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An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi'i Lebanon

An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi'i Lebanon

by Lara DeebLara Deeb
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Based on two years of ethnographic research in the southern suburbs of Beirut, An Enchanted Modern demonstrates that Islam and modernity are not merely compatible, but actually go hand-in-hand. This eloquent ethnographic portrayal of an Islamic community articulates how an alternative modernity, and specifically an enchanted modernity, may be constructed by Shi'I Muslims who consider themselves simultaneously deeply modern, cosmopolitan, and pious.

In this depiction of a Shi'I Muslim community in Beirut, Deeb examines the ways that individual and collective expressions and understandings of piety have been debated, contested, and reformulated.

Women take center stage in this process, a result of their visibility both within the community, and in relation to Western ideas that link the status of women to modernity. By emphasizing the ways notions of modernity and piety are lived, debated, and shaped by "everyday Islamists," this book underscores the inseparability of piety and politics in the lives of pious Muslims.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691124216
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/19/2006
Series: Princeton Studies in Muslim Politics , #41
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 825,490
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Lara Deeb is a cultural anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Women's Studies at the University of California, Irvine.

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An Enchanted Modern

Gender and Public Piety in Shi'i Lebanon
By Lara Deeb

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-12421-3

Chapter One


RESIDENTS and outsiders alike refer to the southern suburbs of Beirut as "al-Dahiyya"-a word that simply means "the suburb" in Arabic, but that connotes "the Shi'i ghetto" to many in other parts of the city. More a conglomeration of multiple municipalities and neighborhoods than a single suburb, al-Dahiyya is bounded by the city to the north, Beirut International Airport to the south, the Mediterranean on the west side, and an agricultural area to the east. It used to be that due to this location al-Dahiyya was unavoidable. To get from the rest of Beirut to the airport or anywhere south of the city, you had to drive through it. Until recently, outsiders passing through caught glimpses of the area from the old airport road or from the coastal highway that leads south to Saida (Sidon) and Sour (Tyre). Today new highways, built to bypass al-Dahiyya, connect Beirut to the airport and to the south, allowing visitors and Lebanese alike to avoid acknowledging its presence.

The residents of this often ignored or maligned area of Beirut who were my interlocutors often referred to al-bi'a, the milieu, of al-Dahiyya as a critical factor intheir religious, social, and political understandings, identities, and practices. The visual, aural, and temporal textures of this milieu are the focus of this chapter, and frame the spaces of those that follow. These textures layer religion and politics into public space, and are pointed to as evidence of the spiritual progress of the community and of its recent visibility in Lebanon.

To focus is to allow the surrounding context to blur into white. Before permitting Beirut to fade like this, a few paragraphs are necessary to capture this city that-despite its betrayals and violences-is fiercely claimed as home by Lebanese of all persuasions.


Clarice, the glorious city, has a tormented history. Several times it decayed, then burgeoned again, always keeping the first Clarice as an unparalleled model of every splendor, compared to which the city's present state can only cause more sighs at every fading of the stars ... Populations and customs have changed several times; the name, the site, and the objects hardest to break remain. Each new Clarice, compact as a living body with its smells and its breath, shows off, like a gem, what remains of the ancient Clarices, fragmentary and dead. -ITALO CALVINO, Invisible Cities

Beirut is a balance of constant stimuli and contagious ennui. The former assaults your senses and drains your energy, the latter emerges in the omnipresent hopelessness and a slow rhythm of bare motion. There is no way to capture the essence of Beirut: the romance, the dirt, the reality. It is a word the international media have turned into an epithet for destruction and that Lebanese expatriates have turned into the whimsy of a golden past. Much has been written about Beirut, its deaths, and resurrections, but this is not the place for me to recap that. Instead I simply highlight three aspects of the city that begin to give a sense of its rhythms: size, resilience, and traffic.

