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Paper Presentations

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A Geography of Tribes in Yemen

A Presentation by Dr. Charles Schmitz

In Yemen, common wisdom claims tribes are stronger in the northern highlands. While no doubt true, tribes throughout Yemen play significant political, social, and military roles—not just in the tribal territories of the far north. Conceptions of tribes vary significantly. Tribes are alternately local communities, social systems, kinship groups, small sovereignties, or bands of armed men, depending upon the observer. The measurement of tribal strength then depends very much on the conception of a tribe. Tribesmen may play an important role in military conflicts, for example, while at the same time tribal social order may be weak. Measuring the strength of tribes requires some definition of tribe and of strength. Pulling apart conceptions of tribal strength might help overcome simplistic explanations for the dominance of northern tribes such as those that argue that the rugged physical geography of the highlands or the density of agricultural land account for the strength or weakness of tribes. The prominence of the northern tribes grew from a historical relationship between those tribes and the state—not from the highland’s physical geography—just as the relative weakness of tribes in other areas stems from their historic relation with state. States have more to do with shaping the geography of tribalism in Yemen than is often acknowledged.

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Playing with fire:  The impact of manipulating tribal identities by the authoritarian regimes on the Civil War in Syria

A Presentation by Dr. Haian Dukhan

This paper will argue that the authoritarian regimes of Hafez al-Assad and later his son Bashar al-Assad incorporated tribalism into the political order to extend their legitimacy and survival. Tribes were integrated into the state to enhance the political and the military power of the Syrian regime which lacked the adequate legitimizing participatory mechanisms necessary for stable governance. In the first case, Hafez al-Assad depended on tribal support and used them as tools to fight the Muslim Brotherhood which has contributed to the regime’s survival and stability. In the second case, Bashar al-Assad’s regime manipulated the blood ties that exist between Syrian and Iraqi tribes and used them as a tool to recruit fighters in order to join the Islamic insurgency against the Americans in Iraq. In both case, Hafez and Bashar utilised the tribes in the construction of their authoritarian power and used them as tools either to fight or support the Islamists based on their pragmatic interests. Furthermore, the paper argues that the legacy of this manipulation of tribal identities has given rise to tribal affiliations and sentiments and opened the door wide for tribes to take part in the protest movement that took place against the regime in 2010. Therefore, authoritarian policies have strengthened the tribes as a political units which made it difficult for regime to handle during the civil war

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The Emergence of Tribal Literature in Jordan: History, Nationalism and Social Upheaval

A Presentation by Dr. Yaov Alon

Since the mid-1980s, a large volume of literature on tribes and the Bedouin has appeared in Jordan. This literature includes studies of tribal customary law, works of poetry and folklore, collection of oral testimonies as well as tribal genealogies. What began with a few pioneering works has turned into a flood. It seems that we can now talk confidently of a new literature genre which includes dozens of works, the majority of which were published in the last few years.


This paper proposes to take a close look into this new body of literature and to assess it. It will begin by describing the phenomenon and establishing the correct context in which to understand this emergence of literature. It then will try to assess the motivations behind these intellectual undertakings and their intended goals. Finally, the paper will evaluate what this new phenomenon can tell us about tribalism and nationalism in contemporary Jordan.


The main argument presented here is that when placed in the right context ‒ namely that of the emergence of Jordanian nationalism ‒ this literature can highlight three main developments. First, the prolific tribal literature serves as an important arena for the debate about a central question engaging Jordan's public discourse ‒ who are the true Jordanians? This genre, which began as a medium promoting particularistic and exclusivist Jordanian nationalism, now attracts interlocutors who promote different approaches in their literature. This lively debate is partly derived from the fact that tribal literature as a genre allows a relatively large amount of room for free expression. It is free from the confines of government censorship which is practised in other kinds of modern media, and can therefore be very revealing.


The second development that can be gleaned from an examination of the tribal literature is a growing sense of disorientation among the tribal sector of Jordan. In their attempt to cope with rapid social, cultural and demographic changes around them, some Jordanians seem to celebrate their tribal past and attempt to further enhance tribal solidarity. These changes and the need to respond to them have only accelerated during the reign of King Abdullah II. 


However ‒ and this is the third development highlighted in this study ‒ modern conditions have turned the tribe from a concrete familiar community, a Gemeinschaft, into something more resembling a Gesellschaft. In other words, the tribe is becoming more and more an imagined community. The same way print media allows the nation to imagine itself, so does tribal literature allow the tribe to imagine itself into existence and is intended to enhance its solidarity.

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"No remedies but these": banishment, refuge, and regard among the Balga tribes of Jordan

A Presentation by Dr. Andrew Shryock

Tribal identities in Jordan are a delicate mix of pride and stigma. Well-kept genealogies, hospitality, martial prowess, respect for custom, and deep attachments to land and territory are all points of honor among the Balga tribes. But each virtue has its flip side, and tribal identities, in addition to being seen as quintessentially premodern, are often associated (by tribal and non-tribal observer alike) with factionalism, economic and political backwardness, opposition to larger national interests, xenophobia, and retrograde attitudes toward gender issues, human rights, and public security. The vexed status of tribal law is characteristic of this ambivalence: tolerated and implemented throughout Jordan, it is also taken as evidence of all that is "wrong" with tribalism. Not surprisingly, it is also possible to argue -- and many Jordanians do! -- that customary law encapsulates what is best about tribal society. Working through a story told to me by an `Abbadi notable, I will show how one of the most controversial features of tribal law, jalwa(banishment), is treated simultaneously as evidence of how radically things have changed for `Abbadis since the establishment of the Hashemite state, and how things (and people) might have been better in the past. The narrative result is a form of social criticism pervasive in Jordan. Jalwa is used to defend the superiority of tribal virtues as a kind of heritage, as a moral legacy worthy of respect precisely because it is at odds with contemporary life. Much of tribal reality is distributed across this ethical/historical space, sustained and animated by a politics of nostalgia, aspiration, and critique.

