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“Creating Phantoms”: Zaki al-Arsuzi, the Alexandretta Crisis, and the Formation of Modern Arab Nationalism in Syria

  • Keith D. Watenpaugh (a1)


This quotation may be nothing more than a well-turned phrase by its author, Zaki al-Arsuzi. Nonetheless, it illustrates a dilemma that young men like him faced in the troubled years preceding Syrian independence: As French-educated young men, should they take their places as minor functionaries in the colonial machine and accept the promise of a comfortable and privileged life, or should they join the growing political and ideological struggle to found an independent, national statein Syria? Al-Arsuzi, who is venerated by the current regime in Damascus as the ideological father of Baʾthism, went on to answer this question by spending the next eight years in and out ofthe former Ottoman province of Alexandretta, working in support of the Arab-nationalist cause. Both his contemporary writings and later recollections of the period reveal a growing political consciousness and the formulation of a complex Arabism that was at odds with the dominant ideology emanating from the large cities of Syria. This ideology, as embodied by the National Bloc government in Damascus, was personality-based, hamstrung by European colonial interests, and unable to arouse any sustained political sensibility in the broader population; it centered its political legitimacy and parochial brand of nationalism on opposition to the French occupation. Al-Arsuzi and others, recognizing the weakness inherent in this form of nationalism, drew away from its leadership in the course of the 1930s and moved to create other, more radical and militant Pan-Arabist groups.



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Author's note: Much of the initial research for this paper was done with the support of a Fulbright Study Grant to Damascus, Syria (1992–93). Further assistance was provided by an Advanced Multi- Country Research grant to Turkey and Syria (1995) from the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC), with financial support from the United States Information Agency. I also thank the staff of the Asad National Library for their patience and assistance, as well as those individuals and their families in Aleppo who granted me oral-history interviews. Finally, I thank the Institut Français d'Etudes Arabes de Damas, Jacques Langhade, director, for extending to me the status of research associate and all the privileges thereof (1995–96).

1 al-Arsūzī, Zakī, al-Muʾallifāt al-kāmila: Zakī al-Arsūzī (Complete Works of Zaki al-Arsuzi), 6 vols., ed. Maqdisī, Anṭūn, Ismāʿīl, Sidqī et al. (Damascus, 1975), 5:417 (hereafter, Complete Works). The article originally appeared as “Tajribat al-baʿth al-ʿarabi fī Anṭākiyya” (The Experiment of Arab Baʿthism in Antioch) in the armed-forces journal Jaysh al-shaʿb 703 (25 05 1965). Elsewhere, the sentence is given in French as “Sur la route du retour de Paris à Antioche, j'ai inscrit dans mon agenda en langue françhise: faire une nation ou créer des fantômes, être prophète ou artiste, voilà le probléme.” Complete Works, 6:491. All translations from Arabic, Turkish, and French are my own.

2 Khoury, Philip S., Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 1920–1945 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987), 419. It is a telling comment on modern Syrian minority politics that in Antoun Maqdisi's introduction to Complete Works, and the most recent doctoral dissertation on al-Arsuzi from Damascus University, Barakāt's, Salīm “al-Fikra al-qawmiyya wa asāsahu al-falsafiyya ʿinda Zakī al-Arsūzī” (The Concept of Nationalism and Its Philosophical Basis [in the Thinking] of Zaki al-Arsuzi) (Ph.D. diss., University of Damascus, 1979), there is no mention of the fact that al-Arsuzi is of Alawite origin. The only work published in the Middle East on the life and philosophy of al-Arsuzi that examines his Alawite origin is S.J., Antoine Audo, Zaki al-Arsouzi: un Arabe face à la modernité (Beirut: Dar el-Machreq, 1988). Pére Audo's work is primarily exegetical and concentrates on the literary structure of al-Arsuzi's work and the use of religious vocabulary from the Alawite tradition in seemingly secular topics. For example: “Arsouzi se veut laīc, libre de tout esprit confessionnel et appelle de toutes ses forces à l'unité de la nation arabe pour que celle-ci puisse être libre et moderne à la fois. Or, en recherchant cet universel de l'unité, en utilisant un vocabulaire arabe marqué par la science et la culture modernes, Arsouzi a recours au langage mystique: il a besoin du langage religieux de sa propre tradition pour affirmer cette même unité” (p. 7).

