Anthropology of Arabia Fall 2011



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1ANTH E1615

Anthropology of Arabia

Fall 2011
Instructor: Steven C. Caton, Professor of Contemporary Arab Studies, Department of Anthropology, Harvard University

TFs: Nancy Khalil (FAS); Sara Zeiger (Extension School)


Classroom Hours: 9-10, Tuesdays and Thursdays

Office Hours: 10-12 Wednesdays, William James Hall, 318


Course Content. This course examines the histories, social organizations, political systems as well as cultural ideas and values of the Arabian Peninsula, comprising Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Oman and Yemen. What has been the history of Arabia since earliest times until the present and what lessons can we draw from it? What is a ‘tribe’ and what is ‘tribalism’? Why are they important? How have desert oases and coastal ports been transformed into global cities because of oil wealth? How is gender conceived within the tribal order and within Islam? How is gender performed in everyday life? What are the different Islamic schools in the Arabian Peninsula, and how does religion inform social behavior? What are the complex politics of natural resources like oil and water? How is Arabia connected to and affected by the regions around it, including Africa, the Mediterranean world, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent? These are among the many topics to be explored through reading of anthropological texts (mainly ethnographic ones), the viewing of feature-length films and documentaries.

Although this is a social anthropology course, no previous knowledge of anthropology is required or presumed. Class-room lectures will provide necessary disciplinary background. Sections are important for the success of students in the course and attendance in them is mandatory. The ultimate goals of this course are to help students understand one of the most important and fascinating societies in the world today, in the expectation that they will have some contact with them in their future studies or work.


Requirements. You are expected to come to sections prepared to discuss the reading and lectures, and as to be determined, also do some special section exercises. However, sections are not required.

There will be a midterm (50% of the final grade) and a final exam (worth 50% of the grade). Section discussion and exercises will be worth some bonus points for good participation.
Required Reading. The following books have been ordered at the Harvard Coop.
Bristol-Rhys, Jane. Emirati Women: Generations of Change. A brief ethnography of women’s lives in the UAE.
Caton, S. Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation. A memoir that gives a sense of how anthropological fieldwork is conducted and examines tribal and tribalism as powerful cultural categories in contemporary Yemen.
Caton, S. Lawrence of Arabia: a film’s anthropology. An analysis of a film as a lens on how we understand the Middle East at various times of historical crisis. It also reflects on how anthropological fieldwork is done.
Ho, Engseng. Graves of Tarim. An historical and ethnographic study of Islamic traders and missionaries who spread Islam from southern Yemen to South Asia and beyond.
Jones, Tobias. Desert Kingdom. An account of development and the politics of the Saudi Arabian state by a historian of the contemporary Middle East.
Kanna, Ahmed. Dubai: From City to Corporation. An ethnography and history of urban planning, “star” architecture and the creation of modern Dubai.
Limbert, M. In the Time of Oil: Piety, Memory, and Social Life in an Omani Town. A probing ethnography of the social changes brought on by oil wealth in Oman.
Meneley, Anne. Tournaments of Value. An ethnography of women’s lives in a Yemeni town.
There is also a set of required readings composed of articles and book chapters on the Arabian Peninsula that supplements the topics on tribalism, ethnicity, gender, urbanism and Islam covered in the books. These have been compiled in a course Sourcebook, on sale at the Coop. Arrangements are also being made for Extension students to purchase this packet.
Course Schedule
Sept. 1Introduction to the course. What is Arabia? What is Anthropology? How this course fulfills the Gen Ed Requirement in Societies of the World. Going over course content and requirements. Geographic Map. You will be given one standard geographic map of the Arabian Peninsula, and asked to mark on it major topographical features (mountains, deserts, and larger wadis) and major political and socio-cultural ones (cities, national boundaries, and capitals). To be completed and returned to section leader the following week (in your first section meeting).
Sept. 6 and 8 – Lectures: Orientalism
The question of orientalism (What is it? Why is it problematical? What can we do about it?) is the subject of the first week. To help us think through orientalism we will watch the epic film, Lawrence of Arabia (1962, 1989), one of the greatest movies ever made, and read excerpts from Caton’s book on the movie. How has anthropology been susceptible to orientalism? What can be done about it?
See A. O. Scott on “Lawrence of Arabvia” (Internet); Evening showing of the film, Lawrence of Arabia.
Reading: Caton, Lawrence of Arabia (excerpts)
Sections: Discussion of the concept of Anthropology, Orientalism, imminent critique, and dialectics, as illustrated in Caton’s book and the film. The following map exercise will be explained to you, and you will be asked to work on it over the weekend and return to sections prepared to present it to your fellow students. Creative Map. Make an imaginative map of the Arabian Peninsula (one that comes out of your own imagination and fantasies), using whatever artistic materials are at hand. If you would rather do a performance piece, including a musical one, which reflects your imaginative connection to the region, that is fine too. Be prepared to present and discuss your imaginative exercise in section the following week.
Sept. 13 and 15 – Lectures: History of the Arabian Peninsula: From the Palaeolithic Until the Present
No required reading. The information gleaned entirely through lectures.
Sept. 20 and 22: Lectures: Tribe and Tribalism
What is a tribe? What is tribalism? Are they “lawless” as the media often describes tribal regions as being? Is force the only means by which they resolve their disputes? How have tribes changed in modern times? To what extent is national political leadership and the state still dependent upon them? Lecture to be supplemented by ethno-musicological recordings and slides.

