January 31, 2009

Omani Music and Poetry from www.jalaan.com

Here's a sample of 'traditional' Omani music from Dhofar; peep the drumming patterns!

Also check this link to an Oman poetry site:المجلة الشعر العماني


January 26, 2009

The Uses of History: Meditations on the Production of Historical and Anthropological Knowledge

"If colonial history has been written, the 'history of colonization' remains yet to be written along the lines of a new vision, one resolutely attentive to the local peoples for whom colonization constitutes an important aspect of their history,"

Ndaywel e Nziem

All philosophies and theories of history are in the end, also anthropologies. Now it is true, we cannot insert ourselves into the lives of the historical actors of the past, which is why history occurs at the intersection between current events and collective memory (both archived and oral). What are the "social loci of our knowledge production"? History is not merely done or told, it is done for someone or to someone.

This is why I think it important to examine the ontology of our historical knowledge, because I see that this is so much of what the colonial project developed into. I salute our desire to define our terms precisely, but I also believe that this desire to do so using language, in other words to try and abstract an idea of colonialism from its effects, it interrelationships, its lived experiences, is to push the Sisyphean boulder. At some point, we must, if our work is to have any relevance, leave the shoals of postmodern deconstruction and hesitation, and venture out into the ocean. Certainty is an unattainable goal, but uncertainty is not a refuge.

Indeed, to do as I have suggested is as much a project of personal ethnography as it is a historical project. It is to question the underlying foundations of our knowledge production, to examine the very grain of our categorizations, and to turn the lens of historical consciousness upon ourselves. While we are engaged in such a task, we also, MUST ask ourselves about our own social position. We have yet to truly consider ourselves as beneficiaries, in a sense, of colonialism, or how our position in this university shapes the discourse we present. To those fashioning their dissertation or engaged in the other grueling work of acheiving their Ph.D., such questions perhaps pose useless distractions from the pressing need to theorize and draw conclusions. But unless they are answered precisely, history becomes a game, a playing field on which to experiment with our personal tastes and interests. For one interesting, if revolting, example of this fascination with 'history' as object of distraction is the blogspot called Return to Darkest Africa

I wish to ask us: How can we hope to recover those histories of colonizer and colonized, the context in which they occur, and the 'life-worlds' of both sets of actors, if we have not turned an analytical lens on ourselves, our own categories of knowledge, the way in which we inhabit either (or perhaps both) category (colonizer/colonized) in ourselves. We have to interrogate what Foucault called our 'episteme'--the standards of acceptability that shape our discourse, the conventions of our representation.

This brings us back to another question I posed: Why study comparative colonialism? I suggest that the answer to this question will determine a great deal about the discourse we generate on the topic. I imagine some might say we are engaged in this work to sharpen our brain, to understand a particular historical field better and thus to deepen our analysis of it. But that still leaves the question open of why: What uses will it serve? Is history history for history's sake? My answer, which I share with Thucydides, is that history is useful to those in crisis as a guide for action.

This is where some of the distinction emerges between postcolonialism and postmodernism, though both share some of the same critiques of meta-history. While post-modernism and post-colonialism share the resistance to 'totalitizing narratives', post-colonialism asks us to remain committed to a struggle, a specific SITE of historical interpretation, while post-modernism has (in my view) not decided this question.

This is why, in spite of his historical limitations, I would rather read Frantz Fanon than Fred Cooper. I believe colonialism is one aspect of what Cedric Robinson calls, "a dangerous power set loose in the world." In my view, even if there were notable exceptions-- interstices of opportunity for particular groups within the incomplete hegemony of the colonial project(s)--overall colonialism entailed a very dramatic lessening, something that has been stripped away or taken off balance.

The intellectual output of postcolonial scholars like Fanon, Cesaire, Dubois, C.L.R. James, Martin Delany, and Cabral (to name a few of the most prominent in the Atlantic world and Africa) emerges from crisis, and is marked by a concern to serve as a historical witness against totalizing projects, in doing so it provides the possibility of the consciousness to resist rather than simply serve the dominant powers of the age. Their theories, diverse as they are, do not invite uncritical acceptance, but rather passionate engagement, while their practice ought to inform the way we think about the uses of our historical knowledge. The practice of personal ethnography will inevitably change, or if not change, then clarify, the way we 'practice' history.


January 25, 2009

The Frontier in Indian Ocean History

As part of an Envirornmental History class for the esteemed Dr. John McNeill, I am trying to integrate an ecological and envirornmental focus into my study of identity, trade, social change and state building in the Eastern Congo. In other words, I want to know not only how merchants like Tippu Tip built nascent state structures and incorporated Swahili, Manyema, Nyamwezi, and other corporate or ethno-cultural groups into their organization, but also how the movement of these merchant-princes impacted the ecology of the Eastern Congo. What kind of crops did the Swahili Arab settlers plant? What sort of envirornmental changes did they set in motion?

It occured to me that such a project may be difficult to undertake without delving into Congolese and Omani archives. So, as part of a related but alternate set of questions, I would also like to explore how the competing discourses of Belgian, British, German and Arab primary sources sought to portray the envirornmental and social changes the Arabs set in motion. On the one hand, the Arabs called Nyangwe the 'New Bengal' and viewed themselves as bringing civilization and order to the land. They tamed the forest, and brought peace and order.

