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Review of Red Sea Citizens. Cosmopolitan Society and Cultural Change in Massawa


By Jane Plastow

Red Sea Citizens. Cosmopolitan Society and Cultural Change in Massawa. Jonathan Miran. Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis, 2009. Pp. 380. ISBN. 1-800-842-6796 (pb). $27.95.

Red Sea Citizens is a history of the (currently) Eritrean port city of Massawa, focusing on the 19th century but reaching back as far as the 1500s and moving up to the 1920s. It is key to the city’s identity and to Jonathan Miran’s approach to historical retelling that during this period Massawa has come under the aegis of a range of empires, all of which have helped contributed to development of a distinctive but cosmopolitan sense of Massawan identity. Miran’s central argument is that port cities in many parts of the world, but particularly along the Red Sea and the East African coast, should not be allowed to be simply subsumed into a nationalist discourse – as both Ethiopians and Eritreans have sought to do at times in respect of Massawa – but rather that their culture is created by the heterogeneous peoples drawn to such entrepots and the trade routes that international ports service. A telling story Miran recounts to illustrate this point is that following Eritrean independence in 1993 a census was held for which people were asked to detail their ethnicity and tribe. Many people living in the port simply put down Massawan; seeing the city itself as the locus of their identity.

Miran’s history eschews the chronological other than in his first chapter which takes us up to the 1850s, with Massawa loosely under Ottoman control, though de facto power over the whole lowland region surrounding and including the city was ceded to the na’ibs (deputies) who became an hereditary ruling family. The meticulous research that characterises Red Sea Citizens reveals that Ottoman influence was a major factor in promoting the heterogeneous nature the Massawan population. Members of the city garrison came from as far away as Bosnia and Afghanistan before settling, naturalising themselves amongst the Massawan populace where the major symbol of unity was common membership of the Islamic umma. The history deals with a period under Egyptian control, from 1865-1885, and then Massawan incorporation into the Italian colony of Eritrea, though this book seldom moves beyond the 1920s to speak of the further political turmoil in the region throughout the 20th century. Miran focuses on the 19th and early 20th centuries because this was the most prosperous period of Massawan history.

The book’s subsequent chapters detail the enormously long trade routes in which Massawa was involved, both into the African interior and connecting with world trade centres in the export of slaves, ivory, gum, gold, horn, spices and the tremendously important local pearl and mother of pearl diving industries. There is a highly detailed look at Massawan traders, a chapter on Massawa as ‘A sacred Muslim island’ and a final look at families, identity and inter-relationships in ‘Being Massawan’. The excellent collection of images Miran has collected to illustrate his text are a real bonus. As a long-time lover of Massawa I have learnt a huge amount about the city from this book, but it is sometimes a daunting read. Red Sea Citizens is obviously an adaptation of a PhD that would have benefitted from editing to make it more economical and concise. The repeated lists of names are meticulous but useful in such detail to only the most specialist reader, and the thematic structure of the book does lead to an at times irritating sense of repetition of information in only slightly differentiated ways. Most of the Conclusion is simply a recapping of facts previously narrated. With these caveats this is still an often fascinating book that helps us understand Massawa from the perspective of Massawans, not as the sleepy Red Sea outpost it has been reduced to in recent years but as a long-time international centre of trade and Islam.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 72 (Winter 2010/11), pp. 133-134]

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