Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (2004)
Pakistani anthropologist Saba Mahmood began her field research among Muslim women’s revival (da’wa, Arabic “call”) movements in Cairo in 1995 with a number of admitted preconceptions. An ardent feminist and leftist scholar, Mahmood assumed a certain degree of internalized subordination in women who find solace and meaning in deeply patriarchal traditions. Yet, over the course of two years listening to and learning from several religious revival groups run by da’iyat (female “callers”), she discovered an entirely different understanding of religious devotion. Her innovative ethnography of that time, Politics of Piety, sets out a new vision of feminist theory that re-examines the complicated, underexplored relationship between gender and religion from the perspective of women who participate within – as opposed to fight against – patriarchal systems. In doing so, Piety advances a new and timely approach to the study of ethics, identity, agency, and embodiment in post-colonial cultures.
Popularly accepted da’iyat are historically quite new. Concerns about possible gender-mixing improprieties and the belief that only men are intellectually and spiritually able to lead Muslim communities mean that, generally speaking, Islamic preaching and community leadership have been the prerogative of men alone. Female Islamic preachers arose as part of the resurgence of Islamic devotion that swelled region-wide in the Middle East beginning in the 1970s. They continued to gain popularity and acclaim as modern communications technologies facilitated women's access to Islamic education. By the 1990s, Muslim women from different social classes and backgrounds, all interested in rediscovering their religious community's rich traditions and ethical moorings, were regularly attending classes associated with local mosques, learning at the feet of dai'yat known for their moral rectitude and religious wisdom.
Mahmood describes Hajja Samira, a da'iya associated with a working-class mosque, and Hajja Faiza, a quiet, articulate Qur’anic exegete who teaches women from upscale neighborhoods, both of whom are deeply concerned with what they view as the modern abstraction of Islam into a private, personal affair that can be distinguished from other aspects of life. They teach their students to counter this secular division, emphasizing the "old Islamic adage: 'All life is worship.'” Other da’iyat engage in lively debates with their students and each other about the purpose and function of the hijab, or Islamic headcovering.
"Marching Women," a mural in Cairo dedicated to the women of the Egytian Revolution (Image courtesy of Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen)
Mahmood meets with students as well, interviewing participants in the mosque movement from all walks of life, educational levels, and philosophies. She notes the complex self-awareness with which many women seek to negotiate the conflicting claims of modern life and Muslim morality, including, for example, women whose work demands require them to participate in practices of dubious piety like transacting business with men or traveling in mixed-sex vehicles. Throughout, Mahmood observes that the wilting, oppressed Muslim woman of popular imagination is nowhere in sight. This is, in part, because the women of the urban women’s mosque movement are not primarily concerned with political equality or the implications of gender hierarchy. Rather than view their lives through a filter of political rights, they orient their understandings of self and role in terms of their obligations to God. Mahmood explores the intersection of that understanding with embodied practices, ethical issues, and personal identity, elaborating a theoretically dense and evocative approach to religion that will be useful to scholars in a variety of fields.
Images used under Fair Use Guidelines
Published on Monday, March 4, 2013
The Ottoman Age of Exploration (2010)
In The Ottoman Age of Exploration, Giancarlo Casale contests the prevailing narrative that characterizes the Ottoman Empire as a passive bystander in the sixteenth-century struggle for dominance of global trade. Using documents from archives in Istanbul and Portugal, Casale shifts our attention east and demonstrates that the Ottomans were actively engaged as rivals to the Portuguese for control of the lucrative spice trade and sea lanes of the Indian Ocean.
Casale’s study is a reaction against two historiographical trends: the first is a Eurocentric version of history in which the so-called Age of Exploration is posited as a purely European phenomenon, conditioned by the intellectual tradition of the European Renaissance and focused on New World colonization. This perspective focuses on the opening of direct trade between Europe and Asia as the catapult that launched Europe forward and started the Ottoman Empire’s slow road toward decline and eventual demise as the “sick man of Europe.” The second is the new trend toward a non-Eurocentric view of world history, that seeks to write the history of the global community that is independent of Europe. The Ottoman Empire tends to get short shrift in the early modern period in both of these narratives because it did not focus on Atlantic exploration or colonization. Indeed, a cursory review of nearly every map published in world history textbooks that depicts trade routes in the 16th and 17th centuries will show a swirl of arrows around, but never through, Ottoman and Safavid lands in the eastern Mediterranean.
