On 5 December 2022, friends and colleagues gathered at NYU to celebrate Michael Gilsenan and his extraordinary career at an event organized by the Department of Middle East and Islamic Studies, the Department of Anthropology, and the Kevorkian Center for Near East Studies. Lila Abu Lughod, Talal Asad, Zachary Lockman, Brinkley Messick, Maya Mikdashi, Tim Mitchell, and Naor Ben-Yehoyada offered remarks, followed by Michael himself. We are publishing the video of the event, as well as modified essays written by its participants.
Lila Abu Lughod
I was placed at the end of this remarkable celebration of what Michael Gilsenan has meant to us all, intellectually and personally, because I have the privilege of unveiling (a metaphor that you might be surprised to hear me use) a project to which many of Michael’s students, colleagues and friends have contributed, including those who spoke just before me. This is an ongoing project that we hope others will want to join.
It is a website called “A Way of Walking: Conversations with Michael Gilsenan” and its landing page introduces the project with the following short text:
Michael Gilsenan, anthropologist, social historian, and scholar of religion, narrative, law, and language across Arab and Muslim worlds, retired from New York University where he had been, since 1995, the David B. Kriser Professor in Anthropology and Middle East Studies. It was the closing of 2020, that year that changed all of our worlds in different ways. The Covid-19 pandemic interrupted plans for a conference and a festschrift that had been in the works. In light of these changed circumstances, the growing popularity of the podcast, and our collective appreciation of Michael’s spell-binding storytelling and his remarkable memory, we–students, friends, and colleagues–hit upon a radical idea. We invented “the Festpod.” Over the next two years, on zoom and in person, we engaged Michael in conversations about work and life. We recorded riveting tales about experiences, people, events, histories. We eagerly elicited his worldly insights about matters of the intellect and the spirit. We followed our curiosity about his many “excavations and wanderings” (as he had put it in the poetic afterword he wrote to Recognizing Islam). The afterword of that book carried the evocative title, “A Way of Walking,” and we walked with him on the paths he took that crossed our own. We share them here.
Thanks to Nadine Fattaleh, Naye Idriss, and JJ Mitchell, we built this Fespod website with the following image appearing on the landing page just above this text.
Image, see attached file.
The next major section contains the interviews or conversations. These will be posted as recordings (podcasts) and eventually transcribed and edited as an e-publication. In alphabetical order, here are the ones we have so far, with more to come: Lila Abu-Lughod, Talal Asad, Naor Ben-Yehoyada, John Chalcraft, Khaled Fahmy, Nur Amali Ibrahim, Darryl Li, Zachary Lockman, Brinkley Messick, Maya Mikdashi, Andrew Ong, Sherene Seikaly, Martin Stokes, Timothy Mitchell, and Emrah Yildiz.
Some of this distinguished and multigenerational group of mostly anthropologists and historians wrote short factual biographies to identify themselves. Others, especially former students, describe how and where they came to know Michael. Some are more personal and sometimes humorous but they give a rich sense of what it was like, beyond the shared intellectual interests that were the subjects of their conversations, to “walk with him.” Sherene Seikaly wrote, “I was lucky enough to have Michael Gilsenan as a mentor at New York University throughout my graduate training. His home was a space of gathering, support, and intellectual nourishing for legions of us. He trained me to think ethnographically. He taught me to approach each question with curiosity and humility. He taught me how to remain principled. He taught me how to be brave more than anything else. He taught me to value and nourish friendship and joy.” Emrah Yildiz explained, “While preparing Ph.D. applications in Fall 2007, I audited Michael’s ‘Islamic City’ course at NYU. Ever since Michael has been a generous mentor as well as an inspirational intellectual who carries his brilliance with the mantled humility of a dervish, and with his perfect hair.”
Each recorded conversation will be accompanied by a short list of the topics covered. Some conversations were an hour long; others were much longer. Khaled Fahmy’s was four hours long. Each begins by identifying the date and interviewer so that these recordings can serve as oral history archives.
The next page on “Ways of Walking” is called Publications but that is something of a misnomer. What we tried to do here is to capture in a single map of the world and a graphic timeline the extraordinary trajectory of Michael Gilsenan’s travels for field research and academic teaching, from Yemen to Indonesia, from Oxford to NYU. A short professional biography is followed by a list of his publications.
The final page is called Gallery. We included this because Michael Gilsenan is a fine photographer whose photographs from Yemen in the late 1950s to Southeast Asia into the mid-2000s are worth preserving and sharing, side by side with photographs of him as he traveled these paths through life.
We look forward to launching the Gilsenan Festpod website in the coming months.
This is really a wonderful gathering and a wonderful way of honoring somebody who has been enormously important in Middle East Studies. But I want to begin by saying that I’ve known Michael for many decades. We were friends in England before we both moved to the US. But I must confess I never really knew him very well then – not as well as I have come to know him over the last few years, when we’ve come together quite often. It’s one of my regrets that I didn’t get to know him as well and as fully then as I do now because friendship is an extremely important part of what life should be about. And Michael is a friend, a very important friend, at once thoughtful and compassionate, as well as being a subtle writer and speaker, something which I’ll touch on in a moment.
Apart from being a very close friend, Michael is an intellectual whose work I have come to appreciate more and more over time. I reread one of his books recently: Lords of the Marches and (like his other books) I find now that what he has written is not only interesting but also superb ethnography. I should also say here that he was one of the earliest to venture into the topic of the anthropology of Islam – long before I did – and it is something he deals with better than most anthropologists on that subject whom I’ve read since.
Michael and I both came through Oxford anthropology, although he was at Oxford both as an undergraduate and as a postgraduate whereas I did my undergraduate degree at Edinburgh and only did my BLitt and my DPhil at Oxford. And he came through that channel after I did. But we knew the same people in the Oxford Institute of Social Anthropology. And the interesting thing to me is that we often have the same reaction to many of the people that I knew there and who were still there years after me when Michael was working for his DPhil. When Michael was a postgraduate student in anthropology, Evans-Pritchard was still head of the Anthropology Institute – and of course, Godfrey Lienhardt was there too, and his younger brother Peter, who happened to be a Middle East specialist. Michael and I both agreed that, unlike his younger brother, Godfrey was an enormously gifted intellectual. We agree about many other things too. I won’t go into that in detail but simply mention that we also had a similar reaction to Rodney Needham, another member of the faculty at the time. We had a somewhat similar view of what kind of person Needham was. But, as the saying goes, one shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.
