Yucel on Abou-Hodeib, 'A Taste for Home: The Modern Middle Class in Ottoman Beirut'

Toufoul Abou-Hodeib
Naz Yucel

Toufoul Abou-Hodeib. A Taste for Home: The Modern Middle Class in Ottoman Beirut. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017. 280 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-9979-9.

Reviewed by Naz Yucel (George Washington University) Published on H-Levant (August, 2017) Commissioned by Ghenwa Hayek

In her book A Taste for Home: The Modern Middle Class in Ottoman Beirut, Toufoul Abou-Hodeib opens new windows to the “home” of middle-class Ottoman Beirutis in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by using domesticity as an analytical lens. If the abundance of terms—“home,” “taste,” “modern,” and “middle class”—convey the impression of an ambitious study, the title of this book is not misleading. Abou-Hodeib delivers both a thoughtful delineation of these terms and a strong analysis informed by them, which discusses the elements that form, and the contradictions embodied by, the middle class in Beirut.

Abou-Hodeib argues that domesticity should be considered as “a constellation of ideas and lifestyles in which the home played a crucial part both as a concept and as an actual material object” (p. 4). The approach toward domesticity as a material condition is a key intervention of Abou-Hodeib’s work in the historiography of domesticity. Accordingly, Abou-Hodeib asserts that domesticity was “not merely a reflection of the emergence of the middle class and its related consumption habits but was also regarded as an economic field that could be managed in order to, in turn, better define the middle class” (p. 32). Her analysis of material conditions in relation to domesticity enables Abou-Hodeib to discuss issues of labor and production within the scope of a cultural history of Ottoman Beirut.

The theoretical framework of the study relies on the writings of Jürgen Habermas, Pierre Bourdieu, and postcolonial theorists, including Partha Chatterjee and Dipesh Chakrabarty. Abou-Hodeib builds on Bourdieu’s arguments on distinction by delineating the influence of ifranji culture on domesticity in Beirut. By adopting and retaining ifranji as an untranslated term, Abou-Hodeib “demystif[ies]” the term “Westernized,” suggesting that there is no singular “European” or “Western” culture that should inform her historical narrative (p. 46). A Taste for Home thus successfully deconstructs the meaning of “Western,” as it attentively traces the ways in which the term ifranji took on different meanings in Ottoman Beirut in different contexts. To that end, she shows that Beirutis themselves employed ifranji “as a counterpoint to a localized modernity” in advertisements and public discourse (p. 160). On the other hand, ifranji had different connotations for production of objects for the Ottoman Beiruti home.

To support her arguments, Abou-Hodeib uses a variety of sources, including state archives in London, Paris, Nantes, Istanbul, and Beirut; newspapers; and Hanafi court records. She does not only merely rely on the press for discursive analysis but also draws on the advertisements featured in these newspapers to present her arguments about the objects themselves, the producers of these objects, the targeted audience for the consumption of these objects, and the spaces within which they were produced and consumed. Furthermore, she juxtaposes arguments presented by various newspapers, such as Thamarat al-Funun, published by the Muslim Sunni community, and al-Mahabba, published by the Christian Greek Orthodox community, to reach her conclusions regarding middle-class Beirutis in a way that transcends and distinguishes sect-related differences. While Abou-Hodeib does not provide a comprehensive survey of all Hanafi court records, she clarifies the specific methodology through which she chose the court cases to render these examples representative of various trends.

