SUMMARY:Class has long been a category of analysis for historians of the modern Middle East, although it has been largely neglected in recent decades with the gradual abandonment of Marxist or Marxist-inspired theories, and the advent of the Cultural – and other – Turns in Middle East Studies. This panel aims at renewing scholarly interest in class as an object of study by reframing it as social hierarchy, and synthesizing economic, social, and cultural theoretical models. Preferring the Bourdieusian concept of social hierarchy over social class allows for a focus on symbolic, cultural, social, and other kinds of capital, rather than just on an economic one, in understanding the different, everyday, ways of life (habitus) of different groups in Middle Eastern societies, while not decentering the underlying importance of economic power. Moreover, the social hierarchy framework allows for a fuller consideration of the performance of social status in different settings and daily interactions as a means not only for affirming it, but also for achieving it.
The four presentations in this panel examine the social hierarchy in very different societies across the region, and from different added perspectives. One presentation explores the establishment of the Persische Teppich Gesellschaft (PETAG) factories across Iran in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, revealing how a new social class developed around PETAG labor as a consequence of the entanglement between domestic industrialisation and global imperialism which the company’s actions represent. Moving to Istanbul and Izmir, the second presentation foregrounds the experiences of Sephardi petty traders, artisans, and guildsmen in the late Ottoman period. First recovering how they understood their position within the prevailing social hierarchy, the paper then points to how the world of petty trade, and everyday life more broadly, reveals previously uninterrogated zones of contact between Jewish and Muslim neighbors. The third presentation studies Jewish embourgeoisement in early 20th century Cairo: by focusing on the performance of their newly achieved social status in that city’s public places, it writes Jews back into the history of the Egyptian effendiyyah, and writes effendis back into the history of Egyptian cosmopolitanism. The final presentation focuses on the industrial and urban milieu in modern Egypt, and challenges the validity of class as a social category to study social hierarchy among individuals and groups in daily life. It suggests that organic concepts such as satr (cover) better capture how industrial workers and urban populations understood their social positionality.