The Seminar

We invite you to apply to “World War I in the Middle East,” a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar for College and University Teachers.  This four-week seminar will be held at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., from July 5 through August 2, 2014.  It is open to sixteen NEH Summer Scholars from a broad range of disciplinary backgrounds.  While intended primarily for teachers of American undergraduate students, the seminar also welcomes qualified independent scholars and two full-time graduate students.

At the time of World War I’s centennial, we will conduct an overdue assessment of the war’s impact in the much-neglected Middle East.  World War I has defined Middle Eastern history as profoundly and traumatically as the Civil War has done for American history.  And yet, beyond a small circle of professional historians, the Great War in the Middle East remains misunderstood and underexplored.  In standard histories of the war, the region barely earns more than a chapter on the battle of Gallipoli and the adventures of Lawrence of Arabia.

Thanks to a recent wave of transnational and interdisciplinary study, we are now prepared to tell a more robust story.  Based on the evidence that these specialists have gathered, we treat World War I as the crucible for the conflicts that continue to consume the Middle East. Understanding the experience of Middle Eastern peoples in the Great War is essential to understanding the region today.  Studying the war and its ill-fated peace plan offers new perspectives on foreign intervention and the cause of war in the 20th century, on the region’s lag in economic development, and on the rise of dictatorship and the struggle for liberal constitutionalism.

The mission of the seminar is three-fold:  to enrich understanding of the war itself, to promote a new research agenda, and to nourish this new subfield by building linkages among scholars from a variety of specializations.

Towards these goals, “World War I in the Middle East” introduces NEH Summer Scholars to the newest trends in research of the war’s causes, progress, and outcomes.  Our focus is on the lived experiences of Middle Eastern peoples themselves – with potential linkages to neighboring regions of Southeast Europe, Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia, and northern Africa.  Together, we will assess the state of current scholarship, consider the most fruitful and needed areas for future research, reconsider methods of analysis, and envision ways of spreading knowledge to a wider community of scholars and students.

The seminar is not a graduate course.  It is a roundtable, a meeting of minds to consider some of the greatest problems of modern history, based on common readings and shared lectures.  In addition, two guest speakers will make formal presentations on their own research and/or readings we have read for seminar.  They will also be available for informal and individual consultation on questions of research.

The program is organized around four week-long topics:

1. The Middle East on the Brink of War

We begin with the pre-war period, setting the social, political, and cultural context in which the Ottoman government chose to enter the war.  First, we look at how state and society were reconfigured during the 1908 revolution, which restored the 1876 constitution, with readings by Nader Sohrabi on constitutionalism, Palmira Brummet on the press, and Stephan Astourian on agrarian and ethnic politics in Anatolia.  We then consider relations among religious and ethnic groups in the Ottoman Balkans, Arab provinces, and in Iran.   Readings include Mark Mazower’s study of Salonica, hometown to Young Turk leaders; Michelle Campos’s Ottoman Brothers on how Arabs in Palestine – Muslim, Christian, and Jewish – enthusiastically rallied to the revolution’s message of freedom, brotherhood, and political participation; and several authors who contrast the unfolding of the Ottoman case with Iran’s 1906 constitutional revolution.  We conclude the week with a focus on the highest levels of government to debate the Young Turks’ decision to enter the war on Germany’s side, with a highly acclaimed documentary, “Jihad,” and Mustafa Aksakal’s book, The Ottoman Road to War in 1914.

2. Fighting Total War, 1914-1918

We begin the week with the lives of common soldiers as presented in studies of recruitment, deployment, and casualties by Erik Zürcher and Mehmet Beşikçi.  We then turn to Arabs’ experience of military mobilization, called Safarbarlik.  Here the scholarship has more completely captured the conditions of total war, focusing on food shortages and starvation, with rumors of cannibalism.  Salim Tamari’s volume, The Year of the Locust, presents the experiences of three Arab soldiers and the translated diary of one of them.  Coupled with a new study of the wartime famine in Greater Syria by Najwa al-Qattan, we will watch the 1966 movie, “Safar Barlek.”  We end the week by placing these experiences in the wider context of the war.  Michael Reynolds’s Shattering Empires demonstrates how the Russians and Ottomans fought to near-death along their common border in Eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus.

Guest Speaker:  Salim Tamari, Professor of Sociology at Birzeit University, West Bank, Palestine.  Because his research on Palestinian history ranges through much of the 20th century, Tamari offers a deep and long view of the effects of the war.  He will also talk about how sociologists use personal narratives as sources and his recent research on Ottomans’ ethnographic maps of Palestine.

3.  War Crimes, Ethnic Cleansing, and Allies’ Response

Week three shifts focus to the massive demographic disaster of the war.   We begin on Monday by presenting all sides in the debate on the Young Turks’ Armenian policies.  The most important contribution in this country is A Question of Genocide, a collected volume that reflects the work of multiple meetings between Turkish, Armenian, and other historians.  They provide new precision and insight based on local archives, to revise the narrative told by the documents of foreign diplomats.  We complement the book with readings by scholars who contest the label “genocide,” in a special issue of Middle East Critique.  Next, we take up the ethnic cleansing of Anatolia and Salonica as studied in Mark Mazower’ Salonica and Onur Yıldırım’s Diplomacy and Displacement.  We close the week with the response of the Great Powers to the human devastation at the Paris Peace conference.  We couple portions of Erez Manela’s The Wilsonian Moment and Ziad Fahmy’s Ordinary Egyptians with articles on the advent of international humanitarianism by Eric Weitz and Keith Watenpaugh.

