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  • Educational Oases in the Desert: The Alliance Israélite Universelle's Girls' Schools in Ottoman Iraq, 1895–1915 by Jonathan Sciarcon
  • Alma Rachel Heckman (bio)
Jonathan Sciarcon
Educational Oases in the Desert: The Alliance Israélite Universelle's Girls' Schools in Ottoman Iraq, 1895–1915
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2017. xxix + 196 pp.

Governments and philanthropies have earnestly favored women's education as an important strategy for citizen formation since the nineteenth century. According to prevailing educational thought of the period, all humans might be born tabulae rasae, but women were the first to raise and mold the world's citizens. Cultivating "enlightened" and "modern" citizens was critical to the nineteenth-century educational and national project. Through the colonial mission civilisatrice ("civilizing mission"), such attitudes toward education also extended to European colonies and states enacting "modernizing" agendas, including the Ottoman Empire.

The Alliance Israélite Universelle was founded in 1860 in Paris by a committee of French Jews who believed firmly in the emancipatory republican project, first achieved in France in 1791. The primary aim of the organization was to prepare Jews for emancipation and the mantle of citizenship in their home countries. Education was the designated means to achieve this vision, by molding young minds and "regenerating" the "backward" Jews in lands from Morocco to Iran, including those of the Ottoman Empire. The curriculum of the schools was mostly in French, though it included variable and inconsistent instruction in Hebrew as well as local languages. Women's education featured prominently in the Alliance agenda, as women were viewed as the incubators of future citizens and their earliest cultural and intellectual influences. "Hygiene" (according to French standards), European modes of dress (anything too decorative according to local custom would be judged to be "backward" and "primitive," antithetical to the Alliance's mission), French language and French value systems were essential above all for the Alliance's female students, because of the formative potential of motherhood and citizen-rearing. In the Ottoman context into which Jonathan Sciarcon's study of the Alliance girls' schools in Baghdad fits, the empire embarked on a series of centralizing and "modernizing" initiatives under the [End Page 227] multi-confessional and nationalistic banner of "Ottomanism" during the period and policy of Tanzimat (1839–1876) and the first and second constitutional periods, which lasted into the twentieth century. These initiatives included educational interventions and citizen formation, and so, for the most part, the Ottoman Empire part welcomed the Alliance's interventions.

Sciarcon's book Educational Oases in the Desert fits into a body of scholarly literature that has flourished since the 1990s in the American academy, beginning with Aron Rodrigue's formative work as well as that of Frances Malino, Lisa Moses Leff, Susan Gilson Miller and others. As Sciarcon writes, his is the first book to focus exclusively on the Alliance girls' schools in Ottoman Iraq, though it is not the first to critically address the themes of women, citizen formation, and local, international and cultural difficulties regarding the activities of the Alliance in the region. Sciarcon gives the appropriate hat tips to his intellectual precursors, including those mentioned above as well as Orit Bashkin and Hanna Batatu with regard specifically to Iraq. His book is encyclopedic in scope and will serve as a useful reference work on the topic.

The book offers a wealth of detailed information, including enrollment numbers, deaths from yellow fever, tuition figures, administrative regime changes in the schools, and indications of space restrictions. Sciarcon states that his focus is the girls' school in Baghdad; when he does compare it to Alliance girls' schools in other Iraqi locales, such as Mosul, Basra and Hilla, factors of relative communal wealth and geopolitical significance attend his analysis. Sciarcon bookends his project with the foundation of the first Alliance girls' school in Baghdad in 1895, concluding it in 1915, with the entrance of the Ottoman Empire into World War I.

Sciarcon's sources are limited to French- and English-language documents and rests largely on a close reading of Alliance archival sources in French. The lack of Ottoman Turkish or Arabic-language sources results in de-emphasis of the place...


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