But I want to say a few words now about Michael’s ethnography. I have been struck more and more, as I reread his work over the years, by its vividness and insight. As I’ve already mentioned, I reread just about 10 years ago the book on Lebanon, Lords of the Marches. And I was struck by the enormously sophisticated literary quality of the description and analysis of a very complicated situation, of a people living in a pre-capitalist society that was gradually being transformed into a capitalist one. I was impressed in particular by his description of the messiness of a form of life in transition. And it’s only retrospectively that one begins to notice exactly what he’s doing with his language and his narrative, how important his language is to him. His description of the power play in what might be called a feudal system, or a pre-capitalist one, is really one of the most remarkable anthropological accounts of that process that I know – not just in the Middle East but elsewhere too. It’s done with great understanding, it seems to me, of the way the possibilities of trust and friendship, such as they are, become undermined. The ambiguity in the narrative is deliberate and it reflects the ambiguity of the social life he describes. This subtlety is very characteristic of all the books Michael has published. And although all his anthropological work is first-class, I think Lords of the Lebanese Marches, is in many ways the most remarkable.
It’s this fine quality of his writing that I have come to admire most in our friendship now. It seems to me that his literary sensibility is not just an incidental quality that he brings to his academic life, but also, in a way not very easy to describe, part of how he builds his friendships as well. And you begin to value that quality as something very unusual. Those of you who know him very well will immediately recognize what I mean.
His literary sensibility is reflected in our friendship by the seriousness with which he takes poetry. An example of this is the way he urged me to take the Irish poet W.B. Yeats much more attentively than I had done previously. Unlike most people I know, Michael has memorized enormous screeds of English poetry – as well as, of course, chunks of Shakespeare. Those of you who know him very well know that W.B. Yeats is a favorite poet of his, and that given a little encouragement he will recite, with great passion, some of his famous poems to you.
So I did ask him once which volume of his poems he thought I should get, and a few days later he arrived with an inscribed copy of some of Yeats’s selected poems and plays. A typical example of his enthusiasm and generosity with friends – the desire to share his pleasurable experience of a wonderful poet. Indeed I think that friendship is part of his intellectual approach to other societies, especially but not only of the Middle East. And it characterizes his ethnography in complicated ways, which now has an enormous range, as you probably all know, including not only the anthropology of the Middle East, but also, more recently, of Southeast Asia. So now he has turned from Sufism (his earliest anthropological study in Egypt) to law, and thus from fieldwork focused entirely or largely on interaction with people from another society, to law reports and archives. That is to say on the complexities of the written record.
So let me conclude: I’m really very, very delighted to see that Michael is being honored. But he will continue to be honored by his friends and he will continue to be honored by people who read him but don’t know him personally. And this will include, I’m absolutely sure, people outside of anthropology. I am proud of the fact that I am your friend Michael, and let me just end on that point: I hope that the rest of you will join me in wishing him all the best in his retirement and in expressing our expectation that he will continue to produce more thought-provoking work.
It’s a real pleasure and an honor to be here. I work mostly in Sicily, which most people would not count within the Middle East (though Sicily and the Middle East are much nearer each other than what most academic divisions of the world make them to be). So I would like to offer you a cause and a reason for why I’m here.
The cause is that around October 2011, Michael came to present a couple of papers at the Center from Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard, where I was studying. My dear friend Emrah Yildiz, who is sitting here, and who would’ve been the natural person to host Michael during that visit, was away in his fieldwork along the Syrian-Turkish border, for his work on the Hajj-e Fuqara pilgrimage route from Iran, through Turkey, to the Sayyida Zainab Shrine in Damascus. Since Emrah wasn’t there, he made me swear that I would take care of Michael as if he were there to receive him. Emrah and I are both on speaking terms and present here today. I hope that means I did an okay job.
The reason I suspect has something to do with one of the most important things that I’ve learned from Michael over these years: rather than search for a Middle Eastern perspective on the Mediterranean, or the Middle Eastern alternative to the Mediterraneanist view on human affairs, that regionalist contradistinction is neither necessary nor helpful. For in the realm of the conversations he entertains in his books (as with Peter Brown), as well as in his contributions to various Mediterraneanist discussions, Michael exemplifies how the Mediterranean and the Middle East (or Western Asia, Southern Europe, and Northern Africa) could belong to a constellation that poses a much more exciting counterpart to whatever is considered the West than what Euro-American anthropologists usually draw on, that is, Amazonia, Melanesia, and those places that are considered radically other.
Michael has a unique recipe – which has articulated from Saint and Sufi to his current work on the Hadhrami diaspora in Singapore (including The Arcade’s piano shop, and more on that later) – a recipe that insists on combining the dynamic balance between the fantastically detailed account of the world, the questions it provokes, and the possible theoretical ways to start confronting them.
I encountered this recipe before I met Michael, first in his contribution “against Patron-Client Relations” coming out of his work in Akkar, where this recipe permits him to pit against each other the American and British threads of anthropology, which were intertwining institutionally in the mid-1970s. Just when American and British anthropologists met in person, aligned in camps, to tell each other what they thought about their respective work, Michael drops neither position: to grasp what makes the “local” and the “sociological” so-called patron-client relations work in tandem as a compelling model, we must account for how people make sense of their interactions, we need to examine how this sense-making does the face-to-face work of reinforcing stratification, and we need to account for the perpetuating effect of the work of the (French) “sociologist” who
operating in part with his own functionalist model and in part with the conscious model of sections of the society he is studying, celebrates the integrative power of clientage. But in doing so he makes it impossible to study objectively both his own and others’ ideologies and the structures of domination from which they were generated (182).
Michael demands here that we must keep all these dimensions together. But how do you keep them together? The clue (going back to the piano) is, as Timothy Michell has just elaborated, in the detail. As you know, Michael has been working on the Hadhrami Arab diaspora in colonial Singapore and their descendants ever since. In various conversations about The Arcade – the most remarkable business project of the Alkaff family – Michael mentions a shop in The Arcade that sold “cottage pianos,” designed to sound well in the tropical climate, so the Shanghai-based vendors reassured prospective customers. The piano (just like the gramophone) emblematizes the attempt to sound well, that is, to translate something to the early 20th Century colonial setting. That piano appears in such careful detail in Michael’s retelling, which left me wondering at first, only to arrive at the end to receive my lesson – that the piano impresses an image at the outset which resonates at the end and then through it.
