Reproducing the Future: In Conversation with Sara Pursley
Sara Pursley is Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. She is the author of, among other articles and book chapters, Familiar Futures: Time, Selfhood, and Sovereignty in Iraq. Iraq was the first postcolonial state recognized as legally sovereign by the League of Nations amid the twentieth-century wave of decolonization movements. It also emerged as an early laboratory of development projects designed by Iraqi intellectuals, British colonial officials, American modernization theorists, and postwar international agencies. Familiar Futures considers how such projects—from the country's creation under British mandate rule in 1920 through the 1958 revolution to the first Baʿth coup in 1963—reshaped Iraqi everyday habits, desires, and familial relations in the name of a developed future.
Gabriel Young is a Ph.D. student in History and Middle Eastern Studies at New York University. His prospective dissertation will explore the relationship between urbanization, state formation, and transnational political economy in the Persian Gulf, with a focus on Basra and the borderlands of southern Iraq between approximately the 1920s and 1960s.
Gabriel Young: What historical questions and political concerns did Familiar Futures grow out of? How did these questions, and the way you address them, change as you moved from what I believe were originally graduate seminar papers to dissertation research and on to the monograph?
Sara Pursley: It started with my first-year research paper in my Ph.D. program, which was on women in the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) in the 1940s and 1950s. I was interested in this revolutionary era from a leftist perspective, and the women’s wing of the ICP, which was called the League for the Defense of Women’s Rights and claimed 40,000 members the year after the revolution of 1958. From there I got interested in the 1959 Law of Personal Status, which was a main focal point for the League for the Defense of Women’s Rights. So when I wrote the dissertation prospectus, it was on the personal status law of 1959. It is often described as the final step in the secularization of Iraqi law, something which I question in the book. It became very controversial, mainly because it equalized inheritance between male and female heirs. It has often been listed by historians as a factor in the 1963 Baʿth coup—so, the end of Iraq’s revolutionary era and the rise of the Baʿth —because the Baʿth used opposition to the personal status law as one of their tools in mobilizing opposition to General ʿAbd al-Karim Qasim. The Shi’a and Sunni opposition and the Baʿthists themselves were split on the personal status law, but one of the factors uniting them in a broader anti-communist coalition was opposition to the equal inheritance provision.
Despite being so important, the law hardly got more than a sentence in histories of Iraq. As I argue in the book, the reason is that we assume we already know what the conflict was about: women’s rights versus traditional patriarchy, modernity versus tradition, religion versus secularism, and so on; whatever the binary is, it’s assumed we already know what the story is. But once I started actually looking at the law, it seemed a lot more complicated than that for two different reasons. First, everybody, on all sides in this very public debate, was framing their arguments in the same language – the language of economic development, childhood and the importance of raising children for a new, economically developed future. Whatever their arguments were, the Communists, the Baʿthists, the feminists, the liberals, and the Islamists were making them in the same idiom of economic development and the care of the child. Second, there were important differences among them and they were engaged in strenuous debate. The differences ended up being more interesting than I originally thought, and, coming at this as a leftist feminist scholar, I actually came across what I thought were some interesting critiques of the personal status law—especially from among some of the Shi’i jurists.
In the dissertation and the book, there is just one chapter on the personal status law. Once I actually got into the archives, I was expecting to focus on gender and sexual difference in relation to ideas about modernity and revolution from 1958-63. One of the problems, however, was that I had been reading scholarship on gender and modernity (especially colonial modernity), almost all of which has to do with the late nineteenth century through the interwar period. So, it’s all about modernity, colonialism, and middle-class discourses of nationalism. I’m not even sure I was thinking about the fact that this scholarship was on an earlier time period, and that debates from the 1950s and early ‘60s would have been different. But once I got into the archive, one of the striking things was how the idiom of economic development, more than modernity, was the framework through which arguments about everything were being made.
GY: An important contribution Familiar Futures makes to the history of development is precisely its linking of discourses around sovereignty, economic development, and sexual difference from the revolutionary period to those from the interwar period. Could you describe some of those connections as a way of discussing some of the major arguments of the book?
SP: One of the main arguments is that gender or sexual difference has been central to stabilizing what I see as the tensions in modern understandings and experiences of time and temporality; these relate to paradoxes in ideas about progress, nation-building, national sovereignty, and economic development. A central way that this happened is through a focus on the care of the child and the raising of children who will be worthy, on the one hand, of national sovereignty, and economic development on the other. For Iraq, I focus especially on how gender and sexual difference was central to discourses of economic development from about 1930 to 1963, and then also to concepts and experiences of revolutionary time after 1958.
