- Being Modern in the Middle East: Revolution, Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Arab Middle Class
Yes, there is a history of modernity in the Middle East. At a time when, more than ever perhaps, the region is associated with images of backwardness, medievalism, and religious fanaticism, a book such as Keith David Watenpaugh's is a welcome addition to the ranks of scholarship. Based on a microstudy of the city of Aleppo, Watenpaugh's Being Modern in the Middle East, however, has contributions to make to the world of scholarship well beyond the "Eastern Mediterranean" region he generalizes about in this study. Scholars interested in exploring the surprisingly undertheorized category called "the middle class" pretty much anywhere in the world will find much of interest in this book. Of even greater interest are Watenpaugh's historical explorations of what "being modern" meant to the middle class of Aleppo and the region.
Following some of the recent writing on the subject, Watenpaugh understands the middle class not so much as a group defined by income or occupation but as the result of conscious efforts of a relatively small group of educated professionals and businessmen who sought to distinguish themselves both from the traditional elite of Aleppo and of course the lower orders of society. For both of these purposes, being modern, Watenpaugh suggests, was a prerequisite of middle-class-ness. Rejecting the old impact-response of modernization theory, Watenpaugh prefers to "capture modernity as a lived historical experience and explore how it has colonized local politics, cultural practices, and everyday practices" and how that modernity has "given rise to a uniquely modern middle class" (8).
The historical exploration of a lived modernity is perhaps the greatest strength of Watenpaugh's book. I was tremendously impressed with how the author was able to weave in a theoretical discussion of modernity and the middle class with a detailed empirical case study of Aleppo between 1908 and 1946. The first chapter, an introduction, lays out the main arguments of the book, focusing, naturally enough, on terms such as modernity and middle class. The second chapter introduces the locale, the city of Aleppo, and its people, with a focus on the developments in the late Ottoman era that facilitated and provided the context for the emergence of a modern middle class in the city. The following nine chapters are organized in three sections, outlining three critical phases in the history of the Aleppian middle class. The first section, from the Young Turk revolution of 1908 to the First World War, shows how the revolution opened up a space into which the Aleppine middle class could come into its own, as institutions of the public sphere such as voluntary associations, newspapers, and political parties became institutionalized in the Ottoman Empire. Their mastery over what Watenpaugh terms the "technologies" of public sphere debate allowed for the emergence and establishment of a middle class largely composed of religious minorities, displacing the traditional Sunni Muslim elites of Aleppo. If the chapters in the first section show the emergence of a confident middle class in Aleppo, aspiring to social or political hegemony, those in the second section—focusing on the period from the end of the First World War to 1924—reveal a different picture. Sundered from their connections with the old Ottoman Empire, the middle classes of Aleppo, along with others in the eastern Mediterranean, now struggled to make sense of new identity as Arab and Syrian. This more somber period in the history of the Aleppine middle class is reflected in their turn to reflections on the past, but one they framed within the parameters of a new, quintessentially middle-class historicity. The last section examines the period of the French mandate over Syria between 1924 and 1946, where Watenpaugh examines how the Aleppine middle class responded to French colonialism. Far from treating the middle class as a monolith, Watenpaugh in this section explores the ambiguities of middle-class politics. Both resistance to and collaboration with colonialism...