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“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.

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