Hilary Falb Kalisman, Teachers as State-Builders: Education and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2022).

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

Hilary Falb Kalisman (HFK): There are two big ideas that led to my writing this book. One has to do with historical changes in the social and economic status of teachers, the other with how we understand relationships between public education, state-building, and political ideologies.

As in the United States, teachers in Iraq, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza are often overworked and underpaid, fighting for raises and benefits through protests and unionization. However, the more I researched teachers in the past, the more I realized this was not always the case. Teachers as State-Builders shows that educators could hold high social and economic status in the interwar Middle East. Teaching was a stepping stone to politics, to the extent that one third of Iraq and Jordan’s prime ministers during the first decades of independence had worked as public school teachers. So, what changed? In another twist, Iraqi, Jordanian, and Palestinian teachers became less elite without teaching becoming a feminized profession, as was the case in the United States and the United Kingdom (among other countries). Instead, teaching lost its prestige when colonial-era schooling for elites was replaced by mass education in the 1950s.

The other big question which led to my book was whether public education necessarily leads to territorial nationalism. Scholars tend to analyze public education as part of one state, corresponding to that state’s borders, viewing nationalism tied to that government as one of schooling’s most significant historical outcomes. However, in conducting research for my book, I found that educational infrastructures, including institutions and even textbooks, contributed simultaneously to the interwar era’s pan-Arabism, as well as territorial nationalist ideologies.

When I started my PhD, I planned to write about education in the Mandate for Palestine. One of my early papers discussed the complex interactions between Palestinian educators and the Mandate government, relying on the personnel files of teachers—particularly rich sources. In writing the paper, and researching the lives of teachers, I realized it did not make sense to limit my discussion to just Palestine. For example, Farid al-Sa’ad was born in Umm al-Fahm Palestine in 1908. He received his BA at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 1928. He then worked as a teacher in Baghdad’s government secondary school until 1930, then became the Director of Secondary schools in Irbid, then an Inspector of Education in Amman, Transjordan, then principal of the Tribal School at Beersheba, back in Palestine, and later becoming mayor of Haifa and Manager of the Arab Bank in Haifa. After 1948, he became a repeated member of the Senate in Jordan. While al-Saad is extraordinary, he is not that extraordinary. There were others, men and women, who, like al-Saad, traveled all over the region, meeting with (and hiring) each other. I set out to follow their journeys, to the best of my ability. When I traveled to the archives and special collections at AUB everything clicked. AUB was a hub, where educated individuals met and became part of networks that spanned the region. They wrote textbooks read by students from multiple countries. At AUB I could see the afterimages of Ottoman-era policies and journeys which lasted into the Mandate era, as well as how travel for education and for careers contributed to the growth of national and transnational ideologies. Teachers as State-Builders became about putting together these two entwined histories: the rise and fall of interwar politics and the arc of the social and economic status of teachers.

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

HFK: This book engages with questions of colonialism, state-building, and nationalisms, as well as the relationships between education, the socioeconomic status of educators, and political stability. British colonial officials feared that too much education would lead to a burgeoning class of the educated unemployed who would naturally foment rebellions. It is extremely clear from the primary sources that the British were hoping to spend as little money as possible on schooling, out of parsimony as well as politics. This meant there were very few public schools, students, and teachers in the Mandates. What did a regional lack of schools, teachers, and literacy mean for those who were educated? How does this change our understanding of the relationship between colonial regimes and indigenous educators? What about the effects of education on state formation? What about the influence of education on nationalism—particularly of the watani (territorial) and qawmi (pan-Arab) varieties?

I argue that the extreme scarcity of educational institutions had ideological as well as socioeconomic consequences. Students and educators had to cross boundaries for education and for careers in government service. From Ottoman provincial borders to those of the Mandates for Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan, those who wanted higher education or to work as an educator had to travel. Educators both formed state bureaucracies and disrupted those state’s boundaries, as they journeyed between them. This means we need to rethink the assumption that state schooling corresponds with state borders and indeed ideologies. Much of the literature on colonial education focuses on how it leads to the growth of anti-colonial nationalisms, which match the borders of post-colonial states. My book shows educators worked across multiple states promoting a variety of nationalisms.

During the interwar period, essentially all of these educators were anti-imperial. This meant they taught and wrote against British control of the region within schools established and funded by the Mandates. Governments, the Mandate populations, and educators themselves did not want the few literate individuals in the region to be forced out of the profession due to political activities. Instead, educators would be transferred or briefly fired and rehired when their anti-imperial activism became too sharp, public, or explicit. This blurs our understanding of the limits of the Mandate governments, as teachers crossed in and out of government service, as well as in between different governments. It also allowed educators to engage in politics while binding them financially to their states, tending to keep educators writing their protests rather than engaging in anti-imperial violence.

In terms of socioeconomic consequences, the lack of educational institutions and educated individuals also meant educators formed part of a relatively privileged elite. Mass education, which occurred after the end of British control, meant a huge expansion of schools, students, and educators. As more people became literate, teachers lost their elite status. Their political strategies changed accordingly; they turned to collective bargaining and unionization rather than negotiations on an individual basis. Only after the colonial period did education formally align states and nations, to the detriment of the social and economic status of educators.

