AE Interviews Lila Abu-Lughod (Columbia University): Ten questions about anthropology, feminism, Middle East politics, and publics

November 22, 2016

Sindre Bangstad (KIFO, the Institute for Church, Religion, and Worldview Research, Oslo) interviews Lila Abu-Lughod (Columbia University)

On the occasion of the publication of Columbia University anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod’s article, “The cross-publics of ethnography: the case of the Muslim woman,” in the November 2016 issue of the journal, we have invited Norwegian anthropologist Sindre Bangstad to interview Abu-Lughod on fundamental issues underlying her work as a feminist anthropologist, a public intellectual, and an ethnographer of the Middle East and Islamophobia. This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of Abu-Lughod’s landmark ethnography Veiled Sentiments, which has inspired an entire generation of scholars and students to rethink their understanding of gender, power, and poetics. I thank Lila and Sindre for sharing their conversation with the readership of the journal.Niko Besnier, editor

Sindre Bangstad (SB): You and I met in 2014 because we had both turned, as anthropologists, to address a disturbing public issue: Islamophobia. This opened us up to forms of hostility that our earlier ethnographic work in Muslim communities, yours in Egypt and mine in South Africa, had not. In your article in the November issue of AE, “The Cross-Publics of Public Ethnography,” you consider what anthropologists can bring to contentious public debates. You confess that your most recent book, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? took you out of the comfort zone of our discipline. I’d like to talk with you about the meaning of this transition to what I’ve explored as public anthropology in a series of interviews in my forthcoming Anthropology of Our Times: An Edited Anthology in Public Anthropology. You prefer to call it public ethnography, following Didier Fassin. I’d like to talk about your early work first.

Some academic monographs provide signposts along the road of one’s academic career. Your first book, Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society (Abu-Lughod 1986), was such a monograph in my case, and I know that this sentiment is shared by many anthropologists of my generation. Through a rich and detailed ethnography, you describe the lives of a Bedouin group in Egypt from the point of view of your fieldwork with, mostly, women.

One gets a clear sense from this monograph and its sequel, Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories (Abu-Lughod 1993), that your father, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, the Palestinian scholar and activist, had been something of a door opener. You wrote that your initial presence in this Awlad ‘Ali community as an unmarried woman was premised on your acceptance as, in essence, the daughter of your father. The challenges for female anthropologists doing fieldwork in the Middle East are reasonably well documented by Soraya Altorki (Altorki and El-Solh 1988, which includes your essay “Fieldwork of a Dutiful Daughter”) and others. But I would guess that it is unusual even for Middle East anthropologists to have such access to the field. I wonder how you think about this now.

Lila Abu-Lughod (LA-L): I am honored that Veiled Sentiments has this special place in your development. It seems so long since I wrote it. I was a different person then—younger, more naive, and less politically engaged. I shied away from overt politics because I’m someone who prefers to listen and watch. I am temperamentally unsuited to argument—I get no pleasure from it. Anthropology was different in the late 1970s and early 1980s, too, when I was working on what became Veiled Sentiments. Remember, it came out the same year as Writing Culture.

For me, the lasting contribution of Veiled Sentiments is to have shared my discovery that women in this Bedouin community expressed—in moving oral lyric poetry—sentiments radically different from those they expressed in everyday discourse. I used this discovery to force an appreciation of the complex workings of moral systems, especially ones based on honor. At that time, honor codes were the concern of anthropologists of the circum-Mediterranean area. Later, as you and I know all too well, they became an international obsession, flattened and reduced to the stigmatizing concept of honor cultures defined by “honor crimes.” I also made the point in Veiled Sentiments that we have to recognize how complex culture is if we realize how much people in this community value their poetic counterdiscourse of love and vulnerability.

Like you, though, many people remain intrigued by what I wrote about my father having introduced me to this community, perhaps because it makes us think hard about our inevitable positionality in fieldwork. I understand my father’s motives a bit differently now that I am a parent, but I also worry that people exaggerate the importance of this introduction. I still treasure the ways I was able to participate in the intimate and lively women’s world. I know that it was a bit easier for me to be part of this family because of this identity. But even though being perceived as Arab, Muslim, and respectable (under the protection of my father) was important, I don’t think we should overstate its importance. Fieldwork is intense and interpersonally complicated for everyone. Once you are there, no matter how introduced, it is you—as a person—who develops the relationships you do, even as you never escape your locatedness.

Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society (2000)

I have been thinking a lot about fieldwork lately. My soul-searching was triggered by being invited to write a new afterword for the 30th-anniversary edition of Veiled Sentiments (Abu-Lughod 2016b). Because so many people remain intrigued by the opening story of my arrival, I titled the first section “Guest and Daughter, Revisited.” In this section I reflect on how what my Bedouin friends call ‘ishra—living together—affects all of us. And, perhaps surprisingly, I write mostly about my relationship to my Bedouin “father.” He was central to my experience—intellectually, socially, and emotionally—even though I spent most of my time with women and girls in his extended family and beyond, felt close to them, and have written mostly about them.

I don’t think we have theorized sufficiently about what happens when we “live together” in fieldwork. We are observing as we participate. Living together produces, over time, shared conversations, memories, and affections for people we have known in common. I argue in this afterword that living together makes possible a bridging of differences across what my colleague Elizabeth Povinelli has characterized as incommensurate worlds. My experience of having developed these affections across differences is not unique. Fieldwork is a particularly intense and perhaps peculiar way of learning and being in the world, but every intimate relationship, if you think about it, involves bridging differences.

SB: Egypt has undergone massive social, political, and demographic changes since you did your first fieldwork among the Awlad ‘Ali, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As you describe them, the Awlad ‘Ali, in a sense even then a marginal population, were at the time in the process of becoming sedentarized, more exposed to Egyptian state institutions and cultural forms, and incorporated into the wider economy. I take it, from what you say, that you have maintained contact with them. Could you tell us how the lives of the Awlad ‘Ali in general, and Awlad ‘Ali women in particular, have been changing since you first went to work with them?

LA-L: I have regularly returned for visits, although since the late 1980s I have not been able to stay long each time. I started fieldwork in a beautiful village in Upper Egypt in the early 1990s. At first I was studying television soap operas. Then I extended this to talking with my friends there about what women’s rights might mean in this context. By the time I began that fieldwork in the south, I had a family of my own. I also had, as happens to all of us, more academic responsibilities than I had when I was a graduate student and beginning assistant professor. It was harder to make time. And because our children had been coming with us to this village in the south since they were infants, they had friends of their own there. Going to visit my Bedouin family was not as comfortable for them.

As it happens, I last visited in November 2015. Some of the transformations I observed were continuous with what I had described in earlier prefaces to both Veiled Sentiments and Writing Women’s Worlds. But the politics were trickier, and I began to have misgivings about the value of ethnography itself. I wrote about this in my afterword. I’ll just mention two of the issues that relate to your question. I came up against worries about how much more I wanted to reveal about these families, whom I had now known for more than 35 years. All anthropologists who work with vulnerable groups worry about this kind of thing. The Awlad ‘Ali are now more vulnerable than they had been when I first went to live there in the late 1970s. They were in the news after the revolution of January 25, 2011. On the one hand, they live in the area that borders Libya. The historic involvement of some families in moving across the border had become fraught once the arms trafficking that accompanied the fighting in Libya hit. On the other hand, the Islamist political parties registered strong support in the elections in their region. There are many reasons for this, but given the situation in Egypt now, this was dangerous for them. They all complained about increased surveillance and harassment.

But there is another kind of politics—the politics of knowledge—that makes me resist your question about how things have changed. Writing about economic and social transformations, including transformations in gender relations, would inevitably place the families I have known for so long into general schemata—of modernization, cultural loss, globalization, Islamization, and so forth. I feel uncomfortable with that. From the point of view of the women and girls I had such an intense visit with this time and with whom I had so much fun, these changes were simply the stuff of, or the backdrop to, what mattered to everyone—people and families. What is to be gained by standing back and making sweeping observations? For whom would I be surveying the scene?

SB: This relates to a question I wanted to ask about Writing Women’s Worlds. In the introduction to that book, you write that “what became for me the most troubling aspect of ethnographic description was that it, like other social scientific discourses, trafficked in generalizations” (Abu-Lughod 1993, 7). You go on to argue that anthropology is “inevitably a language of power” in that it is “the language of those who seem to stand apart from and outside of what they are describing” (8).

That particular monograph was written at the height of the reflexive turn in anthropology; you worked on it while based at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where Clifford Geertz was a professor. Some anthropologists would in hindsight argue that this particular turn in modern anthropology came at the cost of abandoning thick ethnographic description (to use a Geertzian term) in favor of introspection and self-reflexivity. But in the same introduction and the preface, you position your work in a tradition of critical and feminist ethnography, by virtue of which your narratives, organized around anthropological themes long associated with the study of women and social structures in the Arab world, would undo ethnographic typifications related to practices and values like patrilineality, polygyny, patrilateral parallel-cousin marriage, and honor and shame. When you look back at this attempt, more than 20 years later, and at the anthropological scholarship on women in the Middle East since then, to what extent would you say that you succeeded?

