miriam cooke

Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf (University of California Press, 2014)

“Wading into the dangerous undercurrents of academic debates over embattled concepts like ‘tribal’, ‘primitive’ and ‘modern’, Cooke’s book is refreshing in that it neither wallows in nostalgia for a lost past, nor is it fundamentally critical of processes of globalization and modernization. Cooke proposes a more dynamic, organic interpretation of how these tropes are being engaged among her subjects (Arab Gulf countries including the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait). She proposes that the idea of the tribe – regardless of its biological or ethnic veracity – offers a conceptual means through which these countries and their peoples mediate the challenges of modernity, and the rapid changes which their sudden immersion in the global economy have imposed…

What’s equally refreshing about Cooke’s work is that while it engages in a theoretically challenging way with concepts of culture and society, rather than relying exclusively on the methods of sociology or political science, she grounds much of her analysis in the arts: literature, film, poetry, architecture. Indeed, these provide some of the key concepts that she proposes for understanding the ‘brand’ of tribal modern that has emerged in these countries. She employs the notion of the barzakh: “a Qur’anic term that variously designates the metaphysical space between life and the hereafter and also the physical space between sweet and salt waters.” Exploring first the use of the term in Arab literature, she extends its use to cultural politics in order to explain how concepts that engage both the ‘tribal’ and the ‘modern’ can co-exist in such a unique way: “Because in the very instant that they connect they disconnect; they are fully mixed and present in that space but also absent. The barzakh holds these and also other opposing elements in constant equilibrium, adjusting with their alterations so that one will never overwhelm the other.” Hans Rollman, Popmatters


Published reviews