Camila Pastor, The Mexican Mahjar: Transnational Maronites, Jews, and Arabs under the French Mandate (University of Texas Press, 2017).

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

Camila Pastor (CP): As I started graduate school in September 2001, disturbing and urgent questions about how the Middle East is imagined and subjected to changing forms of administration suddenly disoriented me. I had arrived at UCLA with a project on insurgency in southern Mexico, provoked by Mexico’s late twentieth-century Zapatista moment. In a mad witch hunt, street violence and Homeland Security regulations targeted Latinos along with Arabs. I marveled at the swift mediatic and administrative production of Middle Eastern subjects as intractable Others, and at the ease with which violent state practice infiltrated university administration and everyday interaction among scholars. The legitimation of a global “war on terror” begged alternative perspectives. I set out to write a connected history of Middle America and the Middle East. In the absence of a history colonialism between the two regions, there might be space for recognition, for solidarity in lieu of subjection. Mobile subjects circulating transregionally offered the perfect bridge.

In my struggle to make sense of reactions to September 11, I discovered the modern history of the Arab world, exploring it through a stance that appeared to be missing from regional scholarship: mobility. Despite theoretically sophisticated new perspectives on transnationalism and diaspora, I became aware of deeply problematic, normative assumptions embedded in migration studies. The center-periphery model haunts scholarship, along with methodological nationalism and diverse orientalisms. Much migration literature effaces historical specificity, casting the migrant as a universal, a-temporal type. These migrants of an impoverished, policy dominated imagination are all dispossessed, marginal third world subjects seeking settlement in the Global North. In this narrative, “receiving” states’ expect mobile people to settle (stop being mobile) and shed their “origins” to join the national “mainstream,” in celebratory accounts of the upward mobility of immigrants. Alternatively, scholars emphasize diasporic subjects’ investment in “homeland politics,” treating them as if circulation and displacement were of no consequence to their trajectories. Even Mahjar studies recognizing differently anchored subjects in movement assume that they circulate from colonial to metropolitan geographies, transatlantic migrations from the Middle East to America narrowly understood as seeking the United States.

A transnational myself, I was constantly uncomfortable with such programmatic accounts of mobility. As a postcolonial subject, an interloper from the South, I found many Euroamerican scholars bound and gagged by area studies expectations and identity politics; historically specific, contextually informed accounts of mobility foreclosed. South-South vision afforded a sense of connected histories in the administrative and representational practices through which the Mashriq and Middle America are subjected by the same global Euroamerican formation of power. It also allowed me to challenge the widespread if unspoken notion that only Middle Eastern subjects, or their colonizers, are authorized to write historically about the Middle East.

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

CP: Mobility was central to Mahjaris’ personal and collective projects. The Mahjar, a moveable place, a global space inscribed with a variety of national and regional differentials, invites us to shed expectations about the directionality and permanence of movement. The book tells the story of moving Mashriqis at the crossroads of overlapping jurisdictions and colonial projects. Mexican Mahjar subjects were variously colonial, postcolonial, and global. Crossing French colonial archives, ethnography across Mashriq and Mahjar and in family archives, Mahjar press and literatures, and various state archives in Mexico (court records, foreign national registries, diplomatic archives, presidential correspondence), I reconstruct conversations and processes that shaped migrant trajectories from the late nineteenth century through to the late 1940s. My theoretical roots are in historical anthropology, subaltern studies, feminism, and postcolonial scholarship.

The migrant population circulating between the Mashriq and the Americas remained highly mobile and cultivated connectivity, not only to its localities of origin but also to many regional and national Mahjars. As a space of settlement and transit, the Mexican Mahjar was tied through the circulation of migrants and their cultural production to the North American Mahjar dominated by the New York “mother colony,” the South American Mahjars of Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and a European Mahjar centered in France. It integrated a Central American Mahjar of migrants living in Guatemala, Honduras, and Haiti. Migrants moved along multiple sites of anchorage in the pursuit of kin, profit, and stability.

The horizon of these mobile subjects shifted significantly between their Ottoman modern framing and the construction of a French mandatory state. Migrants were subject to the overlapping jurisdictions of disparate authorities, and to a confluence of French, Mexican, and Arab colonial projects. These intersected with American and British consular authorities active in Mexico. Through trade blacklists during World War I, and then French attempts to enlist the migrant population as Syrio-Lebanese in census and subsequent registration procedures, migrants who did not align with French colonial projects in the Mashriq were subalternized.

