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The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle EastThe Politics of Community in French Mandate Syria$

Benjamin Thomas White

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780748641871

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748641871.001.0001

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Introduction

Introduction

Chapter:
(p.1) Introduction
Source:
The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle East
Author(s):

Benjamin Thomas White

Publisher:
Edinburgh University Press
DOI:10.3366/edinburgh/9780748641871.003.0001

Abstract and Keywords

This book aims to refine the understanding of the politics in community in Syria under the mandate. It explains why and when certain groups within Syria, which is a nation-state in formation, came to be described, by insiders and outsiders as ‘minorities’ and what that meant. By the same token, the book also traces the emergence of the concept of ‘majority’ in the country. Using French-mandate Syria as a case study, it aims to trace the emergence of these categories and understand the historical context that made them meaningful. The book is divided into three parts: Part I (Chapters 1 and 2) provides a general argument on French-mandate Syria; Part II (Chapters 3 and 4) and Part III (Chapters 5 and 6) offer specific case studies that illustrate the arguments presented in Chapters 1 and 2.

Keywords:   Syria, nation-state, minorities, majority, French mandate

Let me start with what this book is not. When I began my research, I planned to study minorities in French mandate Syria. Everyone who had written about the mandate seemed to agree that the French in Syria used the minorities – in some eyes even created them – in order to offset the opposition of the nationalist majority.1 Studying these communities would therefore allow me to understand better the confrontation between two ideologies that have shaped our time: imperialism and nationalism.

My original plan was to consider several specific minorities, defined along religious or linguistic lines (or both), to see how these different variables affected their relationships with the majority, the nationalists and the imperial power. This would provide insight into the aggressively divisive policies put in place by the French in Syria, and the imperialist conception of the colonised society as hopelessly divided that underpinned those policies. At the same time, it would illuminate the means whereby Syrian Arab nationalism constructed the Syrian Arab nation. While I was sceptical of the imperialist claim that religious or linguistic cleavages in Syrian society were primordial, permanent, and insurmountable, and that religious or linguistic identity determined political identity, I was also aware that such cleavages are not negligible, especially to the development of nationalism. A numerical majority of the inhabitants of the new state were Sunni Muslims, but that majority was divided by language; a numerical majority were Arabic-speakers, but that majority was divided by religion. Sunni Muslim Arabic-speakers – sharing both language and religion – were a numerical majority, but a much smaller one: nationalism would need to appeal beyond this group to achieve a solid base in Syrian society. Since French imperialism imposed divisions on that society precisely to hinder the appeal of nationalism outside this group, examining Syrian Arab nationalist responses to those divisions – whether seeking to reassure minorities of their place within (p.2) the nation, on the one hand, or threatening them, even denying their existence, on the other – would help us understand how the ideology functioned. Such a study would thus find its place in the comparative history of both imperialism and nationalism.2

I still think that such a study would be a good idea. This book, however, is not quite it. It does answer some of my original questions about how different variables affected the position of different minorities relative to the French and to the nationalists; but my underlying research questions slowly shifted, because quite early on in my archival research I noticed something unusual. The secondary literature about French mandate Syria used the term ‘minority’ freely, and confidently attributed analytical force to it: certain groups behaved in such a way because they were ‘minorities’. But in the archives of the French mandate themselves, and in other contemporary texts on the mandate, it was used fairly infrequently until around 1930 – when it quickly became very widespread. This provoked two questions: when did people start thinking of themselves or others as ‘minorities’, and for that matter as ‘majorities’? And why?

I therefore put inverted commas around both terms, so to speak, and my research project changed. Using French mandate Syria as a case study, I now hoped to trace the emergence of these categories and understand the historical context that made them meaningful – which, I have come to conclude, is the context of the modern nation-state: states with a supposedly eternal ‘national’ territory over which state authority is uniformly applied, and deriving their legitimacy from some version of the principle of representativity expressed in the claim to share a cultural identity with a numerical majority of their population. The book that I have actually written is not about minorities, as such: it does not explain how minority X was instrumentalised by the French, or how minority Y resisted the High Commission's blandishments and rallied to Syrian Arab nationalism. Instead, it explains why, and when, certain groups within Syria – a nation-state in formation – came to be described, by insiders and outsiders, as ‘minorities’, and what that meant. By the same token, it traces the emergence of the concept of ‘majority’ in the country. These two paired concepts are frequently used by historians (and others) to describe the societies we study, but they may be misleading: they deserve to be critically analysed.

The book argues that it is anachronistic to understand the communitarian politics of French mandate Syria in terms of minorities and a majority: doing so implies the prior existence of a Syrian Arab nation-state with a coherent majority. The definition of the Syrian state's territory, its binding together as a coherent unit3 by common institutions, and its separation from surrounding areas by the new borders that partitioned the recently vanished Ottoman Empire were all developments of the mandate period, and gradual developments at that. As Syria passed from being part of a non-national dynastic empire whose legitimacy still derived chiefly from the maintenance of a religious order, to being (p.3) a nation-state that was supposed to represent its population, a fundamental redefinition of the state took place. Until these changes were at least partly accepted by the population, the idea of a single group constituting (and constituting itself as) a ‘majority’ with a right to dominate ‘Syria’ is questionable.

As we have seen, Sunni Muslim Arabic-speakers were a numerical majority in Syria as a whole. But it is hard to argue from first principles the existence of a Sunni Muslim Arabic-speaking majority in any meaningful political sense. During the mandate period, that numerical majority might include a notable in Aleppo, whose political loyalty was to the Ottoman caliphate; a preacher in Dayr al-Zur, who wanted his town to be detached from Syria and incorporated into an Iraqi nation-state; still another in Homs arguing for Islam as the basis of state law in Syria not because Muslims outnumbered non-Muslims in the state, but simply because Islam was the true religion and only legitimate source of law; or a nomad in the Syrian desert, who regarded the settled population as legitimate prey. We will meet some of them, not just at the outset of the mandate period but well into the 1930s. The fact that they happened to speak (dialects of) a common language and share certain tenets of religious faith did not automatically make them fellow members of a coherent Syrian majority. Only when the developing Syrian state came to enframe the political ambitions of these different actors, and nationalist ideology constituted them as a single group within the state, did some Syrians begin to harness their political ambitions to the term ‘majority’. And when they did, their definitions of it differed, and may have been contradictory, because the majority they usually identified tended to be either Arab, including diverse religious groups, or Sunni, including speakers of several languages. Even then, whether the ‘majority’ existed as anything other than a politically useful fiction may be questioned.

