Refugees and the definition of Syria, 1920-1939

The wheels of academic writing turn slowly.

It’s seven years since I first gave a talk at a workshop in Princeton outlining some ideas about how the arrival and settlement of refugees in Syria helped to define the modern state’s territory, institutions, and national identity. It’s six years since I developed them more fully in a seminar at the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford, which I entitled ‘Refugees and the definition of Syria, 1920-1939’. (The name stuck.) Over the next year or two I did some further archival research to test the ideas out, and was pleased to find that rather than contradicting my argument, this extra work allowed me to nuance and extend it. Meanwhile, just as I was learning more about Syria’s history as a destination for refugees in earlier generations, the civil war there broke out, and turned the country into the world’s largest producer of refugees.

Three years ago, while I was on research leave for a semester after changing jobs, I worked these presentations up into a full article. That turned into a bit of a monster (especially when the footnotes were included: Lordy!) but I was quite happy with it, and a couple of academic friends read it and gave me some positive feedback—as well as some advice on points that needed improving, of course. So I made some minor revisions, then sent the draft to a contact who was preparing a special issue of a historical journal, on refugees and statelessness.

And then nothing happened. For nearly a year. The person I’d been in touch with had gone on parental leave, her co-editor didn’t reply to my emails, and when I eventually contacted the journal, they couldn’t help—they’d never heard of the special issue. So I withdrew the article. By that point, two years ago, I was back to a full teaching load with plenty of other responsibilities. I didn’t know quite what to do next.

Somewhere over this horizon, your article will be published

Eventually, though, I asked another couple of (senior) colleagues to read over the article and tell me if they thought it would be worth submitting it to Past & Present—a very good journal, but one with a famously intimidating review process. Both of them thought that with a bit of reframing to make it suitable for a non-specialist audience (ie, historians who don’t specifically work on refugees and statelessness), the article would make a plausible submission. In November 2015, with a bit of free time, I gritted my teeth and made what turned out to be some fairly minor amendments to reframe the article—and, a bigger job, reformatted the footnotes in line with the requirements of a different journal. And so, in some trepidation, I was able to send it off.

This was quite a big deal for me, because by that point it had been four years since my book came out, and in the meantime I’d published nothing but book reviews. I’d started my first permanent job at an institution where I didn’t feel at home, then moved to my second—which meant two rounds of settling in to a new city, getting to grips with a new institutional culture (and new administrative responsibilities), and preparing a lot of new teaching. Finding time to research and write had been difficult, and I’d also had to change what I was working on: the war in Syria had made it impossible for me to continue a project I’d begun. I knew what I wanted to do instead, and I’d started making connections here in Glasgow (thanks to GRAMNet) that would help me develop it—but I was grimly aware that the gap opening up in my publications record was like an ever-growing question mark over my future as a researcher. Anyone working in British academia will know what I mean.

Last March, I got the reply from Past & Present: to my delight, they wanted to publish it. During the double-blind peer review process, five (!) reviewers had read the article. One of them was lukewarm, the other four were positive or very positive. They all had suggestions for minor revisions, and a kindly-worded email from the editor suggested how I might approach them. I submitted the revised final version in early July, after I’d made some amendments and got a friend who’s an academic copyeditor to check the footnotes. (I told him to charge me the full rate, of course.) Proofs came my way for checking in the autumn, along with a publication date: May 2017, seven years to the month after the workshop where I first presented the argument, with online access a bit earlier. I didn’t imagine, when I started on this work, that it would take so long to see it to completion—or that the country whose history I’d been writing would experience such catastrophe in the meantime.


All of which is by way of announcing that my article ‘Refugees and the Definition of Syria, 1920-1939’ is now available online, and will be out in print soon. For anyone who wants a shorter version without footnotes, a post will be going up on shortly. The next article I publish should be out rather quicker—though the gestation time has been almost as long.

Many thanks once again to everyone mentioned in this post
who read the article in draft form and helped improve it.

Can a refugee carry a gun?


Can a refugee carry a gun? Or, to put it another way, can someone who is armed still be considered a refugee?

The answer seems to be no. When Kurds fled Turkey in the 1920s and 30s and entered the French-controlled territory of Syria, they were one group of refugees among several: in particular, Armenians and other Anatolian Christians, including survivors of the 1915 genocide as well as people pushed out of the new Turkish Republic in the 1920s, and after 1933, Assyrians coming from Iraq. But the French authorities in Syria only referred to Christian refugees as ‘refugees’. Regardless of the circumstances of their departure from Turkey (usually fleeing military repression) and arrival in Syria (often accompanied by their flocks), Kurds were much more likely to appear in official correspondence as Kurdes réfugiés en Syrie—‘Kurds who have taken refuge in Syria’—than réfugiés kurdes, ‘Kurdish refugees’. In the lengthy reports to the League of Nations that the French foreign ministry produced each year, there is always a section about assistance to refugees: it fit the image of a benevolent mandatory power to help needy refugees. But not Kurds: they sometimes appear in summaries of the political situation, but never in the section about refugees. The League of Nations itself took action on behalf of both Armenian and Assyrian refugees in the 1920s and 30s, but not Kurds.

