Postdoctoral Fellowship for Transregional Research: Inter-Asian Contexts and Connections — 2013–2014 Cohort
Assistant Professor, Theology and Religious Studies, Saint Joseph’s University
Replicating Replicas: The Creation of the Pan-Asian Mount Wutai Cult in pre-fourteenth century China, Korea, and Japan
In the seventh-century Mount Wutai emerged as the foremost sacred place in Tang China (618-907). Its holy status was rooted largely in scriptural claims that the mountain was home to the Buddhist deity Mañjusri. While the scholarship of Lin Yunrou (2009) and Raoul Birnbaum (1983, 2004) among others has revealed much about the mountain’s history within China’s borders, it has had considerably less to say about the territory’s later and larger East Asian significance.
My proposed project endeavors to fill this scholarly gap through a careful study of Mount Wutai’s replication in pre-fourteenth-century China, Korea and Japan. As the inscriptions, statuary, temple records, and monastic biographies around which my project is built establish, beginning in the tenth century local counterparts to Mount Wutai of today’s Shanxi China were created at sites including Japan’s Mount Godai and Mount Tonomine and Korea’s Mount Odae. My investigation attempts to explain what the mapping of Mount Wutai’s landscapes—real and imagined—accomplished in these contexts. Calling attention to the role that replication played in the growth in scale and geographic reach of the Wutai world, this investigation should highlight the value of examining local traditions in their larger East Asian context.
Assistant Professor, History, Rutgers University
Out of Rum: Ottoman Alchemical Tradition in its Trans-Imperial Context
The European scientific revolution(s) cast a long shadow over the ways in which early modern production of knowledge in the Islamicate world has been studied. In the particular case of Ottoman science, this entailed the prioritization of intellectual links with Western Europe over those with Africa and Asia. My project is a natural continuation of my dissertation work, in which I had focused on a particular branch of knowledge, alchemy, and investigated the human and textual agents that enabled its transmission within the early modern Ottoman world. I was particularly interested in the production of “Arab alchemical knowledge” by Turkophone scholars and the resulting vernacularization of this genre by the seventeenth century. Arguably the most important body of works for the former development is a corpus of alchemical writings attributed to an enigmatic sixteenth-century Ottoman alchemist. My earlier research had uncovered, within the manuscript tradition of this corpus, competing and conflicting biographies for its author, which shed important light on the kinds of circles that read, copied, and commented on his writings.
It is also thanks to this same corpus that my attention was initially drawn to India. In 1932, H. E. Stapleton, a British historian of chemistry, wrote a short article on the Arabic manuscripts on alchemy in what was then the Asafiyah Library in Hyderabad. Although Stapleton was primarily interested in the earliest sources for Arab alchemy, the article nonetheless provides a list of later authors that he had encountered within the manuscripts. Among these names are two that are closely associated with the aforementioned corpus: Ali Beg al-Rumi and Muhammad al-Qamari. Thanks to SSRC, I was able to visit Hyderabad in late 2013 and started looking for these manuscripts with which I hoped to trace the story of Ottoman knowledge production beyond the confines of the Empire. My search concentrated on the Oriental Manuscripts Library and Research Institute (OMLRI), which had inherited most of the manuscripts that were once part of the Asafiyah Library’s collection.
As is often the case in this line of research, I found what I was looking for, but not exactly what I was expecting to find. I had anticipated a gradual accumulation of Ottoman alchemical works in the Deccan that then ended up at the Asafiyah over a long period of time—and yet these Ottoman manuscripts, significantly more numerous than Stapleton had accounted for in his article, had been brought to Hyderabad from Najaf, Iraq by a single person in the closing years of the nineteenth century. I was able to piece together some details about the life of this individual and uncover his own writings. These findings, bolstered by new material I would later collect in Istanbul, significantly altered the chronological boundaries of my project and, more importantly, prompted new questions concerning the interaction of “traditional” and Western science in the Islamicate world through the long nineteenth-century.
Assistant Professor, History, College of William & Mary
Monsoon Travelers: Dhows and the Trading Worlds of the Western Indian Ocean, c. 1800-1960
Monsoon Travelers is a microhistory of fifteen Arab dhows in the Western Indian Ocean during the early-twentieth century (1920-1954), embedded within a longer history of the region’s dhow trade over roughly 150 years of political and economic change. In Monsoon Travelers, I chart the relationships, institutions, cosmologies, and imaginaries that dhow captains (called nakhodas), their crew members, and commercial actors around the region drew on to cope with a trans-oceanic trade system that endured historic economic, political and technological transformations – all while grounding the narrative in the voyages of fifteen young nakhodas and their dhow crews, who spent nine months a year at sea pursuing a livelihood. At the heart of the project is a desire to understand the means by which an itinerant trading community navigated, both literally and figuratively, the processes that transformed the Indian Ocean from a regional trading system shaped by monsoon winds and seasonal rhythms into a critical node in an expanding world capitalist economy.
