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Review of Anthropology of the Middle East and North Africa


By Alice Wilson

Anthropology of the Middle East and North Africa: Into the New Millenium. Sherine Hafez and Susan Slyomovics (eds). Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press. Pp. 368. ISBN 978-0253007537 (pbk.) £19.30, $27.00

This collection of scholarly essays brings together wide-ranging themes and theoretical engagement in the anthropology of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). It is also particularly welcome that the volume addresses a broad geographical range, from Afghanistan and Iran to Sudan and Western Sahara, as well as the Maghreb, Egypt, the Levant, the Gulf and Turkey. Readers particularly interested in North Africa will find its peoples and societies well represented in the collection.

The collection draws on papers originally presented at a conference at the University of Los Angeles in April 2010. Thus, the very region of which the contributors were writing was to undergo extraordinary transformation just a few months later in the events that have come to be known (not unproblematically) as the Arab Spring. Even though the original papers predated the Arab Spring, it is striking that ethnographic work in the region, as this volume shows, was addressing issues that would contribute to the uprisings, such as the new impact of new technologies on power relations and the restlessness of youth. Although this volume does not address the Arab Spring directly then, the reader will find insights into the social, political and economic milieu from which uprisings would emerge.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part addresses the politics of the creation of anthropological knowledge about the region. The second part examines conflict and other forms of political and economic transition through the prisms of youth, gender, tribes and national communities. The third part explores dynamics of religious practice and secularism in the region. Finally, the fourth part examines the effects of new media in the virtual MENA.

One of the strengths of this volume is that it addresses intersections of longstanding themes in the scholarship of the region, such as collective identities (including tribes), religion, and gendered relations (Abu-Lughod 1989), and emerging and contemporary themes, such as the institutionalization of anthropology and the impact of new communication technologies for denizens of the region. Thus, some familiar themes in the ethnography of the region appear here in very contemporary forms, for instance discussion of tribal politics online in Saudi Arabia (Maisel) and the uptake of contraception by middle class women in Morocco (Hughes).

As the editors note, in recent decades anthropologists of MENA have faced the challenge of writing against the grain of dominant representations that focus on violence and terrorism in MENA. This collection certainly does not neglect the extraordinary and the quotidian impact of war and conflict on lives in the region: Suad Joseph’s chapter examines the impact of protracted conflict on youth who have come of age in a time of conflict in Lebanon, and Sondra Hale’s chapter explores for Sudan and Eritrea the politics of trying to “kill” and “colonize” people’s memories in the wake of violent conflict. But the volume also brings to the fore subtle nuances of daily lives that are far from catching international headlines, such as non-Arabic speaking mobile pastoralists who feel excluded from one process of nation-state formation but included in another (Chatty), and the interplay between different conceptions of Islam in Turkey (Shively). A collection which brings together this range of studies will be especially useful for students who are new to the ethnographic study of the region.

For those already familiar with the ethnography of the region, the volume’s reflections on how anthropology has come of age in the region, and how anthropologists rub shoulders with one another in the field and beyond, will be of particular appeal – and will make this collection essential reading for newcomers and longstanding MENA anthropologists. Whilst Slyomovics’ essay traces a “coming of age” of Anglophone anthropological scholarship of MENA, Deeb and Winegar reflect on the formation of a particular generation of post- 9/11 generation of anthropologists and the essay by Anderson reflects on the establishment of anthropology departments in the region, and how the discipline reached some parts of the Middle East through the vehicle of archaeology. Although alternative histories and communities of anthropology in the region, for instance francophone traditions, mostly fall beyond the scope of this discussion, this volume is a timely call to ethnographers of the region, whatever their language, to continue to reflect on the fraught politics of knowledge creation there.

Spanning audiences of undergraduates, graduates and established researchers, this volume will be an extremely useful reference point for scholars of the MENA region, in anthropology and beyond.

Abu-Lughod, L. (1989). "Zones of Theory in the Anthropology of the Arab World." Annual Review of Anthropology 18: 267-306


[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 76 (Winter 2014/15), pp. 100-102]

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