Anthony Gorman and Sossie Kasbarian, editors, Diasporas of the Modern Middle East: Contextualizing Community. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Universtiry Press, 2015.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this book?
Sossie Kasbarian (SK): The book came out of a workshop that we convened at the University of Edinburgh in October 2011. At the time, I was a post-doctoral research fellow at the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World (CASAW) based at Islamic and Middle East Studies (IMES) at the University of Edinburgh. During my time there, Tony and I set up an MSc in Middle East Diasporas and were teaching the two core courses; one was theory focused, while the other looked at a range of case studies, both in the Middle East and Middle Eastern communities outside of the region. The workshop was a natural progression of our teaching and research interests that brought together international scholars working on a number of diasporic groups across the Middle East, with a range of distinct yet interrelated concerns.
Anthony Gorman (AG): Sossie’s grounding in diaspora studies and my own interest in resident foreign communities and religious minorities in the Middle East seemed an ideal opportunity to collaborate on this project. Nicola Ramsey, the commissioning editor at Edinburgh University Press, had heard about the workshop and was very encouraging that we put a book together. We were more than happy to take up her suggestion.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AG and SK: The volume approaches the Middle East through the lens of Diaspora Studies applied to the experiences of different diasporic groups in the region. The case studies explore the changing conceptions and practice of diaspora in the context of the modern Middle East, while making a theoretical contribution to diaspora studies. We thought the value of the multi-authored volume was that it brought together in-depth fieldwork and analysis of different communities, combined with a genuinely interdisciplinary approach relevant to a range of subject areas—politics, anthropology, history, and area studies—as well as more policy-oriented approaches like refugee studies. The range of source material also offers a significant breadth in perspective, and the individual case studies present interesting contrasts in terms of ethnicity and orientation. While the concept of “diaspora” has been most often applied to non-Muslim groups in or of the Middle East, this volume examines a greater range of communities reconstituted for political and economic reasons and explores some established diasporas in ways that offer new insights into belonging, loss, and identity.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SK: I have been working in the space of intersection between diaspora studies and Middle East politics since I was a postgraduate, and most of my research is situated broadly in this area. Whereas my chapter in this book focuses on community and belonging (the case study being the Armenians in Cyprus, an established, permanent community in the Cypriot state fabric), I am also very interested in transnational identities that challenge and transgress concepts of rootedness and displacement. I have an article in the upcoming issue of the journal Diaspora (18:3, 2015) on the concept of “Return” in Diaspora, specifically looking at the complex case of diasporan Armenians who have lived for generations elsewhere and decide to move (it’s not a “return” as such) to the Republic of Armenia for varying periods of time, sometimes with the aim of settling permanently.
AG: For some time I have been aiming to critique what I see as the rather stagnant national-foreigner dichotomy that is still influential in Middle Eastern scholarship of the colonial period, and have attempted to address this particularly in relation to the Greek community of Egypt. My chapter here on the Italians of Egypt gave me the opportunity to think a little more theoretically about the utility of a flexible diaspora framework that looks both at the concept of community boundaries and recognizes interaction between the resident foreign communities of Egypt and the wider Egyptian society.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SK: The book should appeal to a range of advanced undergraduate and postgraduate courses in contemporary Middle East studies. We hope that it will also be of value to scholars and those interested in diaspora studies more widely. I currently teach a postgraduate module, Minorities of the Middle East, and the book will be a great reference book for that, and hopefully similar courses elsewhere.
AG: We hope that these case studies will interest scholars with an interest in transnational communities in the Middle East and elsewhere, both in the context of the late colonial and post-independence eras, especially those who are open to a revised take on the complexity of relations between the established cast of diaspora, that is, homeland, community, and host-state. I also hope that this will continue to challenge the relative hegemony that scholarship on national movement has enjoyed in the field of Middle Eastern studies by illuminating other avenues of inquiry.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SK: For some time now, I have been active in the emerging inter-disciplinary field of Armenian-Turkish Studies. With 2015 being the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, I have been involved in a number of research and teaching projects reflecting on the Genocide, its legacies, and its enduring and wider significance. I am also working on a project on Diaspora activism, looking at the dynamics of transnational political activism from a position of exile or displacement for a number of Middle East communities.
