A homestay in Damascus more than a decade ago planted the seeds for José Ciro Martínez’s ’10 new book, an ethnographic study of the Jordanian state through the lens of the staple khubz ’arabi—Arabic for pita bread.

In States of Subsistence: The Politics of Bread in Contemporary Jordan, Martínez takes a deep dive into the welfare program that ensures the leavened flatbread’s widespread availability. More than 9 million residents of Jordan eat a total of about 10 million loaves per day.

Cover of the book States of Substance

Martínez spent a year during his homestay working in a bakery in the capital city, Amman. “The grind was addictive, the camaraderie unexpected,” he says of the experience in an April 2022 interview with the Arab Studies Institute’s digital magazine Jadaliyya. “As an object of inquiry itself, bread has been largely overlooked. And so I wondered, what would an account that centered subsidized bread illuminate and reveal?”

In States of Subsistence, published by Stanford University Press in April 2022, Martínez investigates the entities large and small, from bakeries to bureaucracies, that undergird subsidized bread. Though states are usually understood to be structured and solid, he found a system with “ambiguous regulations, haphazard standardizations, convoluted decisions and fluctuating ingredients,” as he tells Jadaliyya. “The book seeks not just to interrogate the state’s apparent unity or expose its inconsistencies but to think through some of the ways the state maintains its solidity and inevitability.”

A lecturer in politics at the University of York whose research explores the politics of food, welfare, drugs and political authority in the Middle East and North Africa, Martínez spoke at Williams this past April during a colloquium sponsored by the Oakley Center. The center supports research across the humanities and social sciences. 

As an undergraduate, Martínez received Watson and Dr. Herchel Smith fellowships among other honors and awards. In 2013, he was named both a Gates and a Fulbright Scholar.

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