Keith David Watenpaugh, Bread From Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Keith David Watenpaugh (KDW): Modern humanitarianism has played a significant role in the lives of the peoples of the Middle East. Its history is a critical window onto the local and international response to atrocity, genocide, extirpation, and displacement that has been far too common in region since World War I. Studying modern humanitarianism provides us a way to think about the history of war’s victims, of children, of refugees, and of trafficked and enslaved human beings. At the same time, it creates a space within which to write about encounters between Westerners and the peoples of the Middle East outside of the traditional paradigm of European Colonial Studies.
But the book is also the midpoint of journey I started as a young graduate student in Aleppo in the 1990s. There I saw how the humanitarian projects of Near East Relief and the League of Nations had helped create what was then a vibrant post-genocide Armenian community.
That journey took me the archives of the League of Nations in Geneva, where the intake surveys of the Aleppo Rescue Home are stored. Those surveys are the individual records of young people, some quite young, who had survived the genocide of 1915, only to face trafficking into the households of the perpetrator communities. Each one is a remarkable historical document: alongside a picture of the young person was a first-person story of their lives from the moment the genocide began until they entered the home, usually after undertaking a difficult and dangerous escape. Those records told of enslavement, rape, and forced childbearing. I read all two thousand and left the archive knowing I had to tell something of those stories; the bravery, resilience, and humanity of these young people imposed a burden on me.
I also wrote this book as way to confront what I see as both the inherent Eurocentrism of the study of humanitarianism and human rights and a too-cynical approach to the history of the work of relief, human rights activism, and development. With that corrective in mind, a degree of skepticism is still warranted, but not in a way that produces inaction or that marginalizes historians and other humanists from positive contributions to important policy discussions.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
KDW: The book is unique in our field and I hope that it starts an important conversation about concepts like shared humanity, compassion, and justice for victims of genocide and forced migration. That said, it is part of an emerging literature on international intergovernmental and nongovernmental institutions, as well as the conceptual and legal framework for the contemporary human rights régime.
Among the most critical contributions of the work is how it links literatures of witness and the lives of individual survivors of atrocity to the work of international modern humanitarians.
It also marks a critical contribution to the study of the theory of genocide, namely that what was most exceptional about modern humanitarianism in the interwar Middle East was how it sought to address not just the physical suffering of the survivors of genocide, but their political and cultural suffering as well. Ultimately many of those efforts failed, pointing to the need to create different régimes of caring, and for the administration of displaced peoples and refugees. It was a humanitarianism that sought more than caring, but rather social, even at times political empowerment – and then failing at most every turn.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
KDW: My first book, Being Modern in the Middle East (2006), is about class, colonialism, modernity, and nationalism. While it is still a very relevant book, I thought it important in this work to move beyond those ideas and focus on children, refugees, and genocide survivors—the most abject and easily forgotten of peoples. Nonetheless, Being Modern’s influence is still seen in the way I have characterized the role of modernity in the formulation of humanitarianism, relief efforts, and the form and content of suffering.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
KDW: I wrote this book for our field at large, but in a way that will contribute to the reflective practice of modern humanitarians and human rights professionals. My hope is also that it will transcend traditional Middle East Studies boundaries and become part of the larger historical conversation about humanitarianism, refugees, and humanity. Aspect of this work have been published in journals like the American Historical Review, Humanity, and the Journal of Human Rights—which may be evidence of its possible cross-over appeal.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
KDW: I have begun work on a project I call “Refugee Century” that seeks to retell the history of the last one hundred years in the Eastern Mediterranean from the perspective of refugees.
I am also continuing my work leading the joint UC Davis-Institute for International Education project—No More Lost Generations—which has been profiled in Jadaliyya. That project is an effort to understand the conditions facing Syrian refugee university students in the front-line states of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, in the hopes of creating ways for them to continue their education. That work has been very rewarding, but also very frustrating. The level of incompetence and indifference in the international humanitarian response to the needs of Syrian young people has shocked me and left me more disillusioned than hopeful, a condition contrary to my nature.
My final thought is best expressed in a passage from the preface: I wrote this book as the contemporary “Middle East” [has] descended into a humanitarian disaster that, in its degree of suffering and international indifference, resembles the one that occurred during and following World War I. Historians must not draw too many parallels between the past and the present, but as I have looked out across the region over the last few years, I see in the immense refugee flows, human trafficking, sexual violence, and genocide of the current wars in Syria and Iraq echoes of a hundred years ago. Those echoes resound across the same territories of inhumanity and humanitarian response, especially now in the city of Aleppo, which has been subjected to the kinds of unceasing urban violence reminiscent of Madrid in the 1930s or Sarajevo in the 1990s; at the time of this writing the city seems poised to fall into the hands of the most violent of Islamist extremists, whose pitiless and cruel modern ideology has already led to the destruction through genocide of ancient non-Muslim communities in northern Iraq and caused utter misery for countless Muslims throughout the region.
