Destroying Yemen: Brothers and Friends Alike, Where Art Thou?

This guest post is part of our MESA blog series published in conjunction with the meeting of the Middle East Studies Association in Washington, D.C., Nov. 18-21. #MESA2017DC

By Isa Blumi, author of Destroying Yemen: What Chaos in Arabia Tells Us about the World, forthcoming January 2018

I wrote Destroying Yemen with the fumes of anger, frustration, and resignation still potent; friends, family, and enemies alike got whiff and knew to stay away. I cannot help, with now almost 1000 days of incessant violence directed at 18 million Yemenis, to feel my initial, and interim inspiration to write, has any hope of changing a thing. Indeed, it was my conclusion, somewhat reconfirmed in light of the recent events in the region, that ultimately my frustration, fear, and outrage cannot offer much support to the real corrective force of Yemeni resistance. As this book begins its journey as part of a public discussion over what has happened in South Arabia, I hope, therefore, to initiate not only an exchange of reactions, denunciations, and snide competitiveness, but an acceptance to ask broader questions about just what we are doing when writing about Yemen, the larger region, and indeed world.

In much of this effort to account for why Destroying Yemen constitutes the concluding strategic calculation of hitherto obscured global interests, I have tried to identify historic roots, as much as future consequences, to chaos in South Arabia. I believe it is not a regional issue, confined to an arena secured by think-tankers or regional experts. Rather, the destruction of Yemen, as a project, an agenda, a frustrated last-ditch strategic shift, implicates a much broader array of interested parties. This is a war with deep roots, reflective of ideologies that expected, demanded, and justified violence to impose an entirely self-serving process of wealth sequestration. Yemen for decades, in other words, has been at the forefront of globalist projects that objectified Yemen’s millions as collateral to a more potent concern with the natural resources that lay under their feet.

Like most scholars working on the region, I fell in love with Yemen. I had the good fortune to experience Yemen as it just became a unified potential reality in the early 1990s. Traveling the breadth of this stunning land, my wish to keep it entirely romantic could not resist, in the end, the intellectual potential of my growing interests. In Yemen, I recognized counter-narratives that begged for deeper analysis. As evident in Destroying Yemen, I refuse, for example, to surrender the relevance of the Ottoman story in Yemen’s modern story; and in this book, I feel I have made my most emphatic case yet for just how crucial it is to bring historic depth to what are clearly not uniquely (post)modern phenomena. Indeed, Yemen’s destruction is so systematic, so deep a crime, largely because of Yemeni resistance to Empire—be it Ottoman and British, or non-governmental agencies empowered by a mission enshrined in neo-liberal discourse. In this respect, I wrote a book that is contemporary as much as historically revisionist.

And yet, I write while millions are going hungry, dying of cholera, and terrorized (but not defeated) by bombs made in the United States, France, Britain, and Sweden. In this light, I end this blog post as I end my book:

… there has been little to admire from the world’s entanglements with beautiful Yemen. In the end, we must conclude that the imprint of would be global hegemons’ ambitions on Yemen takes its most enduring form in graves, bombed medieval cities, and a whimper from starving children no one wants to hear. And with this stark reality, I have nothing left to do. This in the end is just a book.

Isa Blumi is Associate Professor in the Department of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Turkish Studies at Stockholm University. In addition to Destroying Yemen What Chaos in Arabia Tells Us about the World he is the author of Ottoman Refugees, 1878–1939, Foundations of Modernity, and Reinstating the Ottomans.

We Live in a Culture of Commentary

This guest post is published in conjunction with the annual meetings of the Middle Eastern Studies Association in Washington, DC and the American Academy of Religion in Boston, MA, both taking place November 18-21. #MESA2017DC &  #AARSBL17

By Joel Blecher, author of Said the Prophet of God: Hadith Commentary across a Millennium

In many ways, we live in the age of commentary. It seems like every cough, sneeze, and throat clearing is swiftly rendered into text, algorithmically circulated across social media, and subject to endless comments from every perspective. A pundit on every phone, a guru in every garage, and an interpreter on every internet browser.

And yet, our commentarial culture, when viewed historically, is remarkably constrained. Terse, even. We even have a phrase for it: “hot takes,” instant reactions that would seem to tap into humanity’s stream of consciousness in a hundred and forty characters or less. Two-hundred and eighty if you’re lucky.