On the other hand, the many European travel accounts emphasize the devastation of Arab slave-trading, the many famines (which they linked with Arab settlement) and the general negative impact of the Arab presence. Of course this discourse itself, even if it was accurate, came to fulfillment only with European colonization--the worst years of ecological and social devastation were assuredly after the 1890s and the routing of Arab power in the Congo.

This relates back to the concept of the frontier in Indian Ocean history. Is there a way I can talk within an Indian Ocean framework of land-based frontiers? On the surface it doesn't appear to be an obviously helpful narrative framework. However, there are compelling cultural links (the presence of Comorians, Baluchis, and Omani Arabs in the Congo) and economic links (Indian financiers in Zanzibar linked the Congo River basin with the circuits of Indian Ocean capital) that make such a framework interesting. Using the idea of systems theory, which posits that we can find common features of a given 'unit' in terms of shared aspects of organization, I submit we can talk of the penetration of Indian Ocean cultural 'clusters' and the integration of Central Africa into Indian Ocean economic exchange and have legitimate historical evidence to back up our assertion. I am reminded as I consider this question of John Wilkinson's insight about Oman: "Oman as a 'natural' region has no real frontiers: like all such regions it tends to be rather more 'Omani' in places than others."

So it goes with the Indian Ocean: if we identify a set of shared religious practices, common clothing items, culinary features, familial organization, vocabulary, and more, that are found in the Indian Ocean, then certain places will have more ties than others, and this is also related to which 'features' we choose to compare.

Of course the challenge is to determine how much the 'Indian Ocean' actually explains; we want it to do some theoretical work, but we would err to depend on it to do heavy historical work as it relates to Central African history in general--most of the history of the Eastern Congo has logical connections with other lake regions in Tanganyika, Zambia, as well as points north in Uganda. But the fact that so few historians have even attempted to use it to look at the history of Central Africa during the late nineteenth century means that some potentially valuable understandings from this perspective can be integrated in with the existing literature.


January 21, 2009

Representing Africa: Spatial, Temporal, and Ideological Perspectives

NOTE: I am posting this from Dr. Mavhunga at MIT; its from the H-AFRICA listserv. Its an excellent statement for getting at the keys to African history as well as the importance of not privileging the archive in all cases. This is in response to Cyril Hromnik, another historian who claimed there was no precolonial state institutions in Africa to build on:

"I was thinking that the Hromnik's position is passe. There has been extensive discussion on this in Terence Osborne Ranger's "The Invention of Tradition" and the "The Invention of Tradition Revisited". Multiple trajectories span off from that discussion, notably Valentin Mudimbe's The Invention of Africa and The Idea of Africa. There have been countless other works, among the Pier Larson, Carolyn Hamilton, and many others.

For me, the question seems to be how to how to take that debate beyond cultural and political histories, beyond an Africa defined according to the temporal and spatial frames of political and other elites. Once we get to that extent of shifting the analysis beyond thematics and physicalities that privilege the elites to the experiences and imagineries of Africa from "the gallery" (ordinary people), my sense is that some of these high-end ideologies like "pan-Africanism", "patriotism", "sovereignty", "power" and so forth acquire new meanings or even lose them. The question then is: Seen from the rural village, from the household of a poor person, what exactly is "pan-Africanism", "colonialism", "institutions', etc.?

As I see it, we risk eulogizing the powerful of Africa and silencing the majority by focusing on "important people". The more you get to the villages, the more you see all this amazing innovation at play, with the relevance of the state being only so far as it provides specific individual needs. Otherwise it is dead to them. Upon examining further these grassroots modes of innovation, it turns out that they pre-date the colonial moment; in fact, they are the sociotechnical infrastructure with which people processed colonial rule into their existence and maneuvered their own existence under colonialism.

Instead of giving colonialism (un)godly powers, we need to go well beyond what Mudimbe called "the colonial library", viz. the record of the pre-colonial and colonial that was compiled after all by colonial writers (Europeans or Africans influenced by European systems of classification). I think going to Africa to examine not just "oral traditions or testimonies" but more-so the "practices" would be a very good preparation to then go into the "colonial library" that Mudimbe was talking about and which is written and stored in dusty boxes.

I would not end or worse yet start in the built archive but the archive of practice and spoken word.

Without belaboring the point further, I must insist that Hromnik was giving the "colonial library" (or a lukewarm reading of it) (un)godly powers. His approach is now in the rear view mirror of history and receding fast.

Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga
Assistant Professor of Science, Technology & Society Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
E-mail: clappertonm@yahoo.com


January 17, 2009

Paris: Secularism Unveiled

I was in a false position everywhere, except within myself, where I was convinced I was telling the truth.
--A House At The Edge of Tears, Venus Khoury Ghata.

I was pretty excited to head to Paris after my Oman trip. I was invited by my friend Dinah, who was TA-ing a class on Immigration and Multiculturalism in Paris for the University of Illinois. The course was taught by a retired professor of French, Evelyne Accad, a Lebanese woman who has written about international women's issues.