Casale proposes instead that Ottoman participation in the Age of Exploration focused on maintaining, expanding, and defending Indian Ocean trade against the Portuguese expansion there. For the Ottomans, the Indian Ocean seemed likely to be far more lucrative than the colonization of a new continent whose economic viability was anything but assured. The income was substantial and the Ottoman and Portuguese navies were well-matched, challenging the Eurocentric narrative that suggests that European exploration was boosted by superior technology and weaponry.
While the phenomenon of Indian Ocean trade in the pre-colonial era has been well documented by Janet Abu-Lughod, Andre Frank and others, Casale provides the Ottoman perspective for the first time through new discoveries in the Ottoman archives. We are introduced to previously unknown heroes and villains, giving familiar events new interpretations. The Ottomans were introduced to this new milieu in 1517 following their conquest of Egypt, a province that had grown rich from its geographic position at the head of the Nile, the head of the Red Sea, and from the their monopoly on trade between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean world. The Portuguese sought to challenge Egyptian dominance of Indian Ocean trade by circumnavigating Africa and establishing their own trading ports in South Asia. The Ottomans, Casale proposes, were motivated in part by Egypt’s riches, which they needed to support, among other things, their never-ending military rivalry with Safavid Iran. Once in Egypt, however, the Ottomans discovered that the Portuguese had established a blockade of the Red Sea to disrupt Egyptian trade with India and a military outpost at Hormuz to control access to the Persian Gulf. In order to restore trade and income, the Ottomans had to deal with the Portuguese menace and increase the flow of goods and their resulting tax revenue. Over the course of the sixteenth century, this led to the annexation of Yemen and Eritrea in order to enforce a Muslims-only shipping policy in the Red Sea and to prevent the Portuguese from striking at the symbolic heart of the empire, Mecca and Medina, or the imperial shipyards at Suez. Similarly, Basra at the head of the Persian Gulf was incorporated into the empire outright, and Casale documents several negotiated attempts at alliances or outright annexation of territories across the Indian Ocean basin as the Ottoman sphere of influenced waxed and waned over the course of the century.
The Ottomans employed a combination of military might, intelligence and espionage, diplomacy, propaganda, science, technology, and cartography in order to counter the Portuguese as they made a serious bid to expand what Casale refers to as a “soft” empire, where trade, rather than political and military power, connected disparate territories across the Indian Ocean, stretching from Yemen and Hormuz to Gujarat, Calicut, and as far as the sultanate of Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra. Casale suggests that by 1580, the name of the Ottoman Sultan was read out during Friday khutbas from Central Africa to China, their reward for a propaganda campaign against the Portuguese. In telling this story, Casale’s brings us not only the voices of players in Istanbul, Cairo, and Lisbon but also the voices of the Indian and African rulers for the first time as they played these two powers—Ottoman and Portuguese—off of one another in an attempt to secure their dominions.
Casale might exaggerate the originality of his findings and the vision of some of his historical figures but he makes an interesting, readable, and meticulously detailed case for the Ottoman Empire as an active participant in the first century of the Age of Exploration, along with a well-justified explanation for its decision not to pursue expansion at the century’s end. European and World historians alike will find compelling evidence for a new narrative outlining a perilous balance of power in the Indian Ocean during this era in which Europe’s eventual ascendency was not a foregone conclusion. His readers will gain a new appreciation for all of the players involved—not just European and Ottoman, but also the Indian and African rulers who are finally given voice through Casale’s archival work.
Fragment of a 1513 Ottoman map depicting the coasts of Western Europe, Northern Africa and Brazil (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
A 1606 map of the Ottoman Empire (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Published Monday, January 28, 2013
Honorable Mention of 2012 Undergraduate Essay Contest: Musui's Story, The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai (1991)
Musui’s Story is an exceptional account of one man’s hell-raising, rule-breaking, and living beyond his means. The autobiography documents the life of Katsu Kokichi, a samurai in Japan’s late Tokugawa period who adopted the name Musui in his retirement. Katsu is something of a black sheep within his family, being largely uneducated and deemed unfit for the bureaucratic offices samurai of his standing were expected to hold. As such, he typifies in many ways the lower ronin, or masterless samurai, many of whom famously led roaming, directionless lives and wreaked havoc among the urban poor and merchant classes.
