Fezzes in the River: Identity Politics and European Diplomacy in the Middle East on the Eve of World War II

Fezzes in the River: Identity Politics and European Diplomacy in the Middle East on the Eve of World War II

Fezzes in the River: Identity Politics and European Diplomacy in the Middle East on the Eve of World War II

Fezzes in the River: Identity Politics and European Diplomacy in the Middle East on the Eve of World War II


Self-determination, imported into the Middle East on the heels of World War I, held out the promise of democratic governance to the former territories of the Ottoman Empire. The new states that European Great Powers carved out of the multilingual, multiethnic, and multireligious empire were expected to adhere to new forms of affiliation that emphasized previously unimportant differences.

In 1936, the new Republic of Turkey lay claim to Antioch and the Sanjak (province) of Alexandretta, which the French had ruled since 1920 as part of its mandate over Syria. Turkey's ambassador made a passionate argument that Alexandretta was a homeland of the Turks, a place that was essentially Turkish. With France and Turkey unable to reach agreement, the League of Nations was called in to broker a compromise consistent with the spirit of the new democratic impulse, one of many disputes that it had to adjudicate as self-determination became a rallying cry for peoples who wanted to form new nations around their collective identities. Over the next four years, Turkey struggled for recognition of its claims to the territory, while Turkish authorities competed to win hearts and minds in Alexandretta province.

In this nuanced narrative, Sarah D. Shields illuminates how the people of this region-about a quarter of a million Arabs, Armenians, Circassians, Kurds, and Turks-were forced to choose between Turkish and Arab identities. In the end, Shields shows, national identities played no role in the outcome of the dispute. What happened on the ground in this contested region was determined by Great Power diplomacy amidst the crisis of European democracy in the late 1930s, a story skillfully interwoven with the violent struggles that took place on the streets of the province. In the end, a new kind of identity politics was unleashed that redefined belonging, transformed nationalism, and set in motion the process of dysfunctional democracy that continues to plague the Middle East.


In the early afternoon of May 10, 1938, a chauffeur named Saydo sat chatting in front of a café in the town of Reyhanli, in the Sanjak of Alexandretta. Haydar Hassan Musto and a group of friends saw Saydo, approached his table, and began screaming at him. Witnesses described the scene that followed: harsh words, blows, and revolvers brandished in the air. When prosecutors questioned the witnesses, however, most were unable to recount the crescendo of words as Haydar insulted Saydo’s mother, demanded that Saydo declare himself to be an Arab, threatened to kill him if he claimed to be a Turk, and taunted him about the brimmed hat he was wearing. the witnesses were unable to recount the argument about whether Saydo should declare himself an Arab or a Turk because it had taken place in a language they did not understand: neither Arabic nor Turkish, but Kurdish.

In Saydo’s argument, the main participants were Kurds, but one Kurd was demanding that the other claim to be an Arab instead of registering as a Turk. Saydo’s argument suggests that nationalism in the Middle East was somehow fluid—that people were not convinced they had single, fixed identities, or that their identities had to determine their political outlooks. This study examines how people in the Sanjak of Alexandretta struggled to articulate their complex set of allegiances and beliefs when the League of Nations demanded, in 1937, that every man declare his “identity.”

Although Saydo’s argument took place thousands of miles from Europe, it was one of the countless ripples reverberating from the Europeans’ reinvention of the world at the end of World War I. the war had been catastrophic, leaving more than eight million people dead, another 21 million wounded, and making refugees of uncounted millions more. As diplomats, generals and politicians contemplated the future, they searched for clues on how to proceed. Like forensic investigators at an arson site, European statesmen shifted through the ashes of their old order to try to discover the causes of the inferno that seemed to have . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.