To shed light on the culture of dhow captains and mariners – the very essence of dhow life – Monsoon Travelers explores the forms of knowledge transmission nakhodas and their partners developed and the shared language they constructed to communicate this knowledge to one another. It draws on logbooks, nautical manuals, and letters to reconstruct the language of an itinerant commercial community that inhabited the ocean between Africa, Arabia and India – a nautical blend of Arabic and Persian. Through a close reading of the logbooks and nautical manuals, it reconstructs the dhow crews’ conceptions of space and time, and attempts to fuse together the wind, water, agricultural, and business cycles of three distinct regions into a coherent trading world. Finally, Monsoon Travelers engages with the dhow crews’ own creative commentary, reading the songs and poetry produced by dhow musicians as expressions of their anxieties and aspirations in a changing world.
But Monsoon Travelers also a history of how nakhodas and mariners adapted to a changing imperial regulatory seascape. It examines how dhow crews and their partners were able to evade an increasingly restrictive set of regulations on their movement and activities – by manipulating customs records and manifests, mobilizing their relationships to avoid duties, appropriating the paper technologies of empire, and playing on the bureaucratic weaknesses of the imperial regime. Some of these actions created enormous ripples in the international legal arena, and at one point generated an international court case that brought together captains, kings, judges, and lawyers from around the Indian and Atlantic Oceans in an attempt to chart out imperial claims to the sea through dhow itineraries.
How mobile individuals imagined and carved for themselves a place in a changing world around them and how they made meaning of the transformations that characterized their economic and political life are questions that lie at the heart of my project. In its blending of ethnographic and archival material, it explores both the historical processes that shaped the experiences of maritime communities in the Indian Ocean and the social, political, and religious imaginaries of those communities themselves. Monsoon Travelers thus seeks to write a new kind of microhistory: one that navigates expansive global historical processes while staying attuned to the lives, experiences, networks, and cosmologies of mobile individuals.
Assistant Professor, Global Studies, St. Mary’s College Notre Dame
Greening the Glass-Ceiling: Gender and Islamic financialization
One notable feature of Islamic finance is women’s role in interpreting Shariah compliance in the legal regimes that frame the market. In international finance globally, however, women are underrepresented both in financial services and global state economic governance institutions. Indeed Islamic finance is often framed as a response to the intensely gendered inequality fostered through contemporary processes of centralization and consolidation of capital. Some proponents view Islamic finance as an attempt to reassert social control within capital markets by re-regulating in favor of the productive use of capital (mooring financial capital to productive use through a prohibition of interest) and transparency (promoting the equitable sharing of risk). Exploring who gets what and why in the globalization of women’s Shariah expertise in Islamic finance, in 2013 and 2014, I conducted six months of fieldwork including forty interviews and extensive participant observation in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Doha, Qatar – cities which represent competing models of sustainable economic development as currently framed both within regimes of Islam and regimes of finance.
Using the data gathered, I explain and evaluate the transformative potential of the intertwining and conflicting political projects aimed at promoting elite dominance nationally, Malaysian and Qatari expertise internationally, and gender equity globally. These scale-making projects are a particularly important aspect of the competition for rule-making power in the ongoing international standardization between Gulf Cooperation Council, Southeast Asian, and core country regimes. Further, as Islamic finance is by some measures the fastest growing segment of global finance overall, the question of whose expertise (both as embodied practice and as method) will be promoted and whose will be marginalized is particularly salient for accounts of social justice and gender equity in the ongoing re-regulation of global finance. Indeed, in crafting the re-regulation of moral economies, both orthodox market models and heterodox market models must account for the embodied and discursive practices of market experts. By documenting the discourses and embodied practices of elite Muslim women as agents of economic change, I have been able to evaluate the transformative potential of alternative economic moralities at work in global financial regimes.
Across disciplines, scholars have documented the reflexive or looping feedback effects between economic theories, ethical theories, and market practices. I build on this insight into the reflexive dynamics of theory and practice in economics by examining the creation of normative, gendered frameworks within Islamic finance. Globally gendered discourses in finance position women both as more meticulous relative to men but also as more focused on reproduction. In Malaysia and Qatar, these discourses have the effect of restricting the transformative potential of women’s market expertise. Since women are perceived by market participants as constantly on the edge of choosing family over work, a more market-oriented, neoliberal approach provides a shield against others’ reframing of women’s expertise as external to the market. As these gendered frameworks shape the practice of Islamic finance into more market-oriented channels, this case vitiates recent research claiming Islamic finance is distinguished by a lack of calculative, self-interested maximizing rationality.
