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Labor and Racialization in the Contemporary Middle East

Panel XIII-5, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
The recent turn towards the study of race and racialization in Middle East Studies has thrown up many urgent intellectual challenges. More than ever, it is imperative for us to understand how race operates in this region, as opposed to other parts of the world, such as the paradigmatic North Atlantic (Trouillot 2005). How have modern imperial and settler-colonial projects interacted with older patterns of ethno-linguistic and religious identification (Ozcelik 2021)? What might we learn from the specificities of the Middle East about processes of racialization more broadly? Our panel joins the efforts to address such pressing questions by linking racialization to an area of concern that has occupied scholars of the region for significantly longer: labor and class (e.g. Hanieh 2011). To the classic question of how racial and ethnic identities are refracted through labor markets, we add the converse one: how does work racialize? Our hypothesis is that as Middle East economies become increasingly dependent on internal, regional, and trans-regional labor flows, workplaces, labor conditions, and surrounding discourses play a growing role in racialization processes. In the region’s “racially split” labor markets, we suggest, distinctions grounded in relations to production have come to play a key role in sorting people into “human types” perceived in racial terms, as embodied, inherited, and embedded in hierarchies of worth. Racializing distinctions of this kind have been made, for example, between free citizen labor and unfree migrant labor; between skilled cognitive labor, male-gendered menial labor, and female-gendered care work; and labor undertaken “ideologically” by settlers or “naturally” by indigenous workers. This panel brings together historiographic, ethnographic, and textual case studies from Palestine/Israel, Jordan and Iraq/Kurdistan, seeking to identify and analyze these racialized class distinctions and to investigate the administrative, political, and economic logics that give rise to and institutionalize labor regimes based upon them.
Political Science
  • This paper discusses how ‘the luxury to idle around’ for young Kurds and ‘the obligation to work’ for displaced Arabs becomes the fault line of racialization of Kurdish-Arab relations in post-2003 Iraq. During this period, the Kurdistan Regional Government sought to create an entrepreneur subject with university degrees out of a structurally impoverished population. This materialist/economic re-structuring was complemented by the social imagination of a more fuller reconfiguration, where a naturalized order of racial and religious coexistence would be maintained under Kurdish patronage. In the gas-rich area of Chamchamal, young Kurdish men find themselves living under the burden of this unfulfilled promise. Following the Anfal Genocide, the Kurdistan Regional Government had sought to solve the problem of unemployed, landless peasants by employing them in the security sector, either as pêshmergas or private militias. This arrangement has not only closed off possibilities for social mobility except through strictly party-controlled networks, but also has created a culture of shame around certain kinds of menial and service work and entry-level jobs. Stuck between these unsatisfying alternatives, young Kurdish men prefer to idle around, complain about the inequities of a failed world, and adopt a ‘non-performative’ nihilism that allows them to waste away time, and themselves (Bataille, 1991) while withdrawing from the labour market. The gap created by young Kurdish men are instead filled by displaced Arab labourers. De-classed and dispossessed, displaced Arab labourers not only have to enter into individualized sponsorship arrangements [kafala] with their employers to work in Kurdistan, they also become an incipient subject of pleasure for Kurds, who make them do the unpleasant jobs they are not willing to do. These emergent racial categorizations of work are complemented with bodily stereotypes about Arabs being resilient [to war, to heat], strong, and more skillfull in manual labour. For displaced Arabs themselves, this is a highly limited life, defined by the ‘obligation to work’. This paper argues that this emergent fault-line of racialization can be understood in a post-Ba’ath moment where the absence of a singular sovereign authority has left mutual codes of respect and dignified work open to question. The individualized idioms of work exercised by Kurds and Arabs project intimate labour arrangements made through personalized sponsorships to be a protective membrane of sociality, assumed to eschew the impersonal and exploitative qualities of the labour market. However, it also becomes the space to exercise unequal relationships under provisionally drawn authorities.
