Not so long ago, in the late 1970s, when the Middle East was in the oil boom era, on the brink of the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, a decisive military coup in Turkey, when ruling regimes were facing powerful new challenges in consolidating their power bases and boundaries, when the wars in Lebanon had destroyed Beirut as the financial center of the Middle East, when labor migration within the region was at its height and on the eve of Egyptian president Sadat’s historic visit to Israel, this is how societies of the Middle East were represented in the Annual Review of Anthropology:

“…the winds of change have by now penetrated even the more outlying, isolated communities. The process blurs the traditional boundaries between the component pieces of the Middle Eastern ‘mosaic of people’, but the mosaic does not disappear, new and larger pieces are formed and imposed upon the older ones as new boundaries are forged and older ones reassert themselves in new disguises.” (Cohen 1977: 385)

What are the notions of identity and difference on the one hand, and of change and modernity on the other, in this 1977 review of anthropology? And what do they reveal about presuppositions that long configured the ethnography of the region? Exploring these questions and tracing trajectories to contemporary anthropology reveals some long-occluded issues as well as potentials and strategies for a new ethnography of identity and difference in the Middle East and North Africa.