LA-L: I’m glad you quoted from Writing Women’s Worlds. Most people don’t, probably because the title makes it seem to be “only” about women and therefore only of interest to women or feminist anthropologists. But you have shown in your own work an unusual interest in women—especially with your book The Politics of Mediated Presence on Muslim spokespeople in Norway and your analysis of the alliance between secular feminists and right-wing Islamophobes in Norway (Bangstad 2015).

Do Muslim Women Need Saving?

The ideas I presented in the introduction to Writing Women’s Worlds, especially my arguments for an “ethnography of the particular” (28), were inspired by feminist critiques of ways of knowing that I was reading in the 1980s. I developed the core arguments for a seminar organized by Richard Fox at the School of American Research in Santa Fe that was framed as something of a response and rejoinder to the reflexive turn you mention. I always wonder if my article has circulated so much more widely than my book (and been translated into so many more languages) because of its catchy title and its lack of gender marking. I’m talking about “Writing against Culture” (Abu-Lughod 1991).

But back to your question about the “success” of my efforts. I would like to split this in two. The idea that we should work against the generalizations about society and culture that are part of the language of power has had some appeal. But I did not intend for storytelling to be the only way we can work, as anthropologists, scholars, or intellectuals. It was an experiment. What has resonated most—and what I still consider politically and intellectually crucial to my arguments in that book—is that we should write against the homogenization of communities and the simplification of social worlds and imaginations into something called cultures.

The second part of your question is about what has happened to feminist anthropology and to ethnographic work on Middle Eastern women. I am so pleased with how these fields have developed. There is no comparison now with what I had available to me to think with or model myself on when I began to write in the early 1980s. I don’t take credit for what has happened, but I am glad to have been part of it. Amazingly, there is a new textbook called Feminist Ethnography (Davis and Craven 2016). This signals the maturation of a field, doesn’t it? And there are so many excellent ethnographies of women’s lives in the Middle East now. I can’t even fit them all into my syllabi when I teach! Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety, Lara Deeb’s An Enchanted Modern, Anne Meneley’s Tournaments of Value, Shahla Talebi’s Ghosts of Revolution, Miriam Ticktin’s Casualties of Care, and Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Professing Selves appear regularly. There are many more. What distinguishes all of them is that each is situated in place and historical moment, each makes a specific argument about a certain group of people, each captures contradictions and tensions in their lives, and each locates its subjects within larger political and institutional worlds.

What I find so discouraging is that there seems to be an inverse relationship between the quality and sophistication of anthropologists’ ethnographic work on women and gender in the Middle East and the flatness of mainstream and media representations. We don’t seem to be able to make a dent. Some of the typifications I wrote against in Writing Women’s Worlds have become ossified cultural clichés far worse than anything I had found in the anthropological literature. The concept of culture has been hijacked, too. It justifies imperial politics and has even been taken up by women’s rights advocates working through international institutions, as Sally Engle Merry shows so well in her study of Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women commissions. It is disheartening to see so little of the suppleness that anthropologists bring to their theories of culture.

SB: You mention media here. You have a long-standing interest in the anthropology of media. Your award-winning monograph Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television of Egypt (Abu-Lughod 2005b), which grew out of your Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures at the University of Rochester, makes a strong case for the value of grounded ethnography in exploring how ordinary citizens view and appropriate television. Your case is television watching—most specifically the watching of TV soap operas among women in the village in Upper Egypt where you started working in the early 1990s and, to some extent, among socially marginal domestic workers in Cairo. You note that “television is a key institution for the production of national culture in Egypt” (7). Yet at the same time you emphasize that media appropriation is individually specific and contextually inflected: “Television’s messages . . . are deflected by the way people frame their television experiences and by the way powerful everyday realities inflect and offset these messages” (33). And so you argue that “the kinds of ignorant rural Egyptians imagined as subjects and citizens by state officials and urban intellectuals, including television and textbook writers, do not exist” (71). Can you tell us how your interest in media anthropology developed?

LA-L: My interest in Egyptian television grew organically from what I was witnessing in the late 1980s: Bedouin girls’ fascination with soap operas broadcast on Egyptian national radio. They were more captivated by these melodramatic stories than by the oral poetry that had interested me in Veiled Sentiments. I realized that even this community that proudly distinguished itself culturally and socially was becoming part of a national-cultural space.

I got the courage to study media from Arjun Appadurai and Carol Breckenridge. Around 1987, if I remember correctly, they issued a call to create a network of scholars working on public culture. I was excited to think that soap operas could be a serious object of ethnographic work. Clifford Geertz, when we had a lunch chat at the institute, had discouraged me, saying that some topics were just not worthy of more than an article. But I applied for a Mellon postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania for the following year and got it. I entered this new world just as Arjun and Carol were publishing the first real issue of Public Culture.

