'It's OK to hold your girlfriend's hand'
Not out of place
photo: Randa Shaath
"At anti-Shah demonstrations we would usually wear masks -- we were supposed to be tough and wouldn't smile. But when I went to demonstrations in Britain -- anti-war ones, ones by environmentalists -- there would be songs and dancing and I would think 'these people aren't serious!'"
Asef Bayat, professor of sociology, bound for the University of Leiden following 17 years at the American University in Cairo (AUC), breaks into laughter at the recollection of his first impressions of a Western politics of protest as a graduate student in Britain in the late 1970s.
"I later realised that there were different political cultures and people do things differently: it's OK if you smile; it's OK to hold your girlfriend's hand. But we were of a different mould," he continues.
Bayat is talking at his AUC office in downtown Cairo on a bright winter's day, not long before the war in Iraq began and people around the world were evincing distinct ways of expressing opposition to the looming military campaign.
Before our appointment a sense of apprehension tugged at the corners of my mind. It wasn't fear of being made to feel ill- prepared: as a former student of the Iranian- born sociology scholar I knew that speaking to Bayat generally promised a renewed sense of intellectual purpose, owing to equally generous servings of insight and encouragement. If he can be said to play professorial games, they aren't those of intellectual one- upmanship and intimidation.
What was nagging me was the prospect of drawing out such a private person on the topic of his life. Over the years I was one of his students we briefly exchanged personal news on a number of occasions and while my sense that he views his personal life as just that could be dismissed as merely an impression, it's unquestionable that as a sociologist he is keenly aware of how his own experiences might be framed -- being in the business of doing just that towards explaining how we make our world.
Gossip is, famously, no stranger to university communities yet Bayat's sense of privacy seemed largely to have been respected -- with one notable exception. Some two years ago rumours that Bayat was headed abroad to another academic job -- leaving behind his tenured position in Cairo -- were flying so fast that he e-mailed the department to put an end to the speculation, saying he had been offered a position but decided to remain at AUC. In keeping with the ivory- tower-approved way of finding out about other people's business I asked a colleague of his from another department what was behind the decision.
"His kids wanted to stay in Egypt," came the gleeful response.
And so they did. Shiva, 14, and Tara, 11, were both born in Egypt and up until last year attended an English-language school in which the majority of students were Egyptian. Bayat and his wife Linda Herrera were eager that their children not feel set apart from the people of the country they called their home. The decision was successful -- perhaps even more than they had expected. When it came to discussing the prospect of leaving the country, the girls were loathe to be separated from their school friends. The deal the family struck was that next time the parents would prevail. And so, with an eye to an eventual move entailing an American secondary school education, last year the girls attended Cairo American College (CAC).
Both girls are adept in Arabic, possessing the enviable fluency borne of first exposure to a language in the playground -- capabilities bolstered by the study of reading and writing as part of the primary schooling. Bayat told me a number of years ago that the children had balked at speaking Arabic to their parents. However, the girls were unsuccessful in preventing themselves from being overheard talking to their friends in the language. (His first exposure to Arabic came while studying the Qur'an as a child in Iran while Linda, who is American, studied the language throughout her tertiary education, which culminated a few years ago in a PhD in anthropology of education from Columbia University).
While the schooling decision and the childrens' learning Arabic may have momentarily fanned the flames of that childhood fantasy of sharing with one's friends a language distinct from that one uses with adults, sending the kids to a predominantly Egyptian school seems to have brought the family together in a unique way. The girls' active social lives drew the entire family into the school community.
The schooling decision too, Bayat notes, gave the kids a sense of continuity. By attending a predominantly Egyptian school the girls' had schoolmates who in large part stayed put, in contrast to the peripatetic school careers of many international school kids who move every few years in accordance with the vicissitudes of their parents' careers. "Their Egyptian friends are friends for a lifetime. Wherever we go the girls will come back to those friends and also be part of the families," he predicts.
Bayat's own beginnings were firmly rooted in a single location and he continues to have ties with the people he knew in his youth. But born in a small village outside Tehran in 1954 his earliest schooling was less a matter of parental choice than of what was available. And although the 1950s saw an expansion in state-sponsored early education in many Third World countries Bayat's primary schooling was, as he put it, "not the education one would like to have".
