Alice Wilson, Afterlives of Revolution: Everyday Counterhistories in Southern Oman (Stanford University Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Alice Wilson (AW): When I initially contemplated this project, I wanted to reverse a question that had underpinned my earlier research. Previously I had asked how Western Sahara’s refugees pursued revolutionary social change and state-building. In the new project I wanted to ask: what survives of revolutionary social change after defeat, despite authoritarian repression? In Dhufar, southern Oman, anti-colonial revolutionaries in the 1960s and 1970s pursued social transformations from gender equality to the emancipation of enslaved persons, anti-tribalism, resource redistribution, and participatory democracy. (Sahrawi revolutionaries have also shared these aspirations). But Dhufar’s revolution met with colonial counterinsurgency and military defeat. Meanwhile, Oman’s authoritarian government represses the country’s revolutionary past. In such circumstances, I wanted to ask, what survives of revolution?
When I began to think about these questions in the Dhufari context, the 2010-11 uprisings in SWANA had not yet begun. Over the course of unfolding events in the region, as well as fieldwork and archival research, the book’s mission expanded. Dhufaris’ revolutionary and postrevolutionary trajectories became avenues for addressing questions that increasingly concern current and future generations in SWANA: how do subjects of authoritarianism experience and create revolutionary aftermaths, and what is the significance of a revolutionary past for later emancipatory projects?
As the project advanced, the book became a way to stand on the shoulders of the scholarly giants whose work inspired the research—and, in doing so, rethink revolution and counterinsurgency, radical social change, postwar socio-political life, and rentierism and coercion in Gulf monarchies.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AW: The book makes the case for inquiry into revolutionary experiences, timescales, and impacts to engage with revolutions that lead to a range of outcomes, including military defeat and repression under authoritarianism. Even in such contexts, revolution has long-term consequences, as Dhufar shows. Everyday and extraordinary acts of some former militants reproduce revolutionary values. Counterinsurgency and postwar coercion, authoritarian repression, and rentierism—for the profound effects of which Dhufar often serves as an example—fall short of erasing revolutionary values and legacies.
These findings have implications for debates about revolution, counterinsurgency, rentierism, and postwar socio-political life.
Echoing the effect of changing historical contexts that provoke new narrations of revolution, revolutionary afterlives prompt a new question: what qualities facilitate revolutionary social change that endures over time, despite counterinsurgency and repression? Skeptics have portrayed Dhufaris as unwilling recruits for revolutionary programs. But Dhufaris, like other revolutionaries, made choices about how to engage with social transformation, rather than following scripts. Such complexities in revolutionary movements do not, however, equate to participants’ disinterest or a movement’s failure. Rather, they reveal revolutionary social change to be a process of “un-neatness” or “messiness,” entailing active engagement that lays the groundwork for future lasting influence. The implications are that enduring legacies of revolution may arise not despite but rather because of the messiness of revolutionary social change and the engagement it implies.
Moreover, afterlives foreground how revolutionary agency, so significant during the revolution, continues to impact postwar times. Dhufar’s former revolutionaries played key roles in postwar social and spatial transformations. But government-sanctioned, Sultan-centric narratives of postwar modernization have marginalized the lasting significance of revolutionary agency.
The tenacious afterlives of revolutionary engagement and agency in Dhufar advance the de-mythologization of an allegedly “model” counterinsurgency that “won hearts and minds”. It is not just that claims of “selective” violence deny the devastation inherent in counterinsurgency coercion. Indeed, amid growing reappraisals of the British-led campaign’s violence, the book stresses that the number of civilian deaths is unknown (rather than documented as low), and that coercion affecting a subsistence economy (as was the case in Dhufar) cannot be “selective.” In addition, afterlives further problematize a “hearts and minds victory,” for such assertions cannot explain how revolutionary values survive counterinsurgency military success. By exposing shortcomings of a “model” campaign and “hearts and minds victory,” afterlives call out these narratives’ underlying role in legitimizing colonial violence.
The counterinsurgency’s eventual adoption of welfare programs—which the campaign introduced as carrots to the ongoing sticks of coercion—incorporated Dhufaris into lasting patronage networks. Dhufaris have seemingly come to epitomize coopted subjects of Gulf rentierism. Yet revolutionary afterlives, such as ongoing engagement with egalitarian-leaning values, disrupt such interpretation. What emerges instead is a further dimension of Gulf citizens’ possibilities for contravening socio-political convention: subjects of cooptation can reproduce counterhegemonic values that both contrast and coexist with hierarchical patronage relations.