I have spent the last seven years studying a very different culture of commentary—commentary on Muhammad’s sayings or practices, called hadith. While similar to our contemporary commentarial culture in many respects—a key hub of social and intellectual life—hadith commentaries were multi-volume works of art, monuments to knowledge that required deep learning and decades of training and continuous revision. Commentators dedicated their lives to commenting on a collection of hadith—often passing away before they could complete their work—and meticulously crafted their texts to speak not only to their present, but across long periods of time. These commentaries were built for a kind of time travel—their authors bundled up into quires of paper and ink all of the knowledge they could find in the hopes that readers on the other side of the globe and centuries into the distant future might find some benefit in them. While many perished, the greatest ones actually succeeded, and are still read assiduously today.

I first discovered my interest in hadith commentary when I was invited to attend a live commentary session in Damascus, Syria in 2009. The commentator had spent seven years explaining a single hadith collection, and was only a third of the way through explaining the entire work. Attended by hundreds of students from across the globe, the commentator drew on a rich tradition of commentaries from classical Andalusia, medieval Egypt, and modern India to illuminate the meaning of the hadith for his present audiences. Emulating the practices of his predecessors, he read each hadith aloud, and used each word or phrase to digress on almost every aspect of the human experience. But when I returned to Princeton later that year to begin my doctoral research, I found that virtually nothing had been published on this complex and multi-layered tradition. I could not even find an entry dedicated to the subject in the Encyclopedia of Islam.

After a little digging into the sources, it became clear just how important and exciting this understudied field was. A quick search yielded hundreds of hadith commentaries produced over a thousand years, and each one told a unique story. A hadith commentary sparked public furors in 11th-century Andalusia. In Egypt in the 14th and 15th centuries, live hadith commentary sessions were the stage for spectacular and sometimes destructive rivalries among Muslim chief justices, while the sultans and emirs in attendance doled out gifts, jobs, and even tax breaks. The tradition found new life in British India in the age of print and mass literacy, and Urdu and English commentators emerged to address the political challenges of colonialism but also to solve intellectual problems that, they claimed, their pre-modern predecessors had missed.

Said the Prophet of God tells the story of this living tradition across a millennium, and I hope it will be clear why it deserves more than a “hot take.” As a central hub of Islamic social and intellectual life, the story of how Muslims interpreted and reinterpreted hadith has been a missing piece in the academy’s patchwork understanding of Islam and Islamic history. But this tradition is too vast for a single book or a single scholar to undertake. My hope is that this book spurs on future students and scholars to begin to mine this vast literature. In that spirit, Said the Prophet of God does not pretend to offer the last word on the subject, but rather an introduction to further debate, questions, and commentary.

Joel Blecher is Assistant Professor of History at George Washington University. His writings have appeared in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Oriens, and the Atlantic

Said the Prophet of God explores the rich social and intellectual life of hadith commentary and offers new avenues for the study of religion, history, anthropology, and law.



Women’s Rights in Afghanistan: Strategic Dilemmas

This guest post is part of our MESA blog series published in conjunction with the meeting of the Middle East Studies Association in Washington, D.C., Nov. 18-21. #MESA2017DC

By Torunn Wimpelmann, author of The Pitfalls of Protection: Gender, Violence, and Power in Afghanistan

A few days ago, on the 11th of November 2017, Afghan Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh proudly presented his country’s new penal code. To most legal scholars, justice officials and aid workers it was a moment of satisfaction. Afghanistan’s last penal code was issued in 1976 and outdated. Moreover, since 2001, when the country became awash with expatriate advisors, a large number of standalone codes with criminal provisions had been promulgated, mostly by presidential decree. Regulating issues such as anti-narcotics, money laundering and terrorism, these new codes had been produced in isolation from the overall legal framework, but all (un)conveniently contained a clause stating that it abrogated any other law in contradiction to it, ( and on many occasions there were indeed contradictions, sometimes multiple). Judges was required to refer to ever-increasing number of laws containing criminal provisions, (some fifty according to one estimation) and so the idea of creating a new comprehensive penal code appeared a sensible one.

But one law has not been incorporated into the new code. The Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women ( EVAW Law) will continue to exist as a stand alone piece of legislation, due to some considerations, as the Vice President said. He did not elaborate further but in my book The Pitfalls of Protection, Gender Violence and Power in Afghanistan, the EVAW law features centrally, as it has done in the gender politics of Afghanistan over the last decade and a half. To follow the trajectory of the law, how it was conceived, promoted, contested, and (partly) implemented is to travel alongside some of the major political, religious, sexual and ideological faultlines of the order erected upon the US-led invasion in 2001.