The title of the book, Familiar Futures, has several different meanings or registers. The analytically central register is the importance of ideas about intimate life and family—so, “familiar” as “familial”—to concepts of economic development. Many scholars of gender have noted this, though I think what is different about my book is the focus particularly on the future-oriented aspects of these discourses and the paradoxes involved in that. So, for example, there was the frequent refrain in Iraq that “we have to reform the family in the name of a certain kind of modern family,” but what that was often used for in practice was to serve a de-politicizing project. It was a way of freezing the political present in the name of a constantly receding future. Here I draw on Lee Edelman’s concept of reproductive futurism, which refers to how the concept of the innocent child is invoked in the name of the future, but also as an excuse to deny political rights in the present—in the name of the child’s future. The child in this argument is one who never grows up, for a future that never arrives. Edelman is studying the operation of this concept in late-twentieth-century United States, whereas I wanted to look at a very different context: Iraq in an age of global decolonization.
This relates to the second and third meanings of the book’s title. The second register is the idea that Iraq’s future was familiar because everyone was supposed to know what it looked like: it looked like the present of the West; this was the future of modernization as Westernization. The third register works paradoxically or in contrast to that, because if there was a future for Iraq that was familiar, it was familiar because it kept looking like Iraq’s past and present. The same discourses of modernization were often used to justify not making certain kinds of changes, even though they invoked a distant ideal future. For example, there was the common notion among Western development experts that Iraq had to stay an agricultural country because that was what it had ostensibly always been, and was what the global economy needed in the interwar period; if it industrialized too fast, or at all, then social and political disasters would occur. Gender was central to these logics of deferral.
GY: Was this the case even during the mandate period, when the British were not actually engaging in the kind of “development” of sovereign territories and subjects that we associate with the post-1945 period?
SP: There was a relationship between sexual difference or gender, on the one hand, and the British use of violent airpower in the suppression of the 1920 Iraqi Revolt, on the other, in producing various kinds of sovereignty. In the case of Iraq, the British weren’t really interested in what we call biopolitical or disciplinary interventions as they were in nineteenth and twentieth-century Egypt (as we know from scholars like Khaled Fahmy and Wilson Jacob). I do look at these kinds of interventions in later periods, and one of the book’s focal points is the intimate creation of new sorts of subjects for sovereignty and development. But, for the British, this was exactly what they were not doing in the mandate period. They were experimenting with a new form of power (airpower), and where sexual difference came in was in their belief that Iraq’s backwardness was due to insufficient sexual differentiation among Iraqi men and women. This was evident in the bombing campaigns of the 1920s, because the British could no long say that they killed X number of men or women because Royal Air Force pilots couldn’t tell the difference from the air. So, for the first time, the British end up lumping all casualties under the term “population,” rather than separating them as men or women; and one of their excuses for why they had to do this is that Iraqi society was not adequately sexually differentiated.
GY: It is interesting that such a violent, necropolitical project could still be integral to the consolidation of certain social categories, such as the population, that would eventually be key to the developmentalist repertoires of the Iraqi state.
Since your insights here reflects a specifically genealogical rather than conventionally historical approach, readers of Borderlines may be interested to hear your thoughts on method and theory. You’ve just described why certain theories common in postcolonial and Middle East studies, such as Foucauldian biopower, were not necessarily applicable to some of your subject matter. How did you deal with this mis-match, and how do you approach the “use” of theory more generally?
SP: As a historian, theory is something that helps me work through problems I encounter in my research, rather than something you start from. I think every graduate student has a fear of going into their research with a theory and sort of just applying it to the “native data” without allowing the two to interact. I was definitely afraid of this, but it wasn’t actually my experience. I remember that I would be in the archives, stuck on a problem, but I would also be reading theory separately, at the same time, and something from the latter would be useful to me. An example is that, when I first got to the archives, I started coming across all this language of economic development and I wasn’t really sure what to do with it. I was reading the classic development critiques (like those of Arturo Escobar and James Ferguson) and some of these were helpful. What was actually more helpful, however, was the fact that I was reading two books on temporality: Reinhardt Koselleck’s Futures Past and Lee Edelman’s No Future. Drawing selectively from those theorists helped me think through the archival material on gender and development, and in way that neither critical development scholars nor other gender scholars of the Middle East had done. Edelman’s queer theory concept of reproductive futurism helped me think differently about phenomena that other gender scholars have looked at a lot, such as feminine domesticity in the Middle East. It helped me get at the depoliticizing aspects of these discourses. Edelman doesn’t look at class at all, but it still helped me look at the cross-class element of these currents in the 1940s and ‘50s, when discourses around gender and sexual difference really became about development and not about bourgeois domesticity.
