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Mobilities, Boundaries, and Travelling Ideas

 | 
Philipp Schröder
, 
Manja Stephan-Emmrich

Part 4. Pious Endeavours: Near and Far

9. iPhones, Emotions, Mediations: Tracing Translocality in the Pious Endeavours of Tajik Migrants in the United Arab Emirates

Manja Stephan-Emmrich

Texte intégral

Digital practices

1Mona, a thirty-year-old Tajik woman whom I met during my field trip to the United Arab Emirates in November and December 2013, lives with her family in a comfortable apartment complex in the emirate of Sharjah. Ma’ruf, her husband, is a graduate of Sana’a University in Yemen, where he studied Koran exegesis (tafsir) and Islamic law (fiq) from 1999 until 2006. In 2001, he married Mona and encouraged her to join him in his religious studies. Five years later and after the birth of their first son, they returned to Tajikistan and Ma’ruf started a journalism course at the National University in Tajikistan’s capital city Dushanbe. After an unexpected three-week spell of medical treatment in an Iranian hospital, the university board suspected him of joining radical Islamic networks abroad and deregistered him from the National University. After 2009 the Tajik government’s control over the religious activity of Tajikistan’s Muslims further increased, and the Soviet legacy of fearing Islam as ‘dangerous’ to the secular state resulted in a wide range of media campaigns and amendments of the law on religion. As a result, the family decided to emigrate to the United Arab Emirates. With the help of two former Tajik classmates from Sana’a University, who after graduation moved to Dubai to work and live, Ma’ruf established a business trading spare car parts in Dubai. Later, he became a successful entrepreneur selling fur coats to Russian tourists (see Mirzoev and Stephan-Emmrich, Chapter Three). Consequently, he brought his family to the Emirates in order to continue his business and live a pious life according to Islamic principles in a ‘Muslim-friendly’ environment, far away from a secular state regime that classifies Muslim practices as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. During the two weeks that I stayed with Mona and Ma’ruf in their Sharjah apartment, we had many conversations about the family’s mobile life, which in 2013 was centred upon Dubai and Sharjah as their main places of residence and work.

2Strikingly, while I shared time with the couple and their (non-) Tajik neighbors and friends, as well as Ma’ruf’s Tajik coworkers, our conversations were often facilitated by the use of smartphones (mostly the latest iPhones that the students buy in Dubai). Mona and Ma’ruf’s smartphones served as an entry point into stories about their lives and so introduced me to the mobile lifeworlds and multiple situatedness of the couple and their Dubai friends. Furthermore, their smartphones triggered memories and created an atmosphere of shared experience or, as I will argue in this chapter, created a sense of immediacy of spatial experience that was linked to places my interlocutors had inhabited in the past. Thus, in the digital representation of their mobile lives, these far-off places turned into virtual landmarks that formed my interlocutors’ emotional geographies and acted as reference points to help them to narrate their religious biographies.

  • 1 The call for the daily prayer (Arabic salat, or Tajik namoz).

3When meeting Ma’ruf in his shop in Dubai’s Deira district, or having a business lunch with him and his coworkers in one of the city’s numerous Afghan, Iranian, or Central Asian restaurants, or when chatting with Mona and her close friend Gulnora in the couple’s apartment kitchen, I was introduced to their Facebook or classmate (odnoklassnik) contacts and their favorite mobile prayer or Koran apps. Furthermore, they showed me the online forums and the blogs of former Koran or Arabic teachers in Yemen that they use when discussing religious issues or searching for advice. Moreover, I learned about the latest smartphone cases with Islamic symbols and ringtones imitating the a’zan.1 I listened to the women’s favorite Koran recitations and Islamic songs (nasjid), and the women shared their digital cake recipes with me, recipes which had been shared by their friends in Sana’a, Dubai, or elsewhere abroad.

  • 2 Multi-sited fieldwork for this project was done between 2010 and 2014 in Tajikistan’s capital city (...)

4By drawing on such digital practices from my multi-sited fieldwork in Tajikistan and the United Arab Emirates between 2010 and 2014,2 in this chapter I trace the entangled study and work trajectories of my mobile interlocutors. Furthermore, I am interested in how these trajectories intersect with my interlocutors’ religious biographies, which evolved over the course of their mobile lives, and which result from their multiple situatedness in different geographic places. While studying in Sana’a’s Al-Imam or Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, or in one of the Islamic universities in the Hejaz, or while working as shopkeeper, street broker, or tourist guide in Dubai Deira, many Tajiks are exposed to a globally circulating Muslim reformism (isloh) while abroad. Consequently, like Mona and Ma’ruf, they become engaged in religious self-making projects that involve moral self-perfection and spiritual progress. As they gain religious knowledge and shape their work ethic and daily practices according to the teachings of Islam, many former mobile Tajik students combine spiritual self-improvement with economic strategies, educational goals, and social aspirations (Stephan-Emmrich and Mirzoev 2016).

5The role of new media technology in the migration process is now well-documented. Email, Skype, and social media facilitate virtual travel, i.e., a ‘virtual mobility’ (Hannam et al. 2006:4), and thus connect distant people and places and create a proximity that helps to maintain transnational family ties and navigate the often ambivalent experiences of multiple belongings (Madianou and Miller 2012). However, shifting from the movement of people to their social lives and the use of mobile devices such as smartphones, I show how digital representations of mobile lives enable an exploration of the intersections between mobility, religion, and emotion, or what I call translocal piety. Translocality, as I will argue, can be best understood as capturing processes and practices of material mediation, i.e., of mediating immediacy. I borrow this term from media and religious studies in order to illuminate the ways my interlocutors articulate affiliation, or at least a longed-for affiliation, with particular places. They therefore make these places, as well as the past religious experiences linked to them, ‘real’ or ‘immediate’, for themselves, their social environment, and for the ethnographer (O’Sullivan et al. 2004, Lundby 2013a/b, Meyer 2013).