The law, criminalizing 22 acts as violence against women was conceived in 2005. After a series of strategic and substantial battles within the country’s women’s movement, it was enacted as a presidential decree four years later. The EVAW law failed however to be ratified in parliament where conservative MPs denounced it as an anti-Islamic, foreign product and objected in particular to the law’s criminalization of underage and forced marriage, as well as certain forms of wife beating and polygamy. As such, the law had an unclear legal standing, but was nonetheless celebrated as an historical achievement by many in Afghanistan, both Afghan women’s activists and their allies in Western embassies who had been important in securing the law’s enactment. For years now, despite its ambiguous status as a decree, the law has been the focus of a massive implementation apparatus underwritten by development aid.

But not without some controversy. The conservative parliament aside, legal scholars argued that the law had technical flaws and unclear terminology, and that women’s protection would be better served by merging its provisions into the upcoming comprehensive penal code, which would anyway be the main reference point for judges henceforth. Yet, supporters of the law refused, arguing that to dispossess Afghan women of the law especially dedicated to them would be a reactionary move and a setback for women’s protection. The position reflected the particularities under which women’s rights advocates had been working in post-2001 Afghanistan. Both enabled and disabled by the international presence, which had offered them unprecedented political leverage yet also strengthened both Islamist actors and resentment to foreign influence more generally, many women activists seized on opportunities to get (sometimes discretely) progressive frameworks and institutions in place with the help of external allies and untainted by compromises with more conservative national actors. Whether this strategy will stand the test of time remains to be seen. One indicator will be whether the EVAW law will be applied alongside the new penal code, or fade into irrelevance as a mainly symbolic item and a product of a particular era.

Torunn Wimpelmann is a researcher at Chr. Michelsen Institute.

The Pitfalls of Protection is published in University of California Press’s Luminos open access book program. Click here to download a free digital copy.

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Meet Us at MESA. Save 40% on These Titles in Middle Eastern Studies

If you’re headed to the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association this week in Washington, D.C. (Nov. 18-21), be sure to visit UC Press at booth #21 for a 40% discount. Our recent titles in Middle Eastern studies encourage understanding of the region, its politics, and its histories, offering a wide variety of topics appropriate for your research or classroom use.

Take early advantage of the conference discount and start saving today.  Visit our MESA page to browse these titles and more

Throughout the conference, follow along on our blog as we share guest posts from our authors. #MESA2017DC

Ottoman History and the Red Sea

by Alexis Wick

This guest post is part of a series published in conjunction with the meeting of the Middle East Studies Association in Boston. UC Press authors share insight into their research and stories that reflect this year’s conference themes. We hope these personal glimpses into their scholarship will inspire a broad community of readers. Come back for new posts every day between now and November 13th.

The Red Sea: In Search of Lost Space book coverOttoman history has exploded out of its well-protected niche, and begun sustained dialogues with historians of various stripes on questions of global import. This is not to say that Ottomanists had not previously been posing relevant questions, or conducting meaningful conversations with colleagues in other fields until recently (Ranke read Hammer-Purgstall, Barkan influenced Braudel)—but the sheer intensity of the debates involving Ottomanist historians, and the attention devoted to the Ottoman past by non-specialists is without a doubt unprecedented. Ottomanists are putting their stamp on the imperial turn, the cultural turn, the linguistic turn, the back-to-the-social turn, and now, the oceanic and the spatial turn. This is the biblioscape in which my book wanders.

Sitting on the shoulders of giants (Orhonlu, Özbaran, Bostan, Hess, Tuchscherer, Brummett, among many others, and behind them all, of course, the ubiquitous Halil Inalcik, now sadly departed), I set out to research the history of the Red Sea after the fashion of Braudel’s famous Mediterranean: a coherent vessel, moored in a specific era (in my case, the late 18th, early 19th c.) and anchored to the very long term, the longue durée. Hence the work’s pertinence,  since it fills an obvious gap in the literature: there has been no such book devoted to the Red Sea, despite the obvious coherence of the space, and the increasing publicity of sea-centered historical narratives. But I quickly realized that the Ottomans did not call that area the Red Sea, nor did they, in fact, conceive of it as an integral whole—until the second half of the 19th century, that is, and the expansion of European global power. My book thus also proposes answers to other questions as well: why had the history of the Ottoman Red Sea not been written? Is it meaningful that the Ottomans did not always call it the red sea? How did they conceive of the area? And what does all this tell us about the historian’s craft more generally?

