Lily Pearl Balloffet, Argentina in the Global Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Lily Pearl Balloffet (LPB): From the earliest stages of conceptualizing the research project that eventually became Argentina in the Global Middle East, I knew that I wanted to do work that would take me to a diverse array of Argentine geographies. I came to the study of modern Latin American and global migration history from a place of deep curiosity about the sociocultural landscapes forged by the historical processes of moving people. I grew up traveling from the United States to visit family members in two very distinct places in Argentina: the bustling federal capital city of Buenos Aires, and the relatively small provincial capital of Mendoza. The experiential contrast of these places—a metropolis and a comparatively quiet city set against the spectacular landscape of the high desert and Andean foothills—was central to my early desire to critically explore questions of Argentine geography and national space. From early on I saw the ways in which moving people, things, and ideas have historically connected seemingly disparate landscapes, and I wanted to further explore that dynamic as my key area of inquiry. In refining my areas of inquiry, I chose to focus on Middle Eastern geographies of global migration patterns within this Latin American context. This afforded me the opportunity to expand my study of mobilities into the realm of “South-South” networks of connection, and the ways in which histories of global migration shaped these connections over time. All these years later, every time that I read the Introduction to my book, it strikes me that my own repeated experiences of mobility across these landscapes were central all along to the way in which I conducted research and ultimately structured my book.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
LPB: This book’s primary focus is on the historical account of Middle Eastern migration from the Arabic-speaking Eastern Mediterranean to Argentina, starting in the early twentieth century. The book’s chapters address the lived social experiences of migrants from Ottoman Syria (primarily the geographies designated today as Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine) as they settled and built lives all across the country. To illuminate this geospatial-demographic portrait of South-South migration that encompassed urban hubs and well as seemingly remote rural outposts, I oriented my scholarship at the intersection of several different literatures: comparative migration studies, studies of nation-building, and Global South studies, are a few examples of literatures with which I seek to be in dialogue. This project led me to conclude that the study of Middle Eastern migration in Argentine history is at its core an exercise in radically collapsing geographic distance and space in the service of challenging outdated geographic segregations that continue to haunt ethnic and area studies scholarship. As an alternative approach, this book invites readers to conceptualize geographic space and human movement as continuous and connective, rather than bordered and bounded.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
LPB: This book began as a doctoral dissertation project in the History Department at the University of California, Davis. Once the project “left the lab,” so to speak, I began to further push the disciplinary and methodological boundaries of my work, inspired in great part by the intellectual community that I built in the years immediately following the completion of my graduate degree. I spent a year as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Middle East Migration Studies at North Carolina State University, and thanks to excellent mentorship and helpful collaborators, I fully embraced what began as a fledgling interest in analyzing large geospatial data sets, and grew into a core methodological hinge point for several of the book’s chapters. Some years later, while in the final writing stages of the book, I joined the interdisciplinary Department of Latin American and Latino Studies at University of California, Santa Cruz. This further blew the doors open on my vision for this book’s scope and approach, and I was inspired to carry my analysis into the twenty-first century in order to incorporate an examination of the historical roots of contemporary transregional trade, migration policy advocacy, and South-South artistic spaces of co-creation. Working with colleagues who modeled for me the idea of the American hemisphere as a lens, not merely a geography, propelled me into thinking about how my project could invite readers to understand the Americas as part of, rather than witness to, the many mobilities that have constituted Middle Eastern historical processes and contemporary realities.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
LPB: In writing this book I came to believe that it is critically important for us to acknowledge and explore the direct relationship between current discourses or media portrayals of global migration processes and South-South relations as intimately related to the lived experiences of migrants as historical figures. It is my hope that this book encourages readers to see South-South relations as a normalized part of the historical record. Offering up this perspective is a critical dimension of my larger project, in which I try to open space for a more diverse array of migrant subjects to act as focal points in academic (and other) spheres. I also want readers to identify and reflect on the role that mobility (of people, things, ideas) plays in their own social networks, cultural traditions, family history, and more.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
LPB: I am currently at work on a new book project, provisionally titled American Venom: Snakes, Science, and Hemispheric Relations. In this project, I bring the expertise that I have developed as a historian of Global South migration to my increasingly interdisciplinary interest in the biology, ecology, and conservation of tropical venomous animals. In this book, I explore the social, health, and economic impacts of snakes for the people with whom they interact. I have had a fascinating experience over the past several years of devising this historically grounded study of snake antivenom medicine that draws on scholarship in ecology, evolutionary biology, physiology, and medicine as well as scholarship on public health, the production of scientific knowledge, labor migration, and the social impacts of multinational agricultural corporations in tropical regions. In the book, I propose antivenom (medicine used to treat venomous snakebite) as a nexus of colonialist scientific, economic, social justice, and public health interests that have indelibly shaped histories of the American hemisphere and hemispheric relations. I am hoping this book will be of interest to a broad audience and will encourage new cross-disciplinary and cross-sector dialogues and collaborations.
