An American Abroad: Adam Valen Levinson’s “The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East”

“Another’s gaze is a powerful thing...I see you conscious of me, and I grow more self-conscious” -Adam Valen Levinson

By Rob Ames

Adam Valen Levinson covers a lot of ground in “The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah.” Geographically (and as the book’s narrator), he uses his temporary home of Abu Dhabi as a jumping-off point to travel the region:  Egypt, the Horn of Africa (Somaliland), the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq), the Persianate world (Iran and Afghanistan), South Asia (Pakistan), and, of course, the Gulf states (Yemen, Oman, Kuwait, and the non-Abu Dhabi Emirates). Literarily (and as its author), he manages to combine comedy, travel reporting, and cultural analysis. Above all else, though, “The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah” strikes me as a meditation upon  the question of what it means to be a white American in the Middle East and the various ways that experiences of cultural difference raise this question. At first glance, movement between states seems to drive the book’s plot, but, the real story is one taking place within the narrator:  as the book progresses, Levinson’s shows an increasing ability to reflect critically upon his own motives and identity.

The danger associated with the Middle East in the American mind is not only central to Levinson’s motivation in setting off on the travels his book records; it is also central to his perception of himself on these travels. He reflects, “I treated myself [emphasis mine] like an experiment, in a series of trials kept mostly random by deliberate ignorance, to test the hypothesis that had been worded for me on September 11: you can’t go there” (p. 327). He notes that the danger he encountered in these trips served not only as a personal challenge, but also to confirm his sense of himself as an autonomous being: “the me in these unknown places was freer, and freer still because the few things I really was--an American, a Jew--were like clothing I felt encouraged to wear differently at different occasions” (pp. 282-283).

These economic dimensions of identity also color his observations of political life in the UAE and the wider region. In Qeshm, one of Iran’s free-trade islands, Levinson realizes the centrality of purchasing power to his identity as an American: “With no money, we had lost the major advantage of being American in a place where nationality was meaningless” (p. 199). Similarly, successfully bribing a security guard increases his comfort with himself as a tourist in Egypt: “so long as the bakhshish is received as satisfactory, though, everything feels less scummy. I didn’t feel like the magnanimous colonist, the chalky Sahib...I just felt more complete, unashamed…” (p. 208). He frequently comments upon the contrast between the privilege of American and European foreigners in Abu Dhabi and the exploitation and exclusion of South and South East Asian migrant workers there: during Arab Spring, “the UAE barricaded us in an air-conditioned bubble,” one insulated from unrest, while “the most disenfranchised,” the “voiceless resident laborers,” were so isolated from public life they were  unable to protest in a manner comparable to those protesting in other states in the region. How, Levinson asks, could anyone protest, or “assert publicly,” “when those with the most reason to assert were hardly members of the public?” (p. 46).

Ultimately, Levinson comes to recognize that the attempt to overcome the fear of the Middle East and its residents, and thus overcome the boundary between self and other, in fact rests on that very fear: “By imagining that some Others could bring death to my doorstep, I flew to challenge them on their own turf, to see whether the existential dangers were truly there...I made each person play devil’s advocate to a stereotypical devil. Every little girl and old man stood in comparison to a deadly archetype--if the girl was sweet, she was also not prejudiced; if the man was a kind host, he was also not a murderer. I took the humanity out of the world I wanted to prove human” (p. 138). Similarly, he reflects, “each ‘next trip’” in his ever-expanding itinerary “held within it the very preconceptions I’d been fighting all along. Syria embattled more than Lebanon, Afghanistan more tense than Syria--Pakistan, more terrorized. Then Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Somalia….the way I looked for answers had made real understanding impossible. It was as if I’d set out on twenty-five thousand miles of blind dates, asking ‘are you awful?’ at first blush” (pp. 326-7). Indeed, Levinson’s increasing capacity for reflection and self-criticism over the course of “The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah” is its own narrative arc that runs in parallel to the main plot arc (the chronological progress of his travel).

It is this reflective tendency that the harsher critics of ADBM seem to overlook. After publishing an excerpt from it, LitHub’s editors went on to apologize for the selection’s “exoticizing language” and “casual Othering,” recognizing that such “a failure of literary empathy and observation” could reinforce a “toxic framework within which racism flourishes and power retrenches.” If “the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah” were nothing more than a collection of such failures, it would, of course, be worthy of condemnation and condemnation alone, but fortunately, Levinson is considerably more self-aware than LitHub’s editors and comment section recognize.