There are several reasons for this. But one of them is that the Kurds were usually armed.

The Baquba refugee camp, from the front cover of Austin’s book

Here’s another example. For a few years after 1918, the British military occupation forces in Mesopotamia ran a large refugee camp at Baquba, about 33 miles north-northeast of Baghdad. The people who lived in it, nearly fifty thousand of them, were Armenians and Assyrians who had been displaced from eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus during the first world war. From among the refugee population the British had formed a contingent of irregular troops, four battalions of them. But at the very start of 1920, a British attempt to make the arrangement less irregular by formally enrolling the troops created unexpected tensions. For reasons the British didn’t fully understand, troops in two of the battalions refused to sign the enrolment forms (they appeared to suspect that Britain would ship them off to serve the empire in India). One of the battalions was Armenian, and its opposition was particularly strong: when the battalion’s officers agreed, under heavy British pressure, to sign the forms, the rank and file threatened to shoot them.

This is what happened next, in the words of the camp commandant, Brigadier-General H.H. Austin (the emphasis is mine):

I decided thereupon to disarm and disband the Armenian battalion; and issued orders that the battalion should be paraded fully equipped and marched up to my Headquarters, alongside which the 1/4th Battalion Devons were camped.

Two companies of the Devons were told to hold themselves in readiness about their camp; but not to show up, as though trouble was anticipated, unless I blew a whistle to signify that my order to “ground arms” was disobeyed by the Armenians. In due course the battalion arrived, and was formed up with its rear to the river bank—here 40 or 50 feet high and a sheer drop to the water below. After addressing the men for some time through an English-speaking Armenian official of the orphanage, I informed them it was my painful duty, as a result of their distrust of the British Government, no longer to regard them as soldiers, but as refugees pure and simple. They would, accordingly, hand over their arms, accoutrements, and equipment now; and on return to their camp make over their uniform to their respective company commanders. The order to “ground arms” was obeyed without any sign of hesitation: a company of the Devons emerged from their camp to take over rifles, bandoliers, etc; and every Armenian of the battalion was searched over to see that he had no revolver or ammunition concealed about his person. They were then marched back through the Armenian sections of the camp, to their own on the other side of the river, and a few days later transferred and distributed among the Armenian population in “A” area.

H.H. Austin, The Baqubah Refugee Camp
(London and Manchester: The Faith Press, 1920), pp. 47-48

No longer soldiers, but refugees pure and simple: when refugees are disarmed, they become ‘just’ refugees.[1]

The photograph at the top of this post is evidence of this happening. In early 1939, the final territory under the control of the elected Republican government in Spain fell to the fascist military rebellion led by Franco. Over three hundred thousand people—young, old; children, women, men—fled north into France. The rifles in this pile were taken from Republican refugees as they entered the country.

There was precedent for this kind of thing. When the (substantial) remnants of the White Russian army were evacuated from the Crimea in 1921 at the end of the Russian civil war, their commander General Wrangel wanted to maintain them as a military formation to continue the fight. The Allies, hosting 120,000 Russians in the Straits Zone, disarmed and disbanded them instead. Spanish Republicans, too, hoped to continue the fight against Franco—but the French government, terrified of a war with the fascist powers, had no intention of permitting that.

Being defined as a refugee is itself a loss of control. This is one reason why many refugees reject the term: Spanish Republicans called themselves exiliados, ‘exiles’, while Russian refugees preferred to be ‘émigrés’. Here’s a Kosovo Albanian woman discussing the term, closer to our own time:

Well, you cannot describe it. It is awful, very hard to be like that. The name can show you, you know, R.E.F.U.G.E.E. is like the worst thing in the world, so it is something that you cannot describe. You don’t have any power and you don’t have anything but your soul, your body and nothing else. This is very difficult and hard for everybody. Even for the people who accepted refugees it was very hard, every time you feel like you are not you. So, every day you feel empty, you feel… I mean it’s just very hard, without any power, with nothing.

Quoted—from a book by Losi, Passerini, and Salvatici—in Peter Gatrell,
The Making of the Modern Refugee (Oxford, 2013), p. 265

The sense of powerlessness that the term R.E.F.U.G.E.E. brings is so strong that she is unwilling to speak it, and spells it out instead. But it would be a mistake to think that a person loses control at the moment when they flee their home, or cross the border into a neighbouring country.