It was the development of the nation-state form in the mandate period, I argue, that made the concepts of ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ meaningful in Syria. But if the communitarian nature of French policy in Syria is widely recognised in the literature, the modernity – and historical contingency – of the concept of ‘minority’ are not. Works that clearly grasp and express this are rare.4 One reason for this is that by the time the mandate ended, the concept was well developed in Syria: even works written soon afterwards, by observers who had experienced Syria under the mandate, adopted it to understand the functioning of mandatory rule – not just in its final decade, when the term had certainly achieved widespread currency, but from the start.5 (For that matter, primary sources from the later mandate period do the same thing.) Since the concept retains its power in the societies from which modern historians and social scientists come, Syrians included, they too have used it. But, as I will argue, adopting these terms and attributing analytical force to them masks the very important development that was the creation of a modern nation-state in Syria. This is by no means unique to the Syrian case: as soon as it had emerged, the concept was being projected back into the past in all sorts of (p.4) cases. My argument concerns not only the French mandate in Syria, but also the comparative study of minorities.

In the first instance, then, the aim of the book is to refine our understanding of the politics of community in Syria under the mandate. But it will become clear that attempting to understand why the concept of minority came into widespread use has led me to concentrate on the form and practices of the modern state, and the responses they engendered among Syrian society – without taking these forms and practices for granted, or making prior assumptions about the responses they provoked. In this I join some of the recent scholarship on the Levant in modern times.6 Keith Watenpaugh's work on Aleppo examines the effect of modernity on the ‘architecture of community’ in the city during and before the mandate period; Ussama Makdisi's work on Ottoman Lebanon, too, looks at the effects of modern state-building on communal identity. Both see modern communal identities as having been in many senses produced, and certainly profoundly altered, by modern state development – not as primordial ‘givens’ snarling this process.7

Beyond its examination of the Syrian case, I hope that my specific focus on the aspects of modern state development that give meaning to the concept of ‘minority’ will provide a robust and generalisable analytical framework for comparative study.8 This, I hope, will function on two levels and overcome several kinds of exceptionalism. First, it allows existing studies that concentrate on particular minorities in the Middle East to be incorporated into a single framework.9 There are good reasons for concentrating on a specific community, but too narrow a focus may encourage one kind of exceptionalism: the assumption that the minority under study is exceptional in the way they have related to the state(s) in which they live. An extreme form of this is the ‘nation denied’ model, in which the minority is taken to constitute a nation in the exceptional situation of having been – unlike its oppressors – denied the state that every nation should have by right. This is a model that accepts nationalist ideology from the outset, and typically examines its subject in comparison only with ‘nations’ that do have states.10 Without wanting to deny the specificity of different minorities, it is both possible and useful to draw a sustained comparison between them.

Doing so illuminates similar processes of state development in the region, and allows us to see not only that individual minorities are not exceptional for having been deprived of a state, but also that minorities themselves are not exceptional. Minorities are integral to the development of modern nation-states, not awkward groups that do not properly fit into them. Meanwhile, by examining the emergence of minorities and majorities as a dynamic, dialectical process, this framework avoids the primordialism which underpins bad scholarship in this field and often creeps even into good. A glance at some of the more tendentious works available shows that this is an effort worth making.11

(p.5) The second level for comparative study is that of nation-state development under different conditions and in different states, not only in the Middle East: the framework I propose can be applied to the emergence of minorities (and thus to the development of states) anywhere. A particularly useful comparison would be between nation-state formation in the Levant, under mandate, and the contemporary formation of nation-states in eastern and central Europe. To take only one obvious example, the role of the debate about treaty guarantees for minorities in the construction of both minorities and a majority, studied here with reference to the Franco-Syrian treaty, could very well be compared with the debate about the minorities treaties in European states. Here, too, a kind of exceptionalism is avoided: the notion that the Middle East is an exception in the number, treatment, or sensitivity of its minorities.

So the book is not, in the end, about the confrontation of French imperialism and Syrian Arab nationalism. But in an indirect way it contributes to our understanding of them. The development of the nation-state form in Syria placed constraints on the French, but it also opened up opportunities for them. It certainly affected the intersection of French imperial policy and the politics of community in Syria. At the same time, the book proposes a way of studying the development of nationalism from outside the ideology itself, but inside the state-form that gives it meaning.

Major Sources

The most important archives for the study of the French mandate in Syria are those of the High Commission. Since the High Commission belonged to the Ministère des Affaires étrangères, these are now held at the Centre d'archives diplomatiques in Nantes. Inevitably, they are incomplete: apart from the ordinary work of triage carried out by archivists at the time, substantial portions of the Commission's records – especially on political affairs in the 1930s – were deliberately destroyed by the Vichy High Commissioner, Dentz, on the approach of Free French and British forces in 1941; more were lost at the mandate's end during the inelegant French withdrawal. Some may yet be found.12

Nonetheless, the surviving records amount to thousands of boxes: the richest available source for the mandate ‘on the ground’, so to speak. This book is concerned with the institutional restructuring of the Syrian state that took place under the supervision of the High Commission, and how Syrian society responded; the material contained in the archives on the relationship between the mandatory authorities and the society they sought to rule over is therefore extremely valuable. It gives a good picture of French official thinking on specific policies – why this administrative division was desirable, why that reform was necessary – and specific problems – what to do about refugees, how to deal with Turkish complaints about the border. From these a broader picture emerges, both of the general framework of the mandate and its institutions (p.6) and of the set of attitudes that underlay French policy. In some senses the most informative aspect of the records may be the gaps in them – by which I mean not the lacunae resulting from loss or destruction, but the things that French officials chose not to say, or did not even think of saying. To take one highly pertinent example, documents on a startling diversity of subjects find it necessary to emphasise the absence of unity in Syrian society, its ‘non-nationness’; the language of minorities, when it developed, fitted neatly into this rhetoric. But to my knowledge, no mandate functionary ever questioned the (eminently questionable) unity or nationhood of French society. This dichotomy deserves comment as one of the clearest signs of the category distinction French officials made between colonising and colonisable societies – a distinction that historians should not reproduce. It also has implications for our understanding of the imperial project as a unifying factor in French politics and society, at a time when these were riven by deep divisions.13

Syrians, meanwhile, left an impression on the French archives both indirectly and directly. Most of the material generated by the mandate administration naturally related to the administration of the mandate: that is, the government of Syrians. Government is never frictionless, however much governments might wish that it were. We can therefore learn a lot about how Syrians dealt with the mandatory authorities from the records the latter kept. Syrians figured constantly in French considerations, especially (but not only) when they objected to the way in which they were being governed. Much of the material in the French archives, however, was generated by Syrians directly: letters, petitions, newspaper articles. Crucially, then, the archives can tell us how Syrians presented themselves politically, whether to the High Commission or to the League of Nations – how they understood their own society.

There are reservations, of course. The archives were constructed subjectively, and may tell us more about who the French wanted to listen to than about who was actually important: one might cite the extraordinary prominence of the Christian patriarchs as the High Commission's favoured interlocutors among the Christian communities, or the near absence of sustained correspondence with Muslim religious figures. Also, how people presented themselves and their communities to the authorities was not necessarily how they presented themselves to other Syrians. A nationalist politician might address the High Commission on behalf of a Syrian Arab nation, but to an assembly at a Damascus mosque as a Muslim defending Islam: pitching oneself correctly to an audience is neither unusual nor blameworthy. In particular, we should be very careful, for example, when reading the account given of his community by a Kurdish notable, an Orthodox patriarch, a Catholic deputy, or a nationalist journalist not to assume that we are getting an image of it that its members would recognise. Again, the most informative aspect of the records may be the gaps in them. Still, such reservations must be brought to any historical source; they are what permits meaningful analysis, and despite (p.7) their blank spots the High Commission archives provide plenty of material to digest.14

The other main French public archives for the Mandate are at La Courneuve and Vincennes. While Nantes holds the High Commission's archives, including material received from the ministry in Paris, the new archival centre at La Courneuve holds material generated by the ministry itself. However, the collection here is also incomplete. Most importantly, almost all political documentation for the period 1932–40 was destroyed on the orders of the ministry's secretary-general ahead of the German occupation of Paris;15 this includes all the ministry's records of the 1936 negotiations for a Franco-Syrian treaty, which would have been especially valuable to this book. In the end, since the archives at Nantes contained so much – including duplicates of much of what is held in Paris – for diplomatic material I concentrated on the archives there.

The archives of the Service Historique de l'Armée de Terre at Vincennes are another matter. Again, there are gaps: in this case, not material that was destroyed prior to an enemy advance, but rather material that was not destroyed in time. Tens of thousands of boxes, including some from the Armée du Levant in Syria, were seized by the Germans and taken to Berlin, from where they were taken to the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. Post-Cold War diplomatic agreements saw some, but not all, of this material returned to France.16 The division between military and political affairs is not entirely clear for the French mandate: on the one hand, the Armée du Levant was under the orders of the High Commission, which belonged to the Ministère des Affaires étrangères; on the other hand, many of the mandate's French functionaries (especially its intelligence officers), not to mention several High Commissioners, were army officers on secondment.17 In theory, at least, documents relating to the political and diplomatic aspects of the military's role in Syria were archived by the High Commission; the military archives received material, above all, on operational matters.18 This proved very useful, especially for understanding the slow spread of French authority into remoter areas of the mandate territories, or the recruitment and functioning of troops from ‘minority’ communities.

If the French archives for the mandate are characterised by large gaps, the Syrian archives for the period are more gap than archive. The Historical Documents Centre (Markaz al-wathā'iq al-tārīkhiyya) in Damascus has remarkably complete records for the Ottoman period, and much less for the post-Ottoman period.19 The holdings for the mandate are patchy and unsystematic. However, they represent a vital complement to the French archives, since only here are any substantial records held for the Syrian administration as opposed to the High Commission – and most of the business of government was done by a Syrian bureaucracy, police force, gendarmerie and judiciary, even if the hands of French advisers were heavily felt. Where records survive, then, they provide important information about the bureaucratic and (p.8) institutional ‘shape’ of the Syrian state under French rule. From Damascene police reports, provincial governors writing to the interior ministry, or officials on a tour of inspection in rural areas, we can gain a valuable picture of the ways in which the state apparatus touched the lives of Syrians across the country – despite the unsystematic nature of the collection, and even when the reasons why such items were kept are not the reasons why they are interesting today. For example, barely any of what must have been a mountain of daily reports produced by the police stations in Damascus have survived. To judge from markings in blue pencil on those that did, the reason why a few were kept was because they were from days when (presumably nationalist) activists had disrupted the foreign-owned tramway. But those few are enough to give us useful information: they tell us where the city's police stations were, and that the General Police Directorate (Mudīriyyat al-shurta al-cāmma) collated information on the crimes and misdemeanours with which each station dealt; they describe some of those incidents, from stabbings to public drunkenness, brawls to rapes, or the murder of a baby girl; they give a vague idea of how the police dealt with each one – for example, when someone had been injured they usually noted how long their recovery was expected to take.20

Frequently, then, such documents can shine a narrowly focused but intense beam of light on a particular subject. For someone trying to write a narrative history of some aspect of Syrian life under mandate, the scant and arbitrary nature of these sources might be frustrating, like trying to perceive the design of a vast mosaic from spots of torchlight falling here and there on random clusters of tesserae. But for this book, which concentrates on general, structural aspects of state development in Syria, the information in these sources may prove more illuminating – as the same torch, shone around the room, might at least tell you where the walls and ceiling are.

