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World War I in the Arab World and the Middle East: Inverting the Interpretive Gaze

Leader: Dr Oliver Bast, University of Manchester

While the coming years will see a veritable flurry of centennial commemorations associated with World War I, the state of our knowledge about this conflict remains, in actual fact, fairly limited. It is true that the study of this momentous event has experienced something of a renaissance over the last ten or so years but academics have rarely moved beyond topics such as the relationship between the governments of the main belligerents, the politics of representation and collective memory of the war, and the lives of both the soldiers in the trenches and the people on the various home fronts.

Furthermore, the main spatial units of analysis in past literature have been national, regional, and imperial, with an extensive focus on the war in Europe. This dominant viewpoint relegates the war in the Arab World and in the Middle East as a whole to a mere ‘sideshow’. However, Middle Eastern
concerns were arguably one of the main reasons why the conflict became a World War (in so far as they can be said to have informed Britain’s decision not to remain splendidly isolated from the conflict unfolding on the continent in the summer of 1914) and there is no doubt that World War I is
the seminal event for the emergence of the Middle East as we know it. This applies especially to the taking shape of the contemporary Arab World, which is, for better or worth, anything, but a ‘sideshow’ in today’s global affairs. Hence the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World
(CASAW) would make the ideal home for an international academic network that aims at redressing the above-mentioned imbalance by inverting the interpretative gaze through innovative scholarly approaches to the study of World War I in the Arab World and the Middle East.

Such a turn of the gaze is all the more timely since even many of those who have been actually trying to make the alleged sideshow the centre-stage of their research have tended to conceive of the Middle East as a battlefield of foreign powers, to study European imperial rivalries regarding the region and their impact on it, or, at best perhaps, to focus on Arab and Middle Eastern resistance against colonial
encroachment by the West.

Without wishing to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, and therefore perfectly valuing and indeed building on this existing body of work on World War I in the Middle East, the proposed network aims at widening the scholarly perspective considerably by focusing on hitherto neglected thematic concerns as well as by opening up to recent (or even not any more so recent but rarely applied by historians of WWI in the M/E) methodological and theoretical developments and innovations.

© University of Edinburgh