Depoliticization was important in many of these instances, but efforts at intervening in the lives of lower-class rural and urban families were naturally very distinct from middle-class discourses of domesticity. This is clear from when urban communists tried to frame their anti-illiteracy and public health campaigns in the Iraqi countryside after 1958 as “social” and therefore apolitical. They still provoked a national political controversy and backlash against their activities, even as they mimicked the depoliticizing language of reproductive futurism.
GY: Familiar Futures is not a conventional historical narrative of a single subject, as you make explicit in the introduction. It is rather a genealogy that looks at seemingly discrete episodes or controversies. Did you ever think about following a more conventional narrative form?
SP: No, I didn’t. The book is actually more chronological than the dissertation, which starts with what is now the epilogue: a reading of Jawad Salim’s Nusb al-Hurriyya (Monument to Freedom), which commemorates the 1958 revolution through a huge bronze and limestone sculpture in Baghdad’s Liberation Square. The dissertation then proceeded from this revolutionary moment to earlier historical moments. But you’re right, as I say in the introduction, it’s not in the “history-of” genre, i.e. of domesticity or development in Iraq. This genre assumes a coherent or stable subject moving through homogenous historical time in an even way. To write a history like that would be very difficult given the available sources on and in Iraq, but also because of what I’m trying to do in the whole book, which is to criticize various aspects of our understandings of linear historical time. I don’t think it would make sense to assume that coherent historical subject.
GY: There seems to have been real analytical payoff in this decision, because it allowed you to bring together a whole set of distinct histories that we otherwise wouldn’t associate with one another, like the importance of shaping intimate family life for efforts at extracting agricultural wealth or managing resources and territory. You’ve produced a critical account of development in Iraq that considers “economic,” national-political, and social-psychological development all in one frame, instead of taking for granted their separation like both historical actors and historians have sometimes done.
SP: Absolutely. That is one of the main reasons I followed this method, to bring these different histories and historiographical debates together and to use lots of different kinds of historical sources. It enabled me to not be limited by the availability of sources, which scholars of Iraq constantly lament—for good reason, of course, given the dispersal of Iraqis and their documentary history after decades of war. But, for example, if there didn’t happen to be much on one of my topics for 1925-1935, it wasn’t a particular problem for me because I was looking at particular moments for which we do have sources. I was following which sources were available and, for instance, if there were a number of sources on the Dujayla Land Settlement Law of the early 1950s and they related a lot to gender, that was fine. I didn’t need to have the earlier and later histories necessarily. So, there are not necessarily “gaps” in the archive so much as clusters of sources on particular historical problems or controversies.
GY: If the book is not necessarily about the “same” subject moving through time, such as developmental thought, what were some of the logics that nevertheless repeated? I was struck by the common claim that Iraq was essentially an agricultural country, which was repeated both by British colonial authorities in the 1920s and American pedagogy experts like the pragmatist Paul Monroe who came to Iraq in the 1930s and argued for promoting “non-academic” education. Are these the kind of continual deferrals of development that you have been discussing?
SP: Yes. As I’ve already indicated, there were obvious differences between the British discourse of development under the mandate and that of Qasim’s government after the 1958 revolution. As I argue in Chapter 1 on the mandate period, the British were invoking the concept of development in the colonial sense (the extraction and exploitation of resources). But, it was still very much in line with a project of deferral; hence their attempt to keep Iraq an agricultural country and extract its agricultural resources and gain control over its oil resources – but not in order to develop them. As Timothy Mitchell notes, the intent of British oil companies and imperial agents was actually not to develop Iraq’s oil resources, so as to avoid flooding the world market and bringing down the price of oil. So there were various ways in which the British discourse of economic development, even in this extractive sense, was already being used for projects of deferral.
Yet also in the interwar period, there were these different discourses of development that were beginning to merge: those around the Mandate; the League of Nations’ Article 22, about “developing peoples”; and psychological and national discourses of development as well. But again, they served logics of deferral in ways that have not been recognized. It’s known that Iraq and other Middle Eastern mandates were seen in the 1920s to be in an “adolescent” stage of development, while the African mandates were seen to be in a “childlike” stage of development. But what I think scholars often miss is the fact that Iraq was not necessarily supposed to progress out of the adolescent stage. This was implicit in the logic of dual development that was dominant at the time. Under this theory, the British sought to contain the social dislocation of “economic development” through a separate policy of “development along native lines” which aimed to preserve “native” political and social institutions and the principle of indirect rule.
