Amal Sachedina, Cultivating the Past, Living the Modern: The Politics of Time in the Sultanate of Oman (Cornell University Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Amal Sachedina (AS): This book was a product of both personal and intellectual cogitation and experience. Growing up in Kuwait, I was sharply aware of the inundation of heritage icons and imagery as the basis for substantiating the modern nation state in a region where there had been none prior to the mid-twentieth century. Scholarship has seized on this observation to examine how socio-political elites have waded through entangled pasts and disparate relationships, with the help of Western professionals, to carve out and entrench a singular sanctioned national history. From this scholarly vantage, the influx of oil revenues in the 1960s and ‘70s is seen as having led ruling families in Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Oman to create a network of institutional media—museums, textbooks, heritage festivals, and sports such as falconry—to forge a national imagination and displace sectarian and tribal affiliations. Heritage production was deemed as delineating an exclusive citizenship grounded in an indigenous sense of belonging to the Arabian Peninsula and patrilineal tribal relationships, to differentiate locals from the overwhelming number of foreign migrant residents. But moving beyond the auspices of statecraft, the question always remained as to how institutional heritage was informing local citizens’ notions of history and time in the midst of a transformative social and political landscape.

Growing up in a society whose great oil wealth had generated its modern prosperity, I was also aware that foreign resident and migrant workers greatly outnumbered Kuwaiti citizens and that a ubiquitous but unspoken hierarchy was deeply imbricated in the everyday rhythms of private and working life. This hierarchy was undergirded by socio-political status—linked to occupation, on the one hand, and ethno-nationalism on the other. South Asians, by way of example, were made aware of their low place in that hierarchy through daily routines and interactions established on the autochthonous notion of “Arabness” and the Arabian Peninsula as central elements of Kuwaiti nationality.

My experience of Oman was different; there was greater fluidity in the ethno-racial makeup of neighborhoods in Muscat and Nizwa, and occupations did not tightly correlate to ethno-racial backgrounds. One was just as likely to see Omanis in lower-income jobs—shopkeepers, supermarket cashiers, or security guards—as Indians or Pakistanis. Moreover, unlike the UAE, Oman offered a public and proud exposition of a rich maritime history and coastal empires as part of the Indian Ocean trade network right into the nineteenth century. Communities of traders, soldiers, and sailors from Gujarat, Sind, Baluchistan, Iran, and the Kutch region had settled along the coast, retaining connections and relationships with their homelands while participating in the creation of diasporic societies, ports, and even new peoples along the Omani coastline and major trading centers. While the Omani population remained slightly higher than foreign residents and although Arabic was the official language, it was not uncommon to hear Omanis speaking Urdu, Baluchi, and Swahili. One of the central questions that arose for me from these nascent experiences was: how did non-Arab communities negotiate their sense of belonging to the history and heritage of the Sultanate of Oman in the midst of the state’s emphasis on Ibadi Islam and Arabness? The answer lay in the realization that the very act of incorporating different ethnic groups—both Arab and non-Arab—into the history of a national people is an exercise of selectivity inasmuch as, in the Oman context, it is grounded in such categories as the “Arab tribe” and a “generic Islam.” History-making involves gaps, disjuncture, and diversity at the core of what passes as a unifying history and religiosity of a sovereign nation. This understanding forges the central tenet of my work.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AS: Since the inception of the Sultanate of Oman as a nation state in 1970, material forms—ranging from old mosques and shari’a manuscripts to restored forts (now museumified), national symbols such as the coffee pot or the dagger (khanjar), and archaeological sites—have saturated the landscape, becoming increasingly ubiquitous as part of a standardized public and visual memorialization of the past. But how and why has heritage emerged as a prevalent force in nation building in Oman, and how is it experienced? My book addresses this question by bringing together histories of nation building with scholarship on the politics of time and history making. I show how institutional heritage not only becomes integral to a policy of national integration by smoothing the region’s political cleavages, but it also transforms discursive histories into pedagogical, ethical, and aesthetic practices that in turn reshape socio-political realities on the ground.

While scholarship has examined the impact of modernity on contemporary Muslim societies in the realms of education, law, and the media, this project is a study of how forms of history and the institutionalization of material heritage (turāth) recalibrate the Ibadi Islamic tradition to the requirements of the modern political and moral order in the Sultanate of Oman. I demonstrate that even as the modern Omani state diagrams an orientation towards the past, in forging this national imaginary, it also effectively transforms the modality of the relationship between politics and religion, enabling new and different ways to perceive and organize historical experience.

