Steel Oasis: Tribal Modern Book Review – Anna Cunningham

Tribal Modern Book Review:

When Miriam Cooke visited Dubai in the 1970’s, it was a “dusty town” whose only tourist attraction was an old Russian hospital (2). Now, Dubai’s tourism website features good-looking twentysomethings sharing adventures and shopping among aspirational architecture. Dubai offers everything from a zipline through its urban landscape to snowboarding in its mall. For enough money, one can even go pearl-diving with “Major Ali,” a third generation pearl diver ( Almost fifty years later, Dubai seems like a revamped city, yet it still offers some of the defining cultural elements of its past. Cooke refers to this “undiluted convergence” of tradition and modernity as barzakh. This cultural analysis uses current movements and ideas to demonstrate how the tribal and the modern can coexist. While some people may question how “real people can live in such unreal places,” Cooke argues that the tribal identities of the Arab World are crucial components of the modern identity. Through this approach, Cooke’s book Tribal Modern successfully provides a comprehensive examination of Arab Gulf Civilization that explains, and provides examples of, the paradox of barzakh.

Tribal Modern uses an analysis of the history, institutions, and cultural phenomena in the Arab Gulf to highlight the “undiluted convergence” of barzakh. Throughout the arid peninsula’s past, interstate trade has facilitated cultural, ethnic, and product diffusion. However, the Arab Gulf’s response to an influx of foreigners is to ignore this component of history and opt for a reinvented history of pure tribes. As a result, this tribal affiliation plays an important role in both claiming rights and shaping national identity in the Arab World, as well as excluding foreigners from Arab spaces and preventing non-Arab groups to gain power in the region. Tribal lineage is even more powerful because it now determines race, which determines socioeconomic class. The barzakh of tribal powers influences both the design of architecture ranging from vernacular to the national museums. According to Cooke, new spaces are a platform to share an “old” history that has been rewritten to remove the hardships faced by Arabs of the past and celebrate the rest of the culture. The revival of traditional dress and Bedouin poetry also contribute to this rebranding. While some women easily embrace a the barzakh lifestyle, others turn to literature or experience backlash to the changing gender roles of society. Cooke concludes that this new cultural approach has allowed the Arab Gulf states to become economic forces by exporting their culture, not just their oil, and investing in others’ states as well.

Cooke makes Arab culture more accessible to Western readers by providing first-hand accounts that explain non-Western perspectives. Cooke interviews students and workers (16, 32), but she also analyzes the cultural products of the Arab Gulf for the reader. In one chapter, she focuses on women in the Middle East. While they are often depicted as voiceless members of society, Cooke’s inclusion of women’s writing not only disproves this stereotype but also introduces a literary motif unique to the Arab World. Some women embrace barzakh, whereas others find the new walls of society restrictive and counter to their daily lives (151). This variety of feeling demonstrates the complexities of society in the Arab Gulf. While some people symbolize the coexistence of tribal and modern, others embody the belief that tribal and modern exist as a binary. Women creators connect the cold to “the refrigerator of my soul,” a family’s abandonment of their matriarch, and art through pieces like “Anxiety of Place” (155 – 158). This example provides proof of Cooke’s eye for unique cultural traits of the Arab Gulf. Furthermore, its placement at the end of the book ensures that readers understand the Middle East within the full context of threats from foreigners and the changes that have accompanied the oil boom. By focusing on a direct translation of Arabs’ perspectives, Cooke stays true to the zeitgeist of the Arab Gulf that still connects to Western readers.

Cooke also magnifies Arab culture by examining symbols of national identity and challenging traditional understandings of authenticity. This analysis furthers her identification of barzakh in the Arab Gulf. Pre-oil, pearl diving was an important, but brutal, component of the pre-oil economy; now soap operas and other popular culture components like soap operas romanticize it (107). Like the erasure of the heterogeneous history of the Arab Gulf, pearl-diving has been rewritten to match a more sterile, modern view. Introducing this element of history demonstrates that what the Arab Gulf advertises as “authenticity” has much more complex roots. Removing the layers of history makeup give the readers themselves access to a more authentic understanding of the Middle East. Camel racing has been similarly romanticized, and images of present-day races seem to cater to the Orientalist images of the 1800’s (116). The tribes have essentially capitalized on their past and rebuilt it to match the perception of their fascinating, but not challenging, history. Through camel-racing, Cooke demonstrates the intertwined nature of the Western world’s relationship to the Arab Gulf. Over time, they have both sampled each other’s cultures, and in some cases, the Arab Gulf has even mimicked the foreign influences it now excludes. In response to these phenomena, Cooke elegantly comments that “in the excitement of reenactment, the brutality of the past is forgotten, or rather, it has been deliberately erased” (107). With these two examples, Cooke demonstrates how the climate of the Arab Gulf can facilitate the barzakh.

Cooke continues to transform the barzakh from an abstract concept to a concrete, defining aspect of society through traditional clothing. When the author analyzes the traditional dress Arab clothing, she comments that “local dress signals not only the nationality but also the privileged status of Gulf and Peninsula Arabs” (124). While men in long white clothing fill Western coverage of the Middle East, but Cooke introduces this additional component of power through traditional costume. This inclusion is yet another showcase of the present showcasing what was “old,” even though the traditional costume was not a feasible daily costume in pre-oil days. Even more interesting, her interaction with an Emirati student leads to the quote that “restricting native dress to Gulf Arabs is a survival mechanism, in countries where the local population is the minority” (125). Whereas in the past, the tribal system acknowledged heterogeneity, the present society relies on a “pure” line to ensure superiority in a majority foreign state. The tribal has become more related to modernity, as it is more common to wear traditional garb now than it ever used to be. Bedouin poetry has also been revived, and “the words [millenials’] grandparents used now pepper the language of the Million’s Poet aspirants.” The poetry and language of the past exist in a sensationalized, widely broadcasted manner. Without the barzakh concept Cooke proposes, these ideas seem irreconcilable. Cooke shows that in the intersection of old and new, the traditional inspires the creation of new and ensures that the original forms were preserved.

Cooke’s analysis falters occasionally when she discusses art and poetry. At times, her explanations are so literal that the meaning remains unclear or becomes repetitive. In a poem by Soad Al Kuwari, the poet remarks that “the desert is a fox/dressed like a woman.” Cooke unhelpfully explains that “they are foxes dressed like women” (164). While this happens several times, the book’s quality insights on the evolution of the Arab Gulf prevent this writing from becoming dense and dry. Cooke’s failures are small when compared to the extensive, yet concise research on the Arab Gulf.

Tribal Modern is an enjoyable, educational read. Cooke elevates the academic argument above figures to create a cohesive argument about culture in the Arab Gulf. Her people-oriented analysis gains even more meaning when considered in the historical and social contexts she provides. The accessibility of her argument draws from the unique aspects of Arab culture that she highlights for the reader. As a result, it is a successful, engaging introduction to some of the more opaque regions of the Middle East. Novice students of Arab Gulf politics may have trouble verifying Cooke’s claims, but her numerous resources indicate a meticulous cultural study.

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