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Tribal Modern by Miriam Cooke

Tribal Modern Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf

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Chapter One


"Where are you from?" I asked the attendant at one of the women's dorms at Education City in Doha. Having noted the Qatari accent and the `abaya, I had assumed that this woman was one of the few Qataris working a lowly job.


"Were you born in Iran?"

"No. Here."

"And your parents?"


"And your grandparents?"

Nodding, she smiled. It was like sharing an insider joke. She knew the name of the town she was supposedly from but she was not sure where exactly it was located except that it was somewhere across the Gulf in the South. Near Shiraz? Yes, yes, near Shiraz.

I felt myself in a time warp. This "Iranian" woman reminded me of my South Asian travel companions in the human cargo boat almost forty years earlier. Children of those who stayed would probably have had her experience and felt the same way but with a major difference. Indians cannot pass like those Iranians who look Arab.


A Millennial Crossroad

Since the 1960s, Asian workers have poured into the Gulf countries. Some have settled and had children, but virtually none have become citizens. Regular remittances to families across the Indian Ocean connect them to a home where they dream to return. So important are these laborers to the home economy that they have changed the face of some Asian villages and towns. Novelist Amitav Ghosh describes a road in Mangalore lined with "large houses, some new, with sharp geometric lines and bright pastel colours that speak eloquently of their owners' affiliations with the Persian Gulf" (Ghosh 1994, 284). These Asian immigrants are the latest in a long line of travelers who have moved back and forth across the vast oceanic spaces separating the Gulf from the western coasts of the Indian Subcontinent and the eastern coasts of the African continent. Today the paths between the nodes of the ancient Indian Ocean network are more traveled than ever.

Rivaling the Pharaohs in their antiquity, these trading networks go back to the Bronze Age and the Bahrain-based civilization of Dilmun (2450-1700 BCE). Dilmun linked the ancient cities of Hufuf and Qatif in the eastern region of the Arabian Peninsula and Awal in Bahrain. Source of a cosmopolitan ethos that characterized the Gulf long before the rise of Islam, Dilmun was called Ard al-khulud, or the Land of Eternity. Mesopotamians, like Gilgamesh the legendary king of Sumerian Uruk, went there hoping to escape death1. Recent archaeological excavations have made clear how broad and deep were Gulf trading networks that connected Babylonia, Oman, East Africa and the Indian Subcontinent four millennia ago2. "Indus Valley seals have turned up at Ur and other Mesopotamian sites. 'Persian Gulf' types of circular stamped rather than rolled seals, known from Dilmun, that appear at Lothal in Gujarat, India, and Faylahkah, as well as in Mesopotamia, are convincing corroboration of the long-distance sea trade."3

By the ninth century CE Gulf trade networks had spread to Southeast and even East Asia: "The recent discovery of an Arab dhow off the coast of Belitung in Indonesia laden with some 60,000 pieces of gold, silver, precious cobalt and white ninth-century Tang ceramics confirms the existence of a busy maritime trade route between Baghdad and Xian, capital of Tang China. Ships filled with aromatic woods from Africa and fine textiles and goods from Abbasid Baghdad would leave Basra and pass through the Gulf" (Fromherz 2012, 43-44). Sailors leaving the Gulf in November their dhows full of pearls and dates would return months later laden with spices, rice, sugar and wood, especially Indian teak for doors and windows and Zanzibar mangrove poles for ceilings. With the wood and spices they also brought back new ideas and technologies from distant ports in the Indian Ocean.

These trading voyages generated prolonged contact between people separated by sea but linked by commerce. Writing about Kuwait, Anh Nga Longva describes long-distance ties that were common in the region: "Even ordinary merchants and sailors sometimes maintained households in both Kuwait and the towns along the trade route. Basra, Karachi, Calicut, Sur, Aden, Lamu, Mombasa, and Zanzibar were the nodal points through which pre-oil Kuwaiti society connected with the other participants in the sea-trade network centered around the Indian Ocean" (Longva 1997, 21). These men, whether from Kuwait or other Gulf ports, led multiple lives often with multiple wives.