I think you’ll find similar prolepses in the FestPod’s sessions. Details are never there without a purpose. And it’s in the end of the conversation that often you realize that we’ve been talking about ritual, or about French intellectuals in Beirut in 1972 all along, haven’t we? This feeling – of being walked through this fantastic world – dramatizes the necessity to combine the messy reality that we’ve experienced with the attempt to make sense of it all; an attempt that culminates with a fleeting sense of meaning and order, though we know that sense is about to vanish.
Thank you very much for sharing all of these wonders.
It is both an honor and a pleasure to have this opportunity to celebrate Michael Gilsenan. I was privileged to have worked with Michael from the time we both came to NYU, in 1995, until he retired in the depths of the pandemic. I came to NYU as part of a package deal that Michael negotiated, so in a very real sense, I would not have had the academic career I have had without him.
If I remember correctly, I first met Michael in person at his home in Oxford, when Tim and I were both there for an SSRC meeting. But of course, I had known of, and read, and learned from, his work much earlier. Others have spoken, or will speak, of Michael’s contributions as a scholar to the anthropology of the Middle East and to other fields, so I’d instead like to focus on the central role he played in renewing and developing the study of the Middle East at NYU, institutionally but also in terms of the intellectual culture and social environment that he fostered. This university’s wonderful Middle East studies enterprise, among the best in the country, is in many ways a monument to Michael’s leadership, energy, and passion.
Back when Michael was negotiating the terms under which he would come to NYU, I asked him how things were going. With his characteristic flair for language, he reported, and I quote: “the market in Gilsenans is very good.” Tim and Lila had of course worked hard for years to convince the administration not to give up on Middle East studies at NYU, but instead to bring Michael in to relaunch it, on an entirely new foundation. The provost and deans were understandably very excited at the prospect of snagging a scholar of Michael stature, and someone who held a chair at Oxford to boot.
Michael came in as chair of the department that we renamed first Middle Eastern Studies and then Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, to symbolize the break with what we used to call “the old regime.” About which the less said, the better. I will only acknowledge that in those early days, Michael and I did a lot of simultaneous eye-rolling.
Meanwhile, the market in Gilsenans turned out to be very good indeed. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows Michael that he proved a master at schmoozing with the deans and extracting resources from them, including a slew of new positions which were filled by a set of wonderful younger scholars. I think it’s worth noting that, unlike some other NYU departments which were then also undergoing renovation and which chose to rebuild by hiring senior scholars, so-called “stars” in their fields, Michael firmly believed in hiring promising younger people and supporting them through to tenure and beyond. At the same time, recognizing that language training was central to the future of the department, he also devoted prodigious efforts to hiring outstanding language faculty and to making sure they were treated with respect and compensated fairly.
The strategic vision Michael sought to realize, the kind of intellectual community he sought to nurture, and the kind of training and support he hoped to provide for our students, have, I think, proven their worth over the years. NYU would soon come to be recognized as a place where cutting-edge research was produced, fostered, and shared, and where faculty and students felt they were partners in a common enterprise.
In that regard, let me say that I returned yesterday from the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association, where I saw a number of our former doctoral students. When they heard about this event they expressed regret about not being able to come, but they also shared with me their fond memories of their time at NYU, and particularly the supportive environment that Michael encouraged. Several of them noted in particular the dissertation workshop that Michael ran in his apartment for years, plying the students with fine wine and a fruit tart from his favorite French bakery of the moment. I will not denigrate other institutions, but I think we all know that the culture of supporting students and treating them as partners in a common enterprise does not prevail everywhere.
And since I mentioned wine: I cannot resist recalling the panic that would usually ensue among those responsible for the budget when it was Michael choosing the wine.
To this day the impact of Michael’s labors – rebuilding MEIS during his nine years as chair, leading the Kevorkian Center in new directions during several terms as director, and contributing to our intellectual and social life in a myriad of other ways – can be seen in our strong language programs, in the quality of our undergraduate major and minor, in the training and support our graduate students receive, and in our outstanding placement record.
In short, without Michael’s leadership, it is hard – indeed, impossible – to imagine NYU’s emergence from the mid-1990s onward as a leading center for innovative research and teaching on the Middle East and the Islamic world, both broadly defined. Along the way, his expansive support, encouragement, advice, and friendship have meant a great deal to so many of us, myself among them.
When we began to emerge from our Covid-induced stupor and isolation, it suddenly dawned on us, with something of a shock, that Michael was elsewhere; and his outsized presence, his gift for words, his sense of humor, and his flair for dramatic story-telling have been much missed. We are reminded here today that he is not, after all, so far away, that he is still at it in his own inimitable way, still sharing his take on the world with the panache and drama that sustained and energized us for so many years. It is a thrill to have him among us again, and to have this opportunity to honor him and thank him.
My brief bio: Morocco then Yemen, colonized and not, heavily studied and not, Arabic speaking, old cities and beautiful mountains in both.
Actually, my bio should start earlier, in the 1960s, when I was an undergrad at Penn and took a job at Jerrehian Brothers Oriental Rug Store, and encountered Caucasian carpets, about which I wrote a paper for a course in Russian History.
The summer after Penn and before Princeton, that is, in the summer of 1969, I traveled with a distinguished Orientalist mentor from Penn, Schuyler Cammann, to visit rug collections in European museums, starting with the Ardebil carpet at the V&A. After Europe, we traveled by local buses across Anatolia and then around Iran, paying close attention to various types of art, from architecture to weavings. In 1969, ‘the going was good.’ I emptied my suitcase to make room for textiles, the start of my current collection.
In the fall, I started at Princeton, and I met Zach (Tim was later), but the Vietnam War was on and I went into the Peace Corps to avoid the draft, so that was how I got to Morocco. The idea of Yemen started with an article I saw in the National Geographic.
I think I first met Michael in the 1990s, when I had an offer from NYU. Later, when I was at Columbia, I regularly attended his memorable scholarly gatherings on Islamic topics in the Ettinghausen Library, which were followed, of course, by amazing meals. In one of these gatherings, I spoke and presented photos of ideas and materials that later became Shari`a Scripts. These gatherings were a model for the Shari`a Workshops I started at Columbia in 2015.
