Nora Elizabeth Barakat, Bedouin Bureaucrats: Mobility and Property in the Ottoman Empire (Stanford University Press, 2023).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Nora Elizabeth Barakat (NEB): The book addresses the experiences of the Bedouin inhabitants of the region I call the Syrian interior, which roughly corresponds to contemporary Jordan and southern Syria, in the Ottoman imperial context. Existing literature has mainly described Bedouin as either the spoilers of Ottoman attempts to create a modern state in this region, or more recently as the victims of that project. The book offers a historical explanation for Bedouin communities’ longstanding control over land, in some cases to the present, even when modern imperial property regimes from the late Ottoman period onward have not recognized their land rights.

The book is based on my PhD dissertation, in which I focused on an important textual source for the social history of the Syrian interior—Ottoman-era Arabic court records held at the University of Jordan. I noticed how often they mentioned a group of people they referred to as “tent dwellers,” the term I use throughout the book to refer to Bedouin communities in the Syrian interior. “Tent dwellers” were so common in the records that I could follow the stories of particular individuals over multiple cases. Later, when I did archival research in Istanbul, I found that I could trace some of those individuals in records that ended up in the imperial capital and tell a wider story about the roles they performed in Ottoman property administration, and how they maintained control over land in the face of aggressive imperial attempts to dispossess them after the 1870s.

After finishing my PhD, I started reading in more depth about other global contexts where imperial governments were employing many of the same attempts to create private property regimes that privileged settled cultivation, with very similar legitimating discourse about productivity and land use. Reading about my own North American context was especially illuminating. In the book, I approach the Ottoman as one of multiple contiguous empires attempting to expand direct administration into regions they had formerly deemed marginal in the late nineteenth century, especially in response to capitalist expansion and the threat of European, especially British, territorial encroachment. This wider context helped me make sense of new Ottoman attitudes towards this landscape, its production as a region of private property and state domain, and how Bedouin encountered that project in ways that were highly differentiated both across and within particular communities.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

NEB: The book addresses three sets of literatures: at its most granular level it is a social history of an interior region of the Eastern Mediterranean and the people who lived there. For a long time, social histories depicted Bedouin as a threat to intensive agriculture, especially in the more arable regions closer to the coast. While some scholars discussed their involvement in various regional industries, especially wool and soap, they had not addressed their legal, administrative, or political roles. Bedouin Bureaucrats shows the ways men from different communities, from camel herders moving across large distances to part-time farmers engaged in seasonal migration, became involved in property and tax administration in a long story of modern state formation and capitalist expansion from the eighteenth through the early twentieth century.

The book also addresses Ottoman imperial history, which has moved towards describing late Ottoman governance in the Arabic-speaking provinces as Orientalist and colonial. I focus on the ways particular communities and individuals encountered the empire, first through administration of the pilgrimage route and broader forms of commercial expansion in the eighteenth century and later through involvement in taxation and property administration as low-level bureaucrats. This longer-durée approach provides a more complex story about how Ottoman administrative tactics became much more aggressive and intrusive in the late nineteenth century. I show that late Ottoman officials’ claims that the Syrian interior was an empty land they had never encountered were a legitimating discourse for imperial attempts to dispossess Bedouin and reallocate their land. Bedouin individuals and communities employed multiple tactics to maintain control over land, from performing Ottoman state functions as bureaucrats, to using the political leverage they had gained through their long-term involvement in the pilgrimage administration, to attacking villages on reallocated land. I also explore how state officials eventually coded Bedouin as potentially loyal and productive Muslims in an environment of increasing imperial anxiety over territorial sovereignty that linked political loyalty to religious identity. These constructions created a space for Bedouin bureaucrats to employ their connections and influence within Ottoman administration amidst an increasingly exclusive and violent imperial nation-building project that culminated in the Armenian genocide.

Finally, the book engages with a global historical literature on comparative empire and property administration. I argue for approaching the Ottoman experience alongside nationalizing empires moving into regions that had previously been constructed as marginal or external, i.e. the United States in the American West or the Russian Empire in Central Asia. I use the concept of a nationalizing empire to emphasize that Ottoman authorities attempted to integrate Bedouin communities into the new administrative and legal hierarchies of the modern state rather than creating separate jurisdictions to govern them. For example, Ottoman officials constructed the “tribe” as a universal imperial category for people they saw as outside their village-based agrarian ideal, and then attempted to assimilate tribes into the governing structures built around the village unit in other regions of the empire. This was quite similar to how the United States and Russian governments tried to extend intrusive governance, especially with regard to property administration, into the North American plains and the Kazakh steppe. I also show, however, that Ottoman constructions of Bedouin as potentially productive and loyal Muslim subjects gave them more space to maintain control over land than Native Americans and Kazakhs, producing markedly different outcomes across these late imperial landscapes. One of these outcomes was the continuing salience of the “tribe” as an administrative category in the post-Ottoman context, where it continues to frame struggles over resources and political power. Another outcome involves continuing conflicts over land, especially between state officials attempting to reallocate “state domain” land and Bedouin communities with longstanding intergenerational claims.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