Reading: Caton, Yemen Chronicle (first half); Weir and Lancaster (Sourcebook).
Sections: Presentations of Imaginative Mapping Exercise. Discussion of orientalism with regard to those “maps.”
Sept. 27 and 29: Lectures:Tribe and Tribalism, Cont’d
Is tribe still a relevant category in the Peninsula today other than Yemen? Comparative examples will be drawn from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
Reading: Caton, YC (second half); Cole (2) and Rugh [Sourcebook].
Sections: Discussion of Caton, YC and other assigned readings for this unit.
Oct. 4 and 6: Lectures: From Port to Global City: the Modern Transformation of Dubai (1932-Present)
What have been the traditional forms of urbanism and building types in Arabia? With the infusion of oil wealth how have these been transformed into global cities with modern architecture? Are these built environments sustainable? Who are the publics or inhabitants of these transnational cities? Urbanism will be examined in the Gulf.
Readings: Kanna, Dubai: From City to Corporation; Dresch [Sourcebook]; Human Rights Watch Report, 2006 (pp. 495-498), available on the net

Viewing on your own: PBS, The Sand Castle (see Internet)


Sections: Discussion of Kanna’s book and the PBS documentary.
Oct. 6 (Evening) Additional Section (Optional): Review for the midterm
Oct. 11 IN-CLASS MIDTERM



Oct. 13 – ISLAM: A Basic Introduction
No sections.
Oct. 18 and 20: Lectures: Islamic Knowledge: Its Modes of Production and Dissemination in Arabia
What are the different forms of Islam on the Peninsula? How was Islamic knowledge reproduced in pre-twentieth century Yemen and Saudi Arabia? Overview of Graves of Tarim.
Reading: Ho, The Graves of Tarim (first half)
Sections: Go over the midterm; Start discussion of Ho’s book
Oct. 25 Lecture: Islamic Knowledge: The History of Its Spread to Asia
How did Islam become a world-historical religion?
Reading: Ho, The Graves of Tarim, cont’d
Oct. 27 Lecture: Islamic Contestation of the Saudi State:1920’s Until Today
No Additional Reading; check out dissident Saudi internet sites on the web
Sections: Complete discussion of Ho’s book
Nov. 1 and Nov. 3: Lectures: Economies, the State, and Social Development, the Saudi Case
Most of the countries of the Gulf (the exception is Yemen) are giant oil-producers who have invested their income in the development of their societies – not without costs, I might add. Using Saudi Arabia and Oman as comparative cases, we will examine what this trend has meant more generally for the societies in the region. We start with the Saudi case.
Reading: Jones, Desert Kingdom.
Sections: Three students lead the discussion on Jones. What are the main points in the book? What questions do you have about it?
Nov. 8 and Nov. 10: Oil Lectures: Economies and Social Development, the Omani Case
Oman is a country that has developed but is now running out of oil and will have to refashion itself, something faced by some other places like Dubai. How does one prepare for such a transition? Compare both Oman and Saudi Arabia with Dubai (as analyzed by Kanna).
Reading: Limbert: In the time of Oil
Sections: Three different students lead the discussion. Format same as above.
Nov. 15 and 17: Lectures: Race and Ethnicity
What are ethnicity and race in Arabia? How are these to be understood through complex histories of trading and slavery on the Peninsula?
Readings: Wikan and Barth [Sourcebook]; review relevant parts of Kanna’s book.
Sections: Three different students lead the discussion on both the assigned articles and the book. Format same as above.
Nov. 22 Lecture: Gender
How is gender constructed in tribal ideology and Islamic discourse? How is it performed in everyday life in a Yemeni town? In what way is political authority and social status dependent upon it? (Compare the Yemeni, Omani and Gulf cases)
Reading: Meneley, Tournaments of Value; Bristol-Rhys, Emirati Women
Sections: Three different students lead the discussion. Format same as above. Discussion of both the book and the film
Evening (TBA) Film Viewing: New Day in Old Sana’a (dir. Bin Hirsi)
Nov. 24. THANKSGIVING
Nov. 29 Lecture: Gender, Concluded
Reading: Meneley, Tournaments of Value, concluded
Sections: Three students discuss Meneley and three discussion Bristol-Rhys
Dec. 1 The Arab “Spring” One Year Later: Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain
Review: TBA (Optional)
FINAL EXAM (SCHEDULED BY REGISTRAR)





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