Nadav Samin's research examines culture of Saudi Arabia

by Daniela Armas | 1/17/17 2:45am

Anthropology professor Nadav Samin arrived at the College in 2014 to teach in the anthropology department. Since then, Samin has taught courses in anthropology, government, history and the Jewish studies program. Samin earned a doctorate in Near Eastern studies from Princeton University, as well as a masters degree in international economics and Middle Eastern studies from Johns Hopkins University and a B.A. from New York University. Samin’s book “Of Sand or Soil: Genealogy and Tribal Belonging in Saudi Arabia” was a winner of a 2016 British-Kuwait Friendship Society prize. The work is an examination of the influence of traditional tribal affiliations on modern Saudi society.

What compelled you to write a book on tribal identity in Saudi Arabia?

NS: Saudi Arabia is a crucially important but poorly understood country in the Middle East. It still controls a large portion of the world’s oil and gas resources and is in important relations with the United States and the rest of the Western world. Within the broader fields of Middle Eastern history and Middle Eastern studies, Saudi Arabia has not been accessible to scholars. It was closed off really, until after 9/11. So I saw it as an opportunity to go to a place where there were so many new narratives to write and investigate archival sources and family and local narratives that had not really been considered before due to lack of access and interest. The mainstream of Middle Eastern history and Middle Eastern studies focuses on places like Egypt, Lebanon and North Africa. But here we had an opportunity to study at an intimate level this fascinating and complex society that hadn’t previously been investigated so deeply.

What are your current areas of research and how do they tie into “Of Sand or Soil?” Are you planning on writing any books in the future?

NS: Well I try to develop a framework, when looking at modern Saudi history, that categorizes social concerns, symbols and representations as dynamic. That is to say, genealogy is not a fixed and timeless proposition. Rather, I examine the processes that go into making decisions. For instance, why would a family care to claim a particular descent? What does that tell us about politics and history? I’m doing that with respect to religion and Wahhabism for my second book project. Wahhabism is a very controversial subject in our discourse. It is often blamed for many of the problems in the Muslim world today, like the excess of dogmatism, or what others might call fundamentalism. But Wahhabism emerged out of a specific historical experience in Saudi Arabia, before it was exported due to oil wealth as an ideology of the Saudi state. So there are really two types of Wahhabism at play: the exported Wahhabism, and the one that emerges out of a very distinctive and ecological milieu — Central Arabia. So I want to treat Wahhabism as a dynamic phenomenon that changes as a result of various transformative forces, like the introduction of modern states and ideologies. That’s why I hope to write a new history of Wahhabism for my next project.

Has has your upbringing influenced your career and areas of study?

NS: Well, I have roots in the Middle East. My father is Yemeni Jewish and was born in Israel. But I'm from New York City. I also have a curiosity that was born of that upbringing — a taste for adventure, exploring other cultures and comparing them to my own. Part of it really has to do with September 11. Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were of Saudi origin, and that was a profound puzzle for me. Though I initially reacted with pain and sadness as any New Yorker would, my intellectual curiosity was piqued. I channeled it into answering broader questions: What is Saudi Arabia about? Why would so many of the hijackers be of Saudi descent? Those questions led me on a trail of deeper investigations of this place with which the U.S. is so intimately related. Though we are so intimately related through energy ties and alliances that go back 70 years or more, we are also quite different in the ways we have emerged as countries and powers. So those connections are what fascinate me. Though I don’t write about the Saudi-American connection formally, I am attuned to the fact that studying Saudi Arabia is studying America in an indirect way, and I try to bring that attitude to my classroom and my research.

What drew you to work at Dartmouth? How has your experience here affected your work?

NS: I was invited to teach here in the anthropology department as a visiting faculty member. Teaching anthropology was a wonderful opportunity. You know, my father is a doctor. Before he became a radiologist, he did a two-year surgery fellowship. I feel like teaching for two years in the anthropology department was a similar experience because it made me a better historian. It helped me grapple with large-scale concepts in a new way. I’ve taught in a range of disciplines between anthropology, government and now history here at Dartmouth. It’s been a great experience to try and further develop the interdisciplinary frameworks that went into the book, which was really written before I got here. I feel like Dartmouth can really provide a supportive base for myself and other scholars to make new leaps in our respective fields.

What do you like to do for fun in your off time?

NS: I love to take hikes in the Upper Valley with my family. I also love to play piano. Though these days I’m geared toward four-year-olds and mostly trying to learn the songs from Frozen. I also like to play basketball, which is especially fun when the undergrads humor me and I make my shots. Otherwise I feel a little bit like an oddball in the Alumni Gym.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Correction Appended (January 17, 2017):

The original version of this article quoted Samin as saying that he was born in New York City. In fact, Samin said that he was from New York City, though he was not born there.