Panel 4H

Thinking about the Middle East through Movement

9.00 – 11.00
Chair: Andrew Arsan, University of Cambridge

Redrawing Area Studies through Migration

Lily Balloffet, Western Carolina University

From its inception, the journal Mashriq & Mahjar has endeavored to serve as a platform for scholarship that aims to challenge narratives of stasis in Middle East Studies by taking people, goods, and ideas on the move as their analytical point of departure. This is one of the key steps in the task of countering the discourses of monolithic difference that long underpinned traditional area studies. This paper’s contribution is to take stock of the ways in which recent developments in the field of Middle East & North African migration studies have propelled us toward this goal of redrawing the borders of area studies by approaching regional studies “through diasporic eyes.” Recently, historians, anthropologists, literary and cultural studies scholars have explored the ways that migratory systems connecting these two geographies have shaped cultural traditions and historical outcomes. By building histories of diaspora and movement into the the realm of political studies, recent scholarship connecting the Middle East to the Americas, Africa, and Australia drives us toward a diasporic vision of international relations – or a “New International History.” This vision of global policy and diplomacy accounts for the cultural dimensions of displacement, migration, and exchange between these regions that has sprung from a heritage characterized by networks of mobility. This paper takes stock of the current field of Middle East & North African Migration studies, as reflected in Mashriq & Mahjar, and engages in a discussion of future directions and aspirations for continuing to redraw the bounds of area studies

Unravelling the Middle East: Rethinking the Region through Mobility

Akram Khater, North Carolina State University

Colonial and nationalist discourses have constructed landlocked histories of the Middle East. With differing valorization most such narratives followed the same trope of essentialized and timeless peoples and societies living in a clearly delineated and bounded geography. Postcolonial scholarship has endeavored to historicize these narratives by showing the contingency and complexity of categories such as gender, class, religion, nation, and ethnicity. Yet the success of this latter body of literature has been incomplete because it remains predominantly chronocentric, swallowing place within the folds of time. In most such narratives place is rarely ever contemplated, and when considered our historical gaze remains transfixed on a never-changing spot on a cartographically regimented map where the narrative supposedly unfolds. Historical actors come and go across the boundaries but the story remains resolutely contained within the city, region, empire, or nation. Such a staid notion of place amid a fluctuating narrative is even more striking when in fact individuals and communities, ideas and commodities have crisscrossed every imaginable geo-historical location. War, pilgrimage, missionary zeal, travels and sojourns, search for work, trade, shipwrecks, slavery, diplomatic missions, boredom and curiosity, population transfer, persecution, environmental changes, and migrations have taken people in and out of the physical Middle East with remarkable regularity.My intervention into this problematic—and the thematic panel—is to propose a reconfiguration of the Middle East as a space where mobility and migrants are central to its historical narrative. Not only does this move us beyond the geographically staid perspective, but also undermines neo-Orientalist narratives where the Middle East is that violent, different and alien “there.” Thus, modernity, the creation of nation-states, and the rise of new types of politics in the late 20th century will be re-cast as trans-national movements rather than localized phenomenon.

Refuge: A Middle Eastern History

Andrew Arsan, University of Cambridge

What part has refuge played in shaping the Middle East as a place, and as an idea, over the last two hundred years? Drawing together my own research with the recent contributions of scholars such as Keith Watenpaugh and Ilana Feldman, I seek in this paper to argue that the Middle East has served as a key site for the elaboration of the practices of modern humanitarianism. But where Watenpaugh and Feldman lay the stress on the catastrophic fall-out of the Armenian Genocide and the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, twentieth-century events which provoked international agencies and non-governmental organisations into urgent action, I seek to draw our attention to the nineteenth century. At several critical junctures from the mid-nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century, the Eastern Mediterranean was made into an outdoor laboratory in which European and Ottoman statesmen conducted experiments in government. Regarding the region as a congeries of fractious people, warring communities pitted in secular animosity, these observers sought to devise new political forms and infrastructural frames to cope with its recurrent crises. And, from Mount Lebanon in 1860 to Aleppo in 1921, the West Bank in 1948 and Za‘tari in 2017, the refugee has stood at the centre of that story. Only by mapping the webs of governance in which this fleeting figure has been caught can we understand the ways the modern Middle East has been construed, and constructed. Intensely local, this is also a story with profound global resonances.

Violence, Land and Nation in Forced Displacement in Turkey/Syria (1915- 1939)

Seda Altug, Bogazici University

This presentation seeks to reflect on the experiences of Armenian refugees inside Turkey or on their way to their new refuge in French-Syria in the aftermath of a serious of mass violence that occurred in later Ottoman/early republican Turkey. Through giving voice to the oral epic narratives of displacement as well as to the French intelligence reports about the “refugee crisis”, this paper will delve into the ways in which the self is redefined with regards to “past” violence, land and respective nation-state regimes.

Humans and Animals in a Refugee Camp: Baquba, Iraq, 1918-21

Benjamin Thomas White, University of Glasgow

When human populations are forcibly displaced, they often take animals with them. Even if they are not accompanied by their own, animals often play an important role in their experience of displacement. But animals feature barely at all in the social science literature and developing historiography on displacement. This paper uses the Bacquba refugee camp near Baghdad as a case study to explore the impact of animals on human displacements.  The camp, run by the British occupation authorities in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), housed nearly 50,000 people and many thousands of animals at its height. Its siting and spatial organization were partly determined by the need to accommodate animals: the people in it were accompanied by thousands of sheep, goats and cattle. Medical regimes for the people closely paralleled veterinary regimes for the animals. The construction and internal operation of the camp depended on animal-drawn carts. Efforts to stimulate economic activity in the camp were built around animal products and animal labour. Animals were prominent in the affective lives of the refugees. They also mediated the refugees’ interactions with the people they lived among, whether in peace (sale and exchange of animal products), tension (friction over grazing), or indeed war (mounted refugees serving in the British military). Any plans to close the camp and repatriate or resettle the refugees likewise depended on animals, especially pack animals.  The case demonstrates that to understand the human experience of forced displacement, we need to pay attention to animals too.