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Writing Syrian History in Times of Disaster

RoundTable VIII-5, sponsored bySyrian Studies Association (SSA), 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 11:00 am

RoundTable Description
What are the defining topics, themes, and points of focus for scholars of Syrian history in a time of seemingly unending disaster and crisis? What practical challenges do Syria scholars face in their attempt to maintain their scholarly research agenda against the backdrop of violence, displacement, and uncertainty about the future? How might a collaborative reflection on the practical, political, and methodological challenges before Syrian Studies help the field to become more self-aware and to move in new, fruitful directions for both individual and collective scholarship? The revolution and the war in and around Syria have fundamentally altered the state of Syrian Studies, at times in ways that are painfully apparent while at others that are much more subtle. Scholars of Syria must contend with dizzying practical and methodological challenges. Meanwhile, there are also opportunities in this time of perpetual crisis and widespread instability to rethink our approach to scholarly engagements with Syria. This panel brings together leading historians of Syria as they reflect on the challenges of conducting historical research into modern and contemporary Syria in this present moment as well as the opportunities for creative research agendas. Collective discussion is crucial as the field of Syrian Studies struggles to adapt to these evolving circumstances on the ground in Syria and in the region. This roundtable will showcase important work that is currently being done but also signpost possible futures for Syrian studies during a time of extreme uncertainty, human suffering, and practical obstacles. To that end, the panel will bring together leading and rising historians of Syria through a conversation about the state of Syrian studies and possible directions for future research and collaboration.
International Relations/Affairs
  • My contribution to this roundtable discussion will be to reflect on how Syrian studies can benefit from a more intentional and focused turn towards the methods of intellectual history and cultural history. Given the scale of loss and devastation in Syria and throughout the Syrian diaspora, scholars face practical and ethical questions with respect to conducting research inside of Syria, which requires us to be creative in our selection of sources, methodologies, and research questions. My own turn towards intellectual and cultural history--as exemplified by my recent book, Revolutions Aesthetic-- has to do both with such material constraints on doing research inside of Syria while also stemming from a broader interest in modern intellectual history in/and Middle East studies. This panel is a wonderful opportunity for panelists as well as audience members to identify and debate different ways forward for Syrian studies at a time of great uncertainty and peril.
  • My presentation will focus on locales and methods for researching the social history of Ottoman Syria at a time when archival and field work in the country are difficult. While cultural and intellectual topics can often be approached with published sources available abroad, the inaccessibility of key document collections and travel restrictions represent a real impediment to furthering our historical understanding of precisely those provincial and hinterland areas most concerned by the ongoing civil conflict (and more recently the earthquake catastrophe of February 2023). Drawing on our grant project "Reconstructing Syrian Provincial History from Ottoman Archival Documents", this talk will offer a brief description of the archival resources available principally in Istanbul and Ankara that can partially offset the lack of access to the Syrian (and Lebanese) national archives, but will also suggest possible thematic approaches, notably in regards to rural and commercial history, which can be researched from the vantage point of other, near-lying Ottoman provinces and thus help shine a light on Syria, both past and present.
  • Until 2011 the practice of history for the Syrians remained sensitive and under tight control. Most researchers in Syria thus tended to seek forms of shelter and protection. Since 1980s, Intense political repression coupled with financial regression disorganized departments, sparked professional migrations, and allowed for a grand narrative to hold even greater sway in the absence of any contradictory discourse within the public sphere. In this context, public and oral histories remained nearly impossible to undertake – or, at the very least, imposed several ethical constraints in what could be guaranteed to interviewees. Researchers often chose other protocol to investigate the past. From the 2000s, the first signs of change shook this situation. After Bashar al-Assad succeeded to his father, sensitivity to the past decreased, mostly with respect to the early period after independence in the 1940s and 1950s. This move allowed new discourses and the rise of reminiscence in families about what could be said about the past. However, publications, academic curricula and major scholarships revolved around the official narrative, coopting the idea of present history into a broader and bluer picture of the national struggle against foreign encroachment. The eruption of the revolution from 2011 onwards immediately modified the relationship between activists, Syrian groups and the past. The quest for freedom as “Huriya, Suriya wa bass” went hand-in-hand with an investigation into the past which denounced silence and obliteration. At the same time, the liberation process also permitted liberation of voices in the so-called liberated areas, al-mantiqa al-muharrara. They described and captured what was going on, but also reflected on different narratives pointedly omitted by the regime. The first steps of the revolution revolved around hope and fear, public challenges and repression, and these affected the relation to the past in several ways. Ten years later, something happened which needs further clarification in order to clearly understand the ethical parameters of research on the Syrian past, as it defines the present time.
  • Over the past decade, the conflict in Syria has spilled over into everything, even textbooks, including history textbooks. Instead of having one unified school history textbooks in all Syrian schools, there are now different school histories taught to Syrian children and teenagers. These textbooks were issued and imposed on schools by the authorities that share control over Syrian geography. The Syrian government was the only authority to edit and print these textbooks, now, other forces established their own institutions, including educational ones, and began to develop school curricula in which they prove their principles and goals, presenting the narrative that serves them, especially for the current history after 2011. The most important of these parties in addition to the regime government are both The Islamic State (ISIS), the Kurdish self-administration, and the Syrian opposition affiliated with the “Syrian Interim Government” and the one affiliated with the “Syrian Salvation Government” in Idlib. Syria, after nearly half a century of school curricula, influenced by the nationalist ideology of the Baath Party, which glorify the personality of Hafez al-Assad, and later his son Bashar, it moves to new textbooks that present history from the perspective of PKK and glorify its leader Abdullah Ocalan and his ideas. Then comes the textbooks of the Islamic State organization with its extremist ideology. Finally, the Syrian opposition, used the textbooks issued by the regime itself after important modifications were made to them before the Turkish Ministry of Education commissioned Syrian teachers to write special textbooks for schools in northern Syria, controlled by Turkey. what do these history textbooks provide? What are the points of convergence and points of difference between them? How should we approach to these text books which are also historical archives revealing the ideological conflicts and the deep crisis in the country. The purpose of this essay is to prove that school history in Syria has become hostage to ideological conflicts and is dominated by tendencies that do not believe in Syrian patriotism. This will exacerbate the deep national crisis that Syria has been experiencing for more than half a century. The study will be based on the descriptive and comparative approach, describing the different approaches and comparing them to reach conclusions. Samples will be selected from the same history textbooks of the four main parties that share control of Syrian territories.
  • How can develop a critical epistemological legacy for the historical study of the social and numerical minorities in Syria? How can we engage with the minority question in colonial and post-colonial Syria away from political centres/nationalist cores that have produced hegemonic theories to (re)produce domination? What are the limits and potentials of the literature on decolonization of knowledge for writing about the minority/sectarian question in Syria? How does the question of political sovereignty, national economy and sectarianism play into this debate? My intervention in this roundtable aims to find answers to these questions by looking into the revisionist histories of the late-Ottoman, French mandate and the early post-colonial period produced in the aftermath of the Syrian popular uprising and the ensuing war in the country. Syria has witnessed a burgeoning of scholarly interest in the last decade focusing mainly on contemporary politics, society and international relations, if not on the late- Ba'th period. History of Syria under the late-Ottoman, French colonial rule and the early independence has drawn relatively less attention for various reasons including the accessibility of the archives and the urgency of the present state of affairs. This talk aims to critically reflect on the new historical writing in interaction with the earlier frameworks by looking into the books, essays and academic publications published in Syria and outside on these neglected periods.