  • Co-Authors: Liron Mor
    One of the primary ideological and practical goals of early Zionism was the creation of a “productive” Jewish labor force. The realization of this goal had far-reaching implications not only for dispossessed Palestinians but also for Mizrahim (Jews originating from the Arab and Muslim world), whom the the Zionist leadership sought to “productivize” in a manner sharply divergent from that applied to Ashkenazi (European-origin) Jews. Whereas Ashkenazim were seen as entering the settler working class of their own volition, as a result of ideological conviction, Mizrahi settlers, beginning with the Yemenite immigration of the early twentieth century, were considered “natural workers” available for exploitation, whose consciousness was a matter of indifference. In the idiom of the (non-Marxist) socialism that dominated the Zionist movement from the 1920s to the 1970s, the process of “righting the upside-down pyramid” of diasporic Jewish class structure, supposedly dominated by “parasitic” occupations, culminated in the creation of two racialized tiers of Jewish workers, “natural” and “ideological.” The distinction between Ashkenazi “pioneers” and Mizrahi “working hands,” ubiquitous in the Yishuv and later in Israel, was rooted in imperialist ideologies of racial difference that conceived of Europeans as motivated by rationality and idealism in their methodical “conquest” of the natural environment, and of “Orientals” as an inert part of the landscape rather than a force engaged in molding it. Most crucially, within this imaginary, the continuing exploitation of a Palestinian proletariat by Zionist and Israeli enterprises was sometimes naturalized, similarly to that of the Mizrahim, and sometimes disavowed discursively, often through the deployment of Mizrahi intermediaries. While agrarian occupations, where these conceptions originally crystallized, have become marginal following Israel’s industrialization, the racialization of Ashkenazim as ideologically motivated and of Mizrahim as naturally fit for menial work survives in modulated forms today, still constituting a pillar of the ideological hegemony that justifies racial hierarchies in Palestine/Israel. Our paper, based on analysis of textual sources from early Zionism to the present, demonstrates that labor relations and the “ethnic splitting” of the labor market in Palestine/Israel play an active role in creating and reproducing racial ideologies, which react on the social division of labor and profoundly impact both individual life chances and the possibility of mobilizing coalitions for decolonization and social change.
  • This paper explores the interplay between technology, labor, and race in the Eisenhower-Strauss Plan, an unrealized project that gained traction in US policy in the 1960s and 1970s. The plan was named after two US statesmen, former president Dwight D. Eisenhower and former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission Lewis L. Strauss. The Eisenhower-Strauss Plan followed the same logic as Atoms for Peace, launched in the 1950s, to share peaceful nuclear technology, as part of US diplomacy. The plan proposed building three nuclear reactors in the Middle East: two on the Israel-Egypt border, and one on the Israel-Jordan border, which would be used for the purposes of water desalination and electricity generation. By building and operating these nuclear reactors collectively, these two Arab states and Israel were expected to make peace. But the plan also included a return of Palestinian refugees who had been displaced after the Nakba in 1948. The architects of the plan embraced Zionist tropes of a ‘barren’ land, and suggested that through desalination, the land would then be made suitable to settle Palestinian refugees – a link that ultimately reduced Palestinian dispossession to the apolitical issue of availability of fertile land, rather than Israeli policy. The number of Palestinian refugees expected to return fluctuated in different iterations of the plan, ranging from thousands to up to a million; however, they all perceived Palestinian labor as a key component for the success of the project. Palestinian refugees were invoked in the plan as a source of cheap and flexible labor, which could be used to build the nuclear powerplants, but also pipelines, powerlines, reservoirs, and other related infrastructure. After the completion of the work, Palestinian refugees would then be ‘settled’ in a transformed landscape and expected to carry out agricultural work – “under conditions far superior to any life that they have ever experienced,” according to Strauss. In this research, I look at how policies depicting Palestinians as a source of flexible and mobile labor are deeply racialized, and how this plan for a US-led capitalist utopia underscores the intertwinement between technology, work, and race.
  • Although racialization has been theorized as an embodied, experiential, and everyday phenomenon (Fanon 2008; Fassin 2011), there is a tendency to locate racial ideologies in texts and images without attention to their specific sites of articulation. Yet if we wish to understand how concepts travel and adapt to new environments amid historical change, we should investigate how ideological notions are (re)produced as public signs in situated interaction (Volosinov, 1973). This presentation draws on participant-observation fieldwork with Iraqi Christian refugees working in a basement kitchen of a small restaurant in Amman, Jordan to illustrate the conditions under which the laboring body becomes an index of racialized difference. In Iraq, there is a longstanding association between Christians and work in the service industry, which reflects a history of internal rural-to-urban migration along with Ba’athist state propaganda that highlighted the loyalty of Christian national subjects. Meanwhile, in Jordan, economic relations are structured through interactional routines that read bodily signs of difference as indexes of ethno-nationally bounded characteristics and capabilities. And in being displaced from Iraq to Jordan, ideological signs of compliance and loyalty long associated with Christians as national subjects are increasingly concatenated with bodily signs of demanding and polluting physical labor. This emerging stress on the raced body as an index of character and capabilities reprises the historical origin of race as a heuristic device for sorting out workers in the underdeveloped peripheries of the capitalist world system (Trouillot, 2005). And this parallel to the past could suggest why already-existing sectarian distinctions are taking on an increasingly racialized character in a region that has been violently incorporated into the periphery of contemporary U.S. empire. References: Fanon, Franz (2008). Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press. Fassin, Didier (2011). “Racialization: How to do race with bodies.” In A Companion to the Anthropology of the Body and Embodiment. Edited by Frances E. Mascia-Lee. Pp. 419-434. Hoboken: Blackwell Publishing Trouillot, Michel-Rolph (2005). “The North Atlantic Universals.” In The Modern World-System in the Longue Duree. Edited by Immanuel Wallerstein. Pp. 105-108. New York: Routledge. Voloshinov, V.N. (1973). Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. New York: Seminar Press.