The most important of my published sources is the Syrian nationalist press of the mandate period. I will begin with some reservations about the usefulness of this source for this project: these will help identify where it can indeed be useful. First, at the risk of stating the obvious, newspapers are much better at telling us what journalists and editors thought than what opinions were widely held in society. I would nuance Souheil al-Malazi's assessment that the nationalist press ‘bore on its shoulders the mission of expressing the wishes of the people, and their desire for freedom’:21 this was the vision that the press had of itself. What readers really thought is harder to say; what the illiterate majority thought, who heard the news read aloud, or by word of mouth, or not at all, harder still. Historical work on the press in the Middle East has tended to concentrate on production and to neglect reception: more attention has been given to what journalists wrote than to those who read their articles, and how they read them – which is, of course, much harder to study.22 The press was also heavily centred on the cities, and especially Damascus: of daily and weekly titles appearing in Syria during the mandate, more than half were published (p.9) in Damascus, and more than half of the remainder in Aleppo.23 The audience that nationalist journalists claimed to be addressing was Syrian, but in reality most of their readership was concentrated in Damascus and a few other cities, where nationalist feeling was strongest and most articulate. Again, this is not to dismiss nationalist claims automatically as untrue; but they should be understood as claims, not verities. It is prudent to assume that rather than expressing the wishes of the nation entire, nationalist newspapers reflected the views of an urban, nationalist public.

It was initially frustrating to realise that nationalist newspapers were chiefly useful as a source for the study of nationalist discourse, which was not my subject. But, as my interest in state development grew, it became clearer that the nationalist press could be a valuable source for understanding how an ideology can be used to harness the state, how the modern state apparatus, in turn, lends itself to the ideology of nationalism, and how the two together transform the relationship between state, society, and territory in ways that are directly relevant to the emergence of minorities. The enormous abundance of documentation, combined (paradoxically) with patchy coverage, meant that a systematic survey was neither feasible nor necessarily useful. Instead, I identified particular periods and subjects which were likely to offer an illumination of nationalist attitudes on the minorities question: these included the great revolt of the mid-1920s; the treaty negotiations of 1933–6; the Alexandretta crisis, a little later; the arrival of refugees from Turkey in the 1920s and from Iraq in the 1930s.

I read articles on these subjects taken from a number of different titles, selected because all – by the standards of the time – had a relatively large circulation and influence.24 For the early mandate years I used material from al-Muqtabas, the newspaper founded by Muhammad Kurd Ali in the late Ottoman period and edited during the mandate by his brother Ahmad. After its closure in 1928 it was replaced by al-Qabas, whose editor, Najib al-Rayyis, stayed close to the National Bloc until the end of the 1930s.25 A harder line of nationalism was represented by al-Ayyām, which at its founding in 1931 was also associated with the Bloc, but moved into the Shahbandarist nationalist opposition from 1935;26 while a more inclusive understanding of the Syrian nation emerged from Alif Bā', the ‘semi-official daily newspaper of Damascus’.27 Since my understanding of the ‘minorities question’ changed so radically in the course of my research, I have used less of this material in the book than I expected – mostly as it related to the question of a Syrian national territory. But I derived from it a much keener awareness of the ideology of Syrian Arab nationalism, and of the functioning of nationalist ideology in general, with all its inevitable contradictions and non dits.

French published sources, meanwhile, also became less relevant than I had expected as my research questions shifted away from French imperialism and more towards the nation-state form in Syria. Nonetheless, a range of books (p.10) and articles published by French writers during, and about, the mandate were important for a wider understanding of French imperialist attitudes to Syrian society, the place of the Syrian mandate in French conceptions of empire and the place of empire in modern French politics and society. So, too, were the debates about Syria in the French National Assembly, set down in the Journal officiel – and the rarity of those debates. On some subjects, notably the question of Franco-Syrian treaty negotiations and their role in the more systematic application in Syria of the concept of ‘minority’, this material is clearly present in the finished book: I consider at length the changing use of the concept in the colonialist bulletin L'Asie française, which I surveyed for the entire inter-war period. But even material that in the end went unused nonetheless influenced my thinking throughout.

French High Commissioners, 1920–39

Although this is not a diplomatic history of the mandate, I refer to the senior French officials frequently enough to make a brief overview of the successive High Commissioners worthwhile.

The first French High Commissioner to rule over Damascus as well as Beirut was General Gouraud. He was the first of three military High Commissioners, being replaced by generals Weygand (from April 1923 to November 1924) and Sarrail (until November 1925). Sarrail, whose time in office was terminated after the outbreak of the great revolt, was succeeded by a civilian, Henry de Jouvenel. Jouvenel stayed an even shorter time in Beirut, returning to France to pursue his political career in September 1926.

The first years of the mandate were thus marked by a rapid turnover of High Commissioners: it was not until Jouvenel's successor, Henri Ponsot, arrived in Beirut that some administrative stability was reached at the High Commission. Ponsot stayed in office for seven years, until July 1933; his replacement, Damien de Martel, stayed in office for over five, retiring in October 1938. The fact that he retired, rather than being recalled, marks a contrast to the political turmoil of the High Commission in the 1920s. The final High Commissioner to govern in the period of this study was Martel's replacement, Gabriel Puaux, who was in office when the Second World War began.28 After the fall of France a Vichy administration was put in place, but expelled by a joint British/Free French invasion in 1941; thereafter, nominal authority rested with the ranking French officer in Beirut, but a ‘fake’ independence was granted to Syria and Lebanon in 1943, while actual authority rested with the all-too-real British military occupation. It is because of this extreme political complexity that I chose to focus – other things being equal – on the inter-war years.

