Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Exceptionality Between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia

Robert Vitalis' America's Kingdom is easily the best book I've read this semester. There is a lot to unravel in this American story set in Saudi Arabia - to paraphrase Vitalis. But I'll concentrate on one aspect: the rhetoric of exceptionalism.

At a Jadaliyya conference in earlier 2011, KEVO's Prof. Zach Lockman reminded the academic audience students do not enter the classroom with empty slates. They have been bombarded on the supposed sedimented past, present and very essentialist nature of the Middle East, Arabs and Islam. For Lockman, the first task is disarming students by "thinking about intersections we can exploit usefully" between the region and"students' own lives" in America in order "to critically locate [students] in the same social time and space." 

In a strong sense, Vitalis' America's Kingdom exemplifies Lockman's purposive instruction by going after the dual exceptionalism that categories American self-reflection, on one hand, and domestic discourse about the Mideast being uniquely or exceptionally fill-in-the-blank, on the other. Vitalis' illuminates the intersections and transnational currents that categorize U.S.-Saudi Arabian history. In this brief post, let me concentrate on three examples. 

1) ARAMCO structured its oil compounds - where laborers worked and lived - in Saudi Arabia according to a system of Jim Crow unequal separation: imported Americans were not allowed to mix with native Arabs, and the letter were paid less along with inferior housing. One of the common narratives that Vitalis debunks is that ARAMCO's segregated compound was due to Saudi Wahhabi exceptionalism which demanded separation between Muslims and non-Muslims. But this is fallacious since the precedent in an identical racial division and salaried hierarchy was set in the coal and oil landscape of the American West - far from Wahhabia - with Mexicans instead of Arabs. There was nothing exceptional about labor division in Arabia. 

2) Between the Wobblies and the "Tarikis" and "Ibn Muammars" there is the labor movement against transnational and later multinational energy firms, and the latter often acquired their ideas while studying in the United States. They both also share a common fate: In the end, the less radical factions won concessions with aspirations for a more consequential re-negotiation of the social contract between capital and labor left as a distant hope.

3) The history people tell about themselves. ARAMCO, the United States and Saudi Arabia both revel in the discourse of their exceptionality. 

Vitalis reminds us of the interminable intersections between peoples - in that he does a commendable service of compelling students to rethink their assumptions about "our" and "their" history.

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