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Political Anthropology of the Contemporary Middle East

This project explores different approaches to political agency and practice in the Middle East, covering the uses of human rights discourse, everyday political life under authoritarianism, and the forms of collective action during the recent and ongoing revolutionary uprisings.

Cairo Protest  (courtesy: Alex Walsh)

Poster in Tahrir Square demonstration, Cairo (courtesy: Alex Walsh) 

Human Rights, Palestinian Nationalism and the Politics of Suffering (Dr Lori Allen)

My book, The Rise and Fall of Human Rights: Cynicism and Politics in Occupied Palestine (Stanford University Press, April 2013) is an ethnographic investigation of the human rights world in Palestine since 1979. I am conducting archival research for a second book, A Genealogy of Political Proof: One Hundred Years of Investigative Commissions to Palestine, 1919-2009, which is a historical-ethnographic inquiry into the political practices and discourses framed by the concepts of rights and suffering in Palestinian politics, from the 1920s to the present. I am particularly curious about how suffering and victimhood have become central to Palestinian nationalism as it developed in dialectic tension with Israel's legacy as a refuge for the Jews. Suffering for Rights examines this history as a key aspect of the development of a global politics of suffering and human rights, which emerged partially in response to World War II and the Holocaust. 

Ethnographic Accounts of Authoritarianism in Syria (Paul Anderson)

Despite the mass popular protests in many Arab countries over the past three years, authoritarian regimes and patterns of governance appear to be entrenched in different forms across the Middle East, most brutally so in Syria. Protests began in Syria, as elsewhere in the Arab world, against the arbitrary excesses of authoritarian rule. It is therefore vital to understand how authoritarianism worked as a lived practice before the emergence and repression of mass protest, how the Syrian security state had shaped and embedded itself in everyday life, and what kinds of religious and political identity it had produced. These may yet be important dynamics in how Syria’s political future unfolds. Despite a general recognition that there is more to authoritarian power in the Middle East than sheer coercion, there is a dearth of ethnographic accounts dealing with the experience of living under a security state in this region. Most analyses of the resilience of authoritarian regimes focus on the structure of political institutions, or the strategies and cooption of elite social actors. By contrast, this project will provide a fine-grained ethnographic analysis of the way that Syrian citizens in Aleppo in the years before the current conflict experienced and made sense of the security state. It starts from the perspective that Syria’s security state exists not simply as a set of intermittent coercive practices, but by inhabiting and structuring the talk of everyday life. Most people in Aleppo feared the ability of the security state to hold everyone to account, particularly for their private conversations. Studies of authoritarian societies (Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination, 1999) or those penetrated by networks of political informers (Thiranagama, “In praise of traitors”, Kelly and Thiranagama (eds), Traitors 2011) have portrayed intimate relations as a place to escape from the security state. By contrast, this project describes how intimate and mundane practices in Syria before the current war continually envisioned and mimicked the security state.

An Anthropology of Trade in Syria (Paul Anderson)

Based on fresh ethnographic data gathered from fifteen months of fieldwork in Aleppo in 2008-09, this project analyses the conduct of trade among Syrian merchants. It will provide a new conceptual approach for understanding the interaction of religion, economy and politics in Aleppo’s suq economy before the outbreak of the current conflict in Syria. In a country where formal financial and legal institutions were inaccessible and unreliable, trade and finance for most small and medium merchants depended on trust and moral networks of known persons. Wholesalers and creditors conceived of the persons they dealt with in terms of moral presences. This monograph project describes how, in the absence of formal institutions, traders needed to continually fashion the economy as a space in which persons could be recognised as morally present. It documents the  commercial and social practices and Islamic rituals through which they did so. Through a grounded analysis of these practices, it will offer a new theoretical approach for understanding Islamic moral personhood and urban life in the Middle East.