Revolutionary Middle East: Nasser

The decade that followed the creation of the state of Israel saw the overthrow of most of the rulers of the Arab states.  It’s a challenge to “cover” all of the revolutionary movements, let alone their consequences.  I have been struggling with my desire to talk about all of the big events of the decade, trying to figure out which things I should focus on.  Those would have to stand in for the issues raised by all of them.

Who better to begin with than Um Khulthoum, though I’m not sure the students understood from the video clip why she has been so beloved by so many for so long.  Review today: the partition of 1947, Israel’s establishment, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees that resulted.

I’d found a wonderful Guardian newsclip on the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958 Iraq, and asked the students to watch it and prepare to respond to four questions: What happened? Why? So what? What other information would you need to know to answer these questions?  Then the film:

They began to respond, and quickly got bogged down.  After I played the clip again, they were able to answer the questions, while the TA typed their responses.  Although I’m not convinced the responses are below the right questions, it seemed (I hoped?) that the exercise was helpful not only to make the list, but also to think about HOW one prepares for–and works to understand–historical information.

Clearly, Nasser was not only a huge and frightening spectre for the British newscaster.  He was also a really significant symbol for those who have come after him and used his legacy to seek change .  I wanted the students to think about Nasser and how he could have come to be so popular.  They are reading one of his speeches this week.  I asked them to think about everything they know about Egypt to this point, and began a timeline on a PowerPoint slide.  They were quite impressive, remembering not only the events, but also some of the big issues.  We had left Egypt after the Urabi revolt, so I caught them up to 1948: the frustrated efforts for independence after World War I and the dependent independence that followed, with British continuing to control most aspects of Egypt’s government and economy.  I hope by the end of the semester to convince them that context matters, in this case, that Nasser and his legacy can only be understood within the contexts of Egypt’s history, the struggle against colonialism, and the Cold War.

Zionism and Israel

The opening video this morning was another series of images, this time Polish Jews right before World War II.

I set up the lecture today as a series of questions.  We began with a review of the new state system In the Middle East, the mandates and Zionism.  I showed them a Romanian movie poster about immigration to Palestine that portrayed the New Jew as a European peasant.  The first question: What about those people already living in Palestine?  The Israeli Foreign Ministry explained,  “At that time in the late 19th century, Arab nationalism did not yet exist in any form, and the Arab population of Palestine was sparse and apolitical.”  In the context of European nationalism, those who were nations deserved states; those without a national identity did not merit the territory on which they lived.

But how were the new immigrants to survive?  Israel’s first president David Ben Gurion wrote in his memoirs about how difficult it had been to find work, since local workers knew the jobs and the employers and didn’t expect as much pay as new immigrants.  The response: all land purchased by Jews could hire only Jewish labor.

How did the non-immigrants respond?  The violence of the 1920s and 1930s has to be seen in the broader context of anti-colonial struggle, I argued.  Much of it resembled the anti-colonial risings against France in the Syrian mandate areas, and against Great Britain in Iraq.  In the case of British mandatory Palestine, the immigrating Zionists seemed to add yet another layer of foreign control.

The Middle East mandates were explicitly meant to encourage and facilitate eventual Arab self-government, while the Palestine mandate had an added commitment: to create a “national home” for the Jews.  I asked the students to talk together and try to figure out the best way that the British could reconcile these two apparently competing demands.  Their Poll Everywhere responses, as a wordle:

I reviewed the continuing struggles of the British to limit–then open–then limit Jewish immigration; to recognize–then suppress–then recognize Arab governance; to define–then redefine–“economic absorptive capacity” as a way of analyzing the number of potential immigrants.  When London finally decided (in 1936) that the promises to each group could not be reconciled in a single state, they proposed dividing the land, only to find that both groups rejected the partition.

What were the options?  I offered them the range of Zionist solutions, from Hebrew University President Judah Magnes’ call for a single binational state that would include Arabs and Jews, to Vladimir Jabotinsky’s insistence that only an “iron wall” could convince the local population to allow the creation of an exclusively Jewish state.  As today, though, most Zionists fell in the middle, by 1947 agreeing to partition, a two-state solution.  The holocaust and the huge numbers of Jews in displacement camps lent urgency to growing demands for a Jewish state.

As the clock wound down, I showed them the maps: partition and armistice.  We begin next week with the 700,000 refugees that resulted and the consequences of Israel’s 1948 creation on the people and politics of the region.