A few years later, I got to join the anthropology department at New York University. Faye Ginsburg had established a pioneering program in culture and media, and it was a vibrant center for the ethnography of media. I wrote a good part of Dramas of Nationhood in those great years when I was teaching at NYU, from 1991 to 2000.

But to return to your opening question about public ethnography, I want to mention here that I think of Dramas as my first ethnography whose political message was addressed to an Egyptian public, not just an anthropological one. Although I have been unlucky so far in getting it translated into Arabic (there have been three abortive attempts, the last interrupted by the revolution), I would like to, even though I am nervous that the critical position I take toward the progressives who make the best soap operas is somewhat awkward for an outsider. I first went to live in Egypt when I was five years old. I have been going back all my life. I love being there. But I am not, after all, Egyptian. Who am I to criticize? But because I did fieldwork among the socially marginal, the poor, the unschooled, and to a large extent the rural, my perspective is shaped by theirs. My sympathies are with them in the face of the pedagogical discourse of uplift and good citizenship of the urban intelligentsia who produce TV dramas. Is it my right or my responsibility to translate across class? To refract the local gazes back onto elites and middle-class professionals? I am so bothered by the patronizing attitudes many have toward poor or less well-educated compatriots.

SB: During the uprising against the Mubarak regime, which started on January 25, 2011, and led to Mubarak’s resignation about a month later, all eyes seemed to be fixated on Cairo and Tahrir Square. In your American Ethnologist article “Living the ‘Revolution’ in an Egyptian Village: Moral Action in a National Space,” you admit that you “missed the revolution by ten days” (2012, 21). We all know by now that this uprising was followed by a sequence of events that have, according to international human rights organizations, resulted in violence and repression by the Egyptian state that are worse than they were under Mubarak. In your article, which was written before all this unfolded, you note that Cairo is not Egypt and that villagers in your rural community in Upper Egypt chose a language to express their grievances different from that of urban Cairenes. Though their lives had also been similarly affected by Mubarak’s neoliberal policies and the arbitrary power of the security apparatuses, and they were burdened by a sense of marginalization and alienation, their language focused on social morality rather than the media-savvy language of “rights” and “democracy.” Do you consider your intervention here to be related to what you just said about your work on television serials?

LA-L: Yes, and it raises some of the same dilemmas for me. I tried to bring in a perspective that is rarely foregrounded—from the young men and women I had watched grow up in this village. I wanted to show that they had a different dialect of political grievance and aspiration. I admire the ways they were galvanized to act so positively in the vacuum created by the sudden break in the dead hand of normality that the revolution created, whatever its aftermath has been. But in showing that they lived the revolution differently in the countryside, I was also trying to provincialize (and, to some extent, show the global influence and alignments of) the frameworks and political visions of many educated urban radicals or liberals. These are my friends and colleagues. These are people I respect tremendously and always learn from. But I couldn’t help also seeing them through the eyes of others. I was in a quandary about how to present this, just as I am when I take on questions of women’s rights and feminism.

SB: If there is a constant in your work, it is perhaps this interest in feminism in the context of the study and analysis of the lives of women in the Middle East. This is the part of your work that seems to have generated by far the most heat and argument.

LA-L: That is probably true. I came a little late to feminism as the context for my work on the lives of women in Egypt. I began to read feminist theory only when I got my first job, after writing my dissertation. Harvard was not a place for feminist studies when I was in graduate school. At Williams College, I found a group of feminist political theorists, philosophers, historians, and literary scholars (but no anthropologists) to talk with. They organized a faculty study group. I was introduced to some of the basics in the early 1980s. I struggled to relate those heady articles to what I was doing as an ethnographer. But it was the experience of spending a year at the Institute for Advanced Study that stretched me most. When Williams College refused my request for an extra semester of unpaid leave that would have enabled me to accept a fellowship at the institute, participating in what became famous as the Gender Year, I resigned; I would not give up the opportunity! The group included major feminist scholars like Donna Haraway, Rayna Rapp, and Evelyn Fox Keller, and it was led by Joan Scott. Judith Butler was relatively unknown still, just writing Gender Trouble. She was there, too.

I struggled there—as an ethnographer and an anthropologist grounded in such a different experience and interpretation of what gender meant (from my years with the Awlad ‘Ali) and what women wanted—to figure out how to relate to Euro-American feminism and feminist scholarship. Twenty-five years later, on a panel Dorothy Hodgson organized on feminist anthropology at the American Anthropological Association meeting in 2012, I admitted that I still find myself uncertain about the politics and place of feminism and feminist anthropology.

