Melanie S. Tanielian, The Charity of War: Famine, Humanitarian Aid and World War I in the Middle East (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Melanie Tanielian (MT): The project started as a “memory” project. I had visited Beirut for many years and became interested in the many, albeit not surprising, state-imposed silences about the country’s recent and remote violent pasts. For me as a historian it was the uncomfortable discrepancy in the commemoration of World War I, in particular, and the dearth of scholarship on the war’s social and cultural history, especially when compared to the rich European historiography, that stood out and inspired this book. I noted that there was an obvious tension between the state-sponsored memory of the war years, highlighting the tyrannical rule of commander of the Ottoman Fourth Army Corps Jamal Pasha and communal martyrdom, and what we might call popular memory. When I solicited general knowledge or generationally transferred memories of World War I from an older generation of Lebanese, most, if not all, men and women I spoke to would frame the conversation by stating that there was no war in Lebanon, but there was the “war of famine” (or ḥarb al-majaʿa), “starvation”, “hunger”, or simply “no food.” The experience of the war on the Ottoman provincial home front in the memory of the survivors, and passed on to the next generation of Lebanese and circulated in popular memory, was first and foremost identified with either famine or its associates hunger and food shortages. Talking with people, and reading Linda Schilcher’s short article on the topic, made it clear that the famine was not simply a forgotten catastrophe. Yet this collective trauma was not acknowledged and no trace of its memory could be found in the countries public squares or its official commemoration of World War I. Why? The experience of the civilians on the home front was, I realized, the key to understanding why there was no statue, no plaque, and no national commemoration of the memory of the famine, leaving it to linger as a differential cultural knowledge. And while state-sponsored amnesia had obscured the shameful and un-heroic sufferings of the majority of Ottoman subjects in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, the historical sources addressing the famine either directly or through discussions of food shortages were plentiful but had not been studied in a systematic way.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MT: The book speaks to three broad topics and their corresponding literatures: famine, humanitarianism and World War I in the Middle East. It is famine studies literature and in particular the work of Alex DeWaal that framed my understanding of the Lebanese famine as a process resulting from both an increased distance between food production and consumers as well as wartime decision and circumstances. In terms of World War I in the Middle East, it was important for me to reframe the war as an event that happened in the region and not simply to the region. Here the book contributes to a growing literature that thinks of World War I as a global war.
While the famine as an event and its suppressed memory inspired the project, the Charity of War is mainly about what I call the politics of provisioning on the Ottoman provincial home front. The main contribution of the book, as I see it, is that it shifts the gaze from the horrors of the famine to the productive power of war and suffering. It is clear that famine and war prey on the most vulnerable society and I found it of little use to present sensational perhaps even “pornographic” accounts of suffering. It would expose victims, without their consent, to the intrusive gaze of the reader. While of course an account of suffering cannot be entirely avoided, the focus of the book is about the reactions of local, regional, state, and international actors to witnessing or hearing about famine. So, wartime relief activities of government- sponsored/municipal institutions, local philanthropic and religious organizations, and international agencies are at the heart of the narrative. Here I scrutinize the complexities of social and political hierarchies as they become visible in the struggle for food and its distribution. As local, state, and international agents and agencies of provisioning worked in a highly contested field, those who were able provide even if not consistently maintained or gained legitimacy or at the very least a political self-confidence. I argue that, however inconsequential in preventing mass starvation, a dynamic politics of provisioning shaped wartime power constellations as well as contributed to shaping the political landscape of the postwar period. As a local history of World War I and through the lens of the politics of provisioning, the book highlights the centrality of the war to the everyday in an area far removed from the European battlefields and home fronts.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MT: Naturally, I hope that scholars and students of Middle East history will read it and that students will build on it to conduct further research. When I began this project there were few scholarly works that looked at the everyday experience of the war in general and the famine in particular, but it has been exciting to see that the interest in studying the war from social, economic, cultural, and environmental perspectives has grown significantly. There are many more archives and materials to be discovered.