6In the second part of this chapter, I take the locales of Mona and Ma’ruf’s mobile livelihoods as geographic reference points and highlight how they produce, perform, and strive for piety through narrative references to these locales. Thus, as I will show, they use new communication technologies to underpin their emotional connection to these places. Arguably, these digital mediations produce a piety that is translocal because it integrates the locales and the movements between them that form part of Ma’ruf and Mona’s mobile biographies and their religious experiences. Moreover, in their pious endeavours, Ma’ruf and Mona relate these locales to each other in order to create or sustain coherence and continuity in their ruptured and fragmented lives (see Giddens 1991:53–54).

  • 3 While some of the students decided to leave their home country in search of a Muslim environment t (...)

7As I will argue further, through nostalgic narrations about religious experiences linked to previous places of study, work, and pilgrimage, Mona, Ma’ruf, and the other student travellers I met ‘produce’ (trans-) locality and thus generate a space to articulate religious ideals, belonging and an elusive ‘homing desire’ that is tied to ideal Muslim places somewhere else (see also the virtual ‘homing desire’ of Kyrgyz traders in Novosibirsk explored by Philipp Schröder in Chapter Eight). This turns their pious endeavours into a highly emotional enterprise. Moreover, later in the chapter I clarify that physical movement between different geographic, social, cultural and other contexts facilitates a mobility within religion that creates new forms of belonging, and that expands beyond local or national templates and thus produces hybrid and flexible Muslim identities. At the same time, Mona and Ma’ruf’s translocal lives promote a heightened mobility through religion, i.e., they are mobilized by their desire to live, work, and study in Muslim-friendly and ‘pure’ Islamic environments that are in accordance with their religious ideals.3 The chapter concludes with some epistemological thoughts on how to study the making of religious selves in translocal settings.

Fig. 9.1 Mobile life trajectories of former Tajik students from Islamic universities in the Middle East. Map © Karin Teuber and Manja Stephan-Emmrich (2013), CC BY 4.0

Entangled pathways to Dubai

  • 4 The majority of students I met graduated from, or at least studied in undergraduate programs in Ca (...)

8In the short period of post-Soviet religious liberalization between 1991 and 2006, many young Tajiks like Mona and Ma’ruf travelled abroad to study Islam in foreign Muslim countries such as Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey.4 Their religiously motivated travel both enables and is enabled by a variety of cross-border mobilities that have reconnected Central Asian Muslims with their fellow believers in South Asia, the Arab Middle East, and Eurasia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the course of the Tajik Civil War (1992–1997), over 75,000 to 100,000 Tajiks fled to neighboring Afghanistan. There, they reunited with distant relatives who migrated to the region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Abdulaev 2009, see also Kamoludin Abdulaev, Chapter One). From their Afghanistan base, like Ma’ruf’s distant relative, many became attracted by the international academic environment of South Asian Islamic universities such as the International Islamic University of Islamabad. There, they met fellow countrymen and women who participated in state-regulated exchange programmes with universities in Pakistan and India (Reetz 2014). The religiously-motivated journeys of students to Middle Eastern countries were also triggered by Muslim encounters that occurred in the course of labour migration to Russia. While working seasonally there, many young Tajiks found their way to Cairo’s Al-Azhar University through cross-border Tajik or Tatar Muslim networks established in urban hubs such as Moscow (see Roche 2014). Others, however, undertook Islamic study at a university in Medina or Riyad after performing the hajj to Mecca.

  • 5 In 2001, as a response to the rise of the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan, President Rah (...)

9The new ‘objectification of Muslim consciousness’ (Eickelman and Piscatori 2004:37ff) in the post-Soviet era has led to a heightened identification with the Muslim community (umma) and thus helped to overcome the perceived Soviet isolation of Tajikistan’s Muslims from the rest of the Muslim world. The new cross-border mobility refreshed historical socio-spatial relations and facilitated new forms of Muslim belonging that cut across the boundaries of local, regional, and national identities forged by the former Soviet elite and later maintained by the post-Soviet government (Heathershaw and Herzig 2012). Consequently, for many, Islamic study abroad served as a welcome escape from a state secularism that increasingly regulates, limits, and criminalizes any Muslim religious expression not in accordance with the official interpretation of Islam promoted by the government. As I have argued elsewhere, Tajikistan’s youth has been influenced by aspirations associated with the internationalization of higher education. While both young men and women sought alternative routes to gain the skills needed for international education (i.e., foreign language skills) (Stephan-Emmrich 2017), Tajik male youth simultaneously accepted international labour migration (to Russia or the Arab Emirates) as a regular stage during the transition to maturity. However, these work-and study-related Muslim mobilities not only opened up new possibilities to pursue individual careers; they also produced a wide range of constraints and limitations. These include the existence of a rigid secular state regime that hampers the professional or educational evolution of Tajik citizens and stigmatizes them due to their religion as carriers of a ‘foreign’ or ‘alien’ Islam and thus dangerous to national culture.5

  • 6 The term refers to a well-known hadith, in which the Prophet Muhammad appeals to Muslims ‘to seek (...)

10While they began as individual religious enterprises that revitalized the Muslim tradition of travelling to ‘seek Islamic knowledge unto China’,6 for many Tajiks their study-abroad trips therefore became wide-ranging mobile livelihood projects that link religious pursuits with educational aims, economic needs, and social aspirations. Moving between different studying, living, and working places and thereby manoeuvring within the complex interplay of local, national, and international regulation regimes thus became ‘a way of life’ that shapes the mobile biographies of Tajik student travellers such as Mona and Ma’ruf. Dubai thereby became an ‘ideal place’ to realize and combine their study, work, and religious intentions.

11When Dubai’s oil, property and tourism boom reached Tajikistan in the very late 1990s, a transnational trading sector evolved and integrated Tajikistan’s local markets into the global circulation of lifestyle goods. These consumer goods promote Dubai’s hyper-image of Gulfian Muslim modernity and thus stimulate local Muslim aspirations and desires for social mobility (Stephan-Emmrich and Mirzoev 2016). For many Tajiks such as Ma’ruf and his Dubai coworkers, Dubai has become a lucrative economic hub that transforms their language skills (Arabic, Russian, English, Persian) and their study experiences in a Muslim country into economic capital. Hence, many started to work seasonally in smartphone and souvenir shops or as street brokers hunting for lucrative commissions in order to pay for their tuition. Others cancelled or interrupted their studies and became involved in the transnational trade of modern communication technologies, luxury cars, and automotive spare parts. Still others started a career as middlemen in Dubai’s booming tourist sector (see Abdullah Mirzoev and Manja Stephan-Emmrich, Chapter Two). In that way, Dubai became an important spatial node connecting educational networks with business worlds, and Tajiks with Muslim people and places in Central Asia, Russia, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East. Working and residing in the United Arab Emirates enabled the pursuit of a career as religious entrepreneur (Stephan-Emmrich and Mirzoev 2016:167ff), or like Mona and Ma’ruf, the undertaking of the hajj to Mecca.

Fig. 9.2 Al Nasr Square in Dubai Deira: tourist destination, migrants’ living area and Tajiks’ workplace. Photo © Manja Stephan-Emmrich (2013), CC BY 4.0

Tracing translocality…

12In his provocative reflections on ‘multi-sited ethnography’, Ghassan Hage concludes that for the study of social realities shaped by globalization, migration, and mobility the anthropologist needs an ‘analytical double gaze’. This gaze should be capable of descriptively capturing lived cultures and analytically capturing the global-local relations that structure them, and at the same time apprehending both mobile people’s experiences and the micro-social environments and macro-global structures in which these experiences are grounded (Hage 2005:474). In order to track the multiple entanglements of the local and global in this multi-sited human experience, Hage draws on earlier demands for an epistemological shift as voiced by proponents of an anthropology of globalization. In line with this, he also advocates a fundamental rethinking of the spatiality of culture and identity and thus argues for a redefinition of the anthropological field as a ‘global site’ (Marcus 1995, Gupta and Ferguson 1992, Appadurai 1996, Burrawoy 2000).

13However, the term ‘multi-sited ethnography’ reminds us that even in times of advanced global connectedness and in the ‘post-national’ and ‘de-territorialized’ state of modernity (Appadurai 1996), the ethnographer still deals with lifeworlds, social experiences, and identity politics that are grounded in very particular localities. Places thus continue to be important as sources of meaning and identity for mobile actors. Translocality, therefore, is both an ethnographic angle and an object of study that responds to the multiple situatedness of mobile actors. The researcher must make sense of ethnographic facts by relating them to the lifeworlds of her interlocutors through an array of multi-sited social, discursive, and semiotic relations (Schröder and Stephan-Emmrich 2014:3). This chapter follows Appadurai’s (1996:186) now-classic observation that all ‘locality-producing activities’ are ‘context generative’. That is, they are shaped by the social, cultural, and other politics of a community. At the same time, they are ‘context driven’; that is, any such community responds or adapts to wider ‘material contexts’ (Peleikis 2010) shaped by the nation state, international politics, and global phenomena. Emphasizing the multiple connections rather than multiple sites that shape the Tajik students’ mobile livelihoods, I argue for a ‘translocal’ rather than ‘multi-sited’ research perspective, because it is the conjunctions, interconnections, juxtapositions, and associations among sites and places that matter most, and which in fact define the argument of a ‘translocal ethnography’ (Marcus 1995:105, Hannerz 2013). While the term ‘multi-sitedness’ originated in a methodological discussion, ‘translocality’ can serve as the analytical ‘double gaze’ sought by Hage in order to trace the dialectic process of movement and placemaking, but also to illuminate the significant conjunction of place, space, mobility, and the social (or, as in the present case, the religious). Even more, translocality as an analytical gaze detects the multiple ways in which micro-social or local environments and global dynamics permeate mobile lifeworlds.

… through things

14Taking these methodological reflections as an ethnographic angle that helps to transform abstract objects of study into observable practices (Ferguson 2011:200), the next pages will focus on specific mobile things, or things ‘on the move’, and how, through their usage, these things support the production and performance of translocal piety. Tracing how my interlocutors use smartphones (mostly the latest model of iPhones) as a prestigious lifestyle commodity to narrate their life stories and travel experiences, I take seriously what Marcus identified as the core mode for constructing translocal ethnography; namely ‘following people, things and biographies’ to track the chains, paths, conjunctions, or juxtapositions of locations that shape mobile people’s lifeworlds (Marcus 1995:105).