The term ‘refugee’ has had a distinct meaning in international law for nearly a century. It has evolved in that time, and expanded from a very narrow range of applicability covering two specific groups of displaced people (Russian and Armenian refugees in the 1920s) to a theoretically universal one (anyone displaced over a border by a legitimate fear of persecution). The point of the legal definition, which is the basis of national refugee law in most places where such legislation exists, is to make protection available to refugees, in the shape of rights—eg, the right to asylum; the right not to be pushed back into the country they are fleeing; the right to work—and humanitarian assistance. In practice, though, to access that protection as ‘refugees’, people are expected to give up any control over their own destinies, and become as passive and needy as the term requires them to be. This is not always voluntary: consider Denmark’s recent decision to strip asylum-seekers of their money and belongings as a precondition of being considered for refugee status.

When refugees are armed, they have altogether too much control over their own destinies to be considered ‘refugees’. The British themselves had formed the Armenian battalion at Baquba, but when the troops showed their autonomy they were swiftly disarmed, in a setting that was designed to expose them: backs to a forty-foot drop, British soldiers waiting nearby to intervene if they failed to ground their weapons on command. They were literally ‘marched back’ into civilian life, no longer soldiers, but refugees pure and simple. For the Spanish Republicans, disarming was only the first step. They were then—as refugees often are—split up, transported long distances, and interned: women, children, and the elderly in rough accommodation rapidly converted from forestry camps or army camps, the men of military age in barbed-wire pens on the beaches of Roussillon. Many of them did not survive this exposure. The author of this loss of control was not Franco but the French state.

So: can a refugee carry a gun? Probably not. But to understand why, we need to understand the quid pro quo that states expect when they give asylum to refugees—when they define people as ‘refugees’. The point isn’t that refugees should be given guns, but what happens when they arrive with guns is a particularly clear illustration that protection, however flimsy, is conditional on loss of control.


Click images for source if not indicated

[1] Austin’s book gives an account of the events that had pushed these Assyrians and Armenians from their respective homes and brought them into contact with British troops advancing into northwestern Persia (Iran) in 1918 (pp. 3-14). Although by then some of them had been displaced over hundreds of miles, he doesn’t use the term ‘refugees’ to describe them until he reaches the point, on p.14, when they were brought under British protection.

Tackling inequalities, the comfortable way


‘Tackle’ is one of my least favourite verbs—maybe not when it’s applied on the rugby field, but certainly when it’s used with abstract nouns and intractable social problems. This struck me a while ago when I read a career summary that mentioned the author’s professional experience of ‘tackling child poverty’. As I started writing this blog post I came across another example: a poster from the Glasgow Council on Alcohol, ‘tackling the misuse of alcohol’.

But what really made me start thinking about the way this word is used was the announcement, a couple of months back, of a £64.4m grant by The Atlantic Philanthropies to the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The purpose of this enormous grant is to endow a fellowships programme, running over twenty years, ‘to support leaders tackling inequalities’. It’s been bothering me ever since.

‘Tackling’. It sounds manly, purposeful. It summons up sporting images: the attacker rushes forward with the ball, the defender stops them short with one effective tackle. It’s guff.

What does ‘tackle’ mean, in this kind of context? ‘Making a good living out of’, perhaps, like the civil servants who work for the UK government’s Child Poverty Unit. Or perhaps not, because it’s not clear from its own website whether this unit is still functioning. The CPU set about ‘tackling the causes of disadvantage and transforming families’ lives’ with a 2011 strategy, aiming ‘to tackle poverty’—that’s a lot of tackling—‘by strengthening families and providing support to the most vulnerable’. But the CPU’s homepage hasn’t been updated in three years: a new strategy, it says, ‘will be published in 2014’. And despite all this resolute tackling, child poverty in Britain has steadily worsened since 2011. So perhaps ‘tackle’ means ‘do nothing to hinder’. (The Glasgow Council on Alcohol says it’s been tackling the misuse of alcohol for fifty years: you don’t have to spend long walking around the city to see how effective it’s been.)
Glasgow Council on Alcohol

Now, as it happens, the worst child poverty rates in the UK are not in Glasgow, where I live, or in the most deprived local authority areas of England, like Blackpool: they’re in London. Of the 20 local authorities with the highest rates of child poverty, 14 are in London (pdf; figures for late 2014). London is a highly unequal city: if it’s housed at LSE, a project that aims to ‘tackle inequalities’ can find plenty on its doorstep.

But everything about this project, from the press release on, suggests that ‘tackle’ here is more likely to mean ‘reproduce’, if not ‘structurally reinforce’.

All publicity is good publicity, as long as it reproduces social hierarchy

Let’s start with the press release, and the very obvious inequalities that it manifests. It names, and quotes, the co-directors of the International Inequalities Institute, who will run the new fellowships programme: two middle-aged white men. It names, and quotes, the director of LSE: a middle-aged white man. It names, and quotes, the CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies, the foundation that’s endowed the programme: a middle-aged white man. Then it gives contact details for the corporate communications and PR staff at the LSE and Atlantic who are meant to field any enquiries that the press release might generate: two younger white women at the LSE and one younger Iranian-American man at Atlantic.* It doesn’t quote any of these three, though, as they’re not in positions of power. So the press release for a programme ‘tackling inequalities’ itself reproduces fundamental inequalities of gender, race, age, and class, without a thought for how that looks. Only the privileged can be so thoughtless.

