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.

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