Book and Video Review
In the Time of Oil: Piety, Memory & Social Life in an Omani Town. Mandana E. Limbert. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010.
Article first published online: 21 JUN 2012
© 2012 by the American Anthropological Association
Anthropology of Work Review
Volume 33, Issue 1, pages 52–54, July 2012
How to Cite
Gilbert, P. (2012), In the Time of Oil: Piety, Memory & Social Life in an Omani Town. Mandana E. Limbert. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010. Anthropology of Work Review, 33: 52–54. doi: 10.1111/j.1548-1417.2012.01076_5.x
- Issue published online: 21 JUN 2012
- Article first published online: 21 JUN 2012
In James Ferguson's widely cited ethnography of Zambia's declining Copperbelt, the fictional quality of modernization theory's teleologies is affirmed by the experience of previously prosperous, and now destitute, mineworkers. For these disappointed and disillusioned workers, modernity's promise had become “the object of nostalgic reverie, and ‘backwardness’ the anticipated (or dreaded) future” – the juncture between Africa and the West had been revealed not as a stairway but as a wall (Ferguson 1999:13, 237). In terms of its theoretical and comparative contribution, In the Time of Oil can be read as a complementary critique of the teleological myths that infuse modernist planning and accompany extractive industry development in the Middle East.
Mandana Limbert takes as her subject matter the experiences and anxieties of Omanis for whom modernity's myths never took hold so completely as they did on the Copperbelt, despite the sudden transformations brought about by oil wealth and the Omani “renaissance” (al-Nahda). This renaissance – which would see the privatization of water distribution, the number of modern schools and kilometers of asphalt road increase exponentially inside a decade, and the end of manual labor for many – was triggered by Sultan Qaboos' coup in 1970. This coup also led to the unification of the coastal Sultanate of Muscat and the interior Imamate of Oman.
Renaissance notwithstanding, the inevitability of decline looms large in contemporary Oman, with the official exhaustion of oil supplies constantly deferred 20 years into the future (10, 167). It is perhaps unsurprising then that the time of oil is not “set within a myth of permanence or conceived of as a step in an ‘open’ teleology of progress” but is experienced by many Omanis as a “time between the ‘realities’ of poverty” (11). The uncertainty surrounding Oman's oil wealth is compounded by Qaboos' failure to announce an heir. This means, however, that the future is not only imagined as a return to poverty but as a potential opportunity for the revival of the theocratic Imamate, which previously ruled in the interior (al-Dakhiliya), where Limbert conducted her fieldwork.
In In the Time of Oil, Limbert documents how anxieties about the inevitable decline of oil wealth (and possibly the renaissance state) find expression in intergenerational disagreements over what constitutes proper sociality in the interior town of Bahla. On the one hand, there are those who remember life before 1970, when governance operated through familial allegiance and scholarly authority (40), drinking water was provided free to all passersby according to “moral and religious recommendation” (123), and communal bathing and prayer constituted correct social conduct for women (128).
On the other, there are those born during the renaissance, for whom social order is experienced through state town planning projects, bureaucracy, and policing. These Bahlawis grew up after drinking water had been privatized according to United Nations “modernization” prescriptions and International Monetary Fund loan conditions (119). Thus they protested about the use of “their” family's metered water by those of lower castes or class, protests that expressed “the practical tensions seemingly erased in the Omani state's discursive elaborations about development and tradition” (127). For this younger generation, an Islamic ethic “tied to a discourse of individualized and privatized religious modesty” (129) acquired at university led them to find the thought of communal bathing abhorrent.
The older generation might respond that the bureaucratic reordering of Bahla meant that there were “too many shaykhs” (40), simply bureaucrats by another name, and not the learned Ibadi men of the Imamate past. Likewise, while for young university-educated women, religiosity must be carved out as a “distinct category in life” (89) organized around self-discipline and the individual contemplation of God, their grandmothers responded to their concerns about communal bathing by complaining that “Everything is haram [forbidden] now” (128).