From the earliest times, war, natural disasters, pilgrimage and trade have attracted travelers to the Gulf region. Statues in the trading hub of Thaj just west of Dammam provide evidence of a lesser-known stop along the route of Alexander the Great's fourth-century BCE military conquests. In Yemen, the repeated ruptures of the Ma`rib Dam until the sixth century CE drove Yemenis out of the area and many chose to move to the Gulf. From the seventh century, Muslim proselytizing and pilgrimage networks utilized the ancient frankincense and spice caravan routes. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Indian Ocean and Mesopotamian subjects were trading and sparring with the Portuguese in the Gulf. More recently, imperial struggles between the Ottomans and the British brought new foreign elements into the mix. They fought for control of the valuable waterways that linked the Mediterranean with the Indian Ocean and the British with their Indian Raj.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, traffic in the Gulf had become intensely multicultural. Travelers, including pearl dealers from as far away as Paris, described a scene where Persians, Iraqis, Indians, Beluchis, Afghans, British, French, descendants of sixteenth century Portuguese, Zanzibaris, Yemenis, Hadhramis, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese all lived in the region (Al-Rasheed 2005, 3). In 1865, the British traveler William Palgrave described the colorful mix of foreigners in Manamah: "Thus the gay-coloured dress of the southern Persian, the saffron-stained vest of Oman, the white robe of Nejed, and the striped gown of Baghdad, are often to be seen mingling with the light garments of Bahreyn [...] Indians, merchants by profession, and mainly from Guzerat, Cutch, and their vicinity, keep up here all their peculiarities of costume and manner, and live among the motley crowd" (quoted in Onley 2005, 59).

When oil was discovered in the early twentieth century, a new group of migrants-Americans-entered the Gulf. Thus began the latest phase in Gulf cosmopolitanism.

Cities of Salt

For some, however, this period was less cosmopolitan than it was neo-colonial. In the 1980s and early 1990s, several writers narrated the conversion of the desert into concrete jungles in a process as violent as the colonizing missions that the British and the French had brought to the Arab world in the nineteenth century. In his five-volume Cities of Salt (1984) Saudi oil economist and novelist in exile `Abd al-Rahman Munif narrates the destructiveness of American oil imperialism that begins in early 1930s in the fictional Wadi al-`Uyun, the Valley of Springs so named because of its many water springs.

The narrative unfolds a scene of betrayal. Generous as they might be to strangers who made it across the inhospitable territory that surrounded them, the tribes of the oasis kept to themselves. But one day it was rumored that three Franks, aka Christians, had arrived. Anxiety spread with the news that the foreigners spoke Arabic and they cited the Qur'an. Why had these strangers come? Why were they asking so many questions "about dialects, about tribes, and their disputes, about religion and sects, about the routes, the winds and the rainy seasons"? Why were they so concerned to find out whether other foreigners had preceded them (Munif 1989, 31)?

The Arabic-speaking foreigners were American oil prospectors who claimed to be looking for water. But the locals became suspicious when the strangers' inquiries concerned remote places not known to have wells or springs. The Americans stayed a few days and then left only to return several months later with many others with whom they set up camp. Alarmed, a local delegation confronted the Emir, and he explained that he had invited the Americans because they "have come to extract the oil and the gold" under the tribes' feet; this oil and gold will make them all rich (86). Soon, huge yellow machines filled the desert with their roar. By the time they were done uprooting the palm trees and orchards of the tribes the invading Americans had reduced the idyllic oasis to desert.

An agent of the local ruler plotting with the Americans warned the people of Wadi al-`Uyun to leave if they wanted to be compensated: "The emir has said good riddance to anyone who wants their desert and tribe, but for those who want a place to live, the government is arranging everything" (111, my emphasis). Wadi al-`Uyun was thus not a real place, according to the American understanding of place.

Everyone left, everyone, that is, except for a crazy old woman who died the eve of the departure. The only way to stay in the old Wadi al-`Uyun was to be buried in its sand. Now this newly desertified space "that no longer had a name since the houses had been destroyed and all the landmarks obliterated" (187) was ready to be turned into the kind of place where camels, the sine qua non of pre-oil tribal life, no longer were of use. Without camels the tribes had no means of livelihood and to survive they had to work with the Americans.

Meanwhile, the Americans established themselves in Harran, a hellhole of a place on the Gulf. It was to be "a port and headquarters of the company, as well as a city of finality and damnation... Within less than a month two cities began to rise: Arab Harran and American Harran4" (198, 206). After American Harran had been built, the Arabs wanted their city to be just like it. But that was not to be5. Housed in barracks, the Bedouin were reduced to laborers who watched the Americans cavort and "do just as they please in their own colony" (216, my emphasis). In true colonial fashion, the Americans had asserted power over potential rebels.6 The novel trumpets a warning: outsiders are dangerous; their desire for the Arabs' land and wealth must be checked7.

