“Bedouin” and “Shawaya”: The Performative Constitution of Tribal Identities in Syria during the French Mandate and Today

in Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient
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Drawing on archival research, ethnographic fieldwork in Syria in the 2000s, and texts published in print and on the Internet, this article investigates how social and collective identities in Syria’s tribal milieu have been negotiated through interactions between different social actors during the period of the French Mandate (1920-46) and the decade 2001-11. By scrutinizing administrative distinctions between “nomadic” and “semi-sedentary tribes”, or “Bedouin” and “Shawaya”, adopted during the Mandate, the article explores how notions of social order, which were partly informed by stereotypical imaginations of the Bedouin, have shaped local politics and influenced social dynamics in northern Syria. The article also traces how the experiences of the Mandate years resonate in articulations of social and political identity in Syria around the beginning of the twenty-first century. Taking inspiration from Judith Butler’s exposition of the performative constitution of gender identities, it is suggested that the constitution of tribal identities in Syria, too, can productively be regarded as a performative process.

Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient

Journal d'Histoire Economique et Sociale de l'Orient

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References

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6

For example, Ababsa 2001-2; 2009: 49-60; Chatty 1977, 1986: 33-42, 2010: 33-5; Khoury 1982; Métral 1996; Neep 2012: 165-98; Velud 1993, 1995, 2000: esp. 64-70.

10

Lacroix 1947: 19.

15

See Toral-Niehoff 2002: esp. 285-8, and Leder 2005: esp. 402, for a discussion of historical Arab uses of the Bedouin category. Schaebler (2004: 16-19) argues that late Ottoman elite perceptions of Bedouin were influenced by the reception of Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddima. Late-nineteenth/early-twentieth-century European romanticizing views of the Bedouin have been discussed in several works, e.g., Nippa 2001, Gossman 2013: 15-19, and Wiedemann 2011.

18

In 1924, a new decree gave a slightly modified definition of what made a tribe nomadic: “Sont qualifiées nomades les tribus qui n’ont pas de résidence fixe, hivernent au désert Hamad, estivent dans les régions habitées Mamourah et dont les transhumances s’effectuent à l’automne et au printemps.” “Arrêté n° 16317/466 portant modification du règlement du tribus,” signed by Mohamed Mury, Gouverneur Général de l’État d’Alep, 17 May 1924, and approved by the French High Commission’s delegate to the État d’Alep, Billotte, on 6 June 1924 (Nl MvO 163).

20

Arrêté n° 1091, 9 December 1927, bey/cp/553.

23

Arrêté n° 1091, 9 December 1927 (bey/cp/553). See also Note to the High Commissioner’s office, 26 April 1939, and the report from de Hautecloque to Meyrier, 9 May 1939 (bey/Cabinet Politique/553); also Lacroix 1947: 16-18.

26

Arrêté n° 1091, 9 December 1927 (bey/cp/553) mentions only the camel herds of these tribes being subject to wudī, but the Arrêté no. 794 of 28 December 1928 (art. 32) suggests that sheep and goats of these tribes were included as well. The practical continuation of wudī for specific tribes was achieved partly by the intervention of some of the most prominent “Bedouin” sheikhs; see “Étude sur les impôts des tribus nomades,” n.d., bey/cp/553.

27

This is suggested by a British note of 1945, regarding the first occasion on which the Syrian fiscal authorities undertook to count the sheep of the Fedʿān: “heretofore the Emir [Mujḥim] has been in the habit of supplying the Finance with an arbitrary number of some 15,000 sheep whereas in point of fact his tribe owns some 100,000 sheep.” Colonel Furlonge, secret report, 18 April 1945; fo 226/271.

34

See also Lange 2005.

36

For example, Parriel 1941: 7-8; similarly, the High Commissioner’s adjunct delegate on the Euphrates, Colonel Goudouneix, in a letter to the High Commission’s Delegate at Damascus, 24 December 1932 (bey/Cabinet Politique/990).

38

Oppenheim notes of 1939. Information from “Dr Azkoul/Qadrī al-Saṭṭāf” [Secretary of Sheikh Mujḥim b. Mhēd], Nl MvO 179. On the many interests and activities of Oppenheim, see Teichmann and Völger 2001 and Gossman 2013.

51

As early as 1920, Sheikh Mujḥim—who, in contrast to his cousin Hātchim, supported the French against the Turks from early on—had been made Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur by General Gouraud; cf. Lewis 1987: 155.

60

Even after 1941, the conflict was not resolved. Clashes flared up again in August and September 1944, after Emir Mujḥim refused to recognise the Syrian government’s authority to mediate a solution (cf. “The Tribes of East Syria,” pic Papers 72, 6 January 1945; fo 226/271).

67

Conversations in March and September 2003, in the villages of al-Kawāra and al-Ghawriya Fawqānī. Arab genealogists trace all Arabs back to one of two mythical, pre-Islamic ancestors, ʿAdnān ( from whom the “northern Arab” tribes have descended) and Qaḥṭān (ancestors of the “southern,” “Yemeni” Arabs). On ʿAdnān, see Caskel 1960; on Qaḥṭān, Fischer and Irvine 1978.

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