15‘Following things’ also means focusing on a strategically situated (single-site) research object, which unfolds into an emerging multi-sited, or even digital, world (Robben 2013:368), thereby materializing the junction of place, life history, human experience, and subjectivity. Furthermore, tracing aspects of my interlocutors’ material culture, and more precisely the way they integrate new communication technology in discursive practices that produce and connect localities, may help us to discern the emotional dimension of their translocal lives (Hannerz 2013). Even more, this chapter illustrates how smartphones support biographical narrations and trigger certain memories and nostalgic moments related to particular Muslim places that my interlocutors know either from their studies, as a place to travel for work, or, in the case of Mecca, as a pilgrimage site. These places provide significant landmarks in their long-term attempts to remake their Muslim selves.

16Migration studies have sufficiently described human mobility as an intense emotional and transformative experience. The complex range of feelings that emerge as a consequence of both dwelling within and movement through places produces ‘emotional geographies’ that play a major role in the ongoing constitution of mobile subjectivities (Conradson and McKay 2007:168), and that provide new forms of religious experience and identity (Silvey 2007). Within these emotional geographies, the material objects that travel with migrants are significant, because they operate both as ‘patients’, i.e., social agency can be exercised in relation to things, and as ‘agents’, i.e., social agency can be exercised by things (Svašek 2012:14). For example, mobile material objects may increase feelings of wellbeing and belonging, but they also may evoke feelings of homesickness, triggering memories and a strong sense of home that is then generated in new places (Cierraad 1999). Beyond that, the transportation of objects may contribute to a sense of continuity and ‘carry along’ memories and feelings from past times and places because they are ‘conditioned by emotional discourses and practices already learned’ (Svašek 2012:13, 17). Thus, following the ‘social life’ (Appadurai 1986) and the ‘mobile career’ (Zolberg 1990) of smartphones helps us to explore the connection between emotional dynamics, personal memories, and religious experiences that strongly shape the multi-sited lifeworlds and modes of mobility among Tajik student travellers (Svašek 2012:13).

Mediating immediacy

17The specific articulation of emotional geographies through digital practices guides us to what media theories have framed as ‘mediated immediacy’. The term refers to communicative behaviors or cues supported by mediated channels that reduce physical or psychological distance between individuals (and places), convey affiliation, and develop perceptions of closeness (O’Sullivan et al. 2004:471, Mehrabain 1971). Accordingly, through mobile devices such as smartphones, student travellers may translate their intimate experiences of belonging to a social environment and thus articulate new forms of connectivity, proximity, and affiliation.

18The mediating role of smartphones invites a further conceptual note that addresses the link between religion and media. The availability of new media technology at a given historical moment, as Meyer (2013:10) states, can be taken as a gateway to explore religious changes such as new forms of belonging or the remaking of religious experiences that result from mobile livelihoods. Even more significantly, media that is intrinsic to religion plays a role in practices of religious mediation that link human beings with each other and with the divine (Meyer 2011:23, 27). From such a religious-studies perspective, smartphones and other digital devices are instances of the everyday, and their usage, valorization, and appeal are not ‘something added to religion but inextricable from it’ (Meyer and Houtman 2012:6–7). Studying the use of digital media devices and how they trigger nostalgic narrations therefore helps to materialize the students’ interior spiritual experiences, moral assessments, and the emotional states that strongly inform their translocal piety. Moreover, by narrating with or through smartphones, my interlocutors enabled my study of their religious practices and how religion permeates the everyday of their mobile lifeworlds.

Smartphones and the remaking of religious experience

19A growing body of literature explores piety and consumption through the religious appropriation of new media technologies, examining how media engagement, and processes of commodification and commercialization, inform the making of pious subjects, the reproduction of religious experiences, and the formation of religious communities (Piacenza 2009, Meyer and Moors 2006, Armbrust 2006, Schulz 2006).

20Schulz, in her study on broadcast media and Islam in Mali (2006:211, 218) for example illustrates how new religious leaders gain prominence and claim authority through their success as a new type of religious entrepreneur. Through various media performances, they ‘publicize’ Islam, facilitate the adoption of various Muslim identities, and promote religious identity through consumption practices. In her work on ‘online Buddhism’, Piacenza (2009) shows how digital religion in the form of meditation apps facilitates a shift from an institutionalized and organized religious tradition to individualized, self-tailored, and hybrid religious practices embedded in everyday routines that may induce psychological wellbeing. Moreover, mobile or digital religion allows for greater flexibility in constructing religious identity than traditional forms of religiosity and emphasizes a personal authority to align oneself with self-defined ideals and aims (ibid.:11–12).

21Tajik student travellers consume the media performance of a great variety of locally and globally active Muslim leaders. These global leaders, either known personally or from Muslim blogs and online forums, serve Tajik student travellers as an important point of reference in their biographical accounts. As the following case study illustrates, photographs or images stored in smartphones become ‘chronotopes’ that structure time and space, and that map the students’ emotional geographies on a semantic landscape. Thus, digital photographs link my interlocutors’ religious evolution with places they imagine as future destinations, or that they inhabited during their study or work time abroad.