The migrant population soon polarized into a handful of migrant notables, who established themselves as employers of less fortunate or more recent arrivals, and mediators between their clients and authorities—be it the French Mandate state, its consulates in the Americas, or local national authorities in the Mahjar. Migrant notables collaborated with the French to discipline, displace, and pauperize those targeted as not Francophile, not Christian, and therefore not white. The most systematically affected were Muslim migrants, who were labelled as suspect by British, American, and French authorities, regardless of their actual political practice and despite their interconfessional networks to other Mahjari merchants.

As Mexican authorities passed increasingly stringent legislation curtailing and eventually banning the arrival of working-class Middle Eastern migrants in Mexico in the wake of the Great Depression, migrant notables and community intellectuals developed a complicated defense of their own desirability in xenophobic post-revolutionary Mexico. Mobilizing Phoenicianism and Ottoman travel narratives recovered during the Nahda, they argued that as the longtime conquerors of Spain, Phoenicians and Arabs were equivalent to the Spanish conqueror in Latin American social formations. Negotiating with Mexican criollo (Spanish descent) ideologues in the press and other public fora, they jointly bisected Latin American populations into civilized criollos and inadequately civilized mestizo and Amerindian majorities, whom Mahjaris and criollos had the joint duty of bringing into the fold of civilization.

Mobility to Middle America practically disappeared after Syrian and Lebanese independence, during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The book’s final chapters turn to migrants’ social mobility and the production of collective memory among Mahjaris in Mexico. I survey a variety of textual memory genres marked by contrasting forms of production, circulation, and authority and explore different strands of Mexican orientalism, as they collapse Arab and Jew, making them indistinguishable to the Catholic eye.

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

CP: This project bears the traces of my socialization into the field of Middle East mobility studies through an Anglophone training in historical anthropology. I stumbled onto “the archive” as site and source in Kaslik, encountering the French colonial archive during my doctoral field research in Lebanon. Radical invitations to bring time into anthropological analysis suddenly made sense. The coloniality or colonial effects of casting “the Other” outside temporality and history were strikingly incarnate in the very foreign artifact that was to my ethnographic training an imperial state archive. It fascinated and repulsed me; it was perverse. The “grey literature” of administration was populated by officials attempting to construct their transnational regime over migrating subjects, anxious to legitimate the Mandate, coming to colonial administration from diverse trajectories themselves. Migrant voices, filtered through orientalist and rationalist projects, interpellated different authorities as their own, forging unequal networks with them and amongst themselves. The co-construction of categories of allegiance and administration, the polarization of migrants along class lines following a Mashriqi tradition of notability and a colonial logic of protection, the interaction of migrants and the French consular apparatus with Mexican and Central American logics of inclusion and subordination—it was a kaleidoscopic, always unfinished entangling of projects with different jurisdictions, claims to authority and scales of operation. A complicated, floating world anchored and fractured by new state boundaries in construction. My ethnographic reading of the archive was informed by interviews and participant observation with migrant families. It was within these other archives, interactions, and conversations that gendered dynamics became most salient, evolving into a necessary dimension of my analysis.

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

CP: I hope the book will be relevant to scholars of mobility, and those more broadly interested in the history of the modern Middle East. Scholarship on mobility—whether the burgeoning field of Mahjar studies exemplified by the excellent work of fellow historians and anthropologists or Middle East mobility studies writ large, including work on Indian Ocean Muslim merchant lineages and communities, the Nahda’s intellectual exchanges, the radical Mediterranean, the Suez canal as a site of transit, global Muslim mobilities in the age of steam and print, global governance and sex work, or transnational anticolonial intellectual networks across Morocco and Egypt—has suggested for over a decade now that we need to rethink regional historiography in relation to mobile subjects. As mobility becomes normalized in academic analyses through theoretical shifts across disciplines and the production of a critical mass of exceptional research centrally concerned with moving subjects, centering mobility as a form of sociability, how we conceive of stasis and its enforcement by different agents shifts. Destabilizing “regions” and their disciplinary containment in area studies traditions, imagining social formations as “unbound” or variously “trans” instead complicates the historiography of states and national projects but also of subject formation, inaugurating all sorts of archival, analytic, and narrative challenges as well as emancipatory possibilities.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

CP: French colonial concern with mobility suggested new avenues of inquiry, into the colonial state’s surveillance of working women. The French mandate in the Mashriq, French administrations in Algeria, and French and Spanish protectorates in Morocco were fundamentally unsettled by subjects that destabilized distinctions between colonizer and colonized. Metropolitan women travelling across these geographies beyond the channeling discipline of institutions were liable to undo distinctions that legitimated logics of colonial rule.