This study is a particularly strong example of a cultural and intellectual history because of its attention to material conditions surrounding the Ottoman Beiruti home. Abou-Hodeib’s book complements Robert Saliba’s Beyrouth architectures aux sources de la modernité, 1920-1940 (2009) as it shows the spatial transformation of Beirut, predominantly prior to World War I. In chapter 3, Abou-Hodeib illustrates that “home” remained a legally ambiguous space under Ottoman jurisprudence while the Ottoman state and Beirut municipal council adopted legal codes to regulate urban spaces where these houses were located. Through analysis of newspaper articles and speeches, Abou-Hodeib deconstructs the discursive definitions of “home” in chapter 5. The objects that entered the Beiruti home and the meanings they embodied comprise the focus of chapter 4. Middle-class Beirutis’ choice of the objects to consume in and for their home brings up issues related to taste, which are discussed in depth in chapter 2. The focus on material objects enables Abou-Hodeib to discuss how capital transfigured into the “home” and to overcome the dichotomy between public and private spheres. These objects that embody capital’s spatially transformative power enable capital to cut through the theoretical distinction between the “home” and public sphere. Chapter 6, on the other hand, discusses the springing up of new spaces in which these industrially produced domestic items were sold in Beirut. As these domestic objects were carriers of taste, Abou-Hodeib elaborates on the ways in which consumers’ demand shaped the production of these domestic items in a particular fashion, especially with respect to labor and style. Her emphasis on material conditions provide Abou-Hodeib a means to show how “home” had an impact on both regional and global production. With the emergence of “home as a repository for authenticity,” the domestic objects in the Beiruti home became signifiers of “Oriental” taste for a global audience and “undermine[d] the ideal of the middle-class home and complicate[d] the task of preserving it as a location for authenticity” (pp. 143-144). By showing the impact of Beirut’s middle class and local artisans on global production, the author challenges the narratives that attribute imperial actors a disproportionate level of agency.

The work’s cultural and intellectual focus enables Abou-Hodeib to expound on implications of class formation as it relates to Ottoman Beirut. The author defines the central characteristics of the “middle class” as “sharing the same economic bracket,... education, upward mobility, and an investment in the city’s position” (p. 16). Her employment of the term “middle class” is also informed by Beirutis’ own reliance on the term mutawassiū al-āl (those of middling means) in the press and Hanafi court records (p. 114). While the book pays attention to how the “middle class” defined itself against the wealthy and ifranji, it is less informative as to how its members perceived the “lower class” or “poor” in Ottoman Beirut or whether these perceptions played a role in defining the “middle class” beyond amplifying its members’ inclination to consume in a particular manner to distinguish themselves.

The focus on material conditions and special attention to women as historical actors makes Abou-Hodeib’s an original approach to gendered discussions related to home that were conceived during the nineteenth century. Therefore, an important accomplishment of A Taste for Home pertains to its discussion of the relationship between modernity and women’s role in society and at home. Abou-Hodeib purposely gives voice to these women in her narrative, including accounts of how they saw their role within Ottoman society and how they perceived their relationship with home. As for discussions about women, Abou-Hodeib’s analysis of women as targets of advertisements for industrially produced goods further adds to our understanding of how women’s roles in society and at home were conceived in this modern context. Children, in contrast, seem to play a less significant role in her narrative, whether as members of the Beiruti society or household, or as actors who consume goods.

Abou-Hodeib’s intentions in providing an alternative narrative with tactful answers to questions on taste and the middle class are certainly valuable, and expand the historical field. When read next to recent key works on the history of Lebanon, such as Ussama Makdisi’s The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon (2000) and Max Weiss’s In the Shadow of Sectarianism: Law, Shi‘ism and the Making of Modern Lebanon (2010), A Taste for Home prompts a debate regarding how a cultural history of Lebanon, which is informed by debates on confessionalism and sectarianism but does not treat sectarianism as the central issue, could be written. Given the demographics of Beirut’s urban population during the late nineteenth century, it is understandable that Abou-Hodeib focuses more on the Sunni, Greek Orthodox, and Jewish communities in the city. However, A Taste for Home leaves readers wondering about the extent to which “the culture of sectarianism” with respect to Maronite and Druze communities shaped practices of production and consumption of domestic items in Beirut. For example, was there a tendency among the Maronites who moved to Beirut post-1860s to consume goods produced particularly by Maronite artisans? Alternatively, did the lack of legal personhood of the Shi‘i community on the state-level under the Ottoman administration have an impact on the Beiruti home as the state implemented Tanzimat reforms? In her estimable attempt to provide a fresh historical perspective, Abou-Hodeib leaves certain questions unanswered while paving the way for further scholarship to address them.

Abou-Hodeib identifies the purpose of her study as “a cultural history of domesticity that is at once global in the widest sense of the term and local enough to enter the most private of spaces” (p. 2). This book certainly realizes the author’s ambitious proclamation as it presents an example of a highly sophisticated cultural and intellectual history that is considerate of the material conditions that produce modernity in a local context, which in turn affect production at a global level.

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Citation: Naz Yucel. Review of Abou-Hodeib, Toufoul, A Taste for Home: The Modern Middle Class in Ottoman Beirut. H-Levant, H-Net Reviews. August, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=49641

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