As a feminist, I fight wherever I can to get more equality and dignity for women. I’ve been especially active at Columbia, and I do my bit for the academy more broadly by supporting and encouraging my students and young colleagues. But as an anthropologist, I often feel that I am putting the brakes on feminism. This sometimes pits me against transnational feminists, including some from the Middle East. This is an uncomfortably adversarial role for me as a person and an anthropologist.

The awkwardness of the relationship between anthropology and feminism that Marilyn Strathern noted has not gone away. If feminists used to look to anthropologists to provide information about what might be universal or culturally particular (and thus what might be possible), now feminists from the United States and Europe, alongside liberals and even right-wingers parading as feminists, are themselves global in their reach. They step onto the terrain of anthropologists: the rest of the world. At the same time, feminists and women’s rights advocates from around the world are leading international or transnational projects and institutions pushing for gender equity and women’s rights. They are working actively within their own regions and societies on women’s issues.

I keep finding myself asking hard questions of feminists, asking them to think differently about women, power, and rights by taking the everyday lives of women in other places or social classes seriously and by using these lives to question the hegemonic discourses and institutions within which they work. This is tricky since we are all constantly reminded of how marginal feminists still are, politically and in terms of authoritative voices. We even have to put up with mansplaining, a term I recently learned and adore: where self-absorbed, comfortably privileged liberal men lecture us about women’s rights and experiences!

That doesn’t mean, though, that we should shy away from criticism. My wariness began when I edited a book on feminism in colonial and national politics in the Middle East, inspired by a Foucauldian perspective on modern forms of power. I titled it Remaking Women (1998) to suggest that we might want to attend to the ways that feminist projects try to reform and transform women, an interventionism that goes against the grain of anthropology.

The second way in which I, as an anthropologist, seem to put the brakes on feminism is by what we might call, following Dipesh Chakrabarty, provincializing it. We must never dismiss feminism as inauthentic, foreign, or inapplicable outside the West. Its history is much more internationally intertwined. That is a polemical stance. But I do still think we must recognize that feminist projects are historically specific formations, just like the human rights projects that have overtaken and in many ways subsumed them. Feminist projects deserve analysis.

SB: The challenges to your scholarship on these issues seem to have come from a variety of positions. In her influential monograph Politics of Piety, Saba Mahmood takes your 1990 essay “The Romance of Resistance: Tracing Transformations of Power through Bedouin Women” to task for neglecting to challenge the very use of the term resistance and what Mahmood sees as its secularist-feminist charge in a “teleology of progressive politics” (2005, 9). Could I ask you to respond to this charge and broader feminist responses to your work?

LA-L: I always appreciate serious engagement with my work, even as I may lick my wounds when shortcomings or oversights are revealed. The lesson I learned from Saba Mahmood’s criticism, though, was about academic politics. Let me explain why. I think the world of Saba, and we have always respected and supported each other’s work. So I was taken aback by the quote she plucked out of “The Romance of Resistance.” This was a sentence that I had revised to appease an anonymous reviewer of my manuscript, someone who attacked me for daring to criticize those who wrote about resistance. I was a young scholar. I had no job at the time. I was vulnerable. So I wrote myself into the sentence Saba quoted in order not to appear to be criticizing only others. But the thrust of my article was precisely against resistance as the frame. And I think of Veiled Sentiments as a deeply ethnographic illustration of exactly what Mahmood is arguing: women’s agency can just as well be manifested in a desire for conformity to social, moral, or religious ideals. Her criticism in Politics of Piety always felt unfair because of the backstory. I learned a lesson: one should not compromise what one is saying just to defang a hostile reviewer; it may come back to haunt you.

I do think feminists and other scholars can disagree with me, and I appreciate it when they engage with my arguments seriously. I sometimes feel awkward taking critical positions toward feminism. When colleagues take on my arguments in the spirit of a common effort to figure out what to think and where to stand on complex issues, I learn from them. For example, in my article “The Cross-Publics of Public Ethnography” in the November 2016 issue of AE, I examine my response to three reviewers who discussed Do Muslim Women Need Saving? in a forum in the journal Ethnicities (Amir-Moazami 2015; Kandiyoti 2015; Malik 2015). They were most concerned about how I might be undermining internal feminist critics. They forced me to consider how my location in the United States, my disciplinary orientation as an anthropologist, and the double consciousness that my fieldwork in rural Egypt has given me might have overdetermined my stance. I do not think it is easy to resolve this issue, and in fact I had dedicated the book to my mother, “who watched keenly as I struggled to find the right place to stand, politically and intellectually.”

