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Historians Relate to Present Echoes of their Work

Urban Violence in the Middle EastCovering a period from the late eighteenth century to today, Urban Violence in the Middle East explores the phenomenon of urban violence in order to unveil general developments and historical specificities in a variety of Middle Eastern contexts. Below, contributors to the volume tell about their personal relationship as historians to present echoes of their work.



The Missing Link in Urban Violence: Space
by Ulrike Freitag

Why write another article on a topic on which there is already some research? Two issues puzzled me when reading about the Jeddah killings of 1858: the rapid escalation of violence and its excess both by the attackers on the foreign consulates and by the European powers that intervened. This was all the more surprising, as Jeddah has a long history as a fairly cosmopolitan city, in spite of earlier indicators of a dislike for the West. A close reading of the sources revealed the importance of the spatial configuration for the unfolding of unusually violent events: The proximity of the council of urban notables and Ottoman administrators to the harbour and suq allowed for a quick reaction to the events in the port, where the British consul replaced the Ottoman flag on a disputed ship by the British one. The location also favoured the rapid mobilisation of craftsmen and port workers who then attacked the foreign consulates, whether in response to a premeditated call by the notables or in a more spontaneous reaction to the events. In other words, the symbolic act of what could be perceived as a violation of Ottoman (and Islamic) sovereignty, which was strikingly visible to all spectators, was then countered by a similarly visible act of dramatic violence. In turn, the Europeans insisted on an equally visible act of retaliation: the very public punishment of the perpetrators of the crime. Thus, the spatial and symbolic dimensions of the violence are very deeply entangled and help us understand its otherwise rather unusual escalation.



Seeking Connections not Ruptures
by Nelida Fuccaro

In my chapter on Kirkuk I wanted to tell stories of violence by police, labour activists, soldiers and tribal leaders that made sense in terms of connections rather than ruptures. I wished to provide alternative ways of reading violence in this still contested and fractured city which is now part of an increasingly unstable and chaotic region that was once Iraq. The two episodes of labour unrest in 1946 and 1948 which I analyse in this chapter tell us about the powerful forces and visible and invisible connections that have continued to affect the life of Kirkuk long after the collapse of the Hashemite monarchy: the presence of the oil industry that in the 1940s increasingly linked old Kirkuk to the new town and to the industrial infrastructure built by the then British-controlled Iraqi Petroleum Company; that of Iraq’s central government which in Kirkuk operated in collusion with the Company and the British Embassy in Baghdad; and the suffering and disruption caused by World War II, a global conflict that led to the military occupation of the town by British Indian forces.

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This photo taken in 1952 speaks about some of the imperial and corporate connections created by the oil industry, and the ways in which these connections affected the lives of Iraqis. Here Mr Youssef Na’ma, one of the Company’s employee, is in London broadcasting on the BBC Overseas Service radio on the occasion of the inauguration of the 30-inches pipeline that connected Kirkuk to the Mediterranean coast, the lifeline of Kirkuk’s oil industry and key strategic asset for Great Britain.



“In the mirror of order, then and now…”
by Noémi Lévy-Aksu

I wrote a chapter on the perception and management of violence and disorders in late Ottoman Istanbul. I tried to connect the state’s attempts to develop new tools to measure and fight insecurity, on the one hand, and the growing publicity given to violent acts in the local press, on the other hand. I also focused on specific cases of disorders to question the mechanisms that contributed to stirring and reducing social tensions in the Ottoman capital.
When mentioning my research on public order to various interlocutors in Istanbul, I have been often faced with a question genuinely or ironically asked: “Did order reign?” – an allusion to one of the mottos of the Ottoman authorities at that time, “asayiş berkemal/order reigns”, repeated identically by piles of police reports. I guess that even nowadays, when reports, statistics and surveillance devices are scrutinizing insecurity from all sides, it would be hard to make a decisive statement on whether order reigns or not in Istanbul or elsewhere. Lacking quantitative and qualitative data to give even a tentative answer regarding the level of crime and insecurity in the Ottoman capital, I carefully avoided answering the question, rather turning it into new questions for myself: What did the notion “asayiş” refer to in this period? Why did it matter so much to the regime? How were violence and disorders measured, described and suppressed? How was the issue of urban violence perceived in the broader public sphere? And last but not least, why does it still matter nowadays?
My chapter is an attempt to answer some of these questions. By studying how public order was constructed as an object of state policy and how it was publicized in the press in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, I tried to discuss the political and social implications of this process: while police became one of the main vectors of state presence at the local level, (in)security became a central argument for state legitimization and political opposition. I believe that historicizing and contextualizing this process can be part of a critical approach to the political uses and abuses of the notions of insecurity and violence nowadays.
The two specific cases of social disorders that I discussed in my chapter are another way to take some distance with the official discourses on insecurity. By stressing the role of local actors and social dynamics in stirring and solving conflicts at different scales, I pointed to the complexity of these multiple configurations, which no statistics or legal categories can account for. Obviously, more than a century later, the balance of power has much shifted in the favour of the police forces and other institutional actors. Still, I believe that in Istanbul as elsewhere, no study of public order, violence and insecurity can do without closely considering these local networks of solidarity and influence, social mechanisms of control and repression, and collusions or tensions with the state actors.