22During the two weeks that I stayed with Mona, Ma’ruf, and their three sons in their Sharjah apartment, we had many conversations about the family’s mobile life: their study in Yemen, their family life and work in the United Arab Emirates, the Tajik home they had left behind in 2006, and their hajj to Mecca in 2012. Personal photographs played a key role in these discussions. Mona showed me extensive collections of images on her iPhone from close kin that stayed behind in Tajikistan, family photos from Mecca, and selfies showing the couple as students in Sana’a dressed up in typical Arab clothing: for men the traditional garment (thawb), long beard, and headgear, and for women the black garment (abaya) and face veil (niqob). The smartphone thereby operates both as ‘agent’ and ‘patient’: when storing personal photographs, the smartphone enables the transformation of memories, experiences, and imaginations into a resource Mona can fall back on to ‘make sense’ of their travel trajectories. Thus, Mona assembles the fragments of her religious experiences at home and abroad into a coherent story of religious awakening and refashions herself and her husband as pious Muslims.

23Once, while sitting together with a Tajik neighbor and close friend Gulnora, Mona showed me a self-made digital compilation of photographs of her favorite Islamic preachers (olimhoi muqaddastarin). Merging the great variety of Islamic doctrines that shape Mona’s educational biography and spiritual progress, some of the personalities assembled on her iPhone also connect the core locations of the couple’s mobile pathways.

24Among others, the photo compilation showed Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda, one of the most influential Muslim leaders in Tajikistan today. Turajonzoda is from Mona’s natal village in the Kofarnihon region, and his image triggers childhood memories connected with her strict religious upbringing in a respected, religiously educated family (makhsum) (see Malikov in Chapter Three) that cultivated close contacts with Turajonzoda, his family, and other currently influential Islamic figures in Tajikistan. Storing his photo in her mobile phone expresses Mona’s religious attachment to the local Islamic tradition of a religious nobility and maintains her emotional connectedness to her natal family and village community. At the same time, when viewing Turajonzoda’s image, Mona produces a sense of the immediacy of her lived experiences and the childhood memories attached to her birth place. But this is above all a place she had to leave due to a political environment that obviously disadvantages Muslims whose religious biographies do not match the official interpretation of a ‘homegrown’ Tajik Islam. At the same time, Mona is from a region suspected to be the base for political opposition during and after the civil war. This fact hampers the couple’s ability to pursue an educational or professional career in Tajikistan’s public sector. Obviously, and as the following short conversation between Mona, her friend Gulnora, and me shows, translocality can be a highly ambivalent experience, requiring substantial emotional work to balance both the joys and constraints of multiple belonging.

Mona: ‘Sometimes, I miss my mother and my sisters so much that I start crying. We only see each other once a year, if at all. We travel to Tajikistan to visit ‘our folk’ (avdlodamon) (only) during Ramadan. […] I gave birth to two of my sons in Tajikistan. I convinced (Ma’ruf) to travel home to give birth there. That’s where my mother is, my sisters are, that’s the place where I was born’.

  • 7 In Tajikistan, many of the student travelers who return from their Islamic studies in Arab countri (...)

Thereafter, Gulnora explains jokingly: ‘That’s why she wants so many children. That’s a good reason to travel home and stay with her folks for a long period of time’. (Both women laugh.)7

25Another photo in Mona’s iPhone shows the so-called ‘global mufti’ Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Arab Islamic scholar and TV preacher (see Skovgaard and Gräf 2009), and the Saudi Arabian preacher Muhammad al-Arifi. Both are popular authorities among Tajiks working and living in the Arab Emirates. Al-Arifi’s visits to Dubai’s city centre mosques, or Al-Qaradawi’s sermons broadcast on TV and internet channels such as YouTube, awaken feelings of belonging in the followers of rising Muslim media stars who claim ‘global authority’ and facilitate the adoption of supranational and cosmopolitan orientations. The latter find expression in Mona’s enthusiastic descriptions of a sermon that Al-Arifi delivered in Dubai in 2012. The sermon was extensively discussed by Mona, Gulnora, and other Muslim women from Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Pakistan who regularly attend a Koranic reading group in the neighborhood mosque close to Mona’s apartment block in Sharjah. Such religious events confirm the women’s belonging to and ‘feeling at home’ in the culturally mixed urban environment amid the conviviality of Muslim friends, neighbors, and students who share similar mobile biographies, and who, by sharing memories, enhance their religious experiences abroad.

26The photo of Abd al-Madjid al-Zindani, founder of the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood and al-Imam University in Sana’a, reminds Mona of her years of studying in Yemen. After getting married in 2000, she joined her husband and studied Arabic, Koranic recitation (tajvid), and Islamic principles (aqidai Islom) at an Islamic learning centre in Sana’a. Having been taught by Al-Zindani himself, Mona cultivates a piety that centres around the daily reading and reciting of the Koran as a practice of self-discipline, self-perfection that helps her to become a pure Muslim (musulmoni pok). Placing Mona’s religious experience within the context of a purist, script-based, and formal religious instruction, the photo also ‘carries along’ positive memories of, and nostalgic feelings for, her past studies. These include her assessment of her personal freedom, her view of her encounters with other Muslims as an exciting adventure, and the hard intellectual labour and focused learning that made her a new, more conscious, and pious Muslim woman (mu’min). Moreover, through her nostalgic memories, Mona imagines her study place as an ideal Muslim place. Thus these memories support her articulation of religious ideals and longing for a joyful past and her nostalgia provides the parameters with which to evaluate her current imperfect pious life in Sharjah. She thereby articulates the ‘idea’ of an ideal Muslim place somewhere else that facilitates the best conditions for learning and for becoming a devoted believer (mu’min, musulmoni haqiqiy):

‘Our life in Sana’a was perfect, full of happiness. I had the whole day to devote to my studies. Nothing and nobody distracted me. At the time when we left for home (to Tajikistan), I had mastered both reading and writing Arabic and reciting the whole Koran. But here (in Sharjah), being occupied with child-care and housework, I have difficulties reciting the Koran consistently. I cannot gather myself and I don’t improve my reading. I am weak (zayf)’.

