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Towards a decentred history of the Middle East: Transborder spaces, circulations, frontier effects and state formation, 1920-1946

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - BORDER (Towards a decentred history of the Middle East: Transborder spaces, circulations, frontier effects and state formation, 1920-1946)

Reporting period: 2019-03-01 to 2020-08-31

While the crisis of the territorial nation-state in the Middle East has once again been brought to a head by the wars in Iraq and Syria, it cannot be simply understood as the logical consequence of an imported political construction. Based on two epistemological notions – borderlands as histoire-problème (history-as-problem) and the co-production of borders between state and society – this research project proposes to rethink the classical historical narrative about the emergence of the post-Ottoman Middle East.

Taking its cue from trans-border phenomena and thus paying attention to the circulation of people, goods and ideas as well as to everyday encounters between local actors and state representatives, the project will be guided by four principle objectives to offer:

• A socio-historical analysis of state violence in the borderlands of the Middle East;
• An examination of the capacities (agency) of border populations to create the history of the borderlands, nation-states, and the region as a whole;
• A study of the frontier effects based around the notions of subjectivity, space and time, and involving various levels of observation (macro, meso and micro) in order to identify the ruptures and continuities evoked by the delineation of new borderlines; and
• A historical lens through which to make sense of current events in Syria and Iraq, and possibly orient conflict-resolution practitioners.

Through the exploitation of a wide range of sources (diplomatic, administrative and military records, missionary documents, and media articles) and by looking at the social construction of international frontiers at the borderlands located between Turkey, Iraq and Syria in the interwar era, the research project will provide a much more holistic yet finely-grained understanding of the formation of the territorial state in the region in the aftermath of the First World War as well as a historical perspective on the on-going armed conflicts.
Following our schedule, throughout these first 18 months members of the research team have worked jointly in relevant archives in Nantes (Centre des Archives Diplomatiques de Nantes), London (National Archives, Kew), Washington DC (National Archives), and Ankara (Republican Archives). Collections in Erevan, Beirut, Istanbul and Köln have also been analysed.

The archival material has been complemented by newspapers and secondary sources held at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon and libraries in Istanbul and London.

The analysis of the above-mentioned diplomatic records sheds an original light on the process of state formation in the Middle East in the aftermath of the First World War.

Our first 18-months research inquiry has indeed confirmed the relevance of our choice: a decentred approach, that is the observation of political, social and economic dynamics unfolding across the newly-established international borders between Turkey, Syria and Iraq provides a powerful site of analysis to offer an alternative, or at least a nuanced, narrative about the emergence of the modern Middle East.

By observing how local actors helped shape the border-making processes between 1919-1925 (published article on the Turkish-Iraqi border) as well as the flows of goods (submitted article on contraband across the Syrian-Turkish border), people (several papers presented at different conferences and workshops), and information (submitted article on cross-border rumours), we have mainly addressed the first two principle aims that guided our original project; namely, a socio-historical investigation of violence in borderlands and the frontier effects brought about by the new international borders in the region.
Finally, the international workshop organized in Neuchâtel on refugees in the Middle East in the interwar era (October 2018) has been a positive way of getting started with the project and widening our international networks.

So far, a journal article and a book chapter have been published. In addition, two more journal articles are currently under review and a book chapter is forthcoming.
Thematically, the research team has initially focused on the delimitation process of the Turkish-Syrian and the Turkish-Iraqi borders. By proposing a study focused on the strategies and attitudes of local populations along the Syrian-Turkish-Iraqi tri-border area BORDER seeks to fill an important gap within historical research.

With regard to the medium term (mainly the second and third years of the research), the analysis will focus on the consolidation process of borders as a physical and symbolic reality – in other words, as institutions around which states establish surveillance systems (such as border guards, patrols and barbed wire fences) and more or less effective taxation.

Likewise, the project is interested in the daily routines of the inhabitants of the borderlands in view of a new reality that becomes more or less visible, depending on the historical and spatial context. While politically motivated activities of borderland groups will be studied, close attention should be paid to the legal and illegal crossing of borders by local populations, the activities adapted to ensure the economic and physical survival of oneself and one’s families, the compromises agreed upon and the phenomenon of mutual co-optation (guards/inhabitants).

In particular, BORDER intends to investigate to what extent phenomena such as banditry and smuggling – which constitutes a veritable parallel economy in many border regions should be considered as practices that have a negative effect on the border or, in contrast, can be seen as a contribution to the consolidation or even co-production of borders.

During this intermediate stage, the project will furthermore focus on the circulation of people, goods, and ideas, and on the negotiations and individual appropriations in which the border populations are engaged. A comprehensive study of the networks within the borderlands and the goods that circulate these regions will allow us to trace the re-composition of the social relations at the local level and at the same time to reassess how “ordinary lives” feature in the “larger history” of the Middle East as it began to insert itself into the globalization process during the first half of the 20th century.

Over the course of the five years, the project seeks to develop a theoretical reflection on borders in the Middle East and, ultimately, on the construction of nation-states, as seen from a transborder perspective in the region and beyond.