Postdoctoral Fellow, The Wharton School & Lecturer, Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania
Making Inter-Asian “Ethical Capitalism”: Corporate Social Responsibility, Global Flows, and Emerging Forms of Moral and Economic Life in China, Singapore, and Taiwan
My project is driven by intensive ethnographic inquiry with the diverse range of economic actors, international and regional institutions, and moral and market constituencies impacting, and impacted by, the contentious emergence of “ethical capitalism” in circuits of exchange and knowledge work between the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan, and Singapore. For the purposes of research design, I understand “ethical capitalism” to mean the set of organizational initiatives, expert standards of practice, and subjectivities that strive to integrate normative morality with the profit-seeking ends usually construed as characterizing modern capitalism.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR), business ethics, stakeholder consultation, sustainability initiatives, transparency audits, and ethical branding have become curious keywords in contemporary transnational Asian economies. Milton Friedman’s now outdated dictate that “the business of business is business,” requiring that private enterprises seek only profit-maximization, no longer tracks contemporary normative corporate practices among these Asian economic milieus, and certain sectors of the global economy more broadly construed (Friedman 1970). Today, any significant Chinese enterprise with global affiliations or aspirations is expected to meet, through self-governance, certain obligatory corporate best practices deemed to be “ethical.” Yet, the imagined moral cartography of where ethical business conduct is believed to be possible, where managerial actors have the capacities to administer and audit socially responsible enterprise, and where instrumental rationality elides concern with the broader consequences of business operations is unevenly distributed between Asian sites, and more generally, across the global mapping of ethical business practices (Hao 2012). The orientation here is not to vindicate the neoliberal practice of CSR initiatives and accumulation via the market for virtue, but to track how this emerging form is reshaping flows of, and debates over, economic and moral life along a particular inter-Asian pathway.
From a Singapore that markets itself as a regional nodal point and privileged enclave of market transparency and anti-corruption, to Taiwanese consulting firms increasingly interested in providing managerial expertise and servicing the “knowledge economy” needs of mainland Chinese commerce, to a privatizing PRC where the ethical impacts of neoliberalism remain under contestation, the integration of ostensibly external, normative concerns with instrumental economic orientations is reshaping the flow of knowledge, expertise, and wealth through complex inter-Asian connections. As Chinese companies seek access to global standards of ethical business governance through validated private sector intermediaries, foreign investors and businesses often perceive Singaporean and Taiwanese experts and firms as smoother paths to securing morally and operationally certain dealings with the Chinese market. While existing empirical studies have often tracked the movement of financial capital and managerial staff between these three premier Asian economies, my project offers novel attention to how knowledge practices, ethical discourses, and conflicting claims of modern expertise are remaking the grounds of moral and economic engagement in this inter-Asian corridor where business ethics has become a market commodity.
Assistant Professor, Anthropology & Sociology, Simon Fraser University
Emerging Matsutake Worlds: Markets, Science, and Nature in Asia
This project explores the emergence of Asian regional formations in terms of trade, science and environmental policy. I study this emergence through a particular object that I refer to as a charismatic commodity, that is, one with far greater impact in shaping social worlds than would be implied by its mere economic value. This commodity, the matsutake, is a wild-harvested mushroom, highly valued in Japan both economically and as a key symbol of national identity. Over the last few decades, China has become the principle source of Japan’s matsutake, and I argue that these connections are deeply shaped by their history of close and often antagonistic relations. As well, the strong interest in matsutake stimulates the transnational circulation of scientific knowledge and environmental policies designed around the mushroom and its forests, shaping the region in unexpected ways.
Assistant Professor, Geography, Syracuse University
Spectacular Capital Cities of the Persian Gulf and Central Eurasia : Toward an Urban Geopolitics
After nearly 25 years since the collapse of the USSR, observers still tend to consider contemporary politics in the Central Asian successor states through the lens of their Soviet experience. However in the years of independence, leaders in this region have been actively developing relations that stretch far beyond the CIS. Among the most important, but least considered, connections are with the Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This project has explored the rapidly proliferating flows of actors, ideas, and finance between the two Asian sub-continents of Central Asia and the Arabian peninsula. I have done so through focusing on “inter-Asian” connections and convergences around one particular tactic – that of developing a “spectacular” capital city. Through an analysis of urban development schemes in Astana, Ashgabat, Baku, Manama, Doha, and Abu Dhabi, I have asked: What role do these capital city development agendas play in defining state-society relations and geopolitical orientations in their respective countries? And what explains the inter-Asian convergence around this particular tactic? Also considering divergences, my comparative analysis has considered how, although the urban landscapes these tactics materialize are very similar, there are important differences in the underlying political geographic and political economic factors that makes them possible, as well as the political relations they sustain and produce.
In this study, I have developed an “urban geopolitics” framework to better theorize the multi-scalar relations between cities, states, and regional geopolitics. In particular, I have focused on how state actors use cites to narrate particular geopolitical affinities. In Central Asia, for example, the capital city projects are inextricably connected with ruling elites’ effort to re-orient their countries away from the Russian sphere of influence. Seeing capital cities as “showcases” of their post-Soviet trajectories, decision-makers have prioritized developments there as a way to redefine their regional affinities toward Asia (especially the Gulf), as well as Europe. Although the capital city projects are indisputably about much more material matters, such as perpetuating elite financial interests and securing regime legitimacy, they are key sites for elites to articulate their new geopolitical orientations to the global community. Whereas the Central Asian identity narratives are oriented away from the Soviet/Russian past and toward the Gulf as a pinnacle of modern Islamic urban development, the Gulf identity narratives are more a response to hegemonic and Orientalist understandings of Islamic cities in other parts of the Middle East (e.g. Egypt, Lebanon, or Jordan) and toward a more abstract, globalized vision of modernity. Thus, in the inter-Asian convergence around the spectacular city tactic, we see that it is central to performing an “aspirational geopolitics” in both regions. This aspirational dimension of urban development has, of course, a long history worldwide and in this respect, the spectacle of these cities is actually but evidence of their very normality – despite the way they way mainstream media coverage has sensationalized their rapid rise.
