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Centering the Margins: Identifications and Belonging in Lebanon and Syria: 1943-1958

Final Report Summary - CENTERING THE MARGIN (Centering the Margins: Identifications and Belonging in Lebanon and Syria: 1943-1958)

My research focused on how the inhabitants of the peripheral towns of Zahle, Lebanon, and Qamishle, Syria articulated belonging and identification in the early years of the Lebanese and Syrian nation-states. My research questions are part of a larger scholarly examination into the continuities and differences in the wake of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, European military and administrative control over the region, and the official categorization of Syria and Lebanon as nation-states. My research therefore delves into how these changes in political configurations manifested in the everyday life of the inhabitants of the region. “Centering the Margin” purposefully focused on two marginal sites--Zahle and Qamishle--to examine articulations of belonging that occur outside of the more familiar (and better documented) capital cities of Beirut and Damascus. This re-centering not only offers innovative ways to understand nation-state and national identity formation in the early years of Syria and Lebanon’s independence, but also offers insight into how inhabitants outside of the capitals--and further from the centers of state power--articulated belonging during these foundational years. The inclusion of these marginalized towns help both researchers and members of the general public consider histories that are not limited to the state centers.

While conducting research for my Marie Curie, both towns became greatly affected by growing civil strife and the eventual breakout of a sustained war in Syria. While the intricacies of these relationships fall outside of this research project, these contemporary networks that I was able to observe only reinforced the necessity of understanding the roles of these secondary or marginalized sites and their relationships to the center. They also exposed the dearth of agency of the inhabitants of these peripheral zones within Lebanese and Syrian historiographies.

Both Zahle and Qamishle have strategic relations with their corresponding national capital centers (Beirut for Zahle and Damascus for Qamishle) and with the capitals one another. Zahle was a midway point between both capital cities, and historically benefited economically and socially from its status as a transit point. And while Qamishle was not located between these two cities, its inhabitants connected the two cities together through their economic and social networks. During the timeframe of my project, both towns became intimately connected to the Syrian war as well, housing larger and larger numbers of displaced persons. They also became cluster sites that both housed and connected relief agencies, oppositionary groups, and Syrian state institutions to Syria. International and regional relief agencies used both towns as organization centers and as gateways (in the case of Qamishle, deeper) into Syria , while aiding the displaced persons who sought refuge there. Perhaps ironically, but not surprisingly, both oppositionary groups and agencies of the Syrian state were active in these towns, as Zahle and Qamishle became access points for information about one another, and their activities in and outside of Syria.

My project maintained that the multi-lingual press was a critical domain in which the construction and exhibition of new and old identifications occurred, merged, and changed. Because Beirut enjoyed a far more developed and extensive role in press production and its distribution, its Arabic, French, Armenian, English multilingual popular press (Aztag, an-Nahar, Daily Star, L’Orient, Zartonk), was also circulated in Syria. I began with close readings of these newspapers to identify the discourse they produced and proliferated: how did editors and writers, all connected to local, and often transnational, political parties identify and represent the “news?” I combined this with a similar analysis of the Arabic press outlets published in Damascus (al-Ba`th, al-Jarida al-rasmiyya, al-Thawra). Placed in tandem, I analyzed their news coverage, editorials, readers’ opinion pieces, and relevant articles. Since each political party supported a particular newspaper or journal, the press likewise became a site to analyze political party positioning. Aside from news content, I also examined cultural productions of poetry and short story serials to explore the changing definitions of local and foreign, authentic and imitation, and national and transnational, in various mediums that both challenged and reinforced our current perceptions of domestic, cosmopolitan, marginal, and center.

The output of my research largely grew out of a recurring find in the Lebanese and Syrian press archives: the extended and voluminous press coverage of intra-communal athletic competitions amongst and between the inhabitants of various Syrian and Lebanese marginal towns and capital cities. The consistency of the reportage, and the press’ detailed and prolonged coverage of the spectacle of these events, demonstrated that they played a role in the development and construction of identification and belonging. The analysis of sport and athletic competitions are a growing field in the studying and understanding of nationalism. The examination of intra-communal games amongst and between citizens of different countries, however, mark an additional contribution to such studies and offer an opportunity to consider local, national, regional, and even transnational identities. Generally, state-centered political debates have often eclipsed these concurrent nation building, along with local, community-building efforts.