Sectarian violence and cosmopolitan amnesia
by Rasmus Christian Elling

I wrote a chapter on the oil city of Abadan, Iran: once the home to the biggest oil refinery in the world and a shining symbol of progress, modernity and cosmopolitanism in the Middle East. Built, socially engineered and controlled by the British-owned oil company, Abadan in the 1940s was also the stage for brutal suppression of the labor movement. Despite repression, surveillance and British imperialist policies in the region, Abadan became a city that would lead in Iran’s movements for oil nationalization in 1951 and later in the revolution against the shah in 1978-79.
I focused on one particular incident that I had never seen mentioned in other works on Iran and Abadan: a riot between Iranians and Indian migrant labor in 1942. Why had I never heard about that event before? And why wouldn’t anyone I spoke with in Abadan, including local historians and elderly retirees from the oil industry acknowledge the fact that there were disturbances and tensions between Iranians and Indians? After all, I could read in the oil company archives from the time that Iranians considered the Indians lackeys of the British and agents of the colonialism that many labor activists considered the British-owned oil company to embody.
It became clear to me that Abadan today – a mere shadow of its former self, decimated and ruined by the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War and neglected since – prefers not to remember all the dark sides of the pre-war, pre-revolution past. Instead, Abadanis insist on reminiscing nostalgically for the days when Abadan was an international city with dozens of ethnic groups living side by side in harmony. They long for the days when the Indians, Jews, Armenians, Europeans and Americans were part of everyday life in the streets. Today, Abadanis still cook Indian-inspired food and the most popular restaurant is owned by the last remaining Indian family in the city. The Abadani dialect is full of Indian loanwords. No-one actively remembers the antagonisms that the presence of Indian labor in a city marked by unemployment, hunger and the militarization that British occupation brought to Abadan during World War II; instead, they think of all the good things that Indians brought to the city.

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In this picture, we see Iranian and Indian workers in the soldering workshop of the oil refinery, sometime in the 1930s. It shows how the sudden appearance of oil in Iran’s underdeveloped, rural periphery created new urban and industrial spaces in which people from all over Iran, and from all over the world, came together. This newfound proximity and the social, economic and political relations it generated were certainly sometimes contentious and violent; we should not, however, forget that they were more often peaceful, constructive and creative.
My work on urban violence in the oil city has allowed me study structures of oppression, control and social engineering and the ways in which these structures generated inter-communal strife – but it also opened my eyes to the ever-present opposite pole: the promise, inherent in urbanism as a way of life, of cosmopolitanism and peaceful co-existence.



And suddenly I saw my chapter happen again under my eyes…
by Nora Lafi

I knew of course from the very beginning in 2010 that my research on the historical anthropology of urban violence in the Middle East, with case studies in Cairo, Aleppo and Tunis, was likely to have echoes in the present. But of course I would never have imagined the intensity of the relationship between my historical research and the tragedies of our times. I was also fully aware that the work of historians sometimes answers to a more or less explicit horizon of social expectations. But when one day in 2011, while leaving the building of the national archives in Cairo, I found myself in the middle of the chapter I was writing for this book, I realized how direct the clash between the past, the present and the work of the historian was this time. This also reinforced my idea of a necessity of studying this past to provide critical interpretations of the present. The violence of the repression, gangs of louts harassing protesters with the support of the police, women gang-raped during demonstrations, sexual violence as a political weapon, agents provocateurs acting in the middle of the crowd, confessional belongings becoming arguments for violence, foreign powers playing dirty games: I had seen all of this in the archives of Cairo, Aleppo and Tunis. In the case of Cairo, which was to become my chapter for this book, the analogy was striking: I was studying the fights between rebels and the forces of the repression for control of one of the central squares of the city. I was also following in the archives the role of factions, gangs, confessional belongings and broader ideologies. When I came back home, every day I followed in the news tragic illustrations of phenomena I was trying to analyse for the past. This is why the analogy is not enough. The hypothesis of an historical constant of violence attached to given civilizations is equally unconvincing. What my work invited me to propose is an interpretation of urban violence as both the sign of a rupture in existing features of domestication and the symptom of a clash between a broader geopolitical context and social order at the micro-scale of the street.
The times we are living in constantly provide tragic examples of violence in the Middle East. From the violence of revolting crowds to that of police repression, from the violence of foreign military interventions to that of various kinds of rebels, from collective violence to state violence or group violence, from violence against confessional communities to violence against women, violence is everywhere. To avoid purely emotional or ideological interpretations of these tragic facts, a glance at the historical anthropology of urban violence in the region might be helpful. I hope my chapter is a contribution in this direction.


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