This roundtable explores new directions in scholarship on late Ottoman migration.
The study of late Ottoman migration has become one of the most vibrant subfields in Middle Eastern history, and this roundtable brings together a group of scholars to discuss their upcoming work, challenges in conducting research on the topic, and emerging scholarly debates on migration issues. In its final century, the Ottoman Empire witnessed immigration, emigration, and internal displacement on an enormous scale. Several million Muslim refugees fled to the Ottoman Empire and were resettled in the Balkans, Anatolia, the Levant, Iraq, and North Africa. Hundreds of thousands of Levantine Christians emigrated to the Americas, and many Ottoman Armenians and Greeks left for Russia. Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe arrived in Ottoman Palestine. Labor migrants from Italy, Greece, and Malta moved for work in Ottoman Tunisia and Egypt. Finally, several million Ottoman subjects— Christians, Muslims, and Jews—were internally displaced and deported during the Balkan Wars and World War One.
The panelists propose several conceptual interventions in the study of late Ottoman migration. First, their work demonstrates the complex spectrum of voluntary and forced migration and also challenges those categories, delving into how migrants and the state understood migration at the time. Second, they push the chronology of late Ottoman migration into the 1920s and beyond. Whether in the post-Ottoman Middle East and the Balkans or in the overseas diaspora, former Ottoman migrants continued negotiating their identities and citizenships. Finally, the panelists focus both on the perspectives of late Ottoman migrants themselves and on situating their experiences within global history. Late Ottoman migrations, like migrations elsewhere, were deeply intertwined with the global processes of ethnic cleansing, settler colonialism, and the expansion of capitalism.
The objective of this roundtable is to generate a conversation and collaboration among historians of late Ottoman migration. This roundtable would feature the discussion of historical migration patterns and scholarly debates, which might be of interest to specialists on migration in the contemporary Middle East, including historians, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, and others.
My research focuses on Muslim refugee migration in the late Ottoman era. I adopt a transimperial approach to migration to study how the mutually reinforcing processes of ethnic cleansing and refugee resettlement reshaped the Ottoman and Russian empires. I am particularly interested in the construction of the Ottoman refugee regime, a system of admitting, categorizing, housing, and resettling Muslim refugees. Between the Crimean War and World War I, several million Muslims from Crimea, the Caucasus, the Balkans, the Aegean islands, and North Africa arrived as refugees in the Ottoman domains. The Ottoman government enacted an open-door policy for Muslim refugees, utilizing their arrival to strengthen the empire’s hold on far-flung regions. My work examines distinctions between the refugee regime and the immigration system, and how the Ottoman state categorized its various migrants. I focus on the category of muhacir, which can be translated into English as refugee, immigrant, and emigrant, as it incorporates different types and stages of migration. Late Ottoman migration terms were unstable and flexible in their meanings, and the term muhacir was no different, as Ottoman administrators used it in various ways, depending on the government’s priorities at the time. The study of late Ottoman migration is important not only for understanding the modern Middle East but also for interrogating global ideas about mobility and expansion. My new project examines the concept of hijra, or Muslim refugee migration, in a larger geographic and chronological framework. I am interested in how the Ottoman ideas about displacement and refuge drew on earlier experiences of hijra throughout the Muslim world, and how they, in turn, influenced migration regimes in the twentieth-century post-Ottoman nation-states. During the roundtable, I hope to explore intersections between late Ottoman migration studies and other vibrant subfields in Middle Eastern studies, namely the study of ethnic cleansing and genocide, and of imperial and national citizenship.