This speaks to your point about the pragmatist pedagogues. There were American education experts who were coming to Iraq with ideas taken from American projects of segregated schooling in the US South; these included the Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes, which sought to foster black education and pedagogy but were also premised on the concept of dual development. Black youth, for example, were seen to need education in manual labor, which was called “industrial education” but in fact it was mainly agricultural and some limited industrial work or manual labor. The pragmatists’ idea was to bring this to Iraq, and so they showed up in 1932 and told Iraqis that they were creating the wrong kind of educational system because they were giving everyone the same kind of education. The Iraqi state was giving girls and boys the same education—even though they were segregated into different schools, they were following the same curriculum—and it was giving rural and urban male youth the same education. So, the American pedagogy experts were effectively saying to many Iraqis, “no, you’re rural and you have to be taught agricultural skills, manual skills. You can’t be creating desires to move to the cities, desires for social mobility, and your girls need to be studying home economics.” This was the beginning of the differentiation of the Iraqi educational system and an example of how gender were involved in these discourses of deferral and economic development. It also hasn’t really been accounted for in the critical works on modernization theory or economic development. Part of what I am trying to do is to bring in the role of various kinds of US racial and economic theory—like those applied at the Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes, for example—in creating this system of differentiated education in Iraq. So, when US development or modernization experts criticized Iraqi youth for becoming “too European,” they were criticizing them for having middle-class aspirations. The US idea of modernization here was to Americanize, yes, but it was to Americanize in the Hampton-Tuskegee way.
GY: Your book does not only explore the machinations of foreign development experts, but also the ways in which they were negotiated by Iraq’s own experts in education, psychology, and agriculture. Could you speak about figures representing the latter, such as Sati’ al-Husri?
SP: Sati’ al-Husri is often called the founder of the Iraqi educational system and was the director of education through the 1920s. He is also considered a leading figure in the development of Arab nationalism. I was partly interested in him because he made important critiques of the 1932 Monroe Report and the use of pragmatist educational theory in Iraq. He was critical of how the report recommended precisely what I just described: educational differentiation, limiting rural education to manual labor skills, and so on. In the scholarship on al-Husri, people have mostly been interested in his philosophy of Arab nationalism and less on what I think are his more interesting works in pedagogy, psychology, and education.
However, I am also drawing on al-Husri’s work to think differently from other scholars about the relationship of Arab nationalism to Iraqi nationalism and nation-building. Contrary to the scholarly consensus, Arab nationalism and Iraqi nationalism in the interwar period were not really in conflict in the same way they were in the 1950s onward. The philosophy of Arab nationalism was actually very important to the creation of Iraq as a nation-state. This was evident in the emergent concept of the “majority race,” which was the idea coming out of the Treaty of Lausanne that every nation-state should have a majority race. Al-Husri was very much invested in creating Iraq as a territorially bounded state and even said that the most important thing that King Faysal did was to create Iraq’s borders. For him it was the first step in the eventual emergence of a larger Arab nation-state, though nobody in the 1920s was aware of how fixed these national boundaries would become. Still, I think it’s important to realize that idea of a sovereign Iraqi self—a subject who was specifically Arab and Muslim—did not mean that Arab nationalism and Iraqi nationalism were these kind of discrete philosophies competing on equal terms. They were actually completely imbricated with each other.
GY: It seems that, if there was a conflict that al-Husri was implicated in, it was between the moderate Hashemite nationalist wing that he represented versus what you call “radical oppositional nationalists.” These were other factions of Iraqi nationalists who were making quite powerful demands for rapid social and political change in interwar Iraq.
SP: Exactly. This often gets rewritten in the scholarship as a sectarian conflict between moderate Sunni and radical Shi’i nationalists, when it really was not. The major conflict between the nationalist wings in this period was not a spatial one, nor was it about Iraqism versus Arabism. All of the nationalists were fighting for an Iraqi nation-state, whatever their distant future ideas for this state might have been. It was primarily a temporal conflict, about whether to realize Iraqi independence and sovereignty immediately or to realize Iraqi independence and sovereignty gradually. A reliance on British sources has a lot to do with the narration of this conflict as sectarian, because British colonial authorities were intentionally trying to frame it as such at the time. Of course, Arab nationalism also played an important role in this framing, because at the time Arab nationalist figures like al-Husri were constructing these radical oppositional nationalists as Shi’a or Persian. They cultivated the image of an internal other as a way to discredit this radical oppositional nationalist movement, which was really just demanding an immediate sovereign Iraqi nation-state.
GY: Here we see again the ways in which temporal deferral works through the production of difference. In this case, the difference is primarily sectarian, and also ethnically coded.
