Michael Provence, The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Michael Provence (MP): I realized long ago that the wartime and interwar period was a time of common experience and intimate connectedness for the people of the post-Ottoman region generally. I wanted to write a book that got at the unity of experience and collective consciousness of the post-Ottoman Arab East between 1918 and 1939. It came to seem obvious that the residues, habits, emotions, and structures of 400 years of Ottoman shared experience could not have disappeared overnight. How did people makes sense of and deal with what had happened to them between about 1908 and 1930? I wanted to try to tell that story in a way I hoped the people who lived through it would have recognized.
The idea of the book as a transnational history of anti-colonial insurgency and political struggle evolved since my days as a graduate student living in Damascus in the 1990s. Walking the streets of the city every day, I realized that the physical Ottoman structure of the city was mostly intact and more a part of everyday life than much of what had come after 1918. I slowly became aware of roads, schools, railways, shops, cafes, electrical plants, drinking water and river diversion projects, and government and residential buildings of every description, most of which were built in the second half of the nineteenth century.
My house mate, Stefan Weber, was working on Ottoman domestic and institutional architecture, and together we wandered the city, noticing traces of the Ottoman modernization project everywhere. At the same time, I began reading and comparing French and Arabic material on the Syrian Revolt of 1925. In looking for biographical traces of people the French mandate authorities identified as rebels in the mid 1920s, I found there was a preponderance of former Ottoman soldiers. This was a different group and a different background from what I expected. The leading lights of Arab nationalism and its storied literature, starting with George Antonius, seemed mostly absent from the more fine-grained sources. I noticed repeated references to Ottoman military schools that the national histories had never mentioned, and I learned over the course of years that a major state system had existed and educated thousands, many of whom became the leading military and political figures of what came to appear as a region wide post-Ottoman struggle against the 1918-20 settlement and partition. Many people educated in the Ottoman military system were more committed to the Ottoman State and its survival than to the regions they may have come from. They moved around a lot!
I walked around Damascus, Beirut, Istanbul, Adana, Ankara, Aleppo, Tripoli, and other places, tracking down and photographing Ottoman schools. There were a lot of them. Every now and then I got to tour the buildings. Most of them are still state schools. A few, like the Damascus rüşdiye askeriye in Marja Square, have been demolished. In its place is now a modern neo-mamluk government mosque and an office tower, still unfinished after decades. The Damascus military secondary school was in the Tankiz Mosque, which partly burned in the early 1960s, and is now an Islamic girls’ school under the Syrian ministry of awqaf. The Tribal School in Istanbul, a bit ironically I think, is a very expensive residential condominium with Bosporus views. Do the people who now live there know it used to be a gilded prison for boys from the wild hinterland? I doubt it.
In the early years, I was enormously fortunate to take part in a mandate study group organized by Nadine Meouchy and Peter Sluglett. The discussions started at the French Institute in Damascus, where Meouchy was Scientific Secretary, and followed with conferences in Beirut, Utah, and France. I came to learn during these discussions that both the Ottoman experience and the colonial experience in the region was more a common touchstone than either national or colonial historiography allowed. Put another way, historians of the separate emerging nation-states, historians of the British mandates, and historians of the French mandates, mostly focused on what was different about each, not what was common to all. I, and some of the other historians, thought this emphasis on separateness was a mistake when applied to the mandates. My teacher, Rashid Khalidi, made this point in a memorable summation to the final mandate conference in Aix-en-Provence in 2002.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MP: I wanted to trace the common Ottoman structures and their usually ignored social, cultural, and political influence. I also came to understand that the Ottoman State and system itself had been the target of both the Great War and the colonial/mandate partition. The architects of the mandate were forthright in their intention to destroy the Ottoman State and replace it with something they considered more manageable and more ideologically comfortable and affirming from the perspective of French and British national and imperial identity and self-conception. The traces of the mandates and their structures are everywhere still present, and I wanted to follow the trail. So, the book tries to say something about Ottoman and interwar colonial and international history.
I spent a long time at mandate archives in London, Nantes, and Geneva (at the League of Nations mandate archives), and I was appalled at the way the emergence of the post-World War I international system was actually devised to allow and paper over the worst kind of colonial atrocities. I thought the story needed telling. Post-Ottoman intellectuals claimed the mandates were worse and more unjust than both the Ottoman system and earlier colonial systems in that they claimed to be bringing modern, representative structures while actually undermining and destroying them. I thought such people had an important point. The defects in the state and legal systems the mandates brought to the region and its people ought to be better understood.
