Self-Orientalism and the Mahjar: Art and Politics in the Syro-Lebanese Diaspora

By Edward Falk
Submitted to Session P3773 (The Mandate for Syria and Lebanon in Global Perspective, 2014 Annual Meeting
Lebanon; Ottoman Empire; Syria;
19th-21st Centuries; Diaspora/Refugee Studies; Minorities; Ottoman Studies;
In the final decades of the Ottoman Empire, a loose group of authors in the Syro-Lebanese diaspora including Chékri Ganem, Nadra Moutran, and Joseph Saouda constructed an Orientalizing discourse to promote a Francophile Catholic vision of Syria’s future, emulating the values and rhetoric of their adopted homeland. At various points, these authors in the mahjar demanded self-rule, increased representation in the Ottoman administration, independence, and French mandatory rule over a federalized Syria. In both political publications and literary works including poetry, novels and theater, these authors drew upon their missionary educations in the schools of the Jesuits, Lazarists, and other French orders in Syria, as well as the memory of the 1860 massacres to express a hybrid identity. They revered France as the pinnacle of civilization and culture, while drawing Orientalist images of Syria and ‘Arabia’ as a wild and untamed land, taking a measure of pride in their Arab heritage. While they have been dismissed as shysters in the pay of foreign governments, Ganem and his cohort from Cairo to Paris engaged at times with Young Ottoman and CUP discourses on Ottomanism and modernization in Tanin for an Ottoman audience as well as Correspondance d’Orient and other newspapers for a French audience, while challenging Hamidian and Unionist centralization and the dearth of Arabs in positions of power after 1908. In their political activism in the 1910s and their shaping of the French Orientalist discourse during the First World War, they led a colonization of the mind, reproducing the values of their missionary education. Finally, this group of authors’ close association with the colonial lobby within the French Foreign Ministry, academic groups and commercial organizations meant they pursued a different agenda than their Young Ottoman and CUP contemporaries – autonomy, decentralization, and eventually the mandate system.