It should be noted that the relative stability at the High Commission in the ‘long’ decade of 1927–38 is in sharp contrast to the tumultuous comings and goings of governments in the metropole, in perhaps the most divided and (p.11) unstable period of modern French politics.29 The point made by Andrew and Kanya-Forster about the Third Republic before the First World War is worth bearing in mind for the inter-war period also:

The ministries of the Third Republic, often precarious, usually preoccupied by domestic affairs, rarely attempted to impose Cabinet control over foreign and colonial policy. Major decisions could be taken by a single minister and approved by Cabinet without serious discussion, or even implemented without Cabinet approval at all. Ministerial instability sometimes left the permanent officials in control of policy …30

Administrative Divisions

French rule in Syria was marked throughout by a policy of territorial division: what Syrians referred to as tamzīq or tajzi'a. In July 1920, Robert de Caix, the colonial lobbyist turned mandate official, suggested dividing the mandate territories – an area smaller than mainland Britain – into as many as eleven statelets.31 The next month, the most important and lasting division was made: Greater Lebanon, a much-expanded version of the Ottoman autonomous district of Mount Lebanon, was declared. The existence of Lebanon and Syria as separate entities was enshrined by the mandate charter itself in 1922; all the other divisions imposed on the mandate territories were within the newly constituted ‘Syria’, and all but one proved to be temporary (see Map 1, p. vi, which shows the most important divisions for this book).

The ‘Syria’ of the mandate charter had already been divided into several constituent parts. The main body of the interior was made up of the states of Damascus and Aleppo, while the coastal mountains between the Lebanese border and Latakia, which had been under French occupation for longer than Damascus, were also constituted as a separate statelet. I will refer to this simply as the Alaouites, as French officials often did, and presumably for the same reason: to avoid confusion over that statelet's multiple changes of name: Territoire des Alaouites; État des Alaouites; Gouvernement de Lattaquié, when the French wanted to de-emphasise the statelet's communitarian basis; État des Alaouites again, when they wanted to re-emphasise it.32 Using the French term also avoids confusion between the statelet itself and the Alawis who made up most of its population.

To these three, another was added in 1922 when the Jabal Druze was detached from the state of Damascus. The states of Damascus and Aleppo were united from the beginning of 1925 as the state of Syria. The other two statelets, however, remained administratively separate until the 1940s, with the exception of the years of nationalist rule, 1936–9, when they were placed under the authority of the Syrian government in Damascus. I discuss the (p.12) grounds on which these divisions were made, including the presence in the coastal mountains and the Jabal Druze of what have been termed ‘compact minorities’, in Chapters 2 and 3.

When looking at the map of these divisions, two important caveats should be borne in mind. First, for most of its length, the neat line of Syria's external border existed only on maps in the early years of the mandate. For much of its length, this remained true for decades. Secondly, the impression a map gives of a stable geographical unit under the uniform authority of a state – never a wholly accurate reflection of reality – is particularly misleading here: for example, permanent French military posts and regular patrols in the northeastern regions of Syria began only in the later 1920s, in some zones even the 1930s. That these two points are related should be evident; Chapters 3 and 4 investigate them in depth.

Several subdivisions within the state of Syria should also be mentioned. First, the uncultivated steppe of the Syrian desert was administered, to the extent that it was administered at all, by the military Contrôle Bédouin.33 The Sanjak of Alexandretta, although part of the state of Aleppo and then Syria, had autonomous status because it was home to a substantial Turkish-speaking community; Turkish was an official language there, alongside French and Arabic. In 1936, while the autonomous statelets of the Alaouites and the Jabal Druze came under the authority of a Syrian government for the first time, the Sanjak of Alexandretta's gradual, permanent detachment from Syria began: the combination of pressure from Turkey and the increasingly Turkish nationalist outlook of the sanjak's Turkish-speakers34 led first to its becoming ‘independent’, then to its annexation by Turkey. Many of its Arab and virtually all of its Armenian inhabitants fled in the process. Finally, by the mid-1930s the far northeast of Syria – the Jazira – was both more firmly fixed under state authority and considerably more populous as a result of immigration by Kurds and Christians fleeing Turkey and Christians fleeing Iraq. This influx, with French support, had also transformed the region's economy. The Haute-Djézireh or upper Jazira was therefore upgraded to a full governorate. The inhabitants of the region were not, however, keen to be placed under the authority of the Syrian government in Damascus in 1936; in 1939, when the Druze and Alawi statelets were ‘de-incorporated’ from Syria, the Jazira too was placed under direct French control as an autonomous region.

Despite these divisions, the state apparatus put in place by the French was in many ways unified: within Syria as a whole Damascus was the ‘senior’ city; if the various statelets each had their own flag, their inhabitants shared a common, Syrian nationality, as well as a common currency and a common external tariff.35 As I argue throughout the book, both implicitly and explicitly, if the French did their best to hinder the development of a ‘nation’ in Syria, they were nonetheless obliged to construct a state: the tension between these two aims ran through the mandate period. Politics in Syria under the mandate (p.13) was largely a contest over control of that state apparatus. Syrian Arab nationalists wanted to control the entire state apparatus, and in the period 1936–9 they were permitted to – up to a point. Syrians who favoured cooperation with the French, and opposed the nationalists, were also usually concerned with controlling the state apparatus, or at least the part of it that touched them. As a mandate state, Syria was meant to be an expression of its inhabitants' right to self-determination – a nation-state, even if the identity of the Syrian nation remained to be defined.

A word about the ‘ordinary’ administrative subdivisions within Syria: the state was divided into governorates (muhāfadha) and sanjaks, which were further divided by caza (qadhā') and district (nāhiya). The senior local official at each level was the governor (muhāfidh) for governorates and sanjaks, the qā'immaqām for cazas and the mudīr for districts. Future instances of these words will be written without italics or diacritics.

Structure

The book is divided into three parts. In Part I (Chapters 1 and 2), I make a general argument then apply it to French mandate Syria; in Parts II (Chapters 3 and 4) and III (Chapters 5 and 6), I offer specific case studies illustrating the argument. Since the structure of this book is thematic, not narrative, an outline chronology is included for quick reference (see p. viii).

Chapter 1 explains the circumstances in which the concept of minority emerged in international public discourse, as the nation-state became the standard state form after the First World War. Having identified the historical origins of the concept, it shows how its usage has escaped those origins – to the detriment of its analytical usefulness. It explains why minority is a distinctively modern concept, and outlines various aspects of modern nation-state development which give it meaning.

