Sara Pursley, Familiar Futures: Time, Selfhood, and Sovereignty in Iraq (Stanford University Press, 2019).
By Rosie Bsheer, Department of History, Harvard University
The field of modern Iraqi studies has experienced an interdisciplinary boom in recent years. Decades of Ba‘thist authoritarianism, followed by multiple US and UN wars, had rendered the country and its people difficult to access, and in many ways, to study. For long, scholars of Iraq residing inside Iraq had to self-censor to protect themselves and their loved ones; those who refused to do so risked life and limb and often paid a steep price for the critical work they produced. This period also featured a dwindling number of Iraq scholars abroad, ones who nonetheless relied on colonial and other archives based outside of their country of study, a practice common to postcolonial scholars everywhere. While these few scholars produced critical scholarship on modern Iraq, the field as a whole shrank, at least until the first decade of the twenty-first century, with serious consequences to knowledge production on—and from—the country.
The 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq, and its many tragic consequences, further exacerbated this state of the field. But it also raised interest in the country among students and scholars of the modern Middle East. Although access remains a challenge for most, the field has, in recent years, seen an expansion in the number of scholars studying the country, both across time periods—from the late Ottoman period to the present—and across disciplines such as anthropology, environmental history, gender studies, and political economy. The post-September 11 period witnessed a boom in Middle East studies in general, while also generating theories of knowledge production and archive formation. As with my own area of study (Arabian Peninsula), limitations to archival and country access pushed emerging scholars committed to studying Iraq, and informed by new theories and methodologies, to rethink the questions they asked and the lines of inquiry they pursued. This has, in fact, enriched the field and deepened our knowledge of this central yet understudied place.
Sara Pursley’s book joins, and expands, this scholarly landscape. A work of intellectual breadth and sophistication, Familiar Futures sheds new analytical and historical light on Iraq’s educational system, its agrarian reform plans, the politics and history of development, and the much touted but understudied 1959 Personal Status Law. The book also tackles topics that are, to a certain extent, familiar to the reader of Iraqi history. These include the 1958 Revolution, the Iraqi Communist Party, colonialism/anticolonialism, nationalism, gender and the making of the modern Iraqi state, and the multiple forms that modern power in Iraq took. Pursley, however, brings conceptual as well as methodological rigor and freshness to her primary sources, new and regularly referenced alike, and gives us new ways of thinking about the historical past. Using gender as an analytical framework to explain power and subject formation, bridging the divide between intellectual and social history to show how these fields are co-constitutive, and engaging Iraqi intellectuals on their own terms—as interlocutors—Pursley upturns much of what we thought we know about twentieth-century Iraq. Of exceptional significance is how Pursley complicates our understanding of time, a theme that cuts across the book’s diverse chapters: the unfolding of time, the messiness of its movement, the temporality of state power, and how historians relate to it and make sense of other people’s experiences. Not only does Pursley critique notions of historical time as linear, unidirectional, and progressive; she shows us, with courage and creativity, what taking such a critique seriously means to the very writing of history.
Familiar Futures makes important interventions in Iraqi historiography while offering new and compelling readings of well-worn narratives. Yet the book’s significance, as the following roundtable reviews show, transcends this subfield of Middle East studies. By giving us a conceptual and methodological toolkit that is transportable, the book also has much to offer scholars of other geographical areas and disciplines. In this roundtable, four scholars from a variety of disciplines with a range of expertise, address some of the book’s main interventions; other conversations are necessary to do justice to this work of intellectual breadth. The roundtable opens with historian Charles Tripp, followed by political scientist José Ciro Martínez, anthropologist Nadje al-Ali, and historian Will Hanley. It concludes with a response by the author.
Review by Charles Tripp
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
One of the challenges faced by all historians stems from the multiple associations of the notion of time itself. There are the understandings and imaginations of time prevalent among those who are the subjects of history and of history writing. There is also the shape of time that historians themselves bring to their work as a conceptual frame but also—they hope—as part of an explanatory device that would allow others to make sense of the narratives at the heart of the historical imagination.
