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Anthropological Quarterly 80.1 (2007) 265-270

Reviewed by
Andrew Shryock
University of Michigan
Engseng Ho, The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility Across the Indian Ocean. Berkeley: University of California Press, November, 2006, 406 pp.

Studies of "the global" and "the diasporic" have lost much of the aura that surrounded them in the 1990s. This normalization is a good thing. The brave new world of transnationalism was oddly oblivious to its own provincialism. Its "global flows," once portrayed as streaming everywhere, were in fact congested and predictably channeled. The routes, the migrants, and the authors who wrote about them were often oriented toward points north and west; trips south and east were most noteworthy when they originated (or ended) in European or North American metropoles. The nation-state, diagnosed (circa 1995) as withering and intellectually passé, was the indispensable backdrop for most diaspora studies and for many of the most influential ethnographies of transmigration. Insistent claims for theoretical "newness," made against the nation-state form, often shifted attention away from other and older world systems. Likewise, the progressive location of transnations in a post/modern present and future—the temporal equivalent of north by northwest—was a choice that could have been made differently.

The Graves of Tarim, by Engseng Ho, is a book about diaspora, about networks both global and transnational, yet it is located on an intellectual landscape remarkably unlike the one described above. Analytically, Graves is filled [End Page 265] with choices made differently. Ho's diaspora is composed of descendents of the Prophet Muhammad ("sayyids") who, beginning in the early 16th century (C.E.), moved out of Hadramawt, a region in Yemen, and across the Indian Ocean, spreading their names, erudition, genes, and peculiar brand of Sufi Islam, the `Alawi Way, creating a transregional community that persists to this day. The Hadrami diaspora is located primarily to the south and east (of its origin in South Arabia). It belongs to another and older global ecumene (that of Indian Ocean Islam). In time, it is located before, during, and after the Portuguese, Dutch, and British empires; it straddles the postcolonial nation-states of East Africa, South and Southeast Asia; it cross-cuts transnational networks of Islamic revival, labor migration, and investment in multinational corporations. By the 18th century, Hadrami sayyids were a well-established feature of Indian Ocean societies; they "belonged" everywhere, yet they stood out among local populations as elites. Europeans saw them as sophisticated rivals. This combination of local fit and cosmopolitan distinction creates special challenges for Ho, just as it did (and still does) for Hadrami sayyids. The genius of Graves is found in Ho's decision to meet these challenges by reproducing, in his own ethnographic writing, strategies that have brought enviable success (and, during the last century, a heavy measure of disaffection and suffering) to those who have traveled in the `Alawi Way.

Ho's method is fascinating. He is not looking at a single "community"—in the Andersonian sense—spread out in shared space or time. Instead, the society he studies is articulated across different spaces and times. Its "members" have belonged to diverse language families, dynastic polities, national communities, even "races," yet they have been aware of their status as Hadrami sayyids. Apart from this awareness, there is no "community" to describe. Ho's dilemma, as an ethnographer, is to represent a "society" that is always located, is mostly located, in other places and times. Ho calls the Hadrami diaspora a "society of the absent," and his task is to make it "present." Genealogy, a shared fixation of anthropologists and sayyids, is the tool Ho uses. It is not a floppy, hegemonic, metaphoric genealogy of Foucauldian or Nietzschean vintage. It is genealogy of a literal kind—of the so-and-so begat so-and-so variety—with all it can organize as a moral, philosophical, historical, and legal apparatus. Ho introduces us to an oceanic world held together by lines of descent from the Prophet Muhammad. As the Hadramis moved, they...


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