A Taste For Home: The Modern Middle Class in Ottoman Beirut

By Toufoul Abou-Hodeib

The word “home” usually has parochial and quotidian connotations. In postcolonial scholarship, 19th– and 20th-century domesticity is primarily understood as a place where difference can be located in the face of all-encompassing changes engendered by imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism. In an attempt to put forth a history de-centered from that of Europe, this sometimes underestimates the extent to which the intensifying global entanglements of that period cut across the distinction between public and private. For Dipesh Chakrabarty, for example, the smaller questions of everyday life remain separated from larger questions of capitalism. So while Chakrabarty complicates the notion of the private, underlining its continued relationship to the public and thus to modernity, in his most influential work Provincializing Europe issues pertaining to the home are dealt with in a section separate from issues pertaining to labor. While the former falls under “the sign of Heidegger” and deals with middle-class sociality and domesticity, the chapters falling under “the sign of Marx” underline issues of labor and capitalism.

Book cover of “A Taste for Home: The Modern Middle Class in Ottoman Beirut” (Stanford University Press 2017)

Starting the 19th century, however, as the industrial revolution remade economies both at home and in areas of the world serving as new markets and sources of primary material, it also tied these economies closer together on various scales. When it comes to the home, consumption habits, aesthetic preferences, and urban projects all influenced the domestic sphere, but equally, changing modes of production and consumption tied the home to ever expanding geographies of capital. There were obviously economic, political, and military imbalances between these geographies, for example between industrialized European powers and the Ottoman Empire. But I am more interested in the unevenness of capitalist transformations, in how geographies of difference were imagined, in how aesthetic preferences crossed those imagined geographies, and in the middle-class home as the point of intersection of all these processes.

My book A Taste for Home: The Modern Middle Class in Ottoman Beirut is thus a cultural history of the late Ottoman middle-class home that is at once global in the widest sense of the term yet at the same time localized enough to enter the most intimate of spaces. It builds on previous work done by scholars of the Middle East on the middle class, as well as works on this class that explicitly place it in a transnational perspective. At the same time, the book focuses on the material aspect of middle-class homes. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, consumption and aesthetic preferences, arguably a defining aspect of middle-class modernity, have a strongly material aspect rooted in capitalist transformations. Secondly, the material aspect highlights an archive that sheds new light on these developments. Archival sources such as advertisements, commercial catalogues, extant homes, and court records nuance and complicate the dominant view of the home and its related consumption practices that comes across in more commonly used archives, such as the press and British and French trade reports. By highlighting the material aspect, I move away from viewing domestic commodities as instruments of a new middle class attempting to project a specific image of itself to the world. Rather, the book looks more closely at how relations of production linking Beirut and the Ottoman Empire to industrialized economies imbued these commodities with contradictory and conflicting meanings that did not readily lend themselves to appropriation.

By placing the middle-class home at the intersection of local and global transformations, the book traces tensions in the abstract idea of middle-class authenticity as it was propagated at the time. Across its various chapters, the book takes the reader back and forth through three contexts that shaped the home in different ways. First, it looks at the home in its urban context and how its relationship with its surroundings was transmuted by a certain urban rationality developing synchronically across the globe. It also places the home in the context of contemporaneous debates in the press about women’s role in managing domestic economy and constituting the home as a basic building block in a modern society. Finally, the book also looks at popular domestic commodities. Even as the home functioned as a mark of distinction in debates on class in Ottoman Beirut, taste linked the middle-class home to its urban, imperial, and global contexts. By tracing how popular commodities were debated, contested in court, and manufactured, I show how the most popular domestic items involved labor, raw material, and stylistic influences that cut across the local, regional, and global levels. This crisscrossing not only rendered the line between “ifranji” (Western) and “Oriental” difficult to trace in reality, but also complicated the intellectual project of a localized, middle-class modernity. In the end, middle-class attempts to forge a localized and “authentic” modernity remained in tension with the actual conditions of production, precisely because under the conditions of capitalism, the very idea of a localized authenticity cannot be separated from global processes of production.

On the most general level, A Taste for Home belongs to a growing body of work on processes of globalization and their influence on modernity in various locations across the globe. This is not to say that “Westernization” was a hegemonic phenomenon. Rather, the book unpacks the very notions of “Western” and “Oriental” as they emerged in the late 19th century. The mode of writing in the book also reflects the complexities of global entanglements, as it goes back and forth between a very specific place—Beirut—and more encompassing processes that affected places as diverse as Brazil, Japan, Zimbabwe, and Sweden. It is possible to write a history of modernity that takes these entanglements and connections seriously, without overlooking the imbalance in relations of power and capital between different regions of the globe. I find it important to pay attention to both the opportunities and the impasses that are created during this period in order to better understand the tension lines of the 20th century and in order to understand the idea of authenticity as the very product of the global encounter.

Toufoul Abou-Hodeib. Photo: private


Toufoul Abou-Hodeib is Associate Professor of History at the University of Oslo. She was a EUME Fellow in 2010/2011, and has previously taught at the University of Chicago and the University of Oxford. Her book A Taste for Home: The Modern Middle Class in Ottoman Beirut was published by Stanford University Press in 2017.







Citation: Toufoul Abou-Hodeib, A Taste For Home: The Modern Middle Class in Ottoman Beirut, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 30.08.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/12571.


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