To whom belong the streets? Property, propriety, and appropriation: The production of public space in late Ottoman Damascus, 1875–1914

Following the title’s programmatic terminology and Henri Lefebvre’s analytical suggestions, the dissertation portrays an urban society’s production of public places and public spaces during the transition from a pre-national Ottoman ancien régime to the paradigm of modern mono-dimensional identities from four distinct angles: public discourse and historical semantics; the transformation of the material environment and questions of public property; social norms of propriety and official policies governing access to and movement in public places; and finally, the appropriation of public places through public rituals and contentious performances. The leading question, “to whom belong the streets?”, explores the nascent epistemic shift from a multiplicity of overlapping public spaces, in which ever-changing social groups negotiated political claims, to the dominance and, finally, hegemony of the Public, which would limit the sphere of legitimate participation to the male bourgeois compatriot.

The dissertation argues that despite the sweeping success of the reforming state in establishing the new idea of a and the Public that came to dominate public discourses, in many aspects of everyday life, the ancien régime remained the dominant frame of reference for the population of Damascus until at least the beginning of World War I. The dissertation also argues that women were an integral part of the street and the production of public places and public spaces and that female presence and behaviour in public places became the focal point for negotiations of modernity – particularly after the restoration of the constitution in 1908 and within a modernising empire that increasingly sought to political legitimacy as an Islamic state.

Part I scrutinises the newspapers of Beirut and Damascus, which had hitherto not been used for the social history of Damascus, as the most important source for this thesis. The first chapter analyses the small network of the literate (and mostly male) public of the news press and the mode of production under which they operated. Regarding the over-arching question of censorship, the chapter argues that instead of two distinct periods divided by the Young Turk Revolution and the restoration of the constitution in July 1908, the history of the press reveals an ever increasing capability and willingness of the state and its agents to control and direct the quotidian affairs of its subjects.

The second chapter on historical semantics argues that even though newspapers created the soil for forging the identity of emerging middle classes, for ideas of simultaneity and equality of lived spaces, and thus for the paradigm of modernity, the everyday-language of news reports, as opposed to more programmatic genres, adhered to the social space of the Ottoman ancien régime with a three-tiered model of society: bureaucracy, elites, and the populace. Various terms to denote the latter group became more common after 1908, but even then the majority of news reports on public rituals or depicting social hierarchies did not mention them at all and they retained their largely pejorative meaning until the end of the period under study. The chapter further traces the history of ʿumūm and ʿumūmī as denoting all things “public” to the re-Arabisation of Ottoman terms, which in turn were influenced by French legal parlance. Finally the chapter argues that even though notions of “public” were commonly framed as ʿumūm and ʿumūmī, these terms cannot be readily translated as “public” in most context.

Part II turns from the discursive space of the newspapers to the material space of the streets of Damascus. The third chapter focusses on Ottoman legal norms and concepts of property. It establishes that the Ottoman Empire did not know communal property. Various laws established municipal authority (belediye / baladiyya) over the streets and spaces between private properties “left” (arāżī-yi metrūke) to “all people” (ʿumūm-i ehālī / ʿumūm al-ahālī) and later “the public” (ʿumūm / al-ʿumūm), without the concept of these spaces being public property in the sense of belonging to the sovereign, i.e. the Sultan. Ever more detailed regulations conceived of streets as spaces of modernity: broad and straight avenues of state influence over the quotidian lives of its subjects. Their widths were standardised, as were the dimensions of framing façades and the design of the roads themselves. They were to be uniformly paved and lined with equally paved side walks, trees, and street lamps. Various laws granted these publicly administered places preeminence over neighbouring private real-estate, which was to be expropriated at the discretion of the municipal and provincial administrations for “public works” and “the common good” (which were both framed by the same Ottoman concept of menāfiʿ-i ʿumūmiye).

Chapter four traces the administrative history of the municipality (baladiyya) of Damascus. It shows how the implementation of the official vision for the streets of Damascus was seriously hampered by the municipality’s position vis-à-vis more powerful administrative strata at the intersection of local, regional, and imperial civil and military bureaucracies as an administrative unit staffed with notables hardly able to satisfy the contradictory demands levelled upon them. The electorate and candidacy, or the public of formal politics, were limited to a small body of a few thousand propertied men in a city that grew from around 150.000 to 250.000 inhabitants between the late 1870s and the 1910s. The baladiyya(s) of Damascus were constantly reorganised, subject to decisions by provincial authorities initiating prestigious building projects, and unable to secure constant and sufficient funding, as the same provincial authorities extracted and designated municipal funds to what ever fiscal need seemed more pressing.

Chapter five turns to the actual road works. One can assume Haussmannian considerations of surveillance and control on behalf of the authorities, which also sought to prohibit all private encroachment upon the roads by banning merchants’ stalls and busy grocery markets from the streets of the city. Major road works sought to connect the city’s outlying quarters to the administrative and military centres. Had these broad and well-paved streets been completed simultaneously and in time, state-agents could have quickly reached areas of contention. But this chapter shows that most road works took years to complete and, for a large part and beyond the immediate administrative centre of the city, they did not adhere to the “new style” conceived by the building laws. The chapter further argues that the locus of streets at the core of everyday-life made any neglect of real or perceived municipal duties of road works, street cleaning, and street lighting, and every failure of the municipality to deliver on its promises immediately tangible to the townspeople, which caused a constant stream of criticism to be published in the periodical press, including the official provincial gazette Sūriye. Nevertheless municipal authority over the streets was unchallenged and by the end of the period under study most major streets had been remodelled, new thoroughfares had been cut, and the material environment of Damascus was successfully transformed into a display of Ottoman bureaucratic modernity.

