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Dr. Attiya Ahmad is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and International Affairs. Her research focuses on the gendered interrelation of Islamic reform movements and political economic processes spanning the Middle East and South Asia, in particular the greater Arabian Peninsula/Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean regions. Dr. Ahmad is currently working on a project focusing on the development of global halal tourism networks. She is the author of the award-winning Everyday Conversions: Islam, Domestic Work, and South Asian Migrant Women in Kuwait (Duke Press, 2017), which examines the process of religious conversion taking place among domestic workers in the Persian Gulf. Using extensive fieldwork conducted among South Asian migrant women in Kuwait, Ahmad argues domestic workers’ Muslim belonging emerges from their work in Kuwaiti households as they develop Islamic piety in relation—but not opposition—to their existing religious practices, family ties, and ethnic and national belonging. Everyday Conversions won the Fatima Mernissi Book Award from the Middle East Studies Association and the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies Book Award. Ahmad teaches Sociocultural Anthropology; Anthropology of Gender; and Anthropology of Religious Movements. She is also the recipient of  the Henry Luce/American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship in Religion, Journalism, and International Affairs and the NSF Cultural Anthropology Senior Research Grant.

Q: What prompted you to write Everyday Conversions?

A: Everyday Conversions marks the culmination of my first major ethnographic research project, a long-term study that I conducted on the Islamic conversions of migrant domestic workers in the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf region. I initially set out to research the transnational development of an Islamic women’s movement, a project that interrogated the interrelation between transnational migration and Islamic reform.  While conducting preliminary fieldwork in Kuwait, I learned of migrant domestic workers’ conversion—a relatively widespread phenomenon that many people in the region knew about and often had very pointed opinions about. My fascination grew the more I learned about this phenomenon and the often incommensurably different ways in which it was discussed and understood by others. One of the challenges of the entire project was making sense of this phenomenon—something, as I discuss in the book, that we can only do when we account for the gendered nature of domestic workers’ experiences.

Q: What research project are you working on now?

A: ‘Now’ is the operative word here! I am on leave this academic year currently conducting ethnographic fieldwork on the development of global halal tourism networks. A loose and somewhat amorphous term, 'halal tourism' is used by a variety of actors—including travel agencies, investors, start-up internet companies, hoteliers, tour guides, religious certification boards, and consumers—to refer to an emergent sector of Islamic enterprise, one that is both modeled on and developing on the heels of Islamic banking, finance and charitable institutions.  Halal tourism is a rapidly expanding sector of Islamic enterprise. A ‘niche’ sector expected to grow from $140 to $230 billion over the next five years, halal tourism is developing at twice the rate of the international tourism market as a whole, an industry vital to economic development (accounts for 10% of global GDP), state-making and nation-building projects, and that constitutes the most extensive global circulation of goods, services, information and populations of our time. Halal tourism also accounts for the largest cross-border movement of Muslims in history, a process that will dramatically increase as the growth of the world’s Muslim population outpaces the rest of the world.  An ethnographic study of transnational halal tourism networks, my project strives to understand and contextualize sociocultural aspects of why entrepreneurs and consumers consider tourism to be an important site through which to produce gendered forms of Islamic piety and Muslim belongings—even in the face of the uncertainty and risk that mark shifting landscapes of conflict in the contemporary Middle East. Combining socio-cultural anthropology, as well as gender, tourism and Islamic studies, this project entails a combined 26 months of fieldwork centered on Turkey, and spanning outwards to United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Spain and the United Kingdom, that I will complete in 2019. By analyzing the transnational activities of halal tourism purveyors and consumers, and how these intersect with existing spaces of tourism/leisure and historical sites in Andalusia (Spain) and the greater Istanbul area (Turkey), my research highlights how material relations and processes act as counterpoints—working in conjunction and in contrast—to the production of Muslim gender relations, subjectivities, affinities and histories.

Q: What is your favorite class to teach at GW?

