Blogs > Cliopatria > A Tribe of the Mid-Euphrates, and the Vagaries of Change

Jun 13, 2004 3:12 pm

A Tribe of the Mid-Euphrates, and the Vagaries of Change

While much attention has been spent on the Shammar tribe recently, because of shaikh Ghazi Al-Yawar’s elevation to the Presidency of Iraq, little has been written on another, equally large and complex tribal confederation, the Muntafiq. The latter inhabited the fertile lands of the classical sawad (the black earth of Mesopotamia), now known as the mid- to lower Euphrates districts. Perhaps to a greater extent than the Shammar in the north of the country, the Muntafiq were a composite of many tribes and sections made up of occupationally diverse, religiously mixed members. The leadership of the Muntafiq was, and still is, vested in the Sadoun family, which is Sunni while the majority of the clan heads and membership are Shi’a. In Iraq, this is par for the course; most of the tribes in the country have similar histories. Moreover, this is also far from being only a tribal feature; in Iraq, for instance, there are some Shi’a shrines that are administered by Sunni superintendents, the one at Samarra being a notable example.

The point here is that, like most social forces, tribes in Iraq are a microcosm of society at large. They are not immune from social pressures nor are they isolated from the changes that restructure the social order. The fact that the tribesmen “belonging” to the Muntafiq tribe are Shiite is not a novelty in Iraq, except to the Americans. And the fact that they converted from Sunnism to Shiism in the late eighteenth to early twentieth centuries is well known among historians of Iraq. So why this focus on the “oddity” of the arrangement, especially in Western press reports? This is not to claim that relations were always smooth between the tribesman and his shaikh; there are dozens of stories of Muntafiq sheikhs both in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who grabbed tribal lands and recorded them under their own names. But I don’t think there was serious religious friction among the Muntafiq until, of course, Saddam Hussein’s regime began to play up to the Sunni leadership of the mixed tribes in the south, and to attempt to coopt them.

Even then, how Sunni was the Sunni leadership of the Muntafiq? Beyond the Sadoun family, how many clan leaders were Sunnis? As I mentioned in an earlier post, Suq al-Shuyukh, the name of which is translated as the market of the sheikhs, grew out of an encampment to which Muntafiq tribesmen used to repair to buy and sell their wares. Gradually, it became more permanent and grew even further; eventually, it became the “capital” of the Muntafiq tribe. More importantly, Suq al-Shuyukh became a cultural capital for the Shiite tribesmen of the region, ranked, by some accounts, as a close second to the holiest of holies, Najaf. In the early twentieth century, it evolved still further to become the administrative center of one of the large clans that made up the Muntafiq, the Ajwad. The Ajwad made up one of the three ruling tribes of the Muntafiq confederation, and its ruling house was Shiite.

Perhaps it is time for historians of the country, whether Arab or Western, to note an elementary rule, that the social, religious and political map of the Iraqi tribes is always changing. Tribal confederations are, by their very nature, always in flux. Tribal sections break off and join other confederations; the original parent tribe morphs into another; nomads become farmers, livestock traders become shipping magnates, and so on and so forth. For observers of Iraqi tribes to label them ONLY as Sunni or Shiite is to ignore the richness of their history in the country. In fact, its downright ridiculous, especially when identity is so complex, varied and fluctuating. That, after all, is what life is all about, and historians, more so than other professionals, should reflect that.

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Hala Fattah - 6/19/2004

Wow, good critique. I remember in the mid-1970's, I met this young kid of Ukrainian background in Philadelphia who was all pumped up that he'd been accepted at Harvard to do a Master's in Ukrainian Studies. It occurs to me, in view of your post, that ME Studies, Islamic studies, German, Ukrainian Study Centers etc. etc perform this great function for Americans of different ethnic or religious backgrounds. They strengthen the original identities of Americans with prefixes, and give them pride in being Polish or Ukrainian, whatever. But in the process, do they also politicize these identities as well? I don't know. I remember at UCLA's Near Eastern Study Center in the 80's, it divided up this way : if you were studying Iranian history, you'd usually be a staunch Iranophile,if you were studying Ottoman Turkey, you'd be a strong pro-Ottomanist (as opposed to being a fan of the Turkish Republic; there's a distinction there but I'll save it for another post)and if you were studying Iraqi history, as I was, you'd just end up being lonely!
In terms of negative electioneering, yes, there's this perpetual fear of the foreigner in US politics that can be stoked up almost at whim. But the same sort of negative emotions stoke up communities in the Middle East, except they're not always exhibited in electoral processes!
Thx for the response,

Daniel B. Larison - 6/19/2004

There are still some ethnic communities in urban areas in the U.S. that possess something like this group identity in their political affiliations, but it has broken down significantly since the rise of mass housing in the suburbs and the disintegration of white ethnic neighbourhoods in the 1960s and 1970s. Genealogy is a big pastime for many Americans, but it is usually more of a curiosity than a serious commitment of identity.

Because of significant, recent immigration from Poland in the last two decades, I believe Polish communities (especially in Chicago) still tend to define their politics in part with reference to their Polish identity and issues related to Poland to an extent not seen in most other communities. However, group constituencies here probably break up much more quickly over even relatively minor controversies and political personalities.

Party identification is, of course, only as strong as the person's perception of significant agreement on most political questions, and it seems to me that a significant portion of ordinary party members can only be mobilised through fear of the victory of the opposing party. There was much more enthusiastic, positive identification with, say, the Republican Party in various forms when it made an explicit appeal to evangelicals and Southerners as evangelicals and Southerners; it was because of a pre-existing, established identity of some kind that those groups tended to stick with the party. Now it has become something of a habit, even though the identity of values between these groups and the party is not what it once was.

