Stacy D. Fahrenthold, Between the Ottomans and the Entente: The First World War in the Syrian and Lebanese Diaspora, 1908-1925 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, March 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Stacy Fahrenthold (SF): I came to migration history originally because I was motivated by silences I observed in place-based histories and I wanted to examine how, when, and why migrants are removed from the historical record. I was unsatisfied with narratives of migration that begin and end at borders, where interesting people “appear” or “disappear” through the act of passage told from the perspectives—and usually the documents—of the regulatory nation-state. I wanted to write a history centered on individuals who moved between the Ottoman Empire and the Arab Atlantic. Often these migrants travelled more than once, navigating a complex social geography that linked immigrant neighborhoods in New York City, São Paulo, and Buenos Aires and beyond. By World War I, these three cities had their own shared philanthropic institutions, social clubs, political parties, serials, and intellectual spaces; their own gravity and culture. I wanted to write about migration from these places, and from the perspectives of individuals who lived there.
Though this work began as a history of migration, I was also influenced by the displacements of the post-2011 era. The internationalization of the Syrian conflict, the struggles over refugee provisioning, and the complex ways that diasporas intervene in or advocate for homelands all mirror some of the deepest political tensions experienced in the mahjar during World War I. Similarly, contemporary turns in American political discourse around migrants, refugee rights, “bans,” border walls, and Islamophobia have disturbing resonance with US rhetoric and legislation a century ago. It is not a coincidence, either; one of the topics this book explores is the United States’ “Muslim ban” of 1918, and efforts by Syrian migrants to evade it through passport smuggling.
Compelling new work being done in Middle Eastern migration studies makes this an exciting subfield to be a part of right now, and I draw a lot of inspiration from my peers who work across Middle Eastern, American/Latin American, and ethnic studies contexts. I wanted to be a part of this inherently collaborative field—to contribute to meaningful conversations about the interrelations between mobility, sovereignty, borders, and rights—and that motivated me to finish this book.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SF: The book begins with a deceptively simple idea: that mass migration from Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine shaped Middle Eastern politics at the end of the Ottoman period and that consequently, the “mahjar matters.” But there is more to it than this: I argue that the effacement of migrants and diasporas from histories of the region—usually by means of reliance on state archives and state-centric modes of inquiry—has produced a fictive rift in the historiography of the Levant. The European Mandates established in the region after World War I not only enacted policies to partition the Mashriq from the mahjar, but in doing so it also generated specific legal fictions about the mahjar that persist in popular memory until now.
This work builds from documents I collectively call “movable texts:” that is, the newspapers, correspondence, propaganda, passports, and petitions that Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian migrants carried with them across oceans. I complement these papers with state archives, but my goal is to place individual migrants at the fore. Basically, I wanted to tell a political history of the mahjar from these items, rather than from the lens of the regulatory nation-state; after all, these migrants avoided interactions with the state whenever possible.
Sitting at the juncture between migration history and World War I studies, this work also closely examines a period often bookended, a shard of daylight between the historiography on late-Ottoman emigrations and studies of diasporic politics during the European Mandates. Guided by distinct questions and by totally different archival approaches, I saw an opportunity to examine the war years more closely. For historians of World War I, the book focuses on the relationship between mass migration, displacement, and conflict by demonstrating how the mahjar functioned as a site for critique, resistance, and opposition to Ottoman (and then French) rule.
J: What surprised you most, over the course of researching this book?
SF: One of the biggest surprises that came from this research was how invested the state was in producing certain historical narratives about the mahjar and its politics. The book contests, for instance, the notion that the mahjar and its activists supported the Mandate system and argues this narrative was a production of French officials who papered the mahjar with Francophile petitions and propaganda after the 1918 armistice. So, despite my initial goal to write a migration history “beyond state records,” this book failed to escape the state because the empires, nations, and Mandates pursued émigrés abroad. Instead, the book critiques how states generate their own histories of migration: for instance, lasting tropes about migration-as-crisis, migration-as-threatening, emigrants as patriots or dangerous subversives date to the World War I moment. They persist as nativist shorthand today because states invested immense resources in reproducing such stereotypes.