By illuminating how kinship and everyday socializing reproduce revolutionary values in postwar Dhufar, afterlives of revolution suggest novel possibilities within postwar social relations. Instead of retrieving “normality”, postwar everyday life may reprise social relations that emerged during upheaval such as revolution.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
AW: Afterlives of Revolution continues my interest in charting revolutionary transformations. My first book, Sovereignty in Exile, examined revolutionary state-building and social transformation among Western Sahara’s refugees. Sahrawis have faced the challenges of exile, occupation, and insufficient international support for decolonization, in addition to the dilemmas of how to sustain revolution. Nonetheless, since the 1970s Sahrawis have pursued revolutionary projects. Even as the terms of Sahrawis’ revolutionary social contract have changed over time, their commitment to a revolutionary moral contract has proven enduring, as my earlier book explores.
At first sight, Dhufaris have treaded an opposite trajectory, wherein counterinsurgency victory and, later, the fall of socialist Yemen, deprived militants of liberated or exilic revolutionary spaces. Despite these differences, the parallels between Western Sahara and Dhufar include a striking reemergence of the past in the present. Sahrawi refugees’ state-building recycled historical forms of political, economic, and tribal social relations in the process of building revolutionary state power. In Dhufar, revolutionary values of social egalitarianism survived in the everyday and extraordinary actions, including radical feminist acts, of former revolutionaries and family members. The contrasting cases of Western Sahara and Dhufar both foreground the expansive times, spaces, and impacts of revolutionary social change.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AW: The book is an effort toward decolonizing narratives of revolution and counterinsurgency among audiences in and outside Oman, and in universities and beyond. The book seeks to engage participants, commentators, policymakers, researchers, and students of all levels who are interested in revolution, liberation fronts and related struggles, radical activism, counterinsurgency, and postwar transitions. Through the lens of afterlives, the book seeks to change these readers’ ideas about revolution and counterinsurgency by showing how revolutionary agency and social change survive, despite the counterinsurgency measures and authoritarian repression that aim to erase such possibilities.
These findings question the policy model of repression and rentierism to which Gulf monarchies turn during crises, such as Dhufar’s revolution and protests in 2011. Governments deploy repression and rentierism to unseat appetites for alternative political visions. But the afterlives of revolution show how repression and rentierism fall short of erasing the values that underpin progressive aspirations.
Dhufari experiences of revolutionary impacts that survive authoritarian repression can inform current and future inquiry into the hopes, frustrations, and experiences of change of newer generations of disappointed revolutionaries in post-2011 SWANA.
For those charting radical social change, including in contexts of repression, the book probes how kinship, everyday interactions, and unofficial commemoration reproduce revolutionary values—making possible transmission to new generations. These findings foreground the often under-recognized potential of kinship and everyday life for social transformation, rather than social reproduction.
Dhufaris and other Omanis engage, beyond government censorship, in memory work about the revolution and the censored past. There is much further research to do about Dhufaris’ diverse experiences of tumultuous change in recent decades. The book provides resources for those in and beyond Oman who are advancing this work.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AW: On the one hand, I am continuing where Afterlives of Revolution concludes. I will further examine how the values that revolutionaries promoted—such as social inclusivity, gender egalitarianism, and opposition to enslavement—inspire and reappear in postwar platforms for progressive politics. I am interested in the reemergence of inclusive social alliances in Dhufari electoral leagues and during the 2011 protests in Salalah, and how postwar electoral candidates question inter- and intra-gender, ethnic, tribal, and racialized stratification.
On the other hand, having done fieldwork in two contexts where enslavement continued into the 1970s (northwest Africa and southern Arabia), I am planning a comparative project that foregrounds experiences of enslaved and formerly enslaved persons in the abolitionist projects of late twentieth-century Arab liberation movements.
J: What challenges arose during this research, and how did you address them?
AW: Research about organized political violence and its legacies brings challenges that are not only conceptual and empirical, but also ethical and methodological. These concerns are especially fraught when an authoritarian government has expunged events from official histories and imposes censorship—as is the case in Oman regarding the Dhufar revolution.
Knowing that Omanis were expert in navigating these constraints, during fieldwork I let interlocutors set the terms of discussion. Writing has involved introducing “noise” to assist anonymization—splitting one person’s words across several pseudonyms, or flagging a fictive composite interlocutor who takes on several persons’ words—and focusing on interactions that are already public knowledge in Oman. Whilst every decision in writing this book was difficult, I share the cautious hope of Omanis who publish, beyond official censorship, about sensitive topics that such writing can help expand opportunities for advancing progressive visions.
Excerpt from the book (from Introduction, pp. 1-3)
The journey began in an ordinary way. It was a pre-monsoon hot and sticky post-siesta afternoon in 2015. I was searching for a cab to take me several kilometers from one side of Salalah to another, where I was headed to visit a Dhufari family in their home. I felt an acute self-consciousness. It was rare for an unaccompanied woman to take a cab in Salalah. Most Dhufari women, whether of urban or rural background, conformed to prevalent social expectations that when circulating in Salalah they should avoid unnecessary contact with unrelated Omani men, including cab drivers. Women from global north backgrounds typically had their own cars. Many women of global south backgrounds were low-paid domestic workers with limited opportunities, reasons, or resources to take cabs. A roadside lone female cut an awkward figure. Uncomfortably familiar with this predicament, I initially struggled to hail a cab and settle a fare.
