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Finding Child and Youth Migrants in Ottoman and Egyptian History

Panel XII-10, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
At the crossroads of migration history and the history of childhood and youth, this panel aims at opening up novel venues for research and discussion in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century history of MENA. Who are child and youth migrants? How have state officials, fellow migrants, and sedentary subjects invoked immigrant children? Have children been able to speak back? If so, how exactly? How compliant or disobedient towards official narratives and dictates were they? Drawing from a range of disparate sources, ranging from Ottoman immigration regulations, to court records, photographic portraits, and seemingly “a-political” sources produced by children themselves, panelists will address the role of children and young migrants in the history of citizenship, refugeedom, and asylum, as well as the shaping of morality, migrants’ participation in society, the transgression of social boundaries, and the rise of the document-based global security regimes that still affect citizenship and mobility today. By adopting a capacious definition of migration as a “any change of residence…that takes place outside of the space of a given community…whether it is temporary or permanent” (Rodet & Razy, 2016), this panel embraces forms of mobility as varied as internal and international forms of migration, family migration, labor migration, and participation in educational programs. Further, this panel takes into account state policies and official narratives drafted by intellectuals and politicians around children’s morality and proper participation in society. Such multiplicity of perspectives complicates the conventional assumption that most migrant children and youth in the MENA context are forcibly displaced refugees. While children are represented disproportionately in displaced populations, children have participated in migration within and outside MENA for a number of reasons and in a variety of conditions. Exclusive focus on displacement flattens the diversity of young migrants’ experience as well as their historical role in disparate processes. Hence, this panel shies away from casting young MENA migrants primarily as victims and racializing families and children in the history of their journeys within and outside the MENA region.
  • Olga Verlato
    My contribution seeks to approach children as the writers of their own history. I foreground the concrete traces left by children in the historian’s archive to shed new light on how notions of political participation, authority, and communal organization evolved in the period of the British occupation of Egypt. I focus in particular on two sets of accounts produced by Italian and Egyptian children around the turn of the century, which shed light on how children navigated, espoused, and contested various forms of parental, communal, and state authority. The first set of documents I examine concerns a series of “troubling events” that took place at the beginning of the year 1902 in the Italian royal elementary school in Cairo. The Italian consul found out about the events from an anonymous letter, which prompted an investigation that came to involve various levels of the Italian colonial administration from Egypt to Rome. The reports include firsthand accounts of students in the school who were interrogated by the Italian inspector about the allegedly “dishonorable” behavior of one of their peers. In addition to offering a rare firsthand account of how children engaged with forms of disobedience and authority, these sources show how colonial authorities, concerned first and foremost with keeping the events quiet, regarded children as a vulnerable segment of society to be moralized and shielded from “dangerous” aspects of public life and, simultaneously, as the ultimate outward-looking mirror of their community. The second body of sources I discuss, in turn, was produced by Egyptian children enrolled in state schools across different Egyptian cities and consists mainly of petitions and public addresses on the occasion of school ceremonies. The young authors of these documents, I claim, embraced and mobilized a widespread rhetoric that regarded children as the “future of the country” in order to demand free access to instruction, lodging, and textbooks, or else assert the alignment of their desires with those of the state. They did so, crucially, by showcasing a specific kind of fluency and linguistic norms that they had acquired through elementary education, producing texts that differed stylistically from, for example, the petitions written by parents or groups of residents. Although seemingly “a-political,” I claim that these documents demonstrate that children were directly involved in shaping notions of authority, their position in society, and social participation; chiefly at a time in which direct political engagement was otherwise limited.
  • In this paper, I argue that one of the most critical ways of interpreting the changing meanings of “childhood” and “youth” in mid-nineteenth-century Cairo is through a close examination of the female domestic servants employed in the capital. With notions of mobility and urban space as my focus, I aim to broaden our understanding of the social categories from this period relating to spatial formation and the young girls who left their families to work in elite households. Broadly speaking, we need more research on the domestic servants laboring in the households of the Ottoman-Egyptian elite. While a number of archival sources document the experiences of female workers, I examine court records containing detailed accounts of the (mis)treatment of maidservants by their wealthy employers. Specifically, I look at an 1864 case from Majlis al-Ahkam (the Council of Judicial Ordinances), which deals with a servant who fled “out of fear” from an eminent Pasha’s household and the tragic outcome that ensued. Drawing from this one case, I seek to fill some of the research gaps regarding domestic servitude and the legal institutions that engaged with shifting conceptions of agency, movement, and coercion. I likewise address what court records can teach us about legal representations of servitude and the maintenance of local systems of inequality. In an attempt to make sense of the background of the young women and children toiling in elite households, I consider how the justice system depicted their lives and what effect these depictions had on official understandings of female labor. On the whole, young maidservants working in the domestic spaces of pashas and royal family members posed a significant challenge to the ability of the authorities to uphold the social boundaries governing daily life. Because legal institutions stood at the intersection of competing crosscurrents, the participants engaging with the justice system did so in conflicting ways. I therefore make use of court records that not only harbor contradictory views of youth and childhood, but also as a medium that can helps us reframe historical and historiographical questions concerned with the circulation of female bodies.
  • When is a child an immigrant? This paper considers when and why officials, migrants, and other Ottoman subjects invoked immigrant (muhacir) children. The paper explores how portrayals of migrant children in the Ottoman Empire contributed to developing notions of belonging, citizenship, refugeedom, and asylum. From the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, Ottoman statesmen identified the migrant (muhacir) as a key figure in Ottoman reform, hopeful that immigration would increase agricultural productivity in the empire. Due to this economic framing, beginning in 1857, Ottoman immigration regulations implicitly relied on a default understanding of “the muhacir” as an adult, male, and able-bodied head of household ready to take up a productive role in Ottoman society. In subsequent decades, administrators responded to numerous episodes of forced displacement into the empire by developing aid and settlement policies that accounted for impoverished, elderly, infirm, female, and child migrants. Despite such policies, pro-immigrant Ottoman statesmen never relinquished the default male muhacir nor his promise of productivity. Thus, though the Ottoman state developed policies to aid, house, and educate migrant children, for Ottoman officials, the muhacir-as-child remained a figure of exception. That is, for administrators, the fate of the muhacir-as-child revealed limitations in Ottoman migrant settlement efforts rather than challenging the basis of pro-immigrant policies. Historians of Ottoman childhood have demonstrated how migration and refugee crises contributed to the changing meaning of childhood in the late Ottoman Empire. This paper builds on that research by considering how notions of childhood contributed to consolidating meanings of subject/citizen, immigrant, and refugee. Officials, migrants, and other Ottoman subjects relied on the child muhacir to critique Ottoman settlement efforts, to comment on the sources of displacement, to seek aid and resources from the central state, and to assert migrant belonging in Ottoman society. Using official regulations and correspondence, migrant petitions, parliamentary debates, and newspapers, this paper will consider the relationships between children, childhood, migration, and displacement during the Hamidian and Young Turk eras. The era was one of changes in Ottoman legal and political belonging and developing state mechanisms of population control. In that context, muhacir children and depictions of muhacir children became a route for Ottomans to frame their expectations of legal, political, and social belonging and to advocate for rights and privileges within a changing relationship between state and subject.