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Tribes, Patrilineages, Individual Ontology, and States in the Middle East

A Presentation by Dr. Diane King

This paper is about the tribe where I work in Kurdistan and the surrounding area under scrutiny by this panel. Its arguments are nested: First, I argue that the patrilineage is an essential element of the tribe and that patriliny as a concept is central to the tribe as a concept. This is not a new idea of course within sociocultural anthropology, but it has not found much expression recently so I think it is important to re-state. My version of this assertion relies on my observations as an ethnographer in Kurdistan since the mid-1990s - in this case, observations as to what seems to not be present, rather than what is. What is apparently not present, is individuals who are members of tribes but not members of patrilineages that are members of tribes. This absence suggests that individuals may not be tribal members on their own, but only in their capacity as lineage members. (I address the process by which lineages become members too.) Second, I draw on a previous argument that patriliny is about an ontological essence flowing through time (King and Stone 2010) to argue that it powerfully shapes individuals’ identity claims and assumptions about individual membership in groups including the tribe (also including religious groups). This gives the tribe a powerful raison d'etre: It is an expression of individual identity as much as anything else. This individual side of tribalism is little-explored in the literature. Lastly, I make a brief argument about states. Much of the literature on the tribe in the Middle East focused on the state (including the imperial or occupying state). States are seen as in opposition to the tribe, or tribe and state are seen as mutually constitutive. As an addendum to this rich literature, I point out simply that the basis for citizenship during the near-century of postcolonial/modern/occupied Middle Eastern States has been almost thoroughly patrilineal, their citizenries consisting, with few exceptions, of descendants (only) through males from an original founding citizen man in the early 20th century. So, in this region, state and tribe rely on the same building block and this particular aspect invites problematizing by scholars.

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Social and Political Consequences of Surname Confusion in Saudi Arabia and Iraq

A Presentation by Dr. Nadav Samin

This paper compares practices of lineal authentication and genealogical documentation in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. I counterpose a genealogical compendium by Saudi Arabia’s
foremost tribal genealogist, Ḥamad al-Jāsir (d. 2000), with a field guide on family and tribal lineages prepared for nationality officers in Baathist Iraq. I am particularly interested in identifying and interpreting the divergent sources of authority for lineage claims in these texts: whereas al-Jāsir improvises his own novel method of tribal authentication, reflecting the newly textual world of his emergent society, the Iraqi government lineage guide relies on a lengthy and diverse administrative record on citizen pedigrees that dates back to the Ottoman era. I also examine what is distinctly at stake in each form of lineage claim, Saudi and Iraqi. In the former case, al-Jāsir’s compendium is intended to authenticate the Arabian tribal origins of the historical inhabitants of central Arabia (Najd), leaving non-tribal persons or those whose tribal origins cannot be proven clamoring despairingly at the gates of his enterprise. In the Iraqi case, it is citizens of ostensible Iranian origin who share surnames in common with Iraqi Arab clans and families that are the explicit objects of the taxonomical exercise.

The divergent rationales behind these genealogical texts and distinctive contexts in which they were produced belie how genealogists of Saudi Arabia and Iraq working in the same time period (the 1980s) invoke tribal genealogies toward comparable social and political ends. Whether composed in a revolutionary nation at war, or a conservative nation at peace, their texts reflect practices of social differentiation, distinction, and hierarchy formation using the language of tribal genealogies. Finally, this paper seeks to demonstrate that it is possible to do comparative archival research on late twentieth century Arab history, and thus suggests some new possibilities for scholarship on the region.

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Tribalism in Northern Highland Yemen: Tribes, Rulers and Revolutions

A Presentation by Dr. Marieke Brandt

The development of tribalism in 20th/21st century Yemen was never a one-dimensional, vector-like process but a complex, changeful bargain between governments and tribes. Generally, however, and compared to the often ruthless interventions of other Middle Eastern governments in their domestic tribal systems, statecraft in Yemen left tribalism largely intact. After the September Revolution in 1962, it was due to the physical and ideological weakness of the Yemeni republics (YAR and RoY) that extreme manipulations of tribal systems and tribal structures, as they happened in other countries of the Middle East, did not take place. Rather the competing interests of tribe and state agreed to hold themselves in check by a tacit, at times precarious, acceptance of balance. Today, with the ascent to power of the Houthis facilitated by the 2011 “Change Revolution”, the war-related tribal mass mobilizations and the disintegration of the state, the relationship of tribes and rulers again undergoes a process of transformation that in many respects resembles a retrograde step back to the era before 1962. It is too early yet to judge whether tribalism in Yemen will emerge strengthened or weakened from this process.