HL90 EW: Migrants and Displacement in the Modern Middle East

We’ve still get lots of HL90s to share before the deadline to apply (August 24)! Sam Dolbee answered our classes about his new class and some of the texts it will explore–and may or may not have thrown in a question of his own. Migrants and Displacement in the Modern Middle East meets Wednesdays, 3-5!

What inspired you to teach this class?

According to the UNHCR, Turkey has the largest refugee population in the world, and as I have been there over the years the presence of so many displaced people is obvious. When I was in the southern city of Urfa in 2014, I remember seeing a sign with directions in Arabic, English, Persian, and Turkish (the city receives many tourists as well as pilgrims because it is believed to be the birthplace of Abraham). At the bottom of the sign, someone had drawn a map of Syria, and written some phrases in Arabic about the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Homs. My class is in part an attempt to grapple with all of the dynamics brought together in the graffitied sign: how routes of one kind of migrant (religious pilgrims) intersected with those of others (refugees); how the imprints of one place end up in new places; and how people far from home work to make their surroundings their own.

What is something you’re excited to share with students?

I’m excited about a lot of materials: the autobiography of a man enslaved in the Ottoman Empire who eventually came to the United States and fought in the Union Army in the Civil War; a 1911 newspaper column from the perspective of a Muslim peasant in Ottoman Palestine; and Alexandra Chreiteh’s novella of mid aughts Lebanon Ali and his Russian Mother. But one that I’m especially excited about is a podcast in which Richard Breaux discusses how a record collecting hobby in the present day led him to learn about the Syrian and Lebanese communities of the U.S. Midwest in the early twentieth century. He uncovered not only unknown histories of Arabic-language music produced in the United States, but also sources more intimate, including, most poignantly, audio from a Syrian wedding near Detroit around 1940. The audio records give us insight into the history of migration, and also raise broader questions about archives.  

What’s something surprising students might not know about this topic?

It’s probably overdetermined that a historian would say there’s a longer history to something than people realize, but there’s a longer history to migration and the Middle East than most people would realize from newspaper headlines!

In fact, Boston itself has had a significant Syrian and Lebanese community since the early twentieth century. This is in addition to the city’s Armenian and Greek communities, many with roots in the former Ottoman Empire. In fact northeast of Cambridge in the tanneries of Peabody, Massachusetts, there were so many laborers that hailed from the Ottoman Empire that Walnut Street with its coffeeshops echoing with the sounds of Greek, Kurdish, and Turkish became popularly known as Ottoman Street. Some returned to the Ottoman Empire, while others stayed in the United States. I went for a walk in the cemetery of Peabody several years ago and saw glimpses of this community, such as the gravestone of Halid Naman of Diyarbakır, the shaky Ottoman Turkish engraving of which suggested it was done by someone unfamiliar with the language.

What do you want students to take away from the class?

The goal of this class is to think about big structures like capitalism or empire and events like the 1923 Population Exchanges or the Iraq War from the perspectives of people whose everyday lives they shaped, whether they went somewhere new or stayed where they had been. A secondary aim is to consider how the discipline of history—so often based on state archival records—can account for people who often moved beyond the scope of states.

Will you find an exceedingly tenuous excuse to make the class listen to iconic Lebanese singer Fairuz at some point?

Who wrote these questions? I mean, yes, probably.

How can students learn more?

They can attend the HL90 open house on Monday, August 23rd at 2 pm on Zoom or contact me by email at samuel_dolbee@fas.harvard.edu.

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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