In fact, the press release doesn’t even mention anyone who’s at the sharp end of inequality, the end where most people in the US and the UK, let alone the world, actually live. They’re not people: they’re a set of abstract problems, ‘inequalities’. People might have politics, a word that’s also missing from the press release.

Now, I’m a white man working at a big, old university; not quite middle-aged yet, but pushing 40. Obviously I like to think that I’m a decent sort of chap. But on all those spectrums of gender, race, age, and class, I’m on the side that’s doing nicely out of inequality. So I have to admit that if anyone who really wanted to ‘tackle inequality’ came looking for me, they’d be carrying a hook and a length of rope, not a £64.4m grant.

For he that hath, to him shall be given

Then there’s the fellowship programme’s host institution, the London School of Economics and Political Science. By British standards, if not by American ones, the LSE is a wealthy institution. The size of its endowment is a good measure of that (for reasons explained in this blog post).

Only two British universities have endowments of over a billion pounds: Cambridge and Oxford, as you’d expect. (They’re both well clear of a billion, in fact, respectively close to £6 billion and around £4.25 billion). Most universities in Britain have endowments that are a tiny fraction of that, from a few thousand pounds—basically operating off annual teaching, research, and commercial income—to £25 million. As of 2015, ten UK universities had endowments of £25–50 million, and nine of £50–100 million. Apart from Oxbridge, only eight universities had endowments of over £100 million: Edinburgh and Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester, and four institutions in the University of London system: King’s, UCL, Imperial… and the LSE, whose ranking in this table (the impressively well-documented Wikipedia page listing UK universities by endowment**) will presumably rise sharply in 2016: this one grant will increase it by more than half.

640px-LSE_main_entranceAnd LSE is considerably richer than it appears from a simple mine’s-bigger-than-yours comparison of endowment size. First, it is much smaller than any of the other institutions in the top ten: far fewer students, far fewer staff.⁂ So LSE’s considerable endowment is spread rather thicker. Second, unlike the rest of these universities, which cover a broad range of subjects from medicine to medieval history, LSE is—as its name suggests—a specialist institution. It covers a relatively narrow set of subjects, mostly in the social sciences. Its endowment isn’t needed to fund the acquisition of supercomputers, advanced laboratory equipment, or expensive library books in the biomedical sciences.

In the extremely unequal landscape of UK higher education, then, LSE is very privileged. Within the school, other inequalities are also reproduced: gender distribution of academic staff, for example, is ‘similar to levels seen across the sector’ (pdf; see fig. 13)—ie, highly unequal, with under 40% being women. (How that distribution breaks down at different levels of seniority is not clear.) Located as it is in the middle of one of the world’s most expensive cities, LSE probably disproportionately attracts students from a background of high household income, though that figure isn’t so easy to find.†

Is this a problem? The forces that create these inequalities are way beyond the LSE’s control. But if I had £64.4m and I wanted to spend it on tackling inequalities, I wouldn’t start at the LSE—unless I was giving it to the cleaners.

For ‘tackle’, read ‘structurally reinforce’

The details of the grants programme are no more reassuring. “The 20-year fellowship initiative”, according to the press release, “will train the next generation of leaders seeking to influence and facilitate changes in global policy and practice to enable greater equality, opportunity and outcomes for all. It is expected that well over 600 Atlantic Fellows will be developed across geographic and disciplinary boundaries over the duration of the programme.”

There are two problems here. The first is the absolute refusal to acknowledge that ‘inequality’ is the outcome of political choices, economic exploitation, or social structures: is something that people with power do to other people. If you saw an angry man choking a child, you wouldn’t seek to facilitate changes in his behaviour to enable greater opportunities for that child to breathe. This degree of abstraction would be laughable if it weren’t so disgraceful.

The second problem is the focus on ‘leaders’. The press release continues:

“Aimed at academics, activists, policy-makers, journalists, lawyers, health professionals, cultural leaders, writers and creative artists, the Atlantic Fellows programme has been designed with the flexibility to offer different levels of engagement in order to create and continue to support an international community of diverse multidisciplinary and action-oriented leaders.”

Even in Britain, a wealthy country where participation in two world wars resulted in several decades of social democracy within living memory, every single one of these different fields is highly unequal, and disproportionately dominated by the privileged. Academia is the example I know best: it’s not the worst, but it’s pretty bad. The further up the hierarchy you go from first-year undergraduate to endowed professor to vice-chancellor, the fewer state-educated people you find; the fewer women you find; the fewer people of colour you find. The same in politics, journalism, law, medicine, the creative arts. So a fellows programme aimed at people in these sectors will, from the start and by design, disproportionately benefit privately-educated white men. This is a global programme, so the precise complexion of privilege will vary according to the hierarchies in place in the countries from which fellows are recruited. But it’s the privileged who’ll benefit most. There’s no evidence that the institute has even considered a strategy to offset this.

