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Social Transformations in the Gulf: Identity and Belonging

Panel I-21, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
  • Joud Alkorani -- Presenter
  • Ms. Salma Serry -- Presenter
  • Dr. Hee Eun Kwon -- Presenter
  • Lauren Clingan -- Chair
  • Philippe Thalmann -- Presenter
  • Ms. Salma Serry
    The proposed paper presents part of an ongoing research commissioned by a cultural institution in Dubai, Art Jameel, in which menus from migrant communities in Dubai's history was surveyed, collected and analyzed. Dubai is a temporary home to nearing 90% of its migrant population, which has come and gone in waves throughout its history leaving remnants of an official and marginalized food history. The paper explores the menus as a point of confluence where material culture, memory and history become interconnected elements that are produced and reproduced throughout time. Through deconstructing the elements of the menus and juxtaposing them against the socio-political contexts, much is revealed about issues of migrant identities, belonging, and placemaking. In this project, the construct of a menu is re-approached and made more malleable to include lists of food items that were consumed in the everyday life: meals at home, birthday parties spreads, school and work lunches, and street snacks from roaming bakery canteen-vans. Oral history interviews are used to not only act as supporting context, but as a means to reproduce menus of the everyday life of individuals through their memories. This aims to fill the gap created by the lack of documentation and archiving of these recalled menus, due the quotidian nature of food, the transient quality of the migrant communities, and the prevalent oral culture of the region. In addition to memory, menus are located in and recreated from archives, community cookbooks, television and the press, as well as conversations around ‘expat’ memories on social media. The paper functions as a survey and an analysis of such archival material, and engages in questions about the precarious existence of temporary migrants in the Gulf.
  • Philippe Thalmann
    Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Riyadh and the region, my proposal looks at how some sections of Saudi society respond to the social dimensions of current state reforms. In 2016, important changes started to occur under new political leadership: It launched Vision 2030: a series of economic diversification and legal reforms aimed at reducing oil dependence and promoting the private sector. Moreover, the reforms include the promotion of official entertainment, international tourism, women in the workforce, or changes in school curriculums. This recent, top-down and fast-paced social transformation goes with increased nationalist narratives and regulations on the religious sphere. A large part of the reforms is future-oriented, aspiring to develop Saudi Arabia as the hub of the digital economy, promoting artificial intelligence, innovation and entrepreneurship. An anticipated future is drawn from an idealized past of the Kingdom (meaning pre-1979), toward an aspirational society. It is a shift toward a technologically based future able to answer the environmental crisis, where all issues have an innovative answer. However, if a state tries to centralize visions of the future, my project aims to explore how civil society, too, is visionary. What forms of ethical struggle does one have to compose with, in a changing environment implying uncertainties and novelties? What are the continuities in what is often presented as unprecedented changes? What does it mean to grow up in a society that officially condemned what it now celebrates? How do the ‘liberals’, the ‘conservatives’ and the in-between sections of Saudi society respond to this particular point in history? My ethnographic offers a unique insight into Saudi reforms, with material drawn from everyday conversations in private majalis and interviews with government officials, journalists, and scholars.
  • Dr. Hee Eun Kwon
    Based on 32 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), supplemented by 23 in-depth interviews with Emiratis, this article explores the symbolic context of the abaya – a black garment worn by women throughout the Arab Gulf states as a national dress. While the common public discourse in the West perceives this as a symbol of oppression for women, I argue that the abaya transforms into a symbol of power in the UAE. Primarily, given the demographic imbalance that renders migrants the majority population, the abaya serves as a symbol for Emirati women to assert their authority as citizens against the non-nationals in everyday encounters. Secondly, the sartorial choice is bargained as a statement to establish a shared sense of nationality, notwithstanding the socioeconomic and ethnic hierarchies within the Emirati citizenry. Lastly, worn to display and not to veil, the abaya as fashion illustrates a powerful form of resistance. It is a subversion of gendered expectations within the parameters of the Islamic patriarchal hegemonic order, and a local negotiation of global forces through the incorporation of Western couture into the cultural garment. This article highlights the symbolic context in which identities are created and perpetuated, thereby advancing our understanding of the meaning-construction process of cultural objects.
  • Joud Alkorani
    Studies of the Arabian Gulf have often analyzed the region’s individuals and groups through the lens of citizenship. In these accounts, a common ethnonational background constitutes the basis for the formation of communities, be they among Gulf citizens or migrants. This disproportionate focus on citizenship has meant that other grounds for relationality and belonging tend to be overlooked. In this paper, I consider how shared religious concepts and practices bring together migrant Muslim women of disparate ethnonational backgrounds, all residing in Dubai and attending Al-Noor Islamic center regularly. More specifically, I argue, it is a common understanding of and relationship to God which mediates these women’s interactions and creates affective bonds between them. Recognizing the centrality of God in connecting people is one way of decentering the human in our social scientific analysis, an initiative scholars like Amira Mittermaier (2021) and Samuli Schielke (2019) have recently called for. In response, this paper works to theorize the “relational power” characterizing God-human relations at Al-Noor. As Samuli Schielke (2019) describes it, relational power is not “a binary this-worldly relationship… but a triadic relationship where God… connects humans in this world and the afterworld alike” (9). In this schema, God does not manage nebulous populations, but relates intimately to humans, both as individualized subjects and also as communities “bound by moral ties in a triadic relation with one another and God” (9-10). To understand this triadic distribution of power between God, the individual, and other humans, therefore, one must study how believers address God, anticipate God’s response, and enact what they understand as his will in social interaction. I reflect on how, for women at Al-Noor, one’s sense of self, ethical action, and ritual practice is infused with the presence of Allah, while considering how Allah’s presence, as women describe it, is almost always mediated through human others. Examining this interchange of God, the self, and the other, I provide an account of modern forms of belonging which undermine the naturalness of the modern state and its categories of organization, considering the implications of such an endeavor for our study of the Arabian Gulf.