Sean Yom (editor and contributor), The Societies of the Middle East and North Africa: Structures, Vulnerabilities, and Forces, 1st edition (London: Routledge, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit/write this book?
Sean Yom (SY): I wanted to create a new primer about the MENA for general readership and classroom use, but with a different tack from other textbooks. Many introductory volumes explore the Middle East through the lenses of politics and geopolitics, the machinations of elites and regimes, and basically how the region “looks” from the towering heights of the state. I wanted a volume that did the opposite, one that took societies and populations seriously. Authoritarianism, monarchies, democracy, elections, repression, foreign policy—these are all worthy topics I appreciate as a political scientist. Indeed, these topics animate my primary scholarly agenda. However, we also need legible texts that fluently converse in, say, the food shortages caused by rapid urbanization, the microdynamics of gender within the public sphere, or environmental conflict over climate change. These also matter; these also shape lives. These are as authentically “Middle Eastern” as political subjects.
Equally important, I wanted to establish a regional textbook that reflected the globalized state of knowledge about the Middle East. So, the contributors I sought, and who graciously agreed to write chapters, were incredibly diverse in terms of gender, race, and above all national settings. I am extremely sensitive to issues of positionality, not least due to my own experience as a liminal voice. For instance, the ten topical chapters in the first edition have authors from the United States, Canada, and Europe, as well as Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and India. The sheer list of contributors is impressive; besides myself, it includes Rachel Bahn, Tariq Tell, Rami Zuyrak, Vincent Durac, PR Kumaraswamy, Bessma Momani, Morgan MacInnes, Hae Won Jeong, Mohamed Behnassi, Ramazan Kılınç, and Lindsay Benstead.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SY: In the first edition (2019), the volume features chapters on rural and urban life, social mobilization, personal and group identity, development and inequality, rentierism in its cultural aspects, environmental change and conflict, religion and faith, women and gender, and finally the youth generation. It is a cornucopia of ideas. Because the book aims at the non-specialist, it is written accessibly. Data are punctuated with graphical illustrations, mini case studies abound, discussion questions end every chapter, and the annotated bibliographies for each chapter are long and impressive—they could be stand-alone syllabi for courses on those topics. There is also a companion website, which I know some instructors have begun to use, which has ready-made tools like quizzes and more references for classroom use. However, the focal point is the text itself.
In the second edition (2021), which Routledge has just commissioned based upon the success of the first edition, I am adding two new contributed chapters—one on refugees and migration by Rawan Arar, and the other on public opinion and attitudes by Bethany Shockley. I want to cover as many possible social dynamics as possible. Future editions might branch into language and look at issues of, say, literacy and diglossia, as well as communalism, such as the discourse and milieu of minorities. I would love to also explore literature and arts, but with extreme sensitivity to their conveyance across boundaries of class and status.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SY: Working on this volume, as well as its sister Routledge text, Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa (now in its ninth edition), is an enjoyable sidestep from the usual idiosyncrasies of social scientific research. I edited and contributed to these volumes after publishing my first monograph, From Resilience to Revolution: How Foreign Interventions Destabilize the Middle East (Columbia University Press, 2016), and now that they are on solid footing, I can look forward to finishing the next scholarly projects.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SY: I hope this book will be read by any student or lay reader who would like an introduction to the MENA that is not solely inflected about high politics. There is so much social and cultural depth lost if we only focus upon regimes, states, and elites. Of course, politics remains an important dimension—how we can make sense of the Palestinian tragedy or farcical foreign interventionism without it? But it cannot be the only one. We recognize this as scholars and researchers from across all disciplines; I doubt many readers of Jadaliyya would disagree. But, again, I am more concerned about those who do not already have privileged knowledge about the MENA, and are about to be acculturated to it through the umpteenth discussion of why this-or-that country does not have a democratic regime. In another way, I wanted to connect to the globalized and impressive state of Middle East knowledge. There are thousands of universities, colleges, technical schools, certificate programs, and other educational institutions worldwide that teach some type of class on the Middle East for introductory audiences. Only a modest fraction of the scholars who teach those classes ever come to MESA, for instance; so, when we claim things like “The state of Middle East studies is progressing in this-or-that way,” how true is that? I think there is a lot of teaching, debating, shaping, recapitulating, and imagining about theory and knowledge that happens inside classrooms and spaces that we do not see. I want to engage those spaces, and still think that we need to do more.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SY: I am writing a new book on Jordan that is due rather soon, and is meant to encapsulate much of my accumulated experiences and knowledge about the country over the past two decades. In the diminutive field of Jordanian studies, I am blessed to have been flanked by some wiser intellectual voices over the years, who like me have watched the number of new graduate students and scholars studying this country grow immensely. The field is now large enough to have distinctive streams and camps, which all cross-fertilize one another in critical ways. But we are all, I think, tired of hearing the same national tropes get repeated in the media—the ones that portray the kingdom as a geopolitical oasis of moderation, for instance, or which see the Jordanian state apparatus as nothing more than the unitary extension of Hashemite will, or which describe every protest as the edge of another revolution. The book is partly intended to dispel those myths and deliver a final take on Jordanian affairs, and free myself to study mutually intelligible but equally distinctive events in Morocco and Kuwait when it comes to doing bite-sized research that end up as journal articles.