Moreover, I see the book as having an audience in the broader field of World War I studies. Here the book would contribute to rethinking the war as simply a European affair. Whereas World War I scholars have insisted on reframing the war as a global war and projects like the Cambridge History of the First World War edited by Yale historian Jay Winter seek to enclose the so-called peripheries, the outcome has been uneven and the Ottoman homefront remains to be largely ignored. Or as the historian Santanu Das has so adequately pointed out, despite the war’s ubiquity “the social and cultural history of the war continues to maintain a neat symmetry to the war itself: the non-European aspects, like the non-European sites of battle, remain ‘sideshows.’” As Middle East historian studying the First World War, this is an all too familiar dilemma. I often encounter the term “sideshow.” The Gallipoli campaign (1915-1916) or the Arab Revolt (1916-1918) are designated “sideshows” to the Somme (1916), Verdun (1916), or Passchendaele (1917). The experiences of Ottoman civilians, my area of enquiry, have been referred to as the “sideshow” of the “sideshow.” The adoption of this term “sideshow” in the case of non-European scenes of combat and civilian suffering is telling. It not only evokes a geographical periphery, but also the image of a space outside the carnival’s central arena of ordered performances. By definition, a sideshow is a place for the freakish, the grotesque, and the other. Most troubling is its deep imbrication in imperial, racial, and gendered discourses of power. I hope that The Charity of War will contribute to a scholarship that is slowly but progressively decentering Europe.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MT: I am working on a couple of projects. First I am writing an article preliminary titled “Protecting the Innocent’: Humanitarian Child Transfer and the Invention of Child Sponsorship after the Adana Massacre (1909).” The article is based on research in the Kaiserswerther Diakonissen’s archives in Kaiserswerth, Germany. While researching the role of this German mission in the Middle East during World War I, I also collected materials that reach back to the establishment of the mission in the 1860s, in anticipation of a new project. The piece is a close reading of the deaconate’s official publications and correspondence with deaconesses working in the Ottoman Empire. I argue that the mission’s publications are an exemplar of the normative, well-rehearsed, paternalistic humanitarian narrative of the nineteenth century. It is characterized by a claim for factual truths, a focus on the body as locus of pain, and by a gendered account of victimization. The narrative aimed at exposing the lineaments of causality and human agency, demanding immediate social action from the reader to contribute to humanitarian causes in a distant land. The practical outlet for its readers’ accumulated feelings of sympathy was child-sponsorship. The discovery of the Kaiserswerth mission’s child-sponsorship program dating to 1896 is significant, as it defies the common assumption that international child sponsorship originated in the mid-1930s. I hope to show that, like later secular humanitarian organizations, the mission benefited from the particular workings of the global market. Underlying the practice, obstructed by the illusion of a personal relationship, was a market exchange that reflected Europe’s position in the world and showcased its increasing reach into the Ottoman Empire.
The second project is temporally located yet again in World War I, but will geographically reach beyond the Ottoman Empire. I am interested in the little-known history of the civilians designated as suffering from mental illnesses. As someone interested in the histories of marginal people this forgotten category of people in all the belligerent states has caught my attention over the last few years. In the broadest of terms, this book-length project looks to expose World War I’s effects on the experience of civilians suffering from mental illnesses, their caregivers and wardens, and on the workings of mental hospitals. Moving away from the usual wartime story of traumatized soldiers and what was referred to as shell shock, the book will be a socio-economic and legal history of institutions and their civilian patients. Discussing the wartime experiences of civilian suffering from mental illness was taboo during and after the war, due to the stigmatized nature of their afflictions. These men and women, old and young, were not only forgotten by their communities and eventually history, but were, if not discarded or neglected, mobilized to sacrifice and contribute to the war effort. Focusing on the civilian “insane” in Germany, Britain, the United States, and the provincial Ottoman Empire from 1914-1920, the book will fill a historical lacuna, challenge the singular focus on the mental health and care of the citizen soldiers, and further contribute to a global or comparative history trend in the field of World War I studies.
Excerpt from “The Ottoman Provincial Home Front: State in Society”
The Ottoman home front was central. It must be noted, however, that the empire’s geographic, linguistic, and ethnic diversity does not allow us to speak of a uniform home-front experience. This book tells the story of one Ottoman provincial home front’s encounter with total war by highlighting the evolving relationship between the state and provincial actors during the war, as well as the state’s function in society. Following Joel Migdal’s state-in-society approach, the politics of provisioning showcases both state and society as fluid constellations with indistinct boundaries. My goal is to complicate state-centered accounts by dismantling the state’s often-presumed coherent, monolithic, and autonomous character. By placing the state within society, the story presented here challenges one-sided accounts of Ottoman tyranny and of the war as a time of top-down state building. By focusing on the negotiations, competitions, and cooperation involved in provisioning, we can draw attention to the state’s becoming as a process involving, in its provinces, both conflicts and alliances with society. I argue that local provincial elites and circumstances have a stake in triggering, molding, and negotiating wartime politics and policies—that is, talking back to the state. Local actors’ engagements, reactions, and negotiations, as they crossed paths with representatives of the state, will not only provide a more holistic view but also force us to rethink once again the position and processes of power as it functions in society.
War, no doubt, stimulates juridical power, here understood as the power of the state or its official representatives to assert or expand its sphere of operation. For example, Charles Tilly has argued that war, as a moment of organized violence, engages state agents in four activities: war making, state making, protection, and extraction. Each of these activities—eliminating external and internal enemies and threats to the state’s representative clients, and extracting the means needed to carry out these activities—assumes the use of violence. It is here, in the context of violence, that the productive power of war appears most obvious. The formation, establishment, and restructuring of armies, their supporting institutions, means of surveillance, efforts of extraction, and fiscal accounting mechanisms, however successful, all underlie organized violence.66 Such articulations are characteristic of what Nancy Rose Hunt, in the context of colonial Congo, has coined the “nervous state,” a state that polices and secures, dreading both external enemies and internal rebellions. In the case of Beirut and Mount Lebanon, it will become immediately clear that the motivation of those who represented the top-down powers of administration and law—Jamal Pasha and his underlings—was to maintain, broaden, and inhabit institutions linked to the state. There is no doubt that the actions of Jamal Pasha and his subordinates, such as carrying out executions, forcing people into exile, and declaring martial law, were central in framing experiences on the home front. Talha Çiçek convincingly makes this point in his notable history of wartime Ottoman Syria. Çiçek presents an intricate account, proceeding outward from the empire’s capital, and highlights the war as a moment of accelerated state formation. It is the history of Jamal Pasha working to consolidate a state that could “conduct the conduct” of its provincial citizens. For the military commander, Çiçek writes, this was a struggle to control, lead, and shape a particular loyal Ottoman citizen.
