Provincializing the Shammar

By Samuel Dolbee
Submitted to Session P4859 (Rethinking Pastoralists and Pastoral Nomadism in the Ottoman Empire, 2017 Annual Meeting
Iran; Ottoman Empire; Syria;
19th-21st Centuries; Environment;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper explores the way the Arab tribal confederation known as the Shammar moved in the Jazira region between Baghdad, Mosul, and Diyarbak?r in the late nineteenth century. It foregrounds how the group’s seasonal motion proved to be a resilient strategy for exploiting the arid regions between Tigris and the Euphrates in response to recurring challenges such as drought and locusts alike. It moreover shows how motion served the group well with respect to the state, allowing them to at times collaborate with state officials and at other times use state structures for their own ends, most notably in the case of provincial borders.

It was in part the changing of these borders in the wake of the Vilayet Law of 1864 – most notably the establishment of the special district of Dayr al-Zor – that prompted a portion of the Shammar to revolt in 1871. While famous reformers such as Baghdad governor Midhat Pasha hailed his eventual execution of the Shammar shaykh ?Abd al-Karim as a triumph of civilization over savagery, this paper suggests a more attenuated vision of the governor’s power. Ottoman troops spent much of the summer exhausted on the Tigris, not daring to venture into the scorching desert, and they only succeeded in capturing ?Abd al-Karim thanks to the collusion of another group of nomads. Ultimately the vision of using Dayr al-Zor to catalyze tribal settlement failed, too, as Midhat Pasha left Baghdad and the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-1878 siphoned away troops and resources. The Shammar may have been divided into branches based in Dayr al-Zor and Mosul, but their motion did not end. Indeed, they continued to utilize motion across borders. In this way, the Shammar manipulated the margins, but were in no way marginal to the history of the late nineteenth century Ottoman world.

Relying on archival materials in Ottoman, Arabic, and French, the paper builds on Deringil’s claim that the late Ottoman state engaged in “White man’s burden wearing a fez.” While many officials’ descriptions of nomads do indeed reveal essentialism if not racism, to focus on representation alone renders nomads, ironically, motionless. By emphasizing space alongside the rhetoric of state officials, the paper ultimately emphasizes how the Shammar exploited state structures intended to stop them.