The sixth chapter scrutinises one of the major challenges to municipal authority, which severely transformed the face of the streets and caused a functional stratification of traffic. The foreign electric lighting and tramway company appropriated the streets and façades of Damascus for generating private profits and proved hugely popular. But the company’s neglect for local welfare and the common good, which became manifest in its refusal to repave the streets it had laid its tracks on and the repeated attempt to blackmail the city and the municipality into paying excessive fees for the street lights, whose majority was distributed along the tramway tracks, through power cuts, sparked contentious negotiations of the question “to whom belong the streets?” that culminated in the popular boycott of tramway services in 1913.

Part III and chapter seven turn from the built environment to the norms that governed the street and show how norms of propriety were constantly negotiated. Damascenes of both genders walked the streets at day and night for work and pleasure and beyond social norms, their activities were for a large part checked only by the affluence of those willing to attend and the state of roads and street lighting that often hampered nightly movement through the city. Neither gates nor watchmen played any significant role in the urban street regime of the late nineteenth century. The chapter also shows an empire that increasingly sought legitimacy as a Muslim state – a quality that was, inter alia, formalised in the 1876 constitution. As such, enforcement of Islamic norms of propriety, foremost among them the bans of alcohol and extra-marital sexuality, became an ever more important symbolic policy. Damascus saw constant attempts to ban women and alcohol from public places during the month of Ramadan and after 1908, the proper place of women became the focal point for negotiating the meaning of liberty and equality, which culminated in the “Prostitutes affair” of 1911.

The resilience of social practices and the importance of the concrete and lived space form the core of the final fourth part of this dissertation. Inspired by James Gelvin’s argument that Fayṣal’s government ultimately failed in 1920 because the model for society provided by its public rituals did not anymore match the model of society as perceived by the Damascenes themselves, chapters eight to ten analyse the last forty years of Ottoman public rituals, popular traditions, and contentious performances in the city. They argue that despite all possible assumptions to the contrary, the ancien régime’s three-tiered model of and for society prevailed. Adhering to relational concepts of social space in which one’s place was ultimately defined in relation to the centre, this model of and for society was mirrored by the performative displays of social space.

Chapter eight focusses on expensive and lavish public rituals, which gathered huge crowds and divided the city into actors and audiences. But–I argue–the very audience lining the street was the most important participant. Without the people actually watching, the rituals would not have been staged. Gaining their symbolic power from the emphasis of the status quo, public rituals provided the rhythms of public life, following the Muslim ritual calendar, the state’s fiscal calendar, and events of regional and local importance. Large re-presentations of the imperial society were staged throughout the city and further Ottomanised the recently remodelled streets by displays of uniforms, coat of arms, and marching bands. Large written signs and the crowds on as well as along the streets hailed the Sultan and later the constitution, while salutes and fireworks publicised the event to the whole city and its surroundings. Connecting the far ends of the city to the administrative centre around Marja Square by means of processions of officials to the outlying quarters and representatives of the various communities to the seat of the authorities, the city was united and made into an Ottoman city. The restoration of the constitution in 1908 changed only little. Emphasis on the Sultan’s persona was replaced with Ottomanism, the constitution, and liberty, but the division between actors and audiences remained in place.

The short ninth chapter scrutinises what little we can discern about popular celebrations and festive gatherings and shows two of these repertoires, ʿarāḍas and ziyāras, which were incorporated in, but not completely appropriated by state-sponsored public rituals.

Finally, chapter ten argues that the established symbolic repertoire was so ingrained in the urban society, that it was not limited to being a powerful tool in the hands of the ruling classes. Case studies on female riots and demonstrations, of mutinies and subordinations, and of oppositional placards, show how tactical choices of collective action appropriated the very same repertoire and public places. Throughout the period under study, poor Muslim women repeatedly marched to Marja Square to negotiate inherently political claims and did so when the danger of retaliation was low and the expected embarrassment to the authorities was high: Demonstrations were staged in times of political volatility and during the run-up to symbolically fraught public rituals. Similar disdain for the Orientalist’s perception of contentious repertoires as being primarily imbued with Islamic symbols and originating at the central Friday Mosque emanates from the contentious performances of insubordinate soldiers, who chose to stage their protest in demand of arrears in pay near the seat of the authorities and at the locus of modern technology, from the railway heads to the telegraph offices. In addition to similar considerations as to generate the largest possible embarrassment, this, I argue, was mainly due to the men being foreigners to the city and, in the case of insubordinate officers, they were probably not particularly well versed in local vernaculars but experts in official parlance. As officers from across the empire’s dominions, they played a larger audience and addressed their grievances to the imperial centre.

Despite their contentious claims, none of the protests challenged Ottoman authority as such. Rather they sought reform of a seemingly corrupt system and redress for the wrongs done to them. By addressing the existing authorities and the Sultan with a call for justice, not revolution, the protest re-affirmed the political system, as well as ancien régime’s model of and for society staged in public rituals.

Returning to the initial question of “to whom belong the streets?” the cases depicted in this thesis illustrate the claim that no definite answer can be given; that the urban process cannot be addressed with a one-dimensional and static picture. All townspeople, protesting women, mutinying soldiers, authors and posters of the placards, construction workers, passers-by, the idle, local elites, and the authorities, produced the public places and various public spaces of the urban society through their quotidian practices as well as through the exceptional performances of affirmation and protest. Some aimed consciously and intentionally at the public sphere, others fought over public places, the third just used certain places for achieving their immediate political aims. Together they produced, appropriated, and re-presented the “street” of Damascus. It is to them—the Damascenes of all times—the street belongs to.