José Ciro Martínez and Omar Sirri, “Of Bakeries and Checkpoints: Stately Affects in Amman and Baghdad,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space Online First (Apr 2020): 1-18.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?
José Ciro Martínez (JCM): It started in a basement in Fairfax, Virginia. It was hot, and I was sweating. Omar and I were screaming over Arabic pop, techno beats, and thumping base. Even in such a setting, it turns out, you can still have animated discussions about performativity, the state effect, and the afterlives of Tim Mitchell’s famous article. We should have been dancing like everyone else. But Omar’s fieldwork was so compelling, his accounts of everyday life in Baghdad absorbing. Ethnography brought us together. That, and a very generous group of scholars who organize the Political Economy Summer Institute (PESI 2018) where we first met. Our collaboration grew over a shared love of certain books and a mutual discontent with what political science, at least in its hegemonic North American form, has become. But more importantly this effort reflects a desire to think about very challenging bouts of fieldwork together. I like to think that we began with our interlocutors and friends in Amman and Baghdad. We started with the ordinary. The article came next.
Omar Sirri (OS): I have the same vivid memories, especially of the glares we got from other partygoers for being so stuffy. But what I recall most about that moment is the sense of possibility—for knowledge production, ethnographic reflection, inventive thinking. I had just completed a long stretch of fieldwork including time spent at Baghdad’s checkpoints. I was hardly looking for a writing collaboration. But that conversation reminded me at a key moment that what we do with our research matters. I am not interested in pigeonholing “my data” into increasingly meaningless frameworks that remove texture and richness from what we learn, especially ethnographically. Doing so does a disservice to our participants and allies in the field, and to our own labor. So, the potential for a collaboration with the guy who studies the politics of bread in Jordan was so invigorating, uplifting, nourishing. The dancing would have to wait.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?
OS: The article investigates entanglements between infrastructure, affect, and the state effect. What would it look like, we wondered, if we took seriously the infrastructural nature of bakeries and checkpoints while also putting them side-by-side? What do residents sense and feel as they live with and move through these two sites and spaces? And, how are such infrastructural affects implicated in the production of the state? The piece also makes a more implicit intervention in the ever-burgeoning literature on cities in the MENA region. Space constraints prevented us from digging into most of that work. We instead chose to give as much room as possible to our ethnographies, letting those interested in cities find what is of empirical, conceptual, and political value to them through the fieldwork.
JCM: I would add that the piece reflects on the political efficacy of bakeries and checkpoints by thinking through their affective imbrications. It became clear that we were both interested in the modes of sociability, corporeal sensibilities, and embodied routines that surround these two sites, and how these relate to the state effect. We shared a frustration with literature on the state that focuses on discourse, imaginaries, and language—or, representation. Much of that work is fantastic and has influenced ours. But we concluded that the body, affect, and sensation were often overlooked, not quite given their due. Perhaps the state thrives through continued affective resonances, we thought, ones that usually hide in plain sight. We think our piece helps illuminate them.
J: How does this article connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JCM & OS: It does and it does not. Connections and differences abound, but the piece marks the first time we have put bakeries and checkpoints in conversation.
J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JCM: At the time we met, we were both captivated by a set of emerging debates in anthropology and geography, namely around affect and infrastructure. The scholarship we cite in the piece, as well as many others we did not have the space to include, has pushed us to think about bakeries and checkpoints in incredibly productive ways. I hope that students and scholars interested in these debates find the article thought provoking. I would like to think that our colleagues in comparative politics also find the piece worthy of reflection, though the lack of dependent and independent variables may hinder that possibility. Many have explored Amman, fewer Baghdad. Here, we strived to offer a different and compelling set of encounters and observations for those interested in these two cities. Impact, I am not so sure. If readers find the piece useful to think and teach with, well that would be fulfilling in the extreme.
OS: I agree with all of that. But my ideal reader, if that is what the question is asking, is someone who appreciates creativity in knowledge production. This piece is special to me because we dive into material and conceptual entanglements that ethnography helps uncover. We are often told as “young scholars” to aim for coherence, simplicity, and directness in our work. That is probably sound career advice. But adherence to it often stifles what I think can be so freeing and powerful about thought-provoking academic contributions: creativity. We do not see very much creativity in political science, a discipline I might be far less forgiving towards than José Ciro—especially as someone who is completing a North American PhD program, or as my friend Kate once derided, “the sausage maker out of which you are supposed to come out looking somewhat like a sausage.” People who relish creative interventions—both for what they liberate us from and teach us—are who I hope settle into this piece. You know, the people who hate sausage not because it is gross, not even because it is meat, but because it all looks the same and is usually all we are ever fed.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
OS: José Ciro and I hope this is the first of two or three collaborative pieces on bakeries and checkpoints. We were both surprised that this first piece ended up focusing on stately affects. Our initial idea was to consider the role of “state-makers,” or the people at bakeries and checkpoints who carry out their work, their craft, purportedly in the name of the state. But the various conversations and iterative outlines took us to this piece first. So next up we hope to look at the work of bakers in Amman and soldiers in Baghdad, and how their everyday practices help bring about the state effect.
