Reading the Middle East from the Margins: A Forgotten Figure, his Faithful Life, and his Moving Books

By Andrew Arsan
Submitted to Session P4730 (Diasporic Devotion: Transnational Religion and Middle East Migrations, 2017 Annual Meeting
Reading the history of the Middle East from the margins, this paper suggests, can change our understanding of the narrative. In 2012, I was approached to examine the books of Shukri Swaydan, an Ottoman Arab migrant to the United States, whose personal library had recently been donated to Princeton’s Firestone Library. For three days, I played the part of an archivist, pulling this collection apart, cataloguing its contents, and putting it back together again. As I did so, I reflected on Swaydan’s obscure life and varied interests and commitments. Born in Marj‘uyun in 1885, Swaydan was educated at the Russian Imperial Orthodox Society’s school in Nazareth, before joining its staff. In 1909, however, he quit this comfortable existence for a new life in the United States. Taking up residence in Worcester, Massachusetts, he made a living as a translator, notary public, and journalist. But, as his books – those he read, and those he wrote – make clear, he remained committed throughout his life to the Russian Orthodoxy in which he had grown up. Lived in and through books, Swaydan’s life was a profoundly pious one. Focusing on the contents of his library, I will suggest that these can provide fresh insights into the intellectual and cultural histories of the Eastern Mediterranean and its diasporas. For Swaydan’s bookish life offers correctives to two time-worn narratives: that of Arab migrants’ mercantile inclinations and peddling successes, and that of the Arab nahda, or intellectual awakening, as a process of engagement with secular modernity.