Monthly Review, VA
Nov 15 2008

The Rise and Fall of the Arab Middle Class in the Middle East: Between
Modernization, Nationalism, and Revolution

by Eyal Zisser

Keith David Watenpaugh. Being Modern in the Middle East: Revolution,
Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Arab Middle Class. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2006. xi + 325 pp. $37.95 (cloth), ISBN

One of the great modern landmarks of the city of Aleppo is the Baron
Hotel. The Mazloumians, a wealthy Armenian family of hoteliers,
established this fixture on the city's main street at the beginning of
the twentieth century. The story of the hotel from the time of its
founding is, to a large extent, the story of the city of Aleppo in the
twentieth century, as many of the period's most significant events
occurred in or were otherwise connected to the hotel and its guests.
It can, in fact, be viewed as a silent witness to Syria's transition
from Ottoman rule to the French Mandate to Syrian independence and,
finally, to the long rule of Hafiz al-Asad. Among the dignitaries who
stayed at the Baron Hotel were Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), who housed his
staff in the hotel during the Ottoman Army's retreat from Syria, and
Gen. Edmund Allenby, who took rooms in the hotel immediately after the
British Army entered Aleppo in October 1918. Both Faysal I (during
his brief reign as king of Syria) and T. E. Lawrence "of Arabia"
resided in the Baron Hotel. Many other famous figures were its guests
as well. Some years later, the presidents of Syria adopted the custom
of staying at the hotel whenever they visited the north of the
country. Al-Asad followed this custom during his first official visit
to Aleppo as president of Syria.

Thus, it is quite appropriate that Keith David Watenpaugh's Being
Modern in the Middle East mentions the Baron Hotel in connection with
several major junctures in the modernization of Aleppo and the
emergence of that city's middle class, topics that stand at the book's
thematic center. For example, Watenpaugh relates the story of a
meeting between Gertrude Lowthian Bell and the Christian banker Nicola
Homsi in 1905, shortly after the hotel's opening. According to Bell's
own testimony, the Greek Catholic archbishop of Aleppo also joined the
meeting. When Bell asked the two men what lay in store for their
country, the archbishop replied, "I do not know. I have thought
deeply on the subject and I can see no future for Syria, whichever way
I turn."1 Watenpaugh also relates the story of Lutfi Fikri Bey, a
deputy in the Ottoman parliament of Dersim and a supporter of those
forces (the liberal entente) opposing the Young Turks' Committee of
Union and Progress (CUP). During the parliamentary election campaign
of 1912, Bey came to Aleppo, where he was greeted by a stormy
demonstration organized by local CUP supporters. As a result, he took
refuge in none other than the Baron Hotel.

In 1988, Patrick Seale published his Asad of Syria, a political
biography of the Syrian ruler with whom Seale had close personal ties.
However, Seale's narrative recounts more than the life of Asad, as it
also tells the story of the Syrian state from its beginnings to the
mid-1980s. Seale mentions the Baron Hotel as well, placing it
squarely in the context of Aleppo's transformation in the twentieth
century: "Once a great trading city at the crossroads of caravan
routes, larger and richer than Damascus, Aleppo had been in relative
decline since the First World War when it was severed from its sea
outlet at Alexandretta and from its hinterland in present-day Iraq and
Turkey. . . . It suffered from poor sewerage, poor municipal
services, and its main street where the historic Baron's Hotel stands
became a shabby ghost of the elegant thoroughfare it had once been."2

Indeed, the accounts of Seale and others depict two Aleppos: one is a
dynamic metropolis facing the future and inviting progress, the other
a sleepy town finding it difficult to recapture its past glory.
Arguably, Aleppo's declining state throughout the twentieth century is
matched by a comparable decline in the status and condition of Syria's
middle class during the same period. Watenpaugh's study focuses on
this social group, which he depicts as the most energetic and leading
force in early twentieth-century Syrian society, however battered and
weakened it would subsequently become. Nevertheless, the issues of
modernization and Westernization continue to represent a major
challenge to Syrian state and society today as they did nearly a
century ago.

These issues, which are critical to understanding the history of the
Middle East in general and Syria in particular, are central to
Watenpaugh's book. First, there are the questions of modernity and
the modernization of Aleppo's population. Second, of course, there is
the relationship between modernity and Westernization, and between
these phenomena and the adoption of Western values and outlooks.
Third, in the shadow of these issues, there is the question of the
emergence of the middle class in Arab society, or more specifically,
in Syrian society during the first half of the twentieth century.
Finally, there is the question of the extent to which the middle class
was in fact the backbone of Syrian society in this era.

