By Jatin Dua (University of Michigan)

Ryan Jobson’s year-in-review essay begins in San Jose at the 2018 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, a moment that presciently foreshadowed this contemporary conjuncture when, as Achille Mbembe (2020) has noted, a “universal right to breathe” has forcefully reemerged. Beyond mere inclusion, this right is a demand and a reckoning—a call for reinvention.

This mode of reckoning, this form of eschewing “straightforward fixes” (Jobson 2020, 263), is at the heart of Jobson’s intervention as well. In addition to being an exhaustive survey of texts and themes that emerged in sociocultural anthropology in 2019, the essay refuses fictions of separation (between field and home, subject and object, anthropologist and informant) and platitudes of redemption. Like the Mike Davis essay “The case for letting Malibu burn,” Jobson notes the impossibility of continuing a certain kind of business as usual; instead, he argues that “to let anthropology burn permits us to imagine a future for the discipline unmoored from its classical objects and referents” (261). I was struck by the appearance of a maritime metaphor of unmooring in an otherwise territorial(izing) text, and I see this as an opportunity to relocate Jobson’s critique of anthropology from land to sea.

I’m interested specifically in the genealogy of otherness and difference, something that emerges most markedly in discussions of the constitution of the field and fieldwork. Fieldwork as an unmediated encounter with otherness and the “persistence of the field as a finite geography” (263) is, as many have noted, built on a series of erasures and elisions (Amit 2000; Behar 1996; Gupta and Ferguson 1997; Harrison 1991; Narayan 1993). While a Malinowskian (and Boasian) ideal of anthropological knowledge production through encounters with “otherness”—a tale of arrival, extraction, and return—has been hegemonic in the discipline, it is worth remembering how scholars like Zora Neale Hurston (1935) and Jomo Kenyatta (1938) pushed back at this framing by resignifying ethnography, by associating it with forms of homecoming and autoethnography as well as manifestos for decolonization and thinking across borders.

Savannah Shange’s powerful reminder that “fieldwork is never completely out of sight of another set of fields—cotton, cane, tobacco, rice” (quoted in Jobson 2020, 261; emphasis in original) requires recognizing the intimacy of anthropology and “structures of dispossession.” This is an important critique of an anthropology that proclaimed its innocence through an exposition and identification with difference. As Jobson notes in his argument against what he terms as the “Boasian fix” (265), a celebratory account of the emancipatory potential of cultural relativism, one associated with the Boas circle, “maintains a liberal myth of perfectibility through the progressive incorporation of subordinated peoples into the comforts and privileges of property and citizenship” (265). Refusing this “liberal settlement” of otherness and cultural critique, Jobson recasts fieldwork generatively into a “patchy anthropology” that pushes back at the unitary ideal of the field.

But what happens to difference by the end of Jobson’s critique? The vision of anthropology that emerges once the smoke settles is built on an ethic of refusal—one that eschews otherization or unmediated access. Importantly, it is built on relationships of witnessing and solidarity in the wake of chattel slavery. There is profound power in this move, and I hesitate even to query this formation or suggest that we reject a project of solidarity. But “a view from another boat” (Ho 2004) would perhaps help us recognize that anthropology is also a practice of cohabitation. This is not simply a call for modes of engagement and practices of being with others beyond the binary of enmity or friendship, especially our “repugnant others” (Harding 1991), but to suggest reckoning with the multiplicity of liquid domains. This requires reckoning with Atlantic passages as well as histories and geographies of mobility in other spaces and other times, such as the Indian Ocean.[1] Instead of either being built through horizontal modes of identification or the verticality of sovereignty, these forms of cohabitation contain the possibility of generating conceptual vocabularies and practices that emerge from thick, but uneven, geographies and temporalities. Cohabitation then becomes a form of dwelling that is contingent and temporary, but also framed within these longer histories and wider geographies. This form of cohabitation emerges clearly at sea, where the fragility of ships and the choppiness of waves is ever-present, though unevenly felt.

What happens if we transform a landed discipline like anthropology, with its Lockean conception of a proprietary and extractive field, into a seaborne craft? What might it mean to extend this cohabitation beyond the sea? Fieldwork—and other fields—are not far from more liquid domains. What is often occluded, from the vantage point of the field and the conceptual world that emerges from it, is the oceanic as well as the fluid paths that connect as well as rip asunder. A recognition of this maritime realm is at one level a reminder of the multiple, entangled forms of mobility that were central to the making of the port city, the stock exchange, the plantation, the warehouse, the factory. It also helps us remember that anthropologists, like colonial officials and missionaries, as well as radicals and revolutionaries, often arrived on steamships whose routes and timetables represented imperial projects. These projects built upon, but never fully captured, prior histories of travel and mobility. This is not to claim an elemental distinction between land and sea. The “free sea” (Grotius [1609] 2004) was as much a colonial justification for appropriation as was Locke’s proclamation that “in the beginning, all the world was America” (Laslett 1970, 319). The sea is also a site of horrors, of loss, of violence, of exploitation and expropriation. But to think across, and from, “vast expanses” (Rozwadowski 2019) is to pay attention to what happens in spaces and times of transit, what happens when we find ourselves together at sea. This is a story of complicity, but also of cohabitation and sometimes co-conspirators.

A seaborne craft also requires a different mode of narration: namely, the spinning of sea yarns. Sea yarns work by mobilizing uneven histories and temporalities, querying senses of location and time. I want to offer one such yarn of time at sea; a tale of pirates and dhow captains, of hosts and guests and protectors of the sea.