In this sense, therefore, historians are part of the very phenomenon that they are seeking to explain—all the more so since they, unlike the people they study, are writing from a vantage point informed by time’s unfolding in those people’s as yet unlived futures. This can lead them to construct any number of linear, circular, looping, zigzagging, or rupturing accounts of how lives, identities, interests, and ambitions were shaped and played out diachronically. In this endeavour, there is as much an aesthetic at work as an underlying ontology that generates hierarchies of effect.
These are some of the themes at the heart of Sara Pursley’s multi-faceted and creative book, Familiar Futures. In fact, one might say that time itself is the central theme of the book, as the title would suggest, engaging seriously with other historians who have also focused on the question of time. Indeed, Pursley deals with the multiple understandings and imaginative reconfigurations of time in the narrative of Iraqi selfhood in a final chapter, called an Epilogue, that takes a detailed look at Jawad Salim’s famous Monument to Freedom (Nusb al-Hurriyya) in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. The resonance of the themes in this chapter with those running through the book as a whole, and the strength of the interpretations informed by some outstanding Iraqi artists and writers, highlight the monument’s spatial representation of time—past, present, and future, but often in ambivalent, non-linear ways. For these reasons, I would have favored placing this chapter right at the beginning of the book, rather than seeing it relegated to the end.
This would have been a bold and, I think, productive move. I can understand, however, why the author chose instead a more conventional chronological ordering of the chapters. But it would be a pity should readers see this insightful chapter merely as an add-on. Doing so would be to underrate the affective power of artistic interventions in public space and common time, as well as their capacity to give material form to the historical imagination and so to inform understandings of identity. The Iraqi public’s continuing interaction with this monument, the ways Iraqis have reinterpreted it over time, and most recently, the focal point that the monument has represented for the thousands who have been demonstrating since at least 2015 against the chains that still bind them, are all reminders of its power.
Even though broadly chronological in its ordering, the book is by no means merely a linear history of Iraq, its formation, and its trajectory into the period prior to the Ba`thist coup d’état of 1963. Rather, it is structured around seven thematic chapters starting with the violence of Iraq’s imperial foundation but proceeding through examinations of schooling, nationalist pedagogy, generational changes, agricultural projects, reform initiatives, and the resonance and controversies around the introduction of the Personal Status Law of 1959. Some of these will be familiar to historians of Iraq, but others, such as the detailed examination of the educational system and the efforts at agrarian reform in Dujayla and elsewhere have received less attention. The distinctiveness of Pursley’s account throughout these diverse chapters is that the author engages three intertwined themes to illuminating effect, all of which shape and give particular coloration to the book.
These three themes can be summed up as the understandings and practices of “development,” the temporal dimensions and gendering of the narratives of power deployed by state-makers—both conservative and revolutionary—and the understandings of time itself. As the book unfolds it is clear that these three themes are not merely categories used to explain the stages of Iraqi history but are themselves provocations and imaginative heuristic devices. They seem to be aimed at helping the reader engage with the reconstruction of cognitive states while also obliging her to examine her own assumptions about the way history works. In the Iraqi case, this is particularly apt, given the belief among many participants and historians alike that the 1958 Revolution represented a radical break in time, opening up an opportunity to remake power relations. This was certainly how the new republican regime represented itself. The reality, however, was a good deal more ambiguous, as Pursley’s perceptive reading of educational initiatives, agrarian reform, and the trajectory of women’s political activism demonstrate.
There is not really space here to do justice to the multiple aspects and the detailed empirical research that underpin these themes. One aspect, however, deserves mention precisely because of the way it informs and shapes the others. That is the theme of “development” and its multiple resonance among different groups of Iraqis, before and after the revolution, as well as among the British imperial administrators who saw themselves as laying the foundations of the Iraqi state through the implementation of a “dual mandate.” The significance of “development” for the other main themes of the book is that it is both a temporal construction—suggesting that different categories of subjects are located in different time periods—and a justification for the deployment of (state) power to bring them into the present and to equip them for the future. In this light, Pursley provides a useful deconstruction of the term, showing how it was used to refer both to the infrastructural, economic “development” of the territory that came to constitute the state of Iraq and to the “development” of the inhabitants of this new state into modern citizen-subjects.
