E. Boyar u.a. (Hgg.): Borders, Boundaries and Belonging in Post-Ottoman Space in the Interwar Period

Borders, Boundaries and Belonging in Post-Ottoman Space in the Interwar Period.

Boyar, Ebru; Fleet, Kate
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Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Ellinor Morack, Institute for Oriental Studies, Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg

More often than not, the establishment of new borders within formerly Ottoman territories led to decades of violence and forced migration, which is why such border zones have been described as “shatter-zones”.[1] Refugees were often settled along new borders in order to boost the number of ethnically desirable people, a policy exposing them to a high risk of violence and repeated forced migration.[2] Over the last two decades there has been an increased interest in post-Ottoman borders established in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The present volume is part of a trend towards studying the interwar period from the post-Ottoman angle as well. By focusing not only on borders but also on boundaries and belonging, the volume tries to move away from a focus on violence, shedding light also on more pleasant forms of border crossing.

The edited volume Borders, Boundaries and Belonging in Post-Ottoman Space in the Interwar Period is the outcome of a conference on “Middle Eastern and Balkan Mobilities in the Interwar Period (1918–1939)” held at the Skilliter Centre for Ottoman Studies at Newnham College, Cambridge University, in 2018.

In their introduction to the book, Kate Fleet and Ebru Boyar call attention to two contradictory aspects of the newly drawn borders in post-Ottoman lands: on the one hand, they were often fluid, ill-defined, and next to insignificant for the populations living along or within them; however, on the other hand, new borders and states also had drastic, disruptive, and often tragic effects on people’s lives.

The book’s chapters can be grouped broadly into those where borders mattered and those where they did not. As Ramazan H. Öztan and Jordi Tejel show in their chapter, “Borders of Mobility? Crime and Punishment along the Syrian-Turkish Border, 1921–1939”, the new border between southern Turkey and the French Mandate for Syria did not matter much. Despite attempts to curb their movement, both people and animals went back and forth, and contraband flowed largely unrestricted, continuing late Ottoman patterns of trade. A somewhat similar case is discussed in Liat Kozma’s chapter, “Regional Careers: Doctors’ Mobility across the New Frontiers of the Interwar Middle East”: medical students and young doctors from Arabic-speaking countries crossed new borders (not really frontiers) regularly in order to study or receive professional training, both within the Arabic-speaking world and beyond it. A similarly privileged form of movement was that of Egyptian tourists visiting Turkey: as Amid Bein shows in “Strolling through Istanbul: Egyptians in 1930s Turkey”, Turkey was keenly interested in boosting tourism from that country, but ultimately not as successful as desired.

In Eli Osheroff’s chapter on “The Deal of the Decade: Jewish immigration for Arab Independence and Post-Ottomanism in 1930s Palestine”, it is the “idea” of a post-Ottoman space, thus an ability to think beyond present-day borders, that allowed two high-profile Arab politicians to negotiate for a scheme that would have allowed Jewish immigration into Greater Syria and Iraq – in return for Arab independence. Needless to say, their endeavours were unsuccessful.

A somewhat ambiguous case is that of the Yüzellilikler, the 150 personae non gratae explicitly denied re-entry into Turkey in an appendix to the Treaty of Lausanne (1923). As Boyar shows in her chapter, “Yüzellilikler: The League of Nation’s first and Only Muslim Refugees”, these well-connected people were able to have themselves recognized as a special group of refugees by the League of Nations because the western Allies were interested in sponsoring the Turkish opposition in exile. The group was highly mobile throughout the post-Ottoman Near East, while Turkey remained off limits for them until 1938.
Another case of mobility is that of Husni Al-Urabi, an Egyptian (former) communist who spent 89 months in exile in Berlin between 1931 and 1938. Peter Wien’s chapter, “Surviving in Nazi Berlin: Husni al-ʿUrabi’s 89 Months in Berlin”, is informative and interesting to read but sits uncomfortably with all the other chapters, which deal with mobility in (rather than out of) post-Ottoman lands. The only other contribution dealing with migration beyond post-Ottoman space is that written by Toufoul Abou-Hodeib, “From Marjayun to Oklahoma: Translocalising the Periphery in Interwar Lebanon”. Abou-Hodeib shows how the new border between southern Lebanon and northern Palestine, by cutting off traditional economic ties, boosted emigration to the Americas, eventually leading to the emergence of a translocal public sphere.
Finally, there is Onur İşçi’s chapter, “Interwar Territoriality and Soviet-Turkish Convergence across the Aras River”. As the Soviets built dams and hydroelectric plants, a special agreement between the two states facilitated free movement of workers and goods in a zone around the construction site. Turkey struggled to pay for these projects up to the 1950s and was also much less successful at building auxiliary infrastructure that would have allowed local people in Turkey to benefit from the dams.