27Another ideal Muslim place can be found in the nostalgic reminiscences evoked by the image of the current Imam of the Al-Haram mosque in Mecca, Abdel Rahman al-Sudais. The image, taken from a webpage, reminds Mona of her and her husband’s pilgrimage to Mecca in 2012. Describing the hajj as the peak of her pious endeavours, Mona completes her religious biography with an intense spiritual experience, and a religious awakening that symbolizes the ‘immaterial’ success of her study enterprise. The pilgrimage, however, led to a moral reassessment of the couple’s former pious pursuits, which were focused on Dubai as a Muslim-friendly place and stimulated Mona’s longing to relocate to Mecca, for her the purest and most sacred site in the Muslim world:

‘When we left our home (in Tajikistan), I imagined Dubai as a paradise (bihisht). Many mosques within walking distance, no alcohol, women’s space in public transport, no Islamic dress regulations (as governing the expression of Muslim piety in the public space in her home country Tajikistan). […] But the hajj opened my eyes. Back at Dubai airport I realized, Dubai is not a paradise; it is a hell (duzakh). The many unbelievers (kofirho), the many drunken and uncovered Russian tourists, the streets full of prostitutes. Also, our neighborhood changed. When we settled here, we were only Muslims, from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, Tajikistan. But now, more and more kofir are occupying our area. I don’t feel comfortable here any longer. That’s why we are going to leave in the near future. My husband already started looking for work in Saudi Arabia (Arabiston). We wish to live in Mecca. For us, it is the best place (joyi muqaddastarin), the purest place (joyi poktarin) in the world’.

Figs. 9.3 and 9.4 The United Arab Emirates as the ‘ideal Muslim place’: a neighbourhood mosque in the emirate Sharjah, a signpost near a women’s mosque in Dubai. Photos © Manja Stephan-Emmrich (2013), CC BY 4.0

Religious reform, emotion, and a ‘mobility within religion’

28The nostalgic stories elicited by the images of Islamic personalities exemplify the important role that digital media play in the Tajik students’ mobile everyday lives, and also in the formation of their religious selves. Narrating life stories through prestigious lifestyle commodities such as the latest iPhone is also a common discursive practice in Mona’s social environment in Dubai, through which her multiple belongings and her virtual, spatial, and imagined movements between different locales and times are substantiated.

29New forms of media introduce novel ways in which the ‘religious’ is circulated, or mediated (Lundby 2013b: 190–91). It follows, then, that the contemporary mediation of religion needs to be seen in terms of its ‘aesthetic capacities’ or ‘sensational forms’ that materialize the divine (see Lundby: ibid., Orsi 2012:147, see Meyer 2013:7). Tracing the aesthetic and sensational capacity of Mona’s digital photo compilation to trigger biographical narratives thus helps to explore how the religious reform projects that Mona, her husband, and other former students of Islam pursue intersect with emotional engagement. Muslim reformism is above all a reflexive self-making project based on education (Frisk 2009, Mahmood 2011, Janson 2014). ‘Knowing Islam’ thus results from the intensive study of religious texts combined with learning Arabic, frequently reciting the Koran, and strictly following Islamic principles. According to Mona, Ma’ruf, and their Muslim friends in Dubai and Sharjah, individual religious improvement leads to increasing ‘inner belief’ (iymon) and facilitates the experience of a deep feeling of closeness to God (ba khudo nazdik, taqvo). Mona’s efforts to increase and perfect such religious experiences, as well as her critical self-evaluation of the religious work done in daily life, turn her pious endeavours into a highly emotional enterprise. This accords with Meyer (2013:9) who states that global religious reform movements are strongly related to the body and mobilize it as a sensorial and material ground of religious experience and sensation. Moreover, it shows that emotions can be part of a strategy for involvement in Islamic revitalization. Thus, the self-conscious cultivation of feeling is part of a long-term religious program (see Gade 2008:44, 47).

30At the same time, Mona’s emotional attachment to certain Muslim locales produces a hybrid religious belonging and positioning within different and often contradictory discursive fields of Islamic tradition. Moving in, through, and between these discursive fields, i.e., being ‘mobile within religion’, the former student navigates her pious ideals through the various mobility regimes that affect her and her family’s mobile livelihood. In this way, Mona and her husband are taking an active part in the ‘constant struggles to understand, query, embody, celebrate, and transform categories of […] difference, belonging, or otherness’ pushed by the government and the hegemony of these very regimes (Salazar and Glick Schiller 2013:189, Ong 1999:16).

31Translocality thus becomes a process of mediating, translating, and transforming religious experience and imagination. Following Lundby (2013b:193) and Latour (2005:39), Tajik student travellers such as Mona and Ma’ruf appear as ‘mediators’ who carry the meaning of the cultural and social activities in which they are involved during their travel. More than that, in the dialectic process of movement and placemaking, the students transform, translate, modify, and distort these very meanings and thereby contribute to or initiate religious change. Returning then to the entangled relationship between digital technology and religion, Lundby (2013b:192) rightly points to the transformative effect of digital media. With its multimodality, interactivity, and flexibility, digital media shapes the religious subject, creates new spaces to mediate religious experience and imagination, and thus serves the expression of religiosity (see also Campbell 2012 and Hover 2012), or more specifically, translocal piety.

