GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Giving to give, and giving to receive: The construction of charity in Dubai (Working title)
Paper Proposal Text :
This paper explores the anthropology of charitable giving among indigenous populations of the Arabian Gulf. The project aims, through ethnography, to examine the political and social motivations and constructions of ‘Śadakah’ in Dubai. There is limited anthropological literature on the social construction of giving among Arab groups outside traditional and colonial visitors to the region. Though this project does not concern itself overtly with governmental political agendas and public policy, there is a compelling debate in anthropology that all social acts are necessarily political. The social nuances and engagements that surround the epistemology of giving are perhaps particularly suited to contributing to this debate. This paper aims to demonstrate the complexity of motivations that encourage charitable behaviour in the Emirates, both independent of, and in accordance with Quranic teachings.

This research uses experience from a much larger project of four years of ethnographic fieldwork in the gulf on the incorporation of Western ideological imports into indigenous cosmologies. This paper will specifically focus on the notion of giving in three separate contexts in Dubai. The first concerns the ability of charity to cancel sin within local imagination. I will explore the potential for personal financial donations to counteract personal transgressions both before, and after a sinful act. Islamic teaching encourages spiritual charity as a form of repentance. However, for many, this philosophy has been reimagined as an instrument to pre-emptively justify minor breaches of moral and Islamic behaviour. Charity, in this sense, is constructed by some as ‘planned’ repentance, and others as simply “balancing ones life”.

The second context this paper will explore concerns types of charitable engagements during RamaDan. Specifically, I will focus on the ethnography of cancelling debt during RamaDan. For some interlocutors, the act of partially, or fully erasing the financial obligations of those whom are indebted is conceived as an ultimate form of religious charity. Some informants claim to be obliged to forego money that is owed to them during RamaDan because of the philosophical ideals of the holy month, and because of the local perceptions of owing, and being owed money. In terms of cleanliness, my interlocutors often conceive of debt as a type of dirt, or filth, accrued by both the borrower and the lender. In this light, charitable donations during RamaDan become a type of bathing and cleansing in local imagination. The microscopic terms of engagement for charity during RamaDan are often complex, however, as many, both nationals and foreigners, seek to take advantage of the local epistemologies during the month. This issue is especially highlighted during the financial instabilities that have plagued Dubai in the last few years.

The last context this project examines is the political motivations pervading the development of a large, privately conceived, but government sponsored charity that operates internationally. The project was originally developed and marketed as a small charity organization by an American expatriate housewife living in Dubai. It became adopted by the ruler of Dubai, and through government sponsored fundraising, the small project earned an initial endowment of nearly two billion Dhm (£340,000,000). This paper will briefly outline the dogmatism of obligatory charity during the fundraising for this group. The social dynamics and relationship between the local government and Dubai’s financial elite become illuminated through the political act of giving. The ethnography also highlights the societal cooperation in developing an international reputation for the small, wealthy city as both powerful and charitable.