I am interested in labor histories of late Ottoman and post-Ottoman diasporas, and in the emergence of transnational labor economies, class formation, and racial capitalism. My current project is a history of the textile industry in the post-Ottoman mahjar. Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian industrial workers, merchants, and manufacturers co-constituted these industries before the First World War, developing a powerful niche in the global whites trade: negligees, underwear, embroidered linens, and the iconic “Syrian kimono,” a garment universally associated with the suitcase trade. Extant work on class formation in the mahjar has focused on the suitcase peddler, iconized as a merchant-in-miniature whose ceaseless search for markets brought him into the world. By contrast, my work examines the industrial labor that produced the goods these peddlers carried. I ask: what industrial practices built so-called “Syrian whites”? How did Arab migrant workers in this industry organize, and how did their Ottoman (or post-Ottoman) nationality and US perceptions of the MENA shape that activism? Because my work also tracks the emergence of the mahjar’s industrial elites, I will examine the contests between Syrian American capital versus labor in its many iterations: textile strikes, factory outsourcing, and supply chain power as labor control. My roundtable contribution will focus on a single case study from this research: the garment work strikes of Syrian New York in 1913-1919, and Syrian American textile firms that shifted production abroad in response to Madeira Island. I will illustrate how a diasporic frame allows historians to ask new questions about (post-)Ottoman labor history in the world about the impact of diasporic notions about obligation, racial solidarity, and respectability.
My research on Ottoman migration and governance is one of several new approaches that have positioned migration and forced displacement as integral to the history of the modern Middle East and the history of the modern Middle East as integral to global histories of migration and forced displacement. In my scholarship, I argue that Ottoman immigration and settlement policies reveal the development of the ideology and bureaucratic capacity of social engineering within Ottoman statecraft. Further, I consider the Ottoman state’s response to mass and forced displacement a crucial historical precedent necessary to understand the emergence of the modern international refugee regime in the twentieth century. My approach aligns with that undertaken by several members of the panel, who have explored the relevance of settler colonial studies to Ottoman society and governance. Such work has the capacity to encourage historians of settler colonialism to reorient their study away from white settler societies as ‘definitional’ or ‘paradigmatic’ cases and to consider anew the utility of settler colonialism, indigeneity, and dispossession as categories of analysis in a disparate range of historical and contemporary examples. Rather than an ill-fated or faddish attempt to render the Ottoman Empire ‘like’ other empires, these explorations can provide further insight into the Ottoman Empire as an empire and as an entity unto itself, highlighting how the empire’s specificities, such as its tenuous position internationally or its claims to the spiritual authority as caliphate, influenced its population politics. Finally, assessing social engineering and population politics as an integral aspect of Ottoman governance provides a stronger sense of overlap among historians of the late Ottoman Empire and scholars of the Armenian Genocide, a particularly welcome shift given that the suffering of Ottoman Muslim migrants has served as a component of genocide denial.
There are many exciting questions to pursue in this field. One I have begun to explore is the overlap and interaction of “the migrant” and “the child” as two categories that gave shape to the meaning of political subjecthood as Ottoman subjects became citizens of the modernizing state. I hope this work will contribute to ongoing discussions among Ottoman historians and historians of forced migration, discussions that trace the development of categories of migrant, subject, citizen, and refugee within emergent imperial, nation-state, and international migration regimes, and that explore how such regimes separate individuals who move outside their homeplaces and cross state borders into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ groups.
My scholarship has aimed at salvaging the life stories of those migrant workers who enabled the excavation and maintenance of the Suez Canal in Egyptian-Ottoman territory from 1859 onwards. It has reconstructed the social and cultural history of an enterprise still overly celebrated in political and economic histories as the triumph of faceless technology and European ingenuity. But beyond this wreckage recovery operation, my work has chased other goals. First, it has explored the interactions of migrant individuals and groups with Ottoman and Egyptian state representatives and Suez Canal Company agents in order to account for the full range of actions as well as constraints that newcomers experienced in their everyday life. Second, my writing has accounted for the racial and gendered hierarchies of the unequal migrant society that came to be in the towns sprouting along the Suez Canal banks. Finally, by focusing on the connections spun by migrants’ movements towards, away from, and within the Suez Canal region both before and after the 1882 British occupation, my work has explored the formation of new circuits of mobility and the continuing failures of pre- and post-colonial authorities to keep borders in check. It has thus dislocated the conventional geography and chronology of modern Egypt’s historiography, while also situating Egypt in a broader Mediterranean and global context of migrant trajectories.
