Nazi Tattoo Debate in Walla Walla

I thought the added “k” in “Skout Sniper” on the WWPD’s Twitter account was an appropriate touch to the Nazi Tattoo debate this summer.

Hyperallergic published an article on June 29 about local Walla Walla Police Officer Nat Small who sports an SS tattoo on his arm, a symbol of his scout sniper unit in the Marine Corps. To his credit, the officer decided after much public outcry, and after an alt-right rally in support of him that took place at the Police Department, to get that portion of his tattoo removed. The rally was an overwhelming display of support for Chief Bieber by alt-right supporters, some militias were even in attendance, some of them armed. Bieber spoke spoke at the event invoking Jesus and mocking activists calling for defunding the police. The controversy was at its core a failure to recognize the the double lightening bolt had an original context within the Holocaust that could not be rhetorically erased. Even his final two-page statement, the officer failed to mention the Holocaust and that the symbol was worn by men who carried out genocide against Jews in particular. Instead, the officer maintained that the symbol meant something else to him, and, therefore, the outraged public was misinformed.

The Hyperallergic article reads: “The controversy broke on June 4, when images of Small’s tattoo emerged on social media. The tattoo features the double lightning bolt symbol associated with the Nazi SS corps (Schutzstaffel), a murderous paramilitary group that pledged an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler and was instrumental in the execution of the Holocaust. The tattoo combines a brass knuckles and the name of Small’s fellow Marines Claudio Patino IV, who died in battle in 2010 during their service together in Afghanistan. In an initial statement on Facebook, the Walla Walla Police Department (WWPD) defended Small and provided an alternative explanation to his tattoo. While it recognized that the symbol is associated with Nazi Germany, the department claimed that it was “not the intent or denotation of the tattoo on Officer Small’s arm.””

I am quoted in the article: “We need to put an end to this debate now because an SS tattoo should not be a debate, not anywhere,” Semerdjian, who also heads the Syrian Studies Association, wrote in her letter. “Officer Small says that the tattoo means something else to him personally, but no one gets that creative license with a symbol of hate responsible for the death of six million Jews and millions more. The facts and history of the tattoo matter.”

How Counterinsurgency Tactics in the Middle East Found Their Way to American Cities

After witnessing the pervasiveness of militarized politics tactics on Black and Brown populations in the United States, and out of concern for Black Lives and human rights more broadly, I was inspired to link those material and technologies to counterinsurgency practices in the Middle East in an article I recently published in Jacobin titled “How Counterinsurgency Tactics in the Middle East Found Their Way to American Cities.” Many of the repressive police tactics and technologies used in the US have been developed in the Middle East to suppress dissent. Primary examples of these policies include the War on Terror in Afghanistan and the US occupation of and counterinsurgency in Iraq. The circulation of knowledge also occurs through police exchange programs with the United States ally Israel where techniques and materials are shared in an economy arms sales and consulting. In the article, I argue that if we are serious about ending police violence at home, we must end America’s involvement in war abroad. In other words, some of the worst practices in the Middle East have come home to roost posing a threat to democracy.

I ended the essay with a reference to the late Yaron Ezrachi, an Israeli leftist political thinker that I had the pleasure of studying with as a young woman–he passed away last year. Ezrachi’s book Rubber Bullets (1998) is a mixture of political theory and his own personal biography as he grapples with the tension between the liberal idealism of Israeli democracy (especially the socialist roots of Israel) and its illiberal counterpart, the occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza. Writing after the first Intifada and before the second, he argued that Israel’s choice to use rubber bullets to suppress the Palestinians uprising in 1988 with “non-lethal” weapons that both maimed and killed protesters posed a threat to Israeli democracy. His ideas still have me thinking twenty years after he wrote them, what does the use of rubber bullets that have ripped through the bodies of protesters to suppress dissent in the United States say about the future of American democracy? Perhaps asking ourselves this question is the best way to honor Ezrachi’s memory.

I found a 1997 interview with Charlie Rose where Ezrachi discusses his ideas in Rubber Bullets in light of the Oslo Peace Accords.