  • 8 Most of the iPhones in use, however, were inexpensive fakes ‘made in China’ and are sold either in (...)

32However, by using not just any smartphone but specifically the latest iPhones,8 Mona, Ma’ruf, and the other student travellers I met in Tajikistan and the United Arab Emirates narrated their religious biographies through a ‘sign-commodity’, i.e., a prestigious object that gained its economic value in the course of the ‘Dubai boom’. Smartphones (and in particular iPhones) have therefore become associated by compatriots at home with the economic success, the modern lifestyles, and the spiritual progress of the many Tajiks who like Ma’ruf have become involved successfully in Dubai’s various business sectors (Stephan-Emmrich and Mirzoev 2016). As Meyer et al. (2010:209) state, the meaning of a material object draws from ‘its circulation, its local adaptation, from what people do with it, and from the affective and conceptual schemes whereby users apprehend an object’. Combining the study of mobile actors and their existential experiences in migration with that of mobile things, and examining how such mobile things as smartphones are used to refashion Muslim selves, may therefore also help us to understand the social contexts in which these politics of representation take place. These contexts also frame how my interlocutors link their spiritual achievements with aspirations for social mobility and economic success in sensational ways, and how they thereby also materialize their sense of wellbeing.

Some epistemological notes on ‘translocal ethnography’

33Having explored the translocal piety of Tajik student travellers from the angle of digital practices, I will turn now to ongoing epistemic reflections on the production of anthropological facts about mobile people’s religious experiences in globalized lifeworlds. To sum up the ongoing methodological debates caused by the notion of ‘multi-sited ethnography’, one core issues stands out: if we acknowledge the difficulties of mobile ethnography as guided by classic, Malinowskian ideals and norms, according to which one conducts anthropological fieldwork at a single geographical and territorial field site, we must also acknowledge the urgent need to redefine the idea of the anthropological field site and its privileged status in the construction of anthropological knowledge.

34Hage (2005) has illustrated the ethnographer’s limited time, material, and mental capacities to follow his or her mobile interlocutors to their numerous geographical locations in order to produce ‘thick descriptions’ of their complex, multiply-situated lived realities. Taking up Hannerz’ (2013) plea for a ‘translocal’ rather than ‘multi-sited’ research perspective that traces the multiple connections, conjunctions, and associations of the places inhabited by mobile people, I instead argue that following people and things does not necessarily condition the ethnographer’s spatial movement and physical presence at all locales. In fact, as Philipp Schröder shows in Chapter Eight, if the ethnographer is too much of witness, i.e., too present, this may even endanger fieldwork relations.

35In order to produce ethnographic facts about multi-sited lives, we must question the holistic ambitions of classic anthropology and admit that ‘ethnography is an art of the possible’ (Hannerz 2013:407). Hannerz’ epistemic contribution is in line with Ferguson’s (1999:208) argument that because, in some field contexts, more people are strangers, or outsiders, just like the anthropologist herself, anthropological understanding takes on a different character when trying to understand things in the way my interlocutors do. That is, like her interlocutors the anthropologist misses most of what is going on in her field site. This, as Hannerz states, can be as true in both single-site and multi-site ethnographies because this insight problematizes the general relationship between the knowledge of the interlocutor and the ethnographer (Hannerz 2013:405). Such considerations should by no means obscure the fact that the ethnographer’s presence in the field determines how, why, and by whom things are said (or not). But they may open up new epistemological avenues to track how anthropological knowledge about individual translocal religious experience is produced in digitalized fields.

36Following van de Port (2011:316) and Meyer (2013:5–6), cultural mediation is the practice of world-making that engenders shared worlds of lived experience. Thus, mediation is a communicative process through which social (or, as here, religious) worlds are made. Mediation produces a shared world to be inhabited, taken for ‘real’ and experienced as ‘immediate’. Accordingly, the discursive practices of Tajik student travellers whom I met in the United Arab Emirates not only enabled me to explore how translocal religious subjects are produced or ‘made’ through digital practices. The invitation of Ma’ruf, Mona and other interlocutors to share their digital worlds of nostalgia, memory, and spiritual longing, even after my return home to Germany, turns the processes of mediating immediacy into an intersubjective and continuous process of communicating individual religious transformation. I stay connected virtually with Mona, her family, and friends. Tracing them online through my own smartphone induces the methodological transition from the ethnographer’s physical to a virtual co-presence that transcends the geographic and conceptual boundaries between the ‘fieldwork site’ and the ethnographer’s ‘home place’.

37To sum up, the significant role played by the researcher’s involvement in the digital practices of her interlocutors in mapping emotional geographies illustrates that the idea of ‘translocality’ is not restricted to the dialectic process of movement and placemaking. Instead, by tackling the spatiality of mobile people’s experiences and biographies, translocal ethnography invites the inclusion of other, i.e., virtual, imagined, or affective ‘fieldsites’ to capture people’s movement and connectedness through space and time. Such ‘alternative spatialisations’, as shown in this chapter, help to understand religious being, becoming, and having-been in the complex reality of peoples’ lives on the move. Consequently, translocality, both as a research object and a perspective, also covers interlacing temporalities, or transtemporality, as described in the introduction to this edited volume. Nostalgia, as an attachment to the past, helps make sense of people’s present lives and futures, but at the same time plays a major role in the conservation of a ‘sense’ of locality. Demonstrating how the discursive production of locality is bound to inhabited pasts, and, conversely, how the past is materialized through the production of locales, Mona’s photo compilation exemplifies what Smith (2011:190) describes as an ‘iconic rendering of past experience’ that also constitutes markers of translocal connectivity. In other words, by ‘freezing the past’, the iconography of Mona’s mobile photo library also represents a ‘nostalgic longing to belong to somewhere else’ (ibid.). Following this continuous reprocessing of ‘home’ across different sites of mobility (Taylor 2013), translocal ethnography produces ‘field sites’ that are not only ‘geographically non-contiguous’ (Hage 2005:467), but also encompass multiple temporalities. These temporalities, however, become increasingly facilitated by the flexibility, multimodality, and ‘deterritoriality’ of digital media. Sharing my interlocutors’ mobile lifeworlds virtually while physically absent from the field site, I am thus able to trace not only the narrated past and present of their religious reform projects but to follow how their translocal piety merges into articulated moral, social, and economic futures.