In other words, a programme intended to ‘tackle’ inequalities has been set up in such a way that it will simply reproduce them. Note the words of LSE Director, Craig Calhoun: “This remarkable grant will enable LSE’s new International Inequalities Institute to scale up faster, join students and researchers across departmental lines, and prepare generations of engaged practitioners to have an even more profound impact.” The prime beneficiary of the multi-million pound grant tackling inequalities, in other words, is the LSE’s new academic institute itself. The intended outcome is for that institute ‘to scale up faster’. And what, precisely, will that do to limit, moderate, reduce, or—God help us—end inequality?


* I guessed the ethnicity from his surname, and confirmed it by looking him up online. As an Iranian-American, he’s ‘Caucasian’ by the US census categories, though I wouldn’t want to second-guess his life experiences; he’s certainly the closest to a person of colour mentioned in this document.

** The 405 references for this page (as at 18 August 2016)  are almost all directly to universities’ own financial statements. University press offices would edit the information if it were incorrect.

⁂ The others all have between twenty and forty thousand students, except Imperial, which has under 17,000 students. But that’s still more than half as big again as LSE, with its 10,600 students. (These figures are from 2014/15.) These other comparably wealthy universities also have at least twice as many academic staff as LSE—most have three, four, five times as many.

† LSE offers bursaries of up to £4,000/year to UK and EU students from lower-income households, but its 2015 ‘Context Statistics’ document doesn’t give a breakdown of students by household income. If the Higher Education Statistics Agency collects such information, it doesn’t make it easily available on its website either.

Click images for source.
LSE Old Building picture credit: Umezo Kamata (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Pogo with the Quo

I’ve never done an oral history interview, though I keep meaning to start. But the other night, on a ten-minute taxi ride home from a concert, I got an informal bit of oral history.Jim MacNeary, Glasgow Apollo

As soon as he heard I’d been at a gig, the driver began reminiscing about gigs he’d been to himself, especially as a young man in the seventies and eighties. The venue he talked about most was the Glasgow Apollo, which closed in 1985—he’d seen several gigs there, the first of them Status Quo in the 1970s. The ticket for that one, he said, cost £1.50, and when a friend heard that he was going he said “I hope you’re not in the upper balcony!” But he was indeed in the upper balcony, and when he got there he understood why his friend had said that: it was perilously steep and high, and when people started dancing down at the front of it it felt as if the whole thing was shaking. There were bouncers, he said, going up and down the aisles at rock gigs like that, but if you watched the bouncers in the upper circle you’d notice that they didn’t go all the way down to the rows closest to the stage: from the doors at the top, they’d walk down the stairs of the aisle as far as about five rows up, then stop.

Pink with gold trimThis was a conversation in a taxi: I didn’t take notes, and I’m only getting round to writing this a few weeks later. But the internet being the internet, checking a few details and learning more was easy. The Apollo opened as Green’s Playhouse cinema in 1927—the largest in Europe, according to this website about Scottish cinemas, seating 4,368 (!), and with a ballroom above the auditorium too. You wouldn’t have guessed this from the pavement in front of the building on Renfield Street, where the entrance was set in a row of shops with offices above them (all part of the same building), but going inside must have been like entering another world. A pretty lurid world, too: I don’t know what the colour scheme was in 1927, but when the building was operating as a concert venue between 1973 and 1985 much of the interior was painted in shocking two-tone pink with gold trim.

How this looked under normal lighting, I’m not sure. This is one of a series of photos taken as the building was demolished, in 1987, after a fire had left it strucurally unsafe. Or perhaps that should be even more structurally unsafe: the building’s structural problems were apparently the reason why it was closed two years earlier.

The Apollo had a reputation as the best rock venue in Britain, and ‘the Quo’ loved it—they played there seven times in a single year (1976), a record for the venue, and their three concerts that December were used for recording a live album. I wonder if it was one of these gigs that I heard about from the chap whose taxi I was riding in: if so, he’d have been entitled to one of these stickers:


That formidable reputation may explain why the online forum devoted to its memory has had nearly ten million visitors. It also figures heavily on the discussion boards of other forums, about Glasgow or about bands who played there. So anyone who wanted to do a proper oral history project about it would find it easy to recruit interviewees. As I did a brief skim of the internet to write this post, a few questions sprang to mind. Was the Apollo’s reputation justified—and if so, why? It wasn’t just a rock venue, but that’s what it’s most famous for: the names most immediately associated with it by Google are Status Quo, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, AC/DC… and this picture of fans at an AC/DC concert makes it look like a bit of a boys’ club, as does the painting at the top of this post. So what was the gender history of the Apollo? In the mid-century heyday of the Glasgow dance halls, these were mixed (that was the whole point of them): was it all sweaty boys later in the century? The cutaway architectural plan shows kitchen, offices, an art room, though whether these were still in operation in the ‘Apollo years’ or dated from the time of Green’s Playhouse I don’t know. Still: what was it like to work at the Apollo, in the box office, backstage, or as a bouncer?

