In the Time of Oil. Piety, Memory and Social Life in an Omani Town
In the Time of Oil. Piety, Memory and Social Life in an Omani Town. By Mandana Limbert. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.
In the Time of Oil explores local social change in Bahla, a small town in the interior of Oman. This change is brought about by the 1970s oil boom and the development of the Omani state under Sultan Qabus, commonly believed to be the ‘author’ of the Omani renaissance. Endowed with new oil revenues, Sultan Qabus tried to integrate the Omani periphery, which had been the political centre of a rival Ibadhi imamate in the interior into the newly consolidated state of 1971. Assisted by a new bureaucratic elite, mainly Omani returnees from East Africa, he brought development plans and modernisation projects to the heartland of the country, historically associated with the vanished conservative Ibadhi imamate. Unlike other oil states of the Gulf region where the promise of an oil utopia enforced the legitimacy of authoritarian regimes, this book shows how in Oman, development discourse fostered mysteries, miracles, surprises and deferred dystopias. Because the new social and economic development was entirely generated by sudden oil wealth (the miracle), the new prosperity is seen as a fleeting moment, hostage to a memory of poverty and austerity and an uncertain future.
The book focuses on how wealth and development reached Bahla where a rival religious theocracy had ruled over parts of the country. From a discussion in chapter two on the projects of the heritage industry and restoration of historical forts, to mass education, oil, water resources, notions of race and identity, and uncertain political succession, Omani society experienced great oil transformations that brought it face to face with an age of great change and prosperity but also uncertainty.
One of the most interesting sections of the book is the chapter on women’s religious circles (chapter four). As modernising states across the Arab and Muslim world introduced mass education at an unprecedented scale, informal circles of religious knowledge, historically known as madrasa or halaqa refused to disappear. In fact, they continue to flourish as alternative and complimentary spaces for religious learning with social and political implications, hence the multiple actors who compete to control, monitor and shape the content of their teaching material. In the southern suburb of Tehran, the tribal frontiers of Pakistan, immigrant neighbourhoods in London, and the old town of Bahla in Oman, the fieldwork site of this book, the informal religious circles of knowledge are here to stay. Their persistence especially in overcrowded cities and remote villages has baffled many observers. The origins of the Taliban as students (talib) in the religious schools set up for the Afghan refugees in the 1980s in Pakistan has tarnished informal religious study circles, from now on seen as hubs for the propagation of radical religious knowledge and breeding future generation of terrorists. The momentary and sudden interest in informal religious education had a strict security agenda that diverted attention from the social dynamics of these circles and their multiple meanings. This book offers a welcome insight on the nature of these informal religious study circles. In chapter four Limbert traces women’s responses and adaptation to new formal education and employment in a region where housework, family obligations, and traditional roles had occupied a previous generation of women. As most Arab states tried to educate their young people in a generic Islam, detached from its local cultural and historical contexts, many newly educated young men and women sought to supplement this Islam with further deeper studies in the alternative confined circles of religious knowledge. Limbert’s focus on how women’s study circles fill a vacuum. Her analysis of the dynamics of these circles is a welcome ethnographic account of the place of women in the local context of a small town and the wider context of Oman, its history, oil, religious debates, development and gender policy. The analysis goes beyond the limited understanding of such circles that have dominated scholarly work on the madrasa.
