Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Transforming Damascus: Space and Modernity in an Islamic City

Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Transforming Damascus: Space and Modernity in an Islamic City

Article excerpt

TRANSFORMING DAMASCUS: SPACE AND MODERNITY IN AN ISLAMIC CITY Leila Hudson London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2008 (x + 188 pages, index) $89.00 (cloth)

Leila Hudson's book is briskly written and approachable. Concise and lucid enough to be presented to undergraduates without apprehension, it nonetheless raises plenty of interesting questions. The author adopts Bourdieu's theory of cultural capital as the basis for an exploration of different aspects of the social, economic, cultural and political life of Damascus in the decades around 1900, tracing the accumulation and erosion of different forms of "value" across a forty-year period that witnessed dramatic transformations in many of these areas. The probate registers of the city's Islamic courts are her main source, though this choice means, as Hudson recognizes, that her study covers only the Sunni Muslim population of the city.

Studying different kinds of capital flows allows the author to give a nuanced picture of change in the city. Hudson traces how investments of economic capital by the Ottoman state or by European concessionaires are connected to the accumulation of political and cultural capital by different groups in the province of Damascus. Links to Abdülhamid II and the Hijaz Railway allowed the Sultan's Damascene secretary 'Izzat 'Abid Pasha to accumulate political (and economic) capital for himself and distribute it among his relatives in the city; they also translated into enhanced cultural capital for the Sahibi line within the Khalidiyya Sufibrotherhood, a "new practical Islam in the service of the state," but a politically quietist one (97). Links to French investors, and the French consul at Beirut, benefited a different group of Syrians, who would acquire political capital as the opposition to Abdülhamid strengthened, only to lose it (in many cases fatally) in the years after his fall, once the centralizing tendency represented by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) won out at the empire's hub.

Hudson also examines the impact these investments had on the social fabric of the city and the province. By following changes in ownership patterns across the period 1880-1920, she links the accumulation or erosion of merchant capital among segments of the population to changes in social formation, and links marital choices (including transfers of wealth to and from bridal families) to evolving family strategies-different at each level of the social scale-for acquiring or securing social standing. She shows how these choices were related to the emergence of a "tense new middle class [which] would lead Ottoman/Islamic Damascus into the national age" (84). This approach holds potential for other cities in the region and for other periods, though perhaps not all cities have a historical source as rich and well preserved as the Ottoman court records of Damascus.

There are problems with the book, however. Despite the richness of the archival material, the source base in some places is too thin to support the author's argument-even where that argument is otherwise plausible. Consider the chapter on "intellectual capital," which is based on the contents of private libraries as listed in the probate inventories. Hudson notes the intriguing fact that for books, unlike many of the items covered by the inventories, little change in ownership patterns (the things people owned, the sort of people who owned them) seems to have occurred in this period. But of the over 2,000 inventories Hudson analyzed, only thirty-three contained book collections. This number is 1.65 percent of the total, and while that is more than "about one-tenth of one percent," it is too small for general observations about the demographic distribution of book ownership to be anything other than misleading (86). The author's qualitative discussion of the sort of books these collections held, interesting in itself, is undermined by being presented quantitatively, as a representative picture of intellectual life in Damascus (a city of over 200,000 people by 1914). …

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