A workshop was held at the Centre for Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Birmingham (UK) on Friday 6 November 2015, on the theme "(Auto)-Mobility in the Global Middle East." The workshop surveyed the state of this emerging field of study and sketched future directions, in anticipation of a major conference, gathering original research, to be held in June 2016 in Birmingham. The Call for Papers for the June conference can be found here.
What follows develops the first part of the report, which dealt with the framing of the workshop and the main elements of its first panel, bringing into play three regional cases and the interconnections between imperial and state projects of (auto)-mobility on one hand, and the varied appropriations and contestations of those projects from below, on the other hand.
The second part of the workshop moved away from the framework of the region as unit of analysis to consider the case of a specific city, Beirut, delving into the rich variety of mobilities—from the work of Syrian refugees as delivery drivers to the articulation of political memory in the context of the commute—available through fine-grained urban history and anthropology. Through a close study of a single city and its siting in wider geographies, reflection was also fostered on the ways in which historical, sociological, geographical and anthropological approaches to (auto)-mobility may most effectively learn from one another, or combine in a specific research project.
From this tighter focus on one city, the final session then zoomed out, to benefit from the illumination of a comparative case and to interrogate the potential of global frameworks through a meditation on the evolution of the historiography on (auto)-mobility in recent years, and the disciplinary confrontations that have nourished its progress. In closing, a roundtable discussion then imagined a set of future possibilities for the field.
Beirut Short-Cuts: Knowledge, Space and Time
The scale employed to organize the second panel was that of a specific city—Beirut—and its unevenly-gradated suburban, peri-urban, and rural adjacent spaces, which have been the object of significant research in recent decades. First, Kristin V. Monroe offered a paper, "Driving Then and Now: The History and Anthropology of Automobility in Beirut" meditating on her methodological tacking between anthropological and historical approaches to automobility in Beirut in the contemporary period, the 1930s, and finally the 1950s and 1960s. Analyzing the intersections of social class, sectarian geography and political disaffection in contemporary Beirut, she discussed the varied forms of social mobility and knowledge that could be accumulated in the city through practices of (auto)-mobility, for instance by Syrian refugees delivering fast food on scooters. She also noted the way her informants routinely harked back to the pre-civil war era in Beirut as a time of purportedly disciplined traffic and a stronger state, in ways that recall the Algerian nostalgia for the Boumediene era, and the terbiya (politeness and good manners) that purportedly characterized it.
Monroe had listened to her informants carefully, and followed their insistence on this orderly past back into archival research on the Chehabist (1958-64) and Mandate (c. 1918-1946) periods. She assessed the ways in which automobility became a means of demonstrating colonial state power in the Mandate period, despite the vulnerabilities Daniel Neep described in the ponderous columns of semi-motorized counter-insurgency forces. Monroe also discussed the ostentatious display of elite mobilities in both periods, as exemplified by the highly gendered exercise of a drive to the ancestral village, a practice that she argued "metropolitanized" the Lebanese countryside.
Monroe’s insistence on the need to respond historically to present-day informants—and, inversely, with an anthropological ear, to the murmurs in the archives– provided a model for tacking between disciplines in the approach to (auto)-mobility. And, as in David Sims’ attention to the virtual reality technologies of urban imagination in endlessly re-planned Cairo, she identified the intertwining of surveillance, information and data technologies with the built fabric of the city as a potentially useful site of further research. She also noted how contemporary eco-tourism, as a middle class practice that re-connected city and rural areas in terms of national environmental identity, could provide fertile ground for work connecting territoriality with the problematics of class formation and critical ecology.
In a complementary paper, "On driving—and not driving—in contemporary Lebanon: mobility, stasis and the decay of the commons," Andrew Arsan gave a thickly-described picture of the variegated practices and politics of (auto)-mobility in and around Beirut. He touched on numerous aspects of the situation, from the chameleon tactics of confessional display and cloaking deployed by taxi drivers, to the porous frontiers of vehicles in traffic, to the intermeshing of racialized class hierarchy, branded material culture and confessional signposting that police practical and discursive norms of (auto)-mobility. The macho of the boy-racer, the acumen of the taxi driver, the symbolic complexity of parking in the era of Solidere and car-bombing, and the symbolic re-appropriations of Mandate-era nursery rhymes in the slang of contemporary Lebanese rap by Ashekman (i.e. échappement/exhaust pipe): all were woven into Arsan’s tapestry.
