Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Loring M. Danforth's "Crossing the Kingdom"

Loring M. Danforth is Charles A. Dana Professor of Anthropology at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. He is the author of The Death Rituals of Rural Greece, Firewalking and Religious Healing, The Macedonian Conflict: Ethnic Nationalism in a Transnational World, and Children of the Greek Civil War: Refugees and the Politics of Memory (with Riki Van Boeschoten).

Danforth applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Crossing the Kingdom: Portraits of Saudi Arabia, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Crossing the Kingdom reveals a good deal about one of the seven portraits of Saudi Arabia I present in this book, but it only offers slight hints to the contents of the other six.

Most Americans know that Saudi Arabia is a land of deserts, camels, and oil; a country of rich sheiks in white robes, oppressed women in black veils, and violent terrorists. They have not met a Saudi architect who encourages Muslims and Christians to struggle together with love to know God, a young Saudi lesbian eager to learn about the lives of gay women in the United States, or a Saudi artist who uses metal gears and chains to celebrate the diversity of the pilgrims who come to the holy city of Mecca as “guests of God.”

With vivid descriptions and moving personal narratives, Crossing the Kingdom presents detailed accounts of seven aspects of contemporary Saudi society and culture: Saudi Aramco, the largest oil company in the world; protests against the ban on women driving; the emerging Saudi art scene; Islamic creationism; archaeology, tourism, and the different attitudes Saudis have to the country’s pre-Islamic past; urban renewal in the city of Jeddah; and the politics of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Page 99 of Crossing the Kingdom describes the success of Edge of Arabia, a non-profit arts initiative dedicated to promoting the work of contemporary Saudi artists. The first major exhibit of contemporary art in Saudi Arabia, entitled “We Need to Talk,” parallels the efforts of the late King Abdullah, known as the “King of Dialogue,” to promote more open conversations among Saudis about the pressing need for social change in the Kingdom. The artists working with Edge of Arabia are exploring issues such as the place of women in Saudi society and the nature of freedom of speech and religious pluralism in what remains in many ways a very closed and conservative country.

The following passage from page 99 describes the insights into Saudi culture that the work of young Saudi artists has to offer.
The contemporary Saudi art [Edge of Arabia] has presented to international audiences powerfully demonstrates the creativity and vitality of Saudi culture. This success is testament to the dramatic changes that have transformed Saudi society - the rise of individualism and consumerism, the growth of new technologies and social media - but it also confirms the continued relevance of traditional Islamic beliefs and tribal practices. In this way, Edge of Arabia opens an instructive window Europeans are rarely privileged to look through, a window onto the complexity and richness of Saudi culture. Here contemporary Saudi artists are testing the limits of what is possible in their very conservative culture. They are working right at the edge of Arabia.
In Crossing the Kingdom, I hope to offer equally valuable perspectives on the tensions that characterize the rapid changes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is undergoing at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Learn more about Crossing the Kingdom at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue