The era of the First World War for the Syrian immigrants is an important historical milestone that has not known the historical treatment it deserves, for many academic reasons, most notably the scattering of historical sources among manuscripts related to the history of immigration, and other reasons related to Ottoman history and a third supervised by the French colonialist.
To understand some of the features of this complex scene, Al Jazeera hosts the historian Stacey D. Fahrenold (STACY D. FAHRENTHOLD), a historian interested in the modern Middle East specializing in the issue of immigration in the Middle East, a professor of history at the University of California and an affiliate of the Middle East and South Asia Studies Program, and a member of the Board Editing of the magazine “The Orient and the Quarry: Journal of Migration Studies in the Middle East and North Africa” (Mashriq & Mahjar: Journal of Middle Eastern and North African Migration Studies).
The dialogue revolves around her book Between the Ottomans and the Entente The First World War in the Syrian and Lebanese Diaspora, 1908-1925, published by the prestigious Oxford University Press For the year 2019, which is the publication that won a number of awards, including the Arab American Book Award for the year 2020, and the Khairallah Prize for Migration Studies for the year 2019.
The book is the first social history of the First World War from the perspective of the Arab diaspora, and the book examines how immigrants faced the demands of loyalty from their host societies as well as confronting the immigration restriction system, passport control and nationality disputes to control their movements, and it examines how activists in the western diaspora believed that their support for reconciliation would strengthen The independence of their country before they woke up to the fact that they had become a tool to strengthen colonial policies in the post-Ottoman Levant, so to the dialogue:
The first thing that comes to mind when interacting with your valuable author is that you chose to work on the period between 1908 and 1925, what was the secret behind choosing this particular era?
The period of time that I worked on in the book was a period marked by the existence of turmoil that extended from the Young Turkey Revolution in 1908 to the Great Syrian Revolution in 1925, two uprisings that occurred during the First World War and its aftermath, a stage marked by reshaping the way the Syrians in the Diaspora interacted. With their home in a radical way.
I was interested in exploring how the rise of nationalist movements affected the nearly half a million Arabs living in exile, who then made up a fifth of the Syrian people.
The period from 1908 to 1925 was also a period marked by the existence of “significant” immigration policies; The Syrian associations abroad supported the 1908 revolution (the Young Turks movement) because they believed that it would lead to the consolidation of liberal constitutional foundations in their homeland, and when the Ottoman government failed to achieve this, they opposed the Ottoman Empire, but during the First World War, Syrian immigrants cooperated with the efforts of other countries. Al-Wefaq Al-Harbi, however, the alliance of migrants was due to their quest for the full independence of Syria, and as evidence of that; When the French mandate entered Syria, the Syrian immigrants opposed the existence of the French mandate in their lands.
You indicated in your book about the roles that Amin Arslan played, both with the French mandate as well as with the Ottomans; What roles did he play in the World War I era?
The Ottomans sent Amin Arslan to Argentina in 1910 to occupy the position of Consul General of the Ottoman Sultanate, and Arslan strongly opposed the role of the unitary government in the First World War, and he believed that the war was characterized by an imperial character that carries with it the imperative of the occupation to enter his homeland.
Arslan openly protested from Argentina against these war policies, which led to his expulsion from his diplomatic post, which is a defining moment in Arslan’s path. From there, he declared his support for the Arab resistance against Ottoman policies, and that from his exile.
Arslan’s position was complex; He supported the independence of Greater Syria, but this means navigating the geopolitics of French and British desires in the region. He cooperated with the French efforts during the war, but after 1919 he was an outspoken opponent of European colonialism and resisted the policy of dividing the region, which was reflected in the French relationship with him; During the Great Syrian Revolt (1925-1927), the French placed Arslan under strict surveillance and revoked his passport because Mandate officials were concerned that he would raise a revolt against them from Buenos Aires.
What is the value of rewriting the history of the diaspora during the First World War, and what is the impact of this academic effort on Syrian history?
War has a power that influences political movements, whether by pushing them towards development or by hindering them. In this work, I sought to explore the relationship between migration and its interactions with the war, because when many important books were written about the migration movements that the Levant knew, the era of the world war always remained a station of academic obscurity despite its importance, which is a curious and cognitive matter.
This silence acquired by this era was curious and curious due to the interactions of the Syrian associations in the diaspora with the issues of the homeland during the conflict phase. The history of this era is interesting to me because it shows how immigrants abroad affected the Middle East after the end of the Ottoman domination.
How did migration contribute to shaping the Syrians’ vision of the idea of renaissance and building the national state?
Of course, it is known that Syrian activists in the Americas participated in the Arab intellectual renaissance movement, and as a result of those ideas that the Syrian immigrants generated or interacted with, a feeling of patriotism emerged.
