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Friday, November 15, 2002

Book Reviews

Cities in History

Modernity and Culture from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, 1890-1920 edited by Leila Tarazi Fawaz and C. A. Bayly (with the collaboration of Robert Ilbert). New York, Columbia University Press, 2002, 410 pages, $22.50.

Many volumes resulting from conferences are spotty, at best. The inevitably uneven quality of papers, the range of methodologies used, and the oftentimes unrelated subject matter on display – even at conferences organized around tightly defined themes – oftentimes conspire to make even the most carefully edited volumes less than coherent.

In this regard, and indeed many others, Leila Tarazi Fawaz and C. A. Bayly’s recent volume, Modernity and Culture from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, 1890-1920 is a major exception. The accomplishment is all the more remarkable since the book’s purpose is not simply to present an array of papers clearly and cogently. It also seeks to produce a model of study: in the words of the editors, to “…create a comparative framework for the study of the impact of global modernity in the region between the 1890s and the 1920s” (p. 1).

The volume succeeds very well at doing just that. Its emphasis is on intellectual and political culture, with the broader global economic context never too far in the background. The theoretical basis for analysis is the useful shift away from a paradigm that studies global modernity as the outcome of Western influence and pressure on other parts of the world toward one that assumes that modernity is negotiated within the context of a complex, multiple set of relations between various parts of Europe and other parts of the world – in this case, between Europe and the Middle East, Europe and South Asia, and the Middle East and South Asia.

Both Bayly and Fawaz are well-suited to their tasks. Bayly has published widely on British imperial history and Indian history, and he has a daunting level of editorial experience, having edited the Atlas of the British Empire, served as associate editor of The New Cambridge History of India, and edited, coedited, or contributed to a number of other volumes. One of these, Two Colonial Empires: Comparative Essays on the History of India and Indonesia in the Nineteenth Century, also managed, like Modernity and Culture, to provide useful macro-models for comparative analysis.

Leila Fawaz also brings past experience to bear on the current volume. Editor of State and Society in Lebanon, she is best known for her An Occasion for War: Civil Conflict in Lebanon and Damascus in 1860, which, while of far narrower – indeed microhistorical – focus, shows the same sharp eye for comparative historical analysis that runs throughout Modernity and Culture. Many of the contributors to the volume are no less distinguished – another fact, incidentally, that sets Fawaz and Bayly’s collaboration apart from many edited volumes that serve primarily as opportunities for first publications by fledgling scholars.

Methodologically, Modernity and Culture revolves around three primary agendas. The first is to assess the utility of area studies, with urban studies included as a subset of that category. The second is to provide a meaningful model for comparative historical study: “a history of connections” that “account[s] for change.” The third agenda is less explicit but perhaps the most ambitious of all: that of creating a model for cultural history that is not cut off from but rather is embedded in social and economic context. While the book is successful at all three goals, it really shines in achieving the first one.

In the context of histories of the Middle East and South Asia, a focus on cities has been associated with “area studies” (the earliest antecedents of which were such works as Michel Clerget’s two-volume study of Cairo published in 1934, with later examples including Ira Lapidus’s Muslim Cities in the Later Middle Ages). In the context of European history, studies with cities at their center have been associated largely with the subdiscipline of microhistory (Carl Schorske’s Fin de Siècle Vienna being perhaps the most famous example). The dichotomy in and of itself is striking, and reveals a good deal about the relative ways in which European and non-European histories are valued. While area studies have long fought to establish their own legitimacy and relevance, microhistory has been rapidly accepted by the broader historical discipline, and lauded as a legitimate and innovative – if now somewhat gimmicky – mode of historical study.

Fawaz and Bayly’s volume underscores the centrality of urban studies to Middle Eastern studies, and at the same time shows that successful microhistory is by no means the exclusive domain of Europeanists. A striking number of contributions to Modernity and Culture revolves around specific cities, both as microhistorical sites and as nodes of exchange, interaction, and change. These include May Seikaly’s “Haifa at the Crossroads: An Outpost of the New World Order”; Abdul-Karim Rafeq’s “Damascus and the Pilgrim Caravan”; Peter Sluglett’s “Aspects of Economy and Society in the Syrian Provinces: Aleppo in Transition, 1880-1925”; Resat Kasaba’s “Izmir 1922: A Port City Unravels”; Robin Ostle’s “Alexandria: A Mediterranean Cosmopolitan Center of Cultural Production”; and Hala Fattah’s “Islamic Universalism and the Construction of Regional Identity in Turn-of-the-Century Basra.” All the other contributions have an urban dimension as well.