J: What experiences from the research for your book project have influenced the research you are currently conducting for your next project?
LPB: One of the ancillary projects that I did in conjunction with Argentina in the Global Middle East was to create a digital humanities companion website for my book. This has inspired me to think of my new project as one that I want to exist both in, and beyond, traditional formats for academic articles and books. Additionally, despite the apparent divergence from the subject matter of my book, I see this new project as one that also engages the cross-disciplinary, geographically informed work on mobilities (of people, things, and ideas) that lay at the heart of Argentina in the Global Middle East. The work that I did toward that project, and the ways that it drove me to evolve as a researcher, teacher, and scholar, effectively laid the groundwork for American Venom. I see my recent work as a natural continuation of my search for new and enlightening ways to theorize diverse forms of global connection—including linkages born from economic, political, migratory, and ecological ties.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction: Transregional Migration and Mobility, pp. 4-8)
From a twenty-first-century vantage point, it is easy to see relations between peoples and states in the Middle East and the Americas as yet another product of an ever-globalizing world. Indeed, new populations, commodities, and ways of thinking circulate between these regions with increasing frequency, thanks to the perfect storm of communication and transportation technology. Meanwhile, media, politicians, and international organizations tirelessly inform us that this planet is on the move. The constant onslaught of these reminders can lull one into believing that the panorama of human, material, and ideological circulation among these regions is a recent phenomenon. Engaging a historical perspective on the topic of Middle Eastern–American relations (América on a hemispheric scale, that is), reveals how global migration systems bound these geographies together since the nineteenth century.
Argentina lies at the nucleus of América’s history of global migration booms of the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. By 1910, one of every three Argentine residents was an immigrant—twice the demographic impact that the United States experienced in the boom period from the 1860s to World War I. As a principal transatlantic migration hub, Argentina’s trajectory as a modern nation played out through the experience of mass migration. The immigrant masses integrated national space through their engagement with agriculture, industry, and infrastructure. Meanwhile, elites and popular classes alike formulated ideas of national identity alternately forged in, or in opposition to, ideas about immigration and migrants themselves. The theme of immigration is central to both inward-facing histories of the development of Argentine national identities, as well as outward-facing histories of Argentine foreign relations.
It was in this context that Middle Easterners from Ottoman Syria made their way to Argentina prior to World War I and quickly spread across the high desert of the Andean Altiplano borderlands, all the way to the fabled Patagonian Land of Fire in the south. Subsequently, the communities, institutions, and businesses of this colectividad dotted the landscape of Argentina’s largest cities to its most remote frontiers. Though scattered far and wide across more than 1 million square miles, these individuals were anything but isolated from one another. The movement and circulation of people, things, and ideas between urban hubs and rural outposts alike defined the geography of this migration. This migrant geography—conceived of and articulated alternately as a diaspora, imagined community, or network—can perhaps most simply be referred to as the mahjar. In Arabic, mahjar refers to the combined people and territories that constitute the human spatial map of migrant worlds constructed after the massive out-migration from Ottoman Syria since the last third of the nineteenth century. The mahjar materialized during a period of massive development and transition for American migration hubs such as Argentina, Brazil, and the United States—the three countries that became home to the largest resident communities of individuals with roots in the Arabic-speaking eastern Mediterranean. In each of these American contexts, the proliferation of new infrastructure, especially railroads, provided the circuitry for highly mobile Middle Easterners across the hemisphere.