My book deals more specifically with war and Arab activism aimed at opposing Ottoman rule; Where I discuss the performance of activists in New York, Buenos Aires, and São Paulo, and the coordinated work they have taken to pressure the great powers to obtain support in Syria, and in this regard they have spread national ideals through the Syrian press in the diaspora.
Immigrants were also recruited into the army, and when the war ended in 1918, they sought to influence European powers to push them towards the independence of Syria. Instead, Syria was placed under the French mandate, which led Syrian activists abroad to oppose and against French colonialism from their exile during the 1920s.
You indicated in your book that studies conducted on immigrants between the first and second wars show that “immigration” presented a mixture that fluctuates between opportunities and obstacles for the French mandate, but the origins of the relationship of immigrants with the French mandate are covered by some ambiguity. Can you explain that?
The central issue here is the problem of sources; In writing history, the author makes choices which list of archives to use.
In 1919, the French presented the issue of their mandate over Syria and Mount Lebanon at the Paris Peace Conference in Versailles, and for that they employed some of the documents that the French had brought to support their proposal, which consisted of thousands of petitions and letters from Arab immigrants in the Americas claiming their support for the French thesis in placing their mandate in Syria.
These petitions entered the European archives; It was used to study the French mandate period in Syrian and Lebanese history; I claim that many facts have been lost because of the selection of these sources based mainly on the petitions of Syrians in the Diaspora; For example, in those archives there are no anti-colonial voices from the Syrian diaspora, the historian must have access to the Arab American archives and the newspapers of the Syrian immigrants.
This is precisely what my book did, which opened up to other sources such as family papers and numbers of newspapers belonging to Syrian immigrants who lived in the Americas to broaden the understanding of the scene and its interactions with the French mandate contrary to the prevailing image.
And based on what you mentioned, the book arrives for a thesis that the political relationship of Syrians in the Diaspora with the French Mandate was very complex, and cannot be reduced to the fact that it was supportive of the French presence in Syria; for example, the French authorities sought to put legal obstacles to thousands of Syrians abroad due to their fear of the return of immigrants. For Syria that may fuel the pace of the independence movement.
By 1914, the Syrian newspapers printed in New York, Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires had gained unprecedented popularity during that period. In New York alone, nearly a dozen periodicals worked in Arabic simultaneously. What is the impact of these newspapers in promoting national identity and fighting Western colonialism?
When the Ottomans intensified censorship during the war, the newspapers of the Syrian immigrants became a free press; Editors in New York, Buenos Aires, and São Paulo were freer to oppose Ottoman policies in a way their citizens of Beirut and Damascus could not.
When Jamal Pasha hanged two Syrian journalists in 1916, the intellectuals in the Diaspora supported the revolt against Ottoman rule for the first time. They used the press to refine national ideas and consolidate their theoretical pillars, and through it they called on Syrian citizens to take up arms and disseminate military information, and they called for humanitarian relief during the war phase. These newspapers also fed the new Syrian political parties that later played important roles in the peace negotiations. Conducted between 1918 and 1920.
You mentioned in your book that the Syrian associations provided an important social structure that was “rediscovered by the Ottoman Empire” in the aftermath of the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. How did these associations affect the Syrians’ view of the Ottoman state?
The Syrian Associations in Diaspora have formed a monetary policy that has defined their resistance activities. The critical years from 1908 to 1914 witnessed a flourishing of immigrant clubs and societies in the Diaspora, and for a short period, the Ottomans supported these clubs, believing that they were a means of directing the political loyalties of immigrants to their political causes, but during the war, many Syrian clubs abroad joined the current anti-Ottoman state, It also sought to support the independence movement.
You indicated in your book that conscription was a powerful symbolic way for immigrants to cooperate with the forces of reconciliation, but in the months following the armistice of 1918, Syrian immigrants quickly negotiated the national borders of the post-Ottoman era, and Al-Wefaq presented new maps and believed in the importance of the principle of self-determination. And they established the first system that includes permits, passports and nationality laws in Syria and Lebanon after 1920, so did this contribute to the formation of Syria after the Ottoman presence?
Yes, the Syrian societies pushed the French to recognize the immigrants ’political rights laws, as they sought to liberate travel between Syria and the places where the migrants were, and the immigrants were openly opposed to the French colonialism during the Great Syrian Revolution in 1925-1927, and I would like to refer to an idea that I concluded my book that intersects with your important question. , To the effect that there is still more work to be done regarding the relationship of Syrian immigrants and the Syrian state during the period from 1927 to the borders of independence, many Syrian immigrant communities continued to be active until the 1940s. It would be important to learn more about their influence.