The Anthropology of the Middle East and North Africa (Review)

Hafez, Sherine and Susan Slyomovics, eds. 2013. Anthropology of the Middle East and North Africa: Into the New Millennium. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 414 pp. Pb.: $26.52. ISBN-10: 025300753

Based on a 2010 conference in the Center for Near Eastern studies in UCLA, this volume will invariably disappoint anyone who, perhaps mislead by its title, seeks an exhaustive overview of the field of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) anthropology. However, to the extent that it offers “selected anthropological studies of the MENA that represent a trend in opposition to the historical pattern of Orientalizing peoples of the region” (xiv), especially through “the potential of ethnographic methodologies to serve as a catalyst for theoretical debate” (xv), this volume is a good addition to the anthropological body of work on the region.  

The book is divided in four sections. The first section examines the historical and institutional constitution of MENA anthropology. Slyomovics starts by critically assessing major works in the field’s history, starting from Carleton Coon’s Caravan to Said’s Orientalism. With a similar approach, Shami & Naguib outline, in broad strokes, the changing conceptions of identity and difference in MENA anthropology. Contrasting with these textual overviews, Anderson highlights the role of archeological institutions in encouraging early MENA anthropologists to embark on ethnographic fieldwork, while Silverstein examines anthropology’s influence on identity-making in the Maghreb since colonial times. Finally, in a very interesting survey of current MENA anthropologists in the United States, Deeb & Winegar bring to light the political pressures placed by American academic institutions on the study of the region, including surreptitious censorship on any engagement with the Palestinian question.           

Following the first section, the book suffers from a clear lack of cohesiveness. The second section, by far the least cohesive, comprises a frugal chapter on youth in the Middle East (Joseph); some reflections on memories of violence among Sudanese and Eritrean refugees (Hale); an ethno-history of negotiations between the Harasii tribe and the Omani State (Chatty); and an analysis of trust receipts in neoliberal Port Said, Egypt (Hegel-Cantarella). The third section, coalescing around a more defined theme (religion/secularism), begins with a strong Asadian essay on the false opposition between Islam and rationality (Hafez), followed by essays on the history of secularism in Turkey (Shively); on historical encounters between Shari’a and Western legal systems (Dahlgren); and, less in topic, on female experiences of contraception in Morocco (Hughes). The final section, focusing on media, includes three case studies on: 1) the role of national television in the 1975 Green March in Morocco (Spadola); 2) the online redefinition of tribal identity in Saudi Arabia (Maisel); and 3) the role of the Arab and Iranian blogospheres in MENA politics (Karagueuzian & Chrabieh Badine).

The central arguments in each chapter are too often overshadowed by political overgeneralizations. For instance, when Shami & Naguib write that “new forms of knowledge about identity and difference in this region are central to the new social imaginaries that are emerging and being contested in city squares and streets every day” (24), the statement’s political optimism is not only too vague to constitute serious political analysis, but it obscures the significance and the specific definition of the “new forms of knowledge” presented by MENA anthropology. Beyond overgeneralization – a minor issue overall – there is a very evident gap between the first section, which very aptly covers the academic legacy of MENA anthropology, and the remaining sections, which inadequately cover their allotted themes (respectively, subjectivity, religion, and media). Even when we consider each chapter individually, the balance between theory and ethnography is often lacking, either by the depth of description (Joseph; Maisel) or, in cases where the description is strong enough, by theoretical ingenuity (Shively; Karagueuzian & Chrabieh Badine). Among more balanced chapters, one should cite Chatty’s analysis, which ties the history of relations between the Harasiis and the Omani State to issues of identity-making among nomadic tribes in modern nation-states, as well as Hegel-Cantarella’s analysis, which ties the economy of trust receipts in Port Said to more general issues concerning the trustworthiness of economic exchanges in legal regimes which are materially supported by documents. Also worthy of mention is Hafez’s chapter, a well-written genealogy of the notion of “rationality” in European and Islamic intellectual history.

All in all, this book will interest the non-specialist seeking introductory case studies in MENA anthropology, but it may fall short for the specialist, who will find few chapters combining ethnographic substance with theoretical finesse (excepting Chatty; Hegel-Cantarella; Hafez). The first section should provide some solace, however, since it presents interesting insights into the intellectual and institutional history of MENA anthropology in the United States, the implicit academic locus of the volume.  

This review was initially published in 2014 by Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale, vol. 22, no. 4, pp. 507-508