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 The Politics of Middle Eastern Exceptionalism and the Spatial-Materiality Turn

Sarah El-Kazaz


One of the most potent forces to shape the modern Middle East has been the exceptionalization of the region as a space riddled with the unique triad of Islam, oil and resilient authoritarianism, which amongst other things produce a region teeming with political strife and conflict. In this piece I interrogate how the spatial-material turn in the social sciences opens up new possibilities for revealing the political dynamics produced through exceptionalizing the region as well as setting the ground work for de-exceptionalizing it.


In studying these political dynamics, I join a scholarship (e.g. Said 1978, Abu-Lughod 2002 and Khalidi 2004; Deeb and Winegar 2016; Le Renard, Vora and Kanna 2020) that sees exceptionalizing the region not simply as a mis-representation of the region but as a historical force that has performatively (Callon 1998) produced political realities on the ground. While a lot of this scholarship has focused on the discursive realm, in this piece I explore the specific modalities that the spatial-material turn offers us for unmasking that performative politics. In invoking the spatial-material turn, I refer both to attention to the scalar and spatial politics at the core of our conversation in this workshop, as well as attention to material ecologies and the materiality of culture and affective meaning-making in our study of the region.


Scholarship embracing the spatial-material turn has been interrogating the making of the Middle East as a region by tracing its embroilment with for example: a) global flows of commodities, ideas (including exceptionalism), experts, infrastructures and literary/artistic movements, among others; b) experimentation with programs destined for localities beyond the region and often in the Global North; c) extra-regional geopolitics like the Cold War or East Asian power rivalries; and d) environmental phenomena and “natural” disasters such as climate change, and their global human machinery. In tracing these connections and how their materialities are lived, this scholarship enables us to explore three facets of Middle Eastern exceptionalism: a) historicize the work that went into rendering the Middle East as an exceptional space and the politics behind that work; b) see exceptionalization as one amongst many historical forces at work in shaping the region and its boundedness, and explore the political relationship between those forces; and c) actively demonstrate the ways in which the region through those connections is in many ways un-exceptional, paving the work for de-exceptionalizing the region and the performative politics that emanates from that project. As the spatial-material turn historicizes exceptionalism in tracing those political dynamics, it also complicates the directionality of these political projects by tracing how they emanate from the region’s localities and travel to extra-regional sites, including in the Global North, producing South-North and South-South political dynamics.


Sarah El-Kazaz is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics of the Middle East at SOAS, University of London. Her research interests include: political economy, urbanism, infrastructure and digital politics. Her upcoming book with Duke University Press, Building Politics: Urban Transformation and (Un)Making Markets in Cairo and Istanbul examines the political economy of urban transformation in neoliberalizing Istanbul and Cairo. Her next book project investigates the politics of digital infrastructures by following “Cloud” technologies across the Global South. Her work appears in peer-reviewed journals including: Comparative Studies in Society and History, and City and Society. She previously taught at Oberlin College, and completed a PhD at Princeton University, MA at NYU and BA at the American University in Cairo.