3 This brief biography, except where otherwise noted, is drawn from the Complete Works, 1:533 passim.

4 Complete Works, 6:487. This selection was originally published as an interview in the magazine al-Usbūʿ al-ʿarabi (Arab Week), n.d., under the title “Zakī al-Arsūzī al-rajul al-mudarris” (Zakial-Arsuzi, the Schoolmaster). The interview was conducted by Zuhayr Mārdīnī.

5 Complete Works, 3:293–94. This article originally was published as “al-Yaqẓa al-ʿarabiyya fī Anṭākiyya” (The Awakening of Arabism in Antioch), in the journal al-Jundī 382 (28 11 1958), and republished in Ṣawt al-ʿurūba fi liwāʾ al-lskandarūna (The Voice of Arabism in the Province of Alexandretta), ed. Committee for the Liberation of the Province of Alexandretta, (Damascus, 1961).

6 Complete Works, 3:291–92. Apparently al-Arsuzi's mother, a deeply religious woman, had a vision of the popular saint/demigod al-Khidr while al-Arsuzi was young and dedicated him to his service. Al-Khidr appears again at the end of al-Arsuzi's life, when al-Arsuzi was said—by his biographer Antoun Maqdisi—to have had another vision of the “Green Man” on his death bed. Al-Khidr is a popular folk figure among the Alawites, Armenians, and Christians in northwestern Syria. Indeed, one of his many tombs is located on Musa Daǧi, a mountain between Antioch and the coastal village of Samandaǧi. One of the remaining Armenian villages in the Hatay is called Khidr Bek. His mention of al-Khidr may be part of an attempt to incorporate nonsectarian folktales into his discourse.

7 Antonius, George, The Arab Awakening (New York: Capricorn Books, 1965), chap. 10.

8 Maqdisī, , “Introduction,”Complete Works, 1:6.

9 Barakāt, , “al-Fikra al-qawmiyya,” 6768.

11 For more on the origins of Fichte's thought, see Iggers, Georg G., The German Conception of History (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1968), chap. 1 passim.

12 Fichte, Johan Gottlieb, Reden an die deutsche Nation (Addresses to the German Nation), trans. Jones, R. F. and Turnbull, G. H. (Chicago: Open Court, 1922), 13.

13 Al-Arsuzi's setting of his “awakening” in the pure and authentic surroundings of Antioch rather than in the classrooms of a European capital is a tactic shared by other nationalists of the region. Ziya Gökalp, the chief ideologue of the Young Turks, exhibits a similar tendency when recounting his childhood in Diyarbakir. For a general discussion of the inherent need of nationalists to dissemble somewhat in personal narratives, see Gellner, Ernest, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983).

14 Complete Works, 5:417.

15 There exist several works dealing with the political and legal dimensions of the Alexandretta Crisis. Some are less partisan than others. Perhaps the best accounts of the events are Khoury, , “The Loss of the Sanjak,” in Syria and the French Mandate, 494514, and Sanjian, Avedis, “The Sanjak of Alexandretta (Hatay); A Study in Franco–Turco–Syrian Relations” (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1956) and The Sanjak of Alexandretta (Hatay): Its Impact on Turkish–Syrian Relations (1939–1956),” The Middle East Journal 10 (Autumn 1956): 379–94. Of equal value are Khaddūrī's, MajīdQaḍiyyat al-lskandarūna (The Alexandretta Dispute), (Damascus, 1953) and The Alexandretta Dispute,” American Journal of International Law 39 (1945): 406–25. Other works include Bandazian, Walter C., “The Crisis of Alexandretta” (Ph.D. diss., American University, 1967); Payramian, Alishan A., Alek'santrēt'i Sanjagi Harts'e ev Mijazgayin Diwanagitut'iwne 1936–1939 (Yerevan, n.p., 1970); Shaw, Stanford J. and Shaw, Ezel Kural, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977); eidem, Reform, Revolution and Republic. The Rise of Modern Turkey 1808–1975, 377; Tekin, Mehmet, Hatay Tarihi (The History of the Hatay) (Antakya: Kültür Ofset Basimevi, 1992); and Melek, Abdurrahman, Hatay Nasd Kurtuldu (How the Hatay Was Liberated) (Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Basimevi, 1991).