Postdoctoral Research Scholar, Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University
We, Mercenaries: Migrants and Militaries Across the Indian Ocean
The rapidly expanding economies of the Gulf Arab petro-states have relied extensively on migrants from further east and south in Asia: construction laborers, domestic caretakers, service workers, and all manner of professionals. Less well-known is the importance of transregional migrants to the security architecture of the region: South Asian workers in particular staff and train the national police forces and militaries of the region and also comprise much of the civilian contractor workforce for the U.S. forces protecting them in the Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
This project is animated by the broad question: How does transregional migration shape and reconstitute the organization of violence? Ethnographically, this project explores how transregional migrants in the security sector reconcile their role as agents of state violence with the vulnerability to exploitation and coercion they share with other migrants. It also explores how differences of race, religion, and language shape their encounters with others in immensely diverse spaces of work, war, and counterrevolution. Historically, this project asks how contemporary transregional military migration builds on or departs from older imperial, diasporic, and other formations of mobility. Under the British empire in particular, the Gulf was largely governed using Indian troops and police officers; militarization, neoliberalism, and migration have driven a major reconfiguration of these inter-Asian dynamics under the post-Cold War U.S. order. Finally, for political theory and international law, this project asks what normative claims foreign workers could make vis-à-vis local governments or even the U.S., and what responsibilities do they have? Foreign military workers are seen as antithetical to the ideal of the citizen-soldier that is presumed in many prevailing notions of democracy, revolution, and self-determination. Yet foreign workers are neither the “We, the people” of liberal accounts of popular sovereignty nor do they share the voice of Hannah Arendt’s “We, refugees” – new arrivals caught in a situation of total rightslessness. Instead, their experiences of mobility and difference across regions defy the pejorative label of “mercenaries” and instead illuminate fundamental questions about the relationship between political and economic values.
Assistant Professor, History and Economics, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Margins of the Market: Trafficking and Capitalism across the Arabian Sea
The SSRC’s Postdoctoral Fellowship for Transregional Research was a tremendous boon for my research on trafficking and capitalism in Inter-Asian contexts. The financial resources of the fellowship along with support from the University of Massachusetts, allowed me take a sabbatical year in which I was able to undertake several months of additional research and complete my book manuscript, entitled “Margins of the Market.” At the end of the fellowship, I was able to send my manuscript to several academic presses where it is currently under peer-review. The time, resources and intellectual feedback of this fellowship allowed me to produce a far more compelling manuscript and to complete this project well ahead of the usual timeline for my assistant professor peers.
Margins of the Market examines the dynamic interplay of the licit and the illicit in the history of capitalism in the Arabian Sea. The Arabian Sea is a particularly rich space to explore capitalism because it occupies the intersection of three world regions: South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Scholarship has tended to see each of these regions as peripheries to a European center, so the space in between these peripheries has been even further marginalized. The desire to provincialize Europe has also rendered local populations as provincial: the immobile subjects of imperial power and global capital. The scope of Arabian Sea, on the other hand, reveals the mobility of colonized peoples. Tracing the tactics of mobile subjects across the sea allows us to understand how they arbitraged between markets to frame their own worlds.
Scholars have neglected the Arabian Sea as a space of analysis because the practices of 19th century political economy erased it from the map. Statistics divided this maritime region into territorial, quantifiable and free markets. These efforts did not contradict laissez-faire policies because interventions targeted illicit transactions. The main targets of this intervention were slaves, firearms and precious metals. I argue that the suppression of the slave trade framed a concept of wage labor. The suppression of the arms traffic framed the security of property rights. Lastly, the suppression of illicit currency flows framed a stable monetary standard. Adam Smith suggested that an invisible hand guides self-interested buyers and sellers towards the greater good, but the invisible hand guiding these markets was regulation. It was only invisible to colonial states which refused to see their suppression of illicit trades as impacting the free market.
However, Margins of the Market argues that capitalism was framed both by the techniques of colonial political economy and by the connivance of trading networks. Merchants manipulated corporate reputations to hide their activities beneath spotless reputations as conscientious employees. They also misrepresented their contraband as innocuous commodities, so slave traders accumulated wives and gun-runners started dealing in sporting rifles. And of course many traffickers simply exploited the blindness of bureaucracy at innumerable points along the coast. Statistics depicted the success of colonial policies, but these numbers were the result of rough estimation, gross manipulation, and sheer invention. Tactical visibility was as important as concealment to the success of trafficking, and strategic blindness was as important as panoptic surveillance to the success of colonial political economy. Margins of the Market thus reimagines histories of capitalism by demonstrating how the interaction of licit and illicit was constitutive of capitalism itself.
