kanna.