Neither got off to a particularly good start in practice. Or rather, the assumptions and priorities underpinning these twin development projects and the uneven power relations of the contexts in which they were deployed reinforced deep social and economic inequalities. While notably paying little attention to the full realization of Iraqis’ rights as citizens, these policies strengthened British indirect rule and ensured that the major beneficiaries of Iraq’s oil riches and agricultural wealth remained foreign capital and the landed interests privileged by the monarchical system. It was not surprising therefore that when the revolution came in 1958 it was, as Pursley states, “a future that had already been imagined by many Iraqis,” with the Iraqi monarchy consigned within weeks to the distant era, or al-`ahd al-ba`id (3–4).
Review by José Ciro Martínez
Trinity College, University of Cambridge
Familiar Futures is a weighty and compelling book. Its insights are both subtle and profound, its key arguments absorbing and convincing in equal measure. Pursley demonstrates not only how the figure of the child, and by extension the family, functioned as the horizon of development in interwar Iraq, but also adeptly traces how this logic secured the orientation of politics toward a perpetually receding future. Where most studies of nationalism see its discourses as essentialist and backward looking, Pursley illuminates nationalism’s “forward-looking, future-directed sensibilities” and how these came to be reinforced through the emergent concepts of childhood and of “generations to come” (12). In doing so, she undertakes an ambitious re-narration of Iraqi history, recasting the role of sexual difference in the production of a new kind of timelessness, one underpinning the construction of the nation-state and the conjugal family. The resulting argument progresses with enviable skill among what some may decry as disparate registers and disconnected historical moments. But that is precisely this book’s strength. Rarely are detailed engagements with 1930s US development experts working on colonial education reform so seamlessly connected to perceptive readings of Iraqi intellectuals, ranging from Shi‘i jurists debating ijtihad amidst revolution to the provocative treatises of sociologist ‘Ali al-Wardi. Pursley achieves all this while keeping social history, especially that of the subaltern mobilizations and sociopolitical conflicts that drove these debates, squarely in view.
Pursley’s lessons for historians—of Iraq, development, and colonialism—are myriad. Her shrewd analysis of necropolitical power during the British mandate (Chapter 1) and artful exploration of the Dujayla Land Settlement Project (Chapter 5) will be of particular interest in this regard. Others on this roundtable speak to this book’s contributions to the numerous historiographical domains (social, intellectual, political, legal) it both addresses and puts in conversation. I consider what Familiar Futures might contribute to those outside the discipline of history, and how it can instigate and incite scholars conducting research in altogether different fields.
Chapter 2 offers an eye-opening examination of one-time Ottoman education official and Arab nationalist Sati‘ al-Husri. Entrusted by King Faysal with the task of presiding over Iraq’s public school system prior to independence, al-Husri sought not only to prepare students for careers in the civil service, as the British required, but also to use education as a means to form “subjects worthy of national sovereignty” (58). The content of the curriculum mattered far less than its homogeneity, the goal being to entrench both an Arab national consciousness and an Iraqi territorial one. The latter two were not interchangeable but mutually constitutive, as Pursley deftly shows. But what strikes me again and again in this chapter and the following two are the largely implicit claims about schooling as a process that synchronizes bodies in time and space. Nationalist elites, for example, struggled to re-work and re-arrange secondary education so that it would nurture in young Iraqi women the aspirations and abilities to raise conjugal, child-centered families, aptly delayed until after adolescence. Military training for teenage males sought to produce strong physiques, but more importantly, to instil temporal rhythms amenable to bureaucratic order. Heterosocial spaces of pedagogy drove not only the disciplining of individuals but also the production of the nation as a whole, one delimited by shared territorial borders and the telos of developmental time. Nationalism, following Benedict Anderson, requires that citizens learn to envision linear-historical time together. But forward movement, as Pursley demonstrates, is often propelled by forms of sexual difference. Imaginaries of modernity were “made familiar” by working on Iraqis’ most intimate habits, aptitudes, and aspirations (7, italics in original).