NEB: My previous work has been rooted in legal and social history, especially engaged with questions of land, livestock, and taxation mainly in the district of Salt in contemporary Jordan. This book has a much wider geographical and temporal scope and introduces new arguments about Ottoman imperial constructions of landscape and space. In particular, I outline the Ottoman private property regime as an attempt to strengthen claims of state domain and closely monitor both capitalist interests and refugee reallocation efforts in an environment of threatened territorial sovereignty. These attempts created a complex relationship between Bedouin elites and the property administration that began in the late nineteenth century and continues to the present: while claims of state domain shield large swaths of the Syrian interior from external capitalist interests, they also deny the legalization of historic Bedouin land claims, creating conflict especially when state officials move to sell or reallocate land that Bedouin claim in the state domain. The maintenance of state domain has also undergirded a wide-ranging “informal” land market across multiple jurisdictions that mirrors the complexities of the land market I describe in the late nineteenth century.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NEB: For the past fifteen years or so there has been increasing interest in Ottoman history in Jordan and elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean. I hope to translate the book into Arabic and contribute to people’s ability to access that history across the linguistic and national divides of the twentieth century. In Anglophone contexts, I hope students of the Ottoman Empire and the modern Middle East will engage with the book. The chapters are loosely biographical, each following the trajectory of a particular individual, which I hope helps students address questions of empire, property, and administration in a more accessible way. On a wider scale, I also hope the book makes an impact on discussions in global history, especially among scholars working on comparative empire, property, dispossession, state formation, and bureaucracy. 

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

NEB: My current project is an investigation of Ottoman legal codification, especially in the realms of credit, commerce, and property, and the intersections of that project with global capitalist expansion. The project also explores the legacies of Ottoman codified law across the region between the Mediterranean and Indian Oceans in the twentieth century, an interconnected geography I began thinking about after teaching in Qatar and Abu Dhabi. Through this project, I hope to articulate shared political economies and legal experiences across the broad region stretching from Palestine to Kuwait to Hofuf before the transformations of the 1970s.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter FourBureaucracy in Crisis) 

Early on a Friday morning in May 1907, Nahar al-Bakhit, headman of the Manasir ‘Abbad aşiret, left his camp in Marj Sikka, east of the town of Salt. He headed west, towards the village of Ayn Suwaylih. Chechen refugees had established Ayn Suwaylih the year before on land granted by the Ottoman property administration. On a hill overlooking the village, he found the encampment where a large meeting was set to take place. The encampment was bustling with men from all over the Salt district. Nahar al-Bakhit greeted his colleagues from other ‘Abbadi communities as well as the leaders of the ‘Adwan and the Bani Hasan, whose dira was north of Salt. A few townsmen from Salt and villagers from Fuhays were also at the meeting. Most of the men were armed, some with Martini rifles smuggled from British-occupied Egypt. Nahar al-Bakhit had recently obtained one of these rifles, and he checked it frequently as he greeted his colleagues.

Even for Nahar al-Bakhit, who often worked with other communities in Salt district in his official Ottoman capacity as headman of the Manasir, this meeting was extraordinary. The ‘Abbad, ‘Adwan and Salti townspeople often quarreled over the district’s resources, especially its land. But on that Friday morning they had a common enemy. The meeting had been called because of a fight between Bedouin and Chechen refugees that had left a Bedouin man seriously wounded. The fight was over rights to use land: the Chechens had stopped the Bedouin, who were trying to graze their sheep on land near Ayn Suwaylih that the Chechens had planted with wheat. On hearing of the quarrel, the leaders of the local Bedouin groups had decided to meet to discuss the issue of refugees claiming control over land they regarded as theirs.

Later that Friday afternoon, more than two thousand Bedouin and townsmen from Salt descended on the Chechen refugee village of Ayn Suwaylih and began shooting into windows and doors. According to the report of the Ottoman county governor, Cemal Bey, the “wretched” (biçargan) refugees were “slaughtered like sheep” (koyun gibi boğazlarak) with eleven refugees killed and fifteen seriously wounded. But the Chechens were also armed and fought back, inflicting similar casualties on the Salti side. The battle lasted until after dark. The Chechens were victims of a major theft: the entire contents of twenty-eight houses were reportedly stolen, as well as all of the village’s livestock.