The Bedouin had treated the American oil prospectors with the suspicion they reserved for outsiders. Outsiders were not from Mars; they were part, albeit an unwanted part, of their lives, and the Bedouin had always kept them on the edge of their society. These latest outsiders, however, could not be prevented from venturing deep into Bedouin territory. Their desire for black gold would keep them there indefinitely.


Munif's novel fictionalizes a process that became painfully evident soon after the discovery and exploitation of oil. Harrans mushroomed all over the Gulf, and foreigners began to outnumber the native population. The stream of workers has grown exponentially and with their exploding numbers the fear factor. Even though most of the migrants are the poorest of the poor from Asia and Africa, utterly dependent on their local sponsors, without any rights and with the most meager of hopes to sustain families back home, their visibility everywhere has led to fear of their contaminating influence and a determination to deny them the rights and entitlements of citizenship8. They have instituted exclusionary policies that range from "formal categorization and legislation to informal customs and practices in everyday life and the manipulation of cultural values and symbols" (Longva 1997, 44). Some of these exclusions are institutionalized; others are symbolic. No matter how long they have lived there, the vast majority of foreigners remain physically and socially apart from the citizen community. Prevented from integrating, they must stay ever alert to internal borders they cannot cross9.

In their segregation, they become the "Other," a single block of alterity in whose mirror Gulf Arabs see their own identity reflected. But within this block, the international workers are socially stratified and enclosed in ethnic compounds. What sociologist Asef Bayat observes about Dubai might be said about any of the Gulf States, "Dubai turns out to be no more than a 'city-state of relatively gated communities' marked by sharp communal and spatial boundaries, with labor camps (of South Asian migrants) and the segregated milieu of parochial jet-setters, or the 'cosmopolitan' ghettos of the western elite expatriates who remain bounded within the physical safety and cultural purity of their own reclusive collectives" (Bayat 2010, 186-187; see also Khalaf 2006, 251-256). A chasm yawns between the native citizens and both sets of others: the educated cosmopolitans and the laboring underclass.

With no hope of acquiring citizenship10 or of returning home because of the crushing debts they owe their sponsors, the migrant laborers survive in slums on the city margins or in desert camps. For second and third generation workers, to be Pakistani in Dubai does not designate a country of origin. It means belonging to a group of rootless people who live, work and die together with compatriots in the only place they know to call home: Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Umm al-Quwain, Ajman, Fujairah, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. They have no rights. They are thrown together in what looks like the "everyday cosmopolitanism" of multicultural urban centers, but with a difference. For if cosmopolitanism is "both a social condition and an ethical project... with humanistic objectives," as Asef Bayat maintains, then what we see in the Gulf is not cosmopolitanism but communalism of the "inward-looking and close-knit ethnic or religious collectives [who] espouse narrow, exclusive, and selfish interests" (Bayat 2010, 186). There is good reason to place foreigners in enclaves. When a financial crisis occurs, projects are put on hold and foreign laborers risk being dispatched so that life for the native citizens may continue generally undisturbed. Adam Hanieh uses the term "spatialization" to explain how such geo-political mechanisms of social control allow for the "spatial displacement of crisis" (Hanieh 2011, 179, 60, 63, 65).

Although Americans and Europeans are accorded privileges generally unavailable to South and Southeast Asians and to Africans, internal distinctions place the wealthy maharaja above the middle class European. Wealth trumps ethnicity among the professional expatriates whom Longva calls "educated cosmopolitans." Making up the middle classes between the Gulf Arabs and the manual laborers, this "ethnically composite population shared one common feature, a 'creolized' expatriate culture with elements from multiple origins expressed in a major Western idiom-mostly English, occasionally French-and coalesced around values that were perceived as Western" (Longva 1997, 136). These educated cosmopolitans "close ranks across nationalities, united in their eager embracement of 'Western' identity" (138). In other words, Western identity has become legible as middle class status. Class notwithstanding, native citizens view most outsiders with a suspicion that may escalate to panic.

"Expatriates are a danger worse than the atomic bomb," some officials recently warned.11 Under intense surveillance, they experience a discrimination common "in modern societies characterized by an advanced system of social welfare since, to be genuinely meaningful, these social goods are necessarily limited, and their enjoyment is therefore contingent on proof of national membership" (Longva 1997, 7; see 2005, 126). This proof is external. It is performed in dress and language that distinguish the native citizens from the immigrant workers. The streets, where the non-citizens come into contact with the citizens and where "collective dissent may be both expressed and produced" (Bayat 2010, 167), attract the greatest scrutiny. Even if the non-citizens do not intend to rebel, their mere public presence terrifies and drives the authorities to "normalizing violence, erecting walls and checkpoints, as a strategic element of everyday life ... [for the disenfranchised] the streets are the main, perhaps the only place where they perform their daily functions-to assemble, make friends, earn a living, spend their leisure time, and express discontent. In addition, streets are also the public places where the state has the most evident presence, which is expressed in police patrol, traffic regulations, and spatial divisions" (12, 62, 212). Streets are systematically surveilled to make sure undesirables, especially working class bachelors, stay out of sight and back in their desert camps.

