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“Ordinary Ottomans”: Borders, Frontier Effects, and Experiences of the End of Empire

Session X-05, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
Over one century after the signing of the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, the treaty which symbolized the territorial disintegration of the Ottoman Empire the panel explores how ordinary Ottomans experienced the collapse of the empire in which they lived. How did they respond to the fluid futures and uncertain contexts brought about by the end of the First World War and the establishment of new states in the Middle East? Historians have long sought to understand the transition from empire to nation-state across the region, particularly elaborating on the theme of continuities and ruptures. While this debate has certainly been instructive, existing accounts have tended to focus on the experiences of the empire’s elites, in-so-far as they related to the course of politics in new national capitals. This panel will examine the lives and experiences of ordinary Ottomans whose voices, paths, and personal trajectories are often left out in these existing top-down historical narratives. In order to do so, the panel takes its cue from border studies scholarship which has argued that borderlands constitute a privileged site to trace the history and agency of non-elite actors. The reasons are at least three-fold. On the one hand, the implementation of new state borders disrupted time-hardened imperial networks, whether those of individuals, families, communities, companies, or markets and thus certainly posed great challenges to people living in borderlands. On the other hand, borders also became a resource for borderlanders who used borders and the economic, social and political differences that emerged within a wider frontier zone to achieve their own goals and interests. Finally, state management of cross-border mobilities of people, goods, animals and ideas produced crippling paper work that is accessible to historians, thereby shedding light on actors, issues and practices often considered as marginal. By looking at the borderlands, this panel thus seeks to highlight the paths available to peasants, Bedouins merchants, families, and communities—a more “ordinary” generation of ex-Ottoman citizens. Did the world around them change drastically after the establishment of new borders, and if so, how? What were the ways in which they relinquished their imperial practices and attachments—regimes of mobility, socio-economic and religious networks—, and eventually came to terms with the national/colonial present? Where and how did they challenge the newly established borders, if at all, and when did they succumb to them?
  • Throughout the interwar period hundreds of women crossed the Turkish-Syrian border individually to settle on the other side of the international boundary for a number of reasons; ranging from avoiding forced marriages though arranged elopement, evading husbands, escaping from “honor killings” or, simply, seeking for new opportunities. Like smugglers, “fugitive women” also relied on trans-border networks of trust and older geographies—they tended to find shelter in their relatives’ households located in the neighboring country. As a result, however, deserted grooms, husbands and clans requested their respective border authorities to intervene in order to get these women back “home”. Failure to do so could lead the former to take over these unsolved affairs, cross the border and take revenge; an act that inevitably created endless rounds of “blood feuds” which contributed to undermine borderland’s stability. Drawing on theoretical debates in the fields of “Gender Studies” and “Border Studies”, this paper examines the ambivalent effects that new international boundaries had on ordinary borderlanders’ lives. On the one hand, new borders disrupted traditional socio-economic networks. On the other hand, international borders were the realms of separate sovereignties and hence offered a unique opportunity to benefit from disconnected jurisdictions. With emphasis on women infringements of the Turkish-Syrian border in the Upper Jazira region, the paper explores first women’s capacity of agency in the margins of Turkey and French mandatory Syria. It then highlights the unintended effects of women’s agency; that is, increasing interstate cooperation and border surveillance, leading to a thrust of standardization with regard to practices of extradition. Finally, through a careful reading of French and Turkish records, the paper demonstrates that as a result of the lack of human and material resources, such practices were very often accompanied by informal procedures which sought to solve boundary problems on the spot. More importantly, such procedures were reminiscent of the imperial plural legal orders. Indeed, informal and extra-legal arrangements between French and Turkish authorities to fight illegal border infringements showcase many afterlives of the imperial legal orders throughout the interwar Middle East.