Beyond that, I am piloting a new cross-regional project about transnational repression and authoritarian collaboration, of which the MENA represents a canonical case. But it is only one case. For instance, what we are seeing the Gulf Cooperation Council do now in terms of transmogrifying its peninsular space into a cradle of coercion is something we have witnessed before in other regions, and still do elsewhere—think Central Asia now, Operation Condor in Latin America in the 1970s, the Safari Club in Africa during the 1980s, and so forth. The grotesqueness of craving untrammeled power has no geographic boundaries, nor is the willingness of the powerful to move across borders, exploit global institutions, and sow fear among the weak. This reflects my increasing discomfit with how we see regimes and states as the primary units of analysis, and a proclivity towards looking at individuals and spaces, linked by ideas and strategies, as the productive forces behind political outcomes, including violence.
Excerpt from the book
From Chapter 1: Bringing Society Back In
In September 2015, hundreds of Lebanese youths converged upon the Ministry of the Environment. Dozens occupied the offices inside, while the rest congregated outside demanding the resignation of its officials. The flashpoint culminated months of protests and remonstrations among those living in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, due to massive pile-up of garbage and waste – the result of inadequate disposal facilities, overpaid collection contracts, and the lack of any regulatory framework. Led by the #YouStink campaign, and bolstered by other networks of activists, lawyers, and environmentalists, the new movement soon directed its energies upon the slew of new controversies that arose in reaction to the rubbish overflow, among them proposed incinerators trading ground rubbish for air pollution, moribund recycling projects, and endemic corruption. Yet for outsiders, such an upswell of social mobilization seemed strangely out of place. In a country grappling with a million Syrian refugees, the painful legacy of civil war, and political paralysis between Hizbullah and other sectarian forces, why the concern over beach litter and landfills?
In September 2018, Qatar became the first Arabian Gulf kingdom to allow foreign workers to become permanent residents. Part of a wider reform package giving greater rights to the country’s over two million expatriates, the move highlighted the social implications of the incredible demographic imbalance among the hydrocarbon-rich Arabian kingdoms. In all but Saudi Arabia, citizens had become a statistical minority, with migrant labor from across the world (but particularly Asia) performing most tasks in the economy. This relationship had grown taut; worsening human rights violations and employment abuses befell many foreign workers, with more than 1,200 perishing in Qatar while building the football stadiums required for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In a place where the GDP per capita among citizens peaked at nearly $150,000 in 2011, it was controversial to suggest that migrants from poorer countries could integrate into a nation where every aspect of indigenous life – education, health care, employment, even diets – had been transformed by oil and gas wealth. What would such a patchwork society, where Qataris comprised just one in ten people, look like in a generation?
In November 2017, Turkish women’s rights movements captured public attention by critiquing a new marriage law, which would allow Muslim clerics to conduct civil marital ceremonies. Some argued this would open the door for child marriages, polygamy, and other ills justified through outdated religious interpretations, while defenders noted that Turkey was joining other countries allowing religious communities to oversee marriages – including Israel, where legal marriages can only be performed by religious authorities and interfaith weddings are prohibited. The marital issue highlighted how women’s bodies and gender equality had become a battleground. Ferocious debates centered upon whether the Muslim veil liberated or oppressed, the rising level of violence against women, and stubborn economic discrimination. Contestation spilled out over sexuality, as well. LGBT orientation was never a crime, but in June 2018, authorities in Istanbul canceled the annual pride march (the largest in the Muslim world) for the fourth straight year. Such disruptions understandably generated fear: what were the moral boundaries of a country struggling to reconcile an Islamist renewal with its secular heritage?