The book is quick and simple to read, with barely literate Katsu’s prose skillfully translated by Teruko Craig. The autobiography follows Katsu’s whirlwind of adventures, which involved a great deal of fighting, name-calling, and extortion. What Katsu lacks in ambition is more than made up for by his knack for getting into trouble. The supposed premise of the autobiography is to serve as a cautionary tale for his descendants, as Katsu advises from the very beginning, “Take me as a warning.” In actuality, however, the story smacks of a thinly veiled account of braggadocio.
Many of the stories are almost certainly exaggerated, and even if they were not, they would not be exemplary of the samurai class as a whole. Still, the expectations and conflicts Katsu faces are representative of the underlying economic and social tensions of Tokugawa Japan. Musui’s Story offers a money-obsessed voice to the low-ranking samurai class, in light of its struggle to establish its purpose in a society that increasingly saw it as parasitic.
Katsu broke with the accepted moral code of his class, exemplifying the societal struggle that marked one of Tokugawa Japan’s most distinctive features. The role of the Tokugawa samurai was increasingly out of touch with the social reality of the period. It was a class plagued by insecurity of both income and identity. Samurai had emerged as the dominant, warrior class during Japan’s feudalistic era. Originally a rural class, many samurai including Katsu came to live in Edo (modern day Tokyo) during the Tokugawa period, where they lived on capped government stipends. Samurai were, in name, at the top of Japan’s four-tiered shi-no-ko-sho system, but many found themselves unemployed, heavily indebted, and directionless.
Musui’s Story epitomizes the growing pressure many samurai must have faced as they were torn between outdated cultural expectations and an impossible financial reality. Katsu gives a charming and hilarious voice to the struggle, and through his story we see that a study of samurai teachings is insufficient to capture the samurai life in its actuality. Katsu all but abandons the bushido code he would have been taught, venturing among the urban poor and abusing the threat of seppuku, or honorable suicide, as a means of extortion to avoid payment and punishment.
These disjointed expectations for displaying wealth regardless of a samurai’s income level offer a simple explanation for Katsu’s decision to run away, twice, in shame. Tokugawa social insecurity might also be in some ways reminiscent of our contemporary society’s complex relationship to debt. Despite their temporal and geographical distance from the events in Katsu’s autobiography, UT students might find a few striking parallels to their own lives, but hopefully not so much that they would be inspired to imitate Musui’s violent antics.
19th century woodblock print of the famous Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Edgar Walters is a Plan II junior. He is an undergraduate intern at the Harry Ransom Center and associate editor at the Daily Texan. He would like to pursue a graduate degree in the humanities in the future.
When the Emperor was Divine (2003) & The Buddha in the Attic (2012)
Writers of ethnically-themed novels are often pegged as simply recording their family stories. However, by the time National Book Award finalist Julie Otsuka set out to capture her mother’s stories of “camp,” dementia had already stolen her once-clear memories. For the novel that became When the Emperor was Divine, Otsuka had to research the events that took her, as a 10-year-old along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans, from their homes on the west coast designated them as “enemy aliens,” and confined them to internment camps in inland desert areas during World War II. Her research produced the moving and telling details that reveal the profound loss of fought-for home and identity, the crushing helplessness, and resulting mental incapacity, that beset Japanese Americans with the onset of the war. Her novel conveys how they were literally stripped of all but what they could carry, and forced them to wait for the end of the war imprisoned in temporary barracks behind barbed wire removed from the stabilizing routines of work, school, home, community, and greater acceptance. Inspired by Hemingway, Otsuka uses luminous prose to convey the unmooring of one Japanese American family though everyday objects: the family dog that had to be killed because it could not be brought or adopted, a jump rope cut into pieces, stones thrown through train windows, silverware buried in the garden. A painter by training, Otsuka states that When the Emperor was Divine first came to her in images, which she then set down in words (Texas Book Festival, Oct. 27, 2012).
