Keith David Watenpaugh: The Middle East's overlooked middle class

Historians in the News

... In his latest book, Being Modern in the Middle East: Revolution, Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Arab Class, religious studies professor Keith David Watenpaugh explores the rise and formation of this Arab middle class and its relationship to modernity during the period from 1908 to 1946.

The role of the middle class in the Middle East is a new and relatively untouched field of study, and academics recognize Watenpaugh's research as an innovative contribution to the study of the region.

Watenpaugh said historians have traditionally attributed the rise of the Arab middle class to a transformation led from the top down. However, as he illustrates in his book, this was not the case.

"The middle class was deeply influenced by a desire to change its own society and making its society modern," he said.

Being Modern in the Middle East emerged from Watenpaugh's doctoral dissertation at UCLA, and he said it took its current shape back in 2000.

Watenpaugh traveled to Turkey, Syria, London and France, where he consulted a number of sources, gathering research from various archives and cultural artifacts like newspapers and pamphlets, items he said were not "intended to be permanent."

In one section of his book discussing the history of the Baden-Powell Scout movement in the Middle East, an international organization similar to the Boy Scouts of America, Watenpaugh had the rare opportunity to construct an oral history of this movement with several of its former living participants, which he notes is not something historians get to do very often.

Overall, Watenpaugh said his book is a "point of departure where neither the middle class nor modernity is generally recognized by the West in the Middle East."

Such discussions of the middle class have been absent from historical writings, he said, because there is something more exotic about focusing on the differences between the West and the Middle East, rather than on their similarities.

"We're mostly middle class, and we don't find ourselves particularly interesting," Watenpaugh said. "We focus on the exotic rather than the commonplace."

For Watenpaugh, the Middle East became a region of interest after spending his junior year of college abroad in Cairo, Egypt. Following his stay there, he lived and conducted research in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

Watenpaugh is one of few scholars to have visited Iraq in 2003 after the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of the country, and though he said he was still able to safely roam about in public then, he describes the current situation as bleak.

"As bad as things are, I have no doubt they're going to get worse," he said. Watenpaugh taught a class this summer on the historical, cultural and ethical components of the ongoing Iraqi civil unrest and violence.

He plans to write a social and cultural history of Iraq, which he said he aims to complete somewhere between 2010 and 2015.

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