Joseph Massad: orientalist!

Last week, I brought this quote from Columbia University student-abuser Joseph Massad, regarding his book Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan: “The only unfavorable review, out of seventeen favorable reviews, it received was in Martin Kramer’s unscholarly magazine, Middle East Quarterly.” So I reproduced that review, which happened to have been written by a highly regarded scholar of Jordan, Asher Susser–someone Massad himself cites as an authority.

It turns out that this wasn’t the only unfavorable review. A Jordanian friend recalled reading a negative review in Jordan’s leading daily newspaper, Al-Ra’i, and went to the trouble of tracking down its author to get it. The reviewer, Jehad Al-Mheisen, is a researcher at the Jordan Press Foundation in Amman, and the author of a book (in Arabic) on tribe and state in Jordan. His review of Massad’s book appeared in Al-Ra’i on July 18, 2003, page 25. Here it is, in Arabic (pdf). (I also have the newspaper page, which I’ll get around to scanning, uploading and posting. The last bit of page one in the pdf version is cut off.)

The title of Al-Mheisen’s review is an apt synopsis of what follows: “An Orientalist View of the Making of Jordanian Identity.” Massad, he writes, is fixated on the top-down role of the army and the law in forging a Jordanian identity. But he completely overlooks the country’s social structure, most importantly the tribes. The integration of the bureaucracy with traditional social groups like tribes forms the core of Jordanian identity, which is durable, deep-rooted, and authentic. In that respect, Jordan isn’t any different than other Arab countries, including Egypt. Unfortunately, suggests Al-Mheisen, Massad is less interested in historical analysis than in political posturing. The resulting study is marred by “numerous distortions” and “conclusions that have no bearing on reality.” As for Massad’s invocation of Foucault and Gramsci, it’s just a formality. The analysis itself “serves Massad’s a priori orientalist perspective.”

Not being a Jordan expert myself, I won’t venture an opinion on the substance of Al-Mheisen’s critique. Of course, it’s wonderfully ironic that a Jordanian should charge Massad with orientalism. If that means seeing the West as prime mover, and denying Arab-Muslim “subjects” all agency, then Massad seems vulnerable. Even a sympathetic reviewer has complained that “the mass of the population barely get a mention in Massad’s account, the key subjects of which are the ‘Great Men’ of Jordanian history.” The greatest man is Glubb Pasha, the British commander of the Arab Legion and the anti-hero of Colonial Effects. “There is an impression that one, white, male, colonial subject is privileged with potency, whereas the agency of others is effaced. For the colonizer, one theory of the subject, for the colonized, another.” Hmmm, sounds like orientalism to me.

Al-Mheisen’s review gets effaced too. If, like Massad, you’re Jordanian-born and raised, you’re a regular visitor to Jordan, and you’re author of a book on Jordan, you’re going to know that your book was hammered in the kingdom’s leading daily newspaper. But why spoil the impression of scholarship above reproach? Anyway, the thumbs-down review appeared in Arabic, and who reads that? A committee in faraway Manhattan won’t be the wiser, so why not keep the narrative simple and elegant? Only one unfavorable review! And Kramer published it!

Alas for Massad, there are people in Jordan who do read the country’s top newspaper, and even remember what they’ve read, especially when it has to do with their “identity.” So he’s been caught in yet another lie, this one easily documented. Is there a pattern here? You tell me.