Alexis Wick is Assistant Professor of History at the American University of Beirut. The Red Sea: In Search of Lost Space is available now. Listen to his interview on the Ottoman History Podcast.

Please use hashtag #MESA2016Boston when sharing on Twitter or Facebook.

Narratives of the Great War and the Creation of the New Middle East

by Salim Tamari, author of The Great War and the Remaking of Palestine

This guest post is part of a series published in conjunction with the meeting of the Middle East Studies Association in Boston. UC Press authors share insight into their research and stories that reflect this year’s conference themes. We hope these personal glimpses into their scholarship will inspire a broad community of readers. Come back for new posts every day between now and November 13th.

Salim Tamari book cover

The Great War on the Eastern Front, viewed in hindsight one century later, led to major transformations in the way in which the people of the region—from the Ottoman capital of Istanbul to the Arab provinces of the Empire—looked at themselves and at the world. In my recent research I examine how the war and the fighting were reflected in the biographical trajectories of soldiers who fought in it, and civilians who endured it, and how the war led to the transformation of their lives, their societies, and reshaped their identity and affinities during and after the war.

The war was so devastating that, according to contemporary accounts, it took a toll of one-sixth of the total population of greater Syria—one of the highest among all war’s faught during that period. The victims, both civilians and combatants, perished from war, hunger, famine and diseases. Tens of thousands of civilians died as a result of the British naval blockade of food supplies coming into ports like Jaffa and Beirut, as well as as a result of sequestration of crops for the Fourth and Fifth Army Corps in Syria, commanded by Jamal Pasha. The urban landscape was devastated in a way that recalls, under different circumstances a century later, the destruction that we witness today in Syria and Iraq. At the time, Greater Syria—that is, the Ottoman provinces of Bilad ash-Sham, which included Palestine and Mount Lebanon—suffered the largest proportion of deaths of any region in the world, even when compared with Belgium, Britain, Germany and France.

I have examined this great transformation through the lives of several civilians and soldiers whose life trajectories marked the transition from Ottomanism to the new nationalist identities in the Middle East: Arab, Turkish, Kurdish, and others. Those narratives were published in the form of diaries and memoirs, as well as in semi-fictional accounts. A leading figure among civilian writers was the pedagogue Khalil Sakakini, who kept a daily diary during the war in Jerusalem. His account is riveting in that it captured a vivid portrait for the desolation of the city in 1915 and 1916, the famine years, and the urban collapse that followed. Another figure was Muhammad Kurd Ali, whose Damascene memoirs include his period as a publicist, some critics would say apologist, for the excesses of Jamal and Anwar (Enver) Pashas in Syria and Palestine. He was the chief organizer of two expeditions of Arab public figures and intellectuals to the Gallipoli and the Medina (in the Arabian Peninsula) to defend the war effort and bring the experience of the fighters to the general Arab public.

The most important fictional work to come out of the Great War in Arabic is The Life of Mifleh al Ghassani (1921), by the Palestinian writer and journalist, Najib Nassar. Subtitled “A Page from the Events of the Great War,” the novella is a thinly disguised autobiographical war memoir of the author, who spent 1916–1917 hiding from the Turkish gendarmes in the Bedouin encampments of the Jordan Valley, escaping possible execution on changes of being pro-British.

Another set of diaries and memoirs involves writings by fighters and military recruits. Soldiers’ narratives of the war were rarer, in large part because literacy was limited, but also because soldiers’ diaries did not survive the toll of exile, trench warfare, and fear of discovery. I have examined the narratives of three soldiers’ diaries that reached us against the odds, showing the impact of the war the lives of Ottoman (Arab and Turkish) soldiers. Their narratives are doubly significant because, contrary to popular assumptions, the manner in which their consciousness was transformed did not always correspond to their ethnic background.

