The Parachutist and the Truffle Hunter: On Global, Micro, and Middle Easts
Fahad Ahmad Bishara
Scholarship on the political economy and history of the Middle East has recently taken a decisive shift towards thinking transregionally and globally, following trends in the humanities and social sciences more generally. For many working on the region, the “Middle East” as spatial container for historical analysis is no longer satisfying; to understand the region, we are compelled to look beyond its borders and beyond the containers that had long held (and sometimes even constrained) our analyses. In this short piece, I will try to reflect on the stakes involved in writing at different scales – to frame (and perhaps reframe) the question of “the global” in the writing of Middle Eastern history.
Drawing on the literature on global history, I suggest that thinking globally does not necessarily imply a globe-encompassing scale of analysis, let alone writing, but instead is a method – a sensibility – that attempts to collapse the boundaries of metageographical containers in an effort to trace histories of connection and circulation that have eluded the grasp of area studies frameworks. To be sure, there are some attempts in reading the Middle East from the perspective of a globe-encompassing scale; Adam Hanieh’s work is exemplary in this regard. For most, though, the goals are more modest: to read the Middle East from the vantage point of the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, the Sahara, and the Persianate world. This approach to the global has the virtue of destabilizing the geographical categories that we have come to rely on, even if it runs the risk of reifying analytical categories.
But part of what I want to suggest in this piece is that one does not even have to start from the premise of macro-level analysis. If destabilizing geographical and analytical categories is the goal of a global-historical approach to the Middle East, it may just as effectively be achieved through a microhistorical approach to the subject. Thinking at a micro-level scale does not necessarily imply limiting oneself geographically; there are plenty of examples of microhistories that unfold over broad canvases, in what is now called “global microhistory”. The principal strength of microhistory (which, like global history, is more a method or sensibility than a field) is its ability to destabilize grand narratives while forcing historians to rethink the analytical categories on which they rely – to force us away from transhistorical abstractions and into the historically-specific forms those categories take.
Thinking along different scales, then, holds the potential to generate new historical vistas, while forcing us to come to terms with our own conceptual blinders and categorical precommitments. If “the Middle East” as a region is unlikely to go away anytime soon, committing some of our time to thinking about questions of scale and category might at least allow us to reapproach many of the assumptions and narratives that have pervaded our writing.
Fahad Ahmad Bishara is Associate Professor of History and Rouhollah Ramazani Associate Professor of Arabian Peninsula and Gulf Studies at the University of Virginia. He specializes in the economic and legal history of the Indian Ocean and Islamic world. His book, A Sea of Debt: Law and Economic Life in the Western Indian Ocean, 1780-1950 (Cambridge University Press, 2017) is a legal history of economic life in the Western Indian Ocean, told through the story of the Arab and Indian settlement and commercialization of East Africa during the nineteenth century.