Excerpt from Bread From Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism
From Chapter One: The Beginnings of the Humanitarian Era in the Eastern Mediterranean
Marash, Anatolia, February 9, 1920. As the Armenians of Marash fled their city in the face of civil war and the certainty of massacre, a twenty-three-year-old American Near East Relief (NER) official, Stanley E. Kerr, made the decision to stay behind in the organization’s headquarters to care for the hundreds of children and elderly who could not travel. He was one of a tiny handful of Americans who remained in the war-torn city as other relief workers evacuated with the able-bodied and the retreating French army. “Tonight,” Kerr wrote to his parents back home in Philadelphia, “the most bitter cold of all this winter….Our orphans, old women and men will remain in our compounds….Perhaps by remaining here we can protect the remaining Armenians from massacre….We are in great danger, but not without hope….No matter what happens remember that I am ready to make any sacrifice even death.” For the young American, this was his first real encounter with the full measure of the horrors facing the civilian population of the Eastern Mediterranean in the wake of the “war to end war.” For the Armenians of Marash, the massacres, dispossession, and exile they faced that night came only at the end of a generation of war, communal violence, genocide, famine, and disease that had left a quarter of the Ottoman state’s subjects dead and millions displaced: in the Balkans and the Caucasus Muslim refugees fled advancing European armies; Ottoman Armenians who had survived state-sponsored efforts to destroy them as a people filled camps and shantytowns scattered along the outskirts of the major cities of the Levant; and Greeks and Turks on the “wrong” sides of new international borders would be “exchanged”—a euphemism for internationally sanctioned dispossession and forced migration—as nation-states emerged from the ashes of empire.
Kerr’s letter home on that terrible night provides a unique window into the state of mind of a young humanitarian worker in extremis, but also keenly aware of his professional responsibility. Equally, Kerr’s presence in Marash, as a professional administrator of a network of orphanages, rehabilitation centers, and schools, is evidence that this violence and disaster, which had caused societal collapse, had prompted a modern—and massive—international humanitarian response that involved diverse aid and relief organizations including NER, the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Western and Middle Eastern civil society, colonial governments, and the nascent League of Nations. The juxtaposition of the evident inhumanity of war, civil conflict, and genocide, on the one hand, with the creation of forms of aid for the victims of violence, the establishment of institutions to resettle displaced peoples, and the elaboration of novel, international legal regimes for refugees, on the other, frames the questions raised here. This book traces the origins of modern humanitarianism, from the perspective of its implementation in the Eastern Mediterranean, as both practice and ideology, and connects it to the other dominant ideologies of the interwar period—nationalism and colonialism; it explores humanitarianism’s role in the history of human rights and addresses how the concept of shared humanity informed bureaucratic, social, and legal humanitarian practices.
The Eastern Mediterranean was where much of modern humanitarianism was born. This fact tends to be missing from the dominant historiography of the region. Waves of displaced persons and new borders forced the international community embodied in the League of Nations to first define and then manage novel iterations of the “refugee” and the “minority.” The sheer scale of interwar relief needs prompted the replacement of independent missionary-based charity with secular, professional, and bureaucratized intergovernmental forms of aid and development. And, finally, efforts to interdict trafficking in women and children mobilized nongovernmental humanitarian organizations and groups in Europe and the Americas to a degree not seen since the abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century. The region was also where troubling questions were increasingly being asked about what role the international community should play in helping nation-states rid themselves of unwanted religious and ethnic minority populations.
Where the systematic and critical study of human rights and humanitarianism is absent altogether from the corpus of the Eastern Mediterranean’s twentieth-century historiography, the region is likewise largely missing from the literature on the global history of both. Moreover, the prevailing narrative of the history of human rights mostly emphasizes the post–World War II era, the international reaction to the Holocaust, and the founding of the United Nations. This project looks further back and locates an origin of contemporary human rights thinking in the practices and failures (and practical failures) of humanitarianism during the late interwar period. Bringing the theory and practice of humanitarianism into the history of human rights makes this project an important contribution to an emerging debate about human rights history and does so almost uniquely in the field from the perspective of the non-West.
Similarly, this book is built around a method that brings an understanding of the intellectual and social context of humanitarianism together with the lived reality of the places where the humanitarian act in its various forms took place. With this approach, I can write about humanitarianism in a comprehensive and transnational way and thus avoid an institutional history or an account that sees humanitarianism as a self-evident manifestation of liberalism, Protestantism, and social reform. This approach also allows me to disentangle—but not disconnect—humanitarianism from colonialism, in contrast to discussions derived from the techniques of colonial and postcolonial studies, which often see humanitarianism as solely a product of the colonial project. No less important is how this method restores a measure of agency to the objects of the Western humanitarian agenda.
I draw from archival sources, especially those of the League of Nations, the Nansen International Office for Refugees, American Near East Relief, the Rockefeller Foundation, and national archives in Turkey, France, Britain, and the United States. In addition, I employ contemporaneous literary and artistic responses, and memoirs and first-person accounts of victims, perpetrators, relief workers, and diplomats in European languages as well as Arabic, Turkish, and Armenian. This breadth of source material allows me to capture the inherent richness of humanitarianism as a problem of social and cultural history in a way that retains relevance to contemporary debates about the promotion of human rights, and the work of relief and development.
Finally, keeping in mind the work of Kerr and his professionalism and commitment in the face of real danger, the history of humanitarianism I have written tells the story of a different kind of relationship between some Westerners—Americans in particular, but also others—and the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean. In the first half of the twentieth century, that relationship unfolded in the universe of humanitarian assistance, relief, and teaching; undoubtedly, it was still informed by colonialism, paternalism, and ideas about ethnic and religious superiority, but it was also built around ending the suffering of others and providing safety, and even advanced and professional educational opportunities, to those whose lives had been utterly devastated by war and violence. It was a relationship in which forms of mutual respect, even friendship, could be established based on class and profession, but based on modern conceptions of shared humanity as well; and this sort of relationship was not just possible, but common.
[Excerpted from Bread From Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism, by Keith David Watenpaugh, by permission of the author.
For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]