World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies

Barcelona, July 19th - 24th 2010


Emotional Communities in the Middle East and North Africa: Historical and Ethnographic Approaches (246) - NOT_DEFINED activity_field_Panel

· NOT_DEFINED date: WED 21, 2.30-4.30 pm

· NOT_DEFINED institution: Harvard University (USA)

· NOT_DEFINED organizer: Max Weiss

· NOT_DEFINED language: English

· NOT_DEFINED description: The Middle East and North Africa have often been portrayed and perceived as being characterized by a surplus of emotionality. This panel aims to consider whether “emotion” is a useful lens through which to engage with the histories, societies and cultures of the region. Over time, certain emotions and emotional styles tend to receive greater or lesser emphasis, structuring or getting integrated into various ideologies, institutions and identities; politics and social movements; constructions of sexuality and gender; as well as concepts and practices of the sacred and the secular. Meanwhile, the history and culture of emotions in the Middle East and North Africa needs to be comparatively situated in relation to other world-historical contexts. This panel will stage a preliminary interdisciplinary conversation about the promise and problems of writing histories and ethnographies of emotion and affect focusing on the Middle East and North Africa. As historians have been turning toward more sophisticated methods of studying emotions, emotionality and emotional communities, anthropologists continue to theorize, describe and interpret affective states and communities of emotion through various means of ethnography. The dialectical tension between disciplinary convention and interdisciplinary conversation may be shown to both restrict and enhance more effective approaches to questions of emotionality and emotional community. While many scholars have limned the boundary between the disciplines of History and Anthropology, producing some fascinating social, cultural and historical studies of emotion, there remains much work to be done on the history and anthropology of emotion in Middle Eastern and North African contexts and there is much to be gained by considering the methodological implications of doing the history and ethnography of emotion more generally. Papers on this panel will include studies of particular kinds of emotion (happiness, anxiety) in a specific historical or cultural setting as well as more theoretical or comparative contributions relating to the problem of emotionality and modern secularism or the management of the passions in premodern Islam.

Chair: Ghassan Hage (University of Melbourne)

Paper presenter: Mahiye Secil Dagtas (University of Toronto), “Emotional Registers of the Secular in Istanbul”
This paper draws upon the preliminary findings of an ethnographic research that is currently taking place in Istanbul about the familial politics of secularism in Turkey. As part of a broader inquiry into the historical link between the privatization of Islam in Turkish secularization and the relegation of family to ‘the private sphere’ as a personal matter, this paper challenges the widespread view that secularism is devoid of culturally formed moods, affects, and sensibilities. Against the Kantian model of secular ethics that is based on an abstract isolated individualism and the sacrifice of affective judgment, I will look at how particular emotions figure in and matter to the shaping of Turkish secularism. In this context, I will focus on the discourses and manifestations of ‘love’ in Istanbul. In particular, I will examine the role of conjugal love in the cultivation of a more individualized secular self who desires to ‘think’ and ‘feel’ for herself outside the boundaries of Islamic and kinship-based communities, but who, paradoxically, cannot activate this ‘individual’ agency without entering a number of social relationships due to the inter-personal nature of marriage. In other words, I will attempt to demonstrate how images and practices of companionate marriage in Turkey emotionally recruit ordinary people into the worldly community of nation as secular selves. The data I will analyze consists of government documents, policies and surveys on marriage, my observations in certain institutional settings about family such as the civil registry and family courts as well as the narratives and lifestyles of recently married or marrying couples living in the neighborhood that I conduct my ethnographic research. Given that amongst the multiple referents of the Turkish word for passionate love (a’k), that of heterosexual romantic love has long overtaken the prevalence of the mystical love for Allah in daily usage, I find it important to investigate the secularity of the selves that come through the worldly nature of this love and its emphasis on individuals interior states.

Paper presenter: Samar Farage (Pennsylvania State University), “Medieval Spiritual Medicine and the Passions of the Soul”
My paper will focus on the tradition of ‘spiritual medicine’ in medieval Islam. Several works on Spiritual Medicine were included as compendia to bodily medicine and focused on the temperance of excessive emotional states or passions and the superiority of reason as a guide to these passions. I will focus on the series of philosophical advices and arguments in mainly two texts: a 10th century Arabic text by the famous physician Al Razi titled al-Tibb al-Ruhani or Spiritual medicine and an 11th century Persian text by Nizami al-Arudi Chahar Maqala. Both texts were modelled after the Greek Physician Galen’s book ‘On the Passions and Errors of the Soul’ which prescribe cures for diseases of the soul such as anger, conceit, envy, love, sexual intercourse, lying, etc. Both texts form an integral part of the Galeno- Islamic medical tradition which lasted over 1400 years. In this medical tradition, medicine and philosophy were intimately linked. The aim of medicine was health and the aim of philosophy was virtue. Both philosophy and medicine sought to answer the Socratic question, How do I live the good life? The healthy and virtuous life demanded living in accordance with the mean and in conformity with nature, which in turn, rested on a sense for proportion as what is fitting, appropriate and intermediate. All aspects of Islamic life were colored by proportion (harmony, measure, symmetry, equilibrium) as the mark of moral, physiological or political excellence. Hence the physician had a duty to diagnose diseases of the soul, and help his patient recover that proportion. The moral development of man clearly depended on his nature or tabi’a, but required the cultivation of a second nature or the creation of certain habits aiming at forming an ‘ethos’ (virtuous character). What is most interesting is that the importance of this cultivation of a good ethos was not only limited to the patient but also to the physician himself and to their relationship. The ethics of the patient and ethics of the physician were intimately linked.

Paper presenter: Asli Niyazioglu (Koc University, Istanbul), “An Age of Anxiety? Nightmares and the Late Sixteenth Century Ottoman Biographers”
Was the late sixteenth century Istanbul a city of anxious dreamers and their biographers committed to record fearful nights; Ottoman biographical works from this time reveal a new kind of interest in narrating nightmare stories, especially about career problems, which we do not find in earlier periods. ‘All men are anxious, but some are more anxious than others’ writes William Bouswma in his study of late sixteenth century Italian merchants where he argues that people may become more anxious during periods of social and economic transformation. In the field of Ottoman studies, the late sixteenth century has also been defined as a period of anxiety due to the drastic changes experienced by the Ottoman state and society. During this period, the central government’s gradual loss of power dramatically affected the ruling circles whose interests were connected with those of the state. Yet, could we say the late sixteenth century Ottoman ruling elite was especially anxious as a result of these transformations? What did anxiety mean for them and why did they want to share it by circulating dream stories in biographical works? My paper will address these questions by examining nightmares of the Sufi sheikhs, the ulema, and the sultans as reported in biographical works. My aim is three-fold. First, I intend to understand what Ottomans meant when they spoke about anxiety. I will identify the vocabulary through which Ottomans described their anxieties and discuss how they used specific contexts to discuss particular problems and aspirations of their milieu. My second aim is to understand the ways in which a certain genre, here dream stories in biography writing, was used to express anxiety. Following Lila Abu-Lughod’s exemplary approach on Bedouin poetry in Veiled Sentiments, I will examine how anxiety was shared through dream stories to voice competing world-views. And finally, my aim is to study these anxious Ottomans not as an isolated topic of Ottoman history, but to understand them within world history. How did the Ottomans talk about their anxieties in the context of history of emotions?

Paper presenter: Max Weiss (Harvard University), “Is There a History of Happiness in the Modern Middle East?”
Historians have employed a variety of methods for approaching the social and cultural history of emotions and affective states, but modern Middle East historiography has only just begun engaging with the rich potential of this field. My paper considers one of the most elusive themes in the history of emotions: happiness. Is there a history of happiness in the modern Middle East? What would such a history look like? How have conceptions of happiness been transformed over the course of the modern period? Historians interested in the emotional history of happiness are faced with many challenges. On the one hand, happiness is a virtue, something aspired to, a state of being that can be cultivated through moral improvement, social practice, and psychological work. On the other hand, happiness is a subjectively experienced condition, a transient state that can rarely be quantified or even empirically attested. Intellectuals, writers, and critics from Aleppo to Cairo struggled to find common ground for resolving fundamental ethical, personal, spiritual and, hence, political questions. How has the nature of emotionality and its relationship to emerging discourses of the self within the context of rapidly evolving Arab societies been discussed and negotiated over time?