AG: I am continuing to work on different aspects of pluralist Middle Eastern society in the pre-independence era, exploring both the connections and barriers operating across and between different ethnic and religious communities. One topic I wish to explore further is the anarchist movement in the Eastern Mediterranean before the First World War, which was a transnational and multiethnic movement par excellence, at least in principle. I am running a research workshop in December at Edinburgh exploring the different sources of cultural life and activity in the Arab world. Another project I have been working on for some time is a modern history of the Middle Eastern prison in the period before 1950.
J: How might exploring the experiences of different diasporic communities in and of the region change our understanding of contemporary societies in the Middle East?
AG and SK: The connection between the Middle East and diaspora is far from new, and in many ways the two entities have been inextricably linked. The quintessential Jewish diaspora is of Middle Eastern origin, and other prototypical diasporas, such as the Armenians and Greeks, are closely associated with the region and central to any historical understanding of the term and the phenomenon. Upon such “models” of diaspora a substantial scholarship developed that relied heavily on the troika of community, host state, and (usually a lost) homeland.
While we recognize the usefulness of these categories, the volume collectively considers that the idea of fluidity as central to the diasporic identity best captures the richness of the different diasporas in the region. The chapters demonstrate that those concepts that have been central to diaspora like “homeland,” “host state,” “exile,” “longing,” “memory,” and “return” can be deconstructed and reinstated with meaning through an examination of particular diasporic experiences and through political and social projects.
Through both this theoretical engagement and in-depth examination, the case studies address how different groups have struggled to claim and negotiate a space for themselves in the Middle East, and how these efforts have been aided and hampered by the various legal, historical, social, political, economic, and colonial and post-colonial peculiarities of the region. They also seek to situate the different communities within their own narratives—of conflict, resistance, war, genocide, persecution, displacement, migration—and to analyze how these intersect with the wider historiography of the region. In so doing, this volume seeks to reconceptualize the Middle East from the perspective of the minority or diasporic Other, arguing that the historical legacies and developments of the region have made, and continue to make, its cultural and social pluralism distinctive. The collection maps the entanglement of these communities in the wider Middle Eastern societies and investigates how this varies according to the political climate and contemporary discourse. The chapters reflect more widely on how old and new communities are established, consolidated, and maintained in a diasporic space, exploring how they have been organized and sustained, balancing actual or imagined “homelands” and the reality of lives lived in “host states,” while challenging the terms and validity of the traditional triadic diasporic framework.
After our introduction, which lays out this framework in some detail, the book is made up of four separate sections. The first section explores a number of cases that straddle the late Ottoman and post-Ottoman periods, when the dissolution of the multiethnic empire witnessed a great reconfiguration of different communities. Haris Theodorelis-Rigas examines the genealogy of the term of “Rum” (Greek Orthodox) and provides a comparative study of its diverging configurations in post-Ottoman Syria and Turkey. Georgy Chochiev addresses the case of the Ossetians, migrants from their homeland in the Caucasus in the 1850s and 1860s who settled in the interior of Anatolia, and follows the subsequent trajectory of the community from the late Ottoman and well into the Turkish republican period. Ehud Toledano focuses on a rather different diaspora—that is, that of the Egyptian-Ottoman elite who sought to realign themselves towards the nationalist movements that emerged out of the late Ottoman Empire. Anthony Gorman discusses one community cast as two diasporas, namely the case of the Italians of Egypt, seen as an element of the Italian diaspora while living in Egypt but, after the mass departure from the 1950s, who have come to be something of an Egyptian diaspora.
Exile, return, and resistance provide the focus of the second section, where the examples of two notable diasporas, Armenians and Palestinians, are used to interrogate the concept and potential of return. In their discussion of diaspora tourism among Armenians, Anny Bakalian and Zeynep Turan scrutinize the complex relationship between the physical landscape, national and personal narratives, identity, memory, and representations of traumatic histories in these diasporic communities. Maria Holt’s examination of Palestinian women living in the camps of Lebanon focuses on the use of memory as a mode of resistance.
Our third section features two case studies of diasporas that have engaged and developed an organic life in their host states. Sossie Kasbarian’s discussion of Armenians in the history and politics of Cyprus, and May Farah’s study of Palestinians in Lebanon, show that over time, while maintaining a distinct sense of community and an internal vibrancy, these two groups have evolved ways in which to engage with what are effectively their permanent new homes.