During my CIG fellowship, I traveled to Beirut 10 times to conduct extended research in the press archives at the American University of Beirut, the Lebanese Arabic daily newspaper an-Nahar, and the Catholicosate of the Armenian Church in Antelias that housed the Armenian language press archives. I began by reading the contents of the newspapers to isolate the subjects of importance for both the press and its associated political parties. While recording the recurring themes and noting which subjects garnered extended coverage, athletic competitions continued to surface and occupy a disproportionate amount of space over days at a time. Pictures, running times, scores, profiles of athletes, and detailed articles that recapped the athletic events eclipsed all other news items at any given time. In parallel with the reporting of these events, the newspapers dedicated their editorials to the games that heralded and articulated what they meant (and should mean) for the readership. Editors promoted sports activity within the community and encouraged their readership’s interest in athletic activities.

The prolonged and detailed attention of these competitions likewise promoted a particular community’s physical presence and prowess. For the Armenians, a parade of competitors likewise exhibited a success story: once victims of genocide, they had become a robust force whose members battled each other for athletic supremacy. In competing with one another, the newspapers contended that they combatted their tragic history, and added prowess, rather than victimhood, to their national characteristics. In fact, the entire enterprise of these competitions--the athletes, organizers, party officials, and newspapers--forwarded the rebirth and greatness of the Armenian community in Lebanon and Syria. They boasted of the number of spectators and detailed the number of state officials present to show their importance. Editorials described how participants--with their able bodies--would advance the Armenian nation and defend it from enemies. In an ode to the marginal towns they represented, newspapers congratulated these spaces as producing ideal citizens that simultaneously served Lebanon and Syria.

When it came to athleticism, Zahle and Qamishle were certainly not marginal. Not only did they often host the games, they were home to many of their victors. Athletes, their competitions, and their representations in the press forged national identifications and understandings of belonging. This in turn shaped the self-understandings of the role of these towns, and ideas of belonging of the inhabitants themselves. Zahle and Qamishle challenged their capital centers and reoriented the news coverage published in Beirut to peripheral spaces. The primacy allotted and created for them in the press placed both towns as centers of power. This, even as the capitals of Beirut and Damascus, as publishing hubs, connected the centers of state power to Zahle and Qamishle.

Even so, the power relationship between the readership and their locations were in flux. These contests aimed to create the fastest and greatest athlete, but they were also engaged in nation building exercises that stemmed from both the capital and the periphery, with multiple ambitions in between. Zahle and Qamishle maintained their prominence vis-à-vis the capital, and also prided themselves for creating model citizens of the Lebanese and Syrian nation-states. At the same time, within marginalized communities, such as the Armenians, Zahle and Qamishle were also used to foster innovative imaginations of the Armenian nation.

The output of this research targets both academic and non-academic readers. The project was able to consider the interactions between state capitals and marginalized towns in order to demonstrate the peripheries’ active roles in identification formation on local and nation-state levels. At the same time, these sports competitions and their associated press coverage demonstrated that marginal communities within Zahle and Qamishle hashed out ideas of belonging in tandem with capital centered ones. Analyzing the function of athleticism within these populations, most notably the Armenian, allowed for the reader to consider how non-majority groups understood and imagined themselves within an encompassing nation-state. While they certainly demonstrated camaraderie, their competitions, also across nation-state borders, emphasized centering the peripheral. This project therefore concurrently examined the transnational connection between marginal communities, as the press implored all Armenians to emulate the athleticism of these competitors to protect the future of the Armenian nation.

“Centering the Margin” revealed the complexity of nation building at the time, and the myriad of actors concurrently engaged in its processes. It also drew attention not only to the peripheral geographic regions often disregarded in studies, but also to their marginalized inhabitants. This contribution consequently contributes to the understanding of who constructed national and local understandings of belonging and how. Sports competitions demonstrate the micro level of these processes and center actors who otherwise would not--and have not--been considered. These studies do not obliterate central state powers, but rather, show how peripheries worked to expand and challenge them as a source of national belonging. Aside from contributing to the disciplines of history and anthropology, and to the field of Middle Eastern Studies, this project also addresses policy makers who too often either view capital centers as the sole source of state and national power, and who likewise disregard both marginal and marginalized spaces and people.