16 In Khaddūrī, “Dispute,” 407.

17 “The most reliable estimates are probably those provided by the French High Commission in 1936. Of a total population of approximately 220,000 in the Sanjak, 39 percent were ethnic Turks, 28 percent were Alawis, 11 percent were Armenians, 10 percent were Sunni Arabs, 8 percent were other Christians (principally Greek Orthodox), and the remainder were divided between Kurds, Circassians, and Jews (approximately 4 percent). The Turkish government disputed the French statistics, claiming that the Turks numbered anywhere from 150,000 to 240,000 and that the Sanjak's total population was more like 300,000. The Turkish claim was inflated.” Khoury, , Syria and the French Mandate, 495.

18 Complete Works, 5:418–19.

19 Ibid., 5:419.

20 Weulersse, Jacques, Le pays des Alaouites (Tours: Arrault, 1940).

21 The Alawites in the mid-1930s represented almost 20 percent of the French-controlled Troupes Spéciales du Levant. See Bou-Nacklie, N. E., “Les Troupes Spéciales: Religious and Ethnic Recruitment, 1916–46,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 25 (1993): 645–60.

22 Complete Works, 5:419.

23 Ibid., 5:421.

25 Ibid., 5:422.

26 Ibid., 5:420.

27 Khoury, , Syria and the French Mandate, Figure 15–1, 416.

28 In Tekin, , Hatay Tarihi, 166.

29 League of Nations, Final Regulations for the First Elections in the Sanjak of Alexandretta, General 1938.1, Geneva, 19 03 1938, C.1O3.M.56, Article 17, 6.

30 Ibid., Article 19, 6.

31 Sanjian, , “The Sanjak of Alexandretta (Hatay),” 152.

32 Complete Works, 3:346. This selection originally appeared as a chapter entitled “al-Tajriba alsiyāsiyya fī liwaʾ al-Iskandarūna” (The Political Experiment in the Province of Alexandretta) in al-Arsuzi's Mashākilunā al-qawmiyya wa mawqif al-aḥzāb fihā (Our National Problems and the Position of the Parties Therein), written in 1956 but not released until 1958.

33 See Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 2nd ed. (New York: Verso, 1991), 44: “These print-languages laid the bases for national consciousness in three distinct ways. First and foremost, they created unified fields of exchange and communication below Latin and above the spoken vernaculars. Speakers of the huge variety of Frenches, Englishes, or Spanishes, who might find it difficult or even impossible to understand one another in conversation, became capable of comprehending one another via print and paper. In the process, they gradually became aware of the hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people in their particular language-field, and at the same time that only those hundreds of thousands, or millions, so belonged. These fellow-readers, to whom they were connected through print, formed, in their secular, particular, visible invisibility, the embryo of the nationally imagined community.”

34 al-ʿUrūba (Antioch), 21 11 1937.

35 Complete Works, 1:28.

36 al-ʿUrūba (Antioch), 30 10 1937, 1.

40 Complete Works, 5:426. The article originally appeared as “Qadiyyat liwāʾ al-Iskandarūna” (The Cause of the Province of Alexandretta), in the magazine al-Jundī 717 (31 08 1965).

41 Shaw, and Shaw, , History, 376.

42 Türkmen, A. Faik, Mufassal Hatay (Hatay in Detail), 7 vols. (Istanbul: Cumhuriyet Matbaasi, 1937), 1:177.

43 Ibid., 1:179.

44 Khoury, , Syria and the French Mandate, 523.

45 al-ʿUrūba (Antioch), 21 January–29 01 1938.

46 This “National Unity” was an organization sponsored by the French to siphon Arab support away from al-Arsuzi's group. The French efforts were unsuccessful, as only a few Arabs agreed to cooperate. Khadduri, , “Dispute,” 421.