New Middle Eastern diasporas continue to be created by the forces of globalization and the political disruption in the region. In the book’s final section, three of these new diasporas are explored: M. H. Ilias discusses the case of Malayalee migrant workers of Kerala established in the Gulf; Elisa Pascucci examines the more recent displacement of young Iraqis in Cairo following the invasion of 2003; and Jumana Bayeh engages with literature as a medium of diaspora expression by examining the Lebanese diaspora and focusing on the centrality of home of a number of authors writing in English but redolent with Lebanese identity.
Excerpts from Diasporas of the Modern Middle East: Contextualising Community
From the Introduction, by Anthony Gorman and Sossie Kasbarian:
Movement, migration, and diasporization lie at the heart of the Middle East, in the past and in the present day. Historically, the region has been a heterogeneous site where distinct communities, differentiated by origin and orientation, have coexisted through many periods of conflict and longer times of peace. Some of these displaced communities have been threatened and persecuted; others have kept their difference discreet and maintained low profiles in order to blend in. At different points, some communities rose to positions of prominence and power, while, for others, their very existence was precarious. From the late nineteenth century, dynamic political changes meant that many of these groups have struggled to claim and negotiate a space for themselves, and, increasingly, to protect and sustain it.
Although there has been substantial interest in Middle Eastern immigrant communities in the West, diasporic and minority communities within the Middle East have been relatively neglected in recent academic scholarship. As an ancient concept, diaspora has proven remarkably durable, resonating with both old and new communities created through war and displacement, shaped by the forces of repressive politics and global capitalism, yet allowing for creative and dynamic articulations and mobilizations within. The Middle East provides fertile ground in which to explore the concept and lived reality of diaspora. Rich in communities of religious belief and ethnic identity, affiliations to territory, and human societies that have bound empires and nations but also identified outsiders, the Middle East can be regarded as central to the concept and configuration of diasporic communities.
This collection brings together eleven case studies that look at how diasporic groups have been organized and sustained, balancing an attachment to a “homeland”—real or imagined—and living in the diasporic space, or settled in “host states,” that are, in practice, their homes. They offer collectively a sustained engagement and exploration of how diasporic communities are vital, even volatile, sites of political, social and cultural expression that must be understood within their specific context. Regardless of their varying circumstances, we posit that these communities are nevertheless embedded in the region, and, therefore, entangled in the politics of the wider Middle East, sometimes being at the very center of conflicts, sometimes its peripheral victims.
Taken as a coherent collection, this exploration of how old and new communities are established, consolidated and maintained in diaspora, rooted in their host states but oriented towards a transnational national vision or homeland, in practice challenges, revives or reconfigures the established triadic diasporic framework. The volume also reflects more widely on how communities are built and maintained in a diasporic space, examining issues of identity, citizenship, inclusion/exclusion and belonging in the modern Middle East.
Most importantly, we seek to situate the communities within their own narratives—of conflict, resistance, war, genocide, persecution, displacement, migration—and to analyze how these intersect with the wider historiography of the region that has neglected, dismissed or essentialised them. In so doing, we seek to reconceptualize the Middle East from the perspective of the Other/the minority, while arguing that the historical legacies and developments of the region have made and continue to make its cultural and social pluralism distinctive. In conceptualizing the Middle East through the prism of diasporic communities, we wish to unveil and articulate a counter-history to the prevailing state narratives. Together these communities embody and represent the depth and range of historical experience of the region, most often as casualties rather than enforcers of political projects, be it as victims of colonialism, remnants associated with imperial rule, survivors of genocide or the jetsam of nation-building. Viewed in this way, a diasporic Middle East provides a multilayered and dynamic framework for understanding the colonial and postcolonial, the processes of state formation and state building, and nationalist and transnationalist projects at play in the region and beyond.