Rubber Bullets and Beanbag Rounds Can Cause Devastating Injuries ...

Brad Levi Ayala, 16, was struck in the head with a “non-lethal” beanbag round during Black Lives Matter protests in Austin, Texas. Reading his story inspired me to write about the connections between counterinsurgency practices in the Middle East and use of force against American activists in the 2020 BLM protests.

Book Review: Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh’s Missing Pages

I recently published a book review of Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh’s award-winning cultural history of the Zeytun Gospels, an Armenian manuscript looted during the Armenian Genocide in 1915. I argue that the destruction of heritage was a criterion of genocide that Raphael Lemkin considered but did not finally include in the final draft of the UN Convention for the Prevention of Genocide (1948). The Missing Pages effectively resuscitates his project making the case for heritage as a human right and the destruction of art as an act of cultural genocide.

“An illuminated manuscript containing the Gospels rests in an archive in Yerevan, Armenia, while eight missing pages of canon tables––concordance lists of related biblical passages––are housed at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The Missing Pages is Heghnar Watenpaugh’s biography of a “survivor object,” the Zeytun Gospels. The dismembered manuscript is a potent metaphor for the Armenian community scattered across the earth like looted pages during a genocide campaign that began in 1915. The missing canon tables were the subject of a 2010 lawsuit initiated by the Armenian Western Prelacy against the Getty Museum in Los Angeles over ownership of stolen Armenian heritage.”

You can read the full book review on Critical Inquiry’s website here.

What really happened in Syria over the past 24 hours, explained Russia got everything it wanted, despite Trump’s strange victory lap.

I was interviewed by Jen Kirby of Vox about the chaotic political landscape of northern Syria, which includes the US vacating its presence in the region. Here is an excerpt of the story:

The deal also says Russia and Turkey will facilitate the return of refugees to the area. Part of Erdoğan’s motivation for the invasion of northern Syria had been to carve out a safe zone to relocate some 3.6 million refugees currently in Turkey.

Turkey got what it wanted: both a safe zone and the removal of the Kurds, something it couldn’t have achieved had the US not withdrawn. Meanwhile, Russia is expanding its influence in Syria and in the broader Middle East. While the US abruptly pulled out, Moscow proved that it’s willing to stay.

“The Turkish objective is to destroy the [SDF] and they are,” Elyse Semerdjian, professor of Middle Eastern History at Whitman College, told me. “And it seems as if Putin is just creating, in these moments of American indecisiveness or lack of American will to continue these forever wars, an opportunity for himself to fill the vacuum.”

The full story can be found here.

Armenians in the Production of Urban Space in Early Modern Judayda, Aleppo

This is a short excerpt from my forthcoming book chapter in Aleppo and its Hinterland in the Ottoman Period / Alep et sa province à l’époque ottomane ed. Stefan Winter (E.J. Brill, forthcoming).  This is the last publication in a series about Armenians and the Christian Quarter of Aleppo. I plan to return to this project soon yet wait to see the city again before resuming the project.

One of Judayda Quarter’s gorgeous stone alleyways

Armenian migration to Syria is often discussed in the context of the Armenian Genocide, an event in which the embryonic nation received upwards of 100,000 refugees by the mid-1920s.[1] Emphasis on twentieth century settlement has meant that we have only a vague understanding, if any, of earlier periods of Armenian emigration to Syria. Historians are left scavenging Ottoman archives for traces of an Armenian past while Armenian ecclesiastical archives in Istanbul, Aleppo, and Jerusalem containing a range of Ottoman period documents are officially closed for use by Armenian researchers.[2] Furthermore, the prioritization of modern documents, mostly those pertaining to the Armenian Genocide, are favoured for rescue to the degree that early modern Ottoman documents in the Aleppo’s Armenian prelacy archives have remained uncatalogued, uncopied, and endangered in the Syrian war. The challenges of modernist tendencies, closed and/or threatened archives, and endangered heritage in the current conflict in Syria mean that early modern Armenian history may remain in obscurity if not intentionally rescued by historians.