I follow French, Spanish, and Arab women trying to make a living in a wide range of seasonal or otherwise impermanent occupations during the first half of the twentieth century. They provided modern services in ports and other urban spaces in the Mashriq and North Africa, from cooking and specialized care of Western style dress and textiles, childcare or instruction, to coffee and bar tending, factory work, performance and prostitution. These subaltern metropolitans moved across urban sites, imperial boundaries, and domains of employment. Often suspected or accused of selling sexual services and favors, they invite us to complicate the evolving distinction between whoredom and prostitution against a backdrop of changing gender norms, women’s movements, and women’s growing economic and erotic autonomy. Prostitution emerges not only as a form of seasonal labor and an increasingly institutionalized subjection, but as an accusation with particular moralizing effects for subaltern women despite their “colonizer” status. Their mobility was framed by landscapes of sexual access in changing public and domestic arrangements: various types of marital alliances and new cohabitations, ranging from different kinds of formal marriage to concubinage, slavery, the hosting of celebrated traveling performers, and other itinerant liaisons. I am also working on a historical ethnography of conversion to Islam in Mexico, which evolved from the Mexican Mahjar’s history of Islamophobia.


Excerpt from the book 

Mahjar – space of migration, diasporic homeland, dwelling in movement- was the term used by Arabic speakers to describe geographies and sociabilities inhabited by muhajirin, migrants, since the late nineteenth century. The Mahjar was a transnational field, weaving together social formations across distinct national, imperial, and ecclesiastical jurisdictions. I will use the terms Mahjari and migrant to refer to people who moved and to their descendants, insofar as they continued to engage the Mahjar as a social space, dwelling at a crossroads, in transit, subject to multiple sovereignties.


The Mahjar has long been studied through national histories of reception of Arabic-speaking migrants. This book argues that the Mahjar was a multifaceted transregional formation that migrants inhabited as the floating world of elsewhere once they had shaken their moorings in village and Ottoman belonging. This global Mahjar of the migrant imagination was, however, fragmented by the legalities of national and imperial constructions. Migrants were subject to distinct administrative practices that operated simultaneously, constituting overlapping frames to migrant trajectories. When we read different archives in conjunction, particular national and regional Mahjars become apparent- the Mexican Mahjar, the Latin American and North American Mahjars- in which national and regional politics intersected first with Ottoman and later with French imperial practice. Mahjaris have also been the object of interventions by the universalist jurisdictions of religious institutions- initially the Maronite, Greek Orthodox and Melkite churches, later also Zionist Judaism, and eventually a proselytizing Islam. This book recognizes the importance of national jurisdictions channeling mobility, while attending to imperial circuits and migrant notables framing migrant trajectories, to offer a colonial history of mobility centered on migrants as agents crafting networks and mobilizing discordant authorities.

The migration’s pulse reflects the bewildering variability of individual experience as well as social processes framing divergent trajectories: the social location from which a journey was initially undertaken; its timing; and the social and political conditions organizing departures, arrivals, transits and returns… young men hope for economic success, political exiles flee regional reconfigurations, journalists and professors address global Mahjari publics, and women work in the administration of memory. Their mobility was experienced and narrated as conquest, diaspora, exile or pilgrimage. Making Mashriqis in movement the unit of analysis, I follow mobilities and migrant constructions of memory, attempting to track their logics and make sense of their constraints, intending to grasp the human experience of broad structural and discursive phenomena, to explore global history on an intimate scale.


If Amrika was a land of plenty, Latin America, Amrika al Jnubiya, was narrated as a place to discover and conquer. Arriving as liberal Latin American states invested in infrastructure in order to better link up with a global industrial order, Mashriqis contributed to the creation of regional markets through their itinerant credit economies and transnational business networks and profited from the expansion of emergent economies in the Belle Epoque global moment. Ottoman subjects brought with them newly articulated Nahda claims regarding the place of Arabic speakers in modernist global hierarchies, which imagined Native American populations as racially and civilizationally subordinate to Arabs. Mahjari racializations as white in Middle American postcolonial formations, though briefly contested by xenophobic nationalisms in the wake of the Great Depression, consolidated their reading as potential local elites.


The recognition of Mahjaris as simultaneously imperial subjects (Ottoman, French) and postcolonial national subjects (Lebanese, Syrian, Mexican) alerts us to the fact that they navigated geographies framed by distinct and unequal projects. Trajectories in the Mexican Mahjar were afforded by the intersection of Arab, French and Mexican colonial modernisms.