Chapter 2 reconsiders the concept's place in the history and historiography of the French mandate in Syria. While French policy in Syria was certainly divisive, simply describing it as ‘divide-and-rule’ and assuming that the divisions involved were those between a majority and minorities is not satisfactory. The mandatory authorities certainly saw many divisions in Syrian society and sought to exploit and exacerbate them, but the category of ‘minority’ was not systematically attached to those divisions – not at first, at least, and in some cases hardly at all. By outlining how certain groups came to be identified as ‘minorities’ (or not), the chapter offers an insight into French imperialist attitudes towards Syrian society and the groups within it, and the policies that those attitudes informed. It also broaches the question of why the category came into use, contrasting it to the older Ottoman category of millet or religious community,36 and links my general argument in Chapter 1 to its specific application in Syria.

(p.14) Part I thus establishes my general analytical framework (Chapter 1) and the parameters of my specific empirical enquiry (Chapter 2). The rest of the book presents four thematic chapters, each offering a case study of one aspect of state development in French mandate Syria to illustrate how that development led to the emergence of ‘minorities’. They form two pairs. Part II considers the development of a coherent national territory in Syria, taking a critical look at the question of separatism (Chapter 3) and the definition of the state's borders (Chapter 4). Part III addresses the transformation of the post-Ottoman state's legal institutions. First, it considers the development of a new body of international law regarding minorities, and the debate over its application to Syria (Chapter 5). Then, it examines France's multiple failed attempts to reform personal status law in Syria (Chapter 6), showing how legal change – even abortive legal change – encouraged some actors to see themselves as ‘minorities’, and others to present themselves for the first time as representatives of a ‘majority’.

Notes

(1.) Philip S. Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 1920–1945 (London: I. B. Tauris, 1987), p. 58; Michael Provence, The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2005), p. 50. The same interpretation can be found in textbooks: Robert Aldrich, Greater France. A History of French Overseas Expansion (London: Palgrave, 1996), pp. 208–12; William L. Cleveland, A History of the Modern Middle East, 3rd edn (Oxford: Westview Press, 2004), pp. 218–23. See also Chapter 2.

(2.) My main, well-founded worry was that the focus on minorities might lead some to assume a prejudged hostility on my part towards Syrian nationalism in particular. Nationalist claims deserve to be examined with the same sceptical inquisitiveness wherever they are made.

(3.) Despite the administrative divisions imposed by the French, see below.

(4.) Among them are Elie Kedourie, ‘Ethnicity, majority, and minority in the Middle East’, on the concept in general, and Nelida Fuccaro, ‘Minorities and ethnic mobilisation: the Kurds in northern Iraq and Syria’, on a specific minority.

(5.) Albert H. Hourani, Syria and Lebanon: A Political Essay (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946), and on the Arab world more generally Minorities in the Arab World (London: Oxford University Press, 1947); Stephen H. Longrigg, Syria and Lebanon under French Mandate (London: Oxford University Press, 1958).

(6.) Deserving mention here is the research programme on the mandates at the Institut français d'études arabes de Damas in the late 1990s and early 2000s which resulted in the publication of two substantial collective works edited by Nadine Méouchy and Peter Sluglett (see Bibliography).

(7.) Keith D. Watenpaugh, Being Modern in the Middle East. Revolution, Nationalism, (p.15) Colonialism, and the Arab Middle Class (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006); Ussama Makdisi, The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-century Ottoman Lebanon (London: University of California Press, 2000), and ‘Ottoman orientalism’, The American Historical Review (2002), 107(3) (accessed online), on Ottoman modernity more generally.

(8.) This was refined by my discussions with participants at a ‘thematic conversation’ I organised at the Middle East Studies Association's annual conferences in 2006 and 2007, and a panel I ran at the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies annual conference in 2005, both under the title ‘Majorities and minorities in the Middle East and North Africa’.

(9.) Such studies are numerous. Examples that are particularly relevant to the Syrian case include David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds, 3rd rev. edn (London: I. B. Tauris, 2004); or Khaldun S. Husry, ‘The Assyrian Affair of 1933’ (I and II), International Journal of Middle East Studies (1974), 5(2): 161–76, and 5(3): 344–60, and Sami Zubaida, ‘Contested nations: Iraq and the Assyrians’, Nations and nationalism (2000), 6(3): 363–82.

(10.) The term comes from the title of David McDowall, The Kurds: A Nation Denied (London: Minority Rights Group, 1992), though his A Modern History of the Kurds is somewhat more careful in its assumptions.

(11.) Such as Mordechai Nisan, Minorities in the Middle East: A History of Struggle and Self-expression (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1991).

(12.) Pierre Fournié and François-Xavier Trégan, ‘Outils documentaires sur le mandat français’, in Méouchy and Sluglett (eds), The British and French Mandates, pp. 45–53.

(13.) As Rod Kedward puts it, ‘Colonialism was universally projected in France as an epic adventure in the realization and growth of French identity … The level of tacit agreement on colonial matters in the period 1900–1914, and well beyond, was itself a rare facet of French political life.’ La vie en bleu: France and the French since 1900, paperback edn (London: Penguin, 2006), p. 15.

(14.) From the point of view of this book, perhaps the most frustratingly absent records are those of the High Commissioner's representatives – delegates, assistant delegates, or governors – in Damascus, Aleppo, Latakia and Suwayda'. We have some of what they sent to Beirut, but nothing that they produced for internal consumption, or preferred not to forward.

(15.) This was Aléxis Léger, better known today as the poet Saint-John Perse.

(16.) Martin C. Thomas, ‘French intelligence-gathering in the Syrian mandate, 1920–40’, Middle Eastern Studies (2002), 38(1): 1–32, quote at 2. (The fact that the partial return amounted to 40,000 boxes shows the size of the original haul.)

(17.) A prosopography of the Service des renseignements du Levant is contained in Jean-David Mizrahi, Genèse de l'État mandataire. Services des Renseignements en Syrie et au Liban dans les années 1920 (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2003), pp. 183–288.

(18.) See introduction to the inventory of Archives du Levant, sub-series 4 H (1917–46).

(p.16) (19.) At the time of my research in Damascus the Centre's staff had recently prepared an archival law, the country's first, for the Syrian administration. Whether it would be passed, or, having been passed, applied, was not certain.