Lebanon, at a mere 10,400 square kilometers (roughly seven-tenths the size of Connecticut), is tiny relative to most countries in the world. Barring horrible traffic, you can drive its length along the coast in four hours, and its width in less than two. Centrally located Beirut is accessible from anywhere in the country. This smallness of scale creates a density of activity and relationships that intensifies and localizes experiences. At the same time, the fact that places are within easy reach of one another amplifies the impact of the immense psychological and ideological distances that divide them. Many residents of areas of Beirut I traveled between daily had never set foot in the "other" neighborhoods simply because they were "other." Samir Khalaf, among others, has discussed this retrenching of sectarian identities in space:

This compulsion to huddle in compact, homogenous enclosures further "balkanized" Lebanon's social geography. There is a curious and painful irony here. Despite the many differences that divide the Lebanese, they are all in a sense homogenized by fear, grief, and trauma. (Khalaf 2002: 247)

The smallness of Beirut and Lebanon also emerges in the threads that connect people, strung throughout the fabric of the country. Six degrees of separation are rare; two or three far more common. There is little anonymity; even corporate institutions like banks treat their customers to coffee and conversation with business.

Beirut is also a city of unbelievable resilience. Surviving years of war is the city's greatest testament to this. I witnessed a much smaller example on the morning of February 8, 2000. The night before I had awakened to the sounds of Israeli planes breaking the sound barrier and bombing infrastructure around Lebanon. They destroyed three power plants, leaving fires you could see burning from balconies in the city. Despite this, early the next morning a friend of mine picked me up for a meeting in al-Dahiyya. The only discernable differences during that day and those that followed were the dark circles underneath people's eyes, the extra sweaters worn to guard against the cold in places that would have been heated with electricity, the flashlights carried to light the way up stairwells when elevators were not running, the simmering anger in voices discussing the events, and the constant whir of generators that had sprung up overnight. After a few days of darkness, electricity was rerouted and rationed throughout the country, generally on a six-hour on-and-off cycle.

Resilience is accompanied by adaptability and a coexistence with a certain level of chaos. This is represented in the illogic of traffic, something visitors and residents alike often find frustrating. One-way streets switched direction every block or two; traffic lights sometimes worked and sometimes didn't, and were sometimes assumed to be merely suggestions; there were few marked lanes and many bottlenecks; and appropriate distance between vehicles was measured by the proximity of your neighbor's car skimming yours.

Chaotic traffic, resilience, and compactness are notions that could describe almost any area of Beirut. Yet Lebanese who do not live in al-Dahiyya often assume these general characteristics to be especially true of al-Dahiyya. I had a hard time convincing many Lebanese, especially but not only those who were not Shi'i, to accompany me to al-Dahiyya, and sometimes even to give me a ride to an organization or an acquaintance's house in the area. This reluctance sometimes stemmed from fears and false assumptions about what it meant to be in an area controlled by Hizbullah. For others, however, it was simply an unwillingness to navigate the narrow roads, dead ends, and one-way streets that inevitably led to a headlock situation where one driver was forced to drive backwards the way she came, hoping there would be no other traffic behind her. A similar reluctance was expressed by many I knew in al-Dahiyya with regard to other areas of Beirut, particularly Ashrafiyye, the mostly Maronite Christian suburb to the east. Again, for some, it was a hesitation based in fear and stereotypes, while for others it was the same unwillingness to navigate the gridlock of an unfamiliar part of the city.

The responses I encountered when I first broached the subject of my research with residents of other parts of Beirut were typical of this. Time and again eyes grew wide, and "You're going to do what?" was followed by a more cautionary "You will have to be careful." Later responses included a note of admiration, disbelief, or simply, "You're crazy." This was not confined to Lebanese who were not Shi'i; if anything, wealthy Shi'is who did not live in al-Dahiyya responded the most stridently. To nonresidents, mention of al-Dahiyya often elicits such responses of discomfort, ranging from caution mingled with curiosity to outright trepidation: responses built on stereotypical associations of "al-Dahiyya" with poverty, illegal construction, refugees, armed Hizbullah security guards and secret cameras, and "the Shi'i ghetto." Such stereotypes obscure al-Dahiyya's complexity. Before moving on, it is necessary to address this complexity in order to undo some of these common assumptions.


