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New Texts Out Now: Abdel Razzaq Takriti, Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976

[Cover of Abdel Razzaq Takriti, [Cover of Abdel Razzaq Takriti, "Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976"]

Abdel Razzaq Takriti, Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Abdel Razzaq Takriti (ART): I first encountered the Dhufar revolution in a seminar on social movements in the Middle East convened by Amir Hassanpour. This was the longest running major armed struggle in the history of the Arabian Peninsula, Britain's last classic colonial war in the region, and one of the highlights of the Cold War in the Middle East. It took place in a corner of the Arab world that is endowed with unique geographic characteristics, boasting striking highlands covered with wild fig and tamarind forests, and cloaked for a quarter of the year with the monsoon mist. Considering its temporal longevity, remarkable social and cultural dimensions, and ideological intensity, I was shocked to discover the dearth of studies on Dhufar and its revolution. Retrieving neglected aspects of its history has been a driving ambition ever since. The availability of new archival and personal collections, as well as greater (if still limited) openings for conducting serious oral history work, rendered this goal achievable.

When I began my research in 2005, the Arab revolutionary tradition of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was widely overlooked and generally misunderstood. Back then, revolution seemed an outdated concept, a lingering term from a bygone era. Moreover, silencing or recasting the revolutionary past became an essential feature of the historiography produced by proponents of the status quo. Traces of the revolutionary story were only to be found in the undoubtedly substantial, but primarily journalistic, works from the 1970s. Accordingly, the outlooks, experiences, lives, and ambitions of Arab revolutionaries were erased by regime narratives, colonially-minded accounts, and the growing (but yet remarkably superficial) counterinsurgency literature. History is regularly unkind to the defeated, the marginal, and the oppositional. This is even more the case when writing history becomes the suppression of an inconvenient past in the service of the present, or even the celebration of colonialist deeds. In contrast to the practice of describing the revolutionaries from without, I sought to offer a more persuasive account from within.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

ART: As I began writing on the Dhufar revolution, the need to situate it within the broader histories of Oman, the Gulf, and the Arab world as a whole became clearer. Far from being an isolated incident that occurred in a vacuum, Dhufar belonged to the Bandung and post-Bandung generation of anti-colonial movements. As well as being significant in its own right, it offered a superior vantage point for considering a whole range of regional and global developments. Tracing the journey of its cadres required inquiring into the history of regional Nasserist mobilization, the origins of the Gulf branches of the Movement of Arab Nationalists (in which leading Dhufari cadres were active), the complex web of republican alliances that were developing in the 1950s and 1960s, the rise of Maoism and the New Left, and the consolidation of global “communities of revolution” throughout the period under consideration. 

Initially, my intention was to write solely about the revolution, aiming to protect the memory of the Dhufar revolutionaries from what E. P. Thompson had elegantly described as “the enormous condescension of posterity.” However, the further I ventured into the realm of historical reconstruction, the more I realized that the story of the republicans was intimately tied with the tale of the Sultanic regime and its British patrons; completely disentangling them would have rendered our understanding of both extremely deficient. Indeed, one of the principle arguments put forth in Monsoon Revolution is that the construction of the current Sultanic state was decisively influenced and shaped by the revolution. Not only did the revolution pre-date the state, but it expedited its emergence and endowed it with many of its specific features which were initially developed with an eye towards revolutionary containment, suppression, and co-optation.

Generally speaking, any political system dominating a particular social order is bound to utilize mechanisms of social control so as to reproduce and perpetuate itself. However, in the case of Oman, what we had was not a system reproducing itself, but rather a new order being born. The external patron (Britain) replaced an old structure belonging to the days of the Raj (the Princely State of Sultan Said bin Taimur) with a new creation (the bureaucratic absolutist state of Sultan Qabous). This actuality suppressed two potentialities: the emergence of a revolutionary republic under the leadership of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Occupied Arab Gulf (PFLOAG); or, alternatively, the development of a constitutional monarchy headed by Sultan Qabus’ reformist uncle, Tariq bin Taimur.       

This argument departs from the broader literature on the theory of revolutions, as well as the specific body of work on Oman. With regards to the former, there is a great deal of state-centrism that does not allow for approaching revolutions that pre-date (and in fact generate) the modern state, especially in colonial and semi-colonial settings. As for the latter, it is dominated (save for a few critical works such as those of Marc Valeri) by accounts that treat the state in isolation from its social and political setting, mainly focusing—in a manner bordering on hagiography—on the initiative of the Sultan. In contrast, Monsoon Revolution suggests the need for closely studying the relationship between colonialism and absolutism and for examining the monarchical question in modern Arab history in much greater detail. My own explanation for the underdeveloped nature of this field of investigation is that it is influenced by the political atmosphere. Whereas republican dictatorship is widely condemned and critiqued in the English speaking world, little attention is paid to the absolute monarchies that were sustained by direct and indirect forms of Anglo-American support.