The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Middle East, by Adam Valen Levinson, 368 pp. W.W. Norton & Company.

(Un)Making Modernity: Jason A. Josephson-Storm’s “The Myth of Disenchantment” and How We Got Here

By Rob Ames

The Met Society considers its mission as a decidedly modern one. Jessica Scott frames her work on metropolitan security as a self-consciously novel project. First recognizing that “domestic security” is a concept “we take for granted in the developed world in the late modern era,” she then presents the NYPD’s role in metropolitan security as a mission to protect a city characterized by “cultured high modern metropolitanism.” Similarly, the introduction to our work on Inter-Metropolitan Relations notes, in “the modern era, cities haven’t had their own global institutions,” which Karthik Sankaran frames as a uniquely modern problem: “Despite the centrality of cities, the world’s political and ideological structures have been organized for a few centuries around the dueling concepts of nation-state and class.” So here, we see two notions of modernity at work: on the one hand, there is the idea the that the city itself is modern, not only in that it is cultured and metropolitan (in Scott’s case), but also (in Sankaran’s case) that cities are simultaneously central to the global economy but underserved by contemporary, national institutions. On the other hand, in the case of domestic security in Scott’s article, there is the recognition that we take much of what we call modern for granted; it is simply a given that a political unit’s ability to provide security for its residents is a precondition of its being a developed, modern entity. Such appeals to development and modernity often rest on implicit assumptions about the relationship between reason and development; it is usually taken for granted that modernization is equivalent to bureaucratic rationalization, or, more broadly, the growth of instrumental rationality within a culture’s intellectual life. Given how frequently we at the Met Society appeal to the modern, we would benefit from some critical reflection on how we’ve come to equate development and reason.

Jason A. Josephson-Storm’s “The Myth of Disenchantment” offers the reader the opportunity for just such a reflection. The book’s titular disenchantment refers to some of the phenomena most characteristic of modernity: “the rise of instrumental reason, the gradual alienation of humanity from nature, and the production of a bureaucratic and technological life world stripped of mystery and wonder” (p. 4). Max Weber, who figures prominently in my discussion with Met Society executive director Peter Marino on the first episode of our podcast, is also one of the main characters in discussions of disenchantment, having first conceived of modernization as die Entzauberung der Welt, the “de-magic-ing” of the world, or, the process by which we’ve come to take it for granted “that the contemporary, industrial, capitalist societies of Western Europe and North America have lost their magic, and that it is this absence that makes them modern” (p. 4). In “The Myth of Disenchantment,” though, Josephson-Storm sets out to demonstrate that disenchanted modernity is “a hegemon that never achieved full mastery” by “exploring the haunting presence of magic in the very instances when disenchantment was itself being theorized,” as illustrated by the fact that a figure like Weber was “enmeshed in the occult milieu” (pp. 5-6). Josephson-Storm reconsiders the relationship between a number of theorists of modern disenchantment and magic, but, for the purposes of this review, I will focus on his treatment of Weber and the myths that have developed around his work. One such myth is Weber’s reputation as a purely disinterested sociologist, while another is the very notion that Weber referred to the modernizing phenomena listed above when using the phrase die Entzauberung der Welt.

To speak first to the question of the personal context of Weber’s writing: Josephson-Storm’s thorough research has revealed that Weber frequently vacationed at a commune in Ascona, Switzerland known as Monte Verita, which served as the headquarters of an organization known as the Hermetic Brotherhood of Light. In his 1917 constitution for this group (also known as the Ordo Templi Orientis), Theodor Reuss identified it as a “Modern School of Magic” (p. 269). Weber, famed though he may be for his theory of disenchantment, was quite enchanted with Ascona: in a 1914 letter, he called the commune there his “home” and regarded it as “a sort of oasis of purity” that contrasted sharply with the “‘human’ world based on superficial sensations” (p. 277).

