Nov
13

The Ethiopia Book of Travels

In many of my critiques of books written about Qatar I have focused on the almost exclusive reliance upon the British colonial record for history making, despite other sources being available (notably Ottoman records in that case). I was directed to an interesting translation of a travel dairy of an Ottoman dignitary, sent by the Sultan, to meet with Menelik II to explore anti-colonialist alliances in Ethiopia in the years following the Ethiopian defeat of Italy in their attempted colonization of the country. The travel took place in 1904, and draws on Turkish and Arabic source material, and was translated in 2021 as "The Ethiopia Book of Travels". The book is largely a record of travel logistics and experiences along the road. Nonetheless, this is one of many examples where source material democratization can help with the decolonization of history making.

A contextual note about the book: "The Ethiopia Book of Travels takes you to June 1904 to accompany Sadik Pasha on a mission for sultan Abdulhamid II to go before emperor Menelik II, the ruler of Ethiopia. One of the three missions to Africa by Sadik Pasha to counter the scramble for Africa by West European powers, this volume should be considered a companion to Journey in the Grand Sahara of Africa, republished with contributions from his descendants in Journey in the Grand Sahara of Africa and Through Time." (p. vii)

An interesting reflection on modernity, as it was in 1904: "While we were watching and observing the paradise like surroundings and the sunrise from the hill that we were on, numerous young [] girls were passing, singing with a high voice all at once. The mixture of their voice with the echo was creating a nice harmony. Apparently, they were going from the village to the fields. Rising from behind the hill at this moment, the sun combined its rays with the zephyr and dampness of the morning. The song that the girls were singing happily in this way, the charm of the surroundings emerald like hills were forming such a beautiful scenery that only a skilled painter, a skilled poet would be capable of describing this. It can be seen that the health of these girls wearing a tunic each, walking bare feet over the meadows is much better than those of prosperous girls with the pampering and abundance of civilization." (p. 78) 

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Aug
22

The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism

"Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism" (2018) by Slobodian (Harvard Press) is a detailed history of the people and ideas neoliberalism, and the institutions they created. The book is historical and delved into the deep end. One reflection, which is somewhat counter intuitive, is that neoliberals are not opposed to government or regulation, just certain types. In fact, they are very pro certain types of governance / law / regulation, such as protecting private capital internationally (which requires clear and strong international law). A few quotes:

"If we place too much emphasis on the category of market fundamentalism, we will fail to notice that the real focus of neoliberal proposals is not on the market per se but on redesigning states, laws, and other institutions to protect the market." (p. 6)

"Hayek himself was explicit that the international power needed "an authority capable of enforcing [the] rules." Although after the war Hayek swerved away from engagement with international order, other neoliberals did not. As we will see, neoliberals argued against adding social and economic rights to the basic list of negative rights, even as they made the case for economic rights of their own - above all, the right to keep foreign investment safe and to move capital freely over borders. Like Hayek, they focused on the expropriation of foreign-owned property and controls on capital movements as being the central violations of rights. They would help design institutions that would safeguard the "negative rights" of freedom from expropriation and capital control." (p. 123)

"Other neoliberal thinkers downplayed the centrality of culture and race after 1945, but Ropke insisted on its importance. "Racial fanaticism," he wrote in 1965, "does not justify denying that there is something called ethnos, race, and it is elementary importance." The literature he footnoted was stark in its hierarchical biological essentialism. Among his recommendations for the field of "ethnopsychology" was a study that concluded that "mental capacity tends to be adequate among peoples and races adjusted to cold and temperate climates but inadequate among those adjusted to hot climates" and warned of "lethal power in the hands of nation-states dominated by populations incapable of rational thought." At a time when biological race was being either marginalized or recorded for many of the social sciences, Ropke brought it to the center of his analysis." (p. 157)

"Scholars often use overly broad characterizations of Global South countries as adherents to the ideology of dependency theory, which supposedly privileged the protection of infant industry above all else to diversify the economy. In that narration, the exceptions are those countries with especially close ties to the United States - Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea - whose export-oriented industrialization models are usually seen as prefiguring the direction in which development would go once the third world snapped out of its dependency-theory-driven delusions. Looking at the response to the Haberler Report, one sees that the truth is less black-and-white. In fact, developing countries were advocates of both protection and liberalization at the same time. They followed a policy of "both-and" rather than "either-or"." (p. 202) 

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Jul
06

Masters of the Pearl

From the many historical books of Qatar, one of the newest is "Masters of the Pearl: A History of Qatar" (2020) by Michael Quentin Morton. The author has written a history of the UAE, oil in the Middle East, Buraimi, his father's life as an oil geologist, and this book on Qatar (where he spent time as a child). Overall, this is a detailed history that is well structured and well written. The author is not an academic and this book is not published by an academic press (publisher: Reaktion Books), most of my issues with this book are because I am reading this book as an academic with an interest in the sources. However, even as a book for the general audience, as a historical work, it seems consistently referencing sources is good practice.