A: I do not have one particular class that is my favorite, but in general am most invested in my gender studies and feminist theories related courses. Gender studies and feminist theories not only help us to account for experiences and phenomena that are often disregarded, but they also provide us with conceptual frameworks of analysis that are both incisive and expansive. Thus far, I have not had the opportunity at GWU to teach courses on gender and the Middle East and/or and gender in Muslim societies, but hope to do so in the coming years.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring anthropologists studying the Middle East?

A: The advice I would offer to would-be anthropologists--one I would share with colleagues in other fields--would be for them to carefully consider the possibilities of ethnography: an encompassing process of knowledge production that not only entails flexible and painstaking forms of research, most notably participant observation, but that also pushes us to consider how important are the very forms in which we share and circulate our knowledge, i.e. how we ‘write it up’ our findings. To return back to Everyday Conversions, I would not have been able to begin to account for, much less analyze, the phenomena of domestic workers’ conversion, were it not for ethnographic practice, both in terms of the in-depth research that was needed, but also in terms of the supple narrative style interweaving stories, my interlocutors' utterances, as well as more conventional forms of academic analysis, that marks the book.

This semester’s faculty book spotlight features Professor Ilana Feldman’s, Life Lived in Relief: Humanitarian Predicaments and Palestinian Refugee Politics. She was interviewed by Alissa Fromkin who earned her MA in Middle East Studies from the Elliott School of International Affairs in 2016. After graduate school, Fromkin completed a year-long Fulbright research project in Jerusalem focusing on the experiences of transgender Jews within religious spaces. She is currently in her second year of law school at Yale University. 

Q: How did you come to write this book?

A: The roots of this project lie in my earlier research in the Gaza Strip. While conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Gaza in the late 1990s, I was struck by the significance of the distinctions between ‘refugees’ and ‘natives’ in social relations and political discourse. The entire population is Palestinian, so these distinctions did not define membership in the national community, but they matter for how people were members of that community. I wanted to better understand how these categories emerged, and I began by researching the aftermath of the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948, the beginning of humanitarian assistance to the displaced, and the population categories that were required to manage this assistance. This initial research revealed multidimensional and often contradictory effects of humanitarian decisions and procedures, and it led me to investigate the Palestinian relief experience with humanitarianism over seven decades and across five fields of assistance (Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria).

Q: Looking at the crises in Syria and Yemen, how do you see your work informing the humanitarian response there?

A: The devastation caused to civilian populations by the wars in Syria and Yemen—humanitarian crises produced by political and military actions—are among the largest humanitarian catastrophes in a world that has been replete with such crises over the last few years. Each repeating moment of crisis has provided an opportunity to think again about what refugees tell us about our political world. But the language of crisis can also obscure some of what they tell us. Crisis suggests exception, both in the sense of being not-the-usual and in the sense of being outside existing order. The refugee condition, though, is not just returning, but persisting. And refugees are not external to global political orders, but central to them. Further refugees are not just figures, but actors, who struggle within and against this political order to create livable lives.

The Palestinian experience is centrally important for understanding what it is to be a refugee, and what refugees illuminate about politics, as displacement and need extend over many years. Palestinians may form one of the longest-lasting refugee communities, but they are by no means alone in experiencing longevity. The UNHCR has estimated that two-thirds of the global refugee population experience what it terms “protracted displacement”—being displaced from their homes for at least five years. The significant increase in refugee numbers in the past few years has dropped this percentage, but as a few more years pass it is quite likely that many of today’s displaced will move into the category of the protracted.

What do Palestinians—with seventy years of experience as refugees—have to teach people who are just embarking on that journey? I am certainly not suggesting that all, or even most, of today’s refugees will remain in that category for as long as Palestinian refugees, but all indications are that many will remain displaced and unsettled for a good while to come. One thing that Palestinians have to teach other refugees is that suffering can indeed go on longer than would seem possible, that situations that seem utterly untenable can not only drag on, but can get worse. But this is not all they have to impart. Palestinians have considerable experience in making the refugee condition “world-forming.” The lessons of this experience are not only for refugees, but for all of us who live in this world.

