Category Archives: Minutes of meetings and debates

Round Table – The Middle East and its Tribes: A useful resource or a troubling legacy?

The Middle East and its Tribes: A useful resource or a troubling legacy?

Tuesday December 8th 2015 from 9 AM to 5:30 PM 
Erbil citadel
Affiche copy (1) (1)
 The social form known as “Tribe” has been the subject of many studies in the contemporary field of social sciences; examples of these works include Émile Durkheim (1893), Pierre Clastres (1974) and Edward Evans-Pritchard (1968). This category has been judged irrelevant by many specialists of African societies due to the colonial semantic weight (Amselle et M’Bokolo, 2005). However this notion of Tribe is witnessing a new kind of interest in the Middle Eastern context and in the broader context of the Islamic World (J. Friedman, 1975 ; P. Bonte et E. Conte, 1991 ; P.S. Khoury et J. Kostiner, 1991 ; H. Dawod, 2004 ; R. Tapper, ; P. Dresch,  etc.). Underlined by a frantic public debate, which tries to make sense of the Libyan, Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian conflicts, the “tribal question” does not seem to fade away. Moreover the multiplication of questionings concerning the relationship between State and Tribes nourishes the renewed interest for this social formation.
Although this roundtable will definitely deal with contemporary problematics, it will avoid answering the specific questions dealt with in the public debate, namely “whether Middle-East societies will undergo a process of re-tribalisation or of de-tribalisation?”. This academic group will intend to envisage the “Tribe” as a multifaceted phenomenon from the viewpoint of its political and social efficiency in the long run. The proposed study will take the form of a series of linked investigations highlighting analogous issues, concerning diverse populations in different periods.
Putting the historical question at the core of our approach certainly allows us to consider the firm grounding of these social and political ascriptions and self-attributions of identity within the Middle East societies. It also helps reaffirm the necessity of anthropological studies aimed at understanding past periods. And lastly it gives scholars the opportunity to stay away from any evolutionist vision putting the advent of political and economic “modernity” at the core of any social transformation taking place during the 20th and the 21st centuries. Thus the notion of neo-tribalism put forward by Jonathan Friedmann (2004) will be questioned. This group will deal with the writing of the history of well-known contemporary tribes while reconstructing historical narratives used by tribal actors and dealing with tribal phenomena evoked by Arab, Turkish, Persian and other historiographies. The different case studies will present the meaning of what the ‘Tribe’ implies for social, political and economic organization of Middle Eastern societies.
Several thematic paths will be considered:
  • Construct or deconstruct the “Tribe”: what are the tools to understand the phenomenon? Many debates on the question of ‘Tribes’ focus on its ontology. While some scholars acknowledge the intractable presence of family logics within the structuration of political fields in the Middle East, others find many reasons to exclude this variable from their analyses. Are there new and useful tools available in order to overcome this sterile debate?
  • Segmentarity and power within the tribe: What about the status of the tribal chieftain? What about the assumed relativity of power and segments (clans and sub-clans) within the tribe submitted (or not) to the logics of segmentary fusion and fission?
  • Aristocracies, casts or tribes? Does the tribal structures belong to the whole society or does it only apply to specific (acting and armed) segments of the society?
  • Tribes and bedouinness: Is the social and economic Bedouin organization (subsistence economy) at the core or the origin of the said tribal societies? What is the link between way of life, distribution of economic tasks and belonging to the tribe? Apparently rhetorical for political science specialists, this question is not unimportant for historians and anthropologists although concerned by the need to avoid any essentialist or determinist approach.
  • Tribes and States: The Tribe can be perceived as the (political, security or fiscal) interface for State power or as an organization structured in opposition to it. It will be necessary to consider the articulation beyond the narrative depicting the tribes dissolving themselves in the State structure. From this point of view the historical approach is enlightening.
  • The sectarian variable: Does belonging to a sect produce cleavages and assert the separation between tribes or within the tribes? This approach allows for us to expose the complexity of identities and highlight the role of tribal solidarity networks within general social dynamics among which the sectarian logics can be found.
  • Loci and situations where the tribe manifests itself (diwanxana/madafa, ta‘ziyye, majalis, diwaniyya, intertribal conflicts, elections etc.): Discourses of tribal belonging do not seem to be deployed or to be efficient in all the contexts. The study group will undertake the task of listing these loci and contexts while taking into account the presence of competing narratives and analyzing their articulation in these ‘tribally dominated’ contexts.


9:00-9:15 Introduction
9:15-10:00 Edouard Conte (CNRS-LAS)
“Intisâb. Elective Affinities and the Construction of Pedigree in North Jordan”
10:00-10:45 Norig Neveu (Ifpo-Amman)
“‘We are all brothers’, questioning tribal and sectarian solidarities in the region of Karak (South Jordan) in the 20th century”.
10 :45-11 :00 Coffee Break
11:00-11:45 Claire Beaugrand (Ifpo-Territoire Palestinien)
“The construction of hadhar/badu/bidun categories in Kuwait”
11:45-12h30 Victoria Fontan (American University of Dohuk)
“The relevance of tribes and tribal systems in social cohesion against ISIS”
12:30-14:00 Lunch Break
14:00-14:45 Boris James (Ifpo-Erbil)
“In, out or against the Empire: the cursed destiny of medieval Kurdish Tribes”
14:45-15:30 Djene Bajalan (American University of Iraq, Sulaimani)
“Tribe and Nation in the Ottoman Kurdistan (1880-1914)”
15:30-15:45 Coffee Break
15:45-16:30 Edith Szanto (American University of Iraq, Sulaimani)
“From Faith to Family: Religion and Tribes in Modern Kurdistan.”
16:30-17:15 Sara Zandi Karimi Bajalan (American University of Iraq, Sulaimani)
Kurdish tribes and the state in Iran during the interwar period
17:15-17:30 Conclusion
Each contribution will last 30 minutes.