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Between the Ottomans and the EntenteThe First World War in the Syrian and Lebanese Diaspora, 1908-1925$

Stacy D. Fahrenthold

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780190872137

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190872137.001.0001

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Between the Ottomans and the Entente

(p.1) Introduction
Between the Ottomans and the Entente

Stacy D. Fahrenthold

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

For empires and states, diasporas present a tantalizing transnational frontier to be reclaimed for state-building purposes. Between 1880 and 1920, a half million Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian Arabs left the Ottoman Empire, settling in “Syrian colonies” across the Atlantic. This introduction explores the processes by which nationalist historiographies have marginalized Arab migrants. It critiques the silences that place-based archives produce and argues that reclaiming, controlling, and containing Syrian migrants abroad lay at the center of Ottoman, American, and French projects aimed at the Middle East. Writing migrant histories from indigenous archives restores the scope of such projects. Examining the papers migrants carried with them across the diaspora—papers, passports, petitions, correspondence—allows this work to pursue Syrians across multiple archival regimes. Migrant print culture is more than the sum of its writings; rather, what makes paper powerful is its ability to define the scope of Syria’s transnational geography.

Keywords:   transnationalism, World War I, print culture, archives, nationalism, migrants, Ottoman Empire

The trouble in the Syrian colony of Buenos Aires began on April 12, 1915, outside the Ottoman Empire’s consulate on Avenida Corrientes. On that day, the city’s Ottoman General Consul, a Syrian emir named Amin Arslan, met a crowd of one thousand Syrian migrants on the steps of his office. Although an Ottoman official working for the Committee of Union and Progress (hereafter CUP) government, Arslan was an outspoken opponent of Istanbul’s alliance with Germany, a strategic maneuver that had brought the empire into the First World War in October 1914. Arslan spent the months since the declaration of war speaking out against his government’s alliance with Berlin. Arslan’s popularity among the Syrians of Argentina soared, but the city’s German consulate resented his disloyal behavior and reported Arslan to his superiors in the Ottoman Foreign Ministry. Istanbul was already uneasy with Amin Arslan: the consul’s open friendship with French diplomats in Argentina, seen as a major boon for the Empire a decade earlier, was no longer seen as such in 1914. The ruling Ottoman triumvirate—Enver, Talaat, and Cemal Pashas—began to see the Argentinian emir as a liability. They also saw the Syrian mahjar (lands of emigration, often translated as diaspora) as a dangerous place, its half million emigrants full of potential for sedition, collusion with the Empire’s enemies, and recruitment to the Arabist opposition mounting against Unionist rule.

In April 1915, the embattled Ottoman consul received a letter from the Germans, invoking the Berlin-Istanbul alliance and ordering Arslan to stop defaming Germany. The letter demanded that Arslan cease all contact with the French consulate and refrain from public statements about the war in the Argentinian press. Finding it absurd that he should take orders from Germany, Arslan marched up the steps outside of the Ottoman Consulate building on that April day. Meeting a crowd of Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, and other Ottoman nationals from the Argentine colony, Arslan read Germany’s threatening letter (p.2) aloud, tipping off a day of Arabist protest against the Unionist government and its involvement in the First World War.1 Arslan then read a letter he penned in response to the German consul general in Buenos Aires:

Señor Consul General, I have the pleasure of acknowledging your letter . . . I think it goes without saying how surprising this letter was, as its contents conflict with all established diplomatic protocol, and it has not come to my earnest attention that my Ottoman Empire forms a mere part of your German Imperium. And I keep hope, nevertheless, for the honor and dignity of my poor country, dragged unwillingly into the abyss of this war by you, a savage foreign power.2

Lamenting that “the interests of the [Syrian] community are now in the hands of foreigners,”3 Amin Arslan reaffirmed his loyalty “to my august sovereign, the Sultan . . . and my only superior, the Grand Vizier (Talaat Pasha).”4 He announced that he had written Talaat Pasha to demand that Istanbul either renounce its alliance with Germany or terminate him from Ottoman diplomatic service.

Fire him they did. Receiving more complaints from the Germans, Talaat Pasha relieved Arslan of his post via telegram on May 19, 1915 and ordered the closure of the empire’s Buenos Aires consulate.5 Arslan was instructed to deliver the contents of his office’s archives to the German consulate and to return immediately to Istanbul.6 Seeing this course of events as further proof the Unionists had become German puppets, Arslan closed the consulate but refused to surrender its papers. “These documents provide legal protection and justice [for Syrians] in this country,” he explained to La Prensa newspaper. “No foreigner has the right to take and oversee the files of Ottomans [living in Argentina], nor to determine the interests of my countrymen, who . . . have an interest in defending what is rightfully theirs.”7 If the Germans came for the records, he threatened he would submit them to Argentina’s supreme court for protection. Istanbul responded by convicting the impudent emir of treason in absentia. He would never be allowed to return to the Ottoman domain.8