Historians have been fairly adept at pursuing these themes, but in other disciplines, such dynamics remain vastly under-explored. We know, or at least suspect, that encounters with political authority vary both spatially and temporally. But how might such engagements shape us today? What places and practices work to group, calibrate, and synchronize? How are citizens, in Pursley’s words, “made to feel coherently collective” through the tempos and locations that orchestrate so much of everyday life (59)? Are shared bodily and affective experiences at the bakery, checkpoint, or highway as deserving of attention as elections, protests, and parliaments? More than just hard-wired into cities, villages, and towns, Pursley shows how schools, personal status laws, and land settlement projects alter the way people perceive and traverse the world around them. These technologies of rule, and the logics they espouse, engender dispositions that take root amongst individuals and communities, linking them to a broader public while molding the embodied attributes of citizens. Making subjects amenable to government always requires that time and space be carved up according to particular rubrics of intelligibility. It is to Pursley’s credit that she forces us to consider how these choreographies transpire and through what mechanisms they occur.
Chapter 7 is perhaps the book’s best. In a nimble and dexterous reading of the promulgation of the 1959 Iraqi Personal Status Law, we learn how this legislation sought, above all else, to construct “stable families worthy of the revolutionary era” (177). Where once an array of laws governed a wide assortment of relationships (custody, marriage, berths, divorce), the new legal code sought to both institutionalize the nuclear family and establish the proper comportment for each of its members, standardizing the domestic realm while reifying differences within it. The diverse religious and legal terrains inhabited by Iraqi Muslims were slowly replaced by the harmonized landscape of a uniform legal code. Religion was not undermined in this reading; it was re-made. The shari‘a would cease being susceptible to temporal shifts and spatial disparities engendered by independent juristic reasoning and discrepancies between the five active schools of Islamic law. The law would be sutured instead to that seemingly timeless phenomenon we call the state, whose quest for sovereignty would increasingly take up the formation of Iraqi bodies as its object and goal. What modes of existence do legal systems normalize through the organization of temporal horizons? How are modes of historical emplacement formed and re-fashioned by the law? These questions have been posed. After Familiar Futures, we can no longer countenance them without considering the role played by concepts of the conjugal family, care of children, and sexual difference.
The pursuit of development buttressed by the figure of generations to come shaped so much of the early postcolonial age. But the pursuit of one form of change also yielded other forms of stasis. Revolutionary time can never be linear. And so, contemplating reproductive futurism as a “hegemonic political imaginary of modernity” surely illuminates far more than it obscures (13). A critical reckoning may also foster some suspicion towards the unending fantasies for the future that color contemporary politics. As Pursley illustrates, the promise of progress is easily deferred into a permanently receding future. But we have yet to bury the dead.
Review by Nadje Al-Ali
Department of Anthropology, Brown University
Familiar Futures: Time, Selfhood, and Sovereignty in Iraq provides a sophisticated and nuanced gendered reading of modern Iraqi history, one that centers on the shift from the British mandate to the Iraqi republic. This theoretically cutting-edge book is an intellectual tour de force, at once interdisciplinary in scope and original in approach. Familiar Futures presents contemporary gender studies at its best: instead of simply focusing on women, men, or sexuality, Sara Pursley employs a gendered lens to read and analyze modernization, development, sovereignty, nationalism, and revolution in the Iraqi context. The result is a deeply informative and archivally grounded analysis that challenges many previously established narratives and interpretations, putting forth new readings that the most seasoned scholars of Iraq and of gender will benefit from.
The book begins with the women of the Iraqi Communist Party who were involved in the passing of the Personal Status Law of 1959. The conventional narrative links the Personal Status Law to the idea of the modern Iraqi nation state and women’s liberation, or at least greater gender-based equality. However, Pursely provides a different reading. She argues that the long-term impact of the law was more mixed because it ended up curtailing some of the more flexible elements of sharia law, thereby setting certain principles of gender-based inequalities into a fixed legal language. Moreover, the law shifted authority away from religious leaders to the state, which thereafter became the main arbitrator of religious law. In this context, morality—particularly women’s comportment in the private sphere—became more central.
The specific debates around the set of laws governing marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance made it apparent that family life and sexual difference were fundamental to other debates in the wider post-revolutionary period. Family reform and the control of sexual difference, for instance, were essential in the framing of modernization, economic development, and broader visions for the future of Iraq. Yet, in a brilliant stroke of sophistication, Pursley complicates the more familiar narrative that places gender at the heart of development discourses. She does so by revealing the tensions and contradictions within the official modernization discourse. The British, she shows, tried to engineer and conceive of Iraq’s future in terms of their own Orientalist perceptions of the country and their conviction that any future was rooted in Iraq’s past, which they saw as an agricultural society inadequate for change. Interestingly, the British employed heteronormative ideas about sexual difference to characterize Iraqis as backward, given that women and men were, in their eyes, not differentiated enough.
