On Finding Arab Gulf Identity in ‘the Space Between’

Tribal Modern neither wallows in nostalgia for a lost past, nor is fundamentally critical of processes of globalization and modernization.

When 27-year-old Emirati poet Saif Al Mansouri (an erstwhile police officer, no less!) won the Million’s Poet prize at the end of May, BBC coverage posed the question: “Is it possible to be a millionaire poet?” Indeed, at $1.3 million, this Abu Dhabi-based live television poetry contest – which invites contestants from Arabian countries to spar, American Idol-style, in Nabati, a traditional Bedouin style of poetry – is the world’s largest literary prize. The Nobel Prize only clocks in at $1.2 million.

But while such coverage dwelt on the incongruity of poets being rich and still being able to produce poetry, an even more interesting question is, How it’s possible that a form of poetry which was on the verge of dying out has suddenly become a craze for millions of viewers in the Middle East and beyond?

And further to that, what larger role does the glitzy exaltation of traditional Bedouin poetry (on television, with viewers able to vote off poets by cellphone) play in constructing a sense of national cultural identity for a group of nations which were neither fabulously rich, nor even nations in the modern sense, a mere few generations ago?

These are the sort of questions Miriam Cooke explores in her fascinating book Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf. Wading into the dangerous undercurrents of academic debates over embattled concepts like ‘tribal’, ‘primitive’ and ‘modern’, Cooke’s book is refreshing in that it neither wallows in nostalgia for a lost past, nor is it fundamentally critical of processes of globalization and modernization. Cooke proposes a more dynamic, organic interpretation of how these tropes are being engaged among her subjects (Arab Gulf countries including the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait). She proposes that the idea of the tribe – regardless of its biological or ethnic veracity – offers a conceptual means through which these countries and their peoples mediate the challenges of modernity, and the rapid changes which their sudden immersion in the global economy have imposed.

The concept of ‘tribe’ is a fraught one: college students she worked with evince a complicated and sometimes contradictory relationship to the term. The politics of where and when different ‘tribes’ accepted or rejected state citizenship has become integral to social hierarchies, and DNA testing in the context of tribal identity has further complicated these matters. But her point is that ‘tribal’ and ‘modern’ are not at war with each other; they exist in a complicated duality which is key to understanding the forms which Gulf Arab culture and politics have assumed.

What’s equally refreshing about Cooke’s work is that while it engages in a theoretically challenging way with concepts of culture and society, rather than relying exclusively on the methods of sociology or political science, she grounds much of her analysis in the arts: literature, film, poetry, architecture. Indeed, these provide some of the key concepts that she proposes for understanding the ‘brand’ of tribal modern that has emerged in these countries.

She employs the notion of the barzakh: “a Qur’anic term that variously designates the metaphysical space between life and the hereafter and also the physical space between sweet and salt waters.” Exploring first the use of the term in Arab literature, she extends its use to cultural politics in order to explain how concepts that engage both the ‘tribal’ and the ‘modern’ can co-exist in such a unique way: “Because in the very instant that they connect they disconnect; they are fully mixed and present in that space but also absent. The barzakh holds these and also other opposing elements in constant equilibrium, adjusting with their alterations so that one will never overwhelm the other.”

The quest to achieve this complicated equilibrium helps us understand some of the seeming contradictions and paradoxes in Gulf Arab culture and politics. It was, after all, on the 2010 edition of Million’s Poet that Saudi female journalist Hissa Hilal riveted the Middle East by delivering a scathing attack on misogynistic versions of Islam (and came in third place, amid death threats). The literary metaphors are remarkably apt: it is, according to legend, in the barzakh space where sweet and salt waters meet that beautiful Gulf pearls are created.

Cooke explores other intriguing concepts: the use of ‘cold’ metaphors in literature and poetry – seemingly incongruous in sun-baked desert countries – to represent the chilling effect of both alienating social change, as well as misogynistic and patriarchal interpretations and impositions of Islam on women. Cooke’s strong familiarity with Arabic film, literature and poetry, both ancient and modern, is readily apparent and the examples she draws upon, while unfamiliar to most western readers, are compelling and incite the reader to learn more.

Her deft interweaving of examples from film, art, literature and architecture to reinforce her conceptual ideas helps to build a diverse and thought-provoking set of arguments. She even analyzes the Million’s Poet challenge, as well as other modern cultural creations designed to evoke a past which may not really have existed, or at least not in the forms for which nostalgia is invoked: camel-racing, pearl-diving, modern replicas of ancient suq markets and palaces, have all assumed uniquely modern characteristics. A final chapter considers the gendering of the ‘tribal modern brand’: women’s literary response to Islam and politics in the Gulf, as well as the growing challenges posed by an increasingly open queer Muslim identity.

While the book has received some criticism for lacking depth or theoretical sophistication, it’s important to understand what this book is. It’s not an exhaustive empirical analysis: it’s the presentation of an idea. Cooke is constructing an argument; a theoretical proposal for how to approach Arab Gulf culture and how to situate one’s interpretation of the complex and contradictory faces it can present.

This is an admirable undertaking – especially insofar as it seeks to engage Arab Gulf culture on its own terms, and not through dominant western theoretical paradigms. This is no doubt why she draws heavily from Arab art and literature, and from contemporary Arab architects and designers. Cooke is here presenting a theoretical approach: it would be interesting to see her ideas taken up by other researchers conducting more extensive empirical studies.

The ‘tribal modern brand’ is just that: a brand which is emerging in an effort to construct a cohesive modern cultural identity for a group of peoples who have an incredibly complicated past. The modern idea of the nation-state, which emerged in its textbook form in Europe, has its roots in shared cultural institutions that can be traced back through history (fictively or not).

In the Arab Gulf, a very different set of cultural and social formations preceded the establishment of modern nation-states, whose existence was precipitated by the appearance of challenges such as western colonialism and imperialism, and the discovery of oil. Tribal Modern depicts these nations not as hapless victims of dramatic, imposed cultural and political change, but as active agents with a clear grasp of the challenges they face. These are nations which are trying to forge a response to modernity and globalization that is both palatable to the diverse interests represented within their populations, and yet can also realistically provide socio-political cohesion in a turbulent and changing world.

Cooke is Distinguished Professor of Arab Cultures at Duke University, but the book is surprisingly accessible and a fairly quick read. And, while it eschews the heavy theoretical and data-laden complexity of many academic texts, it’s nonetheless deeply thought-provoking. Tribal Modern is a short and pleasantly provocative engagement with a set of very interesting cultural concepts and ideas. It’s a worthwhile reading for anyone, serious scholar or interested layperson, seeking to understand the complicated cultural realities of our contemporary world.

RATING 8 / 10