38Tracing the significance of time and place to the pious enterprises that Tajik migrants create when they move within their virtual emotional geographies, pious enterprises that are managed by their mobile phones, translocal ethnography turns the field into a single ‘global site’, or more concretely, the global site occupied by my mobile interlocutors (Hage 2005:466). Following the notion of a single global field site, the usage of new media and communication technology encourages an ‘exploratory freedom’ away from the Malinowskian paradigm and complements the ethnographer’s physical presence in a (here: religious) field that has become highly virtual and mobile (Marcus 2009).

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Notes

1 The call for the daily prayer (Arabic salat, or Tajik namoz).

2 Multi-sited fieldwork for this project was done between 2010 and 2014 in Tajikistan’s capital city Dushanbe and in several regional centres in the Central and Southern parts of Tajikistan (Hisor, Kolkhozobod, Kofarnihon), as well as in the United Arab Emirates, mainly in Dubai and Sharjah. The ethnographic case studies presented in this chapter were chosen from about forty (former) students of Islamic subjects I met in either Tajikistan or the Emirates, or with whom I stayed in both places.

3 While some of the students decided to leave their home country in search of a Muslim environment that facilitates the pursuit of their religious ideals, i.e., performing hijra (the Prophet Muhammad’s exodus from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD) others turned their religious labour, i.e., their piety, into a religious activism that entails missionary activities or religious teaching.

4 The majority of students I met graduated from, or at least studied in undergraduate programs in Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. Only a minority of all student migrants managed to earn a degree. Most of them dropped out or interrupted their studies due to financial problems or lack of motivation. In addition, those student travellers in Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia who took up their studies in the early 2000s had to cancel their education abroad and return home without an official degree after President Rahmon launched his campaign on Tajik TV in 2010 in order to prevent any form of ‘radicalization’ of Tajikistan’s Muslim youth abroad. Besides Arabic, most Tajik students abroad have studied classic subjects of Islamic education, namely Koran reading (hifz or tajvid) and Koranic interpretation (tafsir), Islamic law (fiq), philosophy (falsafa) and other subjects.

5 In 2001, as a response to the rise of the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan, President Rahmon ordered hundreds of Tajiks to return from their studies at Islamic institutions in Pakistan. The government’s fear of Islamic fundamentalism in and outside the country, and of radicalization among its Muslim population, increased further around 2005, when Salafi ideologies became more powerful in Tajikistan’s religious environment. As a result, travel regulations became stricter and increasingly aggressive rhetoric against the practice of religious instruction abroad was launched in the public sphere. Popular places of study such as Zahedon in South-Eastern Iran, Pakistan, and Arab countries, where religious instructions is offered to large degree in unregistered institutions outside state-run universities, were placed on so-called ‘blacklists’ that were spread through state TV and print media, and declared ‘not law-compliant’ (ghayriqonunī). Educational travel to these places without state permission was officially banned.

6 The term refers to a well-known hadith, in which the Prophet Muhammad appeals to Muslims ‘to seek knowledge even unto China’ (‘Utlub il ‘ilma wa law fis-sin’).

7 In Tajikistan, many of the student travelers who return from their Islamic studies in Arab countries are suspected of having joined foreign radical Islamic movements and are therefore placed under state surveillance. Under these political constraints and in order to build trust I did not record my conversations. As a result, the conversations or statements are given as paraphrases but not as direct speech.

8 Most of the iPhones in use, however, were inexpensive fakes ‘made in China’ and are sold either in Dubai’s streets or by traders in Tajikistan’s bazaars and city malls.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 9.1 Mobile life trajectories of former Tajik students from Islamic universities in the Middle East. Map © Karin Teuber and Manja Stephan-Emmrich (2013), CC BY 4.0
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/5853/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 183k
Légende Fig. 9.2 Al Nasr Square in Dubai Deira: tourist destination, migrants’ living area and Tajiks’ workplace. Photo © Manja Stephan-Emmrich (2013), CC BY 4.0
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/5853/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 261k
Légende Figs. 9.3 and 9.4 The United Arab Emirates as the ‘ideal Muslim place’: a neighbourhood mosque in the emirate Sharjah, a signpost near a women’s mosque in Dubai. Photos © Manja Stephan-Emmrich (2013), CC BY 4.0
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/5853/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 229k

Auteur

Junior Professor of Islam in Asian and African Societies at the Institute for Asian and African Studies at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (Germany). In her current anthropological book project, she is investigating the complex entanglements of translocal Islamic education networks, Tajik youth’s work experiences, and reform-minded endeavours in Tajikistan, the Gulf, and the wider Middle East. She has published several articles and book chapters on Islamic lifestyles, youth and education, migration and mobility, and Muslim business networks in Dubai.

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