Eventually a driver who looked in his sixties agreed to take me. I followed the family’s instructions to call them and hand the phone to the driver, so that the family could explain the directions. I got through to Musallam (a pseudonym), a male member of the household of a similar generation to the driver. Musallam began to explain the route. After a few exchanges, the driver joyfully exclaimed: “Musallam!” The two began to greet each other anew, exchanging news as if they were acquaintances who were glad to be in touch again after some time.
When the driver eventually hung up, he handed the phone back to me saying: “Musallam wants to talk to you.”
I called back, and Musallam told me: “He is one of our group. Maybe he will talk to you.” At this moment, the journey ceased to be ordinary.
I began to sweat beyond the effects of the oppressive heat. Musallam had used a term meaning “group” or “gathering” in classical Arabic (jamaʿah). I most often heard Dhufaris use it to refer to their extended family or tribe. But I immediately understood that Musallam had employed the term in another sense.
Musallam and others in his close family had formerly been members of Dhufar’s liberation movement (henceforth, “the Front”). Launching its revolution in 1965, the Front fought an anti-colonial insurgency for ten years against the British-backed, Muscat-based al-Busaid dynasty of sultans. From 1968 on, and in an increasingly internationalized conflict, the movement pursued Marxist-inspired, anti-tribalist, and egalitarian-leaning programs of social change. These continued until 1992 through the Front’s mobilization and eventual exile in southern Yemen. Members gradually left the movement between the 1970s and the 1990s, taking up lives in Oman as citizens loyal to Sultan Qaboos bin Said (ruled 1970–2020). But for some of these former revolutionaries, the Front’s values of egalitarianism, social inclusivity, and anti-tribalism remained influential.
The “group” to which Musallam referred, then, was not an extended family or tribe, but former members of the Front. The government of authoritarian absolutist Qaboos had nevertheless imposed an official silence regarding the Front and its armed and, later, political opposition. Only in private, informal circles could Dhufaris make reference to the Front without fear of consequences such as increased government surveillance or punishment. Musallam’s suggestion that “maybe” the driver would talk to me was therefore significant. Many Dhufaris were understandably reluctant to speak to a British and British-based researcher about the Front. But Musallam was telling me that the driver might be willing to help me learn more about the movement and its afterlives.
Hence, I sweated in the cab. How could I—or should I—broach the sensitive topic of the Front with the driver, even if Musallam’s overture suggested that he judged that it was safe to do so? After speaking with Musallam, I resumed small talk with the driver. I eventually ventured that I was a researcher studying social change in Dhufar in the 1970s and after. These were terms broad enough to include euphemistic reference to the revolution and its programs that a Dhufari could easily recognize. In adopting purposefully open-ended language I sought to give interlocutors the choice about whether or not to direct conversation toward the Front. The driver proceeded to tell me, equally euphemistically, that Musallam had a “background” (khalfiyyah), as did members of Musallam’s family, male and female, whom the driver named to me. But the driver went no further, and following his cue I did not pursue the topic.
When we arrived at the house, I telephoned to say that I was outside. The driver heard me greeting Khiyar, a female senior member of the family also of a similar generation to Musallam and the driver. He asked for the phone. He and Khiyar then exchanged warm greetings, again as if between longstanding acquaintances who were glad to speak after some time. Just as gendered norms frowned upon most Dhufari women taking cabs in Salalah, similarly they generally discouraged unrelated Dhufari males and females from seeking social contact. Although such expectations applied less stringently to postmenopausal women of Khiyar’s generation, the effusive greetings between her and the driver still struck me as unusual. Had they been relatives, they would likely have had opportunities to hear each other’s news through kinship networks. This seemed not to be the case. Rather, they greeted one another as if reconnecting in the light of a shared past: the “background” in the Front at which Musallam and the driver had hinted.
In the end, the driver’s reluctance to speak to me explicitly about the revolution had not foreclosed revelation. On the contrary, his recognition of Musallam’s voice, and his subsequent conversation with Khiyar, proved suggestive. Did the enthusiastic greetings between this man and woman echo the well-known gendered egalitarianism of Dhufar’s revolution? The interactions between Musallam, Khiyar, and the driver evoked possibilities that some former revolutionaries acknowledged social networks that linked them to one another and reproduced values of social—including gendered—egalitarianism and inclusivity. The cab journey had reached an extraordinary climax. It showed me firsthand how former militants reproduced lasting legacies of revolution.
Excerpted from Afterlives of Revolution: Everyday Counterhistories in Southern Oman by Alice Wilson, published by Stanford University Press, ©2023 by Alice Wilson. All Rights Reserved.