Barzakh Is the New Black – Kayla Smith

What comes to mind when one thinks of Dubai, or perhaps Qatar?  Skyscrapers and luxury vehicles are what comes to my mind.  In her book Tribal Modern, Miriam Cooke offers an inside look into the Gulf States and how its citizens’ unspeakable wealth from oil drilling is transforming the national identities of their members, for better and for worse.  The combination of tribal and modernity in the U.A.E. renders a unique political, religious, and social climate unseen in any other part of the Arab World.  Tribal Modernexcellently enumerates the ways in which the mix between tribal and modern have affected the way Gulf nation-states express or brand themselves while challenging the strict tribal/modern dichotomy; however, Cooke gets lost in her narrative of the barzakh towards the end, straying from the main idea of Tribal Modern.

Tribal Modern begins with a brief history of tribes in the Arab Gulf and how they’ve evolved via modernization.  Cooke defines a liminal space she calls the barzakh,rendered by a mixing of the tribal and the modern, where neither element overpowers the other and it remains a heterogeneous mixture.  She provides multiple examples of this barzakh such as heritage sports, architecture, pop culture, television/movies, and art.  Conclusively, Cooke claims that the modern identity of the Gulf States gives way to “national distinctiveness” rather than indicating a loss of culture or heritage (171).

When discussing how the nation-states are defining themselves in the 21stcentury, Cooke does a thorough job of including several dimensions of society in which these identities are performed.  She discusses the way citizens dress to distinguish themselves from non-citizens – an important defining element of one’s individual identity. She states, “…Gulf Arabs perform nationality and privilege through tribal dress” (125).  The way U.A.E. citizens present themselves, even when traveling, sends a powerful message; their wardrobe is a modern simulacrum of the traditional tribal dress.

Another type of performance making appearances on the global stage is reenactments of ancestral professions and heritage sports which were not nearly as glorious as they are made out to be.  Camel racing, pearl diving, and falconry are just a few examples of traditional activities that used to serve as support for a tribe’s livelihood but have become spectacles for others’ entertainment.  Cooke points out that the barzakh produced by the mixing of these heritage sports and the modern world’s orientalist idealization results in “…a new activity […] unrecognizable to the pre-oil Gulf Arab…” (106).  She does a thorough job of explaining why this image is projected, stating,” Nostalgia is a kind of currency. […] It is a significant component in invoking collective historical memory” (112).  While this mindset may not be conducive historically accurate representations of Gulf Arabs’ culture, it is important to conceptualize the national brands.

She also provides examples of infrastructure and exhibits in Qatar and Dubai that allow these two nation-states to shape how the world perceives them.  Norman Foster’s Zayed National Museum in Abu Dhabi and Jean Nouvel’s Qatar National Museum design plans are illustrations of a combination of expensive, modern materials and symbols of ancient tribal culture.  Cooke writes, “The museum[s] will elaborate a distinctive identity permeated with the barzakh motif: it is neither Gulf nor Western, tribal nor modern, and yet both and, above all, something else” (82).   The reconstructed Suq Waqif designed by Muhammad ‘Ali provides a place in which the local population of Doha can retreat and tourists can see an “authentic souk.”  ‘Ali painstakingly combed through old records, documents, and pictures to create one of the most “authentic-inauthentic binary” the Gulf States have seen yet (95). Authentic-inauthenticity is an important theme throughout Tribal Modern which supports the prevalence of the tribal/modern barzakh.

However, towards the end of the book, Cooke starts to wander a bit from her original narrative.  She discusses the gender barzakh in the Arab Gulf, but fails to tie it back to the main idea, letting the readers become lost for a while before she pulls things together in Tribal Modern’sconclusion. Boyahs, or cross-dressing females, wear the national brand in an unconventional way to create shock and make a statement about the Arab Gulf’s strict gender binary.  Cooke writes, “Living between socially constructed subjectivities, boyahs inhabit a gender barzakh that connects and disconnects specific identities, whether female-feminine or male-masculine identities” (151).  She makes a very good point, but I fail to see the relevance.  While boyahs are attempting to break the traditional mold, this subject is more applicable to a discussion about the effects of modernization on the Gulf States without emphasis on the tribal remnants.

While Tribal Modern communicates the ways in which the national brand is comprised of a barzakh of many things, be it art, architecture, sports, clothes, or movies, Cooke fails to tie her discussion of changing gender roles and cross-dressers back to the main theme of the book.  I would recommend this book for those who want a brief overview of how the United Arab Emirates are making waves in the 21stcentury, but desire a lighter and engaging read.  While the book is not up to date, it provides an excellent foundation for understanding the implications of wealth in the Gulf States up until 2012.  Additionally, it is a wonderful way to rid one’s self of preconceived notions about the Gulf States.  Tribal Modern is an excellent introduction to a wide range of readers – not just students and scholars – who wish to know about modernity within the Arab Gulf.

3 comments to Barzakh Is the New Black – Kayla Smith

  • Judy Thomas

    Money has through history shown us all that it holds the power of any situation. There are those that have some power and then there are those that have a lot of power. That is why changes are both good and bad.

  • Judy Crissman

    I think this story tells it all. Money has a very strong influence and once again it goes back to the ones that have money and flaunt it by their clothes and their homes their lifestyle.

  • Smiley

    I have no idea how many people requested my book, but I got at least 15 reviews from Most of the reviews trickled in the first month, so I’m not sure I’d do the full three months again. That said, I suddenly received a 5-star review in my last month, so maybe the three months was worth it. ::)

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