Q: Over your ten years of research for this book, how has your understanding of the humanitarian enterprise changed? How did you decide when you were done researching?

A: As I conducted the research for this book, I was struck by just how vibrant and complex humanitarian spaces are. The scholarly literature on humanitarianism, aid providers’ own definitions of their missions, and recipients’ evaluations of this assistance all often emphasize the limits of humanitarianism—the limits of its mandate, the limits of its capacity to engage recipients as full human beings, and the limits of its ability to meet people’s multidimensional needs. Even as these limits are real, they only partially define the humanitarian experience. I was impressed with the range of things that people are able to do with humanitarian tools. They press political claims, they work to alter their present and future conditions, they build complex relationships in and through categories that are meant only to manage aid delivery.

Deciding when to stop researching is never easy—as there is always more to learn. I am still learning about this subject even though the book is done and published. A good rule of thumb is that as more conversations, more document reading, and more secondary research begin to yield less new information, it is a good indication that research may be concluding. In this case, I also came to feel that the conflict in Syria—which has led to a major upheaval in humanitarian conditions for Palestinians—marked the temporal end of my book. For Palestinian refugees it is another stage in a continuing history.

Q: What lesson(s) do you want the reader to take away from your book?

A: In a global political environment in which concern for refugees and migrants seems in short supply, the long Palestinian experience with displacement has much to teach us. It shows that humanitarian compassion—responses that address people primarily as suffering subjects and that focus on alleviating that suffering—is not an adequate alternative to a politics of hate and xenophobia. As Palestinians have insisted for seventy years, displaced persons also have political claims on us. Refugees will pursue these claims whether we recognize them or not, but their actions do not relieve us of our obligations.

Q: Can international humanitarian law better protect the rights of refugees, if so how? Would systemic changes like the development of enforcement capabilities or a global acceptance of “humanitarian rights” prevent future “humanitarian situations” from becoming “humanitarian conditions”?

A: Humanitarian actors regularly note, as a former head of UNHCR put it, that “there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems.” Many (most?) humanitarian crises have political causes—even when they are ostensibly the result of natural disasters—and resolving such situations, to keep them from extending into ongoing conditions, almost always requires political will and action. Neither humanitarian law nor humanitarian aid is sufficient on its own to provide adequate protection, sustenance, and support for a full life. Which is not to say that having better enforcement mechanisms and more robust legal protections would not help—it would. Such changes would require political will that is currently absent. In many ways international responses to refugees seem to have gone backwards in recent years—with first Europe and now the United States threatening refusal of entry to refugees and asylum seekers. These actions seem to violate, if not the letter of international refugee law, than certainly what has come to be understood as its spirit.

Q: You note that many people in the camp deal with structural barriers, such as Gazans in Jordan who cannot get a national number and accompanying benefits, and emotional barriers such as the conflict between insisting on return while also seeking to better conditions in the camps. This seems to contribute to a sense of malaise in the younger generation – however, this malaise has been noted all around the Middle East. What does the Palestinian experience teach us about this social phenomenon more broadly?

A: It is certainly the case that many of the vulnerabilities Palestinians refugees encounter are shared by other economically, socially, and politically precarious populations—in the Middle East and across the globe. To that extent, understanding how Palestinians survive, live, and strive in conditions that often offer little hope for change can teach us about politics and life strategies in other constrained circumstances. At the same time, refugees remain distinguished within, though not apart from, the broader landscape of precarity. This particularity is partly due to the presumed (even if not at all actual) temporariness of their situation, partly due to statelessness (though not all Palestinian refugees are stateless), and partly due to the recognition of international responsibility for their care and protection (even if not their rights). The vast humanitarian system means that refugees are not superfluous in the way that many urban poor now seem to be. They are objects of concern and attention by this system and also material that keeps the humanitarian industry going.

Q: The Palestinian story is incredibly complex, in your narrative, you seem to seamlessly weave in key historical details without overpowering the reader who may be less familiar with this background. How did you choose what information to include and decide how to present it?