Zionism, Identities and Nations

I was not happy to realize that I had only allowed one week for the interwar period, and it had to include Zionism and Palestine.  This isn’t the first time that my syllabus seemed to have been created by a phantom whose plans were different than mine.

I decided to turn the dilemma into an opportunity: I would connect the issues attending the new postwar borders and identities with the development of political Zionism, to embed the Palestine mandate into the regional—and global—history of which it is part.

I welcomed them with a wonderful collection of images of Palestine set to music, then proceeded to questions from last week.  After reviewing the World War I settlement and the mandates, I reminded them of identity issues around the Mosul Question, which they had discussed in sections last week.  I wanted to give them another example of the ambiguity of national identities: the Sanjak Question.  I told them the story of Yusuf:

Yusuf, a fisherman in the coastal city of Alexandretta, was intercepted by Nedim Ward and two other Arab nationalists sitting at Ali’s café on the morning of May 4, 1938. They demanded to know why Yusuf, an Arabic-speaking Alawite, was wearing a hat with a brim, symbol of Kemal Ataturk’s revolutionary Turkish nationalism.  A poor man, Yusuf responded that he had no other head covering to wear.  Nedim Ward handed Yusuf twenty francs, telling him to go buy himself a fez.  In response, Yusuf ripped off his own brimmed hat, threw it on the ground, and immediately purchased a fez from a nearby shop.  As he was leaving the store, he encountered two Turkish nationalists, who crushed his new fez and demanded, “Come, show us who destroyed the hat.” When the Turkish nationalists encountered Nedim Ward and his friends, the confrontation described in Alexandretta’s police records began.

My research suggests that national identities in the Middle East did not emerge before World War I, except among small groups.  For many, like Yusuf, a hat was simply a hat and not an identity–they already had many collective identities and nationalism had no resonance.  That meant presenting Sharif Husayn not as an Arab nationalist (as Antonius had in his classic The Arab Awakening), but instead as a would-be King seeking his kingdom from the British.  Rethinking the emergence of nationalism requires providing a different narrative of the interwar period that focuses on anti-colonialism instead of identity politics.

The new frame helps place Zionism in a broader context.  The Zionist movement was a European-style nationalist movement, dissimilar from the anti-colonial sentiments that drove the 1920 opposition to British and French occupations in Iraq, Palestine, and Syria.

To talk about Zionism, I actually began with the “Jewish Problem,” centuries of attacks on Europe’s Jews based, first, on religion and then on race.  After providing some details, I asked the students to think about the treatment of Ottoman minorities under the Tanzimat, and the problems of how to deal with internal “others.”  What were the options for resolving the “Jewish Problem,” I asked?  I should have anticipated their reticence.  They did, after a bit of persistence, come up with the various alternatives: conversion (more difficult after racialization), expulsion, ghettoization, assimilation, or state-creation (like Liberia).

Then we moved to France in 1870, the aftermath of French defeat at the hands of the Prussians.  The parallel with the Ottomans was striking: how to deal with defeat?

  • Return to the faith (construct Sacré Coeur basilica)?
  • Or modernize (Eiffel Tower), especially the army?

It was the latter, the creation of a military meritocracy, that led to the rise of Captain Dreyfus, a Jew, to the rank of Captain.  The students, I hope, understood the parallel—the range of Ottoman responses to defeat were remarkably similar.

Covering the humiliation of Captain Dreyfus for treason based on little evidence (and subsequently overturned), assimilated Austrian Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl decided that, if the French couldn’t provide equality to Jews, no one could.  They needed a state of their own, because, he argued, Jews were a nation.  He rejected the other options the students (and Herzl’s contemporaries) had proposed, claiming none would solve the “Jewish Question.” This new kind of Zionism was based on nationalism, the idea that the Jews were a separate nation that could never fit in anywhere else.   The Zionists decided that they needed to establish their state in Palestine.

How could they decide to set up somewhere that others already lived?  I showed them the map of the world c. 1914, in which Europeans obviously had no hesitation about controlling lands on other continents.  The Palestine to which the Zionists arrived was the southern part of the Ottoman province of Syria, in the midst of Tanzimat reforms, self-strengthening movements, and debates over how to move into the future.

