Doctors, Lawyers, and Extremists: ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Kayyali and a New Politics of Notables in Interwar Syria

By Benjamin Smuin
Submitted to Session P4505 (A Reassessment of Albert Hourani's 'Politics of Notables' After 50 Years, 2016 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries; Ottoman Studies;
The late Albert Hourani remains an influential scholar in Middle Eastern Studies. His thesis concerning ‘The Politics of Notables,’ first presented at the University of Chicago in 1966, stands as one of his most enduring works. ‘The Politics of Notables’ influenced countless scholars, and has come under closer scrutiny in the past two decades. Criticizing his Arab nationalist perspective, and by utilizing new and innovative sources, scholars have argued that Hourani’s original thesis placed far too much emphasis on the role of traditional Arab elites. Though this is the case, the political and social activities of notable members of Syrian society are worthy of further study. Based on research in Ottoman and European archives, this paper reassesses Hourani’s original ideas through an analysis of petitions written by Syrians of various political and social backgrounds from the 1880s through the 1930s. During the late Ottoman period, petitions were often written by professional scribes (arzuhalcis), well-versed in the language Ottoman state discourse. After the partition of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the mandates, nationalists re-purposed the Ottoman tradition of petitioning and sent thousands of telegrams and letters to mandate officials. This paper pays particular attention to the petitions written by Dr. ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Kayyali, co-founder of the National Bloc, and compares them to petitions about the governance of late Ottoman Aleppo. Through this comparison, it is clear that al-Kayyali, and others like him, became unofficial arzuhalcis of the opposition to French mandatory authority thanks largely to their position within Syrian society. The elevated status of al-Kayyali made him a desirable ally of some nationalists in Aleppo and throughout the rest of Syria. Thus, his political career should inform us more about how elite and non-elite nationalists interacted with each other within the political institutions brought about by the creation of the mandate system. Furthermore, the continued use of petitions as a method of engaging with the state provides yet another example of the legacy of 19th-century Ottoman reform. Non-elite nationalists were by no means pawns in development of nationalism in the Arab world, and their elite counterparts also played important and influential roles. The relationship between these two groups was more complicated, and more fluid, than many acknowledge. Nationalist leaders like al-Kayyali became unofficial scribes of the demands of the Syrian people against the mandate, in what could be considered a more inclusive ‘Politics of Notables.’