Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Zainab Saleh reviews Familiar Futures

Sara Pursley. Familiar Futures: Time, Selfhood, and Sovereignty in Iraq. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019. 304 pp.

Review by Zainab Saleh

6 November 2019

In Familiar Futures, Sara Pursley investigates the projects advocated by British and Iraqi officials in their efforts to develop human and natural resources and fashion subjects worthy of sovereignty following the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the imposition of the British Mandate in Iraq after World War I. She specifically examines how Iraqi intellectuals, international agencies, British officials, and US educational experts invested in development projects, and imagined Iraqi subjects and futures. These discourses on development and futures, moreover, were rooted in debates on sovereignty, time, psychology, selfhood, and sexual difference. In this framework, Iraq’s future was a familiar one because it was someone else’s past or present. This future was predicated on notions of modernity and revolution, whereby modernity indicated a radical rupture with the past: “Its trajectory is always already known. This register thus contains its own paradox: it was the very familiarity of the Iraqi revolution as a future past that allowed it to be experienced as the beginning of a new time” (p. 5). 

Through examining the effects of British colonialism, the author offers a rereading of technologies of discipline in Iraq, analogous to the previous studies by Timothy Mitchell and Wilson Chacko Jacob on Egypt, and by Nicholas Dirks and Partha Chatterjee on India. Pursley is critical of those who depicted the British policy in Iraq as a battle between “the India school” and “the Egypt school” with the former invested in direct rule while the latter advocating indirect rule (p. 33). The British in Iraq did not aim to produce Iraqi subjects through a concern with the individual body or discipline. Rather, they relied on different forms of violence as a technique of imperial rule. 

The British thought of development as the ability to access Iraq’s natural resources, especially oil, and to develop the country according to native lines. Unlike Iraqi educators who aimed to fashion Iraqi subjects through social reforms, British officials in Iraq were against the expansion of the public school system, fearing that over-education would produce subjects engaged in political agitation and unwilling to do manual labor. The author advances that in their concern with security and counterinsurgency, the production of Iraq as a territorial state, and extraction of resources, the British aimed to achieve sovereignty through the exercise of the right to kill through airpower as the primary technology of imperial rule. As Iraq emerged as the laboratory for the first “imperial experiment in rule from the air,” the British mandate governance in the country “may have been closer to later twentieth-century imperial interventions than to nineteenth-century practices of colonial rule” (p. 32). Iraq thus became an arena for what Achille Mbembe has recently called necropolitics. The British officials dismissed anticolonial resistance as symptom of “emotional disorder internal to Iraq and its inhabitants simultaneously,” and justified their use of spectacular violence as a means to encounter the violence of what they called “primitive” Iraqis (p. 39).

In contrast to the British’s visions, Iraqi nationalists saw the school and the family as arenas of social reform and economic development, brought about by fashioning the youth into healthy and docile citizens. The debate over the curriculum and the production of new Iraqi subjects was divided along generational lines. On the one hand, the cohort of ex-Ottoman Arab educators saw discipline as the mechanism to shape the emotions and habits of the youth with aim of bringing them into a linear, forward-moving temporal space, that would enable them to serve in the army, contribute to economic development, and rebel against the British. They advocated for the implementation of the same curriculum for boys and girls, and for urban and rural areas. On the other hand, the new educators––who were trained at Teachers College, Columbia University and became influential in Iraq in the 1930s through the 1950s––critiqued the educational system in Iraq and called for a differentiated curriculum for boys and girls, and for urban and rural populations. They argued that “backward families,” and especially “backward women,” hindered the formation of modern subjects. These educators aimed to implement the recommendation of American models, which called for “industrial education” for countries that were still in “the primitive” and “transitional” stage of development, and for compulsory female education in home economics with the goal of producing mothers who were capable of raising governable citizens. 

Familiar Futures does not offer a linear narrative of historical events or a comprehensive history of conceptual subjects (such as development and modernity, the family, or feminine domesticity). Rather, the book employs different resources and documents––whether historical, legal, or artistic––to examine discursive moments in twentieth-century Iraq, when notions of sexual difference and familial life became heated topics of discussion on issues related to sovereignty, development, and time. The book, however, could have benefitted from a conclusion that would bring together the different treads on the main concepts in it together.