This brings us to a closely connected issue examined in the book: the question of sovereignty arrangements and their underlying principles. Inspired by the literature on traditions of war (particularly the work of Karma Nabulsi), I increasingly came to appreciate that Dhufar was not just an insurgency that solicited a successful counterinsurgency; it was a contest over sovereignty, pitting widely divergent republican and monarchist understandings and practices of the term. The features of that contest were shaped by geographic and political processes unfolding over the course of the previous century and a half. The British imperial role in determining the outcome of these processes was decisive, leading to remarkable structural transformations within the Omani geographic and political spheres.

In the pre-British era, the Omani political order was shaped by local dynamics revolving around three polycentric sites of authority: the tribes; the Imamate; and the ruling dynasties.  Sovereignty, in its absolutist sense as summa potestas, could not be sought or attained by dynastic rulers. The most that could be achieved was control over some major towns and forts and the successful accumulation of customs from coastal trade. Following the British arrival, relations between tribal, Imamate, and dynastic political structures were gradually transformed. Dynastic rulers progressively came to depend on foreign patronage as their basis of power, and this distorted established patterns of interaction with other local actors. Thereafter, “imperial sovereignty” was imposed. I deployed that concept in a limited political sense and defined it as a dominant foreign power investing local authority in an indigenous body of its choosing, while retaining a degree of control over that body. Rather than focusing on the suzerain relationship between empire and vassal (expressed in the word “suzerainty”), my intention was to account for the role of empire in shaping local sovereignty arrangements. Here, I endeavoured to understand the process that has been identified by Sugata Bose as the colonial replacement of a concept of “layered and shared sovereignty that had characterized Indian and Indian Ocean polities of the pre-colonial era” with an imported notion of “unitary sovereignty.”

Monsoon Revolution shows that imperial sovereignty was imposed in three phases: the Raj Phase (1861–1954), during which the coast of Oman was gradually controlled and Dhufar was annexed; the Oil Phase (1954–1965), over the course of which the Omani interior was subdued and the Imamate and its al-Jabal al-Akhdar rebellion suppressed; and, finally, the Revolutionary Phase (1965–1976), whose peak was the confrontation between imperial sovereignty and the revolutionaries in Dhufar. The latter were committed to a vision that emphasized “popular sovereignty,” believing that the source of authority was the people rather than the Sultan. While constantly fighting for that vision, they regularly reconceptualised and transformed their ideological stances and programs. In my effort to understand this phenomenon, I was drawn into diverse arenas of investigation, ranging from Arab republican intellectual history to the vernacularization of Marxism-Leninism in agrarian settings. I was fascinated to discover that South–South connections in Arab intellectual history played a much more important role than is usually accounted for during the period concerned. The thought and practice of the revolution was heavily influenced by Afro-Asian and Latin American traditions, rather than being predominantly shaped by European models. The same could be said for revolutionary culture, an stimulating subject to which I dedicated a full chapter, surveying the literary, cinematic, photographic, and journalistic output of the revolution.

Examining the political and intellectual processes that were unfolding in Dhufar was an important component of Monsoon Revolution. Yet this was not enough. It was necessary to account for the social and economic bases of these developments. Human relations are not free-floating; no matter how subjectively driven, they are conditioned and constrained by material realities. A close analysis of these realities—and the radical attempts at their transformation—was crucial. This led me to focus on revolutionary programs that sought to undermine tribalism, eradicate slavery, and spread literacy. It also led me to study the role of women in waging the armed struggle as well as challenging established gender relations.    

One final theme I wish to highlight is that of solidarity and its transnational manifestations. Monsoon Revolution suggests that the concrete relationships that sustained the revolution reflected the growth of tricontinental solidarity networks and communities of revolution. Accounting for these networks was an fundamental dimension of this work, and so was the effort to elaborate the ways in which the Anglo-Sultanic structure was dependent on global networks of imperial and monarchical solidarity (stretching from Iran to the US). Indeed, the book ends with a close analysis of the social, cultural, and political implications of the clash between the two networks as it unfolded in Dhufar in the context of the Cold War.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

ART: I hope that Monsoon Revolution would be viewed as an addition to the empirical and theoretical literature on anti-colonial revolutions, featuring as it does a major local case study that is a microcosm of broader regional and global trends. Furthermore, I feel that historians of post-Second World War Arab intellectual, political, social, and cultural history may find interesting empirical and theoretical points of engagement with the book. More narrowly, I believe that it may add to the process of generating new avenues of investigation in Gulf history. Hitherto, the field has been dominated by the focus on resources and regimes. A popular history of this sort—placing dynamic social movements at the center of the story—could potentially contribute, however modestly, to reconsidering our understanding of the region.

