SUMMARY:This panel brings together five scholars who work on different aspects of the history of recreational drugs in the Middle East and North Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The papers collected here employ new lenses to study the place of psychoactive substances in the political, social, and economic history of the region in the modern period. Making use of interdisciplinary approaches and engaging with the methodology of material history and substance studies, the presentations here focus on neglected topics, utilize overlooked or previously untouched original sources in multiple languages, and grapple with questions that have broad regional and global implications.
The first paper deals with the problem of drug consumption in French North Africa in the first half of the twentieth century. The presentation shows how French psychiatrists had a racialized understanding of the general consumption of various substances (e.g., hashish, tobacco, alcohol, opium, coffee, or tea) in North Africa. Still the French struggled to label “addiction” a marker of “civilization” or “backwardness.”
Moving to Mandatory Palestine, the next paper examines the origins of hashish trade and culture in the Levant in the 1920s and 1930s. As international drug regulations disrupted the cross-Mediterranean trade networks in Hashish, overland smuggling operations developed across Palestine, which resulted in the rise of consumption among the Arab population but not the Jewish communities in the area.
Looking at the tavern as an entryway to discuss late Ottoman urban society, the third paper investigates the social and political role of this public space where men (mostly) had access to alcohol, food, and entertainment. Taverns were also the space where the Ottoman state showed itself through taxation, policing, and other forms of regulations.
The next paper considers the consumption of cannabis in the socioeconomically deprived parts of Istanbul during the late nineteenth century. The presentation explains how the Ottoman state’s modernizing policies involved regulating the production of cannabis, establishing a rehabilitation center for cannabis users, and a series of punitive measures for consumers and sellers of this drug.
The final paper scrutinizes the production of opium in Iran in the long nineteenth century, and demonstrates how this substance helped globalize the Persian economy, especially through connections with China. The presentation reveals what specific factors led to the expansion of this trade, and how the Iran-China trade tells us about the role of the non-Western merchants and entrepreneurs in the making of capitalism across Asia.