A bit more time on the internet, though, revealed that someone has recently completed a PhD about this: Kenny Forbes, now teaching at the University of the West of Scotland. He ran a blog about the project, and his thesis, You had to be there? Reflections on the ‘legendary’ status of the Glasgow Apollo theatre (1973-85), is available on the e-theses site of my own institution. (It’s been downloaded over 200 times since it was submitted less than a year ago: more evidence that the old ‘no-one reads PhD theses’ claim is nonsense.) So if a student ever asks me about doing their dissertation on this, they’ll have to come up with an original angle of their own.

Playhouse cutawayAnd what about the balcony? The Wikipedia page on the Apollo is on the brief side, but claims that the balcony was ‘designed and built so that it would move up and down’. I’m dubious about this: for a concert venue that might make sense, but for an auditorium designed as a cinema? Kenny Forbes expressed similar doubts on his blog, having heard the claim in several places but found no evidence to support it. He posted some architectural plans and asked if any readers could help: I’ll need to read the thesis to find out if he got any answers. But no-one is in any doubt that it moved, alarmingly. The bouncers were right to take care.

Click images for sources, which aren’t always properly sourced themselves.
The  painting at the top is by Jim MacNeary, sourced from Kenny Forbes’s blog.

This post is for my uncle Phil,
who loved knowing about music and buildings in a city’s history.


17 years again

More or Less, camp image

Last week someone tweeted a link to my post about the average length of stay in a refugee camp to the BBC radio programme More or Less, which investigates numbers that are in the news. The “17 years” statistic is exactly the kind of thing they like to get their teeth into.

I duly got a message from the producer, and went into the BBC Scotland studios here in Glasgow for an interview earlier this week. The programme was broadcast on the World Service last night—you can listen to it here.

The image is borrowed from the More or Less programme page (click for link),
and I’m quite pleased that it’s not an aerial view:
An Afghan woman carries laundry in a refugee camp in Malakasa.
Credit: Milos Bicanski / Getty

Twilight of the saints

Vale of Nablus 1890s

This is a book review I wrote for the American Historical Review, which I’m republishing here with permission (and some pictures). A full citation for the published review follows at the end. As ever, I’m struck by how the formal tone of an academic review jars in the context of a blog, but there it is.

JAMES GREHAN. Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. x, 341. $74.00.

In 1747, when a plague of locusts threatened the harvest, the Ottoman governor of Damascus dispatched a delegation of Sufis to an enchanted spring in Persia. The water they drew there, carried carefully back to Syria, would lure a magical black bird – the samarmar – to consume the locusts. Their return was greeted with parades and popular celebration.

Well of the Samaritan 1890s
The Samaritan’s Well, Nablus, 1890s

The bird never appeared. But the fact that everyone thought it would, including Ottoman state officials and urban religious elites, is the starting point for James Grehan’s richly detailed historical ethnography of everyday religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. Grehan argues that histories of religion, especially in the Middle East, have focused excessively on textual traditions. They have overemphasized the salience of religious difference in everyday life, and the ability of religious institutions (the main generators and guardians of textual sources) to determine everyday religious practice. Attempts to go beyond this by studying “popular religion” have only helped up to a point: the dichotomy between “popular” and official religion still grants normative status to text-based orthodoxies, and cannot account for the prevalence of “popular” practices among educated urban elites.

Grehan sets out to offer a more nuanced account of what he terms “agrarian religion”: everyday religious practice in a predominantly rural and illiterate society, where “even the towns” – and their literate elites – “were sunk in an essentially agrarian milieu” (15). His local and western sources include topographies, travel narratives, memoirs, and (for the later part of the period) Ottoman statistical surveys. The scholar and Sufi Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi (1641–1731), whose writings figure often, is a particularly genial guide.

Nablus, new mosque 1940
The new mosque at Nablus, 1940

Common to all religious traditions in Ottoman Syria and Palestine was a weak infrastructure of sacred buildings and educated personnel outside the towns. Ottoman state surveys from the late nineteenth century show that mosques, churches, and synagogues, ulama, priests, and rabbis were all concentrated in towns; where villages had them, they were large ones like Jenin or were close to larger towns. Having established the weakness of institutional religion, Grehan explores the everyday religious life of the population through five thematic chapters looking at saints, tombs, sacred landscapes, the spirits that haunted the land, and the magic of blood and prayer. The chapters focus on the countryside, but return often to the towns and cities whose own religious culture was profoundly connected to that of the rural hinterland. Sunni Islam provides the richest body of evidence for Grehan’s account, but there are frequent references to other Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities. These furnish ample material to support his argument that the lines of sectarian difference, however sharply defined in normative religious texts, were blurred to the point of indistinctness in daily life.

