Thursday, March 08, 2007
The Collapse of the Ottoman Era
Salim Tamari, a faculty member of Birzeit University and a visiting professor in the history department here, presented an interesting talk today at Berkeley's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. His talk, "Palestine 1915: The Collapse of the Ottoman Era in the Diaries of Soldiers from the Great War," sought to unsettle both the Turkish as well as the Arab nationalist historiography of World War One using the diaries of a lieutenant and a private serving in the Imperial Fourth Army commanded by Jamal Ahmad Pasha.
The Fourth Army fought in the Levant, at Suez, and in the Hijaz. The informants on whom Tamari relied were initially garrisoned in Jerusalem. Both of these diarists exemplified the complex, situational identities that were the norm in the Ottoman Middle East. According to Tamari, Lieutenant Muhammad al-Fasih, who hailed from Mersin (Iskandarun, which is now in Turkey, near the Syrian border), was a "Turkified Arab." Private Ihsan Hasan al-Turjman, on the other hand, was an "Arabized Turk" from the Old City of Jerusalem. As his last name indicates, members of his family were employed as translators. While the "Arabized Turk" died in 1917 (in murky circumstances on which more later), the "Turkified Arab" went on to become a decorated officer in the Kemalist army after the war. It was indeed only after WWI that their national identities crystallized. Tamari argued that this was the case for many Ottoman subjects in the Levant.
With his talk, Tamari hoped to undermine two dominant narratives in the historiography of the Great War. Both of these histories feature the motif of betrayal. On the one hand, Arab nationalist historians have represented the story as driven by the Turanian (pan-Turkic) betrayal of the Istanbul and Ottoman elite, which had allegedly abandoned the idea of an integrated constitutional regime of citizenship that would include Arabs and grant them a certain amount of cultural autonomy (such as Arab-language instruction in schools). These historians point to the aggressive Turkification campaign waged by the triumvirate of Enver, Tal'at, and Jamal Pasha. The Turkish side, on the other hand, believes that the Arabs betrayed the empire, pointing to the Hashemite alliance with the British and the fact that Egypt never rebelled.
Often occluded by these narratives is the fact that more Arabs fought in the Ottoman army than took part in the Arab Revolt on the side of the Husseinis and the Syrian nationalists. Indeed, alongside Albanians, Bulgarians, Kurds, and Turks, Arabs made up 1/3 of Ottoman forces. Tamari estimated that perhaps half of the 97,000 Ottoman troops who died at Gallipoli were from the Levant, Egypt, or the Hijaz. In the annual commemorations attended by ANZAC and Turkish veterans representatives nowadays, all of the fallen Ottoman soldiers have been retroactively Turkified.
In the Holy Land more specifically, pro-Ottoman affinities were and remained strong among the Arabs. It was hard for many inhabitants of the Jerusalem mutasarrifate to imagine themselves as cut off from a network that included Halab (Aleppo), Beirut, Damascus, and Anatolia. Many supported the idea of a federated Arab-Turkish Ottoman state, an idea that was also contemplated by parts of the leadership of the Committee of Union and Progress (Ittihad). Arab nationalists, on the other hand, favored either an independent Greater Syria to be ruled by Prince Faysal from Damascus. There was also the option of an independent Palestine, which has of course received a lot of prominence in the historiography.
One other option that Tamari unearthed using the diaries, which he claims was part of the discourse, was the "decentering of Palestine." Palestine, as he pointed out, of course, was not an Ottoman administrative unit at the time. It probably makes more sense to speak of the Jerusalem district, which the Ottomans imagined as stretching from Jaffa in the north, to the southern part of Nablus, and including all of the Sinai peninsula. Private Ihsan reports that based on this Ottoman conception of the area, many people between 1915-1916 were contemplating a union of this area ("Palestine") with Khedeval Egypt. The reasoning was that the British would not allow the Jerusalem district to unite with Syria, for fear of it falling under French control. The private, as Tamari noted, obviously could not have known that such a union would have contradicted British promises to the Jewish national movement, which became known with the Balfour declaration in 1917.
Obviously, this option became moot when the Egyptians did not rise up against the British, and when Allenby forced the Ottoman army northward as the British and their allies invaded from the south. Nevertheless, according to Tamari, pro-Ottoman forces remained strong in Nablus, Akko, and Haifa.
The other part of Tamari's talk was devoted to the disintegrating effects of the Great War on Ottoman society in the Levant. The conscription of so many young men, combined with a locust attack in the spring of 1915 and the requisitioning of remaining crops by the Fourth Army, led to widespread starvation. The hunger and the breakdown of traditional society led to radical transformations, especially in urban centers. Adult men disappeared from the public sphere and an increasing number of women were forced to earn a living, though their options were extremely limited. Many turned to prostitution. Official bordellos for soldiers were established in Jaffa, Damascus, Beirut, and Jerusalem (which supposedly had 12 such institutions). Private Ihasan noted this collapse of his society with observations of prostitutes walking to the Damascus Gate.
The Great War also meant the end of a certain kind of localism. Tamari pointed to a declaration by Ihsan that he "will even go outside Jerusalem to get married." Such a statement would have been unthinkable before the war, the sociologist explained. But with so many soldiers being garrisoned far away in the empire (it was Ottoman policy to try to station soldiers far away from their homes; hence, Albanians and Bulgarians in Jerusalem, and so many Arabs at Gallipoli), and with the stablishment of railroad lines (aided by German military engineers) and the building of roads, local affinities began to break down. Ottomanist as well as nationalist identities competed to fill the void.
I will add two more notes of interest. Private Ihsan was killed in 1917, most likely by his commanding officer. This commanding officer, an Albanian, had apparently been harassing the private for months - "he had fallen deeply in love with Ihsan, who would have none of it." After Ishan complained to the commander, another Albanian, the would-be lover was demoted. Ihsan's C.O. then threatened him with death several times, coming to his house and seeking him out elsewhere. Until Tamari's discovery, the private's family had claimed that he was shot for deserting.
The actual finding of Ihsan's diary in the first place is also noteworthy. Tamari discovered the manuscript in the Hebrew University library. It did not have a name on it, and only through some sleuthing and a measure of good luck (which involved cross-referencing with another diary of a person who turned out to have been Ihsan's teacher) did Tamari discover the identity of the journal's author. In the Hebrew U. archive, the manuscript is filed under "absentee property." Tamari believes that it was probably found in an abandoned Arab home in East Jerusalem in 1967. He added that it was good that the Israelis found it, because if Ihsan's family members knew that it would come to light, they would probably have destroyed it.