SB: In Do Muslim Women Need Saving? you critique, rather controversially, the work of Muslim feminist NGOs such as the Kuala Lumpur–based Musawah and the London-based Women Living under Muslim Laws. Now, part of what I understand you to be saying is that the understandings of feminists such as these are anchored in their location as educated, cosmopolitan, middle-class Muslim elites and do not resonate with the lived experiences, moral imaginaries, and Islamic discourses of, say, the rural Egyptian women whom you have worked with. You write that “we need to find new ways of thinking about Muslim women’s rights—that sensationalized international issue that is so entangled with military intervention and transnational feminism, progressive foundations and right-wing think-tanks, elite careers and welfare administration, literary commerce and marginal lives. An ethnographic approach that tracks the social lives in which the concept partakes may be more useful for understanding this subject and the moment we are living than moral posturing that judges women’s rights to be either collusion with imperialism (to be denounced) or a hopeful sign of universal emancipation and progress (to be celebrated)” (2013, 170). Now, that is quite a lot to ask of ethnography in the present context, so what are the chances of such a research program succeeding?

LA-L: Sindre, you are so European! I never think of myself as having a research program, and I don’t think in terms of failure and success. I have followed my heart and mind, taking up problematics when they arise as I return regularly to Egypt, continue to learn from colleagues and students, and watch the devastating ways that US and European politics and popular culture deal with the region I care about.

For example, over the years, both the identities of Muslim and Arab that the Awlad ‘Ali embrace and their values based on tribe, kinship, and honor have become the subjects of increasing prejudice and disdain, the former abroad and the latter even in Egypt. Some critiques have come from feminism and the international purchase of ideals of gender equality. Prejudices have been mobilized to rationalize the political and military involvement of US and European powers in the region.

In the 1980s, as I mentioned earlier, I felt that I had not been able to communicate fully the richness, dynamism, and intensity of interpersonal relations in this community, and so I worked on a second ethnography of the Awlad ‘Ali community that I had been so fortunate to live with. I told stories of women’s everyday lives to show how utterly human they were and how cultural generalizations did not fairly represent life as they lived it.

As representations of Arabs, Middle Easterners, and Muslims became even more fraught, especially after 9/11, and knowledge about people in these regions drew the attention of less disinterested groups than students of anthropology, I felt an urgent responsibility to take on the most tendentious distortions. As I describe in my AE article, I hoped that Do Muslim Women Need Saving? would challenge the emerging common sense about the oppression of that caricatured figure miriam cooke has called the Muslimwoman (2007).

Given this political context for any of us who work on and in the Middle East or on Muslims, I feel myself to be doing engaged or insurgent anthropology. Didier Fassin, as we mentioned earlier, talks more modestly of public ethnography. Is this new work that puts ethnography to this more political purpose going to be effective? I don’t know. But I do hope that it will make a difference to the ways people understand the lives of others. And I hope that it will draw attention to the dangerous politics of representations of Muslim women.

SB: In your classic Annual Review of Anthropology article, “Zones of Theory in the Anthropology of the Arab World,” you defend the arguments made by Edward Said in Orientalism against some of his anthropological detractors by noting that “the Middle East (or any other ethnographic area) is always a construct and that knowledge of it can therefore not be separated from power and position” (1989, 270). Said’s seminal work continues to generate controversy in some anthropological circles—for example, in Daniel Martin Varisco’s Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid. Can you tell us more about what Said and his work have meant to you over the years?

LA-L: I, like many, feel Edward Said’s legacy as an intellectual, political, and moral responsibility. Intellectually, I have extended Orientalism’s insights about power and knowledge by analyzing the political deployments of the figure of the oppressed Muslim woman. But in recent years, I have also felt a responsibility to take up the much more difficult work that he, my father, and many others devoted so much of their lives to: the question of Palestine.

SB: I notice that in an article for Critical Inquiry, “About Politics, Palestine and Friendship,” you write movingly about your father’s friendship with Said (2005a). I take it from the acknowledgments in one of your books that is not so well known to anthropologists, Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory, coedited with the Palestinian scholar Ahmad Sa’di (Sa’di and Abu-Lughod 2007), that the initial spur for your work on the politics of memory among Palestinians was meeting Dr. Sa’di at your father’s funeral in Jaffa. Your father had returned to live in Ramallah in the 1990s, and he passed away in 2001. In a key passage in your introduction to this anthology, you note that “the Nakba is not over yet . . . the violence and uprooting of Palestinians continue” (10).

