Contested Subjects: Mobility, Identity, and Law in the Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Middle East

AHA Session 221
Sunday, January 5, 2014: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Columbia Hall 4 (Washington Hilton)
Tolga U. Esmer, Central European University
Tolga U. Esmer, Central European University

Session Abstract

Historical writing on the 18th and 19th century Middle East, has often portrayed this era as one in which ethnically and religiously distinct populations, lived uneasily together until increasing European encroachment destabilized long-standing bargains among populations with diametrically opposed identities.   This historiography is based on a view of identity as inherent, and all would agree that imperial politics and law responded to, and hoped to channel, mass movements impelled by their national or religious identities.

The papers in this panel, which uniquely brings together historians of the 18th and 19th century Balkans, Middle East, and North Africa to cross regional and temporal historiographical boundaries, aim to tell a different story, of identities as legally constructed out of negotiations between state bureaucracies and by individual initiative. They reveal a remarkably fluid, mobile world of diverse individuals—many of them with few economic resources—who navigated artfully through the world of the long nineteenth century: Ottoman Armenians  migrated to North America and back; fugitive Russian soldiers escaped across the Black Sea to find freedom in the Sultan’s domains; natives of Ottoman Greece and Syria relocated to Egypt; and Bulgarian peasants crossed and re-crossed the Danube.

In each case, the presenters on this panel use detailed Ottoman, Russian, American, Bulgarian, Egyptian, and British archival evidenceto reconstruct the stories both of individual migrants and of imperial projects. They reveal that legal identities were neither unilaterally imposed by states, nor did they stem from immutable ethnic or religious affiliations.  Instead, they were claimed and contested by both sides. States sought to classify populations to enable control, both domestically and in dialogue with other states. Individuals, too, often proved able to assert different claims of subjecthood or religion at opportune moments—which in turn fed state fears that such manipulations could overturn the categories on which interstate regulations depended.

This destabilization, in each case, drove a wedge between state rhetoric and behavior. Will Smiley and Andrew Robarts demonstrate how the Russian and Ottoman states cooperated to return deserters and fugitives, and to control refugees and migrations even as they both spoke of civilizational conflict and holy war. David Gutman examines how the American and Ottoman states, in the midst of U.S. complaints over the Ottoman treatment of its Armenian Christian subjects, nonetheless cooperated to deprive U.S. citizens of Armenian origins of consular protection in Ottoman territory. And Will Hanley explores how in the confused legal environment of late nineteenth-century Egypt, Ottoman citizenship, and the officials who administered it, proved remarkably resilient for thousands of people.

What emerges from these papers, then, is a more complicated view of identity in the Middle East and Mediterranean in the long nineteenth-century than has often been seen; a view in which law and migration simultaneously helped to construct and to deconstruct identities from both the bottom up and the top down. The panel will therefore be of interest to historians of the Middle East, of identity, of law, and of empire more broadly.

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