Dystopian Affect and the Colonial Archive of French Cilicia

By Chris Gratien
Submitted to Session P4788 (Histories of Place Making in the Middle East, 2017 Annual Meeting
The Levant;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
A French Mandate of Cilicia never officially existed. Though France occupied the Cilicia region after the First World War, by the time the Middle East mandates were established in 1923, the French army had already withdrawn from Cilicia, taking with them tens of thousands of repatriated Ottoman Armenians. In the decades that followed Cilicia’s incorporation into the Republic of Turkey, the vestiges of the mandates and Cilicia’s alternate past were slowly erased as the triumph of the Kemalist resistance and expulsion of the French was incorporated into a narrative of Turkish independence.

The French Mandate of Cilicia and the Armenian national home that it would foster did exist, however, as a political project. And its existence is manifested in the present as a separate section of the French Diplomatic Archives in Nantes where, like Syria and Lebanon, Cilicia has its own series of diplomatic and administrative documentation labeled as a “mandate.” This paper studies aspects of Cilicia’s material past through that archive and other artifacts, considering the question of how past geographical imaginaries become real and manifest through the documentary practices of the state. The mandate that never was is continually conjured into being by the scholarly researcher and the archives that facilitate their work.

While Cilicia’s archive is also fascinating for its documentation of an extremely understudied time and place in the history of the Middle East, I focus on the dystopian affect of the colonial archive. French rule in Cilicia entailed an ambitious project of imagining that reframed the region and generated representations alien to its recent Ottoman past. The archive not only makes the Mandate of Cilicia seem real but also evokes an eerie impression akin to that of dystopian literature. The Mandate of Cilicia is familiar yet slightly askew of our dominant narrative of Middle East history, placing a recognizable cast of characters in unfamiliar roles. As such, I argue that Cilicia’s archive can be studied as a relatively unique body of dystopian fiction that attests to the value of analyzing unrealized projects, and in channeling an alternative vision of the modern Middle East, demonstrates not only the relationship between archive-making and power but also how more fully realized imaginaries of similar political projects have become reinforced through the repeated act of history-writing.