JCM: I am perplexed but most of all amazed at the places conversation with Omar takes me. We can somehow start with a dispute over Stephen Curry’s defense, or the appropriate amount of soumaq for a fattoush, and end up at the metabolic as a useful analytic for thinking about cities. So, who knows? But as Omar noted, we have discussed putting our time with soldiers and bakers in conversation. I have spent the last few years thinking about the craft of the bread-maker and see lots of resonances with what Omar tells me about certain dexterities employed at checkpoints (while recognizing the contrasts and points of divergence, which only feeds this generative collaboration). I am also interested in the burgeoning literature on political topologies in geography, and have contemplated with Omar about the “where” of the state, not as a fixed, hierarchically-scaled entity, but as an ever-shifting assemblage. Yet perhaps like the crew of smokers Khairy Shalaby so deftly portrays in The Hashish Waiter, writing is no longer the main reason we get together, and is instead just a good excuse, “a little rose-water poured on the friendship to moisten its roots and freshen its leaves.”
J: What drew you to bakeries and checkpoints?
JCM: The smells, mainly. In 2010 I was studying language in Damascus and did a homestay near Bab Sharqi. To my delight, I quickly learned that the father of the family was a mana’ish maker, dabbling occasionally in bread. I avidly offered an extra pair of hands. Khubz ad-dawla was omnipresent (and still is). The political allusions seemed obvious. But back then, it was just about improving my Arabic and baking bread.
OS: Dismay. It might best capture what Baghdad’s checkpoints evoke, operating as a catch-all for the variegated affects they engender. Fear and uncertainty, to be sure, but also exasperation, anger, and disappointment about what checkpoints do and what their ubiquity represents. How and why does such penetrating-yet-seemingly-ineffective security infrastructure exist against a backdrop of persistently devastating and future-destroying violence and precarity? The questions are baffling, the answers I think critical to how we understand that thing we call the state.
Excerpt from the article
Scenes and sites: The bakery and the checkpoint
The bakery. Amman, November 2015
Abu Zeina is always tired but usually upbeat. One night we meet for tea after he finishes his twelve-hour shift at an upmarket café in the Swefieh district of West Amman. A father of three daughters, Abu Zeina rarely sees his children, departing for his early morning shift at a sandwich shop before they awake and returning home from the café after they go to bed. He often wished he could spend more time with them, relating how awful he felt for handing the children off to his parents for most of the afternoon, as his wife also works two jobs. But he takes solace in fulfilling what he describes as his two main responsibilities: “To make money and bring bread (‘Aml maṣārī wa jīb khubz).”
After briefly catching up, we hop in a cab east towards downtown, from where we each take a shared taxi (servīs) to our respective neighbourhoods. That night, Abu Zeina asks the cab driver to stop at al-Shaltawi bakery. I follow him in. It is around midnight and the oven is working at full tilt, the heat inside a welcome respite from what is a chilly autumn evening. A few customers collect sweet biscuits (ka‘k) that are usually dipped in tea, while others wallow outside over a cigarette. But most are in line for warm pita bread (khubz ‘arabī). Subsidised heavily by the Jordanian government, this bread is the cornerstone of many working-class diets and, for families like Abu Zeina’s, is crucial to getting by.
Al-Shaltawi is perfectly located on a small side street just off one of the thoroughfares that lead into Amman’s historic city centre. Aided by convenient parking, customers can make hurried purchases without holding up traffic. Most times I passed this bakery it had a line of customers out the door. “Why do so many people stop here?” I ask Abu Zeina. “Because the bread is always fresh,” he answers. “Most bakeries at this hour are closed, this one is perfect for those of us who live in East Amman but work late on the other side of the city.” Struck by the uptick in his mood, I ask Abu Zeina to expound on his attachments to al-Shaltawi: “Some people buy bread to make a quick snack, most purchase it to take home to their families. Everyone knows they can afford it because it’s cheap. At such a late hour, the smells, the sounds, the entire bakery brings joy.” “Why joy?” I ask. Abu Zeina offers a wry smile. His reply speaks to both the importance of the bakery as infrastructure and its role in generating affective attachments to the state: “Because every day and everywhere the state lives off of the citizen. Here at the bakery, we [citizens] get to live off of the state.”