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

HFK: I have published on agricultural education and social mobility; on Husayn Ruhi—the educator, spy, and translator of the Husayn-McMahon correspondence; and, most recently, on Palestinian intellectuals in the 1950s. However, all these works have been about education, and educators, transnationalism, and the unintended consequences of colonial-era schooling. Teachers as State-Builders, my first book, is really a culmination of my previous work on education in Britain’s Middle Eastern Mandates.

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

HFK: I hope that individuals interested in how education works, the profession of teaching, and the relations between education and state-building more broadly will read this book. I would particularly like Americanists to give it a try as I think this book has important lessons for how we understand the effects of limited and mass education globally. I also hope that historians of the Middle East will take note of my book’s discussion of pan-Arabism, and the stark differences between the anti-imperial pan-Arabism of the interwar era and the codified state ideologies of pan-Arabism in the 1950s.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

HFK: I am working on a political history of standardized testing in Britain’s Middle Eastern Mandates. Standardized tests are perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Mandate era; they have become a life-defining experience in the region, as anyone who has sat for Jordan or Palestinians’ Tawjihi will know. In this project, I am focusing on the politics surrounding the origins and spread of standardized testing. How might tests be used to sort different populations? Why might they be valuable even to those who viewed them as oppressive? How did they outlast regimes, natural disasters, wars, and other cataclysmic events? Part of my early argument is about the appeal and staying power of standards, even when they were explicitly oppressive. The idea that one could compete with colonizers or make claims by holding colonial governments to their own standards is a powerful one. I am also looking at the relationship between religion and standardized testing, such as how the Tanakh became a subject on Israel’s Bagrut exam even for Israel’s Palestinian Muslim and Christian populations.

J: How did you go about writing this book? What type of sources could you find?

HFK: In order to write this book, I had to follow the journeys of teachers. This meant over a dozen archives, from Beirut, Lebanon to Cambridge, Massachusetts. I also had to juggle the different amounts of information on educators. Some teachers were extremely famous, having written their own memoirs and with history books written about them, as was the case with Fadhil al-Jamali, a prime minister of Iraq. Others appeared in a personnel file, or as a statistic with a name and the dates they worked in education. I used the technique of collective biography, trying to balance individual stories with a broad analysis of teachers as a social group.

Excerpt from the book (from “The Politics of Independence: Teacher-Politicians and the End of an Era,” pp. 173-177)

In December 1956 Suleiman al-Nabulsi’s face loomed from the pages of the New York Times. The specter of a communist Middle East drove U.S. interest in Jordan’s political tumult. Al-Nabulsi, Jordan’s newly elected prime minister, denied any Communist or authoritarian leanings. Instead, he described recent forced retirements and dismissals in Jordan’s government as due to inefficiency, corruption, or lack of “sincere” nationalism. Al-Nabulsi defined this nationalism as pan- Arab, proclaiming that his country “cannot live forever as Jordan” but “must be connected militarily, economically and politically” in a federation of Arab states. As a teacher, al-Nabulsi had sought to cultivate Arab unity. He had led the protests in Jordan against the Balfour declaration which had so alarmed Krikor, seeking to unite Transjordan with Palestine. These pan-Arab interwar ideals were now his to implement.

By the 1950s, former educators like al-Nabulsi reached the highest levels of governance, and in startling proportions. Six of the seventeen prime ministers who served in Jordan from 1946 to 1972 had worked as teachers. Similarly in Iraq, six of the thirteen prime ministers who served from the 1950s through the 1960s were former teachers. In contrast, only two of the nineteen Arab Knesset members (out of about 260 odd members) who served between 1949 and the mid-1960s were former educators. These politicians fall generally into two categories: the old guard or a very limited wave of technocrats. The bulk were elites like al-Nabulsi, who had spent a few years teaching in the best schools of their country either before entering official politics, or when on the outs with whichever government was in power. Others found themselves in the political system through their educations. For example, the Palestinian Ibrahim Snobar, son of an illiterate father who worked in the shoe industry, would serve many years as an education official in Jordan and as a member of the Senate.

As these former educators moved into increasingly powerful positions, their Arabism, honed in Beirut, Baghdad, Jerusalem, al-Salt, Mosul, and beyond, hardened into an idealistic but conservative variety. Its enemies were foreign domination and imperialism, yet its denizens shored up the British- or French-influenced governments that employed them. When European hegemony receded, the nature of politics, of Arabism, and of education’s connection to both changed accordingly.