Like Michael, who was in two departments at NYU, I eventually joined a second department at Columbia. Our university responsibilities were compounded and often burdensome. As academics, we are both anthropologists and specialists on Muslim societies. In our taped discussion, we recognized this shared identity and went into some of its possibilities, such as “historical anthropology.” We talked about Michael’s famous mentor, E.P. (Evans-Pritchard), one of the initiators of this genre in his Sanusi of Cyrenaica (1949), and related articles. [E.P., of course, was more famous for his prior ethnographies of the Nuer, in the Sudan]. I asked Michael about his student-teacher relationship with E.P. and he replied that E.P. would simply say, “let’s go to the pub.” In the taped interview we also talked about how his work on “narratives” in the Lebanese “Marches” was a type of historical inquiry.
My favorite Gilsenan work is his Recognizing Islam, which we did not get into enough in the interview. This book offers an integrated biography of its author, who is referred to in the third person, or as the “anthropologist,” especially in “An Anthropologist’s Introduction” and in the “Afterword: A Way of Walking.”
As for his research on the Hadramis in Singapore, which we talked about in the taped interview, I also was fortunate, earlier on, to be one of the scholars invited to Michael’s living room to comment on his early drafts.
It is such a gift and honor to be invited to fete Michael with you all. I have known Michael for many years now, and in several capacities: As a student, as a friend, colleague, and of course, as a fellow anthropologist of law, religion, gender, and Lebanon.
As a student, I first encountered Michael through his work, when I was in the MA program in Arab studies at Georgetown. The late, great Michael Hudson was my mentor and MA advisor. He taught a class on Lebanese politics, society, and history and he had what I came to think about as the “three Michaels” on his syllabus: Michael Hudson, Michael Johnson, and Michael Gilsenan.
Later, during my first semester at graduate school at the Department of Anthropology at Columbia, I was invited to a dinner party hosted by Sherene Seikaly, who was then finishing up her Ph.D. in History at NYU. And that is where I first met Michael in person. I remember starting the evening being very conscious that I, a first-year graduate student, was at dinner with Michael, a senior academic, and perhaps one of the best-dressed persons I had ever met in the academy. Towards the end of the evening, we were all full of food, laughing and trading tales, and all awkwardness melted away as I listened to him perform one of his great gifts: story-telling.
Still later, I became his colleague when I was in my last year of graduate school, and I was a Faculty Fellow at the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies. He, more than maybe anyone else at that point, showed me how to be a colleague, which is something we aren’t really taught in graduate school. We celebrated together the weekend I finally deposited my dissertation. When I think about my graduate career today, I realize that it had been bracketed by dinners, celebrations, laughter, and stories with Michael.
I am pressed for time, but I would love to talk more about how being a colleague is something you learn, about how Michael’s “Approaches to Islamic Law and Society” workshop affected my thinking and my book, the unmitigated support, dinners and operas we shared, and some very funny moments we had together [like when another colleague and I both came to a meeting in his office wearing our gym clothes-the horror!]. But I want to discuss Michael’s body of work, and a part of it that gets less attention, but one that we spoke at length about in our podcast episode, The Lords of the Lebanese Marches, Violence and Narrative in an Arab Society, published in 1996.
I recently re-read the book, more than twenty years after I first encountered it as an MA student, and in that rereading was struck by much of what I had not noticed before. The best ethnographies, of course, are those that tell a new story with every reading. In this year’s reading, I understood how much the book had to say about gender, long before “masculinity studies” became a subfield within Middle East Studies. Michael’s “Lords” and Lila’s “Veiled Sentiments”, for example, can be brought together around the themes of masculinity, gender, and performance. Someone should (please) write that article.
I was also struck by how beautifully written The Lords of the Lebanese Marches is. It is a model of how to write historical anthropology and a reminder that ethnography is always an archive of the present. Almost thirty years after its publication, and a few years into an effervescence in the anthropology of Lebanon, The Lords of the Lebanese Marches remains one of the few texts on Lebanon that are not centered in Beirut. Instead, it unfolds in an area of Lebanon that Michael frames as a geographic, developmental, and epistemological periphery; Akkar. And yet, in Michael’s work that periphery is central to understanding the social, economic, and political world of modern Lebanon.
Finally, and this is so rare, the word “sect” is nowhere in the text of the book. Trust me, I did a search, and “sect” appears only once, in a footnote to chapter one. I want to take some time to unpack this.
Michael did the fieldwork research for this book in 1971-1972, three years before the official “start” of the Lebanese Civil War. Michael, of course, kept going to Lebanon during that war, and one of the stories he shared with me was how he embodied at some conference an academic green line between west and east Beirut and of Lebanon, because Lebanese academics could not cross those lines, but an Englishman, and particularly one like Michael, could.
The book was published in 1996, six years after the official “end” of that war. I am using scare quotes because we all know that determining the “beginnings” and “ends” of wars are political decisions, that every beginning is also an arrival point, and every end is just really one more beginning. During our interview, I asked Michael about the time of this book and his decisions around publishing, particularly as many of the men he met and brought to life for us on the page were by then maimed or dead, killed during the war. Their deaths are not accounted for in any official history of Lebanon, precisely because they were, and are “unimportant,” periphery to and in Lebanon, in life and in death. And yet, here they are in Michael’s writing, alive, at the heart of a story.
When I learned several years later that Abd al Aziz had been killed in the Lebanese war, those moments in the palace and on the path came painfully to my mind. His laugh at the image of gathering the roses of life, and his screams as the flag was wrapped round him by his merciless, joking companions, are the sounds of all that time. (310)
Today, almost thirty years after it was published and fifty years after it was researched, “The Lords of the Lebanese Marches” serves as an alternative history of the present, a reading of violence unburdened by that master sign: sectarianism. A model of what we might see when we displace that master sign and instead focus on the violence of development, peripheralization, social reproduction, political representation, and the making and unmaking of masculinity. And one of the very, very, few books on this particular era—statism—that does not assume or subsume this history into the semantic contagion of neither war nor sectarianism. Given the book’s publication after the war, I must think this was a choice. I am inspired by that choice as both a scholar of Lebanon and as a person from Lebanon, who lived through that war, who is connected to people who both killed and were killed in that war, as someone who feels its weight, and its sectarian weight, pressing into the present, future and past of the world. In Michaels’ book, none of this was inevitable, and there are passages that act like wormholes into alternative readings and accounts of what may yet still come. Some paragraphs seem uncomfortably relevant to our present condition.