Al-Dahiyya Is Not Uniform

Al-Dahiyya encompasses several municipalities and a number of very dense neighborhoods, with a combined population of approximately five hundred thousand people in an area of sixteen square kilometers. Mona Harb el-Kak divides al-Dahiyya into eastern and western zones, with the former made up primarily of older villages that were incorporated into the urban fabric of the city and a few illegal sectors along the edges, and the latter consisting of a combination of dense illegal sectors and less urbanized areas (1998, 2000). Within these multiple municipalities and neighborhoods, there is immense variation with regard to class, length of residency in the area, and political leanings, as well as some religious diversity.

One of the characteristics of stereotypes is that they homogenize. As a real space, al-Dahiyya was not uniform; it was not only "poor," "illegal," or "Hizbullah." The region signified by the term included areas where Harakat Amal was the principal political party rather than Hizbullah, and there existed older legal residential districts as well as newly built illegal neighborhoods, some lingering Christian residents, "original" residents mingled in among more recent arrivals displaced by the wars, and an emerging Shi'i "middle class" living in constant contact with its poorer neighbors. During my field research, the ra'is baladiyya (mayor) of one municipality, Haret Hrayk, was a Maronite Christian who worked in close cooperation with Hizbullah. And on some streets, elaborate homes and the latest model BMWs indicated wealthy residents, as did the shops selling European fashions that existed alongside internet cafés, vegetable stands, and corner markets.

Al-Dahiyya Has a History

Stereotypes also belie the fact that this area has not always been predominately Shi'i or (sub)urban. Thirty years ago, much of it was semirural, its population a mix of Shi'i Muslims and Maronite Christians. A quarter century and a civil war later, this had become the second most densely populated area of the country, exceeded only by the Palestinian refugee camps, and it was predominately Shi'i Muslim.

Prior to the end of World War I and the subsequent French mandate in Lebanon, al-Dahiyya was rural and several of its current municipalities were villages. By 1970, one of these villages, Chiyah, had become two suburbs with a population of thirty thousand people and four thousand more households than had existed forty years earlier. Much of this growth was due to the wave of rural to urban migration that occurred throughout Lebanon in the 1950s and '60s, though the southern areas of Beirut were mostly settled by Shi'is from the south and the Beqaa.

Writing in 1975, Fuad Khuri described the suburbs thus:

A glance at the suburbs gives the impression that nothing is placed where it is supposed to be. The observer is immediately struck by the lack of planning, zoning, a center to the town, straight streets, and standardized buildings. Apartment buildings of various sizes and indistinct style blotch the horizon. They are often separated by one-floor houses with concrete pillars on the roof to suggest that the unfinished part of the building will be completed soon; or by small, neglected orange or olive orchards; or by well-cultivated vegetable gardens. Goats and sheep are often seen roaming around the twisted streets, looking for garbage to feed on. Chickens are more frequently heard and are seen caged in small poultry runs in gardens, beside houses, or on house-top. (1975: 37)

Soon after, the remnants of village life vanished with the arrival of thousands of Shi'i refugees from the northeastern suburbs of Beirut, the south, and the Beqaa during the years of war. Refugees continued to pour into al-Dahiyya, as it grew southward and westward, throughout the violence, and especially in 1978, 1982, and 1993, as villagers from the south and the Beqaa fled Israeli invasions and bombardments.

These consecutive surges in migration altered the sectarian makeup of the suburbs. The original village of Chiyah had a Maronite Christian majority and a Shi'i Muslim minority, a ratio that was gradually reversed over the next few decades through both Shi'i migration to the area and Maronite emigration to South America (Khuri 1975). Before the wars began, there was still a slight Maronite majority in the southern suburbs. By the late 1990s, approximately 70-80 percent of the population was made up of Shi'is who were displaced during the wars.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, when you enter al-Dahiyya from many other areas of Beirut, there is generally no clear marker of division, but there is a palpable change. Your senses clearly indicate that you have entered an area that is dominated by a particular mix of politics and piety. The recent demographic changes that have occurred in al-Dahiyya marked a new visibility for many Shi'i Muslims as a presence in Lebanon, and especially in Beirut, inscribed on public space and time. In what follows, I render the temporal, visual, and aural textures of al-Dahiyya that contribute to the sense of community cohesion held by those located within the pious modern.

