Elie Podeh, The Politics of National Celebrations in the Arab Middle East.

Review by Kelly Wiechart

Podeh, Elie. (2011) The Politics of National Celebrations in the Arab Middle East. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[1] The Arab Spring brought Middle East politics live and unedited to our Web 2.0 screens. Public squares very publically renamed, monuments vibrantly defaced, statues unceremoniously toppled. Flags, gun salutes, anthems, musical mashups, sound bites, video clips, blogs, Tweets. Were we witnessing an awakening or merely a reawakening? Among other things, it was a move from calculated elite hegemony to instantaneous popular creation of national cultural identity that has been building throughout the last two centuries.

[2] Elie Podeh's first venture into cultural studies, The Politics of National Celebrations in the Arab Middle East (2011), offers historical-cultural insights into the highly complex interplay between national, global, and Arab state identities since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Podeh, Prof. of Islamic and Middle East Studies, has penned previous historical books on the region including From Fahd to 'Abdallah (2005), Britain and the Middle East (2008), and The decline of Arab Unity (1999). While these earlier works focus more on the political, ideological, social, and economic processes in Arab nations, this text explores the tangible tools of enculturation used to foment these processes into a collective nationalist memory.

[3] Podeh sets out to test the applicability of Anthony Smith's ethno-symbolism theory of nationalism with modifications based on the common language and shared culture of the five Arab case study nations. He advances the hypothesis of an inverse correlation between the number of state-sanctioned holidays and the self-perceived legitimacy of the Arab nation's ruling regime. Through historical narrative structure, this foray into cultural studies explores the various artifacts that nations have used to foster local territorial identity as a political tool for regime validation and propagation. Tracing the evolutions and revolutions of the holidays and their respective embodiments, Podeh provides a categorical analysis of transformations of state and popular holidays from the fall of the Ottoman Empire through the first decade of the 21st century. While not original, Arab holiday history remains unique because of the artificiality of state creation in the Arab World and the intricacy in creating origin myths to define such otherwise unnatural nation-building. Weaving through Islamic and Western colonial to post-colonial monarchial and revolutionary periods, Podeh categorizes the shared holidays while also distinguishing the unique situations in which each of the five case study nations have incorporated these holidays into their commemorative cultures. While discussing a variety of cultural insignia like flags, emblems, anthems, memorials, and rituals, the analysis largely focuses on the ways in which the national calendar has been used to distinguish local territorial identity from the monolithic Arab culture. With a predominantly Muslim populous, religious holidays tend to unify, thus nationalistic cultural artifacts celebrated on public holidays delineate between "us and them," providing artificial yet effective agency in distinction between Iraqis, Egyptians, Jordanians, Lebanese, and Saudis.

[4] The Bay'a ceremony serves as the key overarching rite consistent amongst the five case studies. The Bay'a or "oath of allegiance" is a traditional Islamic ritual largely approximating a modern vote of confidence in which consensus, forced or voluntary, establishes the initial legitimacy of a newly ascended leader. Even among the secular republican revolutionaries, this ritual provided the first step into ideological acculturation of the new polity. Perhaps most remarkable is the detailed account of Iraqi secularist Saddam Husayn's 1982 Bay'a invocation and the National Assembly's delivery of a blood-signed "document of allegiance."

[5] Podeh divides these public holidays into binary categories to provide the overall structure of the book. Holidays are formal or informal; soft or hard; secular or religious, and external or internal (Western or Soviet vs. "homegrown"). As collections of holidays, national calendars fall into the categories of either "thin" in Jordan with four national and seven religious holidays and Saudi Arabia with only three holidays in total, or "thick," as in Egypt, Lebanon, and particularly Iraq, with 20 official holidays under Bathist rule. Aligning with Podeh's theory, Jordan's "thin" calendar shows stability and continuity over the four kings' reigns. The ceremonies and memorials commemorating these holidays represent a successful hybridization that maintains the Hashemite religious line of legitimacy in succession from the Prophet Mohammed while employing tools of Western nation-building in creation and propagation of the origin myth based on the Great Arab Revolt. To explore how public holidays, both religious and national, have been used to advance a "story of the state" and to legitimize the rule of the in-power regime, Podeh highlights secular holidays laden with religious symbols in Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarek's Egypt, religious holidays celebrated with all the secular trappings of a modern county fair in Saudi Arabia, and the coronation of King Abdullah I of Jordan which was heralded by kilted bagpipers and three cheers of "Long live the king." This ceremonial depiction of the tenuous balance amongst secular monarchy and religious republic provides a clearer perspective into how Islam and radicalism came to be such a political force of contention in the Middle East.

[6] Background in cultural theory frames the text structure with the first two chapters providing a comprehensive yet accessible overview of the culture of commemoration. The "Conclusions" chapter revisits this concept in its treatment of Anthony Smith's "territorialization of memory" (p.285) as depicted in the individual chapters on each nation. The case studies highlight the unique features of each country's calendar and celebrations while relating these nationalistic cultural artifacts to the overall concept of commemorative culture. Salient data points, such as Nasser's deliberate orchestration of a personality cult, Lebanese popular preservation of Martyrs' Day despite government dissolution during the years of civil war, and the formal institutionalization of a completely secular Saudi National Day in 2005 despite Wahhabi objection, help to corroborate the hypothesis across the sampling of republic and monarchial nations.

[7] Within the individual case studies, the rather clunky historical narrative structure weighs down the ethnographic potential often twisting the reader into a spiral of dizzying Islamic and Western dates; however, the technique is symbolically relevant for depicting the fickle nature of representational regime legitimacy. At times, the categorical analyses become so mired in chronological precision that the anthropological and cultural symbolism appear as an afterthought at best. Nonetheless, these individual cases provide historical investigation of the geopolitics at play in each nation and serve well to illustrate the role of territorial symbolism in identity creation across stable monarchies such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia as well as rapidly transforming republics like Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq.

[8] While there is quite a hearty foundation of scholarship on the culture of commemoration in Western and Israeli cultures and subcultures, this book represents a heretofore untapped area. This systematic study draws on previously shrouded government controlled media sources and declassified accounts from diplomats to map the history of commemorative nation-building. The empirical collection provides a framework for exploring the historical instability in the Middle East and provides a contextual background for analysis of the Arab Spring as well as guidelines of what to watch in the developments of new regimes in the area. Acknowledging the underdeveloped field of cultural history of the Arab world, the book serves as a starting point for more interdisciplinary work in region and country-specific studies. Particularly salient in considering the "next steps" of countries rebuilding after the 2011 Arab Spring is the role of stability in cultural symbols in the nationalistic acculturation process. Consistent symbols and narratives provide for seamless socialization into nationalist ideology. The depiction of Iraqi leaders completely obliterating the semiotic scraps of previous regimes proves quite telling in this respect.

[9] Podeh's analysis would serve well as a guide for newly redeveloping nations to harness the power of 21st century ubiquitous culture creation as they come to yet another juncture in their origin myth cycles. Whereas commemorative culture has long been the product of the polity, today, it is being written by those who live it.