Michael Provence, The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2017). Michael Provence, a scholar of Middle East History at the University of California, San Diego, explains how the "modern Middle East emerged out of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, when Brittain and France partitioned the Ottoman Arab lands into several new colonial states. The following period was a charged and transformative time of unrest. Insurgent leaders, trained in Ottoman military tactics and with everything to lose from the fall of the empire, challenged the mandatory powers in a number of armed revolts" (prefatory abstract). Provence attempts to humanize a generation of Ottoman political and military leaders by providing details about their upbringing, family life, and education and argues that Ottoman rule, though authoritarian and militaristic, provided a more fulfilling and happy life for its subjects than life under the repressive colonial mandates of Brittain and France, which, in their oil-fueled venality and ethnocentrism, partitioned the Middle East and laid the foundation for interminable racial, ethnic, and national strife. As Provence suggests, "the book makes three central arguments: First, the common legacy of the late Ottoman modernization project is second only to the colonial legacy in shaping the history of its peoples. Second, the colonial legacy on the Middle East is a common experience, whether in Palestine, Iraq, Syria, or Turkey, without which the history of the region is incomprehensible. And finally, the durable tendency to view the history of the region through the lens of national histories of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, etc. obscures commonalities that were clear to all until at least the 1940s" (6).
The Last Ottoman Generation is successful in undercutting misconceptions of Ottoman rule--the Ottoman Empire as the inept "sick man of Europe"--by detailing the social benefits and institution/infrastructure building of the early-twentieth-century modernization project and the emergence and survival of the modern Turkish Republic. Similarly, the book dispels the stereotype of “the terrible Turk” by humanizing military and civilian Ottoman leaders, their families, and their supporters. Particularly impressive and valuable is Provence's extensive use of political petitions during the late Ottoman period (petitions were an age-old form of political expression and engagement in the region), many of which were ignored by international authorities, the imperial powers and the League of Nations. Through a nuanced reading of selected petitions, Provence amplifies the silenced voices of pan-Arabism and the persistent indigenous resistance to European imperialism, the long history of asymmetrical treaties and colonial settlement patterns (particularly these of European Jews in Palestine), and the exploitative nature of imperial mandates, partitions, and imposed sectarian governance, all against the shifting backdrop of the interwar period. Provence frequently alludes to this legacy in reference to the present condition of Middle-eastern politics and strife. This history is especially useful for understanding the Arab-Israeli conflict and the political contexts of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, and Turkey. Ultimately, this is a story of European imperial greed, racism, and sustained violence again a subject people who were ruled with harshness and without consent. "In this way," Provence concludes, "each mandate power served to guarantee eventual sectarian conflict and civil war and to enshrine the need for political factions to draw on outside support to prosecute their internal political struggles. A stunted politics that eschewed compromise was built in" (271).
As other reviewers have observed, Provence has a tendency to glorify late Ottoman rule and, while acknowledging its authoritarianism, ignores its considerable--I would argue, world historic--excesses. Provence's nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire seems to drive his historical argument, which is essentially ideological in nature, to the point of being polemical. One example, which also serves as the book's climax, should suffice. The scene is the death and funeral of Yasin al-Hashimi, former Ottoman military officer and Iraqi politician who served twice as the prime minister and the first Iraqi prime minister to be deposed by a coup (an unfortunate precedent, to be sure). Exiled in Lebanon, al-Hashimi died of heart failure in 1937 at the age of 53. His funeral procession
traveled slowly over the course of the morning hours along the Damascus road past mountain villages, across the floor of the fertile Biqa valley, and up the eastern mountains. In Maysalun, it made a ceremonial stop at the tomb of Yasin's martyred comrade Yusuf al Azma, cementing the link between the two military heroes of the Great war and Faysal's Damascus government. The convey dropped into the Baranda river valley and followed the road and river to Damascus. Upon the foothills of the city, the valley opened up, and the procession skirted the river to the city's outskirts, near today's mosque complex of Ottoman Sultan Suleyman, and more recent government and administrative buildings, including the elite Tajhiz preparatory school, the Ottoman Teacher's College, and Damascus University law school . . . . Yasin's return to Damascus symbolized a return to the birthplace of the Arab nation two decades earlier. The traces of the Great War and Ottoman modernity, and the formative struggle against the colonial domination the war's victor's imposed was obvious. (253)
In the end, Provence's nostalgia for the Ottoman modernization yields insight but also shocking blindness, the most significant being the nearly complete avoidance of the massacre and genocide of Ottoman Christians by the very generation Provence describes in such loving detail. The massacre of 1.5 million Armenians in 1914-15, for instance, would seem to be a significant part of the story, and yet Provence excludes it from all of his otherwise authoritative timelines that precede each chapter and provide structure and clarity to the book. In the book's index, "Armenians: genocide, recruitment in mandatory forces, atrocities against" is tagged for pages 81 & 119. On page 81, there is merely a passing mention of Armenia embedded in a blockquote and another similar mention on page 119, this time with a mention of the British Armenian Committee protesting that Brittain and France were abandoning their cause (c. 1920). At other points in the book (not indexed), Provence mentions, in passing, Armenians' desire for a homeland in Cilicia or Armenians’ collaboration with the French military against Arab insurgents. On page 209, the author, in reference to Assyrian Christians, notes that the Armenians "had been death-marched south from Anatolia during the war." One could argue that The Last Ottoman Generation is not a book about the Armenian Genocide and, therefore, Provence was not obligated to dwell on it. On the other hand, that would be akin to accepting an analysis of modern German and European history with only scant reference to the Holocaust. Avoiding the topic entirely requires some explanation or rationale, in this reader’s opinion. As thoughtful and illuminating as this book is, its deafening silences raise troubling questions about the ethics of historiography, the pitfalls of presentism, and the recovery and erasure of cultural memory.