Through Modernity and Culture, we see the value of urban studies in a specifically Middle Eastern context. While East and South Asian studies have emphasized peasant studies in past decades, focus on the city as a locus of social, cultural, and economic meaning has prevailed in the context of Middle Eastern studies. This persistence, as Bayly and Fawaz note, is due to an array of considerations, historical as well as methodological. First is “…the importance of the city in Arab and Middle Eastern thought, both as a place of interchange and as a medina, a center of politics and administration….” Another is the historical centrality of cities in Arab and Ottoman administrative settings as the site by which “governments set on imposing their will on, and if possible settling, the countryside….” Finally, as the editors explain, “European penetration of the Middle East in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries gave another impetus to Middle East urban history marked by a new interest in its absorption into the world economy” (pp. 10-12).

By situating their studies within an explicitly comparative, outward-reaching framework – one that is admirably elucidated by the editors’ introduction – the contributors manage to keep all the best features of microhistorical urban studies (complex, multivalent models of interaction, Geertzian “thick description,” consideration of relevant details, attention to exceptions as well as general rules), while doing away with some of the most vexing features of area studies (a tendency toward isolation and overspecialization, lack of comparative modeling, an uneasy link to Eurocentric interpretive frames).

As is well-known, area studies have long been embattled. In their superb introduction to Modernity and Culture, the editors lucidly lay out a history of “The Rise, Decline, and Revival of Area Studies,” locating the concept’s origins in 1950s modernization theories à la Eisenstadt, on the one hand, and in such broad socioreligious comparative approaches as the Religionswissenschaft school, on the other. Postcolonial discourse theory, however, suggested that ultimately such approaches were nothing more than disguised subsets of an imperialist agenda that aimed – through a combination of discursive belittlement and academic “mastery” – to dominate the “Orient” (p. 6). Thus, in an academic context at least, the lands with which this volume is most concerned – those of South Asia and the Muslim Middle East – found themselves in a negative double-bind. On one hand, in an academy still largely dominated by a Eurocentric agenda, they received less than their fair share of attention, and their study was often uncomfortably forced into models generated by Western case studies. On the other hand, in the wake of Edward Said’s and post-Saidian critiques, the very practice of studying the “Orient” came, paradoxically, to be regarded as suspect, viewed as the handmaiden of a neverending imperialism that, now all but dead in political terms, was as powerful as ever in economic and discursive ones.

Modernity and Culture manages to cut through the introspective hand-wringing attendant upon this involuted set of problems, largely by placing two different area studies side by side, forcing the two to engage in meaningful exchange with one another, and constantly reinserting the socially and geographically fragmentary into a broader narrative of economic change, modernization, and urbanization. In one fell swoop, the atomization of area studies is pushed aside, and in its place we see the tremendous promise of comparative (or, perhaps better, interactive) area studies for elucidating macrohistorical problems. Making the waters clearer still, Fawaz and Bayly make a superb decision to use their introduction to accomplish several tasks: first, highlight the conceptual history of area studies, and of South Asian and Middle Eastern studies specifically; second, outline the implications of comparative study; and, finally, limn the theoretical aims and scope of their project. While the introductory chapters of most edited volumes are nothing more than narrative indexes, which rattle off the titles of each contribution with a few added editorial comments as filler, Fawaz and Bayly cut right to the chase, deploying their introduction as a way of defining their project’s intellectual stakes.

In addition to a felicitous and highly intelligent methodology, Fawaz and Bayly have chosen a particularly important and potent chronological framework, the late eighteenth through early twentieth centuries. In so doing, they locate modernity within the nexus of colonialism and imperialism, insisting on its multiplicity of form, and on both its localized and global aspects. While much global history has described modernity as a monolithic process sweeping from West to East, these multiple histories of South Asia and the Middle East in the nineteenth century show the power of local economies, and the ways in which the colonized were able, economically and politically, to manipulate aspects of the colonial structures within which they found themselves. Perhaps most provocatively, they demonstrate that “modernity” cannot be viewed as a commodity somehow owned or possessed by the West.

This edited volume reads so much like a fully shaped work – complete with arguments that are continued from chapter to chapter, a framing methodology, and a shared and unifying set of questions – that my only regret is that it does not have a conclusion. While one prefers reading less from editors and more from contributors in many edited volumes, Bayly and Fawaz could fruitfully have put a closing bookend in this work, summarizing the collection’s multiple strands. Such a conclusion could have proposed explicitly what the book as a whole proposes implicitly: that area studies are far from dead – and that, in fact, when practiced interactively, they may yet rise to be the most vibrant and productive discipline today.

K. E. Fleming teaches in the departments of history and Middle Eastern studies, and in the program in Hellenic studies, at New York University; she is the author of The Muslim Bonaparte: Diplomacy and Orientalism in Ali Pasha’s Greece and is currently writing a history of the Jews of Greek-speaking lands.
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