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Arabs into Frenchmen: Education and Identity in Ottoman Syria


In the final decades of the Ottoman Empire, a group of authors in the Syro-Lebanese diaspora including Chekri Ganem, Nadra Moutran, and Joseph Saouda constructed an Orientalizing discourse to promote a Francophile Catholic vision of Syria’s future, emulating the values and rhetoric of their adopted homeland. At various points, these authors demanded self-rule, increased representation in the Ottoman administration, and independence. In both political publications and literary works including poetry, novels, and theater, these authors drew upon their missionary educations in the schools of the Jesuits, Lazarists, and other French orders in Syria, as well as the memory of the 1860 civil unrest to create and express a hybrid identity. They revered France as the pinnacle of civilization and culture, while drawing Orientalist images of Syria as a wild and untamed land, nevertheless taking a measure of pride in their Arab heritage. While they have been dismissed as shysters in the pay of foreign governments, Ganem and his cohort from Cairo to Paris engaged in early movements of Ottoman reformism, while challenging Hamidian and Unionist centralization and the dearth of Arabs in positions of power after 1908. In shaping the French Orientalist discourse surrounding the future of the Ottoman Empire, they led a colonization of the mind, reproducing the values of their missionary education. Finally, this group of authors’ close association with the colonial lobby within the French Foreign Ministry, academic groups and commercial organizations meant they pursued a different agenda than their Young Ottoman and CUP contemporaries – autonomy, decentralization, and eventually the mandate system.

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