The Modern and Traditional: A Reality – Michelle Rodriguez

The 1970s introduced a new of era of wealth within countries like Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE, propelling their economies towards growth and societies towards modernity. Among these states, previously existing tribes had to make a decision as state borders hardened, either become a citizen or maintain their tribal (yet stateless) identities. In Miriam Cooke’s Tribal Modern, Cooke evaluates the transformation of societal perception regarding tribal identity. Within Cooke’s work, however,  there is an implied dissatisfaction towards the rebranding of cultural symbols, thus taking an approach emphasizing the fading permeance of their original meaning. In this process, Cooke argues the “clashing” of recent modernity and the imagery of antiquity surrounding tribal affiliation creates an effect of class distinction/separation, state promotion of a cultural brand, and the emergence of the barzakh.

Cooke begins by indicating the growing immigrant population within petro-states is largely due to an increasing export of lower-skilled jobs (Cooke 14). As immigrants began to rival the number of citizens, Cooke states that tribal affiliations and traditional dress became indicators of social and economic class (126). With pathways to citizenship being exclusive to descendants of the “original” ancestors of these petro-states, immigrants have no rights nor ability to move up the social or economic strata (22-24). Governments enforce a distribution of privilege to a selective few, and by doing so influence the continuation of tribal significance. This phenomenon intensifies as governments prepare for post oil-based economies where tourism – and thus museums/historically significant projects – becomes a method of exporting a state’s distinct “tribal modern” culture. This particular intersection where the tribal and modern interact without either assimilating into the other is the barzakh.

Particularly, Cooke’s extensive research into the various modes of influences used to constructed an assessment of the social sphere is admirable. Ranging from the collection of anonymous surveys, to forms of art and literary works, to an assessment of economic profitability from promoting a cultural brand, Cooke is thorough in her collection of evidence. For this reason, one is able to follow her argument about the distinct relationship of the tribal modern. In fact, by providing additional historical contexts with accompanying analyses of their impact on petro-states, your historical knowledge doesn’t need to be expensive to follow her argument.

In spite of Cooke’s sound argument for the unique interdependence of traditional tribal symbols and current social, civil, and economic spheres of wealthy petro-states, she continuously projects a dissatisfied outlook regarding the barzakh. This is understandable, as Cooke states the distortion of older practices has created an idealized national identity where only the desirable aspects survive. “In the excitement of reenactment, the brutality of the past is forgotten, or, rather, it has been deliberately erased” (Cooke 107). Many cultures have been systematically destroyed through colonialism, the standardization of languages for communication, and oppression, but the symbol of the tribe has demonstrated versatility. The regulation of national identity by the government has created a thriving contemporary product, thereby proving that locals can “embrace” traditional values and the modern world (119). Her criticisms of Qatar’s National Museum and similar projects indicate that these shouldn’t be considered barzakh, but instead a fictional recreation of culture (79; 83). Projects like these don’t have preceding permanence in society, however, they are in the process of becoming scions of cultural identity and therefore are not fiction.

Overall, Tribal Modern is a well-developed and expertly researched work displaying a relationship that exists both in theory and realty within its corresponding regional location. Cooke was able to employ a detachment from Western thought which  brings us closer to accuracy when observing similar relationships. Regardless of criticisms, her work provides a great example of how one should collect and apply evidence, especially so when applied to a region where accustomed thought processes aren’t as relevant.

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