Across the Arab world and Israel, educators-turned-politicians, the pan-Arab dreamers of the interwar era, saw their ideals and often their jobs usurped by more rigid ideologies and new political players. Egypt’s free officers in 1952 and Iraq’s in 1958 advocated revolutionary Arabisms predicated on change and realpolitik. As Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Pan-Arabist Egyptian military leader whose removal of Egypt’s monarchy would inspire the July 1958 coup in Iraq, put it in May 1958, “Arab nationalism is something practical, not sentimental.” For Nasser, Arab nationalism was not a dream but a “strategy” through which the Arab world could, through economic, social, and military improvements, overcome its historic weaknesses. However, this strategy also meant reckoning with hierarchies of unified Arab countries and their affiliations to the West, the Soviet East, or neither. Within Iraq, the idea of Arab unity espoused by the free officers quickly degenerated into a conflict between Baʾathist ideas of links with Egypt and Abdul-Karim Qasim’s censure of pan-Arabism when it conflicted with his regime’s goals. Pan-Arab proponents began sniping at Communists in the streets.

Qasim’s revolution and the end of Iraq’s Hashemite monarchy overturned its interwar pan-Arabism, along with the educator politicians who had so zealously promoted it in schools, clubs, and parliaments. Perhaps the quintessential example is AUB graduate Fadhil al-Jamali. On the eve of Iraq’s revolution, he had finished his stint as prime minister and was juggling a portfolio as foreign minister and a brief interlude as Iraq’s representative to the United Nations. In a detailed account of al-Jamali’s 1953–1954 government, Michael Eppel argues al-Jamali’s worldview “was, on the one hand, extremely pan- Arab nationalist; yet on the other, he held definite pro- western and anti- communist views” advocating “a combination of a rigid regime with social reform and economic development and modernization.” However, this “reformism was very limited by his basically conservative outlook on society.” As a civil servant for the bulk of his life, al-Jamali had held “radical” views and “conservative” tactics of governance that had existed comfortably. While one might question how his pro-Western” orientation and the anti- imperialism of pan- Arab nationalism in the era of European hegemony over the Arab world fit together, al-Jamali reconciled the two with a push for American assistance rather than British imperial involvement. His ability to preach pan-Arabism and to maintain interwar methods of governance would be erased as more defined, reformist versions of pan-Arabism gained control.

When Gamal Abdul Nasser began to advocate a new vision of Arab unity, tied to social reform, nonalignment, and the strengthening government he now controlled, the Iraqi state and al-Jamali struggled to adapt their politics as usual with growing, class-based movements that sought their governments’ violent overthrow. A few months before Iraq’s July revolution of 1958, al-Jamali was asked to explain how his previous advocacy for Arab unity fit with his animosity toward the United Arab Republic (UAR). The interviewer, for a magazine published by al-Jamali’s alma mater, the American University of Beirut, told al-Jamali,

You have always been a champion of Arab unity, including bilateral unity. In 1954 you submitted a memorandum to the Arab League in which you argued that the way to achieve Arab Union was for those states which felt they had pre sent possibilities of union to go ahead and unite, while leaving the door open for others to join them later. Yet when Egypt and Syria united you called their union unnatural. What caused this change of view?

Al-Jamali replied that he remained a committed unionist, but that the links between Egypt and Syria were ones of “annexation” and not of “federation,” and that Syria should unite with Iraq instead. He dismissed the possibility of Iraq’s economic cooperation with the UAR, which he described as “collaborators with Communism.” He concluded the interview by hearkening back to the interwar principles of Arab unity he knew, and to which he had tied his fortunes, arguing that the duty of his fellows Arabs was “to save the Arab world from what remains of Western domination, from Zionism and from Communism.”

Al-Jamali invoked the threat of communism to drum up Western, particularly American, support for his regime. When Iraq’s free officer’s movement overthrew the monarchy in July 1958, al-Jamali found himself imprisoned, with his property seized, along with others from the government to which he had belonged for so many years. The charges against him were themselves pan- Arabist: he was accused of trying to enact a coup in Syria “with imperialist backing,” having “insulted President Gamal Abdel Nasser, rigged elections and squandered public funds.” Al-Jamali was found guilty of seeking a coup in Syria and asking for American and British help to do so, thereby “endangering Iraq’s security and world peace.” However, his sentence was reduced to ten years, and he was permitted to leave the country.

In his political memoir, written from exile in Tunis in 1962, al-Jamali lambasted Gamal Abdul Nasser for egoism, “military logic,” and being the biggest impediment to Arab Unity. Al-Jamali did not explicitly criticize the various military regimes that succeeded Iraq’s monarchy, including the one that had sentenced him to death. Instead, he railed against Nasser and the new generation of pan- Arab and territorial nationalists who had supplanted Jamali’s own.

Al-Jamali had been a staunch promoter of pan-Arabism. His memoir is rife with references to his sense of kinship with individuals he met throughout the Arab world. Nasser’s pan-Arabism, as opposed to al-Jamali’s, meant a different relationship to the West, nationalization and land reform, the removal of Egypt’s monarchy, and the brief unification of Arab governments, albeit with Egypt (and Nasser) at their head. In Iraq, Baʾathist pan-Arabism and the over-throw of Iraq’s Hashemite monarchy led to a more restrictive, codified, and exclusive notion of nationalism as well as a social and economic revolution.

Teachers as State-Builders: Education and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Hilary Falb Kalisman. Copyright © 2022 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.