Scales of Migration: Knowledge Production in the Middle East and Its Global Linkages
Panel III-18, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Friday, November 3 at 8:30 am
This panel examines variegated migratory patterns in the Middle East and its trans-regional linkages that spanned across wide geographic and intellectual terrains. It considers how migrants responded to imperial and national structures and borders, but at the same time how such structures became the means through which political and intellectual networks mobilized these itinerant actors.
The papers build on the recent scholarship on migration in the Middle East, particularly as the field has enriched our understanding of migration as an analytic framework not only connecting disparate-seeming places but also exploring the intersections of law, memory, and the production of intellectual networks. Building on these studies, this panel seeks to bring together scholars working on different patterns and geographies, in order to show how migrants facilitated, translated, and produced knowledge both in the Middle East and in diaspora communities.
The papers aim to integrate migration into debates about knowledge production, state-making, and communal solidarities by addressing two overarching questions: How can one write histories of trans-regional migration from the perspectives of migrants themselves? How can scholars develop methodologies for studying the thoughts and practices of migrants within global and multilingual frameworks, without neglecting local knowledge traditions?
Focusing on the historical moment that spanned the mid-nineteenth century to mid-twentieth century, our panel seeks to develop multi-scalar methodologies for studying the intellectual and social histories of migrants at the forefront of their own experiences. Collectively, the papers explore case studies that bring the Middle East and North Africa into a conversation with Central and South Asia and Western Europe, enabling us to consider multiple lenses through which studying the narratives of migrants can help recover their role in making and breaking borders.
Bringing migrant accounts to the forefront, the first paper examines the displacement of Greek Orthodox Christians from Damascus to Beirut in the aftermath of sectarian violence, placing special attention to how they understood their experiences and responded to geopolitical change. Continuing the emphasis on sources produced by migrants, the second paper examines Soviet Muslim emigrants, who mobilized co-religionists in the multilingual Middle East and South Asia against Stalinist repression. Moving toward the intersection of science and migration, the third paper examines migrant agriculturalists from Ottoman Crete who transformed “untamed” lands into fertile spaces for economic control. The last paper examines Muslim migrants at German universities, showing how these figures “translated” Western medical principles through the lens of autochthonous Muslim knowledge traditions.
The recent focus on the history of knowledge has traced the circulation of scientific objects and discourses across temporal and geographic boundaries. In light of these explorations, the role of migrants as key facilitators of circulatory regimes, provides exciting avenues of study. Linking the history of knowledge with the history of migration, this paper will focus on “knowledge-migrants,” a heterogeneous group of Muslim scientists and their technical training at German universities, who were responsible for the development of postcolonial scientistic institutions in Afghanistan. As a case study, the paper presents the work of ‘Abd al-Rahim Khan (b.1909), a German-educated migrant-turned-physician who trained in bacteriology at the Hygiene Institute of the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität of Berlin. While we know of European scientists and their research agendas in the Middle East, what we do not know is how German scientific institutions in the interwar period became key spaces for Muslim scientists to develop innovative scientific techniques, such as new ways of propagating and and observing bacterial changes over time – a key skill that Rahim Khan drew on when examining malaria swamps across Afghanistan and India. Reading his 1939 work for the ways in which it problematized Robert Koch’s preferred medium of agar to grow and control bacteria, the paper also links his early formative years in Berlin to the development of the first medical centers across Afghanistan. In decentering the methodological and conceptual narrative of migrants as passive observers of their new societies, this paper highlights not only the role of Muslim migrants in shaping the histories of German sciences but also their work in translating science across intercultural terrains.
Current historiography on nineteenth-century migration to the Ottoman Empire has focused on the mass migrations of various ethno-linguistic populations from the Balkans and Caucasus to Istanbul, Anatolia, and Greater Syria. This scholarship often concentrates on the permanent settlement of migrants and refugees in the construction of cities and villages in frontier borderlands of the Ottoman Empire. This paper expands our understanding of Ottoman migration by examining the temporary migration and contract labor of expert migrant agriculturalists who were charged with scientifically transforming “untamed” and “empty” lands into organized, fertile spaces for the creation of profit and civilization. Centering on North Africa, or more specifically, Ottoman Libya, this paper claims that expert migrant agriculturalists from Ottoman Crete were part and parcel of larger local and imperial ambitions of state-making. Contract labor was envisioned as a means to develop lands in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica for the purpose of agricultural development and to create a flourishing landscape where the monopolization of cash crops fostered economic growth and greater government control of local agricultural production. The key to realizing such transformations in these regions was the application of local expertise and agricultural science that at once functioned to discipline not only the land in terms of its productivity, but also the local inhabitants who resided in these territories. This paper argues that these interactions between transient Cretan migrant agriculturalists and locals of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica over the proper use of land constituted a civilizing mission. This mission was one that employed scientific methods at manipulating not only the fruits of the land but also the labor that harvested it. In sum, the combination of local and imperial ambitions to permanently transform these two enclaves of North Africa culminated into a potential project to introduce to North Africa an Ottoman commercial rich zone of agriculture and productivity in the late nineteenth century.
In 1860, sectarian violence erupted throughout Mount Lebanon, Wadi al-Taym, and Damascus, leaving thousands dead and thousands more displaced. While much scholarship on these ḥawādith (or “events,” as they are euphemistically called in Arabic) focuses on the causes and nature of the fighting between Druze and Maronites, less attention is paid to Greek Orthodox Christian survivors of the violence and their displacement to cities like Beirut and beyond. This paper analyzes two eyewitness accounts written by members of the Damascene Orthodox community who fled to Beirut, ultimately settling permanently away from their homes in Damascus. It focuses, in particular, on how these ‘internally displaced’ men understood their experiences as bystanders, refugees, and Arab Ottoman Christians in the midst of a rapidly changing empire, and it considers the nature of memory in the production of migrant knowledge.
The first account is a handwritten manuscript entitled Tanahhudāt Sūriyya, written in Beirut by a man named Jibrā’il Mikhā’il Shiḥāda just months after he had fled from his home in Damascus. Little is known about Shihada, although one historian speculates that he was likely an industrialist or artisan, except that he was Orthodox and that he died a few months after finishing his account in 1861. The second account examined here was written by Abraham Arbeely (Ibrāhīm Arbīlī) from March to July 1913 and published as a series in al-Kalima, a New York-based Arabic newspaper edited by Orthodox Bishop Rufa’il Hawāwīnī. Arbeely had witnessed the violence firsthand as a child, fled with his family to Beirut, and ultimately settled in the United States.
I show that both authors felt an urgent need to preserve and share their stories, drawing on memory to offer particular audiences a glimpse into the past necessarily bound up in contemporary concerns. Their language and narration, I argue, reveals deeper reflections about politics and society. It also highlights the profound, if often underappreciated, influence of forced migration and displacement on identity formation in the Middle East and beyond.