Michael Provence, “Great Syrian Revolt” (2005)

Provence, Michael, The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism, Austin: Univesity of Texas, 2005.

This book offers a very complete account of the popular uprising that threatened the French Mandate from 1925 to 1927.  He integrates primary  knowledge of participants and family with French colonial sources and explicit aims at writing a history of the subaltern movement analyzing the negative imprint it left on its enemies, as Ranajit Guha put it. The overarching intention is to demonstrate that nationalism can exist without nationalists and the Great Syrian Revolt was an example of such. Its leaders were peasants and soldiers, not ideologues, and they constructed a national consciousness based on unity and sovereignty.

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Provence convincingly argues that the Hawran was socially and economically integrated into Damascus. The grain market networks between the Jabal Druze and the Maydan neighborhood in Damascus gauged the revolt and the main participants were village peasants and shaykhs, and middle-low merchants, the main clients of the cereal producers in Hawran. This means that the traditional urban elites around religious learning or new elites of the civil upper-middle class, both landowners, remained in an ambiguous position towards the revolt and they did not opt for either side until it was inevitable. This is also exposed by the differential treatment France delivered to the rebels once they were defeated. All the members of the higher families who participated were immediately pardoned and their possessions returned, while the lower classes remained in exile for a decade under the threat of death penalty.

The second argument the author employs to designate this as a rural movement is the fact the leaders of the revolt were extracted from the “lesser notables”, using the term of Hanna Batatu. The shaykhs and beduoin chiefs who participated attended the state secondary school and later the fully-subsidize Ottoman Imperial Military Academy in Istanbul. Instead, the high classes attended the Maktab ‘Anbar who prepared the wealthier students for the Ottoman Civil Service Academy or foreign universities. These would become engineers, lawyers or civil servants, while the former would be soldiers and military officials. Here the author introduces a class distinction that is not fully developed. Nevertheless, he maintains that this revolt challenged the French mandate, but also the great landowners of Damascus who never fully joined the revolt. Eventually, the defeat and exile of the leaders of this popular revolt enabled the urban elite nationalists to negotiate their own power with the French mandate without internal contestation from the Syrian society. After the revolt, both France and the urban elites realized that they both had common interests.

However, his theoretical proposition is not fully elaborated as he does not explain why the rising consciousness that the uprising represents should be named Syrian-Arab nationalism. He grounds his theory on a rejection of the nationalism exposed by Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson and deploys some arguments of Partha Chatterjee to argue that this consciousness was not copied from any European nationalism but it was “newly imagined.”  However, he does not explicitly define nationalism, only equates it with common consciousness. This argument trembles when he has to admit that there was only a vague political project based on unity of Syria and political sovereignty. While the popular revolt clearly manifested their rejection of the French occupation and the claims for independence and sovereignty there was not clearly defined project for what could happen after the mandate. In fact, the very scarce political propositions that included institutional claims were designed by what the author himself labels as urban elite. (pp.81-83)

There is an aim of independence, but as the author himself posed, independence from anything and anywhere, be it France, Damascus or the neighborhooding tribe. Hence, by unity, the insurgents could mean some villages in Jabal Druze, the connection of the Hawran with Damascus, or the unity of Greater Syria from the Taurus to Arabia. (p.58) In fact, the author believes the lack of political program and an articulation of what membership meant was the main strength of the movement. The local interpretations and diverse understandings of what belonging to the Syrian-Arab nation meant enabled different groups to fight together without designing a definitive project to fight for. During his whole narrative nationalism is equated with independence and the concept of Syrian-Arab nationalism is not explicitly dissected. Thus the question comes about: what is the difference between nationalism and insurgency? This remains unresolved.

Nevertheless, he argues very convincingly about the overlapping identities displayed by the rebels at the moment of demanding levies or contributions from landowner and village chiefs. They used different rhetoric depending on their addressee, which presented the revolt from a number of perspectives stressing religious or patriotic motivations at each time. Although he briefly mentioned the fact that the revolutionary taxes were imposed mainly on rich landowner, Provence misses a new chance to explore the class struggle element of this revolt.

Cross-sectarian relations took place during the revolt and some insurgent groups included Christians; however, the fact that the French mandate armed Catholic villages aroused some sectarian resentment and open conflicts were echoed even in the western embassies of the region. But the author is more interested in accusing the mandate as an instigator than to fully explain the problematic behind it. Nevertheless, he found enough material to expose the non-sectarian character of revolt as the levies and forced monetary contributions were collected from Christians, Muslims and Jews.

In sum, The Great Syrian Revolt is a very informative book on the roots and consequences of the popular uprising, as well as the methods and unfolding of the events. He completely succeeded at writing a history of the revolt using colonial archives without centering his narrative on the French administration. On the other hand, while moving the focus of the resistance from the urban elite to the lower rural classes is a very interesting ideological proposition, its theoretical framework on nationalism is not fully convincing.

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