Regarding the concept of disenchantment itself, for Josephson-Storm, its normal use “as a poetical synonym for secularization or modern rationalization,” and the assumption among Weber scholars “that a disenchanted world has absolutely no magic in it” miss the mark when compared to Weber’s work itself. As evidence for his argument to dissociate disenchantment from secularization, Josephson-Storm points out that according to Weber, “the complete disenchantment of the world has only been carried out to its full conclusion” by Puritans, who are, of course, quite closely associated with superstition, given that they also conducted New England’s famous seventeenth-century witch trials (pp. 270-271). This suggests that 1) opposition to magic need not be accompanied by the withering away of religion in the public sphere and 2) that the rejection of magic need not entail the denial of its efficacy (after all, why hunt witches if you don’t believe in their magic?). According to Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” the disenchantment that Puritans enacted so thoroughly was theological and ethical rather descriptive or scientific: they did not deny the efficacy of magical action upon the world or in social life, but instead denied that there was any “magical means of attaining the grace of God,” which is simply to say that they were logically consistent in their adherence to the Protestant notion that the individual believer could not be saved through individual action or ritual performance, but instead “that salvation is solely due to the sovereign grace of God” (p. 281). Josephson-Storm goes on to note that the development of this denial into the idea that individuals’ conduct could not make an impact on cosmic affairs troubled Weber, who observed that the transformation of disenchantment info a “causal mechanism” leads “rational, empirical knowledge” into “tension with the demands of the ethical postulate” (p. 283). Josephson-Storm continues by pointing out that Weber’s later work proposed mysticism as one of the few alternatives remaining “alongside the de-deified (entgotteten) mechanism of the world;” in this view of Weber’s oeuvre, “one can see him working toward a set of oppositions: on one side, the alienation produced by bureaucracy, routinization, intellectual hyper-specialization; and on the other side, the potentially (but not necessarily) redemptive charisma, mysticism, and authentic prophecy” (p. 297). What are we to make of this new, mystical Weber? Why does this matter for an international affairs think tank?

To return to the themes with which I opened this review, I’ll begin to answer the above questions by saying that reading “the Myth of Disenchantment” gives us occasion to question our own self-consciously modern framing of the Met Society’s mission and to ponder the specific aspects of modernity in which we are investing when committing our projects to “the modern era.” Of greater import, though, is the bearing of Josephson-Storm’s project on international studies more generally. Disenchantment, the sciences born of a mechanistic cosmology, and capitalist economics were, until quite recently, taken as proof of the simultaneously natural and rational dominance of the West over the Global South, which was in turn deemed irrational, superstitious, and inferior because of the persistence of belief in magic there. More recent (and somewhat less monstrously colonial) accounts of modernity have countered this by highlighting the coexistence of magic and modernity within the Global South rather than casting the Global South as a world of tradition that contrasts a modern West. Josephson-Storm writes, “while lingering enchantments used to be taken as a rationale for the backwardness of non-European others, today, they are often regarded as evidence that the disenchantment model is an uncomfortable fit outside the land of its birth” (p. 23). His project goes a step further, though, and recognizes that the disenchantment model has been an uncomfortable fit within the land of its birth as well. Although I would hesitate to follow Josephson-Storm in adopting Bruno Latour’s maxim “we have never been modern,” I do think that  “The Myth of Disenchantment” offers a valuable lesson to self-consciously modern, Western analysts of international affairs. It reminds us that the concepts by which we define and justify our intellectual pursuits are myths. This is not to say that they lack any bearing on the real world, but rather to note that they function more to regulate our intellectual conduct than they do to describe a collection of historical facts. That being the case, Josephson-Storm gives us the chance to pause and ask what other myths we might take for granted in our analysis; he reminds us that many of the tools by which we study global affairs first developed to divide the west from the rest, and therefore enjoins us to ask whether how much our intellectual labor is really describing conditions as they are elsewhere in the world, and how much is simply repeating a story about who we’ve come to believe we ought to be.

The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences, by Jason A. Josephson-Storm, 400 pp., University of Chicago Press.

An Autonomous New York City Foreign Policy: Now is the Time

This post originally appeared in Gotham Gazette on September 26, 2017. The introduction is available here, and you can read the full piece at the link below:

What does it mean for a City to have a foreign policy? And specifically what would it mean for New York City to have a foreign policy? At first sight, this question might seem somewhat absurd. It is, of course, the US Government that has a State Department and a Defense Department and embassies all around the world, not New York City. Diplomacy and international affairs are the work of the sovereign, are they not? Why would New York need to, or even be able to, duplicate the work that Washington is already doing here? In short, is New York distinct enough to need, or to be able to benefit from, an autonomous “Metropolitan Foreign Policy?” And how would this even be accomplished?


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