South American newspapers noticed the Syrian protests against the Ottoman Empire’s entry into the First World War, especially in Brazil and Argentina, where hundreds of thousands of Syrian migrants already lived. Both countries were then formally neutral in the war but were allied with the Triple Entente. The Syrian protests against their own sovereign grabbed public attention, fed a wider anti-German sentiment, and turned Arslan into a local champion. The Argentinian press called Germany’s takeover of Ottoman affairs an “act of piracy.”9 Brazilian papers congratulated “the Consul of the Turkish colony [colonia (p.3) turca] for so energetically opposing the pretentions of a foreign monarchic regime.”10 But the Latin American public remained unaware of Arslan’s reasons for refusing to surrender his consulate’s archives, papers that documented the citizenship claims, migration status, political activities, and intelligence files for an estimated 110,000 Syrians in Argentina. Arslan was convinced the records would be used to levy criminal charges against Syrian emigrants, or even those who had returned to the Ottoman empire.11

Arslan’s fears were well warranted. Only weeks before, Syria’s Ottoman governor-general, Cemal Pasha, ordered Ottoman troops to seize records from Beirut’s abandoned French Consulate, using them to indict and convict dozens of Arabists, reformers, and Syrian elites of treason.12 The gallows went up in Syria, and over forty men were hanged en masse in Damascus and Beirut between August 1915 and May 1916.13 Their crimes originated with their ties to foreign powers and connections to Arabist émigré associations. Only those who fled the empire escaped this fate; like Arslan, they could only be convicted in absentia.14

The Ottomans had not always seen the mahjar as dangerous. For a time, this diaspora represented an overseas frontier, a source of economic development, its emigrants a useful population to be groomed and reclaimed through diplomacy. The new Ottoman consulates had themselves been a manifestation of that mission. But under the shifting politics of the First World War and Cemal Pasha’s repression of Arabism at home, the state’s view of the mahjar shifted: it became a site for sedition, opposition to CUP rule, and collusion with the empire’s enemies. This book recounts that transition. It is about the empire’s momentary embrace of Ottoman migrants and the emergence of a political society organized across the mahjar’s major colonies in Brazil, Argentina, and the United States. It is about the breakdown of Ottoman control over migrant activism in the war’s early months, the result of an ill-fated alliance with Berlin and a crackdown on civil society. It is about the various means that Syrian and Lebanese migrants abroad had at their disposal to protest and rebel against the Ottoman state, and the readiness of the Entente powers to ally with these émigré activists. Ultimately, this book explores how this diaspora’s uneasy entanglement with the forces of European imperialism shaped the political fate of its Middle Eastern homeland.

Writing the Mahjar Back into Syrian History

Until now, the story of the First World War in the Syrian mahjar had fallen into a historical ellipsis, a curious silence produced by a rift in available archives and the distinct preoccupations of two separate historiographies: migration history, (p.4) on the one hand, and Ottoman histories of the war, on the other. A recent flowering of writing on the war has demonstrated the Ottoman Empire’s centrality to the conflict, which experienced it not as four years of devastation but as over a decade of revolution, disintegration, and reassertion from the Young Turks of 1908 through Turkish independence in 1923. Employing Ottoman state records from Istanbul, Jerusalem, and elsewhere, Ottomanist scholars argue that the war reshaped the modern Middle East, not only by tearing down the Ottoman state and inviting European colonialism into the region but through intimate, lived experiences of occupation, conscription, famine, and genocide. Although this historiography has effectively narrated the war from an Ottoman perspective, its focus on metropolitan centers, the seats of government, and the imperial state itself means that the half million Ottoman subjects who lived beyond the imperial domain continue to be hidden from this retelling. Much of this elision, moreover, is a consequence of the empire’s wartime efforts to forcefully disengage with the diasporas during the crisis.15

In recovering the Ottoman experience of the war, questions about the relationship of peoples to territorial spaces predominate: mobilization, displacement, and conscription, on one hand, and ecological disasters, famine, and epidemic, on the other.16 This book similarly examines state-society relations, but by taking the perspective of Ottoman Arabs outside the empire during the conflict as opposed to those suddenly displaced by it, this work also questions the territoriality of the war itself. Although it is conceptually hazardous to draw sharp distinctions between them, this book is about migrants rather than about refugees.17 But migration has the capacity to transform how states function even if it is not directly compelled by conflict or systemic displacement. States manage wartime migration in a number of ways. In addition to the production of refugees, this work analyzes the regulation/restriction of travelers, the extraterritorial assertion of state sovereignty over diasporas, the politics of migrant naturalization and denationalization, and the inclusion (or exclusion) of migrants from nationality protections and, by extension, from the most basic infrastructural elements of the state.

Ottomanist historiography has also successfully made the wartime imperial state an object of analysis.18 But pursuing the war as social experience lived, survived, and endured by Ottoman subjects as individuals also requires the integration of informal archives. Migrant activists conducted intelligence for the Entente, produced anti-Ottoman propaganda, managed smuggling networks, and recruited for armies at war with Istanbul. These activities were clandestine by definition. To the extent that Ottoman officialdom captured this at all, state records documenting activities in the Syrian mahjar were contradictory and incomplete because the activists involved evaded the attentions of the state (p.5) where possible. Thus, this study also utilizes private papers, diaries, personal correspondence, and club records from the Syrian mahjar as well as the daily reporting of the Arabic periodical press.

Syrian migrants inhabit the margins of Ottomanist historiography by virtue of its territorial focus and framing, but an entirely different kind of bookending occurs in migration histories of Syria and Lebanon. In mahjar studies, the First World War falls between two core periods: the late Ottoman mahjar before 1914, and the diaspora’s relationship to the French Mandate after 1920. Histories of the mahjar before 1914 describe a soft Ottoman frontier zone, a site for the nahda (renaissance) as evidenced by the vibrant print cultures of Cairo, New York City, São Paulo, and elsewhere. Their guiding questions have been shaped by the concerns of a rising Arab middle class at the turn of the twentieth century, the population best represented in these periodicals.19 By contrast, scholars working on the interwar mahjar draw upon the papers of the French Mandate, the League of Nations, or the Permanent Mandates Commission and consequently have focused principally on the role the diaspora played in sustaining, repatriating to, or protesting against the French administration in Syria and Lebanon. Working through Syrian petitions to the League of Nations or the French High Commissioner’s office in Beirut, these scholars uncover new facets of mahjari politics and their links to colonialism: were the emigrants colonial middlemen, for instance?20 Were they developmentalists working with France to build a new Lebanon?21 Were they a policy challenge for French administrators managing other colonies in the French Empire? Was the mahjar a site for political contest, revolt, or anticolonial revolution?22

Scholarship on the interwar mahjar makes clear that this diaspora presented a specific blend of opportunities and obstacles for the French Mandate, but the origins of these dense transnational entanglements remain murky in histories focused primarily on French imperialism and its discontents. Drawing on new bodies of archival materials and on personal documents written by and between Syrian activists during the First World War, this study links the prewar Ottoman mahjar to the postwar French Mandate. It examines politics and activism among Syrians abroad from the 1908 Young Turk Revolution through the French Mandate’s first five years (1920–1925), with a particular focus on the wartime work of Syrian, Lebanese, and Arab nationalists who believed that collaborating with the Entente powers would lead to their homeland’s liberation from Ottoman suzerainty and, eventually, to independence. It uncovers some brand-new means of Syrian collaboration and questions the roots of the mahjar’s entanglements with foreign powers. Ultimately, it complicates persistent images of the Syrian diaspora as complicit with (or complacent about) foreign colonialism in the Middle East.

(p.6) Pursuing Migrants Across Archival Regimes

Writing the history of the wartime Syrian mahjar requires careful recognition of the ways that war simultaneously compels and impedes migration across borders. The First World War followed on the heels of several decades of unprecedented international labor migration, the “first wave globalization” of the late nineteenth century (1880–1914).23 The deepening structures of global capitalism compelled new proletarians to move around the world, facilitated by new modes of transportation—steamships and railroads—that carried workers farther afield than ever before. The trans-Atlantic corridor carried millions of Mediterranean workers to meet the needs of rapidly expanding agricultural and industrial sectors of the post-abolition Americas. So, too, came Ottoman Arabs from Syria, Mount Lebanon, and Palestine, mostly (but by no means exclusively) Christian, of peasant and working-class stock. The lion’s share of the half million Syrians who emigrated between 1880 and 1914 concentrated in the three largest settler societies in the Atlantic world: Brazil (107,000), Argentina (110,000), and the United States (100,000), with smaller communities in Canada, Mexico, Chile, Ecuador, Cuba, Haiti, and elsewhere.24

As these migrants moved, they left a paper trail of passports, entry papers, legal declarations, quarantine and arrest records, as well as personal correspondence, diaries, memoirs, and printed materials such as serial newspapers, dime novels, political broadsides, and poetry. Departing migrants were processed first at the port in Beirut, where anxious Ottoman authorities frequently discussed Syrian emigration as a problem but infrequently attempted to police it.25 After stops in Egypt or at port cities in Mediterranean Europe, those Syrians who made it “beyond the seas” typically arrived in New York City, Buenos Aires, or Rio de Janeiro, although others soon appeared in Havana, Port Au Prince, or the land border between Mexico and the United States. Confronting immigration officials, the new arrivals were subject to routine questions but also non-routine investigation, detainment, and quarantine. Whether admitted or rejected upon arrival, each interaction generated a documentary footprint, but only some of them can be captured through the formal archives of any single receiving state. Histories of the Syrian mahjar have thus been refracted through the disciplinary approaches of Middle Eastern, Latin American, and American ethnic studies. Through this rich empirical work, historians can now follow Syrian migrants across multiple archival regimes and, where necessary, across disciplines. This book sets out to accomplish that by placing Syrian migrants at the fore, reconstructing their routes, the social geographies of mahjari communities that were interconnected, and the transnational scope of mahjari activism by using documents from four continents.

(p.7) The pursuit of migrants means activists and their networks are examined at both microhistorical and transnational levels. Although migrant politics and particularly the politics of diasporic nationalism emerge from this study, the study does not analyze nationalism as an ideology or project targeting a carefully delineated homeland. During the period under investigation, Syrian activists had yet to coherently work out the ideological stuff of nationalism: irredentist historical narratives; claims to nationhood on ethnic, linguistic, confessional lines; or even the borders that a post-Ottoman Syria would take.26 An abundance of such ideas floated around in the mahjar, in the press, and among activists organizing in political committees in the eastern Mediterranean, but these ideologies proved to be flexible and transformed readily when confronted the pragmatic demands of wartime activism. If any moment hardened their projects into firmer nationalist programs, it was after the armistice with the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and its demand that petitioners be uniformly representative of their community’s national aspirations.27

Rather than analyzing protonationalist ideas or representations in the mahjar, it is more fruitful to target wartime migrant politics, not through sentiments but through action. Syrianists, Lebanists, and Arabists competed, engaged in sabotage, and routinely called each other traitors (often while secretly collaborating in war work), but there was a remarkable degree of consensus among them regarding the means and ends of their work. All of the activists discussed here came to believe that Syria must be liberated from Ottoman rule, that migrants abroad were obligated to work toward that goal, and that the best means of accomplishing this was through cooperating with the Entente Powers.28 Some of these activists left Syria as late as 1913. Others had lived abroad for decades, and more were born in the mahjar, had never been Ottoman nationals, and had never been to Syria. Such distinctions mattered little, because these activists believed they were constructing a post-Ottoman community composed not only of Syrians (or Lebanese, Palestinians, or Arab nationalists) living in the homeland but also spanning the entire diaspora. Mahjari activists carried these assumptions with them as they engaged in transnational political work, recruited for the army, petitioned foreign leaders, sought repatriation to the homeland, and registered with the census. The assumption that the diaspora was responsible for liberating its homeland is reflected in the shape and scope of the mahjar’s press but also in its ethnic associations, political clubs, and fraternities—organizations whose records form the core of this research.

At the center of this diaspora’s politics sat the production and circulation of specific sorts of papers: periodicals, propaganda, passports, and petitions. Borrowing from the nahda-era periodicals of Cairo and Alexandria of the late nineteenth century, Arabic print culture boomed in the Americas after 1900. (p.8) Syrian newspapers printed in New York City, São Paulo, and Buenos Aires gained unprecedented popularity during this period; in New York alone, nearly a dozen Arabic language periodicals operated simultaneously by 1914.29 Trading stories with journalists in the Middle East via telegram, mahjari editors established a functional press syndicate by 1908. Together with mail-order subscriptions, the invention of an Arabic wax linotype machine in 1910 made newsprint cheap to produce and easy to disseminate. Wider classes of Syrian men (and women) typed their thoughts for a global Syrian audience.30

The CUP’s lifting of censorship restrictions further encouraged these trends, allowing a generation of mahjari public intellectuals and editors to connect with audiences in the Ottoman Empire. The CUP’s subsequent attempts to curtail press freedoms after 1909 did little to shut down these printing houses, only angering Syrian émigrés already critical with Ottoman policies. Cemal Pasha’s closure of private printing houses in Damascus and Beirut, moreover, left only their diasporic counterparts in operation. Even though the CUP banned the importation of “foreign” periodicals written by émigrés abroad in 1915, most of the empire’s censorship policies missed their mark.31 The mahjar newspapers continued production, were comparatively free to criticize the CUP, and were the uncontested voice of Arabic-language journalism as the war went on. In this venue, emergent and competing nationalist associations found the vocabulary to protest Ottoman policies and organize Syrian migrants across continents. Arabist, Syrianist, and Lebanist propaganda appear in the pages of these serials, but more significantly, so do the quotidian reports of these activist networks: meeting minutes, funds raised, transcribed stump speeches, and angry letters to the editor. Contrary to Andersonian visions of vernacular printing as a space for “national imaginings,” these newspapers figured as spaces for semiotic conflict at a moment of imperial disintegration. The newspapermen believed they were printing the nation into existence; theirs was a battle for the nation and for subscribers simultaneously.

At the other end of the documentary spectrum are papers that individual migrants carried on their person: passports, travel passes, and other forms registrations that marked an individual’s relationship to the state. Issues of national belonging had little everyday relevance for Arab migrants in the Americas before 1914, but the war’s geopolitical pressures prompted empires and nation-states to make new claims on their labor, their loyalties, and especially their mobility. Wartime travel regimes were designed to restrict Ottoman movements: passport laws, travel bans, diplomatic disputes, and criminal charges each confronted Ottoman Syrians during the conflict.32 The migrants who could manage it petitioned for legal exemptions to these restrictions; those who could not get exemptions traveled clandestinely. This work thus builds on records of such transactions, especially passports, naturalization records, and (p.9) criminal prosecutions of clandestine migrants, but it does so with the significant caveat that regulatory documents tell incomplete stories. While brushes with the law were significant, they were infrequent and avoided where possible.

Capturing the lives and travels of Syrian migrant activists beyond the prying eyes of the state requires a flexible approach to the archives, drawing primarily on indigenous writings between migrants and complemented by state records. Where possible, this work places individuals at the center of the action, pursuing them across the regimes they traversed. Most of their wartime work occurred in clandestine spaces only partly accessible to Ottoman, US, or Latin American authorities but within well-trod networks linking the Syrian colonies of the Americas to one another. The remarkable degree of political coherence the mahjar achieved was a result of the war and the activism it inspired, but the mahjar’s interconnectedness persisted into the French Mandate period, thus presenting governance problems for France as the emigrants made new citizenship claims on their homeland after 1920.

Mahjar Matters

Producing papers, collecting them, stamping them, and directing their travel across oceans consumed the attentions of an entire generation of Syrians abroad. Activists believed that to make their community, papers must be delivered into the hands of the proper readers: serials to the cafés, broadsides to the draft-worthy, petitions to the powerful, and visas to the needy. Dozens of mahjari newspapers vied for control of the narrative and, with it, the aspirations of a global Syrian reading public. The nationalist politics these periodicals promoted were themselves fluid, shifting, and in competition with one another, but they rested on a common understanding that paper and its production were powerful. It was through powerful papers that the mahjar mattered to an emerging post-Ottoman Middle East, for on these pages the politics of Syrians abroad came home.

Several historical circumstances coalesced to empower Arab migrants in the Americas to participate in homeland politics: a 1908 invitation by the Ottoman state; the collapse of Syrian civil society after 1914; the willingness of the Entente powers to work with émigré activists against Istanbul in 1917; and a process of emigrant minoritization impacting the repatriation rights, citizenship claims, and post-Ottoman nationalities of Syrians and Lebanese in diaspora after 1919. Mahjari politics depended on the same migrant institutions that had facilitated the out-migration of so many Arab workers abroad. Chapter 1 recounts the global history of Syrian emigration, focusing on the emergence of Arab ethnic associations and the periodical press in the mahjar, the twin pillars of an émigré social field by the 1890s. Initially invested in bringing the literatures, arts, and (p.10) cultural politics of the nahda to the Americas, these organizations provided a new social infrastructure that the Ottoman empire “rediscovered” following the Young Turk Revolution of 1908.

Following the revolution in July 1908, the new Ottoman government under the CUP party courted the empire’s diasporas. Hoping to tap into Syrian associational life and the social capital of the Syrian press, the CUP constructed new consulates in Arab communities around the Atlantic. From the consulate, the Ottomans subsidized pro-CUP migrant clubs, supported remittance economies, and attempted to reclaim the empire’s emigrants abroad. Chapter 2 illustrates how early Syrian optimism about the Young Turk movement strengthened linkages between Syrian clubs across the Americas but this politics soon melted into disillusionment with the Unionists and, eventually, with Ottoman rule altogether. Syrians organizing with the Syrian Ottoman Union Society, for instance, freely interpreted CUP calls for liberty (hürriyet) in ways beyond the intentions of the party’s underwriters. Istanbul hoped to stoke these organizations into a politics of reclamation, but the Syrian clubs disagreed with their consular partners over the extraterritorial rights and privileges of migrants. New CUP policies curtailing the free press, free expression, and free association further frustrated emigrants who, using the press as a platform, organized new networks of decentralists, reformers, and Arabists beyond Ottoman jurisdiction.

The beginning of the First World War and the disintegration of Syrian and Mount Lebanese civil society under Cemal Pasha emboldened Arab activists living abroad. Raising humanitarian relief was an early act of resistance, usually conducted alongside other, more overt political acts. In war work, Syrian associations across the Americas cooperated with the Entente powers from the relative safety of diaspora. With the deepening crises of famine, epidemic, and political repression in Syria in 1916–1917, competing Arabist, Syrianist, and Lebanist parties in the mahjar called for the homeland’s liberation from Ottoman rule and a restoration of the constitutionalist principles of 1908. Chapter 3 recovers a strand of this endeavor, documenting a clandestine network of Syrian military recruiters who assisted with the enlistment of some ten thousand Syrian migrants into the armies of the Entente. These recruiters moved men from the Syrian colonies of North and Latin America to enlistment centers in New York City, Boston, Le Havre, and Montreal, managing the traffic with unofficial state sanction but no formal oversight. They employed popular narratives about migrant patriotism and the responsibilities of the mahjar to save the homeland, but the flexibility of immigrant patriotisms belied US discourses about whether Ottoman nationals (and Syrians among them) could be considered American patriots, Syrian liberators, or Ottoman traitors.

Enlistment provided one powerfully symbolic means for emigrant cooperation with the Entente powers, but it was in the months following the 1918 (p.11) armistice that emigrant politics “came home” to Syria. Syrian associations headquartered in the mahjar swiftly repurposed their networks to respond to the challenges of the Wilsonian moment: they negotiated post-Ottoman national borders with the victorious Entente, drew up new maps, circulated petitions in favor of national self-determination, and underwrote the first systems of travel passes, passports, and nationality laws that emerged in Syria and Lebanon after 1920. Chapter 4 follows the politics of one cell of migrant activists calling themselves the “new Syrians” in 1919. Organized under the New Syrian National League in New York City, Boston, Buenos Aires, and Cairo, the new Syrians lobbied for the United States of America to assume the mandate over a greater Syrian state, possibly in partnership with Hashemite Emir Faysal in Damascus. Building on American expansionist ideas about benevolent empire, the new Syrians argued that America would find in Syria a nation much like itself: a recently colonized land with a heterogeneous population requiring both federalist constitutional democracy and economic development to survive.

President Wilson’s Fourteen Points electrified nationalist politics all over the world, but the new Syrians were different: they believed Syria should be developed within a US Mandate, with the mahjar’s support through mass repatriation of migrants from the Americas. Because of their anti-French politics, the new Syrians were excluded from the negotiations taking place in Paris, allowing that conference (and the historiography arising from it) to produce a vision of the Syrian mahjar as supportive of French tutelage.

The Paris Peace Conference roiled in claims and counterclaims to former Ottoman territories, carving proposed borders for a post-Ottoman world of nation-states. In the mahjar, meanwhile, the Syrian and Lebanese associations employed American racial, religious, and ethnic markers to iterate new nationalities in diaspora. Chapter 5 documents the emergence of “Syrian” national origins as a juridical category during the war, and examines how exercising the right to travel, to repatriate, or access citizenship depended on the negotiation of a post-Ottoman identity. In 1918, the United States of America imposed a cross-border travel ban on Ottoman subjects within its territories. Maintained through Paris negotiations in 1919, the ban impacted a quarter million Ottoman subjects domiciled in US territories, many of whom were simultaneously eager to return to former Ottoman lands to settle household affairs after the war. These restive migrants—Syrians, Armenians, Turks, and Kurds—sought foreign passports where possible but paid smugglers for fake ones when necessary.

The enlistment loopholes granted Syrian migrants during the war also gave activists a precedent for special exemptions from the travel ban, an exemption not given other Ottoman subjects. Starting in 1918, Syrian and Lebanese migrants could travel across borders freely if they first registered as temporary French colonials. Given a French sauf conduit (safe conduct) passport, Syrians (p.12) could exit through US ports and proceed to Syria, Mount Lebanon, or Palestine. As a document usually reserved for refugees, displaced persons, or prisoners of war, the employment of sauf conduits for Syrian and Lebanese repatriation depended on prevailing legal categories concerning “Syrian” national origins. Chapter 5 examines the sauf conduit process through the lens of smugglers who exploited it. Using US Bureau of Investigation cases concerning smugglers who assisted ineligible Ottoman Kurds and Turks out of the United States by passing them off as Syrian Arabs, this chapter argues that the sauf conduit was a means by which France claimed Syrian migrants as its colonial population months before it was awarded mandate over Syria and Lebanon.

French attempts to claim the mahjar for her Mandate persisted through the 1920s. After being awarded the Mandate in 1920, France partitioned the territory, created the new state of Greater Lebanon, and instituted a series of policies designed to domesticate the Lebanese diaspora. Chapter 6 examines the role that Lebanon’s first census, conducted in 1921, played in Mandate colonial policy. The Mandate enumerated Lebanese within the new territory but also counted 130,000 Lebanese emigrants in the Americas. The census allowed the French to embrace some emigrants and further facilitate migrant repatriation to Lebanon, in a moment when the Mandate specifically sought to bolster a constructed Christian majority for Lebanon. But though the Mandate used the census to embrace some emigrants, it also severed nationality ties with others. In sum, the Mandate governed the diaspora to ensure political compliance from emigrants, who were variously cast as transnational citizens or troublesome subject populations.

In some ways, Mandate policies toward the Syrian and Lebanese diaspora mirrored those of their late Ottoman predecessors. For both polities, the mahjar and its activists provided opportunities to refract state power across an overseas frontier; for both, the emigrants were a population to be juridically reclaimed and perhaps even relocated for the good of the state. France’s goal to impose and harden territorial borders across a new post-Ottoman geography, however, represented a significant departure. In an international order premised on the forced fixing of identifies into the “cartographic mold of nation-states,” the Mandate ultimately partitioned the mahjar from the Mashriq, instituting policies to preempt the return of Syrians with presumed anticolonial politics.33 This book’s conclusion examines French attempts to deprive select emigrants of passports and nationality during the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925–1927. The denationalization of Syrians abroad amounted to a diasporic partition, revealing French desires to cut the very ties with the mahjar they had nurtured a decade earlier.