In my future work, I will continue to approach people’s migration as a lens to examine Egyptian state formation and the development of Egyptian borders. I will persist in my embrace of the history of Suez-bound mobility as one of both internal and international movement of men, women, and children. I will carry on tracing the ragged, interrupted, and multi-directional connections between the Middle East and other parts of the world, the ones woven by those individuals who moved in and out of the region. I will strive to overcome source-related challenges and include a fuller range of migratory experiences. Ultimately, I aim to understand how Egyptian society affected immigrant lives and how, in turn, migration changed Egypt. This operation is not only about looking at how “Egyptians” viewed or lived next to “immigrants,” but it pushes for an understanding of mobility as foundational to Egypt’s history. By doing so, my research converses with migration scholarship in other fields and contexts. It shows the relevance of the Egyptian and Ottoman past to more inclusive global histories of migration.
My research on Ottoman migration integrates the Ottoman Empire into a global framework that includes the Great Game, the Scramble for Africa, and global interest in exploiting profitable territories for the benefit of the metropole. It contributes to expanding our understanding of global migration and settlement and raises a new set of questions for the history of the Middle East and North Africa, and the Global South more generally, concerning the effects of nineteenth century transimperial diplomacy, migration, and settlement. Taking a transregional approach to Ottoman history, my current project concentrates on the role of the late Ottoman Empire as an expansionist settler colonial empire in Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It situates the Ottoman Empire in a global context when other European empires began their inter-imperial race to colonize Ottoman territories and other parts of Africa. Rather than conceptualizing a contracting empire, my research demonstrates that the Ottoman Empire was expanding, not in the Balkans, but in Africa through harnessing migration and settlement. In scrutinizing the Ottoman Empire’s expansionist policies in Africa, I explore the interplay of empire, migration, and settler colonialism in the late Ottoman Empire. One of the main facets of my work questions the activities of migrants-turned-settlers and refugees-turned-settlers—categorized as muhacirin in Ottoman Turkish—who played a role in transforming the “empty” spaces of Africa into enclaves of settler colonies. Likewise, I question the evolving cooperation and tension among imperial authorities, settlers, and indigenous locals concerning Ottoman expansionist efforts during the last decades of Ottoman rule. In doing so, my research extends conversations in the field of late Ottoman migration studies to include questions of settler sovereignty, colonialism, and transimperialism. This approach to Ottoman migration reinforces my ongoing initiative to incorporate a transregional and transimperial perspective into Ottoman history, the Global South, and world history, in general, and introduces a new research avenue to consider the interplay of migrants, refugees, and historically understudied populations in the Middle East and Africa.
When the Ottoman Empire was divided into a number of new nation-states after the First World War, the nationality of the hundreds of thousands of people who had left its borders over prior decades became an open question. In new ares of European domination such as British Mandatory Palestine, the French Mandate in Lebanon, and the Italian Dodecanese, new nationality laws rendered local communities citizens of their respective colonial territories and did not afford them British, French, and Italian passports. Meanwhile, the exchange of populations between Turkey, Greece, and Bulgaria conferred new nationalities upon millions of refugees and "exchanged people." These new nationality laws also contained clauses that excluded a large swath of the former Ottoman diaspora. The result was that during the interwar period, large numbers of de facto stateless individuals from the former Ottoman Empire resided in the United States. As the American deportation state grew over the course of the 1920s and 30s, the new nationalities of the Middle East region created both obstacles and opportunities immigration enforcers as well as the post-Ottoman diaspora. One of my scholarly interests is recovering the stories of individual deportation cases of Ottoman-born migrants in the United States to trace the convoluted and clashing legal logics of the new international order created in the aftermath of the empire's partition.