That, of course, is as true in 2016 as it was in 2007, and given the far-right drift of Israeli politics, the entrenchment of the occupation and Israeli settler colonialism, and the routinization and normalization of the violence to which Palestinians are subjected in their everyday lives, it seems set to continue for the foreseeable future. You also refer in your introduction to the “stubborn dissidence of [the Palestinians’] memory-work” (5). But your own dissidence as a scholar is also at work here: in your “letter from Egypt,” you end by saying that “the first step [in carrying on Said’s work], I know, is to keep talking about Palestine” (2005a, 388). And so it seems to me that your work on Palestinian memories of 1948 can also be seen as forming part of a wider argument about what you perceive the task of anthropology in general to be and the task of a public anthropology in particular to be.

In the context of the particularly fraught issue of Palestine, what do you think are the challenges and limits of anthropological advocacy?

LA-L: My essay in Nakba, “Return to Half-Ruins” (2007), was about my father’s return to Palestine after more than 40 years in exile. It was for me a daughter’s work of mourning. His move back to Palestine—from which he, like the majority of Palestinians, was expelled in 1948—opened up that world as a reality to me, even though our whole family had always lived under the shadow of Palestine and with the struggles for justice that he and others had been involved with. For those of us living in the United States, one of the biggest challenges is to crack the powerful propaganda machine that has sought to silence our story and erase the basic facts.

Edward’s death a few years after my father’s was a turning point for me. At his memorial in New York at Riverside Church in 2003, I felt sad as the large crowd, hushed and deeply moved by Daniel Barenboim’s exquisite piano offering, walked down the aisle to leave the church. I found myself next to my dear colleague Mahmood Mamdani. I told him that I felt this marked the passing of a generation. First, Eqbal Ahmad. Then my father. Then Edward. “Who would now speak for us?” I asked.

I’ll never forget what Mahmood said: “It is now up to you.”

I think he meant my generation, but I hesitantly picked up the mantle. I didn’t do fieldwork with Palestinians, even though I have had students who have. As I said earlier, I hate conflict. I hate to see suffering. And injustice infuriates me. It is so wretched being there and watching what Palestinians are being put through. So I had to find a different way. The chance to work on the book on Palestinian memory with Ahmad Sa’di, whom as you note I met at my father’s funeral, was perfect. At the same time, I had colleagues at Columbia who also cared about the issues, and we decided to do something positive. We established the first and still only Center for Palestine Studies at a North American university. Our main goal was to support scholarship on Palestine and Palestinians, especially the work of young scholars. We hoped to strengthen connections with Palestinian academic institutions like Birzeit University, so embattled and isolated. When my daughter graduated from high school, she decided she wanted to go to Palestine. I accompanied her, returning for the first time since my father had passed away. I came to know better some Palestinian feminist colleagues, who were just so impressive. I began to want to learn more and more.

It feels important to make this learning part of my work. I am proud of what we have supported and done at the Center for Palestine Studies. And then, last year, I had a big honor. I was invited to give the Edward Said Memorial Lecture at the American University in Cairo (Abu-Lughod 2015). Given that I didn’t have any of my own original research to present, since I do not do ethnographic work on Palestinians, I tried to do something more imaginative. I began to pull together what I’d been learning through the seminars and workshops we had organized at Columbia. Some of the most stimulating of these have been comparative and have brought Palestinian studies into conversation with indigenous and native studies.

Edward Said was a literary theorist. He taught us about the power of representations. He also appreciated the promise of the human imagination. So I decided to take my audience on an imaginative journey to other places in the world that were, like Israel, settled by European colonists who violently subjugated and tried to destroy the local populations living on the land they wanted for themselves.

I was inspired by a trip to Australia I’d taken the year before. This is a country whose government had finally apologized to the indigenous Australians for what had been done to them. I had also visited the University of British Columbia in Canada. Thanks to the struggles of First Nations peoples, there have been timid efforts to acknowledge the wrongs done to those who had been there prior to the colonists, mostly through flawed liberal multicultural policies.

These forms of recognition, many quite symbolic, fall far short of justice. They do not address the significance of the founding violences of these nation-states. Nor do they do enough to address the inequalities that persist as a result. But when I tried to transpose what I had seen in Canada and Australia to Israel, I realized that we were being asked to imagine the unimaginable: a future in which Israel would acknowledge what it had done to the Palestinians. By imagining scenarios like the Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country ritual protocols in Australia or the Welcome Plaza of the anthropology museum in Vancouver, which acknowledges the traditional owners of the land on which it had been built (still housing the ghosts of their extraordinary artistic and cultural accomplishments), the stark situation was exposed.

I am still thinking through the issues. I am still considering how or whether this detour to distant places and peoples in the context of emerging debates about settler colonialism and indigenous politics might help us think more clearly and write more persuasively about “the question of Palestine.” What might we want, morally and politically? Anthropologists actually may have a lot to say because we can introduce different comparisons and fresh ways of thinking about politics and sovereignty.

