- A Land of Aching Hearts: The Middle East in the Great War by Leila Fawaz
The study of World War I in the Middle East is experiencing a renaissance. For years, a parade of books about T.E. Lawrence and the Gallipoli Campaign (often flowing more from hobbyists than historians) have dominated the popular perception of the region during the war. Broadly speaking, this historical field has been treated as an afterthought by scholars who [End Page 624] hold a Eurocentric view of the conflict and has also been poorly served by highly politicized Arab, Turkish, and Israeli nationalist historiographies (among others). All of this has managed to generally obscure the major gaps in the research about the Middle East in this era. It is only now, a century after the war, that scholarship on this topic is reaching a stage of some maturity and Leila Fawaz’s A Land of Aching Hearts: The Middle East in the Great War is a sign of this change. Never before has such a survey of the war’s social history in the region been attempted and the breadth of Fawaz’s scholarship shows that there is now something of a critical mass of primary and secondary sources from which to draw solid conclusions about the human experience of the war in the Middle East.
To set the scene, Fawaz’s book starts with two chapters that offer impressively concise reviews of the regional prewar context and the war’s military campaigns. The rest of the book compiles the wartime stories of various people in the region, including separate chapters for the varied strata of Ottoman society and the experiences of the soldiers (both Ottoman and Indian). She ends with a chapter about how the war led to the unraveling of longstanding ethnic and communal ties in the Ottoman lands and a short epilogue on the commemoration of the war in the region.
The highlights of the book are many. Fawaz writes her social history through the stories of many fascinating characters, following numerous people as they negotiate their way through the hardships of war. If a scholar wanted to do a global study in the comparative misery produced by World War I, she or he would only need to read chapters three and five to understand that the experiences of the lower echelons of both Ottoman society and the Ottoman military were among the most dire and wretched of the war. This misery was nearly apocalyptic, with malnutrition, famine, disease, brigandage, locusts, and cannibalism playing major roles in the narrative. Fawaz also joins a growing chorus of scholars in claiming that the performance of the Ottoman military was “nothing short of extraordinary” (p. 179). After reading chapter five, one might wonder how the army was able to have any success at all in the face of such massive material deprivation. Yet Fawaz also recounts how many Ottoman elites and some of the middle class rode out the war in style, profiting from the conflict in various ways. A particularly fascinating tale is that of Bechara Buwari, a Lebanese businessman who collaborated with the French and managed to prosper during the war (pp. 148–57). For the upper and middle class, the war could offer opportunity. For the poor, the war seemed to offer only desperation.
Although the impressive elements of this book outweigh its imperfections, these imperfections are worthy of discussion. Fawaz’s specialty is Greater Syria and her command of sources from this part of the Ottoman lands is by far the book’s main strength, to the point where it is fair for the [End Page 625] reader to ask if Fawaz’s contribution could have been even stronger if she had limited this volume to Greater Syria. Historians of Iran may be encouraged to see the inclusion of the military course of the war in Iran in chapter two, but disappointed to see little more about it throughout the book. The chapter on Indian soldiers, while functioning as...