The introduction explains some basic concepts of human genetics and its relationship to ethnicity and nationalism, as well as the political and social context of building new nation-states in the Middle East of the early twentieth century. The book's three principal arguments are outlined: (1) Genetic research has significantly influenced notions of race and ethnicity that have been incorporated into Middle Eastern nationalist ideologies, and these ideologies have simultaneously influenced how scientists study genetics in the Middle East. (2) Middle Eastern scientists and research subjects have played a particularly important role in international research on human evolution and medical genetics. (3) The involvement of Middle Eastern geneticists in transnational scientific collaborations reveals the need for a new theoretical framework to understand such collaborations as sites of both empowerment and marginalization for non-Western scientific actors.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, anthropometry was the primary methodology for human genetics and racial classification. Measurements of bones also offered the opportunity to compare members of ancient and biblical civilizations to modern inhabitants of the same territories. The excavation of human remains from archaeological sites across the Middle East prompted a full-fledged obsession with racial origins: who were the closest living descendants of, and therefore the legitimate political heirs to, the Phoenicians, Israelites, Hittites, and Indo-Aryans? In the late-Ottoman era and Mandate-era Levant, the anthropometric search for living "Phoenicians" and "Israelites" found its way into competing ideas about Lebanese, Arab, and Jewish racial identity. Within the Turkish Republic and Pahlavi Iran, anthropometric research was mobilized both to assert European racial status in the diplomatic realm and to conceal the ethnic diversity of their populations in order to impose a single homogeneous national identity.
At the turn of the twentieth century, medical researchers first detected the ABO antigens in human blood serum. These antigens must be compatible for successful blood transfusions, and their corresponding blood types are inherited according to a predictable Mendelian pattern. During the First World War, Polish physicians working on the Ottoman-Balkan front demonstrated that the frequency of ABO blood groups within a given population seemed to vary according to racial and ethnic categories, such as "Arabs," "Turks," and "Jews." The Middle East therefore became a formative location for a new methodology of racial classification: sero-anthropology. In the interwar period, physicians in Egypt, Turkey, and the mandates of Syria and Palestine took part in sero-anthropological research to search for blood differences between religious communities and nationalities. The data they generated became important evidence for international debates over whether sero-anthropology was more reliable for classification than anthropometry.
During and after the Second World War, states and international medical organizations rapidly assembled technologies, facilities, and supply chains for the collection, storage, and circulation of human blood. This postwar traffic in blood brought together semi-colonial medical infrastructures and professional networks with various nationalist institutions and ideologies. This chapter analyzes how the logistics of these interactions manifested in the production of genetic information about the Middle East during the 1950s. Blood banks, forensic laboratories, and oil company medical facilities in Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran became embedded in a transnational project to share data and specimens with European and American scientists and laboratories. Middle Eastern field-workers and medical professionals, though often marginalized by their Western collaborators, played essential roles in this research by not only obtaining blood samples from far-flung communities but also shaping how these disembodied samples were recognized as cohesive human groups.
Since its original discovery in African Americans, the inherited condition of sickle cell disease has long been portrayed as a genetic marker of racial origins and human evolution. In the early 1950s, British and Turkish hematologists independently discovered sickle cell disease in two socially marginalized groups, the so-called akhdām ("servants") in Aden Colony and the so-called Eti-Türkleri (Nusayri Alawites) in southern Turkey. Over the next decade, these researchers collaborated with one another as well as colleagues in Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia to understand the distribution of sickle cell disease across the Middle East. These researchers struggled to racially define their sickle cell patients and reconcile historical and sociological boundaries between Turk and Arab, white and African. In the process, they vigorously debated the evolutionary origins of the disease.
Favism, an inherited condition caused by a deficiency of the enzyme glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD), occurs at a high frequency in many Middle Eastern populations. Affected individuals have severe reactions to certain antimalarial medications or foods, notably fava beans. Like sickle cell disease, favism was soon co-opted to make anthropological claims because the frequency of the condition varied significantly among groups divided by social factors like religion and language. During the 1950s, medical researchers in Israel and Iran interpreted favism rates to legitimate nationalist visions of Jewish and Iranian history. This put them at odds with scientists who believed that the distribution of favism, like that of sickle cell disease, could be explained by an evolutionary relationship with malaria. This chapter examines how different international public health interventions, namely malaria eradication and malnutrition campaigns, bolstered scientific factions that favored universalist versus locally specific narratives of genetic disease.
This chapter explores how the Israeli-Arab conflict shaped the logistics and methodology of Middle Eastern genetic research in the 1960s and 1970s. Before 1967, a network of British, American, and Israeli geneticists had worked together in relative harmony to manage the collection of blood samples from several Arabic-speaking communities. Israelis studied displaced Arab Jewish communities and relied on British and American collaborators to provide comparative data on non-Jewish Arabs. However, the conditions of access to these Arab populations, as enforced by territorial borders and military regimes, shifted dramatically after the 1967 June War. Israeli researchers were suddenly left with the upper hand, able to directly study the Samaritans of Nablus and Sinai Bedouin tribes, while their British counterparts lost their colonial infrastructure.
The 1970s and 1980s were years of extraordinary political turmoil in Iran and Turkey, culminating in regime changes and revived fears of ethnic separatism. Beginning in the early 1970s, Iranian scientists developed new priorities and approaches to anthropological genetics in the country. They began conducting field surveys to collect blood samples from ethnic, religious, and tribal minority groups across Iran. Through these surveys, they domesticated ethnic difference, interpreting genetic variations as part of a unitary Iranian "ethnohistory" that served nationalist notions of Iran's territorial integrity. These trends persisted and even intensified after the 1979 revolution. Meanwhile, the 1980 military coup and the eruption of the Kurdish conflict in Turkey forced Turkish physicians and anthropologists to remain conservative in their approaches to studying genetic diversity. Although Iranian geneticists increasingly conducted research on the communities most marginalized by the dominant national culture, no such change occurred in Turkey.
The book concludes with a reflection on Turkish and Iranian national genome research as well as Israeli and Lebanese participation in international genomic diversity projects. The methods of population sampling and historical interpretations favored by these projects demonstrate that despite massive advances in genetic technology and major political and social changes in the Middle East, genetic research in the region remains preoccupied with the legitimation of particular group identities and national narratives. The persistence of nationalist concepts in Middle Eastern genetic studies does not represent the simplistic corruption of objective research through the imposition of retrograde political discourses. Rather, it reflects the thorough integration of Middle Eastern geneticists as collaborators in an international sphere of scientific discourse over the course of the twentieth century.