Jonathan Wyrtzen, Worldmaking in the Long Great War: How Local and Colonial Struggles Shaped the Modern Middle East (Columbia University Press, 2022).

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

Jonathan Wyrtzen (JW): As I imagine is true for many Jadaliyya readers, the origin story of the modern Middle East during and in the wake of World War I has long been something I have been aware of, learned about, taught about, and thought of. From the time I first went to study in Palestine-Israel for about two years in the mid-1990s, the nexus of conflicting war-time promises made by the British to Sharif Husayn, the Zionist movement, and the French and how these agreements related to the subsequent interwar mandate system have remained questions in which I have been interested, even though I eventually moved on to study colonial North Africa.

In 2014, as I was starting to think about a second book, I was fortunate to participate in a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) month-long workshop on World War I in the Middle East convened at Georgetown by Mustafa Aksakal and Elizabeth Thompson, which immersed us in a rich wave of new scholarship filling out the diplomatic, military, social, genocide, and environmental history of the Ottoman theater. Mustafa and Elizabeth incubated an amazing scholarly community, and I learned so much from them and from my cohort, which included Aimee Genell, Stacy Fahrenthold, Devi Mays, Melanie Tanielian, Ipek Yosmaoğlu, Chris Rominger, Annia Ciezadlo, and others who also have recently published work.

As I moved forward with this project, I realized that what I wanted to do was step further back and try to see the bigger canvas of the Great War in the Middle East, to write an integrated history of the war and its aftermath that kept a lens open from Morocco to Iran. To my knowledge, a book of that scope did not exist yet, and I thought this was a way I could pull together my earlier interests in the Mashriq and my later work on the Maghrib.

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

JW: The book is basically taking on the dominant genesis story told about the modern Middle East and trying to revise it. I refer to this as the “Sykes-Picot Standard Narrative,” using the 1916 Anglo-French agreement to short-hand a sequence of wartime and postwar conflicting agreements that usually serves as a  causal litany when telling this story. In its strong and softer versions, the local populations of the region have virtually no agency in terms of shaping the post-Ottoman map: at the end of the day, the British, with French accomplices, imposed self-serving artificial boundaries which are the source of continuing political instability in the region.

The book’s negative argument is that this metanarrative rests on at least three fundamental errors. First, it glosses over that gap between treaty terms and on the ground reality, ignoring the fact that high intensity warfare continued after the peace settlement for at least a decade (and that Turkey and Saudi Arabia totally do not follow this script). Second, it implicitly assumes there were “natural” boundaries that could and should have been set (begging the question of what those might be). And third, it reifies the mandate fates of a subset of the region as representative of the whole, a “Mashriq myopia” that elides the divergent trajectories of Anatolia, the Iranian Plateau, Arabia, and Northern Africa.

The book’s positive argument, its alternate narrative, relies on three interconnected corrective moves. First, a new periodization is used to create space between the end of the Ottoman Empire and the consolidation of a new interstate system (this is the “long” part of the title): the book chronicles a two-decade period of wartime from 1911-34 through which the Middle East’s political order was unmade and remade. Second, it holds open a wider geographic lens to show the breadth of this transformation, the interconnections, and the variations in the types of processes and outcomes that emerged from Morocco to Iran.

And thirdly, by thinking “longer” and “wider” about the war, the book centers a very different causal story of political “worldmaking.” The post-Ottoman order was not created by peace conference pen strokes on a map in Paris, London, or at the Cairo Peace Conference. It was forged, over time, through violent clashes on the ground among local and local visions about what the region should look like. In sum, worldmaking and war were intimately connected in forming new states, imagined political communities, and political boundaries.

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

JW: My first book, Making Morocco, looked at how French and Spanish colonial intervention set up a new type of political field: a territorial container delineated through military conquest in which the colonial state’s logics of both seeing the local population and representing and legitimating what it was doing in Morocco set up “rules of the game.” The book foregrounds how rural and urban Moroccan groups competed in this field, following and transgressing these rules, and how these interactions, over time, deeply politicized certain aspects of Moroccan identity—religion, ethnicity, the monarchy, and territory—with long-term effects.

Worldmaking grew directly out of a chapter in that book focused on the Rif-based state-building project that countered Spanish attempts to subdue the northern zone in the 1920s. Working on the Rif Republic, I realized it was not unique: similar dynamics were in play in cases like the Italo-Sanusi war in Libya, the Syrian Great Revolt, and in Kurdish anti-Turkish and anti-British revolts. Initially, I was going to write a comparative analysis of these concurrent anticolonial resistance and state-building movements. That ended up becoming Part III of Worldmaking, where I pull together and analyze the major military conflicts of this last phase of the “Long Great War” in the 1920s and early 1930s that I claim were when, where, and how the final form of the postwar map was actually produced.