He also noted the fierce engagement with issues of mobility on the part of Beiruti architects, critical urbanists and art collectives like Dictaphone, in a city where today to walk is (except perhaps during armed attack) often to mark oneself out as foreigner or migrant labourer. But he also flagged widespread nostalgia for urban pasts of greater inter-confessional solidarity and civic decency—as in the case of van number four recently analyzed on Jadaliyya by Amer Mohtar and Petra Samaha. Throughout the paper Arsan emphasized the way in which the trajectory and travails of Lebanese state and society become manifest in the everydayness of (auto)-mobility, and noted the unevenness of the geographies in play. Intimate knowledge of city-center backstreets is accumulated just adjacent to the most intensively surveilled bailiwicks of state power, just as in rush hour traffic ancient Mercedes taxis may nudge and block oligarchic SUVs.
Sara Fregonese’s comments on the panel, delivered from the disciplinary standpoint of critical geography, emphasized the artifactual geography of the Beirut streetscape and the utility of inquiry focused on the atmospheres and affects created around certain rituals, from the commute to the joy-ride. Methodologically, she insisted on the mobile artefact (the driver and his scooter as a type of centaur, perhaps) as an integral part of the wider urban assemblage, and not an object circulating external to that assemblage. Fregonese insisted too, in a vein reminiscent of the insights of Alltagsgeschichte, on the intermeshing of geopolitics and the everyday materiality of social life. Approaches to the latter, she argued, need not plead their methodological case in opposition to the former, but in terms of their ability to encompass the play of geopolitical power and legitimation. The diplomat and her chauffeur inhabit the same world, in this sense.
Cooking with Gas? Global Comparisons and Disciplinary Conflicts
The final panel changed scale again, moving to comparative and global perspectives. Simon Gunn began with a paper titled "The Car and the City: New Approaches to the History of Automobility in Britain and the West." Gunn recovered the car-system utopias and dystopias of Britain and France in the 1960s, noting just how much of these visions never came to pass, even as the number of cars on the roads increased radically. Gunn also noted the varied ways in which these changes hit home, and the absence of a sustained, global historiography on the issue, beyond narrow corporate and technical histories (though in the case of Ford or Volkswagen, work such as Stefan Link’s and Bernhard Rieger’s is changing this).
Gunn argued that the car must be consistently set into its infrastructural and wider experiential and subjective contexts, not least the centrality of car-making to the Fordist and Keynesian political-economy of the post-1945 North Atlantic. Gunn also made a methodological case for urban history’s enduring ability to attend to the specificities and unevenness of the car system’s evolution, implicitly posing the question of what mobility history can do that urban history cannot. One example of the latter’s fruitfulness is Kenneth Jackson’s insight that US suburbanization substantially pre-dated the automobile, even as the latter reinforced it.
The final paper, by Gijs Mom, "How to Approach Middle Eastern Mobility? Prolegomena for a Recipe," gave a panoramic overview of the key historiographical and inter-disciplinary debates that have shaped the evolution of mobility history as a field. Mom drew on a disciplinary combination of comparative literature, engineering and cultural history to provide a wide-ranging and provocative take on mobility history, a field that he argued had no accepted state of the art as recently as a decade ago. Skewering modernization theory conceits that pretend the automobile "fulfilled" a pre-existing need or diffused out from Detroit to conquer the world, Mom drew on Proust, Marinetti and even Dutch ‘cycling marriages’ to sketch the troubled gender and sexual politics of interwar motoring, and to brilliantly illuminate the structural homologies between driving and reading/writing experiences.
Methodologically, Mom emphasized the importance of trans-national, trans-modal and trans-disciplinary approaches, and identified mass phenomena all too seldom drawn into the ambit of enduringly Eurocentric renditions of the "rise of the automobile." These included the role of the bicycle, the distinct activity of "passengering," the Edgertonian persistence of older technologies and animals alongside the car, and the importance of race and settler colonialism. Mom also emphasized the importance of traffic engineering as a discipline in producing varied forms of structural and circumstantial risk, as Keith Laybourn and David Taylor have noted in their work on the deaths of child pedestrians.
The closing debate was framed by Frank Uekotter’s salutary reminder, from the stand-point of environmental history, of the inescapable importance of oil and energy to any meaningful account of (auto)-mobility in the Middle East: the overwhelming presence of oil in the existing literature cannot imply its exclusion from the development of new approaches, as new work by Sarah Yizraeli and Rosie Bsheer shows. With this in mind the workshop participants staked out some principal areas for further inquiry, looking ahead to June’s conference.
