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Alice Wilson, Afterlives of Revolution: Everyday Counterhistories in Southern Oman, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2023, 312 p.

Mehdi Ayachi
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Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2023, 312 p.

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1The southernmost region of the Sultanate of Oman, known as Dhufar, is the subject of an interesting paradox: it certainly is one of the Omani regions covered by the most publications in Arabic (essays and novels alike), while at the same time it is much less studied in contemporary English and French academic research than the northern regions of the capital and the Hajar mountains. However, whether in Arabic, English or French, the vast majority of writings on this region are (unfortunately) all devoted to the Dhufar Revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s – with the notable exception of the three recent volumes by the anthropologist Marielle Risse (2019, 2020, 2022) on Dhufari contemporary culture and society. Alice Wilson’s last monograph also tries to skillfully thwart this paradox: she indeed writes about the Dhufar Revolution, but as a British social anthropologist, she does this by starting from the actual lives of the veterans of this armed conflict.

2Alice Wilson is a researcher who has distinguished herself through her work on revolutionary social change in the Western Sahara, leading to the publication of her first monograph entitled Sovereignty in Exile: a Saharan Liberation Movement Governs (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). Extending her research into new topics and fields, she recently turned her attention to Dhufar, where she carried out a little more than five months of ethnographic fieldwork in 2013 and 2015. Nearly half a century after the end of this lost revolution and the beginning of the 'Renaissance' (nahḍa) ushered in by the arrival on the throne of Sultan Qaboos, Alice Wilson sets out to find the former revolutionaries, while asking herself a simple but compelling question: what is left of lost revolutions? What happens to revolutionary ideas, networks, and values after military defeat?

3In contemporary Oman, such an endeavor certainly presents a number of difficulties, given that the construction of the new nation-state has led to the erasure from the national narrative of the past conflicts and competing political legitimacies that confronted each other when Qaboos took power. Today, the state not only forbids former revolutionaries the possibility of forming an opposition political party or veteran association, but it also excludes any public form of recognition of their past “revolution”, that the authorities actually describe as a “rebellion” (tamarrud). In her introduction, A. Wilson returns at length to the research dilemmas posed by working in such an authoritarian state, and on a subject that she aptly calls an “officially silenced revolution”. This includes working with no official permissions or having to always adapt your ethnographic engagement and your writing in order to protect the security and anonymity of your interlocutors.

4In the first pages of her book, she also develops the thesis that we should look beyond the reductionist approach consisting in judging a revolution based on its success or failure: she maintains that even failed revolutions have productive and transformative effects, taking the form of “lasting values, networks, ideas, and legacies that persist despite political repression”. Her book then intends to open up debate about counterinsurgency strategies and what we might call rentierism, as well as postwar socio-political life and the reproduction of revolutionary values and ideals in authoritarian states. But one of the main endeavors of Alice Wilson’s book is to first offer a new narrative of the Dhufar revolution, following the path opened up by the historian Abdulrazzaq Takriti who has also written the preface to the book.

5The first three chapters of her book – which make up an informal first part of roughly a hundred pages – are all devoted to the writing of this revisionist history of the Dhufar revolution. In writing them, the author’s aim is to better understand what she calls the afterlives of revolution, mainly meaning the postwar lives of male and female ex-revolutionaries in contemporary Dhufar that still engage and reproduce a revolutionary’s ideals and values. We might have expected her in this respect to use first-hand ethnological data gathered during her fieldwork amongst veterans, but unfortunately, we rarely hear the voices of former revolutionaries. A. Wilson’s narrative is nevertheless an impressive synthesis of a wide range of sources, from British officers’ memoirs to Arabic sources and testimonies, not to mention her extensive reading of academic references to the Dhufar revolution.

6This wide range of research enables her to contest different ordinary assumptions, that maintain, for example, that Marxist-inspired ideology was at the time only superficially endorsed by the population. On the contrary, she shows that Dhufaris developed anti-colonial aspirations that actually preceded the Front, especially during the resistance of mountain hinterland tribes to the rulers of the plain, and later to the Al-Busaid dynasty. We then better understand how the Dhufaris actively engaged with the revolutionary's ideals and values of the Front, and positively received revolutionary programs fostering social egalitarianism and education for all – even if they always appropriated them on their own terms. A. Wilson’s reading “against the grain” of a British officer’s memoirs also helps her challenge the official narrative of a supposed model counter-insurgency in Dhufar, which would have been carried out with very little repression and a successful policy of "winning hearts and minds". Where official histories tend to neglect the importance of conventional warfare strategies, she reminds us of the displacements, dispossessions, air strikes, land mines, and starvation of food and water suffered by the Dhufaris unwilling to surrender. Faced with these historical facts, she rightly argues that the two interlinking strategies of coercion and patronage are at the core of counterinsurgency strategies, and must be thought together in order to understand the suppression and successive silencing of the Dhufar revolution.