"School was a horrible place," he says with a soft laugh. "We didn't really have a proper school; initially it was the warehouse of a feudal lord and they took two rooms and put all of us through fifth grade in them."
A teacher gave classes two days a week. Imagining an overextended school system, I pictured a teacher moving among schools, able to give each set of students only a half a week of instruction. Not the case though. "There wasn't really discipline in particular or supervision. He [the teacher] was in fact the son of the village head -- one of the wealthy people -- and didn't care enough to come to the school [every day]; he had other things to do."
Nonetheless, he underlines the importance of the assignment of a teacher to the "school" which, along with exams three times a year, provided a semblance of structure.
And when the teacher wasn't around?
"The janitor -- the firash, the one who cleans up -- he in fact managed. He was the teacher and the real boss, running the school, sometimes teaching. He had been educated up to the fifth or sixth grade and could read and write, which was probably enough for us."
Following that experience Bayat had a half-year gap in his formal education during which his father, one of three literate people in the village, taught him in the evening following his work as a truck driver.
Those years saw him develop interests in writing and reflecting on the 'why's' of social interaction around him, interests that were hardly encouraged at the time. "I was basically unnoticed, I was a little boy doing his own thing," he says.
Things changed when his father moved the family to Tehran. His three elder siblings had continued their schooling by staying with relatives in another village. With four children beyond the age of primary school his father decided it was time to move, a decision that required considerable effort to implement on the part of his father, he emphasises. That move put young Asef back in daily contact with his older siblings. His eldest brother proved a decisive influence, encouraging him to write, and when that brother went to university to study engineering and became a political activist he encouraged Asef "to become political" as well.
In secondary school it was all maths and sciences for teenaged Asef, the aim being entrance to a university engineering programme.
"At the time all parents were pushing their children to be engineers -- that was the ultimate success." But things didn't work out that way. Although he performed well during secondary school it was the grades in the university entrance exam that were decisive. Failing to obtain the marks for the course of study his parents earnestly wanted him to pursue, he did well enough to be accepted in the political and social sciences programme -- exactly where he wanted to be.
And so in the final years of the Pahlavi regime, as student activism heated up on university campuses around Iran, he embarked on the process of formally learning how to "know" about the social world. "When I was a university student in Iran I really thought that I knew everything. I used to read a lot and other students would ask me questions to which I would have the answers," he says.
After which graduate studies in Britain at the University of Kent came as a shock: "When I went to Britain to study I realised I didn't know anything," he says with a laugh.
"It was very tough because when I went back to Iran to see what was going on -- a few months after the victory when the revolution was still unfolding -- I had a kind of a mental block, I couldn't make sense of things and I had many doubts about my own ability to do so."
Reading across the ideological spectrum had shaken up how he looked at things and he had yet to come up with a new approach. But a second visit to his country of origin, after completing an MA and embarking on his doctorate, was illuminating rather than unsettling. During that period he did his dissertation fieldwork on the role of workers in the revolution, which he later turned into his first book.
He has since witnessed such transformations in some of his students who've made similar geographical and intellectual journeys, particularly those who, like him, were "politically committed students, the more intellectual sort who care about things", he says.
"Because they felt a sense of mission, I think they were, as I was, less self-critical in terms of how much they really knew. Some of them on returning had become more cautious about their judgements and the statements they made."
What proved decisive in shaking off the confusion for Bayat seems to have been wading through the material -- something he still does, preferring to handle archival and interview research himself rather than delegating it to graduate students. That, alongside writing and discussing the material helped him to emerge with a "new paradigm" in hand.
The wide array of literature suddenly available in Britain was only one of many factors about the setting that supported his intellectual growth.
"Because England is a place where there was a connection between the labour movement and social movements and the intellectual community unlike, for instance, the United States, the university was very involved with real life -- real social struggle. Seeing what was happening there also helped me to refine my version of socialism."
More recently, the country in which he lives has played a direct role in his exploration of the social world. Since moving to Egypt to teach at AUC in 1986 much of his research has focussed on social matters here. His second book, Work Politics and Power, in Cairo, was followed by writings on the Egyptian experience of workers' control, begun under President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, which theoretically continues, as well as related endeavours like the still extant Workers' University. Since then he has left behind his beginnings in industrial sociology to write on the survival strategies used by people in shanty-towns and those doing informal work, both in Egypt and Iran -- the latter the main focus of his 1997 book Street Politics. With the approach of the new millennium political Islam captured his attention, while these days he continues to write on Islam, concentrating on its practice among the Egyptian upper class. Those writings on Islamic activism form the basis of his upcoming book which he expects to publish next year and to be of considerable interest in Leiden where he will direct the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World.
Asking him what, within the wider discipline of sociology he considers his field, it seems I've fallen into a trap.
"I'm not a donkey, I don't have a field," he says, gleefully appropriating Max Weber's stock answer as his own.
Beyond attributing the changes to the topics he explores to shifts in his own interests, his work suggests a keen awareness of the shifts in the English-language academic research agenda. To his credit he has been able to reconcile that agenda with the exploration of phenomena that are relevant to the lives of large numbers of people in both Iran and Egypt. This is no mean feat owing to the fact that the research agenda is largely determined in the West and susceptible to changes resulting from state, media and public anxieties over events in the Middle East -- a dynamic given new vigour by 9/ 11.
The comparative nature of much of his work allows him to provide insight into questions like why an Islamic revolution occurred in Iran, but not in countries where there have been strong currents of political Islam. As an Iranian who has lived in Cairo for many years, he was often asked that very question with specific reference to Egypt and what lay in store for it. The title of his article responding to that question provides a short answer: "Revolution without movement, movement without revolution: Comparing Islamic activism in Iran and Egypt."
He answers other questions that are less often asked in the big attention grabbing forums, but ones that are central to understanding life in this region. He turns on its head the notion that there is inevitably a link between Islam and politics in predominantly Muslim countries. Taking the contemporary Egyptian upper class as his focus, Bayat argues "there is a clear shift from the earlier emphasis on Islamist polity to one on personal piety and ethics..." What prevails then, is a "post-Islamist piety -- an active piety which is thick in rituals and scriptures and thin in politics". (See article in Al-Ahram Weekly, issue 639, 22-28 May 2003).
For those interested in conflict and violence, plenty can be found far from the practice of religion. Pick up Street Politics to learn in detail about the daily struggle in which people living in informal housing or doing informal work are embroiled opposite the state or wealthy people upon whom their activities encroach as they try to avert the destruction of their homes or wares in an effort for survival and "a dignified life". Bayat is clearly interested in the economic context and class positions of those who figure in his work, and he accepts the label of political economy more readily than others I try to put on his work.
Beyond theoretical positions there is the matter of whether Bayat writes on the societies he researches as an "insider" or "outsider". Having lived outside Iran for more than two decades I ask him if anyone has suggested that such physical separation made him unqualified to write on his country or, similarly, whether his not being an Arab has been raised in conjunction with his work on Egypt.
"Being in a particular place is not a sufficient condition to know about that place and make judgements about that place. You have to have a particular interest in knowing, a technique of knowing and a knowledge of knowing."
When asked if he's found the various moves in his life -- from one country to the next difficult, he says his work has been central to helping him to feel at home wherever he has lived.
"I think it may partially have to do with our profession, that we are supposed to make sense of our environment and understand people's cultures and so on. And I think that understanding and knowledge empowers one to be able to communicate better."
Nor has moving from one country to the next implied leaving things behind entirely. Beyond family and friendship ties he tells me of Iranian journalism students who wrote to him during student uprisings there in 1999 to find out about his experiences in the 1970s. That contact came about owing to his publishing articles in Iran and the translation of Street Politics into Persian.
Preparing for a leap back to the West he is looking forward to new experiences -- visiting tulip farms in the Netherlands, making a first trip to Eastern Europe with his family, and bicycling to work -- while looking back as well, with hopes of spending more time with friends living in Europe met during his graduate school days. I expect, though, that what he is most eager to do is to return to his research and teaching. To have work that is akin to a calling, isn't that, after all, one way of achieving the "ultimate success"?