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Shifting Ottoman Conceptions of Palestine: Part 1: Filistin Risalesi and the two Jamals

Contributed by Jerusalem Quarterly on 25.10.2011:

Autumn 2011,47

Jerusalem Quaterly

Shifting Ottoman Conceptions of Palestine: Part 1: Filistin Risalesi and the two Jamals

Salim Tamari

You have now become one nation on earth, Ottomans all–no difference between Arabs and ‘Ajam;

No generations will divide you, and no religions will come between you.

Brothers together under our glorious constitution, joined together by the Unionist banner flying high. Popular poem published in Beirut on the eve of the declaration of the 1908 Constitution.1

Ahmad Qadri, the Arab physician who was a founder of the Literary Forum in Istanbul in 1909, (and later in 1911 of the Young Arab Society in Paris) records an episode, in his Istanbul diary, which shook his faith in the continued unity of the Ottoman regime and its ability to maintain the loyalty of its Syrian and Arab subjects. He was taking an evening stroll in the imperial capital with his schoolmate and friend Awni Abdul Hadi days after the proclamation of the new constitution of 1908. The city was teeming with excited crowds discussing the dawning of the new liberties, and the end of the Hamidian dictatorship. The two Arabs, a Damascene and a Nabulsi, both considered themselves loyal Ottoman citizens. They came upon an animated speaker drawing a large audience. He was Sari Bey, a young charismatic officer who was singing the praises of the new constitution to the crowd. Then he made a sudden shift and began attacking the supporters and lackeys of the old regime, including “the Arab traitor Izzat” and the “Arab traitor Abul Huda.”2 The reference was to Izzat Pasha al Abed, the Sultan’s private secretary, and Shaykh Abul Huda al Saidawi, a religious scholar, who were part of Abul Hamid’s inner circle.3

It had become customary in this period to portray Abdul Hamid’s Arab advisors as monkeys in the oppositional press of Istanbul.4 Abdul Hadi and Qadri berated the speaker: “Why do you single out the Arab identity of Abdul Hamid’s men, when there far more Turks among the supporters of the old regime?” It is quite likely that Qadri, (though not Abdul Hadi) was also upset because he himself sympathized with the regime of Abdul Hamid. Elsewhere he notes how the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) overthrew “the last Sultan who conceived the Arabs as brothers in faith, inspiring Arab intellectuals to support an Ottoman patriotism” which has since then disappeared.5 Over the next several months he began to hear a revival of earlier derogatory epitaphs directed at Arabs, using such terms as pis arap (dirty Arabs), siyah arap (black Arabs), çingene arap (Arab gypsies), and akilsiz arap (stupid Arabs).6

Qadri reports how particularly hurt he was by these expressions since his father Abdul Qadir Qadri, was an Amiralei (colonel) in the Ottoman army who had fought valiantly in European provinces, and was later appointed as military commander in Baalbak, Akka, and Basra.7 Both he and his father considered themselves pillars of a multi- national Ottoman order. Qadri regards this episode, and the concomitant ethnic tension that emerged after the attempted coup of 1909, as constituting a turning point in Arab relations with the Ottoman state. This led in his view to the determination of many active members of Arab literary societies in the Ottoman capital to seek autonomy, and then separation, from Istanbul.

It is clear however that these ethnic tensions are conceived retrospectively, in the light of events that took place in Syria and Palestine during and after the war. The facts that emerge from the Ottoman military’s own sources tell a more complex, if not drastically different story. One such important document, Filastin Risalesi, is the salnameh type military handbook issued for Palestine at the beginning of the Great War.

Filastin Risalesi (1331 Rumi) is an astonishing document that disguises as much as it reveals. Ostensibly a soldier’s manual issued for limited distribution to the officers (hizme makkhsuslir—“special services”) of the Eighth Army Corps, the handbook is basically a demographic and geographic survey of the province which constituted the southern flank for the theater of military operations during WWI. It includes statistical tables, topographic maps, and an ethnography of Palestine. But it also contains two outstanding features that highlight the manner in which Palestine and Syria were

seen from Istanbul by the new Ottoman leadership after the constitutional revolution of 1908. The first is a general map of the country in which the boundaries extend far beyond the frontiers of the Mutasarflik of Jerusalem, which was, until then, the standard delineation of Palestine. The northern borders of this map include the city of Tyre (Sur) and the Litani River, thus encompassing all of the Galilee and parts of southern Lebanon, as well as districts of Nablus, Haifa and Akka—all of which were part of the Wilayat of Beirut until the end of the war.

The second outstanding feature of the manual is a population map that classifies the inhabitants of Palestine and Coastal Syria by ethnic, communal and religious identity. Contrary to what one would have expected in light of later developments, the population of Syria and Southern Anatolia are not divided by nationality, linguistic grouping or religious affiliation, but by a combination of putative national and sectarian identities. The people of Southern Anatolia are divided into “Turks,” “Turkman” (west of Sivas), and a category of “other Turks.” Bilad al Sham is divided into Syrians (Suri), and Arabs (East of the Jordan River). The rest of the population is made up of ethnic and religious minorities that overlap with these major national groupings: Maronites, Druze, Jews, Orthodox (Rum), Ismailis, Matawleh, and Nusseiris. Another category dispersed in Palestine is “rural Arabs” (arep kuli) and “rural Druze” (druz kuli). We will now discuss the political context of this social mapping.

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