Unlike many historical works on Iraq, Familiar Future does not merely stop at analyzing British colonial discourse and policies but also takes seriously Iraqi voices of resistance and dissent. Therein lies another original and refreshing aspect of the book. Pursley engages closely with the thinking of Iraqi intellectuals, portraying them in a far more nuanced manner than some historians have done in the past. Far from merely accepting British ideas about education and development, Pursley shows that many Iraqis resisted prevailing notions. Sati‘ al-Husri, an Iraqi educator who tends to be associated with authoritarianism and even fascism by researchers of Iraq, stands out in his analytical interventions and arguments about pedagogy and child psychology. Al-Husri challenged the 1932 US-led Monroe Commission, which inspected education in Iraq and put forth a set of recommendations in what is now known as the Monroe Report. Al-Husri rejected the commission’s colonial and patriarchal ideas about education, especially its suggestion that boys and girls on the one hand, and children in the countryside and children in urban areas on the other, receive a different education. The commission’s vision for female education centered on the idea of home economics being compulsory, which clearly contributed conservative norms of sexual difference. Underlying ideas around the importance of manual labor as opposed to intellectual development and differentiated education were key to US educational philosophy at the time, a philosophy that was rooted in racial segregation and replicated by the Monroe Commission in other parts of the Global South, from the Philippines to Mexico. Yet Al-Husri fervently challenged this very philosophy arguing for gender-based parity in education and also resisted marginalizing rural communities further. Meanwhile, al-Husri and other Iraqi intellectuals were also strongly opposed to the corporal punishment that the British were promoting for secondary students who participated in political protests. While the British discursively constructed Iraqis as dangerous and primitive, as they had done elsewhere in their colonies, improving the education system in Iraq was not a priority for them. For Iraqis, however, the education sector was key to their vision for a future Iraq.
Familiar Futures makes several other important interventions: here I will mention one more contribution to the debate on the nature of colonialism in the modern Middle East, and in Iraq in particular. Pursley shows that Iraq was not a battleground between different approaches to colonialism, that of “the India School,” which was based on direct rule and “the Egypt School” that advocated indirect rule. Instead, in line with Toby Dodge’s Inventing Iraq, she stresses the use of airpower as the primary technology of imperial rule. Moreover, the author illustrates the importance of Iraq for the British as a laboratory for a new form of imperial rule, mechanism of control, and distant way to control bodies.
While the book would have benefitted from a conclusion that would have brought together the various strands of narrative and analysis, it ends with a creative epilogue that brings together issues of temporality, sovereignty, and subject formation, themes that thread the book’s seven chapters. Therein, Pursley skillfully uses her interdisciplinary analysis of Jawad Salim’s Monument to Freedom (Nusb al-Hurriyya) as an example of the disciplinary and gendered imaginaries of linear-historical time while also showing that it can be read as disruptive of these very imaginaries. Overall, the book is a must read not only for Iraq specialists and students, but also to historians of the Middle East as well as to gender studies scholars more broadly.
Review by Will Hanley
Department of History, Florida State University
In spring 2020, when we read Sara Pursley’s Familiar Futures in my modern Middle East graduate seminar, my students found it “hard.” They are not wrong, but I suspect that as they get more Middle East history books under their belts and begin to see the strengths and weaknesses of the field as a whole, they might come to consider “hard” a virtue. That has been my experience, anyway.
The books I read in the field of modern Middle East history—most of them good, and enjoyable—generally fall into two categories. First, there are books with whose content I am already fairly familiar. I read these for gaps in my knowledge and for novel interpretations. They are “easy.” Second, there are books on areas and topics that I do not know. They are “hard,” but the difficulty is in the details of novel data. I read them to refine and correct the patterns I already know. I will not say that I am proud of this approach to reading, but it is my reality and, I suspect, the reality of many others.
