Challenging the Narrative: A Review of Miriam Cooke’s Tribal Modern – Harry Sanderson

In Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf, Miriam Cooke analyzes the dynamic development of tribes and their traditions in Gulf states whose societies have experienced unprecedentedly rapid modernization in the last thirty years. Cooke utilizes her own experience from traveling in the region, interviews with common Gulf citizens, and artistic literature to formulate the idea that tribal traditions and the Gulf’s rapid modernization are inexplicably tied to one another. Throughout her work, Cooke brings up different examples that argue against the common narrative of Gulf States among analytical thinkers. Cook argues that tribal traditions and structures that have existed for thousands of years are even more present in these new modern states than ever before, but that they have just evolved into deeper, more class-based characteristics that dictate the average citizen’s way of life in these Gulf States. Through a delicately written argument that uses case studies of individual Gulf States like Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, Cooke successfully describes the nature of these societies, tracing the emergence of a national brand that emphasizes the combination of tribal and modern identities and cultures.

To successfully develop and support her argument, Cooke maintains a common theme throughout her case studies of each individual Gulf State she investigates. First, Cooke describes the tribal as the traditional values and societal systems that have been a center of life for people living in the Arab Gulf for thousands of years. Then, Cooke differentiates the modern as being the newly expressed ideas, like nationalism, borders, and globalization, that have recently been created due to the Gulf’s emergence into the international stage. Cooke routinely applies the term barzakh to denote the relationship between the tribal and modern in these societies. Cooke describes barzakh as “a Qur’anic term that variously designates the metaphysical space between life and the hereafter and also the physical space between sweet and salt waters,” (Cooke, 71). Thus, she uses this ancient Islamic term to symbolize the delicate relationship that exists between the tribal and the modern.

Cooke’s usage of barzakh is apparent throughout the examples she brings up to explain her new narrative. When describing the different national museums that have recently been created in Qatar and Abu Dhabi, Cooke’s reasoning for enlisting the term barzakh becomes apparent. Each national museum, designed by different architects from all over the world, all possess similar qualities. They attempt to pay homage to ancient traditional features of their nation-state, while at the same time emphasizing the importance of their country’s recent modernization and the promising future each of these states has. For example, Cooke writes of Jean Nouvel’s design for Qatar’s national museum “[her] project dives deep into the desert environment of the Bedouin and weaves it into the hypermodern of the twenty-first century Gulf,” (Cooke, 97). Thus, the combination of tribal and modern identities can be seen in the Gulf States’ very architecture, where artists work to showcase this regions deep history and mysterious traditions while also emphasizing their transition into the modern world. The most important element of these societies that Cooke’s description of the museums highlights is the emphasis on representing the past as well as the present. This feature shows that the tribal is not forgotten, or “primitive” like other academics have suggested, but it is rather a complimentary feature that cooperates with and diversifies the Gulf States’ modernization.

Cooke’s argument, that the tribal is an essential feature of the modern Gulf identity and culture, is further supported through her research into the importance of individual tribal identities. Through her research, primarily consisting of conducting polls and interviews, Cooke highlighted Gulf citizens’ desire to idealize the status and reputation of their tribes. Even in modern societies, Gulf citizens showed that their loyalty revolved around their individual tribal affiliations first and then to their “national” tribe. Cooke writes, “These transformations of tribe into race and then class – especially the urban, cosmopolitan class – produce the privileged national citizen,” (Cooke, 63). However, this process inadvertently created unique national identities that emphasized the importance of the tribe in national society. Cooke writes “This process reveals the interdependence of the tribal and the modern, the building blocks for a new brand that the Arab Gulf states are cultivating in order to broadcast power abroad and retain privilege at home,” (Cooke, 63). Thus, old tribal characteristics and traditions are increasingly important in these hypermodern Gulf States.

Through a sheer volume of research, Cooke successfully convinces the reader that the tribal is a central component of these Gulf societies. Cooke’s argument is especially convincing due to the variety of examples she utilizes to support her argument. Whether she discussed architecture, classist identities, or the building of a national brand, Cooke was able to identity the tribal characteristics still essential to the culture of each Gulf State’s modern society.

Accordingly, Cooke seamlessly blended Qur’anic verse and Arabic literature to successfully support her argument. In a style that payed homage to these mystical poems and verses, Cooke herself writes “I have used the words of poets and writers to anchor my analysis of the tribal modern. Creative writers and artists are always ahead of trends, able to see beyond the confusion reigning during times of change,” (Cooke, 164). This delicate style, while risky, worked beautifully to, as Cooke said herself, anchor her analysis with concrete evidence.

Overall, Cooke’s Tribal Modern was an intricately designed book that served to engage the reader throughout the novel. By providing challenging concepts and simplifying them through the explanation of different evidence in Gulf State societies, Cooke succeeded in writing an academic and educational novel that was an enjoyable read. I would recommend this book to any avid reader who enjoys books that challenge the narrative, as, throughout the book, Cooke dutifully fights to debunk the myth that the tribal is “primitive”, a fight which I believe she wins convincingly.

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