Watenpaugh's major contention in this regard is summarized in the
following statement: "in the crucible of the Young Turk Revolution of
1908, World War I, and the imposition of colonial rule, a discrete
middle class emerged in the cities of the Eastern Mediterranean that
was defined not just by the wealth, professions, possessions, or
levels of education of its members, but also by the way they asserted
their modernity. To claim modernity, they incorporated into their
daily lives and politics a collection of manners, mores, and tastes,
and corpus of ideas about the individual, gender, rationality, and
authority actively derived from what they believed to be the cultural,
social and ideological praxis of the contemporary metropolitan Western
middle classes" (p. 8).

Watenpaugh has chosen to make his case against the background of
Aleppo's experience during the years 1908-46, that is, from the Young
Turk Revolution of 1908 until Syrian independence. During this
transitional period, the region experienced a number of major changes:
the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, the imposition of European
mandates, and the emergence of independent states. Naturally, these
transformations were accompanied by ideological shifts from
"Ottomanism" to "Syrianism" and "Arabism," from liberalism to
radicalism, and the persistent role of Islam, albeit in various forms.

Watenpaugh's study vividly describes the aforementioned phenomena.
Despite the fact that each chapter stands alone as an independent
research topic, all are woven together into a single, though
multifaceted, story. Another of the book's virtues is its placement
of fundamental, yet comprehensive, theoretical propositions at the
core of its discussion. In addition, Watenpaugh supplies the human
face of historical events and processes, using a variety of sources to
vividly illustrate the story of the social stratum and the city that
serve as his book's focus.

Arguably, Watenpaugh could have expanded his theoretical discussion of
the definition of modernity. Perhaps his analysis of the character
and essence of the region's middle classes during the first half of
the twentieth century could have benefited from even greater
expansion. After all, previous scholars have dealt at length with
many aspects of the question of the appearance of the middle class
(effendia) in various regions of the Middle East. For example, it
would be instructive to compare the case of Aleppo with those of Cairo
or Alexandria, since events in Egypt have so often inspired
developments elsewhere in the region.

Nevertheless, Watenpaugh's book makes important scholarly
contributions to an understanding of a number of issues. First, he
presents the story of the Syrian urban middle class. It should be
remembered that Syria's history during the first half of the twentieth
century has been written and told mostly through the eyes of the
notable families constituting the urban elite. Syria's post-World War
II history has been written and told mostly through the eyes of those
social forces, mainly members of the `Alawi community and the Sunni
rural population, that came from the periphery to the center,
eventually taking control of the state. Thus, Watenpaugh's study
brings to the fore Syria's urban middle class, whose voice and
presence have so far been missing from that country's historical
narrative. Second, Watenpaugh reconstructs important debates within
Syrian society about liberal and Western values, as well as identifies
some of the main protagonists in these debates. This is an important
service, for much of the scholarship to date has focused on the words
and deeds of the proponents of various forms of Syrian, Arab, and
pan-Arab nationalism, chief among them the founders and leaders of the
Ba`th Party and Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP, also known as
the PPS). Perhaps, it was natural for scholars to concentrate on the
views espoused by these (subsequently dominant) political forces, and
be inclined to see the course of Syrian history as almost inevitably
leading to the seizure of power by advocates of these more radical
visions of Syria's future. Thus, Watenpaugh's book makes an important
contribution to our understanding of Syrian history by giving
appropriate expression to these -- until now largely ignored -- voices
advocating liberalism and Westernization.

Reading Being Modern in the Middle East prompts questions about other
social groups in the vicinity of Aleppo during the period under
discussion, like members of several minority communities and the Sunni
rural population of the outlying region. These populations and social
forces are absent from almost all studies of Syrian history prior to
the mid-1950s, even though they were destined to occupy the center of
Syrian politics in subsequent decades. It would be quite instructive,
of course, to seek evidence in the earlier period that this
significant historical development was in the offing. Some movement
in this direction can be found in Michael Provence's The Great Syrian
Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism (2005). Provence mentions the
social origins of Michel `Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar, who were
destined to found the Ba`th Party. These two figures were sons of
grain merchants who had strong connections with the Hawran province.
Awareness of the economic connection between the Hawran and the Maydan
quarter of the city of Damascus might cast light on the path by which
the 1920s revolt spread along the Hawran-Maydan route from the Druze
Mountain to Damascus, and it might also help to explain and clarify
the connection of the Atrash family, or at least several of its sons,
to the Ba`th Party. All this raises the issue of the links and
relationships between the Syrian center and periphery, which were
always much deeper and more complex than previously thought. Thus,
the Syrian center should not be viewed only from the angle of the
notable families that dominated it, nor should the center and the
periphery be conceptualized as mutually exclusive spheres.