During holidays, plain-clothes police instinctively sort the sheep from the goats of Asian flaneurs and shoo them away. To the uninitiated, the fine distinctions between social classes within a single national group disappear in the casual attire of public leisure places. Yet, the local police can smell class even across the six-lane highway that some workers in their Sunday best are trying to cross in order to join the families enjoying the Corniche or public parks. In mufti and trying to act like everyone else, the plain-clothed police stride toward the spot their prey is approaching. Just as he recognizes them so they recognize him. Most give up. For the hardy few, those who dare to assert civic rights of access to public places, there's a brief encounter. The courageous are humiliated and compelled to slink back. They had misread open space for a public place. They were guilty of violating public interest, interest that depends on keeping social classes separate (Chakrabarty 2002, 77).

The management of foreigners has produced two separate domains, the pure and the contaminated. Saudi Raja' `Alim explores these separate worlds in her Mecca novels that mix magic, perfume and fantasy. Although strangers are the norm in a Mecca where pilgrims often stay and become part of the city's life, the Meccans keep them at a distance. Sri Lankans, Indonesians and Ethiopians stave off hunger by "eating vermin and drinking the water of Zamzam" (`Alim 2007, 158). These outsiders with their disgusting diets and broken Arabic bear the contamination of what they eat: vermin. The holy waters of the Zamzam well may counteract the dire consequences of their condition, yet they remain a source of dread (158,162, 230, 236-237).

Post-oil mass migrations to the Arab Gulf have caused anxiety that verges on panic. Native citizens fear that foreigners, who outnumber them everywhere except Bahrain and Kuwait, will become what Asef Bayat calls a social non-movement. The power of such actors emerges out of their large numbers and their "common practices of everyday life" (Bayat 2010, 20 original emphases). Poised to unite in what Hannah Arendt has called a tribal nationalism with no "definite home but (feeling) at home wherever other members of their 'tribe' happened to live" (Arendt 1979, 232) these rootless inside-outsiders threaten to demand a share in the national wealth. To deflect a rights discourse and maintain their monopoly over resources, Gulf Arabs emphasize their deep history in a region free of foreigners12. The narrative of a pure past is a fiction, but it is a fiction with strong roots in the psychological stress of the present moment when black gold is producing new contradictions.

Forget the Multicultural Past

The region's rich multicultural history is being erased. This erasure appears most clearly in the surprising rewriting of merchant histories. The families of traders who connected crucial nodes in the Indian Ocean networks "downplay or deny their transnational heritage in response to the Arabization policies of the Gulf Arab governments [...] In the Gulf today, public discussion about the Persian, Indian and African mothers of past shaikhs and shaikhas is strongly discouraged" (Onley 2005, 60, 62). Any discussion of such intermarriage in the past challenges the purity of 21st century Gulf Arabs and so is erased. Although "multiculturalism has defined the Gulf since time immemorial" (Fox et al. 2006, 267), it dissolves into myths of millennial isolation. Tribal elites' rejection of a past filled with cross-cultural encounters is not anomalous. Rather, it mirrors a reflex of modernity that promotes "the systematic erasure of continuous and deep-felt encounters [that] have marked human history throughout the globe" (Trouillot 2002, 846). "Spectacular domination's first priority," Guy Debord confirms, "was to eradicate historical knowledge in general; beginning with just about all rational information and commentary on the most recent past... The more important something is, the more it is hidden... Spectacular power can deny whatever it likes, once, or three times over, and change the subject, knowing full well there is no danger of any riposte, in its own space or any other" (Debord 1998, 13-14, 19). On the palimpsest of the now empty page tribal leaders and their historians can pen new stories of spotless lineages.

What has changed in contemporary Gulf countries is not the fact of multiculturalism, but rather its agents and scale: "Iranians and Indians still live in the Gulf Arab ports, but few Gulf Arabs have connections with Iran or India today. The predominant foreign influence is now British and American" (Olney 2005, 78). The new cosmopolitan story accents a past of uncontaminated lineages and isolated lifestyles. The less said about that heterogeneous past the better so that the fantasy of first exposure to outsiders can be maintained.