Saints, living and dead, were venerated by everyone. It was not uncommon for a holy man to be revered beyond his own faith community: Christians as well as Muslims would stop to kiss the hand of Ali al-Umari, a renowned Sufi in nineteenth-century Tripoli (63). In a landscape where religious buildings were rare outside towns, the tombs of saints provided a focus for religious practice, both as social institutions – places of sanctuary or mediation – and sites for worship. Different religious traditions often shared the same sites, though they sometimes disagreed over the attribution of the tomb, and even educated townsmen like al-Nabulsi saw no contradiction in reporting uncertainty over the identity of a tomb’s resident saint while praying at the site. Tombs were important in towns, too, like the shrine of Ibn al-Arabi in Damascus: there was no doubt about the identity of the person venerated there, though the actual site shifted over time (113).

Joseph's tomb 1930s
Joseph’s Tomb, Nablus, in the 1930s

Tombs belonged to a sacred landscape where stones, caves, springs, and trees were also imbued with religious meaning. Caves often became the nucleus of a church or mosque; saints’ shrines often featured holy trees, but whether the tomb or the tree was the original focus of veneration remains moot. Sacred sites generated scriptural justifications to domesticate them within one tradition or another, but nature itself was “more compelling than scripture” (116). The spirits that haunted these landscapes were familiar to all: talismans, charms, or icons could mediate human interactions with them, and dreams and visions grant more direct access to a spirit realm. Blood sacrifice and prayer offered ways of gaining saintly intercession, and not just for peasants at the limits of the state’s reach: when the Beirut–Damascus railroad was opened in 1895, “religious officials presided . . . with the usual sacrifices” (174).

Agrarian religion “pervaded everyday piety, paid only lip service to orthodoxy, and casually embraced customs and beliefs that had no warrant in scripture or law” (165). Grehan’s argument for dispensing with notions of “popular” religion is persuasive; his argument against the salience of sectarian divisions deserves to be taken seriously, too, particularly in public rather than historiographical debate, though in regard to the latter, more explicit engagement with recent scholarship on sectarianism (189 n. 126) would have been welcome. There are other points of criticism: Grehan argues that agrarian religion’s “immense stability” also permitted “discreet adaptation and invention” (16), but – because he explicitly decides not to reconstruct these patterns of change – the picture presented here is one of timelessness, though it covers two and a half centuries. Gender is not considered in any depth, nor is the survival into the present (as I have witnessed myself) of many of the beliefs and practices Grehan describes. On the editorial side, a list of images would have made the fine illustrations more accessible.

Nonetheless, this is an evocative, thought-provoking, and richly textured work. Grounded in the comparative history of religion as well as the history of the Middle East, it deserves a place on a wide range of postgraduate and advanced undergraduate reading lists.

Joseph's tomb pre-1914
Joseph’s Tomb, this time in the 1890s

Click images for links to originals,
which are all from the Library of Congress

JAMES GREHAN. Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. 
Benjamin Thomas White
The American Historical Review 2015 120 (5): 1996-1997
doi: 10.1093/ahr/120.5.1996a

Glasgow 1980

1 External corridor, Maxwell Oval

When I was offered (and immediately accepted) my current job, I sent a text message to a friend with the news: Lifelong Belle & Sebastian Fan Gets Job In Glasgow Shock. So when the band themselves played a home-town gig last May, I was quick to get myself a ticket. It was also a chance to see the inside of the SSE Hydro, the recently built enormodrome I cycle past on my way to and from work: Glasgow is surely the only city in the world where Belle & Sebastian could hope to (mostly) fill a 13,000-seater arena where you’re more likely to find Miley Cyrus or World Wrestling Entertainment than gentle art-pop.*

After the support act had finished, Stuart Murdoch’s voice came over the speakers and announced that before the band came on they were going to show a film called ‘Glasgow 1980’, and inviting us to watch it if we liked, or ignore it and just mill about if we preferred.

This is a film for people, about the city they live in—how the city is changing for the people.

At the time, I thought I was the only person in the audience who actually watched it.

Glasgow 1980 was produced in 1971 for the city corporation, by a company called Ogam Films. It’s about the twenty-year transformation of Glasgow after 1960, and presents a startlingly intense vision of where that road—and it was a road—was meant to lead. The process was traumatic :

Between 1960 and 1970, fifty-two thousand houses were demolished in Glasgow.

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But the film is in no doubt that all this was necessary for a city in a steep spiral of deindustrialization: ‘It had to change’, the narrator declares.

For a locally-made publicity film for the city corporation’s urban regeneration programme, Glasgow 1980 is a remarkably powerful document. That’s partly because of the team that made it: Oscar Marzaroli, the director (and co-founder of the production company), was one of Scotland’s foremost photographers, while the editor, Bill Forsyth, became a director himself, famous for Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero. The music, by local guitarist Iain McHaffie, is also quite something. (It’s harder to find information about McHaffie online, but someone else who was struck by the music for this film had a go.) You can listen to the main theme on YouTube, and you can watch the whole film here, on the website of the Scottish Screen Archive. It’s half an hour long, though it didn’t feel like that when I was watching it at the Hydro. At least, not to me.7 Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 22.20.32

For anyone familiar with Glasgow’s history since the early 1970s, the film’s confident optimism—not to say arrogance—about the process of transformation would strike many ironic chords. The radical solutions to the city’s ills proposed by the corporation and celebrated in the documentary created plenty of new problems, some of which were already visible by the time Marzaroli filmed it and remain with us today.