Attached to this is the complex issue of naming the communities of the mahjar. The migrants in this work come from Ottoman Syria, Mount Lebanon, and Palestine, commingled together in urban settings ordered primarily around commercial and economic rhythms. They were identified in a stunning variety of ways in their countries of domicile: as “turcos” and then as “Syrians” or “Syro-Lebanese”, regardless of actual geographic origin. “Syrian” emerged as an ethnic category, used by Atlantic states as a shorthand for Arabic speakers within larger schema of racial classification. But during World War I, the Entente powers began to legislate “Syrian” and “Lebanese” as national origin classifications, largely in lockstep with the French Foreign Ministry and the lobbying efforts of émigré activists in New York, São Paulo, and Buenos Aires. After 1920, the European Mandates each drafted legislation for “their share” of emigrants according to a bordered map that was unlike the geography from which these migrants had departed decades earlier. Consequently, one of the surprises here was how differently the French Mandate treated Syrian versus Lebanese emigrants, with significant consequences for thousands of people marooned abroad.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SF: My commitment has been to writing social histories that take mobility seriously, and until now I have written mostly about the construction, maintenance, and restoration of diasporic social networks. Usually, this has been through institutions like the global Syrian press, or the establishment of fraternal associations in émigré communities. My book continues in that vein by placing social networks at the fore, but it also critiques the “transcendental” tone of some transnational history more fully. Wartime activists in the mahjar may have coordinated their efforts across continents, working clandestinely in legal gray areas to which the Entente Powers and Ottomans had limited access, but they did not seek to transcend the state. Nor did they live in an unbounded world of limitless agency. Instead, this work divulges the complex, ambivalent role that Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian activists abroad played in the process of post-Ottoman state building, and it reveals the limitations of that business.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SF: I hope that anyone interested in social history will find something to like about this book! One of the pervasive anxieties I hear when chatting with colleagues in migration studies is that our field is often understood as being limited to a “diaspora box.” That is, limited to a specific topical and epistemological space set apart from rest of Area Studies, territorially defined. Migration histories are now getting more attention, influenced by the desire to comprehend the tragedies of our own moment. I think my book will be of interest to students and scholars who want to understand migration, but my larger goal is to also demonstrate that social history—broadly speaking—is more radical and compelling if historians question the territorial determinism that governs much of Middle East studies.
I have a second hope that the work will be a useful tool for anyone working more fully on the Mandates and their respective diasporas. The book argues that Mandate policies partitioned the Mashriq from its diasporas in the early 1920s, but there is an enormous amount of work to do on how these acts of partition iterated within the Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian communities abroad. How did European colonialism shape mahjari politics? What were the impacts of migrant repatriation, deportation, or denaturalization? There is so much work to do and I cannot wait to read more on these topics.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SF: I am working on a project on Lebanese workers in Latin America at the moment, focusing especially on Brazil. The project returns to some of the migrant clubs and social institutions that I have written about before (for instance, the Homs Club in São Paulo), but will expand into a labor history of the interwar mahjar.
Excerpt from the book
From the Introduction
The trouble in the Syrian colony of Buenos Aires began on 12 April 1915, outside the Ottoman Empire’s consulate on Avenida Corrientes. On that day, the city’s Ottoman General Consul, a Syrian emir named Amin Arslan, met a crowd of two thousand Syrian migrants on the steps of his office. Though an Ottoman official working for the Committee of Union and Progress (hereafter CUP) government, Arslan was an outspoken opponent of Istanbul’s alliance with Germany, a strategic maneuver that had brought the empire into the First World War in October 1914. Arslan spent the months since the declaration of war speaking out against his government’s alliance with Berlin. Though his popularity among the Syrians of Argentina soared, the city’s German consulate resented his disloyal behavior and reported Arslan to his superiors in the Ottoman Foreign Ministry. Istanbul was already uneasy with Amin Arslan: the consul’s open friendship with French diplomats in Argentina, seen as a major boon for the Empire a decade earlier, was no longer seen as such in 1914. The ruling Ottoman triumvirate—Enver, Talaat, and Cemal Pashas—began to see the Argentinian emir as a liability. They also saw the Syrian mahjar (lands of emigration, often translated as diaspora) as a dangerous place, its half million emigrants full of potential for sedition, collusion with the Empire’s enemies, and recruitment to the Arabist opposition mounting against Unionist rule.
In April 1915, the embattled Ottoman consul received a letter from the Germans, invoking the Berlin-Istanbul alliance and ordering Arslan to stop defaming Germany. The letter demanded that Arslan cease all contact with the French consulate and refrain from public statements about the war in the Argentinian press. Finding it absurd that he should take orders from Germany, Arslan marched up the steps outside of the Ottoman Consulate building on that April day. Meeting a crowd of Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, and other Ottoman nationals from the Argentine colony, Arslan read Germany’s threatening letter aloud, tipping off a day of Arabist protest against the Unionist government and its involvement in the First World War. Arslan then read a letter he penned in response to the German consul general in Buenos Aires:
Señor Consul General, I have the pleasure of acknowledging your letter… I think it goes without saying how surprising this letter was, as its contents conflict with all established diplomatic protocol, and it has not come to my earnest attention that my Ottoman Empire forms a mere part of your German Imperium. And I keep hope, nevertheless, for the honor and dignity of my poor country, dragged unwillingly into the abyss of this war by you, a savage foreign power.
Lamenting that “the interests of the [Syrian] community are now in the hands of foreigners,” Amin Arslan reaffirmed his loyalty “to my august sovereign, the Sultan… and my only superior, the Grand Vizier (Talaat Pasha).” He announced that he had written Talaat Pasha to demand that Istanbul either renounce its alliance with Germany or terminate him from Ottoman diplomatic service.
