Making America in the Middle East, 18601925

AHA Session 105
Friday, January 4, 2019: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Chicago Room (Palmer House Hilton, Fifth Floor)
Karine V. Walther, Georgetown University in Qatar
Karine V. Walther, Georgetown University in Qatar

Session Abstract

This panel traces the roots of America’s relationship with Egypt and the Levant in the years that encompassed the Gilded Age and Progressive Era in the United States, the rise and fall of reforming Egyptian and Ottoman governments in the Middle East, and the highwater mark of European imperialism (1860-1930). Each paper explores the history of different Americans’ involvement in the Middle East and how they transplanted discourses, ideas, and institutions between the United States and the social, political, and physical landscapes in which they immersed themselves abroad. The panel shows how Americans’ commitments to their faiths, ideologies, identities, and institutions both constituted and complicated their efforts. The American actors that these four papers investigate all embraced worldviews which set them above the Middle East’s people by virtue of their race, religion, and civilizational identity. However, in each case, ongoing changes in American identity and the global political economy threatened their once-solid sense of superiority. The demands of assertive local elites that the Americans encountered in the Middle East, and the political projects of self-consciously modernizing Muslim states were especially challenging for the Americans. Further, questions about who could truly claim American and Christian identities and conflicts over the true nature of “civilization” and “progress” emerged. All these various external and internal factors frustrated, redirected, and transformed the Americans’ ambitions.

This panel links four papers that address very different historical case studies: the establishment of an American missionary medical school in Beirut between 1860 and 1890, American Civil War veterans’ service in Egypt’s army in the 1870s, Norwegian-Americans’ pilgrimages to Palestine in the 1890s and 1920s, and the University of Michigan’s Student Christian Organization’s efforts to establish a “Michigan in Arabia” in Basra, Iraq in the 1910s. By juxtaposing these four situations, the panel draws attention to the larger question of what it meant to be American, Christian, and “civilized” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and how Americans who travelled to the Middle East had to grapple with these issues. This panel’s four papers examine actors with transnational evangelistic, educational, ethnographic, and political ambitions; and employ English, French, Arabic, and Norwegian-language sources. However, they all show that Americans’ early encounters with the Middle East emerged from the deep tensions between Americans’ foundational ideologies of exceptionalism and the challenges of a rapidly changing world. All four studies follow their subjects across national and imperial boundaries, and will be of great interest to historians of the Middle East, the United States, to colonial and missionary scholars, as well as those interested in global or transnational history. Together the papers demonstrate how individuals and groups in the US both transplanted their ideas abroad and brought stories of the “Other” back home with them.

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