Pursley’s book defies both of these reading categories. It is interesting because it is unfamiliar in form. Although many familiar characters and questions pepper the book’s pages, its plot does not follow the conventions that enable my reflexive “easy”/“hard” reading habit. The result is stimulating difficulty. The difficulty is not defamiliarization caused by esoteric material. It is the difficulty of possibility.
The productive unfamiliarity begins with Pursley's approach to chronology. Time is everywhere in the book, but the author does not resort to sequential exposition. Pursley trusts her readers to follow her off the linear timeline along which almost every book in the field seems constrained to tread. Not until Pursley released me from the cautious convention of sequence did I realize how often I have felt that I have reread Stephen Longrigg's 1950s Iraq survey. Instead, she dwells in a long moment, spinning out lines of thought into past and future but never demanding the reader's assent to a causal chain. The last three chapters of the book, for example, keep one foot in the year 1959, but roam about time vistas of memory, imagination, and generation. Even chapter 2, a quite chronological exposition of social thinking about national independence, presents sequence not in the author's voice but by ventriloquizing Sati‘ al-Husri.
Pursley’s approach to topics is similarly resistant to convention. She does not insist on reified subjects—gender, modernity, law, development—but suggests connections between subtler formulations. For instance, she does not purvey a safe, comprehensive version of sovereignty that would check the boxes for readers interested in Iraq's status under public international law. Instead, she discovers microcosms of the state in personal and familial experience. Familiar Futures does not answer basic questions about Iraq’s sovereignty—Wikipedia can do that job. Ironically, Pursley’s idiosyncratic approach makes her use of the concept more broadly applicable, because it is not routine. She builds on the existing literature not through extension or gap filling, but in an attempt to make something new. It was this unfamiliarity—the unfamiliarity of reading an experiment—that I found difficult and exciting. There may be a bit too much going on in this book, but maybe not. Pursley makes abundant connections between diverse sets of material. The planned homes of the 1950s “family farm” settlements in Dujayla float on a morass of revolutionary bravado, agricultural expertise, foreign assistance, colonial effacement, social dislocation, disappointed expectation, domestic labor, and wastewater.
Timothy Mitchell’s celebrated reading of Bourdieu’s Kabyle house in Colonising Egypt (1988) appears unidimensional alongside Pursley’s complex analysis of these farmhouses. Her consistent effort to engage critically with everything she presents, always offering a new layer of reading, is a worthy embodiment of decades of scholarly work since the 1980s. Perhaps it is merely a projection of my own imposter syndrome that I am watchful for signs of the maturing of the field of modern Middle East history, but maturity certainly describes what I found appealing in this book. It is harder to read a book that does not begin with the empirical or analytical ABCs, but it is a sign that our field is moving beyond apologetic self-exploitation.
These are rather abstract words describing my subjective reaction to the book. It may be useful to touch on several more concrete questions. First, the archive. In many ways, modern Middle East history writing is just an elaboration of archival strategy. Most national archives are inaccessible. The historian has to grapple with alternative primary sources as well as which other avenues to pursue. At times, this means adopting the frame of imperial records makers, Ottoman, French, American, or British. Often it means reading the print media against the grain. Both of these well-worn strategies are wearing somewhat thin. What Pursley has done is a bit different. She has largely set aside the British archive and the sequential narrative of the newspaper to curate a palimpsest of sources. No historian of the modern Middle East really knows what sort of history they would write if they had unfettered access to state archives. But few of us would do what Pursley has done, and here too the unexpected offers the reader challenges.
The content of her archive is technical (policy work on education and agriculture), intellectual (political and social argumentation by policymakers), and artistic (especially the stunning epilogue reading of a public sculpture). Because Pursley is not aiming to tell a (or “the”) basic story of Iraq, she does not have to squeeze these sources for general narrative. Instead, she can engage in straight reading. It is this confidence in the foundational work of other historians that allows her to attend to what her sources are actually saying. In this way, her mix-and-match expository method finds its justification in the Iraqi archive she has chosen.
