Negotiating Protection. Bedouin Material Culture and Heritage in Jordan – University of Copenhagen

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Negotiating Protection. Bedouin Material Culture and Heritage in Jordan

Phd-phesis by Mikkel Bille, Department of Anthropology, University College London in December, 2009

The project was financed by the Danish Research Agency and affiliated the research school Kulturarvens Forskerskole.

Supervisers: Dr. Victor Buchli og Professor Chris Tilley, both at University College London, and dr.phil. Esther Fihl, Centre for Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen

This thesis examines protection against risks as material and social phenomena among the Ammarin tribe in Petra - a settled Bedouin community in southern Jordan. By examining the active role of material culture that is often disregarded in risk studies, the thesis discusses how protective strategies are entangled in cultural, religious, and national identities.

Using ethnographic methods, I investigate protection against selected risks: harm from evil eyes, violation of domestic sanctity, and cultural heritage dilapidation. Protection against these risks is examined through studies of architecture, the social use of luminosity, prophylactic items, saint veneration, Qur'anic items, and heritage production.

The thesis challenges the preoccupation with "meaning" in material culture studies, by focusing on conceptualizations of "presence" and "absence" as equally important to protective efficacy. Some informants, for example, adopt an orthodox scriptural Islamic approach to protection and denounce certain material registers as un-Islamic and materialistic leftovers from an ignorant past, and rather prescribe Qur'anic remembrance. For other informants the very physicality of such contested strategies are confirming their efficacy, and act as material anchors for negotiating Bedouin identities in response to a rapid transformation from nomadic pastoralists to sedentary wageworkers.

The tensions surrounding the materiality of protection, along with the role of the past in the present is further investigated through the contested public representations of Ammarin culture, along with a detailed study of the process leading to the protection of Bedouin culture by UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The overall conclusion of this research is that negotiating efficacious protection against perceived risks, is about actively taking a stance on senses of exposure, vulnerability and uncertainty towards the people, places and things that are cherished. These strategies simultaneously act as potent public exposure of social, religious, and national moral identities that may empower, exclude, or ostracize people.