In contrast, Otsuka’s second novel, The Buddha in the Attic, for which she won the PEN/Faulkner Award, flowed as a multitude of “chanting” voices. Based upon two years of research into the lives of Japanese picture brides—young Japanese women of Otsuka’s grandmother’s generation, who followed arranged marriages and came to America between 1908 and 1924 only to find that neither their husbands nor their circumstances matched their advertised claims. Otsuka uses a “we” voice with no single protagonist to evoke the range of struggles and adaptions women made when they entered hard, working-class lives alongside their husbands on farms, in stores and restaurants, boarding houses, mining and lumbering towns, raising children and keeping house, sometimes in tents or newly built shacks without electricity or running water. There are few documents recorded in these women’s own voices and Otsuka recreates their world through their eyes. It is not a glorious story of immigrant integration and success, but a richly layered and compelling account of struggle and survival that honors the picture brides’ humanity while underscoring that their ranks did not produce any recognized heroes or literary tropes.
Japanese-Americans boarding a train in Los Angeles bound for an internment camp, April 1942 (Image courtesy of Library of Congress)
Japanese-Americans standing by posters with internment orders (Image courtesy of the United States Department of the Interior)
Families of Japanese immigrants in Hawaii, ca. 19th century (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
These two slight novels are well worth the couple of hours that they take to consume. Otsuka uses elegant and compact prose to transport readers to a transient time and set of circumstances that are, thankfully, long over, although the psychic remnants continue to resonate.
You may also like:
David A. Conrad's reviews of Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II and Shinohata: A Portrait of a Japanese Village
Published on Monday November 12, 2012
How Taiwan Became Chinese: Dutch, Spanish, and Han Colonization in the Seventeenth Century
Focusing on seventeenth-century Taiwan, the island east of mainland China populated by aborigines who specialized in deer hunting, Tonio Andrade seeks to explore the theme of early modern colonization in a much larger context as part of his greater effort of analyzing global history. According to Andrade, Taiwan, neighboring China, Japan, the Philippines (controlled by Spain), was part of a colonial trade network and soon a focus of contention between the Dutch, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Japanese and the Chinese.
Employing a variety of sources including travel and missionary accounts from Europeans, official records and correspondence from the Dutch East India Company (VOC), and documents from the Chinese, Andrade discusses the early modern colonization of Taiwan, known as Ilha Hermosa by the Portuguese, La Isla Hermosa by the Spanish, or Formosa by the Dutch. Spain strategically established a colony in northern Taiwan while the Dutch established theirs in the south in the first quarter of the seventeenth century.
1640 Dutch map of "Formosa," the colonial term for Taiwan (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Fort Zeelandia, the Dutch East India Company's Taiwanese headquarters (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
After Spain’s decreasing interest in Taiwan and their defeat by the Dutch gave it control of the island, the VOC corrected the Spanish mistake of not making their colony self-sufficient by developing an interesting strategy which Andrade calls “co-colonization”. Having determined that it would be too costly to send Dutch to Taiwan, the VOC introduced various incentives including free land, tax exemptions and property rights to attract Chinese from the nearby Fujian province in China to immigrate to Taiwan. The plantation of sugar and rice soon became lucrative business not only for the immigrants but also the VOC. In the process, the VOC also developed a lord-vassal relationship with the aborigines and gained control over the native population. Andrade argues that this co-colonization strategy was a key difference between the Spanish and the Dutch in their colonization efforts in Taiwan. This period of co-colonization between the Dutch and the Chinese was successful so long as the interests of both parties were met. Towards the end of the century, however, the VOC’s tax increase lost the support of the Chinese immigrants, ultimately leading to rebellions from many Chinese settlers and to the Dutch defeat by Zheng Chenggong, the Ming loyalist of great military power.
Dutch sketch of a native "Formosan" circa 1650 (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Andrade’s study of the colonization of Taiwan demonstrates the connections between Europe and Asia, which helps to illustrate a larger picture of early modern colonization beyond the Atlantic world. The multiple European and Asian colonizing powers in Taiwan also highlighted the intricate network of colonization in terms of not only military power but also trading relations and migration patterns. Interestingly, Andrade does not include any maps or other supplementary illustrations in the original/English version of his work, but he does so in the Chinese translation. Even more thought-provoking is the book title of the Chinese version. Instead of How Taiwan Became Chinese, the Chinese title is How Formosa Became Taiwan Prefecture, carrying a much more Sinocentric undertone. Nonetheless, Andrade’s book is a fascinating study on early modern global relations.