This book traces some of the key ways in which women and men in the Argentine mahjar staked their fundraising endeavors, business ventures, and artistic projects in movement across a migrant geography that stretched beyond national boundaries. These multiple forms of mobility—not only of humans themselves, but of objects, worldviews, money, and material culture—were central to the social landscape of the mahjar. The geographic extent of these mobilities ranged from habitual microregional or local movements to dramatic forays across political borders. The constancy and diversity of these mobilities testify to the fact that the social relations of this colectividad did not simply connect two or more countries in the traditional conceptualization of “transnational” migrant groups. These diverse layers and types of mobility did generate transnational relations between people in Argentina and the Middle East, but they also generated local and regional networks of relations that were intimately related to those transnational ties. As a starting point, thinking of Argentina’s Middle Eastern migrants in a transnational frame does indeed help us move beyond a binary mode of interpreting the movement in migrants’ lives as defined by either arriving or leaving—immigration versus emigration. It opens the door to seeing cultures and social structure as something other than predicated on determined spatial boundaries or static notions of rootedness.
However, conceptualizing the ties born out of Middle Eastern migration to Argentina as simply transnational presents certain limitations. Argentines of Middle Eastern descent can certainly trace their heritage back to particular nations very much in existence today—predominantly Syria and Lebanon. At the time of the global migration boom of the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, though, these nations did not exist yet; they were part of the Ottoman Empire. In other words, the advent of nation-states followed, rather than preexisted, the birth of supposedly transnational ties between these Latin American and Middle Eastern geographies. Furthermore, even after the establishment of the national boundaries that today delineate the nations of the Arabic-speaking eastern Mediterranean, the various mobilities that existed between those places and the Americas did not neatly abide by a fixed transnational circuit between Argentina and Syria/Lebanon. Instead, a broader set of social, political, and cultural relations drew together actors and ideas from a wider Middle Eastern and North African region, as well as a wider American region. Some scholars of the mahjar refer to this phenomenon as the birth of a public sphere that deeply affected everything from political movements to artistic forms in the modern Middle East and whose formation we can attribute to historical processes of mass migration. In a similar light, this book examines the mobilities between localities, provinces, and nations as subsets of a broader spectrum of transregional relations. This is not only a more accurate description, geographically, of the panorama of ties that formed between the Middle East and Argentina—and the Americas more generally. In addition, it encourages us to more thoroughly incorporate people and places at the margins of traditional histories of mass migration and to conceive of them as unified in distinct ways by transregional systems of migration and mobility.
By the time twentieth-century scholars started to examine the history of the mahjar, the legacy of Cold War area studies exerted a powerful force on the way in which we have traditionally taught about and conducted research on the “Middle East” and “Latin America.” Methodological and conceptual frameworks that naturalized the bounded nature of world “areas” left little room for subjects whose realities are staked in the movement between places. Although it was during the Cold War years that the institutional consolidation of area studies gained serious traction, the tendency to isolate and segregate the globe into areas is much older. The desire to dominate through intricate regimes of labeling, delineating, and partitioning lay at the very core of colonial systems of territorial domination for centuries. Questioning the supposed logic of these segregations is necessarily one of the foremost tasks at hand if we are to work toward decolonizing the way we think, write, and teach global histories. There is no better way to muddy the concept of neatly packaged world regions than to delve into the histories of large-scale movement, such as mass migration, between those geographies. In this way, histories of the mahjar help us to chip away at the legacy of colonial and nationalist worldviews that for so many generations enshrined their visions of the world…
The array of social landscapes comprising the mahjar in the Americas serves as the focus for a growing number of scholars of Middle Eastern migration—past and present. Honing our focus on the ways in which these cultural, social, and political forms were in play throughout the mahjar at a global scale invites us to think of the Middle East as something more than a simple geographic designation. We might imagine this new scope of analysis as a “Global Middle East.” Together, new works on Middle Eastern migration in the Americas have helped us to frame the long-distance ties that bind the history of the American hemisphere with that of the Arabic-speaking eastern Mediterranean. From Canada, to Cuba, to Argentina, people with transregional ties to homelands such as Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine participated in the tumultuous historical processes that shaped the modern Middle East. Meanwhile, across the hemisphere, they also became Americans. These were simultaneous and mutually influential processes by which migrants and their descendants formed multiple belongings. To ascribe too much meaning to this duality—transregionalism versus integration—risks ensnaring us in the same binary of immigration versus emigration. Moving away from these binaries offers us the opportunity to harness a vocabulary of movement that does not hinge on the crossing of national borders and does not unnecessarily segregate migratory practices that need to be studied as an inclusive system. Rather than focus on Arab American experiences as embodied by these dualities, this book organizes its analysis around the movement—business travel, mobile political campaigns, roving cultural producers, and other examples—that was truly at the core of the lived social landscapes of the mahjar and at the heart of this notion of a Global Middle East.