Bedouin Bureaucrats
Mobility and Property in the Ottoman Empire
Nora Elizabeth Barakat


Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

How did Bedouin communities maintain control over land in the interior regions of the Eastern Mediterranean when the Ottoman regime aimed to settle them in villages and reallocate their land to refugees and capitalists after the 1870s? The introduction presents a shift in Ottoman modes of governance from layered to theoretically uniform territorial sovereignty in the late nineteenth century, drawing comparisons with coterminous processes in the American West and the Central Asian steppe under Russian imperial rule. This shift precipitated the birth of the "tribe" as an administrative category designating populations to be improved in regions conceived as underdeveloped. Bedouin in the Syrian interior were involved in state expansion as low-level bureaucrats, and provincial officials constructed them as potential loyal subjects/ citizens. Through performing quotidian functions like land registration and taxation and actively resisting refugee resettlement, they brought local struggles into the transformed bureaucracy and maintained control over land.

Chapter One: Beyond the Tribal Frontier
chapter abstract

Chapter 1 explores the relationship between the Bani Sakhr Bedouin community and the Ottoman pilgrimage administration in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Using registers of pilgrimage-related subsidies, it shows that the Bani Sakhr became more involved with the Damascus-Mecca pilgrimage administration in the eighteenth century as they moved north from the Hijaz region to Syria along with other camel-herding communities like the Anaza. Challenging existing descriptions of the interior region of Syria and Hijaz as a "tribal frontier," chapter 1 introduces a model of layered sovereignty for understanding governance in spaces outside continually cultivated landscapes in the early modern Ottoman context. Layered sovereignty relied on alliances with Bedouin elites who claimed control over human mobility and resource distribution. In the late eighteenth century, owing to Saudi expansionism and interimperial competition, the Ottoman regime began to shift toward a more intensive mode of territorial governance outside cultivated regions.

Chapter Two: Commercial Capital in the Syrian Interior
chapter abstract

In the eighteenth century, the Adwan Bedouin community gained political influence and wealth among cultivating communities in the Jordan Valley and the Balqa region of the Syrian interior (contemporary Jordan). In the mid-nineteenth century, Adwani elites managed and traded grains in the context of a global wheat boom. Their growing wealth prompted camel-herding communities like the Bani Sakhr to increase their involvement in agriculture. New opportunities in the Syrian interior, in cities like Nablus and Damascus, also attracted the attention of merchant capitalists, who began founding plantation farms in the interior by making land deals with Adwan and Bani Sakhr elites. In contrast, reformist Ottoman officials constructed Bedouin as unproductive and disregarded their control over land. The provincial regime challenged Adwani sovereignty, creating an imperial district in the Balqa with military force in the 1870s that constituted a new attempt to exercise territorial sovereignty in the Syrian interior.

Chapter Three: Producing Tribes and Property
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Chapter 3 examines the coalescence of a group of "Bedouin bureaucrats" in the Syrian interior when the Ottoman regime attempted to build a district in accordance with codified law. The court and land registers that process created reveal a shift from a pilgrimage-based administration to intrusive governance of land conceived as property. This shift precipitated a renegotiation of existing relationships with Bedouin communities like the Bani Sakhr and the Adwan and new relationships with communities like the Abbad. Ottoman officials expressed a desire to transform tent-dwelling "tribes" into villages but incorporated them into standardized administration as a residual category marked for improvement. In the 1880s, Bedouin men became involved with the day-to-day processes of making state space in the interior through the category "tribe," especially as headmen with powers to legally sanction community property holdings, allocate tax burdens, and participate in adjudication.

Chapter Four: Bureaucracy in Crisis
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Chapter 4 reveals the contradictions and crises that defined standardized bureaucracy from its inception. Bedouin resisted Ottoman land policies that defined the interior landscape as "empty" and aimed to reallocate interior lands to refugees and capitalists in the 1890s and 1900s. The social and political influence Bedouin bureaucrats had built through their involvement in land and tax administrations helped them navigate violent conflicts over land and the subsequent imprisonment of Bedouin men, complicating the imperial regime's efforts to create a state effect through standardized administration. Chapter 4 also details the creation of a new Ottoman category of "state domain" as land under exclusive state ownership in a competitive environment of individuated holdings. In this environment, Bedouin continued to trade in state domain land using historical forms of written contract, creating a noncompliant and unofficial market that persisted into the twenty-first century.

Chapter Five: Taxation, Property, and Citizenship
chapter abstract

Chapter 5 shifts from the dramatic violence of land conflicts to the quotidian struggles of tax administration. In the early twentieth century, disputes over resource distribution within Bedouin communities became articulated in reference to the administrative category "tribe." Late Ottoman tax and administrative law limited participation in new forms of provincial politics to property-owning, taxpaying "men of property." In terms of their wealth and proximity to Ottoman governing institutions, Bedouin bureaucrats became men of property, but nonelite tent dwellers could only aspire to their status. Nonelite tent dwellers contested the prerogative of headmen to represent and administer their communities, especially with regard to the distribution of tax burdens assessed collectively in accordance with the "tribe." These everyday court- and council-based struggles set the parameters for the divide between Ottoman subjecthood and citizenship in the empire's final years.

chapter abstract

Ottoman inclusion of Bedouin in the contradictory process of making state space, even as Armenians and others were violently excluded, enabled them to preserve influence in the interior. Considering the dispossession and disenfranchisement of Native Americans and Kazakhs in the American West and Central Asian steppe, this outcome was unique in comparison with other regions deemed marginal in the late nineteenth century. Unlike their Ottoman predecessors, the post-War European Mandate regimes juridically isolated the interior landscape, creating a separate legal regime for those defined as "nomadic Bedouin," a disenfranchisement rural communities resisted with coordinated rebellions. In the postcolonial period, Bedouin communities continued to assert legal claims over interior land in the "public domain" in the face of refugee resettlement and capitalist development. The lasting viability of the administrative category "tribe" and an unofficial market in public domain land are legacies of the contested expansion of the Ottoman bureaucracy.