Published on Monday November 5, 2012
Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (1989)
Gauri Viswanathan provides a fascinating account of the ideological motivations behind the introduction of English literary education in British India. She studies the shifts in the curriculum and relates such developments to debates over the objectives of English education both among the British administrators, as well as between missionaries and colonial officials.
Viswanathan argues that British administrators introduced English literary study in India in the early nineteenth century to improve the moral knowledge of Indians. Since Britain professed a policy of religious neutrality, Christian teachings could not be used in India, unlike the situation in Britain. In order to resolve this dilemma, colonial officials prescribed English literature, infused with Christian imagery, for government schools. Initially, Indians studied English literature using poetical devices, such as rhyme, alliteration, and reduplication. However, missionaries decried such secular practices and insisted upon a more religious reading of English literature. As a result, between 1830s and the mid-1850s, government schools in India used English literature to explain Christian teachings and emphasize the higher levels of historical progress and moral standards of English society. By the end of the 1850s, however, British administrators again changed their stance and advocated a secular reading of English literature to encourage commercial and trade literacy. This reversal of stance occurred as British officials realized that a religious reading of English literature did not provide Indians with the proper knowledge to join the colonial administrative services. Besides, after the 1857 Indian revolt against foreign rule, British officials did not wish to adopt policies that might ignite fears of conversion among Hindus and Muslims.
Bapudeva Sastri, Indian Astronomer and Professor, teaching a class at Queen's College, Varanas, 1870
Viswanathan gives a detailed account of the various debates that influenced the introduction of English literary study in India. While she minutely examines the stances of Utilitarians, Anglicists, and missionaries, the absence of chronological benchmarks at regular intervals prevents the reader from fully understanding the shifts in education policies in British India emerging from such debates. However, her work changes our way of studying British educational policies in India. Previously, scholars merely studied the transformative effects of British education to understand the historical function of educational policies. Viswanathan ably proves that it is necessary to examine the discourse and the context of the formulation of educational policies to better understand educational history.
All photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Published on Monday October 15, 2012
Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope (1989)
Left: Gandhi spinning, December 1929 (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)
Right: Gandhi at his Johannesburg law firm, 1905 (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)
The Yacoubian Building (2006)
Alaa al-Aswany’s novel The Yacoubian Building (2002, Arabic عمارة يعقوبيان) tells the story of a group of people loosely bound together by dint of living in the same crumbling building - a real place - in downtown Cairo. The son of a doorman; an older man with an endless fascination for women; the secret second wife of a wealthy and corrupt businessman; and a lonely newspaper editor looking for lasting love, are each connected to the building, either because they rent office space there, or have an apartment there, or visit someone who lives there. A scathing indictment of governmental corruption and a critique of the class-based limitations of contemporary Egyptian society, Yacoubian Building is nevertheless a piquant and entertaining read.
The Yacoubian Building gained notoriety in Egypt for being one of the first novels to break the homosexual taboo by featuring an openly gay character. The half-French, half-Egyptian editor of the fictional (French) newspaper Le Caire, Hatim Rasheed is portrayed sympathetically. Although other characters talk about him disparagingly he has nevertheless managed to gain the respect – or, at least, the quiet tolerance – of most of his neighbors and associates. Rasheed’s least sympathetic moment is not one related to his sexuality, but to his sense of class entitlement. He is deeply in love with a poor married Nubian man, Abduh, whom he has been supporting financially and with whom he has been having an affair. When Abduh’s child dies a sudden death, he is convinced that God is punishing him for engaging in forbidden sexual acts, and breaks off the affair. Rasheed, who wants a long-term committed relationship and has no interest in cruising the gay bars, seeks out Abduh and hopes to lure him back, promising him job security if they can only have one more night together. Abduh, deeply in debt and still racked with guilt, consents to one night in the hope of getting back on his feet. When Abduh gets up to leave, a drunken Rasheed demands that he stay, threatening and raving as though Abduh is nothing more than a servant whom Rasheed is entitled to command: “You’re just a bare-foot, ignorant Sa’idi. I picked you up from the street, I cleaned you up, I made you a human being.” While Rasheed’s ugly rant may be interpreted as the distraught sputtering of a heartbroken, inebriated man, the broader notion of entitlement and the economic and sexual exploitation of the poor by wealthy men is is clear here and throughout al-Aswany’s book.