            This essay seeks to address the little-known history of Aleppo’s early modern Armenians using shari‘a court records—along with other Ottoman-period sources—to reconstruct Aleppo’s earliest Armenian community in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The archival documents for this research were obtained between 1999 and 2010 in the now-closed Syrian National Archives in Damascus (Markaz al-Watha’iq al-Tarikhiyya) as well as the Prime Minister’s Archives (Başbakanlık Arşivi) in Istanbul. While Armenians surely lived in Aleppo in earlier periods of time, regional push and pull factors drove Armenians in larger numbers to Aleppo in the sixteenth century where they settled in the city’s flourishing northwest suburb of Judayda (“Little New Quarter”), a quarter hosting a significant Christian population since the fifteenth century. Armenian settlement dovetailed with the expansion of the general population in the quarter, and the mushrooming of the city’s Christian population that constituted approximately 20% of Aleppo’s total population by the eighteenth century.[3] In the period under study, key infrastructure such as churches and religious endowments were developed and expanded by Armenian and other Christian immigrants with Ottoman acquiescence. Persian (‘ajami) Armenians from Julfa played a key role in the urban development of Judayda as intermediaries between Judayda’s non-Muslim population (including European merchants) and the Ottoman authorities.

            The interaction between these forces—Christian, Armenian, and Muslim—in Aleppo poses an opportunity to revisit decaying paradigms that once portrayed the Islamic city as stagnant and monolithic. Many of the foundational studies of the urban history of Aleppo followed this model, including that of French archaeologist and art historian Jean Sauvaget whose seminal work continues to be a valuable resource to historians despite its overt Weberian influences.[4] The Islamic city paradigm was driven by a paucity of archival evidence and was fueled by the Marxist theory of oriental despotism which overdetermined the literature on non-Western cities. Recent studies of Ottoman quarters (mahalle) show the dynamic interactions of local communities with the state, and a level of civic autonomy exercised in city quarters; these findings have turned Weber on his head.[5]  It is within this development in the scholarly literature on the Ottoman mahalle that I pose several questions about the Armenian role in the urban development of Aleppo. What can the history of Armenian emigration to Aleppo tell us about the larger urban history of the city? What can Armenians tell us about the early modern Ottoman Empire and its relationship to religious minorities? What are the implications of this study for other regions that also encountered the influx of merchant minorities who altered both the urban and transimperial social and economic relations within which they lived and worked?[6]

            The sixteenth century was a crucial period for the resignification of space in Christian Judayda.[7] Conquered by Sultan Selim I in 1516, the Ottomans continued to suppress residual Mamluk overlords and stabilize the city as it was administratively integrated into the empire as Aleppo eyalet (province). Ottoman integration prompted the economic growth of the city as well as a population explosion estimated at 40% growth in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[8]  How was Christian space reformulated and allocated during the first century of Ottoman conquest? Who were the actors involved in the production of Christian space and what role did recent Armenians emigrants play in this process? I answer these questions using Henri Lefebvre’s triad as a theoretical frame through which to study the development of Judayda.  I argue that Christian space was produced through a complex interplay of several forces—the Sublime Porte, Ottoman provincial administrators, Armenian emigrants, and foreign merchants—all of whom supported the tangible gains that would be made through its construction.[9] Considering the triadic relationship between three forces—the physical, the mental, and the social production of space—I argue that urban development was prompted by a confluence for forces rather than unilateral imperial design. Ottomans sought to encourage the influx of capital and economic stimulation; refugees looked for a safe place to work and build new lives.[10] This essay is a preliminary attempt to document the role of new Armenian migrants in the production of Christian space in sixteenth and seventeenth century Aleppo.  The settlement of Armenian and other immigrants, along with the support of Muslim benefactors who invested in the quarter, worked in produced a cosmopolitanism suggested in Judayda’s urban design.

[1] This figure is provided by Nicola Migliorino in (Re)Constructing Armenian in Lebanon and Syria: Ethno-Cultural Diversity and the State in the Aftermath of a Refugee Crisis (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008) 32. Raymond Kevorkian notes that the population of Armenian deportees in Aleppo had reached 40,000 by the end of 1915. See R. Kevorkian, “Aux origins des communautés arméniennes du Proche-Orient: les rescapés du genocide,” in Les Arméniens: La quête d’un refuge, 1917-1939, eds. Raymond Kevorkian, Levon Nordiguian, and Vahe Tachjian (Beirut: Presses de l’Université Saint-Joseph, 2006), 26.