References: The book does list references and has footnotes, but inconsistently. Many historical details are unreferenced, leaving readers guessing the source of information (trying to look back to the last reference or another nearby footnote). This is missing when evidence is directly referred to, for example: "archeological evidence" (p. 61) and "there is evidence..." (p. 61), which don't have references. Or, there are mysterious sources, such as "one Khalifa historian" (p. 22), "one source" (p. 23), and "from the oral tradition" (p. 24), also without references. This makes an interesting book less useful (for those of us wanting to read the original sources).

Colonial terminology: The author unquestionably uses terminology such as "tribal" and "tribes" as well as "pirates" to describe the people of Qatar (apparently the author disagrees with or has not come across alternative, non-colonial perspectives, such as Sultan Muhammad Al-Qasimi's 1986 book "The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf"). In part, this may be because the author is not a historian by training (a lawyer by profession), where the contextualization and problematization of historical sources would have been a topic of consideration. This relates to the broader framing of the entire book, discussed next.

Colonial lens: The book does not use Arabic sources (or alternatives, such as Turkish or Farsi), and relies heavily on the British colonial record, and thereby privileges the colonial gaze in the telling of history. Western sources are the main reference points (be that maps, names, sources, etc), creating a Eurocentric frame around which history is told. The colonial record is replete with bias (what is included and what is excluded, whose voice is heard and whose is silenced, et cetera). The author does not grapple with this, and largely adopts the colonial gaze as the true and accurate representation of history. This approach is taken even when alternative perspectives do exist, in English, such as Al-Qasimi's book noted above. Amongst the missing books and references is one of the strongest academic books of recent, written by Kamrava in 2013. 


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Jan
18

The Creation of Qatar

The classic history of Qatar was written by Rosemarie Said Zahlan in 1979, titled The Creation of Qatar. The author is the sister of Edward Said (yes, the Edward Said), and she also wrote a history of the UAE (in 1978) and the region (in 1998). Zahlan's book is a reference / source book for almost all other histories of the country. Given its date of publication, its strength is offering more detailed perspectives of a different era, as history was viewed in the post-independence period and providing details of that time period itself. Somewhat surprisingly, given its centrality, the book is lightly cited in many chapters, leaving authors having to guess where all the detailed historical recounting is sourced from. As an example, for Chapter 2 on the period of 1766-1820 there are only 11 footnotes, several of which are explanatory notes and do not contain references to sources. What footnotes we have suggest that the sources are primarily from the British colonial record, and some other English sources, such as from Aramco, along with a few Arabic sources.

The focus of this history is from 1766 onward, with chapters respectively covering the eras of 1766-1820, 1820-1913, 1872-1916, post-1916, 1935 and oil, there is also a chapter on territorial disputes and chapters on socio-cultural topics. All of the chapters are quite brief (the entire book is 160 pages). For historical books on Qatar that followed it, Zahlan's work is focal, and continues to be a key reference point (however the book written by Crystal in 1990 is the most cited). This history, like that of Al-Shelek et al, places more emphasis on Qatar's internal history, than an (over)emphasis on the external as well as colonial actions and roles. The social chapters are probably the most valuable contributions, such as Zahlan's demographic data showing that the foreign population of Qatar was 39% in 1939 and 59% in 1971 as well as the 1970 Qatari population at 45,000 (well cited tables list all the available sources on population; this a unique source on an issue about which there is limited data). There is a detailed table on education (students, teachers, school), which is another great source for documents that are currently difficult to find.

Zahlan has a concluding chapter on the future of Qatar. While it is not predictive, the author suggests that hydrocarbons will remain focal to the economy up to 2000 and beyond, giving the nation and its people the potential for prosperity. Zahlan notes investment in education as well as giving girls and women opportunities (in education and work) as key pathways for economic and social development. The author also highlights that the necessity of positive regional partnership will continue given that she predicts that the country will not not be able to be self sufficient in many regards. One of the challenges Zahlan raised in 1979 was being able to fuse innovation and technology with national heritage, which remains an on-going one. 

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