The diasporic experience in the Middle East yields a rich history from below, and from the margins of mainstream political developments that provides insightful counter-narratives to hegemonic discourse and essentialist politics. While certain emancipatory epistemological projects have unearthed and articulated silenced and sidelined voices in the region, most notably in the case of women, there has been hitherto little attempt to marry the marginalized experiences represented by minority communities of the region with the theoretical concerns of Diaspora Studies. Taken together, these groups challenge our understandings of time, place and space: some date back to bygone empires or to colonial times; some are the results of new global trends like neoliberalism and military interventions. Approaching the Middle East as a series of communities, networks, webs, migratory paths and trajectories allows us not just to subvert state boundaries and national projects but to emancipate diverse and rich histories that challenge, undermine and complement reigning narratives, as well as shedding unfamiliar light on these very political projects, their legacies and their continuing impact.
A region of great religious, ethnic and linguistic diversity, the Middle East has a long record of demographic movement, displacement and forced migration. Since ancient times the elements of the archetypal Jewish diaspora—dispersion, loss and desire to return—have been repeated in many variations and configurations. Some cases have been the result of dramatic and often violent rupture, most notably the massacres and dispersion of Armenians during the late Ottoman period. Others have been prompted by changing economic and social circumstances, where demand for labor and commercial opportunities have encouraged relocation and community transplantation.
In the pre-modern era religious affiliation, as the primary marker of identity, determined both dominant and minority communities. In a region dominated by Islam for centuries these displacements often involved non-Muslim minorities, such as the Armenians transplanted to Isfahan in the early seventeenth century, or the scattered resettlement of Jewish communities throughout the Ottoman Empire and beyond following their expulsion from Spain in 1492. However, especially on the margins of empire, Muslim groups were not immune to such pressures. As the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire shrank so Muslim communities were displaced—during the nineteenth century Caucasians moving south to Anatolia, or Turks from the Balkans seeking security in the Ottoman heartland—that would themselves constitute diasporas. During this period, new ideas of nationalism fuelled by aspirations for liberation from imperial rule began to challenge the primacy of religious identity. Perhaps most obvious and successful in Greece and the Balkans, where culture, faith and territory closely lined up together, the influence of such ideas would spread across the region and be taken up by others. Intersecting with these communities defining themselves by religious and ethnic identity were other transnational actors. Anarchist, mercantile and masonic networks, Sufi brotherhoods and cultural elites, sustained by the pluralist milieu of multiethnic society and cosmopolitan circles, variously reinforced, countered or were eroded by these developments.
At the end of the First World War, the defeat of the Ottoman Empire offered an opportunity for the nationalist ambitions of ethnic groups such as Arabs, Jews and Turks to be realized. The subsequent creation of new states, although largely determined by the imperial interest of the victorious powers of Britain and France rather than the peoples of the region, set in train a process of nation-building that presided over the ideological and sometimes brutal construction of new national societies that created diaspora groups. Many were the direct or indirect by-product of war, and resulted in the expulsion or relocation of religious and ethnic groups. The 1922 exchange of populations between Greece and the emerging Turkish Republic, made notionally on the basis of religious identity but determined by the nationalist ambition of two states, serves as a prime example of this reordering of people and territory. In Mandate Palestine the failure of the British to reconcile conflicting nationalist claims set the stage for the events of 1948, a seminal event in the record of dispossession in the Middle East. The establishment of the state of Israel and the displacement of about 750,000 Palestinians outside of the borders of the new state created a diaspora not only in the neighboring Arab states but in time, beyond in Europe, North America and Australia.
The contributions presented in this volume are testimony to the range and variety of diaspora experience in the Middle East over the last hundred years and more from the late Ottoman to the postcolonial period. The precarious state of political affairs in the Middle East has continued to produce the movement of peoples under threat. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent political instability has seen the displacement and the departure of significant numbers of Iraqi Christians and Sunni Muslims. The outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011 has seen yet another variation on the same theme where Syrian refugee communities have set up home across the border in Turkey and Jordan, or gone further afield to Egypt, Dubai, Armenia and beyond. While the recent and ongoing nature of these displacements has not yet allowed for the foundation of some of the classical features of a diaspora, these groups are in the process of settling themselves into a long-term, perhaps permanent, exile.
[Excerpted from Anthony Gorman and Sossie Kasbarian, editors, Diasporas of the Modern Middle East: Contextualizing Community, p. 1-5, 23, by permission of the editors. © 2015 Edinburgh University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]