It also occurred to me that there was no single book for teaching the mandates, and I thought I could contribute something.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
MP: While working on the Great Syrian Revolt, I learned that people who took part in the revolt in Syria considered it part of a much larger struggle. A number of people fighting in 1925 had been active in anti-colonial insurgency between 1918 and 1925 as well as with the Ottoman army before the Armistice. Some of them kept at it till the 1940s, including during the war for Palestine. It was their story and what they were fighting for that I wanted to understand.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MP: I hope The Last Ottoman Generation will be useful to scholars of the region and the general public, especially in the Middle East, for whom the last century often seems like a kind of black box of mystery and misery. I want to explain to readers (and to myself) how things came to be as they are. I always write with my teachers and friends in Damascus and Beirut in mind, and I care more about what they think than anybody else.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MP: I have the good fortune to be spending 2017-18 at the Institut d’Etudes Avancées de Nantes, France, and so I go to the archives almost every day. I am still fascinated with some of the questions of the interwar period, particularly the fate of Yasin al-Hashimi. I am also beginning to think about the end of the mandate in Syria and the immediate post-independence period. I think the mandate had a long and deleterious afterlife, and I plan to follow its traces on Syrian political history.
Excerpt from the Book:
Modern Education and a Late Ottoman Childhood
At the end of the nineteenth century a 10-year-old boy began a long walk away from home. He kissed his mother, perhaps for the last time, cried a little, and left, carrying some belongings, carefully packed for the journey, accompanied by his father, an uncle, or older brother. They soon passed beyond beloved and familiar sights, through unfamiliar villages, or neighborhoods, over the passage of hours, or even days. Finally they reached the grand doorway of a large stone building, with an inscription neither could likely read, bearing the signature of the Ottoman sultan, and reading “Imperial Military Middle School.” The boy kissed his father, perhaps cried a bit more, but furtively, and passed through the doorway into the seemingly durable embrace of the modernizing state.
Attending a state middle school was an experience of anxiety and wonder for children in the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire. In Damascus, Beirut, Adana, Salonica, and other provincial capitals, the journey to school started by leaving the family home. The path might have taken the parent and child through olive groves, fruit orchards, or wheat fields, and neighboring villages, and down the mountains, toward a town nestled on the shores of the Mediterranean, or along a large river. It would surely have been the largest town, and probably the largest building, the boy had ever seen. Anxiety and dread gave way to excitement and pride when the boy received his splendid new woolen uniform, complete with brass buttons bearing the imperial coat of arms, and a crimson fez.
In the nineteenth century in Europe and the Mediterranean basin, most people were peasants and most died not far from their birthplace. It would not have taken the child long to realize that his life was about to change in a way different from the lives of his parents or grandparents. Education and association with the state would indeed open new vistas on a world beyond the village or neighborhood. School would be jarring, eased by new friends, and a dormitory full of boys just as alone and disoriented. Teachers spoke unfamiliar languages and new words, and there would surely be a huge and frightening quantity of things to learn. Military or civil middle school would, however, be the first real step in becoming part of a late Ottoman elite, and children would meet peers with whom they would share experiences and outlook over the coming decades. Everything they learned and did conditioned them to believe they were the foremost guardians of the Ottoman state, its sultan, and its Muslim people. They came to form a self-conscious elite and expected to assume leading roles in the army and politics. Similarly conditioned men played singular roles in all the countries that marched to war in 1914. In the former Ottoman lands, they continued their central role after the defeat in 1918.
Middle Eastern historians have long been preoccupied with national histories and the rise of individual nationalisms. Modernity, ethnic nationalism, and the Middle East post-colonial nation-state are under-stood to be intertwined; a perspective that also lay behind the League of Nations and various post-World War I settlements. This book does not follow this pattern. It tries to imagine the viewpoint of many former Ottoman citizens who argued that the divisions of and governing arrangements of the post-Ottoman, colonial period were inferior, less free, and less representative than what had come before. Many pro-tested that Ottoman rule had been better, more just, and perhaps more modern, than what we take to be the modern nation-state system of the Middle East. Their voices have been silenced by a hundred years of colonial and nationalist historiography, but if we want to know what was lost and what the world looked like in 1920, such voices are important. This book tells the story of the slow demise of a system of ordering the world that spanned centuries and regions and how people tried to survive this personal and political cataclysm. Obviously, many did not survive. The book takes as its frame of reference not the birth of some-thing new, but the death of something old and evolving, and asks how did the old things, patterns, habits, cultures, ways of thinking, and possibilities affect what came after.
Modernity, Militarism, and Colonialism in the Making of the Middle East
The modernizing Ottoman State had touched the lives of all within its domains in the years immediately before the war. Those who lived through the period shared a range of experiences common to all the major combatant states. The nineteenth-century European state had evolved in the century after the French revolution to become a state that educated, taxed, counted, conscripted, trained, and claimed to act in the name of, and derive its legitimacy from, the collective will and spirit of its population. The combatant states fostered a range of public rituals, origin stories, and invented traditions intended to cement loyalty, allegiance, and compliance with the state. In the Ottoman state these centered around Islam, the person and office of the Sultan-Caliph, or successor to the Prophet Muhammad as titular head of the Muslim community. The state also claimed to provide justice and representation to its non-Muslim population, who received quotas for representation in various elected Ottoman bodies. Like other states in Europe, state legitimation included a sometimes contradictory mix of majority religious appeals, claims of popular sovereignty, and claims of legal equality before the law for all religious communities. In this way the state sought to harness the loyalty of its majorities, while attempting more fitfully to insure the compliance of its religious minorities. The appeals to equality were often more theoretical than actual, as France’s Dreyfus Affair of 1894, and the repression and mass killings of Ottoman Armenians about the same time demonstrate.
