Miriam Cooke begins with a contrast between the "bleak and colorless" Dubai of her first visit in 1973 and a metropolis of "fantasy architecture" that she encountered in 2008. This observation, as the title suggests, leads the author to seek to explain the contradictions between traditional society (which she seems to conflate with tribal) and modern or modernizing society. Her contention is that elements of both coexist relatively harmoniously and, to explain this seeming contradiction, she employs the concept of barzakh, "a Quranic term that variously designates the metaphysical space between life and the hereafter and also the physical space between sweet and salt waters" (p. 71).
Cooke states in an endnote that the geographical focus of her inquiry is limited to Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE, but the book ranges more widely to often include Oman and especially Saudi Arabia as well. Following a brief historical survey and a sketch of the tribal nature of Gulf society, the author introduces a five-tier class system. At the top, she sees the ruling families and the tribes of demonstrated loyalty. Those who left in previous hard times but returned constitute the second class. The third consists of those of Persian origins, either ajam ("Arabs originally from Persia") or haulas [sic] ("Arabs who left the Peninsula, usually to escape tribal feuding, settled in Persia, and then returned to the Arabian shores of the Gulf"). The fourth class is formed by the abid or former slaves, descendants of Africans, while the fifth comprises the bedoon [sic] — national populations without citizenship, although she does not distinguish between the dissimilar bidun communities in different countries (pp. 61-62).
These opening chapters lead into her central focus on the cardinal role of tribal identity in the branding of the new Gulf states: "Far from medieval or primitive markers, tribes are modern. ... Each Gulf nation-state has to find ways to distinguish itself from its neighbors while confronting local challenges to newfound wealth and potential power. The mark of distinction, that is also the brand of excellence, is the tribe" (p. 65). Accordingly, Gulf regimes actively seek to create, in a reference to Hobsbawm and Ranger, "invented traditions" in order to maintain and deepen their legitimacy and relevance. As part of this branding process, she explores the "heritage engineering" represented by the emphasis on cultural activities such as folkloric customs, national dress, poetry and literature, as well as the passion for world-class museums and a renewed attention to suqs (as in the reconstructed and reimagined Suq Waqif in Doha). Cooke also discusses the impact of change on women (perceiving an artistic preoccupation with a "mortal cold" emanating from a loss in their modern lives) and on the gay culture of the Gulf states (including the emergence of boyah [plural, boyat], girls who dress and act like boys).
Given the considerable importance of social and cultural change in a rapidly changing region, Tribal Modern seems more troubling than satisfying. First, it is not clear who the intended audience is. The book seems aimed primarily at a general readership or students without much familiarity with the region. It reads like a series of class lectures, with a few notes thrown in to indicate secondary sources, and packaged in book form. Many or most of the notes are either of the variety "quoted in ..." or gleaned from the Internet.
The many references to tribes and "tribal" seem superficial and have little relation to forms of social organization — including the fact that much of Gulf society was not and is not tribal. On the one hand, tribe seems to her to represent the past, a state that Gulf societies have grown beyond; on the other hand, tribal identity is part of the Gulf states' branding, thus "tribal modern." This seeming contradiction is encapsulated in her forced anecdote about a ceremonial procession of camels through Doha, leading her to muse on a distinction between "the educated and cosmopolitan ... modern hadar," who drive SUVs and Lamborghinis, and the "Bedouin tribes ... like these members of the Dukhan Camel Club, [who] ride dromedaries" (p. 54).
Cooke focuses principally on cultural representations of past and present, although she does not claim that culture is the principal focus of her disquisition. She relies heavily on the writings of anthropologists Sulayman Khalaf and Anh Nga Longva for her conclusions, but her subject would have been strengthened by reference to the insights of Soraya Altorki, Dawn Chatty, Dale Eickelman, Andrew Gardner, Fuad Khuri, Peter Lienhardt, Mandana Limbert, Anie Montigny-Kozlowska, Sharon Nagy, Baquer al-Najjar, Khaldoun al-Naqeeb, Madawi al-Rasheed, Muhammed al-Rumaihi, Mary Ann Tétreault and Mai Yamani, to name just a few. There are, however, worthy questions and keen observations in these pages, and these allow Miriam Cooke's short book to serve as an interesting exploratory essay about the nature of social and cultural change in the Gulf.