Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East Paperback – August 31, 2017 by Michael Provence (Cambridge University Press)

In April of 1925, Lord Arthur James Balfour, former British foreign minister and author of the 1917 “Balfour Declaration,” which stated the British government’s support for the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people” in what was then Ottoman Palestine, embarked on a tour of the post-World War I mandatory states imposed on the Middle East by the victorious British and French powers. Balfour’s journey began in Jerusalem. While there, he gave the inaugural address for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and received honors from numerous Zionist dignitaries. The visit did not escape the attention of the Arabic press from across the eastern Mediterranean. By the time Balfour reached Damascus, a large crowd of demonstrators was waiting for him. The following day, despite the security measures taken by French mandate officials, demonstrators marched through Suq al-Hamidiyya and besieged Balfour in the Victoria Hotel. Under the cover of French riot police and suppressing fire, Balfour was rushed out of the city by a heavily armed convoy, finally reaching Beirut. The events of the previous two days had sent a clear message. Upon his arrival in Beirut, Balfour was immediately ferried to a British ship anchored in the harbor. There he received guests and conducted all official business until he left the region two days later, never again setting foot on land (157-158). Although the defeated Ottoman armies had been forced to retreat from the region nearly seven years earlier, the post-Ottoman settlement was and would continue to be actively contested by many of the former Ottoman subjects it dispossessed and subsequently subjected to British and French imperial power.

In The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Michael Provence makes a valuable contribution to the emergent trend breaking with much of the earlier scholarship on the region that was concerned with national histories and the rise of particular nationalisms. In so doing, the work “tries to imagine the viewpoint of many former Ottoman citizens who argued that the divisions of and governing arrangements of the post-Ottoman, colonial period were inferior, less free, and less representative than what had come before” (4). The central argument of the book consists of three points: the legacy of Ottoman modernization is second only to the colonial legacy in shaping the history of the Middle East; the colonial legacy is a common experience that transcended national borders; and the tendency to view the region through the particular Iraqi, Jordanian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, and Turkish national histories has obscured the commonalities that were clear until the middle of the twentieth century (6). In short, armed and political resistance, often of a trans-national character, on the part of former Ottoman subjects posed an existential threat to the mandate system and worldview of European colonialism throughout much of the two decades following the fall of the empire.

The core of the last Ottoman generation consisted of the military officers born in the 1880s and 1890s (45). The common thread between them was their shared experience of Ottoman modernity, passing through the empire’s military academies. In the cases of many of the men, the bonds forged by these institutions would outlive the empire itself. Contrary to later Arab nationalist portrayals, a majority of surviving military academy graduates from the predominantly Arab regions of the empire would later serve the Turkish Republic. With respect to the famed Arab Revolt and forces of Faysal ibn Husayn, rather than relying on nationalist defectors, many of the Arab officers who joined Faysal only did so after the final defeat of Ottoman forces in Syria by the Entente (103-104).

Dissatisfaction with the post-war settlement manifested itself in non-military forms as well. At first ignorant of the role of petitions in the Ottoman Empire due in no small part to pervasive views of “oriental despotism,” colonial and mandate authorities ignored then stifled the appeals for justice on the part of countless individual petitioners (175). In the end, rather than abandoning the Ottoman state, its most devoted subjects learned the painful truth that the state had in fact abandoned them. Mustafa Kemal’s abolition of the caliphate, agreements with the French, and embrace of ethnic nationalism ultimately came at the expense of those beyond the borders of the nascent Turkish Republic (150-151, 265).

The Last Ottoman Generation is the latest addition to an important wave of scholarship over the last decade, culminating with the centennial of WWI. This includes such titles as Eugene Rogan’s The Fall of the Ottomans, Leila Fawaz’s A Land of Aching Hearts, Sean McMeekin’s The Ottoman Endgame, Ryan Gingeras’ Fall of the Sultanate, and Mustafa Aksakal’s The Ottoman Road to War in 1914. While the WWI centennial was accompanied by a broader popular and scholarly interest in the subject, these works in particular have gone a long way toward integrating Ottoman decision-making, experiences, perspectives, and wartime theaters into the larger story of the conflict, thus highlighting the centrality of the empire to the course of events. Indeed, in the case of the Ottoman Empire, the Entente powers fell for what had been over a century of their own propaganda, expecting an easy victory over the “sick man of Europe,” and suffering numerous humiliating defeats as a result (60). The underestimation of Ottoman resilience can perhaps serve as a cautionary tale for more recent history, where over the past quarter-century and spanning the post-Ottoman space from the Balkans to the heart of the Middle East, Western policymakers have routinely underestimated the resilience of various regimes, often to their own peril, along with those on the ground.

The extensive archival research on which the book is based spans regional record collections in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey; the archives of European powers in Britain, France, and Germany; and the files of the League of Nations Mandates Commission, one of the most valuable sources preserving the numerous petitions of former Ottoman subjects. Additional sources include period Arabic, French, and English language newspapers, memoirs, and interviews conducted by the author with descendants of members from the final generation of Ottoman military and political figures, such as the family of Yasin al-Hashimi. The product of the research based on these and other sources is written in engaging and highly readable academic prose. The timeline of events at the start and sub-headings within each chapter make the book suitable for both graduate students and upper-level undergraduates. The contribution made to the study of late-Ottoman history and the mandate period will make The Last Ottoman Generation of interest to specialist and non-specialist readers alike.

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