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

JW: I tried to write this book at a very accessible level so that an undergraduate or lay person could pick it up and follow the narrative. So, I am hoping (aren’t we all!) for the elusive “broad audience.” I also very much wrote this book to be read by Middle East specialists—historians, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, or interdisciplinary scholars—and anyone else who thinks and cares about this region.

I hope that this book, first, helps clear away what I think is a persistent and pernicious “deep story” about the region’s genesis narrative and the original sin of colonially imposed artificial borders that absolutely sidelines the powerful attempts of local communities at post-Ottoman worldmaking. This narrative, paradoxically, dehistoricizes the actual processes that took place and can seem to permanently doom everything that has followed. Second, the book builds out and extends points scholars have been making about the fluidity of the late Ottoman/early Republic/mandate period at a region-wide scale. My hope is that this book provokes a debate and furthers discussion about how we think—at the scope of the whole of the Middle East and North Africa—about the end of Ottoman, Qajar, and Alawite rule and the transition into the interwar period.

Finally, by carefully documenting both the fluidity, dynamism, and emergent potential of this transitional period and the violence of the state formation processes, I hope to give a non-fatalistic, clear-eyed perspective on both the harsh realities and possibilities that persist in our historical present. The book’s last line is: “Being able to see how new worlds were created in the Middle East in the Long Great War helps us see that they can be reimagined and remade now and in the future—and therein lies hope.”

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JW: I am doing a lot of thinking and exploratory reading about a new book project, Nation in Empire, that will look at the entangled history of French, British, and US imperial expansion and contraction in the long nineteenth century. I am interested in tracking the symbolic and social boundary struggles spatial changes provoked over inclusion-exclusion in these empire-nations. The project’s initial step is to use Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont’s trips to America and to Algeria in the 1830s and 1840s as a scaffolding structure for a paper focused on these questions.

I am also working on a paper on the global deployment of Moroccan colonial soldiers from 1946-1956, focused particularly on their role in the First Indochina War. Having fought with Free French forces in WWII to liberate metropolitan France, over 60,000 Moroccans were reactivated by the Fourth Republic to put down anticolonial revolutions in Madagascar, Vietnam, and Algeria. This paper centers these liminal, subaltern figures and their complex experiences and role in the twilight of the French empire. Down the road, I hope to expand this angle of research into a larger book length global history of decolonization in the mid-twentieth century, highlighting these sorts of complicated connections and entanglements across and between imperial spaces.

Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-4)

A wide new world seemed imaginable in the Middle East in the spring of 1920. In late October 1918, the Armistice of Mudros had officially ended hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and the Allied armies of Britain and France in the eastern theater of World War I.

After more than a century of creeping European encroachment, the global conflict had unmade the last bulwarks of Ottoman sovereignty and the vestiges of the wider regional system they had anchored. What would replace the centuries-old Ottoman order, however, remained an open question.

The war’s onset had made it thinkable for a large cast of local and European players to completely reenvision the region’s map. In the liminal period just after the armistice, a wide array of political futures for the Middle East were imagined and began to be put in motion, at the international level and on the ground. The tensions among these emerging local and colonial political projects to replace the Ottomans were soon evident, however, portending a violent collision course.

At the local level, new political entities proliferated in the spaces opened up by the war. In the eastern Mediterranean, the Syrian National Congress convening in Damascus proclaimed the independence of the Arab Kingdom of Syria in early March 1920 and declared Faisal, the hero of the Arab Revolt, king of a polity aspiring to encompass Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon. In the former Ottoman North African provinces, a group of rural and urban notables announced the formation of the Tripolitanian Republic (al-Jumhuriyya al-Tarabulusiyya) in the fall of 1918 and attempted to get its independence recognized the next spring at the Paris Peace Conference. To their east, the Italians had already diplomatically recognized the functional independence of a Sanusi state in the interior of Cyrenaica in three successive treaties between 1916 and 1919.

New polities were also taking shape in the Arabian Peninsula and other margins of the Ottoman system. The Kingdom of the Hejaz had been created during the war under Sharif Husayn; the Najd-based Abdulaziz Ibn Saud was expanding an area of control in the interior by attacking the al-Rashidis in Ha’il; and the Imam Yahya in Yemen was warring with the Idrissid Amir of Asir in the south. The newly created Armenian republic in the Caucasus had designs on the former eastern Ottoman Anatolian provinces, and in Mesopotamia, the future of the Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul provinces occupied by the British during the war was still to be determined. The fall of the Ottomans had also reshaped expectations for the Kurds, Assyrians, and other highland groups of the northern Zagros Mountains who had long lived on the marches between rival empires of the Anatolian and Iranian Plateaus, most recently between the Ottomans and Qajars.