SP: Yes, right. It is also an example of the ways I am thinking about sovereignty. One thing I am looking at for the interwar period is what political theorists call internal sovereignty, i.e. the nation-state’s assertion over people within its borders. But there was also the idea among al-Husri and other Arab nationalist officials in this period that they could not achieve national sovereignty now before creating national subjects worthy of sovereignty. The radical oppositional nationalists rejected this in calling for immediate Iraqi independence, which is an example of one of the ways in which ideas about sovereignty were related to these temporal understandings I explore throughout the book.
GY: You study the relationship of internal sovereignty to difference as it figured in this political struggle, but also in the bombing campaign that the British unleashed in response to the 1920 Iraqi Revolt. They justified this violence terms of both internal and external sovereignty, i.e. security and defense, especially in the borderlands of northern Iraq. Where does this rationale fit in your critique of the relationship between sovereignty, territory, and subject formation?
SP: Borderlands are a productive place to think about the co-constitution of internal and external sovereignty, usually through the assertion of control over human bodies. So, for example, when the Royal Air Force was bombing territories along the border between Iraq and Turkey, they were also distinguishing between populations whom they claimed to be either Turkish, Arab, or Kurdish. This was important because, under the mandate, the British were responsible for Iraq’s external defense—which is why they could claim the authority to drop bombs in the borderlands. Iraqi critics pointed out that they were dropping bombs inside Iraq’s borders, and that Iraq was not actually at war with any of its neighbors in this period. So, it was an unusual way for the British invoke the concept of external sovereignty: to justify bombing the country you are supposed to be protecting. This kind of rhetoric reveals the connections between projects to achieve both territorial state sovereignty and individual sovereignty, and shows how these are often produced together through processes of differentiation.
GY: The language that you are using now actually reminds me of the way scholars like Deborah Cowen have critically analyzed sovereignty under neoliberal globalization. Infrastructural zones of global supply chains are spaces where state and non-state actors alike project internal and external sovereignty to violently secure commercial circulation and capital accumulation. blurring the boundaries of both. Your work, however, reminds us that such dynamics are far older than we might assume and have long been a feature of imperial formations.
By way of a conclusion, could you describe what you see as the main scholarly or historiographical contributions of Familiar Futures? How do they help us think differently about not just Iraqi history but also about foundational categories like temporality and development?
SP: In terms of the historiographical interventions, there is obviously the importance I place on gender and intimate family life for the broader political and social history of Iraq. Central to this was what I call the “domain of the social,” which is something we have not discussed yet but which actors across the political spectrum invoked. In the revolutionary period (1958-63), for example, there were serious political battles between the Communists and the Baʿthists —they were literally killing each other in the streets—and yet they were still in agreement on central questions involving the domain of the social. They agreed that the role of the revolutionary government under Qasim was to intervene in the intimate lives of Iraqi people in order to produce subjects who would be worthy of whatever particular future they imagined. This ends up having depoliticizing effects on every faction, with the Communists, Baʿthists, and others all engaging in efforts to demobilize workers, halt strikes, stop rural mobilizations, and so on. There is a lot more to be said about the ways in which the idea of the social domain and what it encompassed—the raising of children, the implementation of land reform laws, and so much more—were critical for these efforts to depoliticize and demobilize in the revolutionary period.
I have said a lot about projects of deferral and their temporality, but I also wanted to discuss what I call the fourth meaning of “familiar futures.” This refers to the work of some Iraqi intellectuals from the 1950s—like the artist Jawad Salim, the sociologist ‘Ali al-Wardi, and the Shi’i jurist Bahr al-‘Ulum—who were thinking in ways that tried to disrupt the depoliticizing and homogenizing effects of linear modernization narratives. The futures they envisioned were familiar first because they related to local contexts and imaginaries of time, whether these were Islamic or cyclical and Khaldunian. Salim’s Nusb al-Hurriyya, for example, narrates the 1958 revolution as ambiguously open-ended and unpredictable, through sequences that symbolize overlapping, gendered axes of both linear and cyclical time. In this way he and others disrupted narratives of modernization as westernization. Their futures were also familiar because they were close futures, or near futures, that might actually be realizable and not constantly receding. Examining these imaginaries in this era of decolonization is another way of moving away from some tendencies in the literature on colonial modernity, to look at disruptions to hegemonic logics.
I hope that these works might also have some relevance for our contemporary moment, given that no one seems to have faith in the future anymore and critiques of modernization might not seem so relevant. Environmental and political disasters have brought about very different ideas about the future. But I do think the visions these Iraqi intellectuals were putting forth in the 1950s were ways of thinking about political futures that were not just hopeless or demobilizing. Their critiques, and this fourth register of the book’s title, are what I explore in the epilogue and some of the earlier chapters, but things I want to explore more at some point (in the future!)