7It is then very informative to learn that, to this day, some former revolutionaries consider that that their revolution was a success, because it forced both the coup deposing Sultan Said and the state’s subsequent modernization agenda. The fact that the Dhufar region has been the one benefiting the most from the modernization policies at the beginning of Qaboos reign shows the former revolutionaries’ influence and their key roles in postwar social and spatial transformations. This allows the author to turn her attention, in the next three chapters, to the actual lives of the veterans, and how their revolutionary ideals continue to be enacted through their everyday sociality.

8This second part of the book builds on ethnographic observations in order to show how some former revolutionaries in Dhufar, and their family members, drew on kinship, everyday socializing, and unofficial commemoration (attending burials, publishing books about the revolution), to reproduce revolutionary social values and networks. For example, some of them still marry outside their status groups and tribes, and name their children after former revolutionaries, in order to foster social egalitarianism and to pass a collective memory of the revolution’s ideals to future generations. Unfortunately, ethnographic data is still scarce, and the author's arguments, however convincing, seem to be based on observations that would have benefited from being extended over time, and systematized. For example, as rightly pointed out by the author, all former revolutionaries do not engage in kinship practices aimed at reproducing revolutionary ideals and values, and sometimes, we can’t even say if they actually do this with this explicit aim. Then perhaps it would have been relevant to make comparisons between different afterlives, some of whom go back to more conservative practices, even going so far as to deny their revolutionary past, notably those who abandoned the struggle and joined the sultanic forces. We know that some veterans abjured the revolution by criticizing its Marxist-Leninist orientation: what about their afterlives today, and their kinship practices?

9Equally important, the author reminds us, are postwar friendships and affinities that still transgress the dominant social hierarchies. One jalsa of the veterans (an everyday socializing occasion) that she attended, still contravened the usual social segregation along lines of tribe, ethnicity, race and sometimes gender, thus allowing former revolutionary networks and ideals to be maintained in the context of an officially silenced revolution where they cannot be endorsed and claimed publicly. Again, A. Wilson’s argument is convincing: in a political context of constraint and invisibilizationso pervasive as the one in Oman, everyday acts (as well as extraordinary ones, such as the candidacy of a woman belonging to a former revolutionary family to the elections of the Consultative Council) are a discrete means of reproducing ideals and values officially silenced by the authorities, or directly condemned by more conservative sectors of society. But we still experience some frustration when remaining in the margins of a world we never really enter, especially if we want to better understand how former revolutionaries having benefited from rentierism”, cooptation and hierarchical patronage relations can still reproduce counterhegemonic values, like the author intends to do. We would then need, for example, to hear the veterans talk about the socio-political transformations of their society, or about contemporary politics, in order to see how long-lasting legacies of revolution reproduce themselves – or not – in their discourse.

10Despite the difficulties and ethical dilemmas of such fieldwork, rightly pointed out by the author, A. Wilson's book constitutes a remarkable addition to the rare anthropological references on the Sultanate of Oman, and in particular on the Dhufar region. She pertinently defends the idea that revolutions have long-lasting effects that go well beyond their official ends, and reminds us of the extent to which the reference to the Dhufar revolution remains a mobilizing political symbol, always likely to be revived and endorsed by new generations, as was the case in Oman during the 2011 and 2021 demonstrations.

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Bibliographie

Risse, Marielle, Community and Autonomy in Southern Oman, Cham, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

–––––, Foodways in Southern Oman, London; New York, Routledge, 2020.

–––––, Houseways in Southern Oman, London; New York, Routledge, 2022.

Takriti Abdel Razzaq, Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013.

Wilson Alice, Afterlives of Revolution: Everyday Counterhistories in Southern Oman, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2023.

–––––, Sovereignty in Exile: A Saharan Liberation Movement Governs, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

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Mehdi Ayachi, « Alice Wilson, Afterlives of Revolution: Everyday Counterhistories in Southern Oman, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2023, 312 p. », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 18 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2023, consulté le 17 avril 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cy/11265 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cy.11265

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Mehdi Ayachi

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