The class did not disappoint. From discussing polygamy and the French state to civil war in Lebanon to the issue of female genital mutiliation, I learned a lot and was able to make some interesting observations about French culture and society at the same time.

Disclaimer: I do not speak French. Therefore everything I learned (with the exception of the bits of French I picked up) was through English translation or talks in English. That said, I don't think it made a difference in some of the observations I am about to make.

Its wierd because I had the impression that the French were more progressive than Americans on the whole, but I have to say this is both a stereotype in which Americans associate everything French with being 'cultured' and a factor that depends on the particular French community one is referring to. For instance, it is true that students tend to be more activist, more politically aware, more cosmopolitian (Most students learn at least three languages) than their American counterparts. Having visited several French schools I feel I am on safe ground saying that.

However France illustrates some of the strange contradictions of secular society-- its particular blind spots that are often intimately linked to a strong sense of national and even racial identity (the so-called Gaullic exceptionalism). Nowhere is this contradiction more aptly symbolized than the banning of headscarves in the classroom of public schools. (ironically Turkey, a majority Muslim country, is facing its own version of this secular quandary). Here is where the rubber of religion's removal from the 'public sphere' meets the road of individual freedom. French efforts to promote the growth of the French state and to reify 'Frenchness' is not a project that can tolerate a multiplicity of identities, and is thus at odds with French notions of 'pluralism'. And that explains why not only are headscarves banned, but the call to prayer (اذان) as well.

Obama notwithstanding (I have a feeling a lot of my sentences are going to begin with that from here on out), America has never really resolved this conflict in practice either. For example, witness the powerful pull of the ignorant and racist 'English-only' educational movement. I guess my philosophy would be that, social movements that emphasize a particular aspect of identity are inevitable, especially enlight of forming social movements against powerfully entrenched interests of global corporations, powerful nation-states, and the like. Nevertheless, the insistence on one's single identity inevitably falsifys the richness of everyone's historical reality.

My own observation is that France has a stronger tradition of anthropologizing the 'other', in the sense of making outside cultures a subject of study for consumption by exotic-o-philes. Walking through an exhibit on matriarchy in Africa I had this feeling, and it was accentuated gazing at the innumerable artifacts stolen from the tombs of Pharaonic Egypt in the Louvre. It was a feeling similar to the one I had walking through the Indian Museum in Washington DC a couple years ago: like an eerie sense of displacement and invasion. I felt as if I walking through someone's most intimate personal belongings that had been put out at a common garage sale.

One highlight of the trip (other than my birthday :)) was reading a trio of great books by Lebanese Christian women and getting to meet two of the authors. We read Evelyne Accad's The Excised, Etel Adnan's Sitt Marie Rose, and Venus Khoury-Ghata's A House At The Edge of Tears. All three are very lyrical meditations on religion and growing up, war, beauty, violence, and sexuality. From Khoury-Ghata's book, I learned that apparently some Arabs of the Levant, Swahili is a derisive term for nonsense or baby talk. For me Dr. Accad's book was the most personally evocative, while Sitt Marie Rose is the most innovative in terms of narrative structure and voice. I will end with a meditation from that book, a tribute and affirmation of life in the midst of war-torn Beirut:

"Morality is violence. An invisible violence at first. Love is a supreme violence, hidden deep in the darkness of our atoms. When a stream flows into a river, it's love and its violence. When a cloud loses itself in the sky, it's a marriage. When the roots of a tree split open a rock it's the movement of life. When the sea rises and falls back only to rise again, it's the process of history. When a man and a woman find each other in the silence of the night, it's the beginning of the end of the tribe's power, and death itself becomes a challenge to the ascendancy of the group."


January 13, 2009

This is Not a Poem

Grabbing hold of signs
I eloped with a girl who danced on a pole
and her cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold

We wandered lonely as the crowds
who float thru ticket gates to trains
when all at once we wondered how
we'd ever reach our place the same

Thru familiar roads we tarried
lost like highways thru fields of dust
I remember how we met

Shall I compare it to a summer day
Block locked parades of children riding mopeds thru a hydrant's spray
then you looked at me
Told a story with your eyelids,
leaking tears of passion onto your paper plate
at your cousin's 30th birthday

You were chewing celery
talked of getting your distorted chi unraveled
Two dimples between your ears,
I kissed the one less traveled

You spoke of rivers
as I watched the crystal stair in your mouth glitter
We were together all that summer: Me and my Jones

I used to watch her while she sat scribbling parables
and triangulating blue notes
for those whose mornings were murdered dreams

I watched for Jabberwocks and jinns
while she taught my infant words to swim

water water everywhere
but not a word to think
I felt with sound, I dealt with sound
creation on the brink

We were not in love
but i craved her
as if i could be reborn of self
through that knowledge.

And I shall never cease from exploring
but now the ocean of sound is a depth
not an expanse.

and i go down

to all the creatures
living beneath the mirror of water,
that I might find paradise's garden
and become planted by it.

I will leave the rivers of Babylon
at low tide
and walk deep into the sea
and hold my breath until You come to me beneath the waves.


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