The biographic trajectories of the three soldiers suggest several responses by soldiers to their experience of war: rethinking and reinvention of identity (Muhammad Fasih); separatist nationalism (Aref Shehadeh); and pacifism (Ihsan al- Turjman). Two conclusions can be drawn from these observations. First, the reconstruction of identity experienced in the Great War was ephemeral. Self-conceptions transform themselves through ruptures at a very fast rate during times of war, because the war disrupts the tempo of the daily routine. It compels us to rethink where we were and where we are heading in the immediate future. The second conclusion is that, when people are faced with devastation, they tend to revert to the comfort and security of local identity—because it is protective and familiar and allows people to insulate themselves from the seeming impending collapse of the world around them. This reverberates with the experience of Iraqis and Syrians in the current battles with Da’esh one hundred years later.

Salim Tamari is Professor of Sociology at Birzeit University, Palestine; Research Associate at the Institute of Palestine Studies; and the author of Mountain Against the Sea and Year of the Locust. UC Press will publish The Great War and the Remaking of Palestine in 2017.

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Academic Freedom and the Middle East Studies Association

When Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate was published in the fall of 2015, the author, Abdel Bari Atwan, was planning on coming to the United States for a book and lecture tour. We ultimately had to cancel those plans because Atwan’s visa was never issued. On August 2 of this year, the Middle East Studies Association wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry with their concern that this delay was a de facto denial of his visa, a move that has troubling implications for academic and journalistic freedom in the United States.

The letter is posted in its entirety below:

The Honorable John F. Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
via fax 202-647-1811

Dear Mr. Secretary,

We write to you on behalf of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) and its Committee on Academic Freedom to express our concern regarding the visa application of the journalist and political analyst Abdel Bari Atwan, who had been scheduled to make a speaking appearance at New York University as well as at a number of policy fora and book fairs in the fall of 2015. Despite having received visas to enter the United States on previous occasions, Mr. Atwan was not granted a visa for this trip and was therefore compelled to cancel it.

MESA was founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and North Africa. The preeminent organization in the field, the Association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has nearly 3,000 members worldwide. MESA is committed to ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.

Abdel Bari Atwan is a highly respected journalist; he was the founding editor of the London-based newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi and is currently editor of Rai al-Youm. In order to publicize his new book, Islamic State: the Digital Caliphate, its publisher, the University of California Press, organized a promotional tour for Mr. Atwan to the United States from 16-21 November 2015. His planned appearances included the World Affairs Council (San Francisco), the Cambridge Forum (Cambridge, MA), a lecture at New York University’s Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, and the Miami International Book Fair. As noted above, this would not have been Mr. Atwan’s first trip to the US. His last visit was in 2009, but he had made a number of trips before that, often speaking at universities, including Harvard and Columbia. He applied for a visa and went for his visa interview in London on 26 August 2015. Despite numerous inquiries, by both email and phone, he received no response to his visa application and was therefore forced to cancel his trip. Indeed, as of this writing, nearly a year later, Mr. Atwan still has received no response.

Preventing a recognized author, journalist, and intellectual from traveling to speak on his area of expertise at the invitation of an American institution of higher education is contrary to the principles of academic freedom, freedom of speech, and the free exchange of ideas. To do so with no explanation is even more disturbing and outrages the sensibilities of a democratic society.

We therefore urge you in the strongest possible terms to immediately investigate the prolonged and unusual delay in responding to Mr. Abdel Bari Atwan’s visa request and to make public the reasons for such a delay, a delay that amounts to a de facto denial of his application. We further urge you to do all that is within your power to make it possible for him to come to the United States in the near future so that scholars, journalists, and other Americans may engage with him and his perspectives in a vigorous exchange of ideas on foreign policy issues of broad public concern.

We look forward to your response.


Beth Baron
MESA President
Professor, City University of New York

Amy W. Newhall
MESA Executive Director
Associate Professor, University of Arizona

Abdel Bari Atwan is a Palestinian writer and journalist. He was the editor in chief at the London-based daily al-Quds al-Arabi for twenty-five years and now edits the Rai al-Youm news website—the Arab world’s first Huffington Post–style outlet. He is a regular contributor to a number of publications, including the Guardian and the Scottish Herald, and he is a frequent guest on radio and television, often appearing on the BBC’s Dateline London.

Atwan interviewed Osama bin Laden twice in the late 1990s and has cultivated uniquely well-placed sources within the various branches of al Qaeda and other jihadi groups, including IS, over the last twenty years. His books includeThe Secret History of al Qaeda and After bin Laden: Al Qaeda, the Next Generation, as well as a memoir, A Country of Words: A Palestinian Journey from the Refugee Camp to the Front Page.