Based primarily on over twenty months of ethnographic fieldwork in Muscat, the capital, and Nizwa, once the administrative and juridical center of the Ibadi Imamate, Cultivating the Past analyzes the relations with the past that undergird the shift in Oman from an Ibadi shari’a Imamate (1913-1958) to a modern nation state from 1970 onwards. The book explores the material, ethical, and social significance of key objects and sites and the dynamic changes in the work they do over the course of the twentieth century. These become sites for tracking transformations in forms of history, religious, and political authority, and modes of sociability. This ethnographic investigation documents the implications of shifting history away from a form of cognition and toward institutionalized material practices that become points of tension and ambiguity that condition daily life. In Oman, establishing the nation has involved an operation in which material remains, sites, buildings, and daily objects become part of a process of “purification” that effects separations between material forms and the concrete ties that have bound them to the world. This process of “liberation” opens up a space for the material of old objects and sites pre-dating the nation to be reconfigured, occasioning the transformation of the very boundaries between politics and religion, thus remapping the terrain of the Ibadi Imamate.

Many recent works have studied material heritage in the Gulf states as part of national projects of citizenship and collective belonging. These studies often argue that, in the Arab-Persian Gulf, certain cultural practices and symbols of recent origin are mobilized to provide a sense of belonging for those subjected to the ravages of a Western-oriented modernization. Examples include the built form of the National Museum of Qatar in the shape of the desert rose, historic restoration projects such as Dubai’s al-Bastakia quarter, or the phenomena of newly invented televised traditions of camel racing in the UAE or pearl diving in Kuwait. What tends to get lost in such scholarly accounts is how the pedagogical circulation of material objects, sites, and architectures engenders forms of public history that substantiate new realities. The book challenges such accounts by showing how the systemic public visibility of these material forms has the potential not only to overcome violent differences, but also to delineate new modes of sociality and the ethical sensibilities of the national audience in ways that become integral to the norms of modern daily living.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AS: This book continues my previous scholarship in Islamic art history and archaeology on how material objects and architectures produce a unique register for the exploration of time through their embedded roles in connecting past, present, and future as an integral basis for establishing the norms of daily life.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

AS: Cultivating the Past is the first ethnographic study on the social implications of heritage practices in the Arab-Persian Gulf region. Interdisciplinary in scope, it engages in debates about shifts in authoritative time and social subjectivity in the field of Middle East anthropology, while also contributing to the literature specific to material heritage and museum studies. The book moves well beyond appealing to readers interested in the politics of heritage and nation building in the Arab-Gulf region. The scope of its topics would be of interest to students, scholars, and activists in the disciplines of anthropology, history, development studies, heritage and museum studies, secularism and religiosity, and modern nation state building, as well as the broader Middle East.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AS: My work on material heritage in the Arabian Peninsula continues with my latest project in Saudi Arabia. My current research project, entitled Conservation as Transformation: History and Memory in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, explores how quotidian encounters with national heritage practices have transformed local people’s sense of time and the significance of their past in the old city of Jeddah, now a World Heritage site, as part of daily lived experience. It is an ethnographically grounded account of how the transformation of Jeddah into World Heritage status has opened up new experiences for different local actors and their relationships with tangible urban history, nation building, and imaginings of the future.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 4, The Ethics of History Making, pp. 110- 114)

In the depths of the new fruit-and-vegetable souq in Nizwa’s city center is a series of underground storage areas I visited frequently during my fieldwork. The facilities were usually shut, their metal gates fastened. It was a glad sight when the one closest to the basement steps was open, because it meant Said was in his workshop. Among the clutter of tools, old metal cooking vessels, ceramic dishes, and plastic receptacles of all sorts, I knew I would find him sitting near the entrance, hammering a piece of copper into shape. There was always a bowl of water filled with small coffee cups, a plastic thermos, and a covered dish of fresh dates — the necessary accoutrements for receiving visitors. We talked about the transformations he had witnessed and been a part of since the advent of the nahda in 1970. Said was ninety-two, he proudly informed me, and his work was part of a family tradition that went back two and a half centuries. He was one of the last craftsmen of the region who made the dalla in the old way. When I asked him what changes the dalla had undergone since the nahda, he gestured toward cans of silver and gold spray paint:

My grandfather, my father and then after me, for ninety years we have been making the dalla with no changes. … These types of colors, gold, silver, red, never sold before the nahda. These are new demands. But now ordinary people want it for decoration and not for cooking or anything. In the old days, they would use a big dalla for cooking the coffee and leave it there. When guests or people entered the majlis or sabla, they would transfer the coffee to a small dalla and bring cups to pour the coffee … The dalla that I now make for decoration can never be used for cooking.