Guest Speaker:  Eugene Rogan, University Lecturer at St. Anthony’s College, University of Oxford.  He is author of the The Arabs: A History (2011) and of a forthcoming history of World War I in the Middle East.  He will place the Arabs’ experience at Paris in 1919 within the historical context of foreign intervention in the region and the context of the Allies’ immediate postwar aims.

4.  A Peace to End All Peace:  Postwar Conflicts, 1918-1923

We end the seminar with new studies of the immediate postwar period in the Middle East.  These sketch for participants the long-term effects of the war through the remainder of the 20th century.  We begin with a critical study of official memory of the period by Christine Philliou, and then read Erik Zürcher’s The Young Turk Legacy and Nation-Building.  He argues that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s program of authoritarian modernization was rooted in the Ottoman era.  We then turn to Syria, where no single leader gained power, with works by James Gelvin, Keith Watenpaugh, and Elizabeth Thompson.  These readings tell a story of how France’s forceful occupation of Syria short-circuited an indigenous and popular flowering of democratic constitutionalism.  Finally, we take up the questions of Palestine, the most enduring postwar conflict.  Jonathan Schneer offers an influential new account of how Zionists won the British promise for a homeland.  Abigail Jacobson’s From Empire to Empire tells the story from the view of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Palestine.  Essays by Salim Tamari, Awad Halabi, and Michael Provence suggest that Ottoman pluralism remained popular among Arabs long after the war.

Finally, a word about methodology.  The seminar begins by considering three approaches toward study of the war.  1)  A holistic view.  We look for linkages between military and diplomatic history and histories of local politics and social developments.  We propose to build a narrative that is not simply history from a Middle Eastern point-of-view, but history that grants agency to Middle Eastern peoples.  2)  Bridging scholarship and memory.  We pay special attention to scholarship that has recovered letters by soldiers and prisoners of war; uncovered manuscripts, photographs, and magazines written by and about Arab, Armenian, Greek, and Turkish men and women; and even found voices of common soldiers in popular colloquial folk songs.  We aim to gather the variety of contemporary voices and later memory, place them into dialogue with one another, and also subject them to historical and cultural analysis.  3)  Multi-disciplinary approaches.  We foreground discussion of methodologies to make the best use of the variety of sources now available, from government documents, to newspapers, diaries, songs, photographs and even films.  

Now let us introduce ourselves.

Mustafa Aksakal is Associate Professor of Modern Turkish Studies and Ottoman History at Georgetown University.  He is author of The Ottoman Road to War in 1914 (Cambridge, 2008), a study of internal reasons for the empire’s decision to join the war on Germany’s side.  His current book project, The Ottoman First World War, shifts focus from political leaders to Ottoman society; widens the field of investigation from a single decision to a concatenation of consequences, both intended and unintended; and broadens the scope geographically from Istanbul to the empire as a whole.

Elizabeth F. Thompson is Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia.  Her first book, Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege, and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon (Columbia, 2000) won two national awards.  It examines how the trauma of World War I conditioned French rule in Syria and Lebanon, laying the basis for post-independence political conflict.  Prof. Thompson’s new book, Justice Interrupted:  Constitutionalism and Political Violence in the Middle East (Harvard, 2013) reviews the region’s history through the eyes of leaders of  its largest political movements.  World War I interrupted the rise of liberal constitutionalism and promoted movements that privileged collective security over human rights.

Projects and Presentations

We will meet as a group to discuss readings on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday mornings.   Wednesdays and Fridays are generally reserved for scholars’ research or other works in progress.  We will arrange additional meetings as needed or desired by participants to discuss works in progress or watch films.  Our goal is to assure scholars free time to conduct research in the Washington area’s many libraries and archives.  Seminar directors will hold individual meetings with Summer Scholars during the first week to discuss participants’ research plans and needs.  We will also arrange introductory meetings with archivists and librarians at the U.S. National Archives in College Park, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the Woodrow Wilson Center, the Middle East Institute, and Georgetown University.

By the end of the seminar, August 2, scholars are required to submit two small items based on their research or work in progress.  First, we ask you to share any information you have on an archive, a library, a special collection or a rare-book you have used in your research.  This may be done as a brief presentation to the group or informally, through consultation with the seminar directors.  We will then post your information on the seminar Web site.  Sharing your discoveries represents the exchange of practical knowledge needed to advance study of World War I in the Middle East.

Second, scholars will submit a short (500-word, minimum) contribution to our Web site on any aspect of their individual work.  This may consist of a brief discussion of a document or photograph and its historical significance.  It may be a biographical sketch of a person involved in the war, or a statistical analysis of war casualties in a battle.  We are quite flexible and encourage creative license.  We also ask that you present your contribution to the seminar in a short (5 to 10 minute) talk.  Scholars’ contributions to the Web site will launch what we hope to become an enduring virtual community of interest in World War I in the Middle East.

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