Ethnography of the Middle East

Course: Contemporary Ethnography of the Middle East (MENAS 375)
Credits: 3
Semester: summer
Location: Amman, Jordan
Program: Arizona in Jordan

This Arizona in Jordan course is intended to shed light on the diversity of cultures, everyday lives and experiences of peoples in the Middle East. Given that this course is taught abroad, students will not only learn about methodological and ethnographic approaches, and theoretical frameworks, but they will also be asked to experience and utilize classroom learnings in the field.

The course will focus on different examples of ethnographic representations of Middle Eastern societies as alternative methods of understanding social and cultural complexities, stressing the disciplinary contributions of anthropology. The course will examine too the macro processes of social change, i.e. modernization and globalization, and the micro level analyses addressing specific settings, social conditions, activities and life experiences. There will be a broad overview of the region will particular emphasis on the experience of Jordan.

The course consists of lectures, class discussions and student presentations.

Increased knowledge about peoples and cultures of the Middle East. Ability to challenge homogenizing and essentialist accounts about the region and its people. Awareness about the relationship between representations of the Middle East and preconceptions. Capability to identify different methodological and theoretical approaches in the context of 'fieldwork', i.e. 'participant observation', surveys, questionnaires, oral and life histories.

Course Requirements
Students are expected to attend class regularly and to complete assigned readings prior to the class/week in which they will be discussed. Even though we are many thousands of miles from the University of Arizona, students are still expected to complete assignments in accordance with the UA Code of Academic Integrity, available at: Plagiarism will result in a failing grade for the assignment. For all assignments, late submission will be accepted only with prior consent of the instructor.

Syllabus Plan

Session One: Traditions and Culture

Week 1 Conceptualizing the Middle East and Orientalism

  • Said, Lockman, Eickelman (Section I)

Week 2 Cultural frameworks and Ethnographic histories

  • Geertz, Lindholm

Week 3 Populations and Social Hierarchies

  • Eickelman (II), Shryock
  • Country Report presentations

Session Two: Jordan and the Contemporary Middle East

Week 4 Religion, Language, and Minorities

  • Eickelman (III, IV), Antoun, Schwedler

Week 5 Representing Jordan

  • Alon, Layne

Week 6 Power and Authority: State and Opposition

  • Eickelman (V)
  • Final presentations (Wednesday)


Required Texts (bring with you!):

  • Dale Eickelman (2001). The Middle East and Central Asia: An Anthropological Approach. Pearson, 4th edition.
  • Allegra Stratton (2008) Muhajababes: Meet the New Middle East – Cool, Sexy and Devout. Melville House.
  • Mark LeVine (2008). Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam. Broadway Publishing.


Articles/Chapters (will be provided):

--Clifford Geertz (1973) Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture
--Charles Lindholm (1995) The New Middle Eastern Ethnography
--Edward Said (1978) Orientalism (intro and chapter 1)
--Zachary Lockman (2004) Contending Visions of the Middle East (chapter 2)
--Yoav Alon (2009) The Making of Jordan: Tribes, Colonialism and the Modern State (introduction)
--Andrew Shryock (2004) The New Jordanian Hospitality: House, Host, and Guest in the Culture of Public Display
--Linda Layne (1989) The Dialogics of Tribal Self-Representation in Jordan
--Richard Antoun (1989) Muslim Preacher in the Modern World: A Jordanian Case Study in Comparative Perspective
--Jillian Schwedler (2007) Faith in Moderation: Islamic Parties in Jordan and Yemen (intro, chapters 7 & 8)


Fieldwork Project: Ethnography of an Amman Café

In his classic work on the rise and fall of the public sphere in Europe, Habermas (1989) emphasized the historical importance of the coffee house as a key arena for public discoursing between individuals, one full of political comment and implications (Philo & Laurier 2004). More recently Ellis (2004) has complicated this picture, although, in common with Habermas’s claims about the loss of public sphere in modern times, he fears that the contemporary café can no longer sustain the civic life of substantive social encounter that arguably it once could. Conversely, though worried about the arrival of Starbucks, the US sociologist Oldenberg (1997) celebrates cafés, past and present, as one of the ‘great, good places’ that get us through the day. His work will be familiar to most of us through being adopted by policymakers, community developers and café companies in the idea of ‘the third place’, that is, a place between work and home.
--Laurier, Eric. The Cappuccino Community: cafés and civic life in the contemporary city, University of Glasgow, September 2005.

Requirements for “Ethnography of an Irbid Café” project

Think of the assignment as having three parts:
(1) Background research and preparation
(2) The fieldwork itself
(3) Organizing and preparing the material for final write-up   

1.    Explore Amman’s café scene. Spend some time wandering the streets looking at the cafés to get a sense of what’s here and how many there are.
2.    Choose one café in Amman where you feel comfortable and where it is appropriate for you to be! Is it a café (as opposed to a restaurant or other establishment)? Is it appropriate for you to be there (think of gender roles, age considerations, etc)?
3.    Read texts and articles listed below
4.    Begin your ethnography with a discussion of the following questions:
  a.    What is a café in the broadest sense of the term?
  b.    What is the place of a café in Middle Eastern society?
  c.    How is café life here different from what Laurier describes above?
5.    Continue with an overview of Irbid to include:
  a.    General statistics about the city
  b.    Different neighborhoods where the cafés are located
  c.    The café scene in Irbid (based on number 1 above)

FIELDWORK (6-8 hours making observations, taking notes)

Sampling of points to consider:
6.    Spatial organization of café (inside and outside, if applicable)
7.    Its “crowd” and “ambience” and how they alter between weekdays and weekends, between mid-morning and lunchtime and nighttime, etc.
8.    Map of the area showing its location in relation to other shops/establishments
9.    Menu items
10.    Photos
11.    Descriptions of setting (artifacts and outcroppings)
12.    Descriptions of activities: what people order, what they do, who they sit with, where they sit, to name a few. Remember proxemics and kinesics.

13.    Analysis and cultural meanings
14.    Conclusions
15.    Bibliography

Required readings:

  • Laurier, Eric, Angus Whyte, and Kathy Buckner. “An ethnography of a neighbourhood café: informality, table arrangements and background noise” in Journal of Mundane Behavior, volume 2, number 2 (June 2001).
  • Chen, Li. The Duke Coffeehouse: A Study of Alternative Subculture in College, Spring 2011.
  • Cafe culture blooms in West Bank's Ramallah, Reuters, 06 April 2011. 
  • de Koning, Anouk “Café Latte and Caesar Salad: Cosmopolitan Belonging in Cairo’s Coffee Shops” in Singerman, Diane and Paul Ammar (eds.), Cairo Cosmopolitan: Politics, Culture, and Urban Space, in the New Globalized Middle East, (Cairo and NewYork: The American University in Cairo Press), 2006.
  • Diala, Criselda. Coffee culture thrives in Middle East. Alrroya, 29 June 2010.
  • Brooks, Raillan. Nothing is Hidden Anymore: Meet Madian, Co-Founder and Proprietor of Books@ Café. 17 June  2011.
  • Schwedler, Jillian. “Amman Cosmopolitan: Spaces and Practices of Aspiration and Consumption.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 30.3 (2010): 547-562. Project MUSE.

Photo credits:
Above: Marketplace in Al-Salt by Cyndia Claypoole.
Below: Reading notes by Kevin J. Taylor, used here with exclusive permission.

Photos may not be used or reprinted.

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