I asked him to clarify, and he explained that during the Imamate, the ‘ulamā’ considered silver to be makruh (disliked or offensive). The imams were known to be abstemious (zāhid) in their dress and lifestyle. Silver was not used for the dalla because of Islam. Said told me, “The dalla that I now make for decoration can never be used for cooking. If you want to use a dalla for cooking or serving, the inside has to be white.” Extremely confused, I asked for further explanation. He put his hand inside one of his newly made coffee pots and withdrew it, showing me a hand covered with black streaky dirt:

Drinking coffee from it would not be good for the stomach. You need white [abyad] for it. … to prevent dirt and rust [ṣada’] from adhering to copper vessels, you need to put a coating of lead [raṣaṣ] on the inside surface. Otherwise, it becomes a poison and is very bad for the stomach. But because this is for décor, you don’t need to cook with it or serve with it. So there is no need for anything white inside. Only if you want to use it for cooking or serving hot coffee, you must put lead inside.

Since the late 1970s, the introduction of the plastic thermos as a coffee server has meant the dalla is increasingly encountered only as a display piece — behind museum glass, on a drawing-room shelf, in a street sculpture in Muscat, or as an illustration in a textbook. Physical changes during the nahda have transformed it from a utilitarian vessel to a decorative canvas to contemplate. What once was formed with thick layers of metalwork is now lighter and thinner, and color is a priority, but these decorative changes make it unsuitable for daily use. Instead, it now belongs to what Stewart terms, “the world of surfaces … whose physical aspects give way to abstraction and a nexus of new temporalities” (1993: 37). The dalla, along with silver jewelry, trading dhows, the khanjar, incense burners, and water jugs, have spilled out of the museum setting to become part of the quotidian landscape of Omani national life. The hulking outlines of forts and watchtowers have become interchangeable as they are distilled into a series of prominent features — crenellated towers, arched windows — creating a generic, portable form. The great highways of Muscat and Oman’s regional capitals are punctuated by visible copies of these objects and sites as montages on street roundabouts, bridges (figures 5 and 6), architectural facades, and park landscapes (figure 7). These ubiquitous icons in educational, print, and audiovisual media become a national heritage vocabulary through the systemic mechanical circulation of currency or postage stamps, dress codes, textbooks, and heritage festivals, and in popular design motifs for keychains, fridge magnets, and other kitsch items (figure 8). In the process of extending museological values and methods (collection, documentation, preservation, presentation, evaluation, and interpretation) to objects, knowledge, and practices, heritage practices have produced artifacts, landscapes, architectures, historical vistas, and living spaces.

If Imamate authority was established through the physical and geographical concentration of knowledge as embodied by the fort, a shared corpus of legal-historical texts, and the personal mediating efforts of a group of religious scholars, teachers, and administrators, then the imagery circulated in audiovisual and print media has engendered a very different order of pedagogical learning — one grounded in the need to systemically disseminate, ritually repeat, and thereby standardize. Continual reproduction has made these once-daily objects and sites into a national visual language. The structuring of the public arena in such a manner is the result of the concerted efforts of several state ministries with overlapping concerns, including the Ministry of Heritage and Culture, different municipalities, the Ministry of Information, the Diwan of the Royal Court, the Ministry of Education, and the Public Authority for Craft Industries. The state has also created a heritage saturated focus through its control of television, radio, and newspapers.

This chapter explores the underlying reasoning behind the sheer ubiquity of heritage imagery and the social reality it creates. Ethnographic investigation into this question led me through a state wide bureaucratic network and a hierarchy of cultural advisors, undersecretaries, architects, urban planners, preservationists, heritage managers and curriculum designers. Their offices became interchangeable as they all assumed a certain type — expansive rooms with a large desk and chair at one end, glass cabinets displaying state awards, heritage objects, and iconic symbols of Oman, walled photographs of the sultan, and, usually, a set of dark, plush sofas around a small coffee table where officials could talk with their guests over — of course — coffee. At first, the official language I heard was repetitive, a standardized authoritative discourse that appeared predictable and could be argued away as mere officialese. However, it became increasingly clear that the mandate of heritage was being placed within a bureaucratic structure and was deployed in order to cultivate a certain set of dispositions toward the past that was constitutive of Omani public life. Their talk also yielded insights into how heritage discursive imagery was seriously considered as a prophylactic against the twin anxieties of Westernization on the one hand and Islamist revivalism on the other.