Red Sea Citizens: Cosmopolitan Society and Cultural Change in Massawa

By Hopper, Matthew S. | African Studies Review, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Red Sea Citizens: Cosmopolitan Society and Cultural Change in Massawa


Hopper, Matthew S., African Studies Review


HISTORY Jonathan Miran. Red Sea Citizens: Cosmopolitan Society and Cultural Change in Massawa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. 400 pp. Note on Language. Maps. Photos. Glossary. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $75.00. Cloth. $27.95. Paper.

In 1993, when the government of newly independent Eritrea asked citizens to complete applications for national identity cards, people in Massawa listed their qabila ("tribe") as Masawwi'l ("Massaawn"). The sense of a common identity shared by residents of this Red Sea town is a legacy of its commerce-oriented, urban disposition as well as their self-conception as inhabitants of a distincdy Muslim space. Red Sea Citizens is an excellent, detailed study of this port town at the historical meeting point of the Red Sea, Arabia, the Nile Valley, and die Ethiopian plateau. Massawa was occupied by Ottomans, Egyptians, Italians, British, and Ethiopians before Eritrea gained its independence in 1993, but the author deftly avoids locating the city within any imperial or nationalist narrative. He seeks, in Prasenjit Duara's words, to "rescue history from the nation" (Chicago, 1997) and also, he adds, to rescue history "from empire" (16). Red Sea Citizens joins a growing revisionist historiography of the Horn of Africa that aims to relocate regions and societies previously perceived as marginal in a literature that has remained, until recendy, statecentric.

The book makes extraordinary use of archival sources in Tigre, Arabic, Italian, French, and English, ranging from registers of real estate transactions and charitable religious endowments to colonial documents, and to marriage, divorce, child-custody, manumission, and death records. The author also incorporates oral histories from more than fifty informants whom he interviewed in Eritrea in 2000 and 2001. With the perspective of time, it appears that his oral research seized on a limited window of opportunity. When Miran returned to Massawa eight years later, the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea had diminished much of the life and population of the city, with many of its residents leaving to seek a better life abroad. One member of a prominent family with well-known and established origins in Arabia asked Miran if his research had uncovered any documents "confirming" the family's Arabian heritage in order to support an application for citizenship to Saudi Arabia.

Red Sea Citizensis divided into five chapters with an introduction, several maps, more than thirty illustrations, and a helpful glossary. …

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