The state’s power, however, works not only through violent deduction, extraction, and restrictions (censorship, conscription) but also in the delivery of services (urban development, education). Food and health provisions in times of famine, I argue, were equally as important. Power that seeks to “generate, incite, reinforce, monitor, optimize, and organize the forces under it” does not work through deduction alone. Wartime provision and relief was another sphere where this becomes clear. In Beirut and Mount Lebanon, representatives of the state saw the war as an opportunity to assert state power through wartime provisioning and the extension of public health measures. Charles Tilly’s idea of “protection” as part of what a state does during war is helpful here. He asserts that protection includes, on the part of state representatives, the “elimination or neutralizing of their clients’ enemies.” (I would add “perceived” or “real” enemies.) The act of protection can take on violent form or, as in the case of shielding clients’ bodies against hunger and disease, it can be humanitarian. Suffering turned into “the principal ‘call for alms’” on the home front. This clearly suggests that at times power over life, the biopolitical, is benevolent and not “unambiguously nefarious.” Hunt outlines the dual function of the state; the nervousstate “policed and securitized as it sought to contain menacing forms of therapeutic rebellion,” whereas “the biopolitical [state] worked to promote life and health.” The former functioned driven by fear, and the latter by guilt. Charity of War brings this important point to the fore. However, it would be rash, Hunt argues, to think that these dual functions forge a dichotomy or even parallel processes; instead, the biopolitical/humanitarian and the nervous/securitizing interact with mobility, so the two functions exist as relational processes. In the case of Beirut and Mount Lebanon they were at times so entangled that any distinction between them becomes difficult. Moreover, distinguishing between the nervous and the biopolitical does not imply that the latter did not use violence to accomplish its goals. Still, it seems shortsighted to understand the state as somehow separate from society. Neither the Ottoman state nor its representative Jamal Pasha ever worked in isolation. Instead, the newly appointed Jamal Pasha entered into a society, both urban and rural, made up of a complex network of power relations that could not easily be oppressed, ignored, or appeased.
A close look at the politics of provisioning not only allows us to see different types of power but also forces us to account for the natures of state and society and their relationships with each other. The state cannot be reduced to an unchanging, solid, harmonious object, whose autonomy relies on its clear separation from society and its control over it. Instead, as Midgal argues, both state and society are “not static formations but are constantly becoming as a result of struggle over social control.” Their boundaries are always shifting. Hence, I argue that the state cannot “stand apart from society”; the state functions within society through a mélange of formal and informal social organizations. The governmentalized state of the nineteenth century (the Ottoman Empire can be seen as such an entity) took shape through, or at the very least was influenced by, the “prior formation of ever-growing apparatuses of knowledge collection and problematization that formed alongside the state apparatuses, often in conflict with it, in the emergent terrain of the ‘social.’” Michael Watts and Hans Bohle posit that “prescriptive and normative responses to vulnerability” reduce exposure, enhance coping capacity, strengthen recovery potential, and bolster damage control (i.e., minimize destructive consequences) through both private and public means. This means that not all modes of protection originate with the state. But some existing social organizations have at their disposal some of the “same currency of compliance, participation, and legitimacy to protect and strengthen their enclaves” as the state.
In the Ottoman provinces, we see that exigencies were dealt with through both private and public means. For example, philanthropic organizations, foreign missionaries, local notables, and religious institutions that exercised demands and constraints on the metropole in the prewar period, asserting a certain amount of power over life, strove to counteract the destructiveness of the war, or at the very least ameliorate its effects. With this goal in mind, local, state, and international wartime relief efforts mobilized existing networks and forged new ones to help those in need. This process was marked by fierce competition over the loyalties of local civilians, which in turn would guarantee the maintenance or even expansion of their social positions. For example, urban notables’ struggles to maintain their social standings as benevolent agents and the state’s attempts to assert its role as benefactor to the citizenry, were driven by local and international competition over people’s stomachs, that is, over loyalties, as discussed in Chapters 3 and 5. Consequently, this book asserts that while the interventionist wartime policies of state representatives shaped everyday life on the home front, we must also bear in mind that the relationships between the empire’s diverse social groups and the state affected ruling strategies as well as resistance to them. Charity of War, therefore, expands on work that has long seen provincial notables as instrumental to processes of reforming the empire’s social and political structures.82 Paying particular attention to provincial actors and social organizations, this book insists on their agency as they competed for political power and status in Beirut and Mount Lebanon and sought to assert themselves in the face of an increasingly centralizing state.