The violence that Bedouin groups, led by headmen, initiated in Ayn Suwaylih was a direct response to past and potential dispossession. The mounting conflicts over land in the Syrian interior that the 1907 attack and its aftermath exemplify point to a crisis in the Ottoman process of making state space in the early twentieth century. This crisis was closely related to the regime’s far-reaching attempts to overhaul registration and taxation of land and people that began in the 1860s and accelerated after the fiscal and territorial losses of the 1870s. As envisioned in imperial legislation, by the 1890s, registration and taxation of Balqa resources relied heavily on rural headmen like Nahar al-Bakhit. Like other headmen and low-level Bedouin officials, Nahar al-Bakhit benefited from his connections to the Ottoman administration, gaining social connections both in his community and among Ottoman officials through his daily activities as a bureaucrat – collecting taxes, verifying land transactions, and serving as a witness in court. But al-Bakhit also became the official representative of a community suffering from an Ottoman land policy that increasingly viewed land controlled by Bedouin as “empty” and available for reallocation to refugees, like the ones in Ayn Suwaylih in the 1890s. This chapter relates how headmen like Nahar al-Bakhit shifted from organizing Ottoman tax collection to organizing resistance against Ottoman land policy in the final years of Hamidian rule.

The threat of dispossession that refugee resettlement represented politicized property relations in the Syrian interior in a way that initial processes of land registration had not. The Land Code and its amendments strengthening the rights of creditors to foreclose on individually-owned property intensified existing debt relationships between merchant capitalists and Bedouin communities, but numerous scholars have recognized the limited nature of foreclosures during this period across Greater Syria. For example, Mundy and Smith argued that “Ottoman administration did not detach the object, ‘land’, to which individual rights were registered, from the social forms of its mobilization in production” and that the “Ottoman empire did not bow down to the holy grail of private property until the very end of the century.”

How, and on what terms, did the relations of individual property established in the Land Code become linked with enclosure and dispossession in the late Ottoman Syrian interior? In this chapter I argue that this linkage coalesced when Ottoman officials began conceptualizing the landscape of the Syrian interior as an empty space in an environment of threatened territorial sovereignty. While the organization of the landscape into individually owned registered plots rested on the legislations and survey projects reviewed in the previous chapter, this concept of territory was closely related to the crises of the late 1870s and their aftermath. This perception coalesced into policy in the Syrian interior in the 1890s, as myriad pressures converged on the region: an influx of refugees constructed as productive, loyal cultivators who were promised grants carved from “empty land” and a new land administration primed for reallocation; increasing interest from distant capitalists, including Zionist financiers aiming to found a Jewish colony who also employed concepts of productive refugees; and the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, which rendered the identity, loyalty and intentions of landowners in the interior, now a contested imperial borderland, a new source of anxiety. Plans to build a railway along the pilgrimage route only increased this sense of concern over who owned the region’s land. In short, in the 1890s, the new private property regime enabled officials and faraway capitalists to legally realize their imaginaries of the interior as an “empty” space for potential development, whether in the form of refugee resettlement, a Jewish colony supported by foreign capital, or infrastructural projects.

This convergence of pressures sparked a debate among Ottoman officials about how to administer the interior. On one side of the debate were newly installed officials of the imperial land administration, who favored allocating the lands Bedouin inhabited to investors as fast as possible to increase treasury revenue, both from the initial sales of state land and from subsequent taxes. On the other side were high-ranking Ottoman officials in Istanbul who argued that opening the region to unregulated investment carried the threat of foreign intervention, as agents of both Zionist and British interests seemed to be scouting for land. These officials favored settling groups perceived as loyal, usually refugees but potentially Bedouin, in small plots surrounding the planned railroad route and in other strategic locations. While this debate revealed differences among Ottoman authorities’ visions of the future of Syria, it also indicated how the range of official understandings of property relations in the empire had changed in the 1890s. Both sides of the debate shared an aggressive understanding of legally unused land as state domain. This understanding contrasted sharply from earlier ideas about state ownership, in which the Ottoman state had been a distant allocator of land’s use and revenue while retaining control over its “essence” (raqaba). In the 1890s, land officials came to regard the Ottoman treasury as a privileged competitor for landownership among smallholders and capitalists: state domain became the state’s private property.