Little by little, warn the writers, the conditions of a ‘popular reaction’ are coming into being, mitigated to a certain extent by community membership, but the reaction itself may become the reason for conflict … Its writers favor a bi-polar schema of ‘rich and poor’ and refer ominously to a growing gap between them. A transformation must be effected, or there will be untold consequences.
I was just at MESA, as many of us are, and I met with a graduate student writing a dissertation on Lebanon. I shared The Lords of the Lebanese Marches with him and had a conversation about it, as a way of channeling some of Michael’s greatest lessons:
Remember that there is always more, and more, and always more, to every story—because,
He could not determine their meaning. The great bey might seek to impose himself upon the world, but he could not guarantee that others would participate in his fantasy and way of imagining power and time. (36)
Be suspicious of master narratives, do not allow history to colonize all our presents and our pasts, remember the killed, the dead, when nobody else will, and remember them, introduce them to others, hold space for them in time, as they lived.
Remember them laughing.
Thank you, Michael.
To celebrate the work of Michael Gilsenan, we must pay attention to his voice. It is a voice that many of us know through the way he weaves together text-reading and poetic insight in his seminars, through his telling of personal stories fashioned in the recall of sharp detail, through his word-perfect rendering of a scene from Chekov or a passage from a Britten opera, or through the unique timbre, expression, and expansion of his writings.
Let me talk about the voice in his writing. There are three features of how he writes that make each of his books so unique. Since others this evening will have more to say on his later books, I will illustrate these aspects mostly through a few passages from his first book, Saint and Sufi in Modern Egypt, which was based on fieldwork carried out in the mid-1960s and published in 1973.
First, Michael has a distinctive method of establishing the relation between the subject of study and its context. His writings take a topic—Sufism in Egypt; feudal lordship in North Lebanon; the diversity of practice that constitutes the experience of Islam; law, inheritance, and kinship among the old Yemeni families of colonial southeast Asia—explored through both ethnographic encounters and the careful reading of a rich array of documents and images, whether the rule book of a Sufi order, Hadhrami wills and property deeds, or the poignant photographs and written images that enrich the pages of Lords of the Lebanese Marches.
Each of his books deploys these ethnographic, textual, and visual materials to open up a view into a broad moment of historical transformation or crisis. Saint and Sufi, for example, is not just a study of a Sufi order and its forms of sociality, authority, performance, and ethical life. Through these, it is a reading of collective life itself in Egypt, in a moment of transition and crisis, in the mid-1960s, as the ruling order under President Nasser became increasingly militarized and repressive. It explores how older colonial-modern forms of life, constituted partly through popular organizations such as Sufi brotherhoods, were eclipsed by the rising influence of the new ruling party, the Arab Socialist Union, as it engaged in a struggle with rival social forces and centers of political power.
Each of Michael’s books exhibits the same ability to examine complex social and political struggles through closely observed encounters and moments of conflict. His study of lordship in North Lebanon, in which he explores the faltering power of the rural lords over their subordinates, unfolds against civil war and the breakdown of the country’s fragmented political order. His essays on the Hadhrami families of Southeast Asia document the growing challenges to a British colonial order, in which the commercial and social lives of Arab families illustrate the possibilities for financial and family success as they navigate and exploit the rise and fall of an imperial order.
Distinctively in Michael’s writing, this broader picture is never presented as a “historical context,” as a mere backdrop against which the ethnographic material is foregrounded. Even the background is ethnographically created, with a richness of detail and awareness of moments of absurdity, pathos, or subjection. The background is as present as the foreground, and the two dimensions—history and ethnography, social scenery and immediate action—are interwoven on a single plane.
In Saint and Sufi, the foreground is the single Sufi brotherhood, the Hamidiya Shadhiliya, a group that had survived the social changes of the Nasser period and even continued to expand its membership and influence, as other brotherhoods were in decline. The book explores the life of its founder, his sainthood, and the reports of miraculous happenings and powers. Drawing on the practices of other brotherhoods as well, it analyzes the ritual of the dhikr, the organization and structure of the orders, and the significance of the Mulid or saint’s day.
A description of the feast of Sayyid Ahmad al-Badawi, in the town of Tanta, focuses on the fate of another brotherhood, the group associated with the local saint, the Ahmadiya. The peripheral role of this organization exemplifies the decline and ineffectiveness of most brotherhoods, in the face of new kinds of government power and new forms of public mobilization. In the account of the Mulid, we see this method of writing at work.
After several days of feast and celebration, the final procession, Michael writes,
is more notable for the fixed bayonets of the parading government troops than for the attention paid to the khalifa as he rides in the rear with a small group of followers. In the year that I visited Tanta, the somewhat pathetic group of Ahmadiya, quite upstaged by the military band, had to endure the further indignity of a barrage of stage whispers as to their respected Sheikh’s condition. He seemed somewhat dissociated from the occasion, having to be supported on his horse, and some members of the highly entertained crowd unworthily suggested that wine other than that of Paradise had passed his aged lips. His young retinue were quite unable to deal with this irreverence and were put sadly out of countenance. (49)
The details of the bayonets, the band, the whispers, and the faces capture a complex social history that is not merely the context for the event, but the collective world in which events are shaped and take their meaning.
A second feature of Michael’s writing is the distinctive way he conveys the uncertain position of the author. At the Tanta Mulid in Saint and Sufi, discomfiture and confusion are felt not only on the fallen countenances of the dwindling band of followers but in the body of the 25-year-old anthropologist.
While the role of the Sufi order had diminished, the popular veneration of the saint had not. For the hundreds of thousands celebrating the feast, the high point of the occasion was the visit to the tiny room that contains the saint’s tomb, to circumambulate, press against the railings, and receive some blessing. People do this, he writes,
vocally and with feeling. There is almost as much noise as at the fireworks [on a previous evening], and anyone who has absorbed Victorian notions of reverent behavior as being synonymous with whispers and quiet decorum soon has his assumptions disrespectfully shattered. … Attendants roar and push the struggling mass around the shrine, using bamboo canes on those who cling too long to holiness. Those who leave must do so through those clamouring to enter. Huddled in a corner, chewing on a sweetmeat dangerously thrown over ecstatic faces by a mosque servant, the anthropologist has time to reflect on the wreckage of his own fixed ideas about proper expressions of piety.
