Academic journal article Jerusalem Quarterly

Seferberlik and Bare Feet: Rural Hardship, Citied Dreams, and Social Belonging in 1920s Syria

Academic journal article Jerusalem Quarterly

Seferberlik and Bare Feet: Rural Hardship, Citied Dreams, and Social Belonging in 1920s Syria

Article excerpt


Beyond a Honeymoon in the Countryside

dr. razi Shakhashir's honeymoon did not go as planned. Bound for aleppo with his bride, Shakhashir opted instead for the dusty hamlet of nayrab, about ten miles outside of the Grey City. if the choice of place may have been surprising, so too was the choice of activity. dr. Shakhashir was not in nayrab for leisure, but rather for work of an intense sort. he, along with a band of young urban professionals from around Syria, was engaged in a rural development initiative known as the Village recovery Program. throughout nayrab and, indeed, lebanon and Syria, these youths had fanned out across the levantine countryside for a number of projects aimed at improving peasant hygiene, health, literacy, and agricultural output. When a reporter for the damascus daily newspaper Al-Qabas visited, he saw Shakhashir surrounded by dozens of peasants awaiting his medical attention. although one would be hard- pressed to know it from a look at the historiography on nationalism in French mandate Syria, this dynamic interplay between notions of urban modernity and visions of rural backwardness functioned as a crucial part of forging national identities. indeed, those youth in nayrab who attracted even honeymooners to their ranks believed they were doing nothing short of injecting "a spirit of life in the segment of the Syrian people... who represent the biggest part of the sons of this nation."1 an exploration of the ways in which ideas of the rural inflected urban nationalist discourses would surely have merit.2

But while moving nationalism beyond its typically accepted urban habitat to some extent, such an account would remain ensconced in the grip of urban nationalists as the sole agents of history. this is to say that such an account would be about the urban elite's ideas of the rural residents rather than the rural residents on their own terms. the nature of this line of argument recalls Philip Khoury's warning of the danger of considering "advancing national ideals" as "the sole measure of historical agency in the twentieth- century arab world."3

this article is an initial attempt to balance these tendencies. rather than taking the Al-Qabas reporter's words as truth - that peasants and other rural residents needed to have the spirit of life awakened in them - and rather than taking the Al-Qabas reporter's words as reflective of truth, a discursive construction of the peasant from an urban, middle-class gaze, i will be attempting to do something more grounded, namely understand what the lives of the rural underclass were actually like. in the process, i hope to raise questions about the ways in which the ottoman past shaped experiences of the mandate period (1920-1946) for the lower classes, the ways in which violence underpinned social and economic order, and, finally, the ways in which classes differentiated themselves in this context.4 By examining the peasants and lower classes with respect to presences rather than absences, i hope not only to bring to light some understudied aspects of lived experience in the mandate period, but also to question some of the predominant assumptions of histories of the time period.

to make these claims, i will rely on the Syrian writer hanna mina's memoir, Baqaya Suwar. mina's work chronicles his early childhood, from 1924 until 1929, as his family moved from village to village in northwest Syria in the wake of the ottoman Empire's collapse and the early years of the French mandate. mina's memories provide insight into the lives of the rural underclass and, moreover, demonstrate some of the ways in which rural and urban social boundaries were constructed in this period.5 over the course of four sections in this article, i will develop an image of rural hardship mitigated by citied dreams: the horrors of the final days of the ottoman Empire repeated themselves (Section 1) as mina's family contended with the intense performative violence that underpinned social and economic order in the countryside (Section 2); the city, however, and its modern institutions represented a respite from this suffering (Section 3), as did consumption of goods deemed of a modern sensibility, namely shoes (Section 4). …

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