Syrian Tribes, National Politics and Transnationalism

By Dawn Chatty
Submitted to Session P3267 (AME-Tribe and Diatribe: Anthropology Meets Political Science, 2013 Annual Meeting
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The understandings of tribes and tribalism in the contemporary Middle East has undergone significant changes over the past century; at times the tribes have been rendered invisible and at other times important partners in local governance. This paper sets out to examine these political changes; to identify the fluidity of local, national and international attitudes and practices towards tribes, particularly the Bedouin tribes of the northern Arabian Badia. And although Bedouin tribes have largely disappeared from contemporary discourses, this paper provides convincing evidence that , in fact, the Bedouin tribes, never disappeared; they simply were not officially acknowledged. Based on interviews with tribal leaders and participant observation in Syria over three decades the paper sets out the historical transformations and changes in attitudes and practices with have been the hallmark of ‘bedouin tribal studies’ from the end of the Ottoman Era to the final years of the Asad regime.
The closing decades of the Ottoman Empire were marked by government efforts to co-opt tribal leaders and their offspring into Ottoman militarism. The French and British mandatory authorities, however, regarded the tribes and associated tribalism as both ‘backward’ entities and at the same time romanticised and orientalised forms of association that could be used to achieved their League of Nations Mandate aims. Thus both pacification and semi-autonomous state-like administrations were allowed to exist side by side. The early years of independence as well as those of Baathi rule resulted in the de-legislation of tribes and efforts to break the tribal associations commonly acknowledged with regard to transnational territorial holdings and natural resources. In recent years , however, tribal self identification in Syria has grown noticeably. After decades of suppression and legal nullification of status ( 1958) the source of this transformation is examined in terms of contemporary local, regional and national understandings of tribe, tribalism and transnationalism. The role of the tribes in the current uprising is also explored.

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