Conclusion: Roads Ahead
We concluded that still-influential master narratives of a "horse-to-horsepower," and "toy-to-tool" expansion of (auto)-mobility, based on a geography of Western genesis and rise and then a subsequent global diffusion, have been intellectually superseded. They have been replaced by an emphasis on what Pascal Ménoret summed up as the interplay of empire, capitalism and expertise in an interconnected global carscape. But the former narratives, for instance modernization theory’s characteristic dualism of static indigenous archaism and mobile colonial modernity, cannot be set aside altogether: they still need investigating, whether in terms of their social, intellectual and political histories, or in terms of the racialized, gendered and class-based forms of violence they promote.
As Samuel Dolbee argued in debate, sustained reflexivity about the status of the "Middle East" as a description or category of analysis is required as this field evolves. What really binds Riyadh and Beirut as sites of (auto)-mobility, for instance, or Tangier and Cairo? Ought we not think instead about apt trans-regional connections: the influence of Gulf driving culture on Egypt, or neo-liberal urban planning’s legacies between Islamabad and Riyadh, or the realm the South Korean chaebol Hyundai has carved out across the regional carscape?
Relatedly, the focus on cities, and especially capital cities, in existing histories that touch on (auto)-mobility, though understandable in terms of the concentration of infrastructure, population and passenger-distance covered, needs careful siting within wider, closely specified geographies. These geographies should include not just the suburban and peri-urban and ‘rural’ or ‘hinterland’ spaces of the kind Aaron Jakes has traced along the roads of colonial Egypt, but should also accommodate provincial towns, inter-village connections, the importance of borderlands such as the Iraq-Syria frontier and so on. Long distance transport and its spatial imaginaries, such as the Beirut-Baghdad service of the Nairn Company in the 1920s, on which Kevin Martin is working, is one way to engage such topics.
Equally, analysis that connects anthropologically alert studies of (auto)-mobility with histories of migratory mobility is a promising way to conjoin two generally sundered fields. Taxi driving as a strategy of capital accumulation, one intended to propel a second generation’s social mobility through migration, is a good example—the reverse of this "double movement" might, as in Kristin V. Monroe’s work on Syrian delivery drivers in Beirut, be instantiated by taxi driving as a recourse of refugees de-classed by forced mobility.
But the recurrence of taxis in the agenda of researchers who perhaps sit in many of them is also problematic. Automobiles and other vehicles, from donkeys to Humvees, and from shared taxi to (motor)-bicycle, should be investigated together, as they shared and fought for road space, points of access, and even parking space in which not to move. These varied vehicles should be seen as both a political medium and as a type of everyday practice, both a means of routine formation and of norm policing within a wider car system. As Samuel Dolbee noted, the relegation of animals was never complete in the "Age of Speed," and indeed, as Lee Vinsel has shown, their brutal use in the development of impact biomechanics, and other disciplines fundamental to the developing metrics and risk hierarchies of (auto)-mobility, was crucial.
Studies of such everyday practices should strive to attend to the play of power and the construction of positionality and subjectivity, for instance through the exchange of glances Erving Goffman long ago identified in traffic, but should also recognize the importance of specific political-economies of labor, particularly for groups such as taxi drivers, hauliers, mechanics, retrofitters, and delivery workers, not to mention the gas station attendants Elisabetta Bini has led the way in studying between the US, Italy and the Third World.
Finally, as noted above, the history of energy and hydrocarbons cannot be set aside as accounted for thanks to recent work by Timothy Mitchell and others, but needs to be brought into more systematic dialogue with studies of (auto)-mobility, as do environmental history and critical ecology. Various topics, from the politics of pollution and eco-tourism to traffic engineering’s disciplinary attitude to energy issues, would benefit from such dialogue.
We will return to many of these issues in June 2016 at a larger conference gathering original research. Please find the CFP here and we encourage interested researchers to propose a paper.
[This is a two-part essay. To access Part 1, click here.]
 See Aaron Jakes, "The Scales of Public Utility: Agricultural Roads and State Space in the Era of the British Occupation," in Marilyn Booth and Anthony Gorman, eds., The Long 1890s in Egypt (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2014), 57-86.