This offers an image of the young anthropologist in a moment of solitariness. Yet, as in most of his writing, his very presence in the scene is established through the building of a rapport, in this case with the mosque servants. Formed, unsurprisingly, through the sharing of food, the rapport modulates the experience of the writer as one who, munching on his basbousa, continually feels “the wreckage of his own fixed ideas.”
The third feature I want to note is the richness with which Michael draws on his own wider experience, in particular of music and of theatrical performance. Many of us know of his long and deep connection with music and theatre, an inheritance from his father. It is lived not just through his extraordinary knowledge of actors, artists, playwrights, and composers, but his appreciation of what it means to be immersed in, to lose oneself within, a performance.
Saint and Sufi offers a meticulous description of the dhikr, the ritual practice of the remembrance of God in which the chanted repetition of the divine names, together with the rhythmic circulation and dance of bodies linked hand-in-hand, lead to a state of spiritual excellence and the total capture of the thought and inward self of the participant. To convey the experience, Michael draws on his own experience of music. Ritual, he notes, “shares with music the mysterious ineffable quality, which participants can never ‘translate’ into another medium without a sense of loss or distortion.”
Let me end by reading the passage with which Michael closes the final chapter of Saint and Sufi. Not only because that chapter is as fine a study as you will find of the embodied experience of religion; but because, translating back, as it were, from the religious ritual to Michael’s own world of theatre and music, one can read in the distinction between the mess of everyday life and the lived-in experience of the performance, something profound about Michael himself. The lines of men, he writes,
were equal, they moved in unison, the singing was perfect, all these elements are part of an order in things that is ‘lived-in’, in pure duration and as a whole, in contrast to the non-coherent, partially ordered world of everyday life. When the most essential of the names [of God] is chanted, Hu (he), indistinguishable from that other source and symbol of power and life which delivers it, the breath, [one] can experience, for a rare moment, the unity of the beyond and the within.
Michael Gilsenan’s Remarks
I am most grateful to Mohamad Bazzi, Bruce Grant, and Arang Keshavarzian for making this whole event possible. Fidele Harfouch and Kieran Leitrich have dealt with all the practical elements of organization with their usual remarkable efficiency and I greatly appreciate their contributions.
I would like to focus for the most part on beginnings, on early unforeseen changes of direction, failures, what I see as the ground, the formative elements of what was to become my academic life. Readers will treat these brief autobiographical notes with all the suspicion that such notes always require.
Born in 1940, I had what in American terms was an upbringing under a socialist government, that of the British Labour Party from 1945-51. I grew up under the then new Welfare State provisions, particularly the National Health Service and free state education to which I and so many others owe an enormous debt. To spend the latter half my academic life working in a private university still carries a feeling of moral unease, of a kind of disloyalty, even as I have benefitted personally in material and research terms.
Just how deep the differences are in terms of history, ideology and experience has explicitly emerged occasionally, such as the moment in 1999 when an older American interlocutor, an Oxford graduate, at a fund-raising meeting in New York for Magdalen College Oxford students said with some asperity: ‘So you were freeloading’, more a denunciation than a question. He followed up with the baffled and perfectly logical question given his assumptions: ‘So why did you work?’ His hostility was marked. That brief encounter gave a glimpse just how fundamental the differences are.
There were relatively few university places in Britain in that period. Though new universities were being founded in the later 1950s, going to college was still an experience for a small elite. I do not think that any of my peers had parents with college education. All my friends at state grammar school in the ‘Sixth Form’ without exception aimed at university places, in itself a real generational shift. Our headmaster regarded Oxbridge as the only real achievement and that was the direction in which those he thought were ‘the brightest’ were sent. None of that troubled me. For family reasons, as well as an unquestioned sense of simply not being of the intellectual level for whatever university was, I applied without regret for work on the basis of the Advanced level exams I was taking. Those were considered excellent qualifications for jobs.
I was asked to interview with Shell Oil, which was then regarded as a buccaneering, exciting possibility that would involve, in my teenage mind, travelling the world, an ambition that goes back to the ages for five or six I think. And it was very well paid. An exciting job. None of the other companies such a British American Tobacco or Bowater Paper were interested. Thank God, because I would certainly have accepted any offer that came.
Ironically enough, that I went to university at all is due to the Shell executive who plied me with tea and biscuits for about an hour and a half in the offices on Finsbury Square, London in 1958. He surprised me by saying that going to university first and then joining them would be more rewarding. They would keep my file and I would get a better position. When I nervously said that the company might want something like geology or science degrees, he replied that I could do any subject I wished, philosophy, physics, even Japanese painting. They just wanted me to have an intellectually disciplined mind. The business experience would come later. This was the Shell ethos of the time and it may still be.
I applied to Oxbridge, five colleges in Oxford, five in Cambridge, on the instructions of the headmaster. Eight out of ten colleges did not offer me an interview. In Cambridge, Queen’s College turned me down. In Oxford, Pembroke accepted me for examination and interview.
Two critical failures turned out to have great significance for my life. I inexplicably did not even pass the A level in English, my best subject, and had to do a third year in the Sixth Form. The second was the comprehensive meltdown I suffered in writing my Oxford Pembroke College exams. But the interview there was to have major unanticipated consequences. As I sat at the long table facing all the college tutors in their full academic dress, black suit, white bow tie, gowns, the English don demolished me with humiliating sarcasm (for which, I should record, he apologized four years later.) Misery. Resentment. A sense that he was right.
The Senior Tutor asked the final question I had been told by other candidates always ended the meeting: what was the last play you saw? Fuelled by intense anger, convinced I would never be admitted and determined at least to blow up my own ship, I launched an uninhibited attack on a play by a great literary god of the age, T. S. Eliot and on his whole dramatic output. Everything came sharply into focus with the clarity that anger sometimes brings. Convinced that I had triumphantly achieved my own destruction, I probably glared defiantly at the Senior Tutor. His smiling response completely floored me: “At last I seem to have found someone who agrees with me.”
The college must have thought the fellows saw something in this boy and decided to take a chance. I was told me to defer my entry for a year (try to grow up a bit was the basic message.) At the time, delayed entry was unusual. But that delay, which I felt left me behind all my friends, led to the perhaps major transformation – I do not think the word is inappropriate – in my life.