Zionists insisted that the lack of national identity in the region meant no one else had rights to the land; only nations had claims to territory–consistent with European notions–and the Palestinians were not yet claiming a specifically national identity.  The existence of farms and schools and churches and mosques and cemeteries were not relevant to those whose political and ideological world was circumscribed by notions of nation.

WWI: Remaking the Middle East

I was very excited about this class on World War I and the Middle East.  This is where I start many of my public lectures, arguing that it is impossible to understand the region without taking into account the new state system installed at war’s end.

For the effects of WWI in the Middle East, I  welcomed them (of course) with the trailer for Lawrence of Arabia.  I used my review of Ottomans in the War to explain why the British were worried enough (besieged in Kut, pinned down at Gallipoli) to make promises to Sharif Husayn: if he were to lead an uprising against the Ottomans, he would become King of Arab lands.  I asked them to think about the Sykes-Picot map from Tuesday, and read them the Balfour declaration.  I asked them to think about Woodrow Wilson, who put all of these promises into a new context

After the Bolshevik revolution, when the “Arab revolt” forces learned of the wartime promises, the French and British issued a joint declaration explaining that “The aim of France and Great Britain in carrying on in the Near East the war let loose by Germany’s ambitions is the complete and final liberation of the peoples so long oppressed by the Turks and the establishment of governments and administrations deriving their authority from the initiative and the free choice of the native populations.”

So there were many and conflicting promises, along with Wilson’s commitment to self-government and the Great Powers’ insistence on liberation.  How, I asked, could these promises be reconciled?  I asked the students to figure it out together, and then post their group response using Poll Everywhere.  Their answers ranged from imposing colonial governments on the region, to negotiated settlements, to ignoring European interests in favor of independence for the people.  A colleague had told me about Wordle, a neat little program that could create a word cloud from free responses to Poll Everywhere.  The preponderance of ideas is clear from the size of the words:

Mandates, of course, were the answer, and the students had read article 22 of the League of Nations Covenant and knew about the project.  I wanted to re-introduce local agency, too long missing in discussions of peace treaties and Great Power interests, by talking about Syrian resistance to the French mandate and the 1920 uprising against the British in Iraq.  Once again (and again and again), it was clear that local populations would not welcome foreign invasions.  Unwilling to commit more treasure and lives to Iraq, the British created a façade of local governance, imposing an Arab king by botched plebiscite and assigning British “advisers” to all government agencies.  To whom were the newly appointed rulers responsible, local populations or the Europeans who had appointed them?

The limits of sovereignty will arise again and again in the post-Ottoman period, as they have arisen already in the course.  Here are my summary of the new state system, and the students’ questions:

World War I

I was convinced and energized.  Instead of “covering” everything, I would introduce the enormous changes that World War I brought to the Middle East, emphasizing the big stuff and letting some of the details go by the wayside.  The students could use discuss the details they had read about for the week in sections to verify, refute, or lend color to the big question.

The big question, of course, was the fate of the defeated Ottoman Empire after the war.  The maps shows how dramatic the change was:

I welcomed them with one of the more depressing and relevant videos I will show all semester: Eric Bogle’s “And The Band Played Waltzing Mathilda” illustrated by images of the battle at Gallipoli. 

After briefly reviewing the Thursday (data dump) lecture, I asked the students to help update our mindmap.    I wanted them to think about European interests in the Ottoman Empire (economic, strategic, political), interests that would help determine the future of the empire after its defeat.

I reduced the causes of World War I to three minutes (an outrageous travesty!) so I was able to spend a bit more time on three big Ottoman wartime experiences: the battle of Gallipoli, the siege of Kut, and the Armenian genocide.

My bigger interests were the postwar settlements.  I reminded them about the efforts of the European Great Powers to keep the empire intact in order to prevent conflict over the remains.  In that context, the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement made sense: Russia, Britain and France awarded each other control over their favorite places to avoid postwar conflict.  The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres extended the dissection of central Ottoman lands, but it was made moot by the Greek invasion of Anatolia.

The postwar settlement allowed me to return to major course issues: the question of belonging (the Armenian genocide and the Greek-Turkish population exchange), the intervention of outsiders (invasion, occupation and treaty imposition); the lives and livelihoods of the people (devastation of war and the population exchange), and the nature of the state.  There was too little time to explain the long-term implications of Kemalist ideology (to which we will return), but they loved this video synopsis of Ataturk’s life.