47 “Fi al-liwāʾ al-Iskandarūna jabha ʿarabiyya wāḥida” (In the Province of Alexandretta Is a United Arab Front), al-ʿUrūba (Antioch), 24 01 1938.

49 Ayranjī, Rizqallāhʿ, oral-history interview by author, 12 11 1995, Aleppo, Syria, tape recording in Arabic.

50 “Lettre Ouverte à Monsieur le Président de la Commission des Elections au Sandjack d'Alexandrette,” al-ʿUrūba (Antioch), 8 05 1938. “The Ankara government has sent and continues to send Turks to the Sanjak to be registered in the Turkish electoral lists, under the pretext that they are originally from the Sanjak. Now, a goodly part of these Turks are not originally from the Sanjak. The Ankara government, which has every interest in having a Turkish majority, and which wants at all costs to succeed, does not hesitate to issue passports even to subjects who were neither born in, nor ever belonged to, the Sanjak⃜ In addition, these Turks who come from Turkey lend themselves greatly to the employ of skillful means of trickery. As they do not appear on the electoral lists prepared by the Sanjak government, they can have themselves registered in two or three precincts.”

51 Khoury, , Syria and the French Mandate, 510.

52 Complete Works, 5:421. Clubs of this sort, however, had been present in the Arab Levant from the 1840s in Beirut, although the targeted constituency was less common (Antonius, , Arab Awakening, 47).

53 Complete Works, 5:422.

54 Ibid., 5:443.

55 al-ʿUrūba(Antioch), 3 12 1937. These two clubs seem to become compressed in the memory of al-Arsuzi. Ironically, it seems that the original intent of the Fine Arts Club had, in addition to nationalist underpinnings, been a forum for the appreciation of French literature. Al-Arsuzi's subsequent feelings of dislike toward the French would understandably lead to this fact's not being noted.

56 Ibid.

57 Claudia Abdallah (née Yatros), oral-history interview by the author, 25 10 1995, Aleppo, Syria, tape recording. The interview was conducted in French at the request of Mrs. Abdallah. Her exact words were: “Quand les jeunes gens se recontraient, ce n'était jamais ni sabāḥ al-khayr ni masāʾ al-khayr, mais: ‘taḥya al- ʿurūba’ [she gestured in a raised-hand salute].”

58 Tekin, , Hatay Tarihi, 134. This movement was not without precedent in Turkey as there had been sports clubs from before the time of the Young Turks. For example, Istanbul's Beşiktaş. Jön Kuübü was founded in 1903.

59 Complete Works, 5:427.

60 Tekin, , Hatay Tarihi, 137.

61 Ibid., 178.

62 Complete Works, 5:427.

63 “Mudhakkirāt al-zaʿīm al-Arsūz ilā Jamīʿ at al-Umam” (Memorandum of the Leader al-Arsuzi to the League of Nations), al-ʿUrūba (Antioch), 4 05 1938.

65 Complete Works, 3:342.

66 al-ʿUrūba (Antioch), 19 04 1938.

67 Abdallah, interview, 1995. “C'était un homme adorable, très sympathique,…d'une intelligence supérieure, il avait le sens de rhumour.” And speaking of the young men in the Arabism club, she concluded that they would have willingly died for him: “Les jeunes étaient capables de donner leur vie pour Zaki Arsouzi.”

68 Sanjian, , “The Sanjak of Alexandretta (Hatay),” 169.

69 Tekin, , Hatay Tarihi, 209.

70 Khoury, , Syria and the French Mandate, 513.

71 Complete Works, 5:467.

72 Ibid., 5:417.

73 Ibid., 3:308.

74 al-ʿUrūba (Antioch), 7 02 1938.

76 Khoury, , Syria and the French Mandate, 506.

77 al-ʿUrūba (Antioch), 8 02 1938.

78 Ibid., 21 January–29 January 1938.

79 Ibid., 8 February 1938.

80 Longrigg, Stephen H., Syria and Lebanon under French Mandate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), 240.

81 al-ʿUrūba (Antioch), 8 02 1938.

