Khayri Rida's Journey: Finding the Syrian State in the French Mandate Period

Historiography of the Middle East

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Lecture with Benjamin Thomas White (University of Glasgow)

One April morning in 1934, a mid-ranking bureaucrat named Khayri Rida set out on an inspection tour of his district on the newly-drawn border between French mandate Syria and the Turkish Republic. Over the next few days he encountered border-crossing bandits, some extremely shoddy filing practices, and circumstantial evidence of serious embezzlement. This talk follows him on his journey, using a single archival document—Rida’s seven-page report to the governor of Aleppo, which I had copied at the Syrian national archives over a decade ago—to try and do two big things. First, to sketch out the history of the modern Syrian state in the period of its establishment, as seen not from the commanding heights of government but from the ground, where modern state practices of bureaucratization and territorialization met local populations and landscapes, with figures like Rida and his village-level subordinates managing and perhaps profiting from the encounter. This is a great blind spot in the historiography of modern Syria, which tends to (mis)take the French high commission for the state. And second, to address the methodological challenge of how to map out the functioning of a twentieth-century state bureaucracy from a documentary record that even before the current civil war (and consequent destruction/inaccessibility of archives) was fragmentary and haphazard.

Benjamin Thomas White is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. A Middle East historian by background, he now teaches and researches refugee history in the world at large. His current research focuses on the history of the refugee camp, and other recent publications include work on the history of humanitarian evacuations and the relationship between humans and animals in displacement. (Today’s talk doesn’t feature refugees, though: it returns to French mandate Syria, the subject of his earlier research). He blogs, occasionally, at

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Published: Tuesday, October 27, 2020