Paper presented at Kings College London: “Becoming Syrian on the Battlefield”

24 January 2016: I gave a talk at the Cultural Encounters in Global Conflict conference on the First World War at Kings College London. My talk, “Becoming ‘Syrian’ on the battlefield: Ottoman emigrant troops on the Western Front” detailed the experience of Syrian recruits in the Allied armies and the relationship between military mobilization and diasporic Syrian nationalism. The presentation may be viewed here, and the paper (script) may be accessed here.

Abstract: “During the First World War, an astounding twenty percent of Ottoman Syria’s population lived outside the Empire, forming a Syrian diaspora comprising nearly a half million people. Living in a liminal setting between the Ottoman Empire and the Entente, Syrian emigrants—most of them nominally Ottoman subjects—increasingly identified with new nationalist movements promoting armed revolt against Istanbul. Believing the World War would ‘liberate Syria from the Turkish yoke’, émigré nationalists promoted the enlistment of ethnic Syrians and Lebanese into the militaries of the Entente. This paper tracks a small part of that process: the deployment of Syrian American troops to the Western Front within the United States Army.

In the French trenches, these troops encountered other Syrians, Lebanese, and former Ottoman nationals from every corner of the Syria’s global diaspora. At a moment when ‘Syrian’ identity remained inchoate, fluid, and perpetually contested by competing groups of nationalists, emigrant troops stationed in Europe had to work out what it meant to be Syrian in the context of global war. Using letters home, diaries, and memoirs, this paper argues that soldiers’ experience of rediscovering their compatriots among the Entente’s ranks led them to articulate a new Syrian nationalist identity, one which merged militarism with masculinity and saw their deployment as the first step towards Syria’s liberation from the Ottoman Empire.”

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