82 Khoury, , Syria and the French Mandate, 423. The average League of National Action member has been described by Khoury: “In fact, the League adopted a rather cliquish demeanor, characterized by the young man in a sports jacket sitting at the League's favorite café, proudly displaying the latest available edition of the prestigious Cairo newspaper, al-Muqattam, or maybe the literary and scientific journals, al-Hilal and al-Muqtataf. At the café he sipped coffee and plotted a course of action against the most recent French decree with his companions. The average Leaguer, in short, lived in a world quite foreign to the one most Damascenes inhabited.”

83 “Diʿāyat al-ustādh al-Arsūzī fī dimashq” (Propaganda of Professor al-Arsuzi in Damascus), alʿUrūba (Antioch), 8 02 1938.

85 Although the education of women was important to al-Arsuzi, and he seems to have had some ideas akin to “Republican motherhood,” the League of Nations regulations for the elections allowed only men to register and vote (League of Nations, Final Regulations, 6).

86 In all fairness, the Turks had other advantages that enhanced the mechanics. Tacit French support, the threat of military invasion, and the liberal use of bribes are the most notable of these. A useful source of information on the Turkish efforts in the province during the 1930s is Tayfur (Mürsel) Sökmen's, Hatay'in Kurtuluş İçin Harcanan çabalar (Efforts Expended for the Liberation of the Hatay) (Ankara, 1978). Sökmen had been sent from Ankara to facilitate the Turkish effort. He remained in the province and eventually became state president of the short-lived Hatay Republic. There is now a housing settlement named for him on the old road between Aleppo and Antioch. The early lives of al-Arsuzi and Sökmen are remarkably similar. I am developing this parallel in my Ph.D. dissertation, “Nationalism and the Formation of National Identity in Antioch and Aleppo, 1908–1946.”

87 Hourani, Albert provides an interesting though brief aside on this question in his Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 296: “Until the Alexandretta crisis of 1937–39 this [Kemalism] exercised a great influence over the political minds of the Arabs, not only because of the success of the Turks in beating back the encroachment of Europe, but because there still remained profound ties of religion, a shared history and often a blood relationship…and still more because of their uncompromising statement of the rights of the nation.”

88 Khoury, , “Patrons, Clients, and Quarters,” in Syria and the French Mandate, 285317.

89 Ahmad, Feroz, The Making of Modern Turkey (New York: Routledge, 1993), 5271.

90 Sulayman, al-ʿIsa, “The Beginnings,” al-Maʿrifa 113 (07 1971): 24. I have endeavored to keep true to al-ʿIsa's style and idiosyncratic punctuation as it appears on the page.

91 Ibid.,31.

92 Batatu, Hanna, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq's Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of Its Communists, Baʿthists, and Free Officers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 724.

93 Seale, Patrick, Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990), 2829.

94 Seale, , Asad, 89. Other Liwāʾis, or “people from the province,” as refugees from the province of Alexandretta and their descendants are known in modern Syria, participated in the cultural and ideological development of the party's program. Al-ʿIsa, the poet, remained in the capital and wrote the Baʿth Party anthem and cooperated in the design of the Arabic-language curriculum for the national Syrian school system. His most lasting contribution has been the plethora of children's poems he has written. In these poems, to which every Syrian child has been exposed for the last two decades, style and substance often give way to the didactic needs of a socialist and nationalist educational system. Other former associates of al-Arsuzi still play a role in the coterie around the president, including the intellectuals Ḥannā Mīna and Iskandar Lūqā. Many of Mina's experiences in the province of Alexandretta have been recorded in his novel, Baqāyā Ṣuwar (Fragments of Memory) (Damascus, 1975).

95 Complete Works, 1:18.

96 Seale, Patrick, The Struggle for Syria (London: Yale University Press, 1986), 300.

97 Complete Works, 3:308.

98 ʿAlial-Zarqā, Muhammad, Liwāʾ al-Iskandarūna (The Province of Alexandretta) (Damascus: Committee for the Liberation of the Province of Alexandretta, 1959), cover.

99 al-Jundī 728–29 (11 1965), cover.

100 Complete Works, 5:437.

101 Ibid., 3:362.

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