The checkpoint. Baghdad, February 2018
On a crisp February night, Daood and his friends were out in the Jazeera district in north Baghdad. There were maybe 9 or 10 of them in all, spread across four cars. Returning home from a café along the Tigris, they hit a police checkpoint. Daood was behind the wheel of his newish Volkswagen sedan, happily distracted by his two carmates. He had not clocked that the short line of cars ahead of him at the checkpoint had already advanced; he accelerated quickly to catch up. Moving too fast for his liking, the police officer hollered “taftīsh,” and with a wave of his hand directed Daood to the secondary car search. “Why in such a hurry?” the officer came over to ask Daood. “I’m not in a hurry,” Daood tersely replied. He opened his trunk and engine hood for the K-9 unit as the police officer checked his car registration and ID. “I asked the officer if this was all ‘routine procedure,’” Daood told me. Offended by the question, the officer escalated the confrontation: “Call the commander! This guy is breaking the law!”
Taken to a security caravan at the side of the checkpoint, Daood was met by two plain-clothed officers. “I explained how I didn’t do anything wrong. Then I heard the commander outside call for a police van to take me away. I wasn’t scared though, I hadn’t done anything.” Sitting with us as Daood told this story was his friend Nabil, who scoffed at his friend’s after-the-fact confidence. He had been in Daood’s passenger seat that night at the checkpoint. Nabil knew ending up in the back of a police van would have been disastrous for Daood. The potential consequences were bleak, from heavy fines to time in prison. Daood continued: “20 minutes later, a different commander came and asked me who was to blame, me or the officer. I was careful when I answered. I said that he was just doing his job, and I was in a hurry.” Daood hoped his cautious retreat would allow everyone to save face. An intelligence officer also stationed at the checkpoint then entered the caravan. “He walked me out and insisted I settle this quickly, and that if I don’t do so before the police van arrives, I’ll leave in it.” Daood was anxious. He came upon the original officer who stopped him; they again argued. Watching from the side-lines, the first commander who had been called more than an hour before grew irritated: “Enough! If there’s nothing, then let him go.” The intelligence officer hurried Daood away: “I grabbed my papers and took off.”
Fear at Baghdad’s checkpoints operates through coercion and uncertainty. A sense that anything can happen while passing through them means, for most residents, that checkpoints exist “only to hurt the people” (bas yuadhī an-nās). At the same time, arbitrary checkpoints generate a desire for better, more reliable security infrastructures. Checkpoints give rise to different emotions and sensations – fear and anxiety, uncertainty and desire – that are critical to the construction of the state. “If the police officer had just done his job, it would have been fine,” Daood insisted. “I just wish police officers at checkpoints were more educated. I wish they had better manners. Without manners, you have catastrophe.”
Reconsidering the state effect
These vignettes, from our respective fieldwork in Amman and Baghdad, suggest that the state is present at the bakery and the checkpoint. But what is the nature of this presence? We explore how routine interactions at these rarely-examined sites engender the state effect. In doing so, we emphasise their infrastructural and affective properties. Building on scholarship in geography and anthropology, this article brings together different case studies in neighbouring countries, Jordan and Iraq, to explore how the state is produced in the interstices of everyday life. We unpack not the practices of state officials or the techno-political interventions of an amorphous bureaucracy, but the varied emotions, enduring attachments and desires of citizens.
Putting such different places into conversation with each other may seem strange at first glance. But we see value in our “disjunctive comparison”—contrasting these two “unlike” sites against each other. Bakeries in Amman offer sustenance, nourishment and welfare for those who pass through them. Checkpoints in Baghdad, however, are first and foremost spaces of violence and coercion. These sites lay bare opposing faces of the state and illustrate modes of engagement citizens have with political authority in two very different cities and political contexts. Fieldwork conducted separately over a period of more than fifteen months revealed to each of us the varied ways that the state is felt, experienced and discussed in Amman and Baghdad. When brought together, these different sites and affects contribute to how we understand the state effect in a manner we believe would not have been as evident in the study of either city or infrastructure on their own. It became clear in conversation that bakeries and checkpoints exert a “force” not easily captured by the materials that compose them or the logics of rule they seek to entrench. Far more is going on.