Dr. Amal Cavender comes to GW from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), where she taught a number of courses at the Herron School of Art and Design, including Arabic Languages and Cultures, the History of the Islamic World, and Urbanism and Building Cities in the Islamic World. Amal has a master’s degree in architecture and planning from Ball State University, where she completed her thesis Maloula: Endurance of a Village in Syria, and a PhD in history from Purdue University, where she completed her dissertation Sultans, Merchants, and Changes in Morocco (1830-1912). Amal has worked in the Ottoman Archives in Istanbul; conducted field and archival research in Turkey, Syria, Morocco and France; and is fluent or has advanced proficiency in Modern Arabic, Modern Turkish and Ottoman, French and Spanish.
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.
Christopher Rollston is Associate Professor of Northwest Semitic languages and literatures in the Columbian College’s Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.
Your edited volume Enemies and Friends of the State: Ancient Prophecy in Context (Eisenbrauns, 2018) was just released, and it explores the complex relationship between biblical prophets and state authorities. Who was your favorite (or least favorite) character from the prophets and prophetesses examined by the volume’s contributors?
Yes, I am so pleased that this new edited volume of mine has now appeared in print, a volume that focuses on the varied and complex nature of ancient Middle Eastern prophets and prophetesses vis a vis those in positions of power within ancient Near Eastern monarchies (including those in Assyria, Babylon, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt). The volume consists of twenty-six articles, written by a constellation of premier scholars from around the world (e.g., Yale, American University of Beirut, Princeton, King’s College London, GW). In terms of the function of prophets in the ancient Near East, as you would imagine, some prophetic figures were simply mouth-pieces for the national government, but the most interesting prophets and prophetesses (from my perspective at least) are those who were ardent critics of governmental policies.
Among all of the ancient Near Eastern prophetic voices, I find a Judean prophetess named Huldah to be the most interesting. She lived in Jerusalem during the second half of the 7th century B.C., and after a scroll of the Torah was found during renovations in the Temple, the highest officials of the kingdom (who were baffled about its meaning) brought the scroll to Huldah, a prominent woman (2 Kings 22), and she provided an accurate (and damning) interpretation. By the way, this reminds me to emphasize two very common misconceptions about ancient prophets: (a) many people assume that pretty much all prophets were men. This is not actually the case: throughout the ancient Near Eastern world, there were male and female prophets; and (b) many people assume that prophecy is an ancient Near Eastern phenomenon that was limited to Israel and Judah. This is not actually the case either: in reality, prophets are a broadly attested ancient Near Eastern phenomenon, as we have references to prophets and seers in texts written in Akkadian, Egyptian, Aramaic, Ammonite, and Hebrew (among others).
You’ve given a lot of expert testimony in court cases regarding forged antiquities. Although scientific methods (such as carbon dating) are often used in such cases, you use your linguistic expertise to determine whether the carved writing on antiquities is genuine or forged by modern hands. What was the most interesting forgery case for you (from either an academic/practitioner standpoint or a political standpoint)?
For around 150 years in the field of ancient Semitic languages, modern forgers have been producing forged inscriptions and selling them on the antiquities market, under the pretense that they are ancient. The motivations are primarily (but not exclusively) economic. For example, some twenty years ago, the Israel Museum paid $550,000 for an inscription (an inscribed ivory pomegranate) that was assumed to date to the 8th or 7th century B.C., and to have come from the First Temple in Jerusalem. The consensus opinion now is that this is a modern forgery. A few years ago, therefore, it was pulled from the exhibit at the Israel Museum.
Similarly, a few years ago, a stone inscription referred to as the “Jehoash Inscription” was offered for sale on the antiquities market for around $2 million US dollars. The story that was circulated with this inscription was that it was found during clandestine excavations near Haram es-Sharif, that is, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Some fifteen years ago, I had a hand in debunking this very rapidly as a modern forgery, using palaeographic methodologies (for example, a constellation of anomalies in the script of this inscription) and also through the debunking of the laboratory tests that were used to tout its antiquity. (The forgers created a fake patina and even, rather cleverly, salted flecks of gold and carbonized remains in the fake patina). Ultimately, it did not end up selling. At the behest of the district attorney of Jerusalem, I later testified as a prosecution witness about this inscription, as well as about a few others. I remember the day of my testimony very vividly: I got on the stand around 9:15 a.m. in the morning and got off the stand shortly after 10:00 p.m. that night. I gave my initial testimony in about an hour, and then I was cross-examined for around ten hours. (I was flying home the next day, hence our staying in session late into the evening.) For me it was a particularly enjoyable day…I have a book on modern forgeries coming out in 2019, and I’ll be recounting that day in some detail.
What is your favorite course to teach?
That’s a tough question, as I immensely enjoy teaching….but here are three of my favorites: “The Bible in the Qur’an” (dealing with the shared scriptural traditions of the three Abrahamic religions), “Law and Diplomacy in the Ancient Near East” (dealing with the world’s earliest legal and diplomatic texts…which are written in Sumerian and Akkadian), and “Gods and Goddesses of the Ancient Near East” (a course that basically traces the development of Middle Eastern religion from our earliest ancient textual materials down through to modern times).
What research are you working on currently?
I’m currently finishing a book on the history of forged texts…beginning with a famous Babylonian forgery from the 6th century B.C., down to those that are “hot off the press” in the modern Middle East. That book is currently at about 250 pages in my manuscript and my contractual deadline for it is ca. 325 pages by July 31, 2018. The next two months are going to be very busy!