Beyond the scholarly level, and more importantly for me, I hope that Monsoon Revolution will be read by revolutionaries, activists, and engaged audiences in the Global South in general, and the Arab world and Oman in particular. At this historical juncture, the need for greater awareness of the Arab revolutionary tradition scarcely needs to be highlighted. Monsoon Revolution retrieves a small, but significant, aspect of that tradition. On a less immediate level, the book fulfils a basic function, which is to offer some access to information that is denied to the Arab public by regimes of censorship. Aside from hearsay and discrete verbal transmission, it is very difficult for Omanis to retrieve basic information on their own history. This book—which engages with thousands of pages of classified documents—adds to the reservoir of knowledge available on the history of this wonderful country, demystifying many episodes, ranging from the annexation of Dhufar in the nineteenth century to the planning and implementation of the July 1970 coup. Furthermore, by reconstructing the history of the revolutionaries on their own terms, utilizing their own literature and oral testimonies, the book hopes to reconnect Omani people with their own popular history, which ultimately belongs to them. To that end, I am currently preparing an Arabic translation of this work, and I aim to make it available as soon as possible.  

J: What other projects are you working on now?

ART: Currently, I am co-editing (with Dr. Karma Nabulsi of Oxford University) a major scholarly website on the history of the Palestinian revolution, spanning the years 1948-1992. This website, which is due to be launched very soon, will feature a wealth of primary materials as well as a carefully developed online teaching curriculum. The volume and range of oral and written sources that will be presented will enable close consideration of the Palestinian revolutionary tradition, as well as the practices and thoughts of the cadres that launched it. Dr. Nabulsi and I are also co-authoring a book on the subject that draws on a broad range of previously unavailable sources. This is an incredibly exciting project, and it has given me the precious opportunity to reflect on one of the largest and most persistent global anti-colonial struggles of the past century.     

Excerpt from Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976

In this context, the quest for cultural transformation did not come from above, but from below, propelled by major socio-economic changes and the experience of Dhufari migrant workers in the Gulf. Subalternity is a status that the marginalized try to break out of, whenever possible, and migrant Dhufaris were no exception. As was seen earlier, they encountered novel conceptions and practices in places like Kuwait and sought to integrate themselves into the broader Arab cultural sphere. At the initial launch of revolutionary activity, their cultural agenda was limited. However, a more expansive vision was inaugurated in the aftermath of the Hamrin conference of 1968, initiating a vigorous form of cultural transformation.

At the outset, it must be emphasized that this endeavour reflected a global pattern shared with other tricontinental contexts. In his Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said perspicaciously notes that “if colonialism was a system, as Sartre was to say in one of his post-war essays, then resistance began to feel systematic too.” Dhufari revolutionary culture was one node in this system, heavily influenced by a cultural style, outlook, discourse, and mode of expression that emanated from left-wing movements operating in other regional centers, especially Palestine and South Yemen. The latter in turn were embedded in a cultural system that included movements ranging from the Cuban to the Vietnamese.

Revolutionary culture was not simply a functionalist instrument. However, this did not mean that it did not play particular political and social functions. One of the most important was to legitimate the revolutionary endeavor by situating it within a broader tradition. The mechanism by which this was done was to constantly assert an organic connection with other revolutions, be they historic or contemporary. Classics of revolutionary literature were often cited, reproduced, and distributed. These ranged from Progress Publishers’ official Soviet translation of Lenin’s biography to Brecht’s “From a German War Primer.” Classic slogans, such as the Spanish Civil War’s “No pasarán!” (Lan Yamuru) were circulated. However, pride of place was given to the Palestinian revolution. References to it are to be found in a wide range of poems, essays, interviews, posters, and drawings, and enormous space was given to Palestinian voices in Dhufari revolutionary publications. This did not only reaffirm Dhufari commitment to Palestine, but it also endowed the Dhufar revolution with a crucial cultural means of legitimation. As noted by Michael Hudson in his seminal study of legitimation politics in the Arab world, there exist core “All Arab” concerns that have a major impact on the legitimacy of any particular order. The “legitimacy of given leaders in a given state is determined to an important extent by their fidelity to these core concerns” and “Palestine is the foremost all-Arab concern, although not the only one.”