I am not sure how well all of the chapters go together. For example, the juxtaposition of chapter 7, on the 1959 Personal Status Law, and the epilogue reading of Jawad Salim’s 1961 sculpture, Monument to Freedom, I found a bit jarring. Chapter 7 was, to my mind, the most conventional of the book. In it, Pursley engages in a close reading of the legal code itself and figuring out its shortcomings in view of the complex story that came before. But law codes always appear bloodless when read with the expectation of thick meaning. I was reminded by what I see as the not altogether satisfying fit of the last chapter of Talal Asad’s Formations of the Secular, which also recruits the authority of law to bring a complex book in for a (more positivist) landing. In Familiar Futures, however, Pursley lifts off again with a deliberately daring epilogue meant to melt the certainties she just set out. The two chapters sit rather too far apart in ambition, at least to my mind.
But this uncertain fit is key to the allure of the book. It is a spot of overlap between form and content. This book about adolescence as a political idea pulls the reader to think about adolescence and maturity in historical writing. The field we have inherited is not the property of our forebears. There are no rules about what counts as valid historical insight—except that it must offer insight. Insight becomes more difficult as the literature grows—hence the proliferation of “easy” books.
Pursley’s book is also “hard” because it is both deeply theoretically informed and puts forth various conceptual analyses. But she does not give us a potted version of Lee Edelman, Reinhart Koselleck, or Joan Scott, nor does she recruit the Middle East to fill gaps in these authors’ Western schemes. Instead, with a deft touch, she employs this work as a resource for interpretation. To my mind, there she does not do as much as she could to tap into Islamic temporalities in telling her story. On the other hand, this book resolutely resists explanations from time immemorial. Pursley describes a distinct, revolutionary moment—an adolescence—that relates only tangentially to its before and after and must stand alone. The ideas of modernization’s American midwives, of those aiming to improve their material existence through law’s rationality, and of Communist dreamers, come together in a society where hierarchy is yet to be fixed. It is not an easy set of ideas to navigate. Pursley allows us to appreciate it.
Response to Reviews of Familiar Futures
By Sara Pursley, Department of History, New York University
I thank Jadaliyya for organizing this roundtable and the contributors for their very thoughtful engagements with my book. While I cannot address all of the points raised, I will take this opportunity to reflect on a few of them.
I appreciate Charles Tripp’s taking up of how the development projects I examine not only failed to realize their own liberatory promises but actively “reinforced deep social and economic inequalities” in Iraq. I consider this the central problem from which all of the book’s arguments unfold. While the empirical point is not particularly debatable, the role played by both gender and concepts of futurity in such projects has not been subject to much analysis in either Iraq or Middle East studies. Gender was not tangential to the development projects I explore, from land settlement programs that aimed to produce family farms to literacy projects that sent urban communist women into rural areas. Existing gender histories of the region have focused more on discourse than on the relationship of sexual difference to other material inequalities, and more on criticizing invented traditions (i.e., constructions of the past) than on critically analyzing visions of the future. I argue that the modern political imaginary of reproductive futurism was not just a way of keeping women in the home through the promotion of modern feminine domesticity; it was critical to the deferral of certain kinds of political change and to the deepening of both sexual and other inequalities in the name of a perpetually receding future.
As Nadje Al-Ali notes in her contribution, the book thus employs a “gendered lens” not just to signal a focus on “women, men, or sexuality” but as a way “to read and analyze modernization, development, sovereignty, nationalism, and revolution in the Iraqi context.” Gender history can indeed be called the main analytical frame of the book, and in the way Al-Ali describes. In the book’s text, though, I refer to the production of “sexual difference” at least as often as I refer to “gender.” This is partly because of my unease at the ways in which “gender” in the field of Middle East history has sometimes become a lazy way of saying “women.” The term “sexual difference” makes it harder to ignore the relational quality of all productions of sex/gender; such categories, as Al-Ali suggests, can never be just about women. Using it was also a way of minimizing my participation in the sex/gender distinction itself, once a radical feminist intervention—meant to align sex with biology and gender with culture—but for some time now subject to critique, including for leaving binary understandings of sex/biology undisturbed. Finally, it seemed to open up space for thinking about the processes of differentiation in relation to the book’s central theme of time or temporality. For example, my engagement with Benedict Anderson’s notion of “homogeneous” linear-historical time does not just add gender or women to his framework but considers how linear-historical time in modernization discourses and nationalist imaginaries was driven by heterogeneity (e.g., sexual differentiation), which was related to its paradoxical tendency to open onto a static or timeless future (e.g., the present of the always already modern West).