Although most of my interlocutors resided in al-Dahiyya and it was their shared values that dominated public space in the area, al-Dahiyya was not coterminous with Shi'i "Islamism" or piety in Lebanon. On the one hand, while urban Lebanese Shi'i Islamism was concentrated in this suburb, its roots and reach extended throughout the country, and especially into the south and the Beqaa Valley. On the other hand, there existed within al-Dahiyya other political perspectives, religious beliefs and identities, and lifestyles. Yet my focus lies with those who both claimed a particular religious identity based in authenticated Islam and were active participants in shaping their social landscape in accordance with that religious identity.

As I move to describing what pious Shi'is called al-bi'a (the milieu), I want to emphasize that the forms I discuss are those that were both ubiquitous and hegemonic, both at first glance to an outsider and to the particular public of the pious modern. So, for example, in describing the plethora of signs that papered al-Dahiyya's streets, I focus on images of orphans, religious leaders, and Resistance martyrs. There were also pictures of other political figures and candidates, especially around election times. And there were other sorts of images-building names, signs advertising commodities and services-but these were not what were perceived to set the cityscape apart from other areas of Beirut. Nor were these images the ones people pointed out to me when describing the positive changes that had occurred around them over the past few decades. As Susan Ossman notes, understanding the meanings of particular portraits and their place in the hierarchy of images that dot the urban landscape "depends on a personal and collective narrative" that leads to specific interpretations (1994: 144). The dominant collective narrative that framed images of orphans, religious leaders, and Resistance martyrs is that which unfolds throughout this book.

Additionally, the rapid growth, shifts in population, and surges in building that have come to characterize al-Dahiyya were experienced by many residents as the making of an area of Beirut that was explicitly Shi'i-essentially as the creation of a place for the religious-political-social movement they were working to forge. For them, the various textures of al-Dahiyya's milieu that I describe in this chapter were significant because they represented the rooting of the uprooted, and because they were evidence of the "rise" of "the Shi'a" as a critical community in Lebanon. As we will see in the next chapter, many experienced this as movement from a position of deprivation and marginalization relative to other groups in Lebanon, to one of visibility and influence within the city and nation-state. I now turn to the details of this visibility.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii
Note on Language xi

Part One: Encounters, Approaches, Spaces, Moments

Introduction: Pious and/as/is Modern 3
Chapter One: Al-Dahiyya: Sight, Sound, Season 42
Chapter Two: From Marginalization to Institutionalization 67

Part Two: Living an Enchanted Modern

Chapter Three: The Visibility of Religion in Daily Life 99
Chapter Four: Ashura: Authentication and Sacrifice 129
Chapter Five: Community Commitment 165
Chapter Six: Public Piety as Women's Jihad 204
Chapter Seven: The Pious Modern Ideal and Its Gaps 220

Glossary 233
References 235
Index 251

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"A remarkable book that opens new vistas on Shi'I Islam and offers the reader a richly textured and insight-filled excursion into a contemporary Shi'I community. It will become the source on contemporary Shi'ism in Lebanon."—A. R. Norton, Boston University

"Well-written, timely, original and extremely interesting. This book is at the cutting edge of scholarship on Muslim communities, particularly with respect to Shi'i Muslim women."—Nadje S. Al-Ali, University of Exeter


Well-written, timely, original and extremely interesting. This book is at the cutting edge of scholarship on Muslim communities, particularly with respect to Shi'i Muslim women.
Nadje S. Al-Ali, University of Exeter


A remarkable book that opens new vistas on Shi'I Islam and offers the reader a richly textured and insight-filled excursion into a contemporary Shi'I community. It will become the source on contemporary Shi'ism in Lebanon.
A. R. Norton, Boston University

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