Global capitalism is an amphibious creature. Millions of vessels are at sea. Almost everything we consume has spent some time on the ocean, often hidden away in containers loaded and unloaded onto cargo ships as large as ten football fields. Before the emergence of the container, the hold of a ship was a jumble of objects tightly packed together, secured by rope and the ingenious spatial awareness of stevedores and other cargo loaders. Bags of cement would sit cheek and jowl with tins of soup, carriages next to hospital beds. Loading and unloading ships was time-consuming and slow. The rise of containerization both made cargo invisible and sped up time in global shipping. However, not all ports transformed into container terminals—due to location or, often, infrastructural limits. Containerized shipping thus created a parallel economy, a world of cheap trade operating in the shadow of free trade that connected these out-of-time ports.

In the western Indian Ocean, a new-old vessel emerged—the dhow—with the rise of containerization to connect these out-of-time ports. Seen as a vestige of a premodern world of silk and spices, the dhow—and the world of Indian Ocean trade—is often relegated to a nostalgic past, a time “before European hegemony” (Abu-Lughod 1989). In opposition to this declensionist narrative, the contemporary dhow economy and the sailors, primarily from Western India and Pakistan, who man this sea of trade (this is a gendered world), are deeply imbricated in the rhythms and temporalities of global capitalism and geopolitics. Trade routes appear and disappear as much in response to trends in global shipping, insurance rates, and political machinations as they do in relation to genealogies and kinship ties (Dua 2016; Mahajan 2019).

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In recent years these boats have encountered another seemingly anachronistic figure: the pirate. As larger-than-life characters found in fables or dusty imperial archives, pirates, like dhows, initially appear in the monsoonal waters of the Indian Ocean as vestiges of another time. However, from 2007 onwards, an unprecedented upsurge in acts of piracy off the Somali coast brought global attention to these restive waters. Neither an hostis humani generis (enemy of all mankind) nor an act of resistance, piracy in the Western Indian Ocean was a mode of claim-making over mobile objects at sea and deeply intertwined with the practices of marine insurance and risk management in places far removed from Somalia. Emphasizing these connections locates piracy between questions of legality and illegality and also emphasizes dynamic histories where pirates transform into protectors and captivity into relationships of hospitality (Dua 2019).

While pirates and dhows would often avoid each other, pirates preferring high-value cargo ships, this began to change as naval policing and ship rerouting drove piracy from Somali territorial waters into the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean. Dhows promised a modicum of stability in monsoonal open waters and the ability to traverse long distances and extend the amount of time one could spend at sea. This made it possible to transform Somali piracy into a western Indian Ocean practice and to evade naval patrols. Additionally, attaching themselves to the dhow was a way for pirates to blend into maritime traffic. The sea is not an empty space. From pieces of ambergris to schools of tuna, from small fishing boats to post-Panamax cargo ships, a variety of objects circulate, float, drown, and are washed ashore constantly. The dhow was yet another way to blend into this crowded world at sea. It provided camouflage and cover.

Recalling the moment of arrival when pirates appeared at his threshold, Rahimullah, a dhow captain, explained: “we had just left the port of Salalah [Oman] when heard on the radio that the ali babas had been seen by someone not far from where we were.” Shipboard radios are a constant source of chatter at sea. “Most of the time people are cursing each other or playing bad music, but we also inform each other if anything is suspicious.” As Rahimullah described it, they left the port late at night—a practice common in the Red Sea ports during the unforgiving hot summer, when loading and unloading livestock occurs during the relatively mild nighttime hours. “All of a sudden, before we could head back to the port, a small boat came alongside us and fired shots.” Alarmed, Rahimullah slowed the ship down. “We didn’t know where they were and didn’t want to get killed. So I cut the engine and they boarded us.”

“Were you scared?” I asked. “Of course, the ali babas had come on board with guns.” But this was not an ordinary hijacking. “They were lost and had run out of water for drinking and for their boat. They stayed on our dhow for three days, and then near Socotra [an island between Yemen and Somalia] they got off and disappeared.”

Whether lost, hungry, thirsty for water or fuel, or just looking for a mobile base to attacks ships, the pirate arrives at the threshold. This is clearly a moment of violence, as the pirate arrives armed and holds the crew hostage through the threat and enactment of force. Yet, in the hours, days, and sometimes months of capture, meals are also shared, and movies are watched in the intimacy of the hold. Rahimullah noted how the pirates acted like (bad) guests on board the ship: “they ate all the food, but always complained about the spices.” As another dhow captain emphasized, hum sab gharib log hain (we are all poor), transforming the enemy of all into a fellow traveler. But this was not a statement of solidarity. The captain explained how he had cursed the pirates when they left. Rahimullah always referred to his hijackers as ali babas. Other crew members would try to situate these acts in an Islamic moral universe of haram and halal, of ghaza (raiding) or theft.

To sit with the dhow captain and the pirate, to linger on this moment of captivity that is simultaneously a moment of hospitality, is not simply a claim to ethnographic specificity. Cohabitation as a mode of engaging difference emphasizes forms of acknowledgment, of temporary living together in the rocky hold of a ship across thick, but uneven, geographies and histories. If, as Jobson (2020, 267) notes, we cannot presume a “coherent human subject as a point of departure,” it is equally important to query coherent and stable conceptual and political categories. This allows us not only to dwell in the spaces and times of people who exist beyond the pale but also to move more deftly through the fissures and occlusions of our inherited conceptual worlds. As Rahimullah explained as we departed: “if a pirate is in trouble, even he can become a guest at sea.”

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[1] A rich set of historical and anthropological engagements with maritime spaces like the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean and other littoral regions as well as across transregional expanses like the Sahel emphasizes fluidity not as metaphor, but as the very condition for making and unmaking social categories. See for example: Ben-Yehoyada (2017), Gupta (2019), Kahn (2019), Shryock (2019), Scheele (2012), and Yahaya (2020). These spaces ask us to reckon with the simultaneity of contingency and openness and the longue durée.