I have been proud of the way anthropologists have been directly examining the situation in Israel and Palestine and mobilizing against the violations of Palestinians’ human and political rights. We have just had two full years of discussion and debate within the American Anthropological Association, spurred by the proposal of a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, a resolution that I strongly supported (Abu-Lughod 2016a). I never dreamed this could happen, and I so wish my parents had lived to see this moment. Even though the boycott resolution finally lost by a tiny margin (only 39 votes) in the wake of interference by outside organizations that poured resources into opposing the resolution, including intimidation at the personal and institutional levels (anthroboycott 2016), there is no turning back. Too many anthropologists have learned too much about the injustices. They will now be more attuned to news of more.

I always felt somehow that my parents were puzzled that I chose anthropology, with its colonial heritage and its popular association with the exotic. They must have been bemused that I lived the kind of life it entailed, with so much time spent doing fieldwork in rural communities in Egypt, even though it was they who first made me love Egypt. I didn’t share my parents’ intellectual worlds. I avoided their disciplines (political science and sociology), having discovered anthropology only because I had to fulfill a social science distribution requirement in college and wouldn’t take those other ones. My father lived and breathed politics, and my urbanist mother was outspoken and had formidable moral courage. I am more comfortable listening to others. I prefer to watch rather than direct. Anthropology was right for me. But I always felt that at the heart of anthropology were a concern for the human and an abhorrence of injustice and inequality. This stand we have been taking against the injustices Palestinians face seems a fitting expression of the ethical impulse of anthropology.


Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1986. Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———. 1988. “Fieldwork of a Dutiful Daughter.” In Arab Women in the Field: Studying Your Own Society, edited by Soraya Altorki and Camillia Fawzi El-Solh, 139–63. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

———. 1989. “Zones of Theory in the Anthropology of the Arab World.” Annual Review of Anthropology 18:267–306.

———. 1990. “The Romance of Resistance: Tracing Transformations of Power through Bedouin Women.” American Ethnologist 17 (1): 41–55.

———. 1991. “Writing against Culture.” In Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present, edited by Richard G. Fox, 137–62. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research.

———. 1993. Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———, ed. 1998. Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

———. 2005a. “About Politics, Palestine and Friendship: A Letter to Edward from Egypt.” Critical Inquiry 31 (2): 381–88.

———. 2005b. Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———. 2007. “Return to Half-Ruins: Memory, Postmemory, and Living History in Palestine.” In Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory, edited by Ahmad H. Sa’di and Lila Abu-Lughod, 77–104. New York: Columbia University Press.

———. 2012. “Living the ‘Revolution’ in an Egyptian Village: Moral Action in a National Space.” American Ethnologist 39 (1): 21–25.

———. 2013. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

———. 2015. “A Settler-Colonialism of Her Own: Imagining Palestine’s Alternatives.” Lecture, American University in Cairo, October 31.

———. 2016a. “Should We Act on Palestine or Not?” Anthropology News 24 (3): 16.

———. 2016b. Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. 30th-anniversary edition with a new afterword by the author. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Altorki, Soraya, and Camillia Fawzi El-Solh, eds. 1988. Arab Women in the Field: Studying Your Own Society. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Amir-Moazami, Schirin. 2015. Review of Do Muslim Women Need Saving? by Lila Abu-Lughod. Ethnicities 15 (5): 767–73.

anthroboycott. 2016. “The Struggle Continues: Campaign for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions Undeterred by American Anthropological Association Vote.” Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions website, June 7. Accessed August 3, 2016.

Bangstad, Sindre. 2015. The Politics of Mediated Presence: Exploring the Voices of Muslims in Norway’s Mediated Public Spheres. Oslo: Scandinavian Academic Press.

———, ed. Forthcoming. Anthropology of Our Times: An Edited Anthology in Public Anthropology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

cooke, miriam. 2007. “The Muslimwoman.” Contemporary Islam 1 (2): 139–54.

Davis, Dána-Ain, and Christa Craven, eds. 2016. Feminist Ethnography: Thinking through Methodologies, Challenges, and Possibilities. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.

Kandiyoti, Deniz. 2015. Review of Do Muslim Women Need Saving? by Lila Abu-Lughod. Ethnicities 15 (5): 759–62.

Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Malik, Maleiha. 2015. Review of Do Muslim Women Need Saving? by Lila Abu-Lughod. Ethnicities 15 (5): 762–67.

Sa’di, Ahmad H., and Lila Abu-Lughod, eds. 2007. Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lila Abu-Lughod
Department of Anthropology
Columbia University
452 Schermerhorn Extension
New York, NY 10027

Sindre Bangstad
KIFO, the Institute for Church, Religion, and Worldview Research
PO Box 45 Vinderen
NO-0319 Oslo, Norway