Tribal Modern, by miriam cooke

Discussion of underground and emergent queer cultures are interesting, but Caroline Osella wishes for more insight from a respected scholar

February 20, 2014

A 2008 article by the eminent US scholar miriam cooke, “Deploying the Muslimwoman”, has been highly influential in gender, postcolonial and Middle Eastern studies, providing a sophisticated counterpoint to the blunt instrument of “intersectionality”. I found it disappointing, therefore, that Tribal Modern is less impressive.

This short book is peppered with common tropes about the Gulf, unhelpful analytic frameworks and a lack of empirical texture, and is exemplary of a genre in which an academic with some exposure to Gulf society overlooks serious engagement with the field of Gulf studies in favour of a fairly fast and furious introduction to some predictable themes.

The author re-rehearses such easy shockers as the labour camp versus the gated community, veiled women in Gucci, falcon markets and indoor ski slopes, and the camel train passing the traffic roundabout. This is all the more puzzling given that cooke’s avowed intent is to contest both banal and entrenched clichés of this kind and also the underlying assumptions that “modern” must mean something like “Western” or “liberal”. But since the latter argument has not held sway in academic circles for some 15 years (at least since the “multiple modernities” debate arose, and arguably earlier), it is hardly one begging to be dismantled. In contrast to the subtlety of some other recent work on the Gulf, such as Neha Vora’s 2013 study Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora, cooke’s discussion of nation, ethnicity, border and boundary draws on arguments that are neither fresh nor challenging.

The concept of the barzakh – a space of water where sweet and salt seas meet, a metaphysical space between this world and the eternal – is used here as a recurring image to speak of the ways in which people throughout the region are held together but apart. Although it is an interesting metaphor, it feels a little artificial, especially when measured against Andrew Gardner’s 2010 exploration of Gulf traditions of hospitality and housing, City of Strangers: Gulf Migration and the Indian Community in Bahrain. Gardner’s choice of analytic metaphor is a more robust and materially recognisable framework: the khaleeji home, with its internal-external space set aside especially for the stranger-visitor-guest. Comparison with Gardner’s and Vora’s work (neither is engaged with here) serves to underscore Tribal Modern’s lack of empirical texture and its bibliographic and analytic thinness.

More interesting than cooke’s reworking of arguments about heritage or purification (drawing on well-known work by Sulayman Khalaf and James Onley) is less familiar material on underground and emergent queer cultures, and on the DNA testing being done in the name of proving tribal roots. However, these discussions could have been more helpful if they had moved beyond a summary of the work of another scholar, Noor Al-Qasimi. As it is, cooke’s discussions leave us not much wiser than if we had read about the same phenomena in Dubai’s English-language daily, the Khaleej Times.

Although cooke sets out useful material on the crucial importance for locals of the distinctions between Bedouin, Bedoon and Hadar cultures, she then uses familiar images of specifically Bedouin life as anchors for a more general sense of Gulf life, heritage and identity. She is arguably thereby replicating the very logics of the nostalgic selective memory and partial erasure that, she correctly notes, are the stock-in-trade of Gulf-wide heritage projects and national branding.

I regret that such a brilliant and respected scholar has produced a book that fails to fully represent her acknowledged expertise and intellectual gifts.

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