On the other side of the spectrum, new borders had violent and catastrophic effects on the lives of local people. As Michael Provence shows in his chapter, “Post-Ottoman Dreams and Nightmares in the Mandate Middle East”, local populations of Greater Syria and Iraq immediately countered Allied plans for the establishment of mandates in those parts of the Ottoman Empire. Their calls for independence and self-rule, however, went unheard, and their previous experience of constitutionalism was counted for nothing.

The only chapter dealing with full-fledged colonialism is that by Brian L. McLaren, titled “Colonialism and Mobility in Libya during the Balbo Era, 1934–1940”. He shows how the fascist administration encouraged the immigration of Italian settlers while at the same time limiting the mobility of local Libyans. The other contributions dealing with negative effects of borders are mostly concerned with forced or involuntary migration. In the chapter “Cursed in Heaven: The Colonization of the Aromanians in Southern Dobruja”, Nikola Minov traces the trajectory of this group, who once lived scattered all over Ottoman Macedonia, mostly as seminomadic stockbreeders. The creation of new borders cut many of them off from their winter or summer abodes, forcing them to abandon animal husbandry. Many ended up immigrating to Romanian Dobruja, where the Romanian government was keen on securing the border against Bulgaria and on establishing non-Muslim and non-Slavic populations. Minov shows very clearly that immigration to Romania was not beneficial for most Aromanians, who found violence and poverty instead of a homeland in their places of settlement. A similar case is discussed in Leyla Amzi-Erdoğdular’s chapter, “Muslim Migration and Nation-Building in Interwar Yugoslavia and Turkey”. She shows how “the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the Turkish Republic both employed migration of Yugoslav Muslims in their respective nation and state building processes” (p. 241). Unlike Minov, Amzi-Erdoğdular follows a state-centred approach, stating that “Yugoslavia and Turkey both benefited from migration” (p. 264). Her exclusive focus on Muslim migrants results in an implicit depiction of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia as ill-intentioned (for getting rid of its Muslims) and of Turkey as welcoming (for taking them in). A discussion of previous anti-Christian violence in Ottoman Turkey would have balanced this picture and helped to explain why Turkey needed immigration so badly. Moreover, the extent of cooperation between both states is downplayed [1] as are the degrees of hardship and suffering that Turkish policies of Turkification and homogenization brought about for Muslim immigrants and local Muslims, especially the Kurds (who are not mentioned in this chapter).

In conclusion, the chapters assembled here offer fascinating insights into the widely differing effects of post-war borders in the post-Ottoman Balkans and the Middle East. Nevertheless, they rarely speak to each other, probably because the book’s topics cut across several established areas of research: the combination of borders, boundaries, and belonging in post-Ottoman space in the title does not quite work. It is actually both the voluntary and involuntary mobility – the theme of the 2018 conference – that holds the book together and would have made for a better-fitting title. The problem of thematic fragmentation, however, remains. Scholars interested in long-term legacies of the Ottoman Empire in the region will find some chapters speaking to that issue and some that do not do this at all. The same goes for borders, which are central to most but not to all contributions. Those interested in migration will find other chapters useful for their purposes than those focused on forms of elite mobility. The volume thus assembles important research but does not quite function as a whole.

[1] See Alp Yenen / Ramazan H. Öztan, Age of Rogues. Rebels, Revolutionaries and Racketeers at the Frontiers of Empires, Edinburgh 2021; Eric D. Weitz / Omer Bartov, Shatterzone of Empires. Coexistence and Violence in the German, Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman Borderlands, Bloomington 2013, particularly Elke Hartmann, The Central State in the Borderlands: Ottoman Eastern Anatolia in the Late Nineteenth Century, ibid., pp. 172–190.
[2] See Ryan Gingeras, Sorrowful Shores. Violence, Ethnicity, and the End of the Ottoman Empire, 1912–1923, London 2009.
[3] This cooperation is discussed in Thomas Schad, From Muslims into Turks? Consensual Demographic Engineering between Interwar Yugoslavia and Turkey, Journal of Genocide Research 18 (2016) 4, pp. 427–46, doi:10.1080/14623528.2016.1228634. Amzi-Erdoğdular does not cite the article.

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