Watenpaugh discusses the events of the stormy 1930s in another
interesting chapter, "Middle-Class Fascism and the Transformation of
Civil Violence." The issues discussed therein merit particular
mention precisely because they have received so little scholarly
attention in the past. Watenpaugh quite appropriately revisits old
questions, investigating the degree to which Fascism and Nazism found
adherents in Syrian society, as well as exploring the political and
social significance of the turn to violence and radicalism. Syrian
intellectual life during this period requires fresh, more thorough
historical investigation. Watenpaugh's study represents a first
important step in that direction.

I began this review by noting that the second half of the twentieth
century was marked by the decline of Aleppo, and indeed the whole
northern region of Syria. In addition, previously significant social
and political groupings were marginalized or even disappeared from
view. The interesting question is: What does today's Aleppo with its
millions of residents have in common with the small-town (one hundred
thousand residents) Aleppo of the early twentieth century that is the
focus of Watenpaugh's Being Modern in the Middle East? In this
regard, we must note again the large-scale migration to Syria's cities
and its political center that occurred in the second half of the
twentieth century. Against this background, we can better understand
Syria's more recent historical development, in other words, the
collapse of the old social order, appearance of military regimes, and
establishment of the Asad dynasty that survives to this day. The new
groups moving to the cities brought with them the message of the
Ba`th. However, large numbers of the Sunnis living in the slums of
Aleppo adopted the views of radical Islam. Indeed, Aleppo became a
focus of Islamist rebellion, against which the regime took repressive
measures in 1976-82. However, those Islamist sentiments still
survive, hidden beneath the surface.

We were given a reminder of the surviving vigor and importance of the
question of liberal thought in Syria, as well as the rise and fall of
the Syrian middle class during Bashar al-Asad's first years in power.
At that time, the young ruler lent his support to the so-called
Damascus spring, a very brief period of political openness during
which cultural and political forums and salons were allowed to
operate. One such forum, which arose in Aleppo, was named after `Abd
al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, whose earlier participation in several of
Aleppo's well-known salons is mentioned in Watenpaugh's book. The
Syrian authorities quickly shut down the later "al-Kawakibi" salon,
which was led by `Abd al-Rahman's relative Salam al-Kawakibi.
Ultimately, Salam was forced to leave Syria and become a political
refugee, just like his famous relative, who was pursued by the Ottoman
authorities of his day.

Watenpaugh's book makes an important addition to our knowledge of
Aleppo's history, joining Abraham Marcus's study The Middle East on
the Eve of Modernity: Aleppo in the Eighteenth Century (1988), in
illuminating several issues critical to Middle East history. In
effect, Watenpaugh's fascinating book can be viewed as a kind of
introduction to the trajectory of Middle East during the past century,
oscillating between extremes, from Western liberalism to extreme
nationalism to Islamic radicalism, as well as alternating between
conservative and progressive impulses. Watenpaugh examines these
matters in a specifically Syrian context, but it has value beyond the
parochial. It also relates the story of the rise and fall of a middle
class whose presence could have heralded the emergence of civil

In sum, Being Modern in the Middle East is an important, interesting,
and instructive contribution to the history of ideas, while also being
social and cultural history at its best. It is the laudable result of
years of research. Overall, it reflects the author's empathy with his
subject, a quality that definitely contributes to the depth of his
insights and conclusions.


1 Gertrude Lowthian Bell, The Desert and the Sown (London:
W. Heinemann, 1907), 267.

2 Patrick Seale, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East
(London: I. B. Tauris, 1988), 450.

Eyal Zisser is the Director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle
Eastern and African Studies and the Head of the Department of Middle
Eastern and African History, both at Tel Aviv University. This review
was first published on H-Levant (January 2008).