There is very little positive content in identifying with either of the two major parties this year, but curiously it is also the case during this election cycle that there are fewer self-styled fence-sitters and independents than ever before. This negative solidarity seems to be quite powerful among people who are leery of substantial, personal attachments to groups. That may also explain why an otherwise hollow American nationalism needed to vilify foreign nations perceived as impediments to the war--identity could not be affirmed by any means except deriding the history of critics. I suppose any strong negative attachments would achieve the same result in the relative vacuum of real identities in America.


Hala Fattah - 6/16/2004

Dear Oscar and Diala,
Thank you for both your comments. I don't know much about native American tribes but I would assume that even those that have become more urbanized still cling to some sort of a tribal identity, even if its partly mythological, and in the US, proudly recycled as, " My grandmother is 1/3 Cherokee". In Iraq, I think, the difference is that however urbanized one becomes, tribal identity is still an important marker that has VALUE, both political and symbolic, in society. Dr. Adnan Al-Pachachi, an urbane, well-travelled and highly sophisticated gentleman, when interviewed on tv, still referred to his Shammar roots, even though he and his family had become urbanized by the eighteenth century. This is because in Iraq, unlike the US, tribal identities, let alone tribal organizations, are still deemed important POLITICAL attributes. A number of important affiliations exist simultaneously in Iraqi society, and tribal association and identity are some of these. I don't mean to be facetious but I think the closest people come to this sort of association and affiliation in the US is the loyalty shown to the Young Republicans or other such political organizations, because they play on group solidarity and belonging.

diala aljabri - 6/15/2004

best and most vivid explanation of tribes i've ever read....
so Hala, would native Americans understand Iraqi tribes?

Oscar Chamberlain - 6/15/2004

I suspect one challenge for many Americans to understand Iraq society is the fact that tribal ties have become foreign to us. Even within the nuclear family, the ideal of the husband (or any individual beyond a single parent) representing the family in an authoritative sense has faded.

That has been one of the more profound consequences of liberal individualism. Except for marriage, ties of personal loyalty between adults have little public reinforcement either in law or in custom.

Americans have far more experience with religious divisions, both in our currrent politics and in our history. Our reporters reflect this in Iraq.

A final thought: I wonder if Native American reporters might understand Iraq's tribes and tribal confederations better?

Hala Fattah - 6/15/2004

Dear Daniel,
No apologies needed for taking what I'm certain is a much-needed break. I hope you pass a great summer, wherever you are.

It is absolutely correct that American reporters tend to simplify both world and national events. But then so do many other reporters from many different parts of the world.I guess seeing things in a black and white perspective is a given in the reporting business. I just wish people would stop with this Shi'i-Sunni business; its got so many layers of complexity that it baffles even me. I notice, however, that there was no ethnic or sectarian typecasting in the new Iraqi government's line-up, and no-one talked about how many Shiites there were and how many Sunnis. Of course, the Kurds received some notice because they brought up the issue of their dimunition in numbers in the first place but in this government, at least, there wasn't this overt identification with background that you saw with the Iraqi Governing Council set-up.

Five months until November. They'll be the most crucial waiting period in American history. This time I actually think I'm going to vote.
Bye for now, thanks so much for reading my stuff, I get a real kick out of your comments,

Daniel B. Larison - 6/14/2004

Dear Hala,
I'm sorry to have stopped replying for a few days. I was returning home for the summer, and had not had a chance to comment on your recent entries.

I suspect that the American tendency to oversimplify and reduce identities into convenient flags or markers stems from our own capacity for banal conceptions of political and social identity (if not liberal, then conservative; if conservative, then Republican, etc.), as well as a certain inability of the "democratising" people to appreciate that tribal societies are just as complex and developed in their way (in some ways they are more developed and structured) as "democratic" societies.

In this view, tribal organisations are usually set up as simple monoliths (which are invariably purely stifling and backwards) that do not allow for change or variety, in order to fashion the idea that a Western society (which has much more potential to be drab and uniform) is the vibrant, varied and changing one. Change is, of course, universal and ongoing. It is just that Americans make such a virtue of change in itself that they assume that if something has been true of a people for 100 years it has probably always been true (thus the Balkan wars were "ancient" in origin, and so on). Finding Shi'ites in a place where they "shouldn't" be is probably as shocking to American reporters and Americans in general as finding conservatives opposed to most wars or finding liberals opposed to immigration, to cite a couple examples from here.

It it not surprising that American reports continue to oversimplify political and social realities in Iraq. Goodness knows our reporters oversimplify political and social life even in America, so that instances of diverse or unexpected opinions in some parts of the country are supposed to be really amazing. If someone is a Southerner, or a Catholic or a similar sort of group, outsiders assume they know the story about these people before it is told. Assumptions take the place of basic facts, and the evidence is then treated as a shocking revelation.

One such shocker that often seems to be news to many people over here is the presence of a considerable number of Arab Christians in the Near East. The 'official' story about Arabs that usually gets reported or commented on over here is also one of a kind of monolith (some American chauvinists probably take pan-Arabism more seriously than the pan-Arabists did) in which Christianity cannot have any part. That would make "them," or some of them, too much like "us," which doesn't fit well with certain political programs.

Thanks again for your interesting posts and the fascinating vignettes of these various parts of Iraq. Take care.

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