An exercise in historical anthropology, this book will explore the transition from the Ottoman to the mandate moment in the making of the Mexican Mahjar. The transition was vital, establishing new boundaries within Mahjar networks and communities, organizing institutions, aligning categories of subjects. It was essential to migrant social mobility during the second half of the twentieth century, when geographic mobility diminished and Mexican Mahjar dynamics were fundamentally focused on migrants’ differential access to material and moral accumulation. Mandate-era understandings continue to structure migrant memory work, Mahjari self-orientalizations, and Mexican Orientalisms and Islamophobias- conditioning trajectories, as recent arrivals with the right connections and attributes capitalize on definitions of Mashriqi privilege in Mexican public culture.


The colonial encounter has been studied in historical anthropology and postcolonial scholarship through boundaries inherited from national history. Scholars have often concentrated on encounters between colonial administrators and colonized subjects within the elastic, expansive boundaries of a single empire. Official archives organized as national repositories, and the weight of historians’ assumptions of national histories as natural units are powerful deterrents to global imaginations. When scholars look at more than one imperial venture, work slides into comparative key. When anthropologists tackle the question of mobility across imperial domains, they construct ethnographies anchored in temporal displacement.

An important part of this book’s contribution is extending explorations of the colonial encounter through geographies, imaginaries and politics missing from the conversation. Conceptualizing a colonial and postcolonial global, recognizing that colonialism afforded encounters not only within the expanding political boundaries of empire but across domains of differently constituted sovereignties requires additional theorizing. Revisionist historians of nationalism have extensively pursued the work of undoing the nation as an omnipresent referent by recognizing it as a political project proposed by dissident elites at particular historical conjunctures. We need not only to denaturalize nations and nationalism, but to move toward the theorization of alternative, parallel, nested, intersecting social formations. Creating a history of movement requires shifting the boundaries of analysis to recognize the spheres of action of various agents: migrants, states, and religious authorities among others. These overlap only partially, are frequently at odds and need to be understood as fundamentally unfinished, discordant processes in the making. The story of Mashriqis in movement destabilizes regional historical narratives as much as it reflects the history of the regions that their migration weaves together.

This book is about encounters at a colonial crossroads where Ottoman, French and Mexican civilizing missions intersected, attempting the administration of mobile populations of the Ottoman Arab provinces, later the French mandate territories of Syria and Lebanon. As I step beyond methodological nationalism to consider the world of the migrants, two aspects of the Mexican Mahjar become salient: migrants’ experience in spinning transnational life-worlds and a transnational imagination at work in the administrative practices that they were subjected to by the French, during the mandate and by postcolonial governments and religious authorities since then.  Stabilizing and inscribing difference at the Mexican Mahjar crossroads was particularly challenging. Changing imperial projects fueled subversion by various subalterns and destabilized even exceptionally successful trajectories, as did the ambivalence of postcolonial Middle Eastern and Middle American modernist nationalisms.

I analyze the colonial encounter as global process through the everyday lives of mobile subjects. I place the colonizer and subaltern in a single social field, recognizing that Mahjari notables and Middle American criollos were both colonized and colonizers. Mahjari notables were subject first to the Ottoman center and later to French and criollo elites; they in turn constantly attempted to colonize other Mahjaris and Middle American natives. Criollos invoked their European heritage to legitimate a monopoly on power and their right to categorize Mahjaris as desirable or not, yet they were subordinate to French and American imperial projects in global geopolitics. In the twenty-first century, robust Middle American Orientalisms remain blind to Mahjari diversity even as they celebrate solidarities with the Orient.


As a historical anthropologist writing a history of the present, I flag chronologies but do not reduce analysis to temporal sequence, attempting instead to follow cultural categories as processes, produced in the interaction of differentially situated subjects. Following feminist ethnography, each chapter tells a story of intersections while centering one of three main actors: Mahjaris in their diversity; the global colonial French state under construction; and Mexican elite, state and popular interventions. Since each of these heterogeneous actors has different genealogies, chronology in each chapter recedes and adjusts, bringing into focus the cultural history necessary to situate an interaction within the broad transition from Ottoman to mandate Mahjar. The two final chapters reach into the contemporary, focusing on migrants’ memory work and on early twenty-first century Mexican Orientalisms afforded by the Ottoman-to-mandate history.

Geographical anchoring fluctuates across chapters; attention focuses initially on Mashriq and then on Mahjar, circling on to how the Mashriq is remembered or imagined in the Mahjar in the final chapters. The Mexican Mahjar emerges as transnational not only in regard to the Eastern Mediterranean but also across a web of American migrations. Mashriqis in Central America and the Caribbean- Haiti, Guatemala, and Honduras- were often integral to the Mexican Mahjar through the circulation of migrants and their cultural production. The press and the notables of the North American Mahjar, with its heart in the mother colony of New York City, were constant interlocutors, and the Mexican-US border a vehicle for the production of value.