(20.) A number of such reports can be found in MWT, wathā'iq al-dawla, sijill 2, under wizārat al-dākhiliyya – al-amn al-āmm – taqārīr. The murder of a baby girl, whose body was found in a garden off Baghdad Street, is recorded on 5 September 1936 in a report under call number 6.

(21.) Souheil al-Malazi, al-Tabā a wal-sihāfa fiHalab (Damascus: Dār Ya rub lil-dirāsāt, 1996), p. 198 – nonetheless a valuable work, particularly on technical questions and on the role of the Armenian community in the Aleppo press.

(22.) Ami Ayalon's work is a very honourable exception.

(23.) Shams al-Dīn al-Rifā ī, Tārīkh al-sihāfa al-sūriyya, al-juz' al-thānī: al-intidāb al-faransī hattā al-istiqlāl, 1918–1947 (Cairo: Dār al-Ma ārif, 1969), pp. 161–4.

(24.) Ami Ayalon, The Press in the Arab Middle East: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), ch. 6. Nasir Denaria's help in locating these articles, among stacks of bound volumes and kilometres of microfilm, was invaluable.

(25.) Najib al-Rayyis, Yā dhalām al-sijn (1920–1952). Al-a māl al-mukhtāra 1 (London: Riad el-Rayyes, 1994), p. 27 (introduction by Jūzīf Ilyās).

(26.) Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate, pp. 269, 573. The newspaper introduces itself in its first issue: al-Ayyām, 10 May 1931.

(27.) Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate, p. 136. After discussing a fiery article from al-Ayyām with me, one of my (Christian) teachers in Damascus said he understood why his father preferred Alif Bā'.

(28.) A complete list of French High Commissioners and their dates in office can be found in the introduction to SHAT, Inventaire des archives du Levant. Sous-série 4 H (1917–1946), the source for dates in this paragraph. These reflect the official period in office; in practice, High Commissioners usually arrived in Beirut some time after their appointment – Puaux was appointed in October 1938 but did not reach Lebanon until early January 1939.

(29.) ‘Fifteen cabinets under the presidency of Gaston Doumergue, 1924–1931; three in the eleven months of Paul Doumer's presidency before his murder in 1932; seventeen under Albert Lebrun, between 1932 and 1940 – though only eleven prime ministers and ten ministers of foreign affairs led the musical chairs.’ Eugen Weber, The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995) p. 111.

(30.) C. M. Andrew and A. K. Kanya-Forstner, ‘The French “colonial party”: its composition, aims and influence, 1885–1914’, The Historical Journal (1971) 14(1): 99–128 at 127.

(31.) Turkish- and Kurdish-speaking zones, a Lebanese statelet, and ‘eight or nine autonomies’ in the remainder. Gérard D. Khoury, Une tutelle coloniale: le mandat français en Syrie et au Liban. Ecrits politiques de Robert de Caix (Paris: Éditions Bélin, 2006), pp. 248–70, quote at 261.

(32.) On one occasion its name changed by accident: the High Commissioner's decree of 28 June 1922 linking the statelets of Syria as a federation mentioned an État des (p.17) Alaouites that did not exist – the entity concerned was the Territoire des Alaouites. The High Commission noticed its mistake the next month and issued another decree retrospectively upgrading the territory to a state as of 28 June (Takla 2004: 80).

(33.) Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate, pp. 58–9; Thomas, ‘French intelligence-gathering’.

(34.) This should not be taken for granted. In the 1920s the sanjak was a refuge for Turks loyal to the vanished Ottoman Empire and opposed to Mustafa Kemal's nationalist republic. In other parts of northern Syria, notably the city of Aleppo, substantial turcophone communities became increasingly Arabised during the mandate as Syrians.

(35.) In the words of Roger Owen and Şevket Pamuk, ‘from an economic point of view … the whole area [of ‘Syria’] was governed more or less as a single unit’. A History of the Middle East Economies in the Twentieth Century (London: I. B. Tauris, 1998), p. 64.

(36.) The term can refer to Muslims, but by the nineteenth century this was not the normal usage. Later instances of this word will not be italicised. It is pronounced mil-LET. (p.18)

Notes:

(1.) Philip S. Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 1920–1945 (London: I. B. Tauris, 1987), p. 58; Michael Provence, The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2005), p. 50. The same interpretation can be found in textbooks: Robert Aldrich, Greater France. A History of French Overseas Expansion (London: Palgrave, 1996), pp. 208–12; William L. Cleveland, A History of the Modern Middle East, 3rd edn (Oxford: Westview Press, 2004), pp. 218–23. See also Chapter 2.

(2.) My main, well-founded worry was that the focus on minorities might lead some to assume a prejudged hostility on my part towards Syrian nationalism in particular. Nationalist claims deserve to be examined with the same sceptical inquisitiveness wherever they are made.

(3.) Despite the administrative divisions imposed by the French, see below.

(4.) Among them are Elie Kedourie, ‘Ethnicity, majority, and minority in the Middle East’, on the concept in general, and Nelida Fuccaro, ‘Minorities and ethnic mobilisation: the Kurds in northern Iraq and Syria’, on a specific minority.

(5.) Albert H. Hourani, Syria and Lebanon: A Political Essay (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946), and on the Arab world more generally Minorities in the Arab World (London: Oxford University Press, 1947); Stephen H. Longrigg, Syria and Lebanon under French Mandate (London: Oxford University Press, 1958).

(6.) Deserving mention here is the research programme on the mandates at the Institut français d'études arabes de Damas in the late 1990s and early 2000s which resulted in the publication of two substantial collective works edited by Nadine Méouchy and Peter Sluglett (see Bibliography).

(7.) Keith D. Watenpaugh, Being Modern in the Middle East. Revolution, Nationalism, (p.15) Colonialism, and the Arab Middle Class (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006); Ussama Makdisi, The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-century Ottoman Lebanon (London: University of California Press, 2000), and ‘Ottoman orientalism’, The American Historical Review (2002), 107(3) (accessed online), on Ottoman modernity more generally.

