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  • Fezzes in the River: Identity Politics and European Diplomacy in the Middle East on the Eve of World War II
  • Meir Zamir
Fezzes in the River: Identity Politics and European Diplomacy in the Middle East on the Eve of World War II. By Sara D. Shields. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 320 pp. $39.95 (cloth).

Shields examined the conflict between Great Britain, the Mandatory Power in Iraq, and Turkey over Mosul province in the early 1920s in her previous book Mosul before Iraq: Like Bees Making Five-Sided Cells (2000). Her present book discusses another border dispute—between France, the Mandatory Power in Syria, and Turkey over the Sanjak (province) of Alexandretta in the late 1930s. The question of the annexation of Alexandretta (Hatay) to Turkey on the eve of the Second World War has been studied before. Syrian historiography (Shields has not used Arabic sources) presents the loss of Alexandretta as a national tragedy, while Turkish historiography glorifies its return to the motherland. The importance of Shields's work lies in its ability to combine diplomatic and social history, thus exposing the reader to both top-down and bottom-up history. Shields provides a detailed picture of the high-level diplomacy that led to the severing of the province from Syria and its annexation to Turkey against the background of the escalation toward war in Europe and the role of the League of Nations as an arbiter, while presenting an in-depth study of the outcome on the local population.

The province of Alexandretta in northwestern Syria, with its cosmopolitan population of Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Allawis, and Christians— mainly Armenian—and its economically and strategically important port city, after which the province is named, had been part of Syria under the French mandate since 1920. The conflict over Alexandretta, like that over Mosul, became entangled in the border dispute between Kemalist Turkey and the Arab states of Iraq and Syria that had been carved out by Great Britain and France after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. But whereas Turkey's [End Page 472] claims over the oil-rich Mosul district had been rejected by Great Britain, its demands for Alexandretta were given a more positive hearing by France, a weaker power, whose main interest was to sustain its military and strategic position in the eastern Mediterranean as Europe slid toward war. Even though, according to the mandate, France was obliged to defend its borders, it was willing to make territorial concessions at Syria's expense in order to prevent Turkey from siding with the Axis Powers as the Ottoman Empire had done during the First World War. The price was to be the Sanjak of Alexandretta. Great Britain's role behind the scenes in this "territorial transaction" was of greater importance than as presented by Shields. Apparently Great Britain had no problem with ensuring Turkey's collaboration with the Allies in return for French concessions, which Syria eventually was to pay for. As Shields argues convincingly, the fate of the contested province was decided in Great Power politics, while formal avenues were being pursued to conceal the true reasons for its detachment from Syria and annexation to Turkey.

A substantial part of the book is dedicated to the role of the League of Nations, which served as a formal arbiter in the Franco-Turkish dispute, but, in fact, it provided a legal façade for Alexandretta's assignment to Turkey. Shields does not merely examine the political and diplomatic aspects of the League of Nations' involvement, but uses its intervention to demonstrate the gap between the fundamental Western notions adopted to settle the province's legal status and the political, social, and economic reality on the ground. The concepts of nationalism, self-determination, and the democratic process as expressions of the wishes of the people led to what Shields defines as "politics of identity," namely a collective identity as an expression of the local inhabitants' national aspirations. In reality, the population of the province reflected the Ottoman multilingual, multireligious, and ethnically diverse society that had existed for hundreds of years and did not necessarily have one...


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