Assistant Professor, Temple University
Global Reverberations and Mass Mediations in the Afghan Culture Wars
This projects focuses on the cross media flows between Afghanistan and its neighboring countries. Post 9/11, enabled by a new configuration of sources from the international donor community, transnational media corporations, as well as local economies, Afghanistan is experiencing a surge in new media creation with dozens of new television and radio stations, hundreds of publications, a fledgling internet infrastructure, and mobile telephone companies. Debates about women’s rights, democracy, modernity, and Islam are part of the fabric of local and international development efforts to “nation-build”. The medium at the heart of the most public and politically charged of these debates, instigating often violent cultural contestations and clashes between “Islamists”, “moderates”, and others, is television. In my dissertation, I examine the role of cross border media in reshaping national and regional politics. I argue that the influx and flows of media are simultaneously intensifying nationalism and creating a new Pan-Asian ethos that builds upon older ethno-linguistic Asian interconnections and dynamics of the past. The broadcasting of “foreign” media including representations of diverse lifestyles, religions, and expressions of gender and sexuality is fostering cross-cultural connections and understanding.
Research Associate, Colby College
Wig: The Story of an Asian Cold War Commodity, 1958-1979
Wig: The Story of an Asian Cold War Commodity, 1958-1979 examines the transnational history of the Cold War Asia-Pacific by tracing the “life” of a single commodity. In the 1960s-70s, wigs became a key Cold War commodity in Asia: wigs were the #2 export in South Korea and the #4 in Hong Kong; India nationalized its hair trade to promote wig growth, while Singapore made wigs a “pioneer” industry. Indeed, by the 1970s, when surveys suggested that 40% of US women wore wigs or hairpieces, the wig was a $1 billion global business, dominated by Asian wigmakers and, in the US, by diasporic Korean-American wig retailers. But while no one intended for wigs to fuel Asia’s “miracle” growth, the rise of wigs was no accident. The wig became a Cold War commodity in 1965, when the US extended its 1950 trade embargo against China to include communist “Asiatic” hair – cutting off China’s hair trade to punish its escalation of the Vietnam War. A Cold War economic intervention thus emerged from a “hot” military intervention, exposing the tangled connections between empire and political economy. By restricting the trade in communist hair, the embargo devastated Hong Kong’s wig industry (which relied on Chinese hair) and jumpstarted South Korea’s (since Koreans harvested their own “anti-communist” hair). As Asian wigmakers scrambled to find new, ideologically acceptable hair sources, they produced a complex, layered map of the Cold War Asia-Pacific.
In one layer, the map revealed the US vision of the Asia-Pacific: a “free world” Asian trading network that erased China from the map. In another layer, Asians drew an alternative map, in which inter-Asian trade routes crossed ideological boundaries. In this map, hair-seeking Hong Kong wigmakers established trade not only with non-aligned India but with communist China – smuggling Chinese hair into Indonesia, where it was relabeled as anti-communist and thus safe for US consumption. This “new” map of Asia overlapped with lines drawn during a longer history of war and trade: when South Koreans wanted to source synthetic wig fiber, for example, they turned primarily to Japan rather than the US, expanding on their decades-long colonial and postcolonial relationships with Japanese manufacturers. Through the lens of the wig, we see several maps of “Asia” overlaid: lines drawn by the US, PRC, and USSR mattered, but so did connections drawn between Hong Kong and India. In retracing these Asia-Pacific maps, Wig recasts the global Cold War, replacing a superpower-centered narrative of capitalism vs. communism with an account of a complex, transregional system in which goods, people, and ideas crossed borders and blurred ideologies.
The story of the wig also challenges ideas of an orderly, efficient, dematerialized global capitalism, describing instead a set of unstable institutional and human connections that were often ruptured or diverted. It suggests that capitalism was always under construction, produced in part through deliberate interventions by capital, labor, government, and consumer and in part as jury-rigged accommodation to contingency. The wig tells a story of experiments and failures, breakdowns and thefts, mistranslations and transformations – that is, a typical story of capitalism.
Assistant Professor, Politics, The New School for Social Research
Demanding a Right to Basic Social Welfare: Contesting the Law in India and China
Over the last decade many scholars have sought to explain the striking new phenomenon of prosperity amidst poverty and inequality in India and China. Three decades of sustained economic reform has generated, in varying degrees, very high rates of aggregate economic growth, structural diversification and technological change in both countries. Yet these patterns of accumulation have also simultaneously exacerbated old social, sectoral and spatial inequalities and created new human deprivations. Fierce struggles over access to basic social opportunities – education, health and employment – as well as critical human resources – ranging from land and housing to water – have arisen as a result. Moreover, gross entrenched corruption has accompanied the process of dynamic economic growth in both countries, creating widespread demands for greater moral integrity, political accountability and social justice. In short, the great transformations of India and China, to borrow Karl Polanyi’s well-known phrase, have unleashed growing counter-movements in both countries to protect themselves from the depredations of unfettered capitalist societies. My research addresses these developments by studying the striking recent attempt of explicitly rights-based activists in India and China to use the law, as a technique and site of contestation, to secure basic socioeconomic entitlements.