The subtitle of the book could well have been “time, gender, and development” rather than “time, selfhood, and sovereignty.” My reasons for choosing “selfhood” over “gender” and “sovereignty” over “development” are implicitly explained in José Ciro Martínez’s contribution. He identifies the book’s attention to “how schools, personal status laws, and land settlement projects alter the way people perceive and traverse the world around them.” Gender, or the production of sexual difference, was an important aspect of this, and so were age, class, and urban/rural location, among other kinds of Iraqi difference. Moreover, as Martínez also recognizes, the intimate work performed by these projects was not just discursive but also institutional, producing the state and its subjects simultaneously through shared temporal rhythms and bounded spaces: “Heterosocial spaces of pedagogy drove not only the disciplining of individuals but also the production of the nation as a whole, one delimited by shared territorial borders and the telos of developmental time.” Other contributors refer at least implicitly to the interplay between sovereignty and development in my argument. Tripp points to my attention to the polysemic and grammatically ambiguous nature of the English word “development,” which includes both the intransitive sense of subjects moving through time into mature sovereign selves and the transitive sense of the “deployment of (state) power to bring them into the present and to equip them for the future.” And Will Hanley refers to how the book “discovers microcosms of the state in personal and familial experience.”
Hanley also raises the question of the archive, clearly recognizing that I was engaged in assembling an archive for my project. This is true of all historians but involves additional challenges for those working on the postcolonial world/the Middle East/Iraq (take your pick). Like many gender, cultural, and intellectual histories of the region, the book engages extensively with public discourse expressed in print media. If my archival strategy is unconventional, this may have less to do with the types of sources I used than with the fact that, as Hanley points out, I do not constrain myself to a linear reading of them, as well as the fact that different chapters use different kinds of archives and archival techniques. Several chapters center on a single source—the 1932 Monroe Report, the 1959 Iraqi Personal Status Law, Jawad Salim’s Monument to Freedom—and then assemble an archive of sources generated by and around that original source: the genealogy of racialized US pedagogical theories and institutions that informed the report and the education policies in Iraq that it affected; public controversy around the law as expressed in print media and religious treatises; and decades of Iraqi art criticism on the monument. Other chapters are more historiographically conventional (at least in relation to conventions of social and political history) in terms of engaging with a more formal, or already assembled, archive. For example, chapter 5 on the Dujayla land settlement draws on the UNESCO archives in Paris to write a thick history of a particular development project in 1950s Iraq. The overall aim, as stated in the introduction, was to explore different spatio-temporal and discursive “moments” in mid-twentieth-century Iraq “in which sexual difference and/or familial life were particularly charged objects of reform in the name of the nation’s sovereign and developed future” (27-28).
I find the different responses of Martínez and Hanley to chapter 7 provocative, especially since that chapter—on the 1959 personal status law and the controversies it generated, including among Sunni and Shi`i `ulama’—was the core of my original research project. Naturally I am partial to Martínez’s beautiful summary of the chapter’s contribution. I am also sympathetic to Hanley’s statement later in his review that I could have done more “to tap into Islamic temporalities” in telling my story overall. As Al-Ali writes, the book “takes seriously Iraqi voices of resistance and dissent.” My engagement with the writings of Iraqi intellectuals—both religious and secular—not just as primary sources but as interlocutors around questions related to time, selfhood, and sovereignty, often productively disrupted and reshaped my arguments. This seems to have been appreciated by all of the contributors. But if there is one area I would have liked to expand on, it is what the introduction describes as the “fourth register” of the book’s title, Familiar Futures, in which futures might be familiar “because they are near or close futures, futures that might be realizable because they remain connected to the space of experience, rather than constantly receding along the horizon of expectation” (9-10). This register flashes up throughout the book, such as with Muhammad Bahr al-`Ulum’s conception of a non-static and non-territorial Islamic legal temporality; `Ali al-Wardi’s notion of Islamic history as a recurring struggle between “the people of the state” and “the people of revolution”; and Jawad Salim’s uses of cyclical and messianic figures of time in the Monument to Freedom. Putting the chapter on the monument first rather than last in the book, as Tripp would have preferred, might have been one way to orient the argument more explicitly toward this fourth register. As it is, further exploration must await a future project.