Wealth and anxiety about who should have it and who should not even dream of wanting it have combine to create a climate of cruel discrimination against the foreign majority, especially the Asian laborers. But there are some, like Qatari poet Maryam Ahmad Al Subaiey, who acknowledge the humanity and suffering of people whose labor has turned the desert into a paradise for the few:

Behind the dust all you can see

is their broken souls and the shine

of new cars mirrored in their eyes.

They are not as human as we are.

They are nothing

but workers. We don't want

them in our malls, we choose

not to see them, to forget them.

This army that builds our country

remains invisible beneath the burning sun (Paine 2011, 171-172).

Al Subaiey rails at her fellow citizens' collective indifference that has reduced these foreigners to the broken life of the barely human. Beneath the burning sun, the invisible army builds a brave new world for the native citizens, the privileged minority. It is their rights that the police monitor and safeguard.

Chapter Two will consider the ways in which Gulf Arabs project tribal modern identities that accord them rights and privileges unavailable to those without their pure tribal blood. New DNA testing bolsters oral histories of millennial tribal endogamy and the family trees they generate. This kind of tribal lineage determines citizenship and concomitant entitlement to a share in the oil wealth.

1 Conversation with Shaikha May Al Khalifa, Muharraq, November 30, 2008. In the Gilgamesh epic, Utnapishtim lives in Dilmun after the gods made him and his wife gods for having survived the Flood. Gilgamesh journeys to Dilmun in the hopes that Utnapishtim will grant him immortality, but he fails two tests that would have qualified him. He leaves the land of the immortals and accepts the fact that he will only live on through the material structures he has commissioned. 2 "Artifacts found in Tel Abrak, between Sharjah and Ajman, suggest that there was established trade with the Indus Valley and Ur by 2000 BCE" (Bristol-Rhys 2011, 119; see also Al Ghabban 2010; 14, D.T. Potts 2010, 180-183). 3 accessed November 13, 2010 4 Harran is probably Dhahran the Saudi Arabian port city on the Gulf, location of Aramco, Saudi Arabian Oil Company. It was founded in 1933 when the Saudi government granted Socal, Standard Oil of California, a concession to drill. 5 Fadia Basrawi's father, an early Aramco employee, told her about life on the Arab compound of Aramco in the 1940s: "Our houses in 1944 were little better than stables for camels, very primitive and very insulting. There was a hole in the ground for a toilet and one single light bulb hung from the ceiling. Some rooms didn't have a proper roof, just palm fronds woven together. In summer we boiled from the heat and when the shamals came we covered our bodies and faces with wet cloths so we could breathe. Of course in the winter we froze while the Americans were bedded and fed on Aramco's account in large furnished, climate-controlled bungalows" (Basrawi 2009, 92). 6 Arjun Appadurai observes that the transformation in modernity of space into local places is "inherently colonizing, in the sense that it involves the assertion of socially (often ritually) organized power over places and settings that are viewed as potentially chaotic or rebellious" (Appadurai 1996, 181, 183). 7 Warning heeded, the Saudi government made profit sharing deals with the Americans and in 1980 took full control of Aramco. 8 Writing about Asian migrants to Canada, Sunera Thobani evokes the same scenario: "Despite the recruitment of many such undesired migrants as cheap labour by employers, the prevailing ideology ... fantasized nefarious motives and imagined Asians as plotting to swamp and invade their society" (Thobani 2007, 87). 9 Thobani again draws attention to a similar phenomenon: "when their labour was recognized as necessary for economic development, these migrants were reviled and cast in the figure of the unassimilable and degenerate stranger ... their categorization as non-preferred races constituted them as unworthy of citizenship and minimized the value of their labour" (Thobani 2007, 90). 10 In Hind Al Thani's film "Origin," the daughter of a Lebanese man given Qatari citizenship because of his special service to the Emir talked to the film's director about her identity. One of the very few foreigners to enjoy the benefits of Qatari citizenship and brought up in the country, she still feels an outsider. In the film, she watches her friends discuss among themselves how foreign she looks despite her Qatari language and affect. She smiles throughout but later confides that she often feels rejected. Almost as an afterthought, she tells Hind that she is more loyal to Qatar than many Qataris. Wistfully, she sighs, "It's nice to feel you belong somewhere." It is not clear whether she means she does or does not belong. 11 Khaleej Times 14 December 2009 (quoted in Fromherz 2012, 9) 12 Shaikha, an old woman from the Qatari royal family, told Hind "before oil, no foreigners came. You never saw strangers" ("Origin")