  • Historians, anthropologists and other social scientists have long lamented the dislocating effects of the partition of the Ottoman Empire upon the region’s nomadic populations. For the Bedouin, the era of the British and French Mandates is often characterized by their ‘encapsulation’ and sedentarization, as new border regimes, commercial restrictions and passport controls militated against seasonal migration, spelling lasting damage to the pastoral economy. This paper examines how – in the wake of war, famine and drought across the Syrian Desert – Bedouin groups were still able to turn their liminal position to advantage. As the new mandatory authorities struggled to control the desert borderlands of the Middle East, ordinary Bedouin could, in the right circumstances, become anything but ‘marginal’. The paper re-examines Bedouin possibilities in this period by foregrounding a particular problem of colonial governance, in which questions about the power of borders, nomadic agency, and colonial authority in the desert intersected: the British Empire’s campaigns against the Desert Locust (Schistocerca gregaria). In the late 1920s, and again in the 1940s, locust swarms surged across the new boundaries of the former Ottoman Empire, posing a threat both to food security and to the legitimacy of colonial rule. In the course of a new search for the insects’ “permanent breeding grounds” – far from the towns and rivers where colonial power was most assured – colonial officials came to rely closely on Bedouin information and Bedouin labour along the region’s desert borderlands. The paperwork generated by these interwar ‘anti-locust’ campaigns (a sign of the anxiety they provoked among the authorities) offers us a rare glimpse into the life of ordinary Bedouin, and into how their location at the spatial limits of colonial authority became a resource that some were able to exploit. Tracking this relationship reveals the slow and patchy nature of the growth of colonial control over these new boundaries; the agency of ordinary Bedouin in securing paid labour (including outside the channels of patronage controlled by Bedouin shaykhs); and the extent of their capacity to negotiate with the colonial state.
  • Jarablus, Arab Punar, and Tell Abyad presented a particular situation from 1918 onwards. All these places were part of the Ottoman Empire, but situated on its fringes as no major historical roads went through these little human settlements. During the war and its aftermath, all received a flow of "Ottoman" refugees as groups of Armenians who survived to the genocide established themselves in the new French Mandate territory. Moreover, these three locations demarcated a new international border that "obviously" – as diplomatic reports state – followed the Baghdad railway. This presentation will investigate this strange and unique situation to understand what ordinary Ottomans became in the aftermath of the First World War and how their own enterprise fitted with the foreign powers' broader strategy. I first argue that refugees and minorities emerged from the war as major categories that helped to frame the post-ottoman empire's borders. From this perspective, the locations were, first of all, informal migrant settlements. For technical and geopolitical reasons, inhabitants who discovered these places during the war decided to stay in them. Ottomans became "Armenian refugees," a broader categorization which overshadowed other identities. Several hundred of these families belonged to the previous Wilaya of Aleppo, which included Gaziantep and Urfa. Their migrations followed French troops from 1918 to 1921 and they eventually participated in the establishment of a new order at the beginning of the 1920s. A large number of them established commercial activities which echoed their previous economic conditions. Moreover, technical specialties around motors and water pumps highlighted craft skills retained by the Armenians. Progressively, they became the dominant players in the newly-invented souq. On the other hand, the French authorities fueled the urbanization of these settlements by building symbolic edifices. At the end of the 1920s, ordinary Ottoman inhabitants – the Armenian refugees – had turned the ancient rural and nomadic area into a realm of small towns which radiated urbanity.
  • The border that separated the newly established nation-states of Syria and Iraq after World War I ran in large parts through desert and steppe land. As a result, it often cut off the circuits followed by Bedouin communities on their seasonal migrations. Yet, as recent border studies scholarship has argued, the introduction of new state borders did not cause a sudden break with previous existing forms of territoriality in the Middle East. The French and British mandatory powers in Syria and Iraq granted the Bedouins legal and political privileges that allowed them to move relatively freely across the shared border. Moreover, in the first half of the 1920s, low state capacities and unclear administrative responsibilities over people and territory provided Bedouin communities with a certain degree of autonomy. In spite of these continuities, by the end of the 1920s, French and British authorities in the Levant had reinforced their border regimes, as demonstrated by the restriction of raiding, new fiscal policies and tighter control of Bedouin mobility; a series of measures that slowly created frontier effects. Notwithstanding this, this paper argues that such policies were not simply determined from above by central state authorities, but rather negotiated on the ground between different state and non-state actors. By looking at the communities belonging to the cross-border Shammar Jarba tribal confederation, it shows first how the question of Bedouin national affiliation became closely entangled with disputes over sovereignty and territorial control between British and French Mandatory powers. The paper then explores how the Bedouins themselves coped and interacted with growing state interference and new state borders. In doing so, it particularly focuses on ‘ordinary’ Bedouins, i.e. community members that did not belong to the sheikhly elite: How did ‘ordinary” Bedouins relations with both state authorities and their own community leadership evolve within this changing context? What strategies did they pursue in the face of the new challenges posed by state borders and the profound political and socio-economic transformations of the period? Although the voices of ‘ordinary’ Bedouins are almost absent in written sources available to historians, the paper seeks to capture their agency by cross-checking of sources from competing national and imperial powers; that is, archival material from the French and British mandate administrations, complemented with German and Arabic sources.