SOCIAL CONDITIONS: Being Modern in the Middle East: Revolution, Nationalism, Colonialism and the Arab Middle Class

By Ram, Uri | The Middle East Journal, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

SOCIAL CONDITIONS: Being Modern in the Middle East: Revolution, Nationalism, Colonialism and the Arab Middle Class


Ram, Uri, The Middle East Journal


SOCIAL CONDITIONS Being Modern in the Middle East: Revolution, Nationalism, Colonialism and the Arab Middle Class, by Keith David Watenpaugh. Princeton, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, Press 2006. xi + 308 pages. Maps. Tables. SeI. bibl. to p. 316. Index to p. 325. $35.

Reviewed by UH Ram

For the new middle classes of the Middle East in the first half of the 20th century, "being modern" meant being distinct from the old dominant classes of the traditional Ottoman and Muslim society, the a 'van landed élite (or "notables") and being conscious of their newly acquired urbane modernity. The case study offered by Keith David Watenpaugh is that of the culture of the middle class state bureaucrats, lawyers, bankers, petty capitalists, teachers, physicians, agents of Western companies, journalists, and other professionals and white-collar employees in the city of Aleppo in the East Mediterranean (today in Syria) in the period 1908-1946.

At the core of the book is what the author defines as "the historical experience of modernity in the crucible of class" (p. 61). In the wake of Jurgen Habermas's seminal thesis of the bourgeois public sphere as the cradle of European democracy, Watenpaugh argues in this book that a civil society, which nowadays is in dire need in the Middle East, had in fact budded in the EastMediterranean basin in the beginning of the 20th century, only to be forestalled later in the century from within and from outside of the middle class. It is this civil societal way, the almost-but-not-actually-taken way that the book carefully documents and analyzes, and perhaps even contributes to resuscitate.

The book scrutinizes how modernity redraws the class structure and generates the modern middle class, which is shaped and distinguishes itself through changing patterns of consumption, forms of sociability, and ways of thinking. It is important to Watenpaugh that class is not only an economic or even a social position (in itself) but rather is a form of active ideational and intellectual agency (for itself); and that modernity is not just a material and technological system but rather a distinct way of social life, or a practice, as well as a distinct world view.

As against views such as those of Bernard Lewis, Watenpaugh considers the members of this class not to have been passively modernized, but to have been the makers of their own history, though, admittedly, under the influence of Western capitalism and colonialism rather than in circumstances of their own choosing. Yet, they actively "claimed modernity" and did so by the incorporation into their lives of manners, mores, tastes, and ideas that they believed to be the praxis of the contemporary metropolitan Western middle class. Like other cosmopolitan cities of the East Mediterranean (e.g., Salonika, Izmir, Beirut, or Alexandria), the middle class of Aleppo was to a large extent nonMuslim; therefore, questions of class differences and conflicts were intermixed with those of communal and religious affiliation.

By relegating, or rather restoring, agency to his protagonists, the author attempts to circumvent the pitfalls of both modernization theory and post-colonial theory. In both of these approaches, modernization is conceived as a foreign and imperial force that imposed itself from the outside, never mind that the former approach salutes this turn of events while the latter abominates it. Watenpaugh wishes to pass the onus of modernization from the "West" out there to the Westernizers inside the region. According to his perspective, modernization becomes the strategy of the middle class to assert itself, or, as he puts it "modernity is a language that can acquire local dialects" (p. 14). It is refreshing to read nowadays a book that does not simply repudiate modernity, but rather explores the anticipations and reactions of the studied agents themselves towards modernity.

Whereas Watenpaugh aims at the "middle class," he cautions that the analytical category might elide a large body of experience and flatten history. …

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