In that area, the heady blend of new notions of local ethnic and religious collective identity and political expectations, stoked by the principle of self-determination, that became conceivable at this historical moment is captured well in the person of Shaykh Mahmud Barzanji. The British appointed this Sufi Kurdish leader as divisional governor in Sulaimaniya, the eastern sanjak in the Mosul province, just after they came north into the area in December 1918. That winter Shaykh Mahmud consolidated his position; then in late May 1919, he imprisoned the British personnel in Sulaimaniya, evicted troops garrisoned in the district, and tried to rally the local tribes with a call for a jihad to defend a free, united Kurdistan.

Two British brigades promptly sent over from Baghdad defeated his five-hundred-man force at the pass leading from Kirkuk through the Bazian Mountains toward Sulaimaniya and eventually captured the injured leader. In a meeting at the hospital while Shaykh Mahmud was recovering, the British civil commissioner, Sir Arnold Wilson, recalls the shaykh haranguing him about the illegitimacy of the British actions against him or against an independent Kurdish polity given the wartime pledges of the American president and the British themselves: “I had seen him in hospital when, with a magnificent gesture, he denied the competence of any Military Court to try him, and recited to me President Wilson’s twelfth point, and the Anglo-French Declaration of 8th November 1918, a translation of which in Kurdish, written on the fly leaves of a Qur’an, was strapped like a talisman to his arm.” Wilson had promised the “nationalities” under Turkish rule “autonomous development” after the war in the twelfth point of his January 1918 “Fourteen Points” speech to Congress. The Anglo-French declaration that Shaykh Mahmud had translated into Kurdish and was quoting back to the British commissioner had been issued the week after the Armistice of Mudros. It aimed to reassure the local populations about Anglo-French intentions, declaring that the lofty war objectives of the British and French had been to emancipate the peoples “so long oppressed by the Turkish” and to establish “national governments and administrations deriving their authority from the initiative and free choice of the indigenous populations” in Syria and Mesopotamia.

At the same moment that these new local political entities were emerging that spring, at the international level the colonial powers were nailing down their own visions for the post-Ottoman Middle East. In late April 1920, the prime ministers of Britain, France, and Italy and the ambassador from Japan (the four principal Allied powers still active in the Paris Peace Conference) met for a week at the Villa Devachan in San Remo, Italy. Their task was to reconcile their colonial ambitions with the competing pledges for self-governance they had made in the region over the past five years, like the one referenced by Shaykh Mahmud. These included British assurances to Sharif Husayn of Mecca in 1915–1916 about a postwar Arab Kingdom and to the Zionist movement in the 1917 Balfour Declaration about creating a postwar Jewish “national home” in Palestine. The French, for their part, had created an Armenian Legion in 1916 with the explicit purpose of liberating “Little Armenia,” or Cilicia (the Adana vilayet in southeast Anatolia), and creating an Armenian state there. They also actively supported Maronite desires to greatly expand the size of the Mount Lebanon mutasarifiyya. Britain and France had issued the joint declaration, reassuring the peoples in Syria and Mesopotamia that they supported freely chosen national governments and administrations. Justifiable local concerns about colonial designs on the region stemmed from the recent publication of a series of secret accords about post-Ottoman spoils, including the infamous 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement in which the British, French, Russians, and Italians divvied up respective postwar zones of control in Anatolia and the Arab-majority Ottoman provinces.

At the Paris Peace Conference, an international legal mechanism, the mandate system, was devised to marry these seemingly opposed imperial and local aspirations for what would replace the Ottoman Empire: the newly formed League of Nations would provisionally recognize the existence of independent nations of peoples formerly under Ottoman rule and then put them under the tutelage and administrative control of a European power. At San Remo in April 1920, the European stakeholders finalized the allocation of these mandates: Britain got Palestine (with the Balfour pledge about a Jewish national home built into the mandate charge) and Mesopotamia; France got Cilicia (Adana), Syria, and Lebanon; and the Italians registered their interests in southern Anatolia. The treaty terms were circulated to the Ottoman government in May, and in early August 1920, the fifth and final treaty of the Paris Peace Conference was signed in a suburb six miles southwest of the city.

On paper, the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres described a dramatically reimagined post-Ottoman political space, with multiple delineated zones of European tutelary control. For the rump Turkish state left in Anatolia, the treaty involved major immediate and impending territorial amputations. Greece took western Thrace and a substantial coastal enclave inland from Smyrna, on the Aegean coast, where it had landed troops in May 1919. Istanbul and the Bosphorus region were put under the authority of the British-dominated Straits Commission. In the east, the treaty provided for creating a Kurdish state in the next six months in southeastern Anatolia, with a clause stating it could eventually absorb Kurdish areas from the Mosul province. The newly created Armenian Republic would absorb three former northeastern Ottoman provinces. The treaty also laid out a southern boundary with Syria and partly with Mesopotamia, with a Boundary Commission appointed to determine the remaining borders of the Mosul province. However, the map that European planners drew up in Paris in August 1920 bore little resemblance to facts on the ground. As diverging local and colonial ideas about the shape of the post-Ottoman Middle East clashed, the gap between treaty terms and reality continued to grow.