I applied to Voluntary Service Overseas, then in its 2nd year. This was a late colonial initiative – the word ‘service’ is freighted with imperial resonance. Around thirty young men (I don’t think there were any women at that period) were to go to different colonies that were all soon to be independent, mostly to teach on a pound or so a week plus board and lodging. The Foreign and Colonial was involved, I think the Church of England had a representative on the board and it was later clear that the intelligence services were scouting for likely lads when they returned. All very British, very amateur and ‘a good thing’ even as the Empire was rapidly collapsing. The Americans, characteristically, professionalized and expanded the idea into the Peace Corps.
Out of the blue, since I had had no communication from the VSO office (and only much later realized that I was going as a substitute for someone who had dropped out), I received a telegram saying ‘you are going to Aden’, a place I had to look up on a map and about which I read with deep gloom in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. A Crown Colony with the East and West Aden Protectorates. Brutally humid. A port city set in and around an extinct volcano.
The substitution led to the most consequential year of my life. It gave me the lived experience of being a tiny speck in the colonial system at the high point of independence movements, the emergence of the Third World, Arab nationalist movements, the loss of British imperial power. ‘The empire’ was suddenly no longer a somewhat abstract notion formed through media such as the BBC or school text books together with the critical voices that had become yet louder after the Suez crisis of 1956 which had so humiliated the once dominant power. The Empire was daily life. The conversations of the students about whether armed uprising would be necessary or about Nasser and Arab nationalism were a constant but it was the ordinary colonial experiences of race, hierarchy and the plethora of assumptions about power and authority in practice that fundamentally scrambled my own sense of my precarious place in the world.
For reasons obvious and much less so that it took me some years to comprehend more fully, that year was to have enormous implications. Amongst much else, it made me feel, deeply if incoherently, that I, my generation, had been lied to about all of our historical formation. The day to day experience of late colonialism in practice, of the operations of power in so many tiny as well as large ways, of the arbitrariness of rule was for this adolescent a precious experience. It was a kind of conversion, except that the question ‘conversion to what?’ could only be answered over a long period of time.
You can see its lasting though changed significance in the fact that from the end of 1999 I have spent a lot of time in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia working on histories and lives of people of Arab origin specifically from the Hadhramaut, perhaps now in their fourth, fifth or sixth generation, directly links back to the nineteen year old’s raw, unformed but intense responses to that year of 1959-60. Because it was in Hadhramaut rather than in Aden Colony that I was brought into some first awareness of an area that seemed ‘exotic’ and ‘unchanging’ but which was in reality linked historically in multiple ways to societies around the Indian Ocean and into the Malay Archipelago.
Being shaken to the core by that year of my life – and why did it have such powerful effects? A question I did not ask for far too long – impelled me to change from English to Oriental Studies at Oxford. I had no clear aim at all except that in some way I would involve myself in the study of the modern Middle East. In my ignorance I had not looked at the syllabi nor considered what Oriental Studies might be as a discipline. But it turned out that my degree studies, mostly philological with very little history never mind literary criticism, focused on texts chosen from the classical tradition dating to no later than the tenth century CE, with the exception of sections of Ibn Khaldun. I was allowed to do one new option, an exam paper in Modern Arabic Literature but the high price for this privilege was to do two further final exam papers in extraordinarily difficult classical authors.
Sustained in part by the advice of one tutor who tersely said ‘don’t let the buggers get you down’, I somehow got through the philology and endless memorization driven by a kind of determined, if exhausting anger. I felt that I had been intellectually completely frustrated.
What possible future could there be when I graduated? Shell Oil was no longer even thought of, to my family’s dismay. But no new option had appeared. There were two rays of intellectual light, both generated by Albert Hourani. The first was the seminars in modern history where we even had a series of sessions of Arab nationalism. At last! Serious discussions of the modern world. To my parched and famished mind, these sessions opened up multiple possibilities, however little grasp I had of the topics. The second illumination came through participating in a discussion group of scholars in history, language and philosophy who met weekly at All Souls College one term for discussions of topics chosen by each in turn. Hourani invited two or three of us. We understood only a small part of the conversations but it remains in my mind as one of the most important series of seminars I have ever attended for the sheer play of ideas by scholars from different disciplines. I recall one session going from perhaps 5pm and lasting right through the dinner time till perhaps 8. A friend and I stood on the pavement outside, transfixed with excitement. The series remains vividly in my mind as an exemplary model of intellectual exchange.
Years later, back at Oxford as a Professor for 11 years (1984-1995), together with John Nightingale, a colleague in Medieval History, for four or five years or more I ran a long series of seminars for any advanced students who wanted to come from any faculties to talk about any given topic. (Remember that English seminars at Oxford are not courses. There was no graduate school in the American sense. People participated because they wanted to.) Many saw themselves as existing on the margins of their faculties and wanting to explore other fields. It was by far the most stimulating series with which I was associated. And it had its progeny here when at the Kevorkian Center we had 7 years of a workshop programme on Law and Society at which some 10-14 mostly younger colleagues from anthropology, history, politics, law and Near Eastern Languages and Literature would present whatever they wanted to discuss in any perspective they chose. The point was boundary crossing, opening up, finding the immense value of critical discussion that was not ‘discipline specific’, taking risks.
Let’s return to my question: after Oriental Studies, what? I was sitting in Hourani’s office. He wanted to know what I thought I wanted to do. I blurted out something to the effect that more study in classical Arabic texts would suffocate me. And just as I had never thought of going to university, it had not once occurred to me that I might be a university teacher. To my astonishment, he raised that possibility. I recall thinking at that moment of puzzlement that surely he must know that no one taught Arabic in secondary schools, which is what the word teaching meant to me.
That was the point at which Albert told me that there was this subject called Social Anthropology; that he was convinced that the future of modern social, cultural and political history lay there; that I should go and see someone called Evans-Pritchard at the Institute for Social Anthropology. He went to his bookshelf and pulled out about half a dozen books by anthropologists on ‘Mediterranean societies’.