4 IMG_20160130_133442485_HDRThe area I live in features in the film, for a few seconds (starting at 4’49”). The medium-rise flats that were then newly built are a block away from where I live, in a 1905 tenement building of the sort that were being knocked down in their hundreds in the Gorbals and other nearby neighbourhoods. After I (at last!) got a smartphone a few weeks ago, I took some photos as I went past one morning—the pictures illustrating this post.

With their overhead connecting bridges at the second and fifth storey and long external corridors (see top of post), they’re reminiscent of the ‘streets in the sky’ at Park Hill in Sheffield, built in 1957-61. On the satellite view in Google Maps you see them from above as two T shapes connected at the base by a long bar, T__T. But the left-hand T is no longer there. It was knocked down over the winter. The ragged edges are visible where the skyways from the demolished building met the block that’s still standing, and as I walked down Maxwell Drive I came across the pile of rubble that remains.

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A friend who’s doing a research project on this part of town (and who took some almost identical photos when she walked past recently…) tells me that the demolished blocks will be replaced by new flats—plenty have sprouted around the place in the last decade or two. You could be forgiven for thinking that the new flats will look like this:

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Only on closer inspection do you realize these sharply-attired new flats facing the drab brown ones across St Andrews Drive are part of the same development, but have been given a thorough makeover. They look almost identical in the aerial photo from Google Maps (another T, this one with half its crossbar missing, in the top right hand corner). But from street level the renewed façade and the beech saplings are a good disguise—it’s the overhead walkways linking the two blocks that are the real giveaway:

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The other blocks appear to be staying where they are; perhaps they’ll get a refurb like the above. The squat tower blocks that line the railway just to the north—along the top of the aerial photo, and marching on further west—have had a similar refit: I didn’t recognize them in Glasgow 1980 until I rewatched some of it for this post (the camera pans round to them at 05’00″–05’03”). The groovy purple lights that shine softly down from them after nightfall are a signal that we’re nearing home when I’m on the train back from a bikeride in Ayrshire or on Arran on a winter’s afternoon, always slightly depressing because we pass within 250m of my house but the train doesn’t stop till Glasgow Central, a mile and a half away.

Ogam Films recorded a lot of footage for a sequel to Glasgow 1980, entitled Glasgow’s Progress—but production was halted in 1978, according to the Scottish Screen Archive, as ‘there seemed to be no end to the urban renewal in sight’. Meanwhile, in 1980 the Magnum photographer Raymond Depardon was commissioned by the Sunday Times to visit Glasgow. (He’d recently done a reportage from Beirut.) They never published his pictures, but some of them featured in a 2013 retrospective at the Grand Palais. They sparked enough interest, among Depardon’s photos from Lebanon, Latin America or Ethiopia, that they’ve now been released in a book published in France and Britain (and with a short text in French and English) by Seuil. It’s a brilliant collection, but it’s not the 1980 that Marzaroli’s film promised.

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(If you want to see more of the photos before you decide to shell out for the book, several newspapers in Britain and France ran stories/image galleries, including Libération and the Scotsman—or you can see them all on the Magnum website.)

Meanwhile, it looks like I wasn’t the only person watching Glasgow 1980 at that concert last year. A new short film has just been made, (Re)Imagining Glasgow, which takes its inspiration from Marzaroli’s film. It mixes some of the footage recorded for the unfinished follow-up with footage from Glasgow today, still unfinished as it is. It was premiered as part of the Glasgow Short Film Festival the Sunday before Easter, and I’d love to say that I saw it—but, having travelled back from Liverpool that morning specially, I only got back to Glasgow just in time to get there a minute or two before showtime. On a sunny spring afternoon, I found myself standing in the longest queue I’ve ever seen at the GFT, and when I got to the head of it the tickets were long since sold out, even though the film (and accompanying panel discussion) had been moved into screen 1, the big auditorium. It’s good to know that that many people care, that much, about the remaking of Glasgow. I hope they’re not getting too many ideas though.

9 Stanley St
Meanwhile, just on the other side of the motorway…


Images all by me except the Google Maps aerial view
and the Depardon photo. Click that one for source;
otherwise, they’re CC-BY so feel free to use them,
with attribution and without alteration

*Cycling past before the Miley concert, the streets were full of excited girls and young women in ‘Twerk It!’ t-shirts walking and talking in happy groups. Cycling past as the wrestling let out, they were full of utterly psyched nine-year-old boys and their equally wild-eyed dads. It was terrifying.