The intergenerational tensions that Limbert describes are perhaps best encapsulated by the ways in which the sociality of older women represented “both the ease and the excesses of the oil era” (17) from which their daughters sought to distance themselves – while at the same time, the older generation embodied the truly religious time before oil. In Bahla, memories of the Imamate run up against an understanding that oil supplies are exhaustible, and Limbert's intimately written ethnography provides a remarkably cohesive account of the ways in which these memories are invoked in contemporary assessments of proper sociality and religiosity, as well as in speculation about what the future might hold – a possible revival of the Imamate and a return to poverty.
Limbert's most exciting contributions in In the Time of Oil involve her discussions of changing work and leisure practices, and the memories of (or nostalgia for) the time before oil that are invoked when these practices are subjected to moral assessment. While it is often noted that the introduction of extractive industry developments can alter local practices of time reckoning through the disciplinary metrics of wage labor (e.g., Halvaksz 2008), in the case of petro states such as Oman, oil wealth has created remarkable new opportunities for leisure time. Earlier, women situated in or above the middle social stratum were occupied with tasks now carried out by domestic employees or with collective work outside the home such as cutting alfalfa, grazing livestock, and milling wheat (59–60). In the 1990s, however, Limbert's landlady commented about her neighborhood visiting group (gītān), “you see, this is my work (shughli)” (14).
Chapter 3 contains an elegant discussion of the role that coffee plays in women's sociality. The moral ambivalence surrounding communal coffee drinking is given in the fact that both coffee and sociality may “become associated with leisure, the waste of time, decadence, decline, and overabundance,” and thus, sociality “becomes a means to control desire and a producer of risk, potentially corrupting those who partake in it” (68). Highly stylized visiting and coffee-sharing practices occupied the days of most of the Bahlawi women with whom Limbert spent time in the late 1990s. Not only was the past – the time before oil – narrated by these women in terms of how few opportunities there were for coffee and socialization (59), but “[i]t was understood that those who did not visit their neighbors were somehow marginal, either because they were ‘crazy’ or because they had entered an economic world where they worked for wages” (53–54).
For younger women who do not remember the time before oil but seek to revive an imagined version of the properly religious Imamate past, their mothers' socializing practices are problematic. This is firstly because they are the product of excess and the absence of pious and productive work, and secondly, because they involve unacceptable forms of movement through public space. Chapter 4 deals with these young women's troubled efforts to produce new forms of religious sociality involving semipublic meetings (if they met in their homes, their religious study would not be taken seriously by their male counterparts), while simultaneously critiquing the gītān visiting practices fuelled by Oman's oil wealth, and noting that “ ‘in the past,’ when Omanis were properly religious, women would study ‘at home' ” (109).
In stark contrast to the contemporary situation in which proper sociality demands leisure time, Ghania and Fatima (two women in their late 60s or 70s) narrate in chapter 6 their pre-renaissance travels between Bahla and Zanzibar in terms of a search for, and willingness to participate in, “productive work” (148). The Omani state is currently promoting “a continued faith in the teleological model whereby ‘modernization’ could be said to be attainable and sustainable through diversification” and – perhaps most importantly – the “acceptance of manual labor” (167). Yet Ghania and Fatima know from their journeys in search of productive work, which took them from drought-stricken Bahla to prosperous but declining Zanzibar and back again, that the emergence of renaissance Oman is nothing more than a “strange twist of fate” (163).
Insofar as Limbert's account of her research contains shortcomings, they are perhaps to be found in a lack of elaboration on the contemporary distribution of oil wealth. We are informed early on that there has been a shift from agricultural to government and market jobs (14) – historical alfalfa cultivation (59, 149) and irrigation (117) practices, and the shift from local date auctions to state farming of dates (76) are briefly alluded to – but readers may find themselves left curious about the economic organization that has afforded the very increase in leisure time whose social implications are so richly explored here. That said, it is Limbert's unusual focus on the production (and contested moral evaluation) of leisure time in relation to the alleviation of workloads, and the explicit experience of affluence as transient, that makes this elegant ethnography worthy of exploration for anyone interested in the temporalities and anxieties engendered by extractive industry development.
- 1999. Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Modernity on the Zambian Copperbelt. Berkeley and London: University of California Press.
- 2008. Whose Closure? Appearances, Temporality, and Mineral Extraction in Papua New Guinea. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14(1):21–37. .