One of the least sympathetic characters among these upper–class men is Hagg Azzam, a nouveau riche entrepreneur and budding politician who has accumulated vast drug wealth under the cover of more respectable, legal business dealings. Corpulent, seedy, selfish and malicious, Azzam typifies the corrupt businessman, justifying all manner of morally dubious behaviors under the veneer of Islamic sanction, denying seemingly even to himself the fact that his own pocketbook provides the necessary suasion with the religious leaders he consults for guidance about right conduct. He is allowed to take a second wife under Islam and to stipulate certain provisions about her behavior in the marriage contract, so he deliberately chooses a poor young widow, Souad, setting her up in an apartment in the Yacoubian building and then treating her little better than a call-girl. Azzam forbids her to see her beloved only son in Alexandria and demands that she not have any more children. When she does get pregnant and wants to keep the baby over his strident objections, he uses his wealth and means to forcibly drug and kidnap her, aborting their baby and divorcing her while she is unconscious. After repudiating her, any regrets he feels are related to sex and sex alone:
“He consoled himself with the thought that his marriage to her, while providing him with wonderful times, hadn’t cost him a great deal. He also thought that his experience with her might be replicable. Beautiful poor women were in good supply and wedlock was holy, not something anyone could be reproached for."
The Yacoubian Building, No. 34 Talaat Harb, Cairo, Egypt
Nevertheless, despite Azzam’s ruthlessness and apparent lack of conscience, even he can be played by men who are more powerful. In one scene he goes to protest being asked to donate 25% of the proceeds of a business scheme to the powers-that-be, only to be required to sit and wait to talk to the “Big Man,” a disembodied voice piped in from the ether. This critique of the construction of modern Egyptian masculinity around power, intrigue, corruption, and manipulation, continues throughout al-Aswany’s novel.
Egyptians on the streets of Cairo in 1920.
(Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Azzam’s complicated approach to Islam, moreover, reflects al-Aswany’s diverse and nuanced characterization of Egyptian men and their religious sentiments. Although nearly all of the characters in The Yacoubian Building are Muslim, each interprets and understands Islam differently. For example, although it would be difficult to read this text as supportive of radical Islam, al-Aswany paints a sympathetic portrait of Taha el Shazli’s journey into radicalization, as a consequence of social and especially governmentally-imposed emasculation. Despite Taha’s considerable intellectual gifts and willingness to work hard, he is thwarted at every turn, unable to land a decent job because of his lack of connections and the stigma of having been born to a working-class father. His relationship with his first love falls apart as she too falls on hard economic times. Because Taha is unable to marry and provide for Busayna and thereby protect her from the leering, sleazy overtures of her employers, she gradually succumbs to a precarious balancing act of giving sexual favors (as long as they don’t compromise her all-important status as - technically - a virgin) in exchange for job security and increased monetary compensation. Selling herself in such a way, however, embitters Busayna. Though she never tells Taha what economic circumstances have forced her into, she grows cool and distant from him, finally breaking up with him in an almost glib manner in the street. In a sad irony, his increasing religiosity parallels her increasing descent into moral compromise, both a result of economic inequality. Having lost his love and any possibility of a real job, Taha finds meaning in Islam, actively protesting the corruption of the government and advocating for change. He finally finds the dignity and self-respect that broader Egyptian society had robbed him of in his Islamic organization:
"Those who knew Taha el Shazli in the past might have difficulty in recognizing him now. He has changed totally, as though he had swapped his former self for another, new one. It isn’t just a matter of Islamic dress that he has adopted in place of his Western clothes, nor of his beard, which he has let grow and which gives him a dignified and impressive appearance greater than his real age….All these are changes in appearance. Inside, however, he has been possessed by a new, powerful, bounding spirit. He has taken to walking, sitting, and speaking to people in the [Yacoubian] building in a new way. Gone forever are the old cringing humility and meekness before the residents. Now he faces them with self-confidence. He no longer cares a hoot for what they think, and he won’t put up with the least reproach or slight from them."