Fellow, Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia (TRI), Princeton University
You Are Not My Cousin: Genealogy, Migration, and Historical Memory in the Arab Gulf
As an SSRC Postdoctoral Fellow for Transregional Research, I began research on my second book project, a transregional study of migration and ethnicity across two centuries of South Asian and Middle Eastern history. In the book, which draws on Arabic and Persian textual sources and personal narratives, I trace the migratory paths of two nineteenth century South Asian personalities – one a Hindu merchant, the other a Muslim scholar – who settled on Arabia’s opposing coasts, and connect their stories to those of their present-day descendants in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. Through the contrasting experiences of these migrants and their descendants, I hope to emphasize the dynamic and contingent nature of ethnicity, as well as the power of modern states to shape feelings of national/territorial belonging or exclusion through citizenship and identification regimes. My project investigates the process by which Gulf states seek to produce uniform narratives of ethno-national origins out of ethnically heterogeneous populations, and how the personal narratives of historical migrants to Arabia and their descendants conform to or resist these efforts. Such a project is important in a place like Dubai, where nearly half of the population of Dubai nationals is comprised of ajamis, that is, migrants from Iran. It is important in a place like western Saudi Arabia, the Hijaz, where millions of Saudi citizens, descendants of Muslim pilgrims and other migrants, are of non-Arab origin. And it is important in Oman, where the contraction of the Omani Indian Ocean empire of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries has concentrated a diverse host of descendants of its former subjects in southeastern Arabia. Combining archival research with ethnographic description, I trace migratory paths from Delhi to Mecca, Gujarat to Muscat, considering the meaning and significance of the transition from a Persianate or Gujarati world to an Arabic-speaking one. I pay attention to transnational flows, but also to the local dynamics that shape identity in the period of the consolidation of Arabia’s modern nation-states. It is my hope that this book contributes to the comparative study of South Asian and Middle Eastern societies, while also providing a back story to the dynamics of labor migration from South Asia to the Arabian Peninsula today.
Postdoctoral Fellow, Roshan Institute for Persian Studies, University of Maryland
Migration of Poets, Movement of Texts: The Persian Tazkira in Iran, Central and South Asia, 1800-1900
This project focused on the movement of peoples and circulation of texts in the nineteenth century Persianate world of West, Central, and South Asia to explore the interconnections among the diverse populations and geographies for which the use of Persian remained a crucial enterprise. It sought to answer several important questions about the overall make-up of the Persianate world during this time, a crucial period in its history when literary developments, political dislocations, and social transformations began to create fissures in the trans-regional cohesion revolving around Persian culture. What connectivity remained in the nineteenth century between Iran, Central and South Asia as expressed through Persian literary and cultural activity? What happened to the scores of administrators, poets, and scholars versed in the linguistic and cultural norms of Persian in the aftermath of the break-up of the Safavid Empire in Iran and the Mughal Empire in South Asia? How were markets of labor and knowledge revolving around Persianate norms subsequently re-shaped and affected? How did different communities of poets, littérateurs, administrators, and secretaries view their position in this ever-shifting literary, cultural, and social landscape? How local, national, or regional were their purviews of the Persianate world they inhabited?
The answers to such questions were sought primarily through relying on works of the tazkira (biographical anthology) genre, one of the most underestimated sources in documenting the intellectual, social, and cultural life in the wider Persianate world. This project deployed tazkiras in two distinct ways. First, it used tazkiras to create a topographic intellectual map that charted the activities and movement of poets, administrators, and littérateurs across borders during this period of distinct cultural shift among the societies of the Persianate sphere. Second, it used the circulation of tazkiras to better understand the spread and dispersal of knowledge and the market of books in the Persianate world during the tumultuous nineteenth century. In connecting tazkiras to one another through their rich and diverse use of documented sources and differentiating among the cataloguing and bibliographic techniques employed by their authors, one begins to understand how the Persianate world of the time was understood and demarcated for a wide-range of individuals. In doing so, this project sought not only to create network maps concerning the mobility of poets and circulation of texts in the nineteenth century Persianate world, but also pay homage to the tazkira genre as historical source itself in documenting social, literary, and cultural life in the societies of Iran, Central, and South Asia.
Research Associate Middle East / South Asia Studies Program, University of California, Davis
Israel in Asia/Globe: Settler Colonialism, Mobility, and Rupture
Initially this research engaged with exploring what it means to think of the Palestinians within the Israeli state as West Asians and in relation to the boundaries of Asia. By situating Palestinians within Asia, this project radically rethinks the categories of who is conventionally considered Asian, and interrogates forms of “Asia-making” by considering the place of Israel within Asian history as entangled in Western colonial modernity.
The framing of the research shifted from the place of Israel in Asia and rethinking of Palestinians as West Asians through several discussions during the field work in Palestine as for many Palestinians I spoke with Asia is part of larger global connections. Furthermore, as Zionism and Israel claim to represent the Jews from all around the world, since its inception the Israeli state has implicated Jews worldwide; some supporting it, and other critical of its establishment and or it’s later on policies, and has in many ways ruptured the long history of Jews’ connections to places in the Arab world and beyond. At the same time the creation of the Israeli state has created a mass of Palestinian refugees that impacted not only Palestinians themselves but also societies and states in the region and beyond. Thus, the research is a study of these ruptures and connections globally that have been taking place since 1948 and mirrored in connections made between Palestinians and peoples around the world, as well as ruptures to these connections.