The pages that follow recover a social history of the Syrian and Lebanese diaspora at a crucial historical moment: the fall of the Ottoman empire, the (p.13) region’s subdivision within new national borders, and the emergence of the imperial European Mandates. In their core function, borders create new territories, and in doing so seek to contain nations, discipline and define societies, and regulate cross-border mobility. As shall be seen, borders also manufacture histories, contriving a territorial determinism that this work critiques. Contrary to popular ideas about border-making as a process driven wholly by states (whether we think of borders as expressions of “natural” sovereignties or assertions of invented ones), Syrian and Lebanese activists in the mahjar played an enormous role in defining the post-Ottoman politics of their homeland. From revolution in 1908 to revolt in 1925, contests over nationalist politics, national borders, nationality laws, and citizenship norms in Syria and Lebanon happened somewhere beyond the seas (waraʾ al-bihar), in the political headwaters running between the Ottoman empire and the Entente. For a time, emigrants abroad navigated these currents in order to stake political claims on their places of origins. The mahjar mattered, not only because of the historical endurance of the Syrian colonies in the Americas, but also because its politics frequently returned home.


(1.) “A Conflagração: Outras Informações: Na Argentina,” Estado de São Paulo (São Paulo), April 14, 1915, 1.

(2.) “Una Tropelía Germania en la Argentina: un Insolente ‘Ultimatum’ al Cónsul Turquía, Digna Actitud de Emir Emin Arslan, La Colectividad Otoman se Opone Decisamente,” Crítica (Buenos Aires), April 13, 1915, 1.

(3.) “La Guerra: El Consulado General de Turquia Actitud del Emir Arslan,” La Prensa (Buenos Aires), June 5, 1915, 6.

(4.) “A Conflagração,” 1.

(5.) ʿAjaj Nuwayhid and Khaldun Nuwayhid, al-Amir Amin Arslan: Nashir Thaqafat al-ʿArab fi-l-Arjantin (Beirut: Dar al-Istiqlal li-l-Disarat wa-l-Nashr, 2010), 73.

(6.) “La Guerra: El Consulado General de Turquia,” 6.

(7.) “La Guerra: El Consulado General de Turquia,” 6.

(8.) Nuwayhid and Nuwayhid, al-Amir Amin Arslan, 67, 74–75.

(9.) “Los Piratas Operando en la Argentina: Alemania se Adueña del Consulado Turco,” Crítica (Buenos Aires), May 20, 1915, 1.

(10.) “A Conflagração,” 1.

(11.) “La Guerra: El Consulado General de Turquia,” 6.

(12.) Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, Paris, Guerre 1914–1918, Turquie, LeFevre-Pontalis to Briand, Cairo, April 12, 1916. In Antoine Hokayem, Daad Bou Malhab ʿAtallah, and Jean Charaf (eds.), Documents Diplomatiques Franҫais Relatifs àl’histoire du Liban et de la Syrie àl’époque du Mandat, Vol. 1: Le Démantèlement de l’Empire Ottoman et les Préludes du Mandat (Paris: l’Harmattan, 2003), 132–133.

(13.) Ami Ayalon, The Press in the Arab Middle East: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 71–73. For an examination of lynchings involving Syrians in the United States, see Sarah Gualtieri, “Strange Fruit? Syrian Immigrants, Extralegal Violence and Racial Formation in the Jim Crow South,” in Race and Arab Americans Before and After 9/11, ed. Nadine Naber and Amaney Jamal (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2008).

(14.) Syrian governor Cemal Pasha justified the convictions and listed the condemned men in La vérité sur la question syrienne (Istanbul: Imprimerie Tanine, 1916).

(15.) Charles Issawi, “The Historical Background of Lebanese Emigration, 1800–1914,” in The Lebanese in the World: a Century of Emigration, ed. Albert Hourani and Nadim Shehadi (London: Centre for Lebanese Studies, 1992), 31. Up to 45 percent of migrants who left Mount Lebanon before 1914 returned after 1920; Akram Fouad Khater, Inventing Home: Emigration, Gender, and the Middle Class in Lebanon, 1870–1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 118–127.

(16.) Studies that explicitly link the experience of war with migration and displacement include Reşat Kasaba, A Moveable Empire: Ottoman Nomads, Migrants, and Refugees (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009); Mehmet Beşikçi. The Ottoman Mobilization of Manpower in the First World War: Between Volunteerism and Resistance (Leiden: Brill, 2012); Isa Blumi, Ottoman Refugees 1878–1939: Migration in a Post-Imperial World (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013); Dawn Chatty, Displacement and Dispossession in the Modern Middle East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

(17.) On issues relating to categorizing “migrants” and “refugees” see Chatty, Displacement and Dispossession, 11–22. For a discussion of the contemporary stakes of this distinction, see “From the Editor,” Middle East Report 46, no. 278 (Spring 2016), 1–2.

(18.) Mustafa Aksakal, The Ottoman Road to War in 1914: The Ottoman Empire and the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); M. Talha Çiçek, War and State Formation in Syria: Cemal Pasha’s Governorate during World War I, 1914–1917 (New York: Routledge, 2014).

(19.) Ilham Khuri-Makdisi, The Eastern Mediterranean and the Making of Global Radicalism, 1860–1914 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010); Khater, Inventing Home; Sarah M. A. Gualtieri, Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

(20.) Andrew Arsan, Interlopers of Empire: the Lebanese Diaspora in Colonial French West Africa (London: Oxford University Press, 2014).

