Objects of devotion: Palestinian migrants and their prayer beads, c.1850-1910

By Jacob Norris
Submitted to Session P4730 (Diasporic Devotion: Transnational Religion and Middle East Migrations, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper looks at the material objects carried in the suitcases of migrants from the Jerusalem area in the 19th and early 20th centuries to explore their sense of religious belonging and spirituality. In particular it focuses on the Holy Land prayer beads that were commonly transported and sold as part of the pedlar’s standard range of merchandise. From Bethlehem to Buenos Aires and from Mecca to Manila, prayer beads were a lucrative commodity for Middle Eastern migrants. But at the same time, they provided a vital source of spiritual sustenance for the migrants themselves in an uncertain world of movement and dislocation. Commerce and faith did not simply co-exist in the global commodity chains of the 19th century; they could be mutually productive.

Shifting our gaze to these everyday objects and the complex meanings attached to them, we gain rare glimpses into the spiritual landscapes of people otherwise typecast within the confines of commercial and familial networks. Drawing on the recent discussions of the materiality of religious experience within the anthropology of religion, the paper recasts these migrants as fervently religious actors, albeit in their own idiosyncratic ways. The paper concludes with a case study of a particular miracle performed in 1909 in which the now-canonised Mariam Ghattas brought a merchant-migrant from Bethlehem back from the dead through the power of her rosary. In this version of the Middle Eastern migration story, prayer beads could perform both economic and supernatural miracles.