Today’s welcome video was a brief clip from the terrific film, “Crossing the Bridge–The Sound of Istanbul”

The class was tremendously enlightening.  After a week that had included two public lectures in addition to the usual work, I fell back on my previous teaching style.  There was so much to “cover,” what with the Urabi Revolt in Egypt, the Constitutional Revolution in Iran, and the “Young Turk” revolution in the Ottoman Empire, that I spent the whole class lecturing about the events.  I tried to tie it all together by emphasizing the belief of many members of the elite that a constitution would be the silver bullet that could strengthen Middle Eastern powers to be competitive with European states.  (The irony: although members of the US government pretended that they could introduce democracy through invasion at the start of the 21st century, people in the region had believed a whole century earlier that they could withstand foreign intervention if they only had constitutional regimes.)

Despite my enthusiasm for the topic and all of the techniques we teach new lecturers (moving around the room, lots of eye contact, dramatic voice changes, repeating important points), it was clear that I lost the students.  This was the first time all semester that they were not engaged– some actually fell asleep.  By the time the lecture was over, only one posted a question.  The only student who approached me afterward asked for a glossary so they could follow better while I sprinted through events.

I suppose it was a good test of the new system.  Some of the students had seemed to want more traditional lectures, and I had begun wondering about the efficacy of taking so long to focus on fewer things, unable to “cover” as much as during previous semesters.  This was an eye-opening “failure”: had I focused on underlying questions, they may not have “learned” about all three constitutional efforts, but they may have remembered the big ideas.  In discussions after class with the TA’s, I began thinking about how I should have done it.  Perhaps comparing the underlying notions of governance and the governed that had informed the medieval “Circle of Justice” ideals with the early twentieth-century constitutional demands that had been assigned as their reading for the week?  I also learned that it takes much more time for me to re-imagine the histories that I don’t research as problems to be explored instead of events to be narrated.

 Perhaps part of the problem had been UNC’s devastating one point defeat at the hands of arch-rival Duke in the last second of last night’s game.  In an effort to lighten the mood, instead of a map quiz, I did a review of the recommendations for Ottoman renewal.

Responses to a Changing Economy

After beginning with a video of Aida, responding to their questions from last Thursday, and my now-expected review of where we’ve been so far, I asked the students to think about how it would be possible to pay for all of the needs that had been identified so far.  Their list was fairly complete.

They left out cash cropping, but readily recognized the reasons for Egypt’s dramatic cotton export growth in the mid 1860s.  (We do live in the south!)  But what happened after cotton was once again available for Britain to import from North Carolina?  We followed the route to Egypt’s bankruptcy by way of the Suez Canal (hence Aida) and the creation of infrastructure, then the establishment of the Ottoman Public Debt Administration as the empire followed into its own default.  The conclusion seemed obvious by the time we were finished: in order to become stronger, the Ottoman and Egyptian governments had introduced military, political, social, and economic changes.  By borrowing to pay for this modernization, they had become indebted to the very powers from whom they had hoped to assert their independence, and more vulnerable to global vicissitudes (like the extended depression that began in 1873 and lasted almost until the end of the century).  Instead of making them independent and powerful, modernization had resulted in the loss of economic sovereignty.

The “responses” part is important: the Ottoman population resisted some of the changes imposed by the imperial center.   My mentor, the wonderful Donald Quataert, provided a terrific example, tobacco smuggling.  (North Carolina students really got it–tobacco has been a central part of the local economy.)  Just because people are prohibited from growing and selling unapproved tobacco does not mean they will comply.  This non-compliance seems an essential part of our understanding of nineteenth-century change.

And his focus on resistance helped me explain to my students the divergence between the common narrative of the nineteenth century and my own research.  It has always been a bit of a challenge for me to present the accepted narrative when it seems inaccurate.  We have all learned that the nineteenth century marked the end of industrial production in the Ottoman empire, a result of the increasing availability and decreasing cost of steam transportation, the promulgation of the 1838 Commercial Convention, and the importation of cheap textiles from European factories with which local handicrafts could not compete.  But the research for my book on Mosul convinced me that the nineteenth century didn’t have the same trajectory throughout the empire.  This will become a problem again when I talk about World War I and the creation of nationalism next week: how do we present the received wisdom (with the wonderful stories we have all come to love) when our own research disagrees with it?