Fire him they did. Receiving more complaints from the Germans, Talaat Pasha relieved Arslan of his post via telegram on 19 May 1915 and ordered the closure of the empire’s Buenos Aires consulate. Arslan was instructed to deliver the contents of his office’s archives to the German consulate and to return immediately to Istanbul. Seeing this course of events as further proof the Unionists had become German puppets, Arslan closed the consulate but refused to surrender its papers. “These documents provide legal protection and justice [for Syrians] in this country,” he explained to La Prensa newspaper. “No foreigner has the right to take and oversee the files of Ottomans [living in Argentina], nor to determine the interests of my countrymen, who…have an interest in defending what is rightfully theirs.” If the Germans came for the records, he threatened he would submit them to Argentina’s supreme court for protection. Istanbul responded by convicting the impudent emir of treason in absentia. He would never be allowed to return to the Ottoman domain.
South American newspapers noticed the Syrian protests against the Ottoman Empire’s entry into the First World War, especially in Brazil and Argentina where hundreds of thousands of Syrian migrants already lived. Both countries were then formally neutral in the war but were allied with the Triple Entente. The Syrian protests against their own sovereign grabbed public attention, fed a wider anti-German sentiment, and turned Arslan into a local champion. The Argentinian press called Germany’s takeover of Ottoman affairs an “act of piracy.” Brazilian papers congratulated “the Consul of the Turkish colony [colonia turca] for so energetically opposing the pretentions of a foreign monarchic regime.” But the Latin American public remained unaware of Arslan’s reasons for refusing to surrender his consulate’s archives, papers that documented the citizenship claims, migration status, political activities, and intelligence files for an estimated 110,000 Syrians in Argentina. Arslan was convinced the records would be used to levy criminal charges against Syrian emigrants, or even those who had returned to the Ottoman empire.
Arslan’s fears were well warranted. Only weeks before, Syria’s Ottoman governor-general, Cemal Pasha, ordered Ottoman troops to seize records from Beirut’s abandoned French Consulate, using them to indict and convict dozens of Arabists, reformers, and Syrian elites of treason. The gallows went up in Syria, and over forty men were hanged in mass in Damascus and Beirut between August 1915 and May 1916. Their crimes originated with their ties to foreign powers and connections to Arabist émigré associations. Only those who fled the empire escaped this fate; like Arslan, they could only be convicted in absentia.
The Ottomans had not always seen the mahjar as dangerous. For a time, this diaspora represented an overseas frontier, a source of economic development, its emigrants a useful population to be groomed and reclaimed through diplomacy. The new Ottoman consulates had been a manifestation of that mission. But under the shifting politics of the First World War and Cemal Pasha’s repression of Arabism at home, the state’s view of the mahjar shifted: it became a site for sedition, opposition to CUP rule, and collusion with the empire’s enemies. This book recounts that transition. It is about the empire’s momentary embrace of Ottoman migrants and the emergence of a political society organized across the mahjar’s major colonies in Brazil, Argentina, and the United States. It is about the breakdown of Ottoman control over migrant activism in the war’s early months, the result of an ill-fated alliance with Berlin and a crackdown on civil society. It is about the various means that Syrian and Lebanese migrants abroad had at their disposal to protest and rebel against the Ottoman state, and the readiness of the Entente powers to ally with these émigré activists. Ultimately, this book explores how this diaspora’s uneasy entanglement with the forces of European imperialism shaped the political fate of its Middle Eastern homeland.
In some ways, [French] Mandate policies toward the Syrian and Lebanese diaspora mirrored those of their late Ottoman predecessors. For both polities, the mahjar and its activists provided opportunities to refract state power across an overseas frontier; for both, the emigrants were a population to be juridically reclaimed and perhaps even relocated for the good of the state. In a significant departure, however, was France’s goal to impose and harden territorial borders across a new geography of post-Ottoman nation states. In an international order premised on the forced fixing of identifies into the “cartographic mold of nation-states,” the Mandate ultimately partitioned the mahjar from the Mashriq, instituting policies to preempt the return of Syrians with presumed anticolonial politics. This book’s conclusion examines French attempts to deprive select emigrants of passports and nationality during the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925-27. The denationalization of Syrians abroad amounted to a diasporic partition, revealing French desires to cut the very ties with the mahjar they had nurtured a decade earlier.
The pages that follow recover a social history of the Syrian and Lebanese diaspora at a crucial historical moment: the fall of the Ottoman empire, the region’s subdivision within new national borders, and the emergence of the imperial European Mandates. In their core function, borders create new territories, and in doing so seek to contain nations, discipline and define societies, and regulate cross-border mobility. As shall be seen, borders also manufacture histories, contriving a territorial determinism that this work critiques. For contrary to popular ideas about border-making as a process driven wholly by states (whether we think of borders as expressions of “natural” sovereignties or assertions of invented ones), Syrian and Lebanese activists in the mahjar played an enormous role in defining the post-Ottoman politics of their homeland. From revolution in 1908 to revolt in 1925, contests over nationalist politics, national borders, nationality laws, and citizenship norms in Syria and Lebanon happened somewhere beyond the seas [waraʾ al-bihar], in the political headwaters running between the Ottoman empire and the Entente. For a time, emigrants abroad navigated these currents in order to stake political claims on their places of origins. The mahjar mattered, not only because of the historical endurance of the Syrian colonies in the Americas, but also because its politics frequently came home.