(21.) Simon Jackson, “Mandatory Development: The Political Economy of the French Mandate in Syria and Lebanon, 19151939” (PhD diss., New York University, 2009.

(22.) Reem Bailony, “Transnational Rebellion: The Syrian Revolt of 19251927” (PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2015); Reem Bailony, “Transnationalism and the Syrian Migrant Public: the Case of the 1925 Syrian Revolt,” Mashriq & Mahjar: Journal of Middle East Migration Studies 1 (2013): 8–29; Steven Hyland, “Arisen from Deep Slumber: Transnational Politics and Competing Nationalisms among Syrian Immigrants in Argentina, 19001922,” Journal of Latin American Studies 43, no. 3 (2011): 547–74; Gildas Brégain, Syriens et Libanais d’Amerique du Sud, 1918–1945 (Paris: l’Harmattan, 2008).

(23.) Adam McKeown, “Global Migration, 18461940,” Journal of World History 15, no. 2 (2004): 155–189; James Gelvin and Nile Green, eds., Global Muslims in Steam and Print (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014); Liat Kozma, Cyrus Schayegh, and Avner Wishnitzer, eds., A Global Middle East: Mobility, Materiality, and Culture in the Modern Age, 1880–1940 (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015).

(24.) Issawi, “The Historical Background of Lebanese Emigration,” 30–31; John Karam, Another Arabesque: Syrian-Lebanese Ethnicity in Neoliberal Brazil (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007), 6–7; Brégain, Syriens et Libanais d’Amerique du Sud, 43.

(25.) Ignacio Klich, “Criollos and Arabic Speakers in Argentina: An Uneasy Pas de Deux, 18881914,” in The Lebanese in the World (London: Centre for Lebanese Studies, 1992), 247.

(26.) Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: On the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1993). Scholars who note the fluidity of mahjari nationalisms before 1920 include Kais Firro, Inventing Lebanon: Nationalism and the State under the Mandate (London: I.B. Tauris, 2003); Asher Kaufmann, Reviving Phoenicia: The Search for Identity in Lebanon (London: I.B. Tauris, 2014); Hani Bawardi, The Making of Arab Americans: From Syrian Nationalism to U.S. Citizenship (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2014).

(27.) Carol Hakim, The Origins of the Lebanese National Idea, 1820–1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); Gualtieri, Between Arab and White, 82. On the pragmatic politics belying wartime nationalism, see Stacy Fahrenthold, “Transnational Modes and Media: The Syrian Press in the Mahjar and Emigrant Activism during World War I,” Mashriq & Mahjar: Journal of Middle East Migration Studies 1, no. 1 (2013): 32–57.

(28.) Nina Glick Schiller and Georges Eugene Fouron, Georges Woke Up Laughing: Long-Distance Nationalism and the Search for Home (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 10–12.

(29.) Henry Melki, al-Sihafa al-ʿArabiyya fi al-Mahjar: wa-ʿAlaqatuha bi-l-Adab al-Mahjari (Beirut: Dar al-Sharq al-Awsat li-l-Tibaʿ wa-l-Nashr, 1998), 10–13. For a complete geography of the mahjar press, see Philip di Tarrazi, Tarikh al-Sihafa al-ʻArabiyya, 3 vols. (Beirut: al-Matbaʿa al-Adabiyya, 1933); Joseph Ilyas, al-Sihafat al-Lubnaniyya: al-Qamus al-Musawwar (p.171) (Beirut: al-Matbaʿa Antoun Ruhanna al-Shamali, 1997); Ibrahim ʿAbdalla al-Musallima, al-Sihafat al-ʿArabiyya fi-l-Mahjar (Cairo: al-ʿArabi li-l-Nashr wa-l-Tawzi’, 1994), 35–50; ʿAmr Ibrahim al-Qandalchi, al-ʿArab fi-l-Mahjar: Wujuduhum, Sihafatuhum, Jamʿiyyatuhum (Baghdad: Manshurat al-Wizarat al-Aʿalam, 1977), among others.

(30.) Women’s newspapers multiplied in number after 1910 as well, in part because of the availability of the Merganthaler machine. See Jurj Kallas, Tarikh al-Sihafa al-Nisawiyya: Nasha’tuha wa-Tatawwuruha, 1892–1932 (Beirut: Dar al-Jil, 1996).

(31.) Khuri-Makdisi, The Eastern Mediterranean, 97.

(32.) John Torpey, The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship, and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Adam McKeown, Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Globalization of Borders (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008); Will Hanley, “Papers for Going, Papers for Staying: Identification and Subject Formation in the Eastern Mediterranean,” in A Global Middle Eas: Mobility, Materiality, and Culture in the Modern Age, 1880–1940, ed. Liat Kozma, Cyrus Schayegh, and Avner Wishnitzer (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015),190–192.

(33.) Farhana Ibrahim, “Re-making a Region: Ritual Inversions and Border Transgressions in Kutch,” Journal of South Asian Studies 34 (December 2011), 447.