This new way of framing the question of Israel and Palestine provides a space to see the global implications that have been taking in place since 1948, and in some sense it is a way to de-provincialize the Palestinian question from the way it is often seen as only local or regional (Arab) question.
Central to this project is the work of Fayez Sayegh (1965) on the nature of settler colonialism in Palestine, which is the earliest work to frame the question of Israel/Palestine in Asian and African contexts. Sayegh argued that the creation of the Israeli state led to the delinking of Palestine from Asia and Africa as Palestine was historically a link between these two continents. The creation of the settler colonial state was an imposition, according to him, by colonial powers against the wishes of the people from these continents who had for a long time been connected through trade, migration, culture and politics. My study builds on this theoretical framework by looking at the ruptures analyzed by Sayegh and extending it beyond Asia and Africa, and by complementing it with connections that have been created since then regionally and globally as a response to the creation of the Israeli state. The theoretical framework of the project also critically uses the concept of the nomad and the way mobility shapes identity and politics, as discussed by the Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldoun and as later developed in theories of nomadology by Deleuze & Guattari (1986).
Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, History, Vassar College
Our Land, Our People: Making East Asia in the Tumen River Region 1880-1919
Due to severe food scarcity caused by successive natural disasters, from the 1860s onwards, numerous peasants in northern Korea snuck across the China-Korean Tumen River border and claimed on fertile and uninhabited land of Manchuria (Northeast China), a royal reserve forbidden to exploit for more than two centuries. Refusing to return, the Koreans disputed the notion that the Tumen River was the boundary, and insisted that the Tumen north bank was Korean territory. Such an assertion challenged Qing-China’s new frontier-building policy, which aimed to incorporate Korean immigrants into Qing subject on one hand, and maintain the integrity of the border on the other. The demarcation and negotiation between the Qing-China and the Chosŏn-Korea was interrupted by the Sino-Japanese War (1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1905), which changed Korea from a tributary state of the Qing Empire to a protectorate of Japan. Eager to expand its colonial interests to Manchuria, Japan took advantage of the dispute and made China, in 1909, trade railroad and mining privileges in Manchuria with Japan’s recognition of the Tumen River boundary. Along with this long process, the Tumen north bank kept attracting Korean and Chinese migrants, as well as investments from major powers in the region and in the world. The previous socioeconomic periphery soon developed to a strategic agricultural area and geopolitical hub. The contestation over the sovereignty of the region and legal status of the Koreans diasporas, I argue, reveals the paths of nation- and state-buildings in twentieth century East Asia. It accounts for why Manchuria, unlike other Chinese inner Asian frontiers, was interiorized into new notion of “China” relatively successfully after the fall of the Qing Empire. It explains the process through which Mt. Paektu/Changbai, where the Tumen River originates, was imagined as the sacred symbol of the modern Korean nation. Last but not the least, it demonstrates how Japan adopted an Orientalist view toward Manchuria and Korea, and incorporated them into its colonialist Empire.
Many scholars have studied the individual projects of nation-state building in China, Japan, and Korea respectively. I argue that these projects did not occur separately. Rather, they developed in an interactive and mutually-depended manner. We cannot fully understand the nation-state transition of China (or that of Korea or Japan) without seeing it in a broader geopolitical context. In particular, the rapid development of the Tumen River region perfectly exemplified, from a local perspective, the collaborative nature of the nation state transition in East Asia. Using materials gathered from national and local archives in China, Korea, and Japan, my project analyzes the political, social, and intellectual dimensions of the Tumen River dispute and its multilayered historical implications.
Assistant Professor, Geography, University of Oregon
Profit, Responsibility, and the Moral Economy of Chinese Transnational Agribusiness in Laos and Myanmar
Since the 2008 global economic crisis, the Chinese state has accelerated its going-out strategy—the geographical expansion of Chinese capital overseas. Indeed, China’s increasing demand for raw material and commodity market has forced Chinese enterprises to go overseas for profit making. Situated in the context, this project investigates China’s booming agribusiness in northern Laos and Myanmar and how China’s agricultural enterprises address the balance between profit and responsibility when they do business abroad. This balance defines the essence of moral economy. The project’s focus on the moral economy of China’s transnational agribusiness entails looking at how individual Chinese entrepreneurs understand corporate social responsibility and how this understanding is then integrated into a practical framework of responsibility to employees and local communities in Laos and Myanmar.
This research has examined the following questions: How does the Chinese state collaborate with agricultural corporations to implement opium substitution programs in northern Laos and Myanmar? What kind of social responsibility should Chinese enterprises exercise when they manage or even seize land from farmers in these local communities? How does China-driven transnational agribusiness reshape the established connections between Yunnan and northern Laos and Myanmar? Addressing these questions, my project goes beneath the surface—the discourse of development, China’s peaceful rise, and transnational agribusiness—to explore the underlying logic of the Chinese going-out strategy imposed on rural farmers in northern Laos and Myanmar, and to reveal social and economic transformations in this border area as a consequence of profit making and responsible action by various forces. By analyzing how Chinese agricultural entrepreneurs become entangled in the dynamic balance between a universal logic of profit making and a localized responsibility for social and cultural benefits, this project demonstrates complicated inter-Asian connections that shape and are shaped by China’s transnational agribusiness in Laos and Myanmar.