I did not learn until after Albert’s death that it had been the noted orientalist and historian H. A. R. Gibb’s idea in 1948 to bring him to Oxford when, in alliance with Evans-Pritchard and Joseph Schact (Law) the university would have the foundations for the study of the modern Middle East. And it was years before I realized that my revered teacher, whose book Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age: 1798-1939 (1962) was then very new, felt that his own historical project had come to an impasse and that anthropology was the way forward, a conviction based on years of acquaintance with Evans-Pritchard who regarded anthropology as a branch of history and also as being in the French tradition of sociologie.
I went to see this celebrated anthropologist of whom, as of anthropology, I knew nothing. He told me to read his book The Sanusi of Cyrenaica: colonial history, violence, social structures and forms of politics, imperial histories, religious brotherhoods, the state. Suddenly, here was a book that at last seemed to bring into focus a vast range of topics. Until that moment, I had only felt an equivalent shock of illumination on reading Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. To the frustrated student of Oriental Studies, its daring and range was intoxicating. The sociology of religion, at that time a major field particularly in American scholarship, appeared to me as the great oasis in what to me was the desert of Oriental Studies. I read Weber’s works on economy and society, forms of power and much else avidly for years and they had an enormous influence that is visible in my writings. But The Sanusi of Cyrenaica was the work that made me see that it might be possible to give my unfocused thoughts on studying the Middle East into focus by exploring this new discipline. And what was the contemporary situation of these Sufi Orders that seemed once to have been so enormously significant?
That book set me off on the one-year Diploma course in Social Anthropology. Weber had his role, too, when I started and in the direction of thinking about the Sufi Orders in Egypt though no one seemed to know whether they still even existed.
At the end of the diploma year in 1964, after I had been awarded a scholarship by the Social Science Research Center of the American University in Cairo, I spoke to Evans-Pritchard of a project of studying the Orders, if, that is, they were there to study. Evans-Pritchard asked me the only question about my research that he ever posed: “Are you religiously musical? Because if you are not, then there is no point in trying to do this project.”
To a letter that I sent him from Cairo some months later when I was bewildered as to how I might ‘do anthropology’ in a city that already had around five million people, in the circumstances of mid-sixties Nasserist Egypt and when I lacked the most rudimentary ideas or concepts that might help find my way, he sent an economical reply: “I am sure that you will do whatever is best in the circumstances.” In some way I knew, just knew that I should not have sent my letter, that it was a moment of weakness, that the reply was foreordained.
It was both a blessing and a curse that there were few if any guides in existing writings, whether anthropological or more specifically in relation to writing about how to think and write about the changing formations and patterns of transmission of authority in Islamic contexts.
Severe discipline but I came to think a real discipline nonetheless. Harsh. Demanding. An exploration of whether I was attuned to the study of religion, had ‘a calling’, a very Weberian theme. It had a lasting effect in the shapes of what followed and on my search to understand what I was doing or looking for through the many periods of feeling deeply uncertain.
The Egyptian work came to focus on the one hand on the rituals of dhikr in what are called hadhrah-s or meetings of the members and on the other, very closely related question, of the meaning of sheikhly presence (the word hadrah means presence). To write about the rituals was particularly difficult because such, let me call them liturgical occasions in the context of a ‘universal religion’ with long written traditions and histories, were not classically the subjects of the very large body of writing on ritual in our discipline.
Attempts to achieve any insight into the experiential and phenomenological dimensions of presence and ritual practice as well as in ‘everyday life’ are of course profoundly challenging. The many books and articles in anthropological debates tended to concentrate on the ‘traditional’ anthropological social units of ‘tribe’, village or other groupings. V. W. Turner’s many studies of rites and symbols, to take one leading authority, were invaluable but they (fortunately) could not be replicated in or even act as guides to the hadrah-s. Muslim rituals including prayer, for example, were as yet anthropologically unexplored. This conjuncture, my being compelled to, as we say, work out my own salvation, may have been beneficial however exposed it made me feel. So, again for good or ill, I was forced to find and to make some version of ‘whatever was best in the circumstances’ for myself.
Looking back, there seems to be a pattern here that emerged across the arc of my work. It is a pattern of needing to kick away the ladder, so to speak, with each new project; to feel that I start from nothing again and must see whether I am culturally and socially musical in quite different settings and topics in Egypt, Lebanon or southeast Asia; and to then face all the questioning of how can I write? Which, again, always seems to be a quite different set of exigencies and explorations.
Evans-Pritchard’s question, its focus on asking oneself whether one is ‘musical’, the sense of being radically alone in the work, also has affinities with a passage in Walter Benjamin’s A Berlin Chronicle that I read some 15 years later in 1980 at a point of crisis when trying to write Recognizing Islam (1982). He speaks about what we might call the art of losing oneself in the city or of ‘botanizing on the asphalt’ as he puts it with a teasing nod to Goethe, ‘as one loses oneself in the forest’. The one who is lost must move with keen attentiveness, hearing the sounds, readings the signs, alert to every movement, being fully present in trying to apprehend the social pathways and complexities of the city. That losing oneself involves, for Benjamin, the recognition that powerlessness or impotence is at the heart of the struggle with the subject. The dangers are evident. The possibility of remaining ‘lost’ and unable to find one’s way at all is obvious.
For whatever reason, this passage struck me with enormous, almost physical force, like an epiphany. But I have to note that it was a delayed epiphany. It was some two weeks after reading the passage and following a night of very heavy drinking to mark my fortieth birthday that Benjamin’s words returned with vivid insistence. Perhaps the alcohol was important in overwhelming some powerful unconscious resistance to the full implications of his words? Perhaps it seemed a sudden (delayed) moment of recognition of what I had been in my own erratic ways doing, whether in Egypt or in the very different and extremely intense period in Akkar in north Lebanon, without quite realizing it.
In the long arc of my own experience these kinds of elements that I have sketched could only in reality come into realization and been sustained through active engagements with others. I was never alone in the forest, however satisfying the early nineteenth century romantic image is. The presence here of friends and colleagues, especially the speakers tonight who have brought their own very special sensitivities to their generous remarks, points to the essential collective and ongoing work of exchange, of personal and intellectual gifts constituting circuits of relations that have been and are always fundamental to whatever I do. They make the work and the writing possible. I owe to all of them, the many who are not here tonight as well as to graduate students and mentors over many years, a deep gratitude for their generosity.
 In Cult of the Saints, Brown declares after citing Saint and Sufi that he “owes a deep personal debt of gratitude for unstinting advice and unfailing inspiration”.