- Contested Encounters:Boundaries of American Studies and the Middle East
As Matthew Jacobson noted in 2002, Melani McAlister's Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East Since 1945 (2001) first appeared on bookshelves, by a stroke of fate, right when the transnational turn in American Studies met 9/11. Clearly disturbed by increasing calls for knowledge (or "intelligence") on the Middle East in the service of the nascent War on Terror, Jacobson chose to underplay McAlister's focus on the Middle East in his review, listing Epic Encounters as first and foremost a transnational American Studies project examining the impact of the foreign on the domestic—politics, cultural productions, and identities—alongside the work of, for example, Amy Kaplan and Paul Gilroy (307–8). Yet, as Ebony Coletu and Ira Dworkin note in their Introduction to a 2016 special issue of Comparative American Studies on Transnational American Studies in the Middle East and North Africa, "The lesson for transnational studies is that meaning is made within a shifting and layered set of demands for narratives of resistance and critique" (201). Since 9/11, these demands have inevitably focused on "the Middle East," generating an exciting and booming subfield of American Studies.
Epic Encounters is a deeply Americanist book. Its analytical frame fractures "the West"—a largely homogeneous entity in Said's Orientalism (1978)—into historically situated stakeholders often at odds with each other. McAlister examines how post–World War II US policymakers positioned the US as a "benevolent" foil to imperialist Europe. She also demonstrates how different individuals and [End Page 579] groups based in the US construed the Middle East and their own identities differently—sometimes in opposition to US empire and in sympathetic alliance with the Muslim Third World, as with the Nation of Islam. If the book left critics wanting more, it was because the encounters it portrays were mostly imagined by Americans and directed by US foreign policy; "the Middle East" operated as a resource for the construction of gendered and racialized American identities but did not speak on its own, for itself.1 The last decade and a half has provided opportunities for scholars to delve more deeply into contestations among US-based publics regarding the Middle East, even as others have begun foregrounding Middle Eastern voices and perspectives. These two approaches, utilizing complementary archival emphases to examine who or what is interacting when "America" and "the Middle East" intersect, have given us a richer, more nuanced field than we could have imagined in 2001.
Chad Parker's Making the Desert Modern: Americans, Arabs, and Oil on the Saudi Frontier, 1933–1973 reminds us that in the twentieth century, US encounters with the Middle East were not only largely filtered through the concepts of modernization, but also challenged and (re)shaped such totalizing theories. Making the Desert Modern explores how the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), which held the only oil concession in the Saudi Kingdom in the midcentury, improvised "modernization" on the ground, attempting to strike a balance among the Saudi monarchy, its local and imported work force, and the US government, forging an ever-closer relationship with the monarchy in the process. Parker builds upon Robert Vitalis's America's Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier (2007), which also highlights the role the company played in institutionalizing the US presence in Saudi Arabia. Although Vitalis sees the rhetoric of modernization and development largely through the lenses of corporate branding or "mythmaking" as a veneer to obscure the US export of Jim Crow and industrial labor exploitation practices to the Middle East, Parker acknowledges the rhetoric and analyzes the process. Modernization, he argues...