Research Project: “Women on the Streets!” A genealogy of food riots in the Middle East, 1734–1943

Ever since the beginning of the ill-labelled Arab Spring, crowds, collective action and popular contentions have become the core of scholarly scrutiny as well as political and public discourses. Yet, the genealogy of popular participation and urban popular contentions in the Middle East remains obscure on an empirical as well as an analytical level. This research project by OIB research associate Till Grallert aims to close this gap by establishing the genealogy of a specific contentious repertoire, the urban food riot between the 18th and 20th centuries in the Eastern Mediterranean. It provides empirical traces of the commonly invisible commoners, the Everyman and—even more importantly—the Everywoman of Middle Eastern urban societies during the emergence of the paradigm of modernity. The very focus on food riots provides a unique glimpse into this otherwise invisible poor majority of society, who did not leave material traces of their own, but surface only when they contested the hegemony of the ruling (and record-keeping) strata.

Almost 30 years ago, Edmund Burke III made three claims in his attempt to apply C. Tilly’s “repertoire of contention” to historical Middle Eastern societies: invariably contentions started at the chief mosque of a city, the crowds attacked food stores and food riots disappeared with the 19th century. Retaining Tilly’s analytical framework, this project proves all three claims wrong by systematically analysing food riots in Bilād al-Shām between 1734 and 1943, with a particular focus on female agency and women’s participation in genuinely political struggles in public places. Based on the empirical observation of no direct causal relation between food prices and food riots and only rare cases of looting, Till Grallert argues that food riots were neither particularly riotous nor predominantly concerned with food. Instead, the demand for bread had a largely symbolic value and that food riots shared claims and forms to the extent that allows us speak of a shared and, for the period under study, stable “repertoire of contention” or “a limited set of routines that are learned, shared, and acted out through a relatively deliberate process of choice” (C. Tilly). Protesters could resort to this repertoire in negotiations over political legitimacy within the existing political order as based in the provision of just rule and safety of life.

The project scrutinises two main questions:

  • What is the function of food riots – immediate remedy for hunger, lower and stable bread prices in the long term, political change?
  • What are the implications of food riots for the study of Middle Eastern societies in terms of gender relations, the assumed Islamicate nature of protest, the role of notables and the assumed public-private divide?

The project is divided into two phases by period of study and methodology. The first phase focuses on food riots during the last two decades of Ottoman rule and, in particular, World War I. Research is mainly based on primary sources, such as the regional news press, consular files, the Ottoman archives and first-person accounts. Developing and applying markup for the machine-guided analysis of food prices, Till Grallert was able to confirm the hypothesis of no direct causal links between food prices and food riots: while riots occurred only in times of severely elevated prices, high prices not necessarily resulted in a riot having taken place. Secondly, food riots seemingly had no discernible short-term effect on food prices. Scrutinising 14 food riots in Aleppo, Beirut, Hama, Homs and Damascus, Till Grallert established the re-occurring elements of a first tentative repertoire. These initial results were formulated in a paper that will be published in a volume on the ‘dangerous classes’ in the Middle East and North Africa edited by Stephanie Cronin.

The second phase of the research project will then aim to establish a genealogy of food riots over the longue durée by combining the findings from the first phase with accounts of food riots between the mid-18th and the mid-20th centuries as well as outside Bilād al-Shām, notably Iran, scattered throughout secondary literature.

Till Grallert joined the OIB as research associate in August 2014. He has just returned to the institute after a parental leave of absence of 13 months. At the OIB, till is responsible for digital humanities and our fellowship programmes. Together with Kathryn Schwartz, Till has organized a panel on “Regulating Print in the Late Ottoman Empire: A New Look into the Question of Censorship” at this year’s MESA meeting in Washington DC.

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