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Beyond Case Study and Exception: the Middle East and North Africa

RoundTable VII-3, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 8:30 am

RoundTable Description
Beyond Case Study and Exception: the Middle East and North Africa Where is the home of theory? Too often, scholarship on the Middle East and North Africa occupies the position of exception, laboratory, or case study. While the turn to the global in various disciplines has revealed the intimacies of empire and capitalist dispossession, the texture of historical contingency and site specificity that constitute global trends remains obscure. In this roundtable, we center the Middle East and North Africa as a place for the production of theory not simply its application. We approach the spaces, environments, peoples, and ideas we study as constituted across multiple scales and temporalities. This multiplicity requires challenging the binaries of general/abstract versus concrete/specific. Holding these concepts in dialectical tension enables grounded and groundbreaking understandings of power, racial capitalism, propertied dispossession, and empire. As historians, anthropologists, and geographers our work is grounded in the particular. From this starting point, we trace the generation of “universal.” We contribute to knowledge through in-depth interaction with sources, archives, interlocutors, and sites. Ethnographies, geographies, and histories of race, capital, finance, and development, evidences the theoretical and conceptual centrality of the Middle East and North Africa. Thinking across multiple disciplines and geographies this roundtable features scholarship from Algeria, Sudan, Egypt, and Palestine. Dismantling the obdurate mischaracterizations of the Ottoman sarraf as a “pre-modern” character of regional studies, it reads the sarraf as a “theory-machine” of critical financial studies. Tracing the field of “tropical medicine” as a site of race-making and governance, it reveals the peoples of interwar Sudan as central actors in producing and challenging scientific knowledge. Along the tracks of Palestine Railways, it demonstrates how local acts of sabotage constituted the uneven development of British and US empire. From the shores of North Africa, it offers insight on how Algerian sociologists shaped knowledge in the wake of independence. Together these presentations contribute genealogies of categories, concepts, and strategies that center Algeria, Sudan, Egypt, and Palestine. They offer an invitation to transcend the methodological and epistemological confines of the “case study.”
  • Where are the Tropics? In 1903, the Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratories opened its doors in Khartoum, Sudan under Anglo-Egyptian rule. The Wellcome conducted a broad spectrum of bacteriological, chemical, and entomological research. It was exceptional in two ways. First, it was established early, just after colonial conquest. Second, most scientific laboratories in the world of British imperial tropical medicine were based in Liverpool and London. British colonial officials established laboratories in a mostly ad hoc manner. The source of this exception was the London based American drug manufacturer, dedicated imperialist, and avid advocate of unfettered scientific research, Henry S. Wellcome. The Wellcome Laboratory was a pillar of building a state where white rule dominated. It was premised on the understandings of Sudan as full of noxious pests, animals, and people. And yet, just as British medical officials attempted to shape a science of the “tropics” and its diseases, they faced a multiplicity of peoples, healers, epistemologies, and cosmologies that challenged and shaped what we know today as “tropical medicine.”
  • “Making Theory with the Ottoman Sarraf: Finance and Financialization from the Middle East” In this paper, I read the Ottoman sarraf as a “theory-machine” of critical financial studies. Literature dubbed “theory” often reads as if history began in the 1970s, centers around the global North, and moves outward like a mobile “frontier” remaking the world in its image. Classic work on imperialism and financial capital also began with an origin story of finance as a product of the capitalist West. Scholars of the Middle East know that if there is any such thing as a “frontier of finance,” it moved from East to West long before the Industrial Revolution. Why does this knowledge linger in the realm of exceptionalism and case study? The sarraf provides a good example. long read as a “pre-modern” character of regional studies in stark opposition to the universal character of mid-nineteenth century “real” banks; the sarraf in fact enacted a “dealer function” articulating ‘promises to pay” stretching across space and time. The sarraf, in other words, did work that theorists are currently identifying as the core of finance itself. Rather than dragging along the baggage of unanalyzed concepts of finance and neoliberalism to the field, we can take inspiration from the sarraf to do “theory work” with our interlocutors in fieldwork and the archives with implications beyond the Middle East and North Africa as well.
  • Practitioners of the settler state, such as arms manufacturers, commonly refer to Palestine as a laboratory for “battle testing” weapons and strategies on Palestinian bodies. At the same time, critical scholars deploy Palestine as a testing ground for general theories of settler colonialism and frameworks rooted in the Global North. Turning to the 1936-39 Great Revolt and insurgent railway sabotage disrupts this rendering and containment, revealing overlooked intersections between imperial sovereignty and financial stability. Palestine Railways in this reading is not a case study of British imperialism and development. It is instead the grounds from which to theorize how colonized bodies shape financial ledgers as well as the flow and volume of capital. Palestinian insurgency’s local obstructions to the circulation of capital, people, information, and imperial authority offers new actors and sites of knowledge production. As insurgent acts trigger crises of British imperialism across multiple scales, Palestine's place within global history far exceeds the boundaries of the case study.
  • The Algerian Revolution produced a wealth of theorization regarding the functioning of a settler colonial system, the anatomy of anti-colonial revolution, and the implementation of socialist self-management. Despite its status as one of the paradigmatic “case studies” for decolonization, however, few scholars have studied how Algerians themselves reflected on the intellectual tools that were needed to interpret, and change, the social word. This intervention focuses on how the Algerian sociologist Abdelkader Djeghloul read the work of Frantz Fanon, shedding light on how some Algerians pushed back against the tendency to treat the country as a “testing ground” (terrain d’essai) for theory after independence. It reflects on the tension between the generative nature of "traveling theory," to use the phrase of Edward Said, and the imperative to produce knowledge that is rooted in a specific national (or regional) context. In the Maghreb, where intellectual traditions are often overshadowed by the production of knowledge emanating from Europe or the Mashreq, this discussion also raises larger questions regarding the politics of disciplinary knowledge.