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Radical History Review 86 (2003) 193-199

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Revisioning the Colonial Middle East

Sarah Gualtieri


Elizabeth Thompson, Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege, and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
Joseph A. Massad, Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Much of the nationalist historiography of the modern Middle East brackets the colonial period, treating it as a gap between the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of fully independent nation-states after World War II. In contrast, these two works argue for the crucial relevance of colonialism to understanding the foundations of citizenship and nationality in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. They are both exciting interventions in the field and will cause readers to rethink the history of colonialism and the conditions of postcoloniality in these three Arab states.

Elizabeth Thompson's engrossing book traces the emergence and articulation of a "colonial civic order" in Syria and Lebanon during the French Mandate—that peculiar system of imperialist tutelage devised by the victors of World War I to administer and protect strategic interests in the Arabic-speaking provinces of the defeated Ottoman Empire (Iraq, Transjordan, and Palestine were allotted to the British). What is particularly innovative in Thompson's analysis is her conceptual starting point, namely, the profound "crisis of paternity" produced by the devastating social, economic, and political effects of World War I and French occupation. Her study seeks to account for the various attempts to resolve this crisis as the [End Page 193] French authorities, local elites, and "subalterns" bargained over power and republican rights, most often in a way that marginalized women and endorsed male privilege. Colonial Citizens is thus a history of the construction of a paternalistic civic order under French colonial rule.

The book is divided into five parts. Part 1 details the original crisis of paternity, which Thompson defines as a "general crisis of authority and gender identity," linked to the disruptions of the war and imposition of French rule (38). In prose that avoids the romanticized renderings of other accounts that rely on "public memory," she describes a "shattered social order" where wartime famine took the lives of as many as 500,000 persons in Greater Syria (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Transjordan) (19). A critical component of this crisis was the disintegration of the household (both real and imagined), as thousands of Syrian men were conscripted into the Ottoman army, leaving their womenfolk behind to struggle with starvation. Thompson provides a telling example of how the inability of men to provide for their families was represented and remembered. It is an illustration of an emaciated, bedraggled woman on her knees calling out, "Oh sons of Syria, bread, bread, bread." After the war, gender roles continued to be upset as men returned to unstable labor markets and realized they could no longer function as the main breadwinners in their families.

Into this general mood of anxiety, uncertainty, and guilt come the French who quash Prince (later King) Faysal's attempt to be the post-Ottoman father to the Syrians. Instead, it is the French high commissioner who, armed with a massive soldiery and a clientele of local elites (landlords, tribal sheikhs, and religious officials) poses as the new patriarch, the founding father of a new nation-state. As Thompson posits in part 2, however, the resultant civic order did not go unchallenged, for the crisis [End Page 194] of paternity generated oppositional movements (she calls them subaltern) that came to use "the principles chiseled into republican constitutions" to call for a new order based on citizens' rights, not paternal privilege (57). Of the three movements examined by Thompson (women, workers, and Islamic populists), the discussion of elite female organization proves the most extensive and original. Her treatment of the debates around suffrage and veiling (in part 3) are especially good at revealing "the gendered fulcrum to mandate politics" (111). Thompson explains how, for example, the battle for the female vote and reform in personal status laws was waged within the context of an extremely...


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pp. 193-199
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Archived 2004
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