Politics of Wartime Relief in Ottoman Beirut (1914–1918)

TitlePolitics of Wartime Relief in Ottoman Beirut (1914–1918)
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2014
AuthorsTanielian, Melanie
JournalFirst World War Studies
Start Page69
Date Published04/2014

By the early spring of 1915, grain and flour shortages had become a serious issue in the Greater Syrian provinces of the Ottoman Empire, and culminated into a full-fledged famine that would claim the lives of approximately one-third of population by the time Allied troops began occupying the region in October 1918. In the Ottoman provincial capital Beirut, food scarcities quickly became a matter of life and death, as the city became a gathering point for thousands of destitute refugees from miles around. In light of the tragedy, humanitarians rushed to provide aid to those in need. The historiography of wartime relief in the Ottoman Empire generally has focused on the well-documented international efforts in the Anatolian provinces, and in particular the tremendous work of foreign missionaries and relief organizations, such as the Near East Relief and the Red Cross. This focus on international relief agencies, no doubt, obscures the fact that humanitarian relief workers indeed operated in a crowded and competitive field. Taking Beirut as a case study, this paper shifts the gaze away from international organizations and analyses the politics of wartime relief from the perspective of state and local actors, which until now has received little attention. Considering the context of war and famine, this does not come as a surprise, since the memory of relief work in the city has long been overshadowed by the horrors of starvation and disease and written off as inconsequential and unsuccessful. Moreover, the legacy of Ottoman military dictatorship, notably its cruel policies culminating in the public execution of prominent Arab notables and intellectuals, left little room to consider the role of Ottoman officials in providing wartime relief. However, this study reveals that locally stationed Ottoman officials were not only concerned with civilian provisioning, but also engaged in a fierce political battle with local and international actors in an effort to monopolize the distribution of money and food. To prevent citizens from forming alternate political loyalties in response to services and goods received from extra-state actors, Ottoman policy was to eliminate potential competitors and substitute its own state-sponsored alternatives. This paper argues that the ability to distribute aid in the city was mediated by nationality, political affiliation and not the least gender, and would have long-lasting effects. First, wartime Ottoman policies of marginalizing non-governmental urban philanthropy significantly altered the relationship of the state with its citizens, permanently shifting citizens' social welfare demands away from communal institutions towards the state. Second, the privileging of female volunteerism through the Syrian Women's Association (jam˓iyat al-sayyidat al-suriyat), while illustrating the state's attitude of women as apolitical subjects, whose work was seen as unthreatening and incapable of inspiring divergent allegiances, would prove to be the beginning of a politicization of women's charities and inspired a new political consciousness.

Short TitlePolitics of Wartime Relief in Ottoman Beirut
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