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Reviewed by:
  • On the Edge of Empire: Hadramawt, Emigration and the Indian Ocean 1880–1930s, and: Merchants, Mamluks and Murder: The Political Economy of Trade in Eighteenth-Century Basra
  • R. J. Barendse
On the Edge of Empire: Hadramawt, Emigration, and the Indian Ocean, 1880s–1930s. By Linda Boxberger. SUNY Series in Near Eastern Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002. 292 + xix pp.$22.95 (paper).
Merchants, Mamluks, and Murder: The Political Economy of Trade in Eighteenth-Century Basra. By Thabit A. J. Abdullah. SUNY Series in the Social and Economic History of the Orient. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. 180 + xviii pp. $20.95 (paper).

These two fine studies are connected not merely by their publisher but also, as the authors would concede, by the Indian Ocean and by the common theme of European expansion in the Indian Ocean. The central theme of Abdullah is the peripherialization of what was—in the eighteenth century—by far the most important regional trading center of the Gulf. The theme of Boxberger is the subsequent evolution of an area that can hardly be called anything but peripheral in the first place: the Hadramawt valley during the heyday of European colonialism. Boxberger argues that the Hadramawt was "on the edge" of [End Page 266] European empire. Hadramawt was very remote and isolated from the empires of both the British and the Dutch East Indies. It was a "backwater," if anything, with no industrial developments and up to the 1920s—not even a single mechanical pump—caught in an at least archaic-looking social order, where, for example, the age-hallowed slave soldiers of Islam still assumed most important positions in the government. Yet paradoxically, by ties of migration of Hadramawtis to the British and above all to the Dutch East Indies, the Hadramawt fully participated in European empire, and through the remittances of these migrants was indeed a major profitor of European empire. Yes, there were strains in this order, but what is most striking in Boxberger's account is not so much the strain as the stability of this social order. For "since new fashions, institutions and ideas entered Hadramawt largely by the agency of members of Hadramawti emigrant communities, they were filtered according to deeply held local values. Still, the response to the challenges of material and ideological change was not uniform, with contention over ideas and discord over material wealth creating new cleavages in an already fragmented social order." Stability, then, for to an extent the order was precisely so stable because it was so highly fragmented. And if this period featured far-reaching political change in Hadramawt—such as the establishment of a British protectorate in 1888 and the conflict between the Kathiri and the Qu'ayti sultanate coming to a head during World War I and settled in the agreement of Aden of 1918—the keyword of the long "historical anthropological" section on rural and urban life on the coast and in the hinterland, on ceremonies and rites of passages, that forms the true heart of Boxberger's book is certainly stability. There was some small change partly because of all that newfound wealth flowing into the Hadramawt from abroad, as for example in the increasing use of ankle bracelets and armloads of bangles "imitated" from India or in the increasingly sumptuous wedding parties of rich familes. Yet most impressive is the anthropological past tense in which this whole long section is written, emphasizing—as in the case of agricultural production—that it still "followed a long standing system that was standardized by custom and contract." Mind you, the period described here is the age of the rise of mass consumption, the welfare state, the second industrial revolution, Hitler, and Stalin. Yet what was imported were hand-manufactured ornaments from India and dates from the Gulf, and the nearest parallel to Pravda or theVölkischer Beobachter in Hadramawt would be the handwritten (!) journal al-Thahdib (correction), which published a mere five issues. The great virtue of Boxberger's "emic" perspective on Hadramawti society (approaching it, as she does, [End Page 267] through Hadramawti written sources never used before and extensive interviewing rather...


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