Regarding the understating of inter-Asian contexts and connections, my project’s contribution is threefold. First, I argue that transnational agribusiness between China and mainland Southeast Asia does not mark the demise of national states, nor an upsurge of local forces in organizing and regulating the space of production. Instead, national states play a significant role in creating and regulating inter-Asian connections. Second, this research project specifies how the established inter-Asian connections are shaped by transnational economy. In general, China’s opium substitution program presents an innovative way for the Chinese state and China’s agricultural enterprises to pursue the going-out strategy and demonstrates how the strategy leverages China’s capital, technology, and managerial resources in neighboring countries. This program turns what Scott (2009) calls “Zomia”—the ungovernable and inaccessible highlands of mainland Southeast Asia—into new frontiers of economic development. Finally, this project expands an emerging literature on the moral economy of business by focusing on the synthesis of profit and responsibility in the course of China’s transnational agribusiness. Drawing on Polanyi’s theory of embedded economy, the project has illuminated how Chinese entrepreneurs get entangled with a dynamic balance between a universal logic of profit making and a responsibility for social and environmental benefits.
Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Islam across the Iron Curtain: Muslim social experience in the twentieth century Turkic-Iranian World
The Iranian and Turkic peoples residing on both sides of the Soviet border partook of a common cultural, religious, linguistic, intellectual and institutional heritage that may loosely be termed the Iranian-Turkic World. It comprised a complex array of transnational vectors crisscrossing Eurasia: from master-disciple relationships that developed within the context of the Nasqhbandi Sufi order; to a shared community of literature and publication in Turkic languages and Persian; to regional constellations of shrines frequented by pilgrims; to commercial networks; to extended families. By the end of the 1920s, restrictions and border controls placed by the Soviet state upon all its citizens had dealt a severe blow to the vitality of this once vibrant sphere of cultural and religious exchange. Yet despite their relative isolation from one another, all the Muslim peoples of Central Eurasia experienced coercive modernization, officially directed social transformation, or “Revolution from Above” in remarkably similar ways. This study analyzes how Muslims across this vast space shared (and continue to share) significant precedents and commonalities in their social history. It examines how Muslim communities responded to officially directed social transformation in the Caucasus, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Turkey in the twentieth century through the prism of three general categories: state structures for regulating Islam, gender, and the built environment.
The Soviet, Turkish, and Afghan governments created bureaucracies to monitor and contain religion within boundaries deemed politically expedient. In all three settings, they selected Islamic scholars affiliated directly or indirectly with the Naqshbandi Sufi order. This proved a fateful decision. On the basis of archival materials in several countries, my research suggests that in each case the ‘ulama (Islamic scholars) assigned to run these institutions succeeded in subverting them to increase the scope of officially sanctioned religious life. In all but one setting (Afghanistan) state attempts to contain Islam succeeded too well, with an expanding legal religious sphere taking on a life of its own. Such an outcome calls into question the very notion of the Soviet Union and Turkey as secular states and fits in well with the current trend of “post-secular” scholarship in reference to the Islamic world, which challenges conventional analytical boundaries between religion and state often used to describe twentieth century modernization in the Middle East.
The need to fine tune oft-cited binaries between Islam and the secular state has also emerged in my research concerning gender. Across the region, concerted state campaigns against the veil in the 1920s-1930s gave way to more subtle policies encouraging education and job opportunities for Muslim women. State feminism initiatives (usually developed by male bureaucrats) exemplified the modernizing state’s coercive approach to transforming Muslim societies. Official fetishization of women’s bodies and social lives as a battleground for modernization largely ignored or denied the possibility of women claiming authority in the religious sphere. A consequence of this was that space existed for existing genres of female religious figures to acquire new significance (e.g., the Ferghana Valley’s otins) or for new genres to emerge (female preachers in Turkey).
Finally, my research explored the urban built environment as a top-down setting that witnessed organic, bottom-up social transformation the state did not intend. Designed to break up traditional authority networks in a new urban setting, the built environment became host to new forms of religious organization and knowledge. Rather than fostering a broad turn away from religion, this setting heightened the gap between successive generations, engendering new patterns of religious observance and identity, from the overtly secular to the rigidly puritanical.
Visiting Scholar, Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures, Columbia University
Imagining Empires: Historical Romance and the Politics of Chinese Cultural Fantasies 1560s-1660s
This book-length project analyzes five types of Chinese historical romances in the late Ming and early Qing period that depict Ming empires’ trans-border contacts wtih Java, Japan, the manchu state, and Siam. Fifty years before and after the fall of the Ming, writings of trans-border contacts on China’s East and South seas blossomed. When Hideyoshi invaded Korea, threatening China’s sovereignty, and when the Manchu state crossed China’s borders, literati published romances on loyal martyrdom courtesans, female warriors, martial heroes, and historical military figures such as Zheng He and Mao Wenlong. Historicizing the literature, the project analyzes premodern articulations of “racial” groupings and proto-nationalism in the romances. My finished project will bring into light the importance literature plays as a cultural response to Ming empire’s cross-border military and cultural encounters with her East Asian and Southeast Asian neighbors on the seas.