No longer obsequious and servile, Taha feels confidence in himself as a man. Any ambivalence he may have felt about his Muslim associations is crushed when he is jailed, tortured, interrogated, blindfolded, and raped repeatedly by jeering police. His sense of alienation and emasculation complete, Taha turns wholly to the anti-nationalist teachings of Gama’a Islamiyya. Even marrying a beautiful Muslim widow (who manages to be sensual, sexy, and modest at the same time) doesn’t deter Taha from his goal of revenge through a martyrdom operation on those of the police establishment who violated him. Al-Aswany’s message is clear: lack of economic opportunity and government violence and corruption are leading to the religious radicalization of young Egyptian men.
(Image courtesy of Gigi Ibrahim/Flickr Creative Commons)
(Image courtesy of Hossam el-Hamalawy/Flickr Creative Commons)
This last is all the more interesting, relevant, and timely, given the brutal murder of 28-year-old Egyptian student Khaled Said by Egyptian police in front of his home in 2010, and the subsequent Facebook page and protest campaign, called "We are all Khaled Said" (كلنا خالد سعيد ). The viciousness and injustice of the murder served to galvanize public opinion, and was an important catalyst for the uprising, eventually evolving into the still-unfolding Egyptian Revolution.
You may also like:
Yoav di-Capua’s blog post about political and social conditions in Egypt eight months after Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011.
Posted on August 14, 2012
Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey through Chinese History (2011)
This book reconstructs the history of the Ye family beginning in the fifteenth century, when its first ancestor was recorded, all the way to the present. The focus of the book is on Ye Kunhou and his son in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and on the Ye brothers (Kunhou’s great great grandsons), who experienced the turbulence of war and revolution under the Republic, and took different paths after the Communist Revolution in 1949. The author’s father-in-law, Ye Duzhang, is one of the key protagonists of the family’s history, which gave Esherick access to a variety of personal sources, including family genealogies, memorials, biographies, poems. memoirs, oral histories, and Ye Duzhang’s personal dossier.
The book is divided into three parts, to cover the imperial, the Republic, and the People’s Republic periods. The surviving genealogies and Kunhou’s volumes of poems illustrate the ways that the Ye ancestors regulated the family by adhering to Confucian mores and conventions, such as filial piety to parents, fraternity among brothers, harmony with neighbors, eschewing involvement with the local authorities and educating boys in Confucian teachings to prepare for the civil service examination. What is particularly interesting in this part is the impressive success of Kunhou and other Ye men of his time in moving up the ladder of the imperial bureaucracy in the nineteenth century. Beginning with the position of a magistrate candidate, Kunhou advanced to the ranks of prefect and circuit intendant, owing to his ability to assist provincial governors in supervising water-control projects and providing logistic service in suppressing the Nian bandits. His two brothers served a county magistrate and a prefect, respectively. His son, Boying, began with a purchased position in the Board of Reveue and eventually escalated to the position of governor, thus surpassing his father’s rank. Surprisingly, none of the Ye men ever passed the civil service exam beyond the initial levels for a degree to qualify them as upper-gentry members. Critical to their successes was the protection they received from the key figures in the military and civil bureaucracy. These patronage networks, as Esherick notes, reflect the overall deterioration of the regular bureaucracy in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Part II begins with an examination of the life of Kunhous’ great grandson, Chongzhi, a banker in Tianjin under the aegis of the famous industrialist Zhou Xuexi in the early Republic and then centers on Chongzhi’s children. Unlike the daughters of the Ye family who received no school education (except for the fifth) and later had unhappy arranged marriages, the ten surviving sons all attended the elite Nankai Middle School. Here Esherick observes an interesting distinction among the sons of different ages. The three older sons followed a conservative pattern of serving family interests, in Chongzhi’s banking business in Tianjin or going into business shortly after graduating from college and they all stick with the loveless marriages prepared by their parents.
In sharp contrast, the younger boys were “born to rebel.” They each had a love marriage of their own choice and they participated in student movements, either against the Japanese invasion or in the Nationalist government’s non-resistance policy. Two of them eventually became members of the Communist Party, enduring the subsequent hardship and personal sacrifice in wartime. One became so troublesome he was expelled from the family and ended up as a comedian who would not resume contact with his brothers for decades. A noticeable exception was the seventh son, who pursued an academic career in China and the U.S., and eventually returned to the New China in 1950 after receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago despite a well-paid job available to him in the U.S. The younger Ye brothers’ life stories are revealing. What drove them to join the CCP or return to China, as Esherick points out, was not their faith in communism but their discontent with the corruption and dictatorship of the Nationalist regime and their idealist dedication to the cause of national salvation and betterment.
