Panel 3G

Religion on the Move: Faith among Migrants of the Ottoman and post-Ottoman Middle East

16.15 – 18.15
Chair: Hilary Kalmbach, University of Sussex

Objects of Devotion: Palestinian Migrants and their Prayer Beads, c.1850-1910

Jacob Norris, University of Sussex

This paper looks at the material objects carried in the suitcases of migrants from the Jerusalem area in the 19th and early 20th centuries to explore their sense of religious belonging and spirituality. In particular it focuses on the Holy Land prayer beads that were commonly transported and sold as part of the pedlar’s standard range of merchandise. From Bethlehem to Buenos Aires and from Mecca to Manila, prayer beads were a lucrative commodity for Middle Eastern migrants. But at the same time, they provided a vital source of spiritual sustenance for the migrants themselves in an uncertain world of movement and dislocation. Commerce and faith did not simply co-exist in the global commodity chains of the 19th century; they could be mutually productive. Shifting our gaze to these everyday objects and the complex meanings attached to them, we gain rare glimpses into the spiritual landscapes of people otherwise typecast within the confines of commercial and familial networks. Drawing on the recent focus on the materiality of religious experience within the anthropology of religion, the paper recasts these migrants as fervently religious actors, albeit in their own idiosyncratic ways. The paper concludes with a case study of a particular miracle performed in 1909 in which the now-canonised Mariam Ghattas brought a merchant-migrant from Bethlehem back from the dead through the power of her rosary. In this version of the Middle Eastern migration story, prayer beads could perform both economic and supernatural miracles.

Catholic Faith and Mobility within the Middle East and across the Mediterranean: Continuities and Fractures (17th-18th  Century)

Felicita Tramontana, University of Warwick

Scholars working on population movements in the Early Modern period and beyond have often highlighted the link between religion and mobility. This is particularly true with regard to religious diasporas and the consequences of wars of religion and persecutions. Where the Ottoman Middle East is concerned, the link between religious belonging and migration has mostly been referred at in the context of works on conversions, however the issue has not yet been the subject of comprehensive studies. This paper contributes to this research topic discussing the impact of Catholicism on mobility across the Arab lands and toward the European continent. Despite the abundance of research on the spread of Catholicism, the impact of the phenomenon on the social history of the area, during the 17th and the 18th century, has not yet been analysed in all its facets. Nonetheless it was full of political and demographic consequences that will become more evident during the following centuries. This is the case, for example, with regard to migration both internal and across the Mediterranean. After describing the available sources and addressing some methodological problems, the paper discusses if and how the spread of Catholicism among the Christian population of the Middle East influenced migration patterns in the area during the period under consideration; what were the factors that shaped Catholics’ mobility within the Middle East and what consequences the spread of Catholicism among the eastern Christians had on their mobility across Europe.

Reading the Middle East from the Margins: A Forgotten Figure, his Faithful Life, and his Moving Books

Andrew Arsan, University of Cambridge

Reading the history of the Middle East from the margins, this paper suggests, can change our understanding of the narrative. In 2012, I was approached to examine the books of Shukri Swaydan, an Ottoman Arab migrant to the United States, whose personal library had recently been donated to Princeton’s Firestone Library. For three days, I played the part of an archivist, pulling this collection apart, cataloguing its contents, and putting it back together again. As I did so, I reflected on Swaydan’s obscure life and varied interests and commitments. Born in Marj‘uyun in 1885, Swaydan was educated at the Russian Imperial Orthodox Society’s school in Nazareth, before joining its staff. In 1909, however, he quit this comfortable existence for a new life in the United States. Taking up residence in Worcester, Massachusetts, he made a living as a translator, notary public, and journalist. But, as his books – those he read, and those he wrote – make clear, he remained committed throughout his life to the Russian Orthodoxy in which he had grown up. Lived in and through books, Swaydan’s life was a profoundly pious one. Focusing on the contents of his library, I will suggest that these can provide fresh insights into the intellectual and cultural histories of the Eastern Mediterranean and its diasporas. For Swaydan’s bookish life offers correctives to two time-worn narratives: that of Arab migrants’ mercantile inclinations and peddling successes, and that of the Arab nahda, or intellectual awakening, as a process of engagement with secular modernity.

“Like a Wolf Who Fell Upon Sheep:” Maronite Priests in America

Akram Khater, North Carolina State University

The migration of one-third of the population of Lebanon to the Americas between 1870 and 1920 was deeply transformative at great many levels.  While historians have studied the economic, social and political impact of migration on the Eastern Mediterranean and the secular changes amongst the diasporic communities, changes in religious faith, practice and institutions remain opaque. Yet, these are among the most intimate aspect of the lives transformed, and were in fact the most active fault lines in the Mahjar communities (lands of immigration) and at home. Based on hundreds of letters sent to Maronite Patriarch Elias Howayek (between 1899 and 1931 by Maronites in the United States, this paper examines some of these fault lines. From anguished calls for spiritual guidance to heated polemics about the corrupt nature of clerics, these letters speak of a religious community in tumult trying to rebuild itself in ways that accommodate the changed circumstances of being in America. Competing faiths and new secular ideas, communal and religious divisions, limited funds and dearth of Maronite priests made this process a struggle. Negotiated across unprecedented distances, with painfully slow letters as the only thread to any semblance of decisive patriarchal authority, the very essence of being a Maronite underwent dramatic changes that not only altered the spiritual and ecclesiastical lives in the Mahjar but also transformed the Maronite church itself.