Autobiographic Narratives of the Great War and the Creation of the New Middle East

Prof. Salim Tamari

On September 14-th, 2022, Salim Tamari (Editor of the Jerusalem Quarterly, Senior Fellow of the Institute of Palestine Studies, Professor of Sociology at Birzeit University) gave the first lecture of the 2022-2023 Bisan Lecture Series. Quoting Rashid Khalidi (the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University), Salim Tamari is today’s “preeminent Palestinian historical sociologist.” Demonstrating an unmatched expertise as a researcher of personal diaries, official archives, government deeds, newspaper articles, and obscure documents from long-bygone years, Dr. Tamari gave a fascinating overview of political and social movements in and around Palestine, shortly before and after World War One. Looked at from the passage of one century, the war led to major social dislocations and transformations in the ways in which people of the region – from the Ottoman capital of Istanbul to the Arab provinces of the Empire – viewed themselves and the world. With the help of captivating archival photographs, Dr. Tamari recounted how the war and the ensuing devastation were reflected in the biographical trajectories of well-known writers and publicists (Muhammad Kurd Ali, Khalil Sakakini, Najib Nassar, and others) and Arab soldiers conscripted into the Ottoman army  (Muhammad Fasih, Aref Shehadeh, Ihsan al- Turjman). 

Abstract: The Great War on the Eastern Front, looked at from the passage of one century, led to major transformations in the way in which the people of the region – from the Ottoman capital of Istanbul to the Arab provinces of the Empire – looked at themselves and at the world. What I propose to do is to see how the war and the fighting were reflected in the biographical trajectories of soldiers who fought in it and civilians who endured it, and how the war affected the transformation of their lives and the reshaping of their identity and affiliations during and after the war.

The war was so devastating that, according to contemporary accounts, it took a toll of one-sixth of the total population of greater Syria—one of the highest among all war fronts during that period.  In this presentation, I will examine this great transformation through the lives of three civilians and three soldiers whose life trajectories marked the transition from Ottomanism to the new Middle East of Arab and Turkish nationalism. The writers include Khalil Sakakini, who kept a diary during the war in Jerusalem. His account is riveting in that it captured a vivid portrait for the desolation of the city in 1915 and 1916, the famine years. Muhammad Kurd Ali’s Damascene memoirs include his period as a publicist, some critics would say apologist, for the excesses of Jamal and Anwar (Enver) Pashas in Syria and Palestine. The most important fictional work to come out of the Great War in Arabic is The Life of Mifleh al Ghassani (1921) by the Palestinian writer and journalist, Najib Nassar, whose the novella is a thinly disguised autobiographical war memoir of the author, who spent 1916-1917 hiding from the Turkish gendarmes in the Bedouin encampments of the Jordan Valley.

This lecture is sponsored by the Bisan Center for Research and DevelopmentScientists for Palestine and the Center for Palestinian Studies of Columbia University