Part III traces the Ye brothers’ family life and political career after 1949. Two of the brothers were victims of the Party’s repeated political campaigns that aimed to tame the liberal intellectuals. They both had to endlessly confess their “wrongs” for befriending or collaborating with Americans in China before 1949 and for criticizing local Party leaders in the 1950s. Both were classified as “rightists,” losing their jobs and even being divorced or alienated by family members. The Cultural Revolution beginning in 1966 turned out to be disaster to all of the Ye brothers. Not only were the two rightist brothers arrested and imprisoned on the charge of being American spies, but the other two brothers, who had joined the CCP before 1949 and served as high-ranking government or party officials in the 1950s and 1960s, were also attacked by Red Guards as “capitalist power holders” and exiled to the countryside for political reeducation. The seventh brother, an American trained scientist, was labeled as a reactionary “academic authority.” They would not be rehabilitated until the early 1970s with the reversal of the radicalism of the Cultural Revolution.
Weaving the vicissitudes of an elite urban family with the turbulence of the entire nation in the past centuries, Esherick presents in this book an exceptionally rich and authentic picture of the Ye men and women experiencing family life, education, government service, local politics, and nationwide movements. Unparalleled in the study of family history in modern China, it will be of interest to all readers interested in China.
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Pearl Buck's Nobel Prize winning book "The Good Earth."
All images courtesy of Wikiemedia Commons
Posted on July 24, 2012
Freedom at Midnight (1975)
Freedom at Midnight paints a sweeping picture of the tumultuous year of India’s independence from Great Britain in 1947.The narrative style of the book immerses readers in the visual landscape of the falling Raj and allows them to step into the minds of the great actors of this time. This sort of narrative history also contains drawbacks that limit our understanding of this important moment.
The book compresses the story to a tight one-year time frame. This allows Collins and Lapierre to focus on the state-level negotiations on India’s independence. It begins with Louis Mountbatten’s installation as the Last Viceroy of India, and closely follows the negotiations between Mountbatten, Whitehall, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and Mohandas Gandhi as they make the decision to partition India. It then continues with the chaos and bloodshed of the split, until ending with Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. This narrative is undeniably fascinating, however, it also places an almost exclusive emphasis on the “great men” of history. They are represented here as isolated personages who hold the fate of the Indian people in their hands. The people themselves are often lost in this depiction, appearing as faceless masses helplessly reacting to political machinations.
Despite this focus on the agency of the great men, the primary mechanism which forces history forward in the book is destiny or fate. In this account, the British were “a race that God had destined” to rule the Indians, and therefore “naturally acquired” India. Faced with the prospect of division, Mountbatten must “save India” from itself. This device frees Mountbatten and the British from the charge of poorly handling or rushing independence. Instead, they are depicted as contending with historical inevitabilities far more powerful than themselves.
While a current reader does not expect a highly sympathetic and nuanced portrait of India from a book written three years before Edward Said’s Orientalism, and the rise of post-colonial studies, as a narrative with insight into the rush of daily life on the cusp of independence, it remains an enjoyable and exciting read.
(Image courtesy of The Library of Congress)
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Louis Mountbadden meeting with Mahatma Gandhi
(Image courtesy of Doc Kazi/Flickr Creative Commons)
(Image courtesy of Miss Mertens/Flickr Creative Commons)
(Image courtesy of devanshupriya/Flickr Creative Commons)
Mohammad Ali Jinnah taking the oath of office in Kirachi, Pakistan, December 1947.
(Image courtesy of germeister/Flickr Creative Commons)
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
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Amber Abbas' review of "Prejudice and Pride: School Histories of the Freedom Struggle in India and Pakistan."
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Voices of India's Partition, Part V: Interview with Professor Mohammad Amin
Voices of India's Partition, Part IV: Interview with Professor Masood ul Hasan
Voices of India's Partition, Part III: Interview with Professor Irfan Habib
Voices of India’s Partition, Part II: Interview with Mr. S.M. Mehdi
Voices of India’s Partition, Part I: Interview with Mrs. Zahra Haider
Posted on July 19, 2012