A: I am gratified to hear that the narration of historical events was successful. Given how complicated this history is—over many decades and in multiple places—these choices were not easy to make. I tried to think, through many rounds of revision, about what context readers needed to make sense of the experiences I was describing. By writing and rewriting I eventually settled on what I hoped would be a balanced narrative.

 

Interview of Dr. Nathan Brown conducted via email by
Sumaya Almajdoub, MA ‘17.Arguing Islam book with author Dr. Nathan Brown

 

Hello Dr. Brown, I’ve enjoyed reading your book, and the first question I wanted to ask you is about the title. Your title mentions the “revival of Arab politics,” what do you mean by “revival”? When did Arab politics “die”?

I do not think that politics ever completely died, but it was often driven underground. When I did research on Egypt in the 1960s, I was struck by how little politics was part of the public record—when I looked at publications like newspapers there was a narrow range of views, and only top officials seemed able to set the terms of what was said. When I first traveled to the Arab world in the early 1980s, politics did not form a large part of public or private discussion. That really changed beginning in the 1990s in all kinds of public and private channels.

 

In your book you elaborate on the ways in which lively, complex and nuanced discussions continue to happen in the Arab public sphere, can you give us examples of these discussions?

Even with the authoritarian wave of the past few years, it is still the case that there is a lot more politics discussed in social media, older media, and private conversations.  As an example, “personal status law”—the category of law that covers marriage, divorce, and inheritance—is constantly debated by people who are not only well versed in technical religious vocabulary on those issues but also very aware of the practical implications of small changes in the law. The debate is sensitive, since it involves issues that matter to everybody. But it is also sophisticated.

 

Do these discussions in the public sphere affect outcomes on the ground? Do they shape policies? Why or why not?

I looked at several areas—constitution writing, school curricula, personal status law—to try to see where public debates actually seemed to affect decisions made by public officials. What I found was that a lot of the debates are not really connected to political realities; officials can and do ignore them. There are exceptions—I found, for instance, cases in which public officials decided to reach out to influential religious and women’s rights groups—who eyed each other suspiciously–to make a change to divorce law that had wide support.  But for the most part, debates become more polarized because advocates of contrary views do not have to deal with each other.

 

What about those who argue that the Arab world is witnessing political apathy due to increased levels of suppression, destabilization and civil strife? How would you respond to them?

I think the level of alienation is growing.  But alienation is not the same as apathy. What I sense is a growing despair about formal politics—parties, organizations, elections—particularly for younger generations. But that alienation from the current order can take many forms—from enthusiastic action in 2011 to withdrawal in 2018—and I think it is very much an open question what form it will take in the coming years.

 

How has the Arab public sphere changed with the introduction of the internet and social media? Have debates become more polarized? Are these changes only relevant to the Arab public sphere, or is this part of a global phenomenon?

Debates have become more polarized and newer social media may facilitate that process but they are not the driving force.  The way in which regimes have declined (somewhat unevenly) in their ability to control all channels of communication has allowed people to form linkages. That such linkages sometimes lead to silos and echo chambers is not simply a phenomenon in the Arab world.  

One phenomenon that is particularly pronounced in the Arab world—though hardly unique to it—is the decline of various kinds of authority. Religious authority, for instance, has not disappeared but it has become more pluralistic. Many more voices join debates and the range of views heard is becoming much greater. And the separation between the two senses of “authority”—ability to make decisions that govern people and ability to have one’s views treated with deference—is also marked.

 

Was there a specific event or incident that inspired you to write this book?

No specific event, no. I was interested even before the 2011 uprisings. But I had begun to notice how lively debates were becoming but how few of those debates seemed to be getting attention.

 

Was this book easier or harder to write compared to your other publications?

It was much broader. That made it easier in the sense that I did not need to know every detail before starting to write. But it also made it harder, since I had to think a lot more about what generalizations could be justified.

 

Do you have any advice for aspiring scholars who want to write a book? Or is there anything you’d like to add?

Do not write a scholarly book unless there is a specific question that you think needs to be answered and that you can pose and answer in a compelling way.

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