The stories embodied in these vignettes are meaningful. Lebanese youths did become impassioned about pollution on their beachfront despite the geopolitical chaos unfolding around their country; for them, the environment and urban planning became a flashpoint of absurdity, desire, and struggle. Qataris did wonder about redrawing the boundaries of their nation, much like other citizens in the Arabian Gulf economies, because for them the cultural prospect of millions of foreigners – Pakistanis and Sudanese, Jordanians and Egyptians, Filipinos and Bangladeshis, Indians and Indonesians – actually constituting their nation was sobering. And Turkish women and LGBT groups did demand attention amidst the war on the Islamic State, refugee overflows, economic emergency, and fateful elections: for them, triumph and despair were measured by whether they subjectively felt free and safe over their own corporeal existence.
They, and thousands of other slices of social life that could be taken from the well over 500 million people living among the MENA’s nearly two dozen countries, are authentic expressions of the region’s public and private life. They are no less authentic to the Middle East than what usually crowds global headlines: a terrorist group declares a caliphate, politicians trade rockets over land, civil wars and military coups consume capitals, revolutionary leaders transform crowds into mobs, desperate refugees cross borders, oil price fluctuations mean pain at the pump, mullahs declare death to the West, and so forth. Women appear primarily as victims of subordination and oppression, or else as crusading heroines fighting against the establishment. Occasionally, human interest stories enter the news stream; global observers may hear about, for instance, the opulent decadence of kings and sultans, the pastel camels and dunes of a new touristic locale, or even the occasional Nobel Peace Prize winner with a message to share. But frustratingly, foreign audiences around the world are more likely to gaze upon the more morbid stories and geopolitical events with interest while ignoring the social undercurrents.
This is problematic for several reasons. The first is the distorted lens often given to curious readers who wish to explore and absorb the MENA. The problem is not that we should ignore terrible events or random curiosities; it is that they make us forget that there are other things happening in the lives of ordinary citizens in the region too, and those other things can be extraordinary – and thus worthy of engagement. Most people living in the region, after all, are not leaders, soldiers, militants, or revolutionaries. These are vital categories that tell us much about the rise and fall of governments and states, but they do not constitute the entire mosaic overlay of the region’s communities and societies. These are filled not just with struggles and victories, but also the mundane: the seasonal olive harvest for Jordan Valley farmers, the daily production benchmark at a Kuwaiti oil well, queuing for ticket releases for Morocco’s music festivals, Algerian teachers fretting over whether Twitter leaked exam results early, the brainstorming sessions of an Egyptian civil society movement. Most people who care about global events never travel to the MENA; those that do seldom observe these snippets of unguided life, the quiet habituations that could be found anywhere else in the world but here, in this region, happen to be inflected with the nuances of each country.
The second problem is that once observers do go beyond headlines and begin dissecting the unseen, the scholarship that greets them too often focuses on high politics. In no small part because of news cycles and social media streams, some Middle East watchers spend more time tracking the behavior of regimes and elites, tracing the relations between rulers and opposition, and debating foreign policy and geopolitics. The actions of the US and other global powers become magnified in importance, not least because Middle East affairs often force their way into political debates at home; thus, the fate of the entire region, and sometimes even grander notions like Islam itself, becomes subordinate to the decisions made in Washington, London, or Moscow. Virtually every handbook or primer introducing readers to the region devotes much, or sometimes all, of its energy upon this realm of high politics. Often, explosive topics like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or US foreign policy become the guiding themes. In other cases, so much time is spent on regional history and its political movers and shakers, often in the hopes of drawing a majestic narrative arc connecting the dawn of Islam to the current day, that the voices of everyday people become merely background noise – the canvas to the political or historical paintbrush.
The challenge here is not that what kings and presidents say, or what regimes and institutions do, lack importance. Nor should we ignore the weight of nation-states and the mechanisms through which they shape, and reshape, the modern international system and global economy. Large-scale political structures and powerful elite figures are key determinants for significant policy questions. The proliferation of nuclear weaponry and Iran’s place in the global order are important problems that are more likely to be adjudicated by diplomats and generals, not booksellers in the bazaars of Tehran (or, for that matter, readers in America). The paradigm that states “matter” is not disappearing. Rather, the challenge is to remain sensitive as well to issues and topics that happen to not be important policy questions, but still matter to legions of people whom we will never know and whose desires we will never feel, but who exist. If the goal is to fully understand the MENA region – to be able to give interesting answers to interested non-specialists who ask “What’s the Middle East like?” – this task is vital. And, in a broader sense, it is intuitive. Intrepid explorers of the Middle East do not spend years learning Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, and other languages merely to speak with a few parliamentarians, read the occasional newspaper, and then claim to know a society for decades after. There must be more fluid understanding of what happens beneath and around the domain of politics, within the social and economic currents of public life.