[2] Beginning in August 2012, the “Battle of Aleppo” placed the prelacy archives at risk. After a rocket hit the Armenian prelacy in October 2012 only 6 metres from the archive room where uncopied materials were stored, I contacted the archbishop and researchers who had used the archives and was assured that the documents were safe.  While I had access to this material before the war, I was not given permission to copy. On 26 April 2015, the Armenian compound came under attack, but the neighbourhood had already been emptied as residents moved to safer areas. 

[3] André Raymond, “Les chrétiens d’Alep dans la fabrication et le commerce des tissus aux xviie et xviiie siècles,” Les textiles en Méditerranée (XVe-XIXe siècle), Rives méditerranéennes 29 (2008), 1.

[4] Jean Sauvaget, Alep: Essai sur le développement d’une grande ville syrienne des origines au milieu du XIXe siècle (Paris: Geuthner, 1941).

[5] An excellent summary of the major shifts in the field of Ottoman urban history was published fifteen years ago in “Was there an Ottoman City?,” in The Ottoman City Between East and West: Aleppo, Izmir, and Istanbul, eds. Edhem Eldem, Daniel Goffman, and Bruce Masters (Cambridge University Press, 1999) 1-15.

[6] The recent work of Sarah Stein has shown that studying something as small as an ostrich feather can reveal information about transnational/transimperial Jewish merchant communities offering insights into merchant minorities and the global economy. See Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and the Lost World of Global Commerce (New Haven, N.J.: Yale University Press, 2010).

[7] This is a useful term borrowed from Lefebvre who describes space as coded in such a way that it “can be read.” The coding of space suggests what Lefebvre calls a “process of signification.” See Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1991), 17.

[8] Raymond, “Population of Aleppo in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries According to the Ottoman Census Documents,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 16 (1984), 458.

[9] Lefebvre’s work is  focused on the modern period yet clearly invokes pre-modern urban space when he suggests  “every society—and hence every mode of production with its subvariants—i.e. all those societies with exemplify the general concept—produces a space, its own space.” Lefebvre, Production, 31.

[10] Ibid., 17.

New Publication: Bone Memory

I am pleased to announce the publication of my new article titled “Bone Memory:  The Necrogeography of the Armenian Genocide in Dayr al-Zur, Syria” with the Journal of Human Remains and Violence this past summer.  It is part of a new book I am writing titled Remnants: Gender, Islamized Armenians, and the Collective Memory of the Armenian Genocide.  The article explores how Armenians have collected, displayed, and exchanged the bones of their murdered ancestors in formal and informal ceremonies of remembrance in Dayr al-Zur, Syria.  I argue that these bone rituals, displays, and vernacular memorials are enacted in spaces of memory that lie outside of official state memorials, making unmarked sites of atrocity more legible.  I read some essays written shortly after the genocide and interviewed Armenians who traveled there before war erupted in Syria in 2011.   I was able to publish this amazing 1938 photograph of Haroutyun Hovakimyan, holding a skull in his hand, in my essay with permission from the Armenian Genocide Museum Institute.  He led this expedition to unearth Armenian remains in Dayr al-Zur and my research has shown that those same bones were used in the memorial at Dayr al-Zur once it was constructed in 1990.  You can access the full article on my site here.



Report about Judayda, Aleppo on BBC

I have been working with the BBC series “Museum of Lost Objects.”  This week, a new episode, “Return to Aleppo,” aired featuring the story of Zahed Tajedden, whose home in Judayda Quarter was converted into an impromtu hospital during the war.  I shared some of my reflections on the history of Judayda, the Christian quarter of Aleppo, which I researched in the Syrian National Archives before they were closed in 2012.  Thank you Maryam Maruf and Kanish Tharoor including me in this amazing bit of journalism!  Listen to the report here on BBC Radio 4.