The colonial legacy of today’s Middle East is no better understood than the Ottoman legacy, and has often been ignored for similar reasons. The Great Powers, and various regional client states planned and dis-cussed the partition of the Ottoman Empire long before the Balkan and Ottoman crises of 1911–13, and World War I. The partition plans, maneuvers, and negotiations were inevitably accompanied by a range of racial, religious, cultural, and civilizational oppositions. Put another way, a host of essential positive attributes claimed to characterize the British and French nations were arrayed against negative attributes claimed to characterize Ottoman Muslims; rationality against fanaticism, civilization against barbarism, evolutionism against timeless primitivism, modern against backward, and Christian against Muslim. These assumptions and preconceptions were not always openly expressed but they underlay all aspects of the post-world war settlement, and in fact made possible the kind of breathtaking hubris the settlement displayed. Notably, as Ottoman intellectuals pointed out at the time, such partitions and colonial arrangements were not contemplated or replicated in the conquered territories of the Hapsburg or German empires in central Europe. The difference was mostly religion, though so-called Oriental Christians, including Greeks and Armenians, were also considered unworthy of full self-rule.
This book makes three central arguments: First, the common legacy of the late Ottoman modernization project is second only to the colonial legacy in shaping the history of the region and its peoples. Second, the colonial legacy on the Middle East is a common experience, whether in Palestine, Iraq, Syria, or Turkey, without which the history of the region is incomprehensible. And finally, the durable tendency to view the history of the region through the lens of national histories of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, etc. obscures commonalities that were clear to all until at least the 1940s.
The book begins with a chapter examining the common structures, themes, and experiences of late Ottoman life. It focuses on the formative experience of military school, and follows the life experiences and adventures of several late Ottoman figures who began life as provincial children, of mostly modest background, and attended subsidized elite state schools. As members of a self-conscious, meritocratic, state elite, together they experienced privilege and responsibility for the fate of the state, war and trauma, followed by defeat, unemployment, prison, and worse, and went on to emerge as statesmen, nation builders, activists, or revolutionaries. The chapter shows that late Ottoman attitudes and structures were formative on the decades that followed, despite the collapse and disappearance of the state. The modernizing Ottoman state broadly shared similar institutions and attitudes with other modernizing European powers, and the Ottoman state and its fate deserves a more central place in the history of Europe and World War I than it customarily receives.
The second chapter examines the theories and practices of post-world war colonialism, as practiced by the victorious powers on the territories of the vanquished. It examines the legal and racial structures and the-ories that legitimated colonial rule over formerly independent peoples. Part of the effort to colonize the Ottoman realms required a rhetorical removal of the Ottoman state from the story of Europe, and the tacit placement of Ottoman Muslims into racially deficient non-European categories that demanded colonial tutelage. The resulting inconsistencies at the core of the colonial and League of Nations mandate system had consequences for the post-Ottoman region and its people that are still unfolding one hundred years later. The chapter introduces readers to the general themes and narrative of interwar Middle Eastern colonialism, which are explored in more detail in subsequent sections.
The remaining chapters follow the adventures and struggles of the last Ottoman generation through the interwar decades. These chapters make the central argument that for those who lived through them, the borders, states, and national histories that characterize the usual frame-work for understanding the region would have made no sense. The book attempts to re-imagine a post-Ottoman Middle East of great cities, and rural and pastoral hinterlands, interconnected through mod-ern infrastructure, and institutions, undivided by borders, ruling arrangements, or the constructed barriers of human consciousness.
A century later, the poisonous fruit of the Middle East colonial settle-ment is still in the headlines. Almost one hundred years after the end of the Great War, one of the Middle Eastern states created in its wake, Syria, where this book was first conceived, is in an advanced state of civil war and social and political disintegration. The conflict is widely claimed to be the gravest humanitarian and refugee crisis since World War II. The roots of the conflict in Syria today, like many other regional conflicts, reach directly into the polluted soil sown by the post-War settlement, and my only optimistic hope is that the reader may discern the shadows of these roots, and know that the suffering of today did not come from nowhere, but from the conviction, still nurtured widely, that some people were more deserving of life and liberty than others simply by the accident of their birth, and that the people who have suffered most from this conviction, now and in the past, did nothing to deserve their awful inheritance.