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Imagining the East: Researching and Writing Transnational Affinity, Solidarity, and Belonging during the Interwar Years

RoundTable IX-5, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 3:00 pm

RoundTable Description
In the aftermath of the First World War, a host of socio-economic, political, and technological developments together enhanced the interconnections between inhabitants of the Middle East and other parts of the globe. While famine and violent conflict had pushed many to leave their homelands to seek out safety and opportunities, the proliferation of print, radio and wire technologies kept Middle Eastern and diaspora communities more ‘plugged in’ to each other, and the wider world, than ever before. Within this context, imagined versions of the Middle East, and Middle Eastern imaginations about other parts of the ‘East’ (whether Arabic speaking lands, Muslim countries, or Asian countries yet further afield) proliferated. As scholars of memory and identity in post-conflict societies have noted, the homeland is often reconstructed in the minds of emigrés (or emigré communities) through a ‘kaleidoscopic lens of nostalgia, longing, homesickness, and a sense of loss’; yet in the years post-World War I, a maelstrom of uprisings, revolutions and popular movements—feminist, anti-colonial, socialist, Islamic, literary and artistic—also served to forge new affinities and imagined landscapes across the Maghreb, Mashreq, Iran, South Asia, and other parts of what was increasingly being described as a broader 'East’. We are all familiar with the Western, Orientalising gaze, but what of Eastern gazes? How did Middle Eastern peoples imagine each other, and articulate their sense of affinity or belonging? How did these visions and interpretations change over time, between peoples living in the region and diaspora communities elsewhere? And how do we, as researchers, understand and write about the often dizzying array of disparate Easts which appear in our sources—some defined on the basis of religion, or language, or ethnicity, or territory, and some based on something far less clearly defined, yet evidently no less compelling to the human imagination? This Roundtable will bring together historians exploring these questions in different parts of the Middle East during the interwar period, widely acknowledged to have been an intensely fertile moment for political imaginations and competing visions of the future; however the discussion will also encourage participants to make connections between their historical areas of research and the present day, an arguably no less dynamic moment for imaginations of affinity, solidarity and belonging.
International Relations/Affairs
  • Dr. Reem Bailony -- Presenter
  • Marya Hannun -- Discussant
  • Dr. Sara Rahnama -- Presenter
  • Dr. Erin O'Halloran -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Dr. Erin O'Halloran
    Many historians writing about the interwar period have picked ‘Easternism’ up for closer inspection—only to place it swiftly back down again. They argue that it is too vague, amorphous, and internally contradictory to be of much use as an analytical category. While conceding the obvious validity of these critiques, in my own work on interwar Egypt and India I have found it impossible to part with Easternism for the simple reason that it crops up in so much of the material produced by Arabs and Asians throughout the 1920s, ‘30s, and as late as the 1940s. Indeed an amazing cross-section of Arabs and South Asians from radically different cultural and intellectual backgrounds articulated their affinity as peoples of the Sharq, Masharq, Purv, Orient, ‘Pan-Asia’ or ‘East’. In doing so they claimed belonging to something larger than nation, language, religion or ethnicity, while simultaneously embracing aspects of these identities. In my intervention I will suggest that Easternism captured the imaginations of so many Arabs, Indians and other Asians because it articulated an emotional truth and a deep-seated impulse to connection, if not a clear-cut academic typology. In fact the very draw of Easternism probably lay in its shape-shifting quality, for as I will illustrate, it could be pressed into service for a dizzying array of worthy causes: cultural exchange and socialist comradeship; intercommunal fraternity and anti-colonial solidarity; pan-Islamic unity and feminist sisterhood. This helps to underscore the point that Easternism, pan-Islamism, anti-colonialism, feminism, nationalism and internationalism were by no means mutually exclusive ideologies; instead they co-existed with varying degrees of overlap throughout the interwar era. Religion, language, patriotism, gender and anticolonial politics were treated in practice as compatible or at least digestible elements within a broader Eastern identity, which assumed that the Middle East and Asia were organically interconnected spaces on multiple levels at once. Post-1945, the twin dynamics of the Cold War and decolonization would put paid to these more fluid political constellations—along with, in many cases, our historical memory of them.
  • Dr. Reem Bailony
    In late 1925, the French Empire simultaneously battled two anti-colonial rebellions in Morocco and Syria. Both the Rif War (1921-1926)--which started in Spanish Morocco but spread to the French Protectorate–-as well the Great Syrian Revolt (1925-1927), were responses to the interwar promises of self-determination and sovereignty. Both events called attention to the failings of colonial rule, spurring criticism amongst activists belonging to the region as well as a spectrum of European leftists. These transnational debates called into question not only the legitimacy of French Empire and imperialism, but also the Eurocentrism of the post-World War I system of nation-states. Tapping into debates of the global Syrian press as well as petitions to the League of Nations, this contribution considers the ways in which Syrians read the Rif rebellion in light of their own struggle against the French Mandatory regime in 1925. The Rif War conjured awe and an Eastern imagination, and global Syrians within the Mandate and the diaspora engaged in al-Khattabi's rebellion before their own, fundraising for the victims of Spanish and French aggression in the Rif. When situated within the wider interwar era of claims-making and resistance vis-a-vis liberal internationalism, an exploration of the two rebellions simultaneously can help us better understand the ways in which Syrians sought out transnational solidarity in a post-Ottoman world. Though al-Khattabi was of Berber background, Syrian thinkers and rebels read al-Khattabi in contradictory and problematic ways–as both a pan-Muslim and pan-Arab hero bravely resisting European imperialism. Not only did the Rif War provide Syrians with tactical opportunities to resist the French Mandate, but this reimagining of al-Khattabi allowed global Syrians to make common cause with the Berber and Moroccan resistance movement. Asking whether this transnational solidarity was deep or impactful, the presenter invites a roundtable discussion about the contours of interwar solidarities across the Middle East and North Africa, its limitations, and its potentialities.
  • Dr. Sara Rahnama
    This presentation works to insert Algeria and it’s Middle Eastern connections into what some historians have called the global 1930s. While historians of Algeria have been very attentive to Algeria’s colonial relationship to France, the history of interwar Algeria offers a valuable case study of multiple, shifting moments of looking outward to the Middle East. In the interwar years, Algerians embraced a more regional worldview, made possible by wire news technology which facilitated immediate access to regional news, as well as the Muslim reform movement sweeping the region. In response, they looked inward at their own society, stifled a century into French colonial rule, and began imagining alternative futures, whether feminist, independent, or pan-Islamist. As the movement for independence grew, again regional references played an important role as Algerians began to imagine themselves taking part in a broader regional moment of self-determination and nationalism. As a specialist of Algerian history, my role in the panel would be to share this history and explore some of the questions it raises. For example, why do particular moments create certain ideological openings for transregional solidary that later close? In interwar Algeria, Algerians read news about developments in women’s rights happening across the region, including state-directed projects in Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan, as well as women-led movements in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. In response to these developments, Algerians devoted enormous intellectual energy to discussing how feminism might be a path towards prosperity in colonial Algeria too, despite the ways colonialism constrained their realities. With a few exceptions, Algerians of various political and religious backgrounds embraced the idea that more rights for women would lead to prosperity for all, although they had different imaginings of what those rights should be. Yet as nationalism’s popularity swelled, discussions about women became increasingly marginal with women being told their grievances would be addressed once independence from the French was achieved. This is one example, among several from twentieth century Algerian history, that illustrates how the interwar years were a unique opening in terms of transregional imagining and solidarity that later dissipated (although other solidarities were born).