Paper short abstract:
Early 20th century European ethnographers of Northern Syria and French mandate officials classified the semi-sedentary tribal population of the upper Euphrates valley as 'shawaya', distinguishing them from the 'true Bedouin'. The presentation traces the background and implications of this classification and looks at contemporary local historians' reflections of it.
Paper long abstract:
In the late 19th and early 20th century, European travelers and, with the beginning of the French mandate after the First world war, administrators who came to Northern Syria, contributed to the geographic, archaeologic, politic as well as ethnographic knowledge about this region.
Today, if one looks at publications on local history in Northern Syria, one notes a perceptible interest by local historians in these ethnographic writings, especially information pertaining to the classification and description of groups, their social boundaries, genealogies and historical origins - although at the same time, European travelers of the time may be generally regarded as "Orientalists" who pursued a political (colonialist) agenda.
Ethnographical writings on the tribal population of the upper Syrian Euphrates valley illustrate this point. For example, Max von Oppenheim (1860-1946), the well-known German traveler, who with his entourage traveled through the area several times (1893, 1911, 1939), took notes on the ethnography of the steppe areas east of Aleppo as well as the Syrian Euphrates valley, part of which were published in his well-known book "Die Beduinen" (1939). In Oppenheim's notes which are to be found in his private archives, the tribal population of these areas, classified as "shawaya" (semi-sedentary, small livestock herders), are distinguished from the fully nomadic "true Bedouin" to which Oppenheim attributed both a more authentic lifestyle as well as certain "noble virtues" such as honesty, courage, and generosity (cf. Nippa 2000), assuming that the Shawaya tribes had "lost" these virtues with increasing sedentarization. A similar view to Oppenheim's was then taken by the French mandate authorities who sought to accelerate the Shawaya's sedentarization through their tribal policies.
The proposed presentation aims to trace how Oppenheim's perceptions of the "Shawaya" were influenced not only by his own "aristocratic" bias in favor of the great bedouin tribes, but also by his practice of ethnography (e.g., the role of his employees who actually collected the ethnographic data, as well as local interlocutors who provided the information); secondly, I will discuss how the category of "shawaya" was perceived by contemporary French mandate officials and which policies were subsequently geared towards the tribal groups identified as "shawaya"; thirdly, some examples will be given to show how members of these groups today interpret their "shawaya" identity, and how they relate to the historical processes of classification by Europeans in the first half of the 20th century described above.
One hundred years of European anthropology in and on the Middle East: 1900-2000