(8.) This was refined by my discussions with participants at a ‘thematic conversation’ I organised at the Middle East Studies Association's annual conferences in 2006 and 2007, and a panel I ran at the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies annual conference in 2005, both under the title ‘Majorities and minorities in the Middle East and North Africa’.

(9.) Such studies are numerous. Examples that are particularly relevant to the Syrian case include David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds, 3rd rev. edn (London: I. B. Tauris, 2004); or Khaldun S. Husry, ‘The Assyrian Affair of 1933’ (I and II), International Journal of Middle East Studies (1974), 5(2): 161–76, and 5(3): 344–60, and Sami Zubaida, ‘Contested nations: Iraq and the Assyrians’, Nations and nationalism (2000), 6(3): 363–82.

(10.) The term comes from the title of David McDowall, The Kurds: A Nation Denied (London: Minority Rights Group, 1992), though his A Modern History of the Kurds is somewhat more careful in its assumptions.

(11.) Such as Mordechai Nisan, Minorities in the Middle East: A History of Struggle and Self-expression (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1991).

(12.) Pierre Fournié and François-Xavier Trégan, ‘Outils documentaires sur le mandat français’, in Méouchy and Sluglett (eds), The British and French Mandates, pp. 45–53.

(13.) As Rod Kedward puts it, ‘Colonialism was universally projected in France as an epic adventure in the realization and growth of French identity … The level of tacit agreement on colonial matters in the period 1900–1914, and well beyond, was itself a rare facet of French political life.’ La vie en bleu: France and the French since 1900, paperback edn (London: Penguin, 2006), p. 15.

(14.) From the point of view of this book, perhaps the most frustratingly absent records are those of the High Commissioner's representatives – delegates, assistant delegates, or governors – in Damascus, Aleppo, Latakia and Suwayda'. We have some of what they sent to Beirut, but nothing that they produced for internal consumption, or preferred not to forward.

(15.) This was Aléxis Léger, better known today as the poet Saint-John Perse.

(16.) Martin C. Thomas, ‘French intelligence-gathering in the Syrian mandate, 1920–40’, Middle Eastern Studies (2002), 38(1): 1–32, quote at 2. (The fact that the partial return amounted to 40,000 boxes shows the size of the original haul.)

(17.) A prosopography of the Service des renseignements du Levant is contained in Jean-David Mizrahi, Genèse de l'État mandataire. Services des Renseignements en Syrie et au Liban dans les années 1920 (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2003), pp. 183–288.

(18.) See introduction to the inventory of Archives du Levant, sub-series 4 H (1917–46).

(p.16) (19.) At the time of my research in Damascus the Centre's staff had recently prepared an archival law, the country's first, for the Syrian administration. Whether it would be passed, or, having been passed, applied, was not certain.

(20.) A number of such reports can be found in MWT, wathā'iq al-dawla, sijill 2, under wizārat al-dākhiliyya – al-amn al-āmm – taqārīr. The murder of a baby girl, whose body was found in a garden off Baghdad Street, is recorded on 5 September 1936 in a report under call number 6.

(21.) Souheil al-Malazi, al-Tabā a wal-sihāfa fiHalab (Damascus: Dār Ya rub lil-dirāsāt, 1996), p. 198 – nonetheless a valuable work, particularly on technical questions and on the role of the Armenian community in the Aleppo press.

(22.) Ami Ayalon's work is a very honourable exception.

(23.) Shams al-Dīn al-Rifā ī, Tārīkh al-sihāfa al-sūriyya, al-juz' al-thānī: al-intidāb al-faransī hattā al-istiqlāl, 1918–1947 (Cairo: Dār al-Ma ārif, 1969), pp. 161–4.

(24.) Ami Ayalon, The Press in the Arab Middle East: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), ch. 6. Nasir Denaria's help in locating these articles, among stacks of bound volumes and kilometres of microfilm, was invaluable.

(25.) Najib al-Rayyis, Yā dhalām al-sijn (1920–1952). Al-a māl al-mukhtāra 1 (London: Riad el-Rayyes, 1994), p. 27 (introduction by Jūzīf Ilyās).

(26.) Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate, pp. 269, 573. The newspaper introduces itself in its first issue: al-Ayyām, 10 May 1931.

(27.) Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate, p. 136. After discussing a fiery article from al-Ayyām with me, one of my (Christian) teachers in Damascus said he understood why his father preferred Alif Bā'.

(28.) A complete list of French High Commissioners and their dates in office can be found in the introduction to SHAT, Inventaire des archives du Levant. Sous-série 4 H (1917–1946), the source for dates in this paragraph. These reflect the official period in office; in practice, High Commissioners usually arrived in Beirut some time after their appointment – Puaux was appointed in October 1938 but did not reach Lebanon until early January 1939.

(29.) ‘Fifteen cabinets under the presidency of Gaston Doumergue, 1924–1931; three in the eleven months of Paul Doumer's presidency before his murder in 1932; seventeen under Albert Lebrun, between 1932 and 1940 – though only eleven prime ministers and ten ministers of foreign affairs led the musical chairs.’ Eugen Weber, The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995) p. 111.

(30.) C. M. Andrew and A. K. Kanya-Forstner, ‘The French “colonial party”: its composition, aims and influence, 1885–1914’, The Historical Journal (1971) 14(1): 99–128 at 127.

(31.) Turkish- and Kurdish-speaking zones, a Lebanese statelet, and ‘eight or nine autonomies’ in the remainder. Gérard D. Khoury, Une tutelle coloniale: le mandat français en Syrie et au Liban. Ecrits politiques de Robert de Caix (Paris: Éditions Bélin, 2006), pp. 248–70, quote at 261.

(32.) On one occasion its name changed by accident: the High Commissioner's decree of 28 June 1922 linking the statelets of Syria as a federation mentioned an État des (p.17) Alaouites that did not exist – the entity concerned was the Territoire des Alaouites. The High Commission noticed its mistake the next month and issued another decree retrospectively upgrading the territory to a state as of 28 June (Takla 2004: 80).

(33.) Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate, pp. 58–9; Thomas, ‘French intelligence-gathering’.

(34.) This should not be taken for granted. In the 1920