The newly educated young girls of Bahla have been introduced to alternative ways of living, learning and socialising. Despite their engagement with modernity and development, young Bahlawis retain old notions of individual piety that finds expression in newly founded informal religious study circles where young volunteer instructors create autonomous space to exercise their own judgement and interpretation of religious sources. Limbert explains that while old women continue their traditional visiting patterns and sociality around words, coffee and dates, young educated girls seek alternative space where sociality is entangled with individual empowerment, knowledge, and organisation. Young women are critical of old women’s gossip during well-orchestrated visiting patterns that link households in Bahla to a network of well-known women. Young women organise private study circles that attract the literate youth. Combining sociality with religious education seems to be a valued endeavour. Remembering God is better than the gossip associated with traditional women’s gatherings, according to those involved in these religious circles. But the new piety generated in the context of the study circle refrains from public displays of religiosity. In this respect, Limbert’s informants differ from other Muslim women, for example the Lebanese Shia, studied by Lara Deeb. In Oman, women promote individual piety and engagement with religious sources. The only public display of this piety is in the symbolic significance of their clothing. Unlike their mothers, the young girls of the study circles are conscious of their veils as markers of piety. Enrolling in a women run circle allows young girls to practice a new religiosity in dialogue with male sources on religion and as opposed to their mothers.
Oil wealth and development not only led to new religiosity among the young generation but their impact reached the very fabric of Omani identity, the subject of chapter six. A country well-known for its historical transnational links in Africa and Asia, the recent reinvention of Oman as an Arab state is well documented in this study. Limbert explores the meaning of racial categories in Oman at a time when genealogy fixed the Arab character of the inhabitants and distinguished them from East African slaves and servants, known as akhdam. In modern Oman, the Zanzibari intelligentsia, mostly returnees from East Africa and Zanzibar in the 1960s and 1970s, came to define the modern bureaucratic state in Muscat while new identity constructions and heritage industry projects fixed Oman as an Arab state. Early pre-1970 migration to Africa in search of economic opportunities against an impoverished Oman defined two places as contrasting terrains. The hardship experienced in Oman prior to migration pushed Omanis to Africa, seen as the land of economic ease. Their return in the 1970s to participate in the country’s new development not only opened new economic opportunities but also generated debates pertaining to Omani identity and its transnational connections. The return of many Omanis to Oman reversed the memory of the two places, Oman and Africa. Oil made Oman the land of plenty while Africa became poor. The reversal of the meaning of the two places has become a function of fate, that altered old established wisdom about places and identity. In this reversal, Omani Arab identity was constructed out of fragments of genealogies.
If miracles and fate dominate aspects of Omani present development, the future seems uncertain and subject to speculation. In chapter seven, Limbert elaborates on three important elements that combine to create serious concerns for many Omanis. First, Oman’s dwindling oil resources enforce in the mind of its people that one day there will be no oil, thus contributing to perceiving current prosperity as a fleeting moment of affluence. Second, the persistence of the Ibadhi doctrines that had been the founding impetus behind the theocratic Ibadhi state in the interior of Oman remains a living memory, at least to the old generation. Limbert asserts that some of her informants expressed a longing for the re-restoration of the Ibadhi imamate. And finally, there is the problem of succession that remains a mystery as Sultan Qabus had done nothing so far to regulate it. Given that he has no son to succeed him, Omanis never stop to speculate over the issue of the leadership after his death.
The strength of Limbert’s book lies in its exploration of the multiple levels of development and modernity associated with oil transformations. She clearly traces the impact of centralised state interventions with special reference to notions of piety, religiosity, identity and political future. In this book, the salience of the past in the lives of Omanis is fully explored in the context of fieldwork in Bahla. This past has come to mean different things to different people and it seems that it will continue to do so especially in the context of the recent economic and political challenges facing Oman. Since January 2011, youth demonstrations calling for employment and end to corruption shook this remote and quiet Gulf state, that has so far not exhibited public display of agitations or mass protest. Perhaps Mandana Limbert’s predictions of the uncertainty of Omani future, that echoed people’s fears, have already become certain.
In some parts, the book may appear lacking a common thread as a result of the presentation style and somewhat poetic chapter titles and sub-headings. Moving from one story to another without a common thread makes the book enjoyable but difficult to situate in a relevant theoretical framework. The book is written in a narrative style that may not appeal to certain anthropology audiences. Yet, here there is a dense ethnography worth reading. The book offers a rich panoramic view of Bahla and its people, intercepted by rich everyday life stories and explained in light of major oil transformations.
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