Lebanese American University


Panel workshop considers narratives of the Ottoman era Levant

Students and scholars gather to discuss historical recollections of citizens and leaders of Lebanon, Jordan and Syria under Ottoman rule.

The Great Famine of Mount Lebanon, Ottoman military leader Jamal Pasha and Turkish Arab relations were the focal topics of a workshop hosted last week by the Humanities Department entitled “Ottoman Twilight in the Arab Lands,” which centered on Lebanon, Syria and Jordan during the Great War.

Opening the workshop, moderator and Associate Professor of History and Cultural Studies at LAU Habib Malik spoke of the rewriting of history. “The mutual disdain between Arabs and Turks that resulted after the fall of the Ottoman Empire was often read back into earlier periods of Ottoman rule.” However, Malik went on to say, the speakers would not engage in revisionist history. “They will ask nuanced questions, and question the stereotypes attached to the First World War.”

First to speak was lawyer and independent scholar Youssef Mouawad whose questions revolved around Jamal Pasha’s role in the Great Famine that claimed around 200,000 lives in Mount Lebanon between 1915 and 1918. Arguing against the prevailing narrative that the Ottoman military leaders had ordered the liquidation of the Lebanese people through starvation, Mouawad drew upon differentiations in the law.

“Genocide requires intent, and recent studies clear him of intent to eradicate the population,” argued Mouawad. “He did, however, impose a land blockade on the region, which makes him guilty of crimes against humanity.” The blockade, said Mouawad, was among a list of factors―natural disasters, a regime’s ineptitude, market speculation and systematic hording―that led to the mass starvation.

Another contributing factor was the diversion of supplies―notably grain ―that resulted from the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918, the focal topic of Tariq Tell’s presentation. The AUB assistant professor of political science compared the historical and ongoing narratives of the Hashemite Kingdom, that came to power after the Arab Revolt, to those presented in the memoirs of well-known men of the time.

“The Hashemite narrative focuses on Arabism and nationalism, while the local narratives present a more nuanced view, and show a checkered pattern of support for the Arab Revolt,” argued Tell. Many, if not most, people of the region, suggested the memoirs, showed an ambiguous attitude toward the Arab Revolt, as they did toward Ottoman rule. The Hashemites would have us believe that the revolt was highly popular and a culmination of an Arab awakening, argued Tell, but the forces behind it were, in fact, interest driven―related to the supply of arms and grain―rather than sentimental.

Also drawing on personal journals and documented quotes was LAU Professor of History Selim Deringil, organizer of the event, who spoke about self-perception and identity in Ottoman and modern-day Turkey. Well before the execution of Syrian and Lebanese nationalists by Jamal Pasha in 1915, even the Arabists could only see a future in a reformed Ottoman empire, said Deringil, presenting a series of photographic slides and quotes by various members of the Ottoman era elite. Modern-day Turks, he went on to explain, now depict their loss as tied to that of the Germans. “Turkish school books now say that we were judged to have been defeated because the Germans were defeated.”

A flurry of questions from the audience, made up predominantly of students, followed the presentations, which resulted in an extended period of discussion about Ottoman era vendettas, events in neighboring countries and modern-day initiatives to rewrite history. 


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