If Palestine was important for the legitimation of any regime, it was immeasurably more crucial for revolutionary movements. This form of legitimation was not just externally useful: it held immense internal significance. To appreciate its scale, one must bear in mind that the roots of the Dhufari leadership went back to the Movement of Arab Nationalists, a formation that was primarily established to create an Arab response to the Palestinian nakba of 1948. Thus, when a respected Palestinian figure like Sakher Habash wrote poems for Dhufar, he was not only contributing to a process of cultural legitimation outside Dhufari revolutionary circles. Such an act was appreciated at an intimate level, reaffirming the revolutionaries’ desire to take a step towards liberating Palestine by changing the prevailing reality in the Gulf. Likewise, Palestinian revolutionaries, especially on the left, had a deep affinity for Dhufar and their writings on Gulf revolutionary themes were far from instrumental. One of Sakher’s poems entitled “Palestine is Dhufar” explains the emotion underlying them:

The earth is filled with storms
Oh wound that cures a wound
Oh hurricane that embraces a hurricane
Who understands the language of revolutionaries
except for other revolutionaries?
The faces of hope look alike on the pages of fire
And Palestine is Dhufar 

Such verses of solidarity were unsolicited; they reflected true feelings of camaraderie, motivated by a common experience and a shared moral universe.

Beyond the realm of the poetic, a plethora of Palestinian motifs are to be found. But they do not stand alone. Rather, they lie at the heart of an intersecting web of global words and images that constituted the repertoire of revolutionary culture, and formed the basis for an alternative worldview. The two main Dhufari periodicals, the weekly Sawt al-Thawra and the monthly 9 Yunyu, played a major role in constructing this worldview, which was principally achieved by constant references to other struggles, especially tricontinental ones. This referential system fundamentally affected such acts as news reporting…Three types of news were deemed fit to print: reports on the revolution; coverage of the regime and its regional and international backers; and items on global revolutionary movements and socialist states. The third named are particularly interesting from the standpoint of revolutionary culture. Such was their frequency and diversity that they kept cadres informed of the latest trends in the tricontinental world. In Popular Front publications, we find numerous stories of revolutionary beginnings, such as an April 1974 special interview with an Ethiopian “progressive struggler”—conducted even before the establishment of the Derg—on the growing movement against Emperor Haile Selassie in that country. The interview was featured under the title “Ethiopia: The Revolution of Humanity, Freedom, and Bread.” Despite the mobilizational title, it was characteristically rich in empirical detail, providing in-depth updates and information presented in a descriptive manner.

More celebratory, if no less detailed, coverage was given to revolutionary victories. For instance a six-page article on the victory of the people’s war in Vietnam was presented under the headline “Glory to the Fighting People!” Here, the descriptive material was intensified with declarative statements of opinion, dates, and incidents intermingling with normative assertions. A strong sense of identification is present throughout the article, the Vietnamese struggle presented as a matter of pride for every reader, and indeed for the entirety of humanity. Its ultimate victory was portrayed as a profound cause for hope: “one day in the bright future, our children will be able to play freely, in the same way that Vietnamese children do now.”

Such interviews and reports contributed to a cultural structure of reference that constituted, anchored, and disseminated the revolutionary worldview. Every printed item reflected this outlook. Letters congratulating states on their independence were published in full, supporting their leading revolutionary parties. These letters reasserted to Omani readers their belonging to the global community of revolution and informed them of the achievements of other liberation movements. They also elaborated the Popular Front’s position with regard to the internal dynamics of each struggle. For instance, readers of the letter sent to President Agostinho Neto on the occasion of Angolan independence were informed that “the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola is the sole legitimate representative of the Angolan people,” essentially signalling that the Omani revolutionary leadership stood with the Cuban and Soviet-backed MPLA in its conflict with American supported UNITA and FNLA.

Editorials also expressed support for “sister revolutions.” There was hardly an event that they did not cover, ranging from the first Communist Party of Cuba conference in 1975 (which was attended by the PFLO Secretary General, Abdel Aziz al-Qadi) to the eleventh anniversary celebrations of the Zanzibari revolution. Major anniversaries were given huge coverage, an opportunity to provide a historical overview of the particular cause under consideration. October 1917 was annually celebrated with fanfare, and so were the Palestinian, Yemeni, Chinese, Cuban, Algerian, Egyptian, Iraqi, and Vietnamese revolutions. Even obituaries were laden with political meaning and anti-colonial sympathies, promptly published whenever a major international revolutionary figure died. As such, every editorial, anniversary piece, and obituary licensed a discourse of revolutionary affiliation, reflecting incorporation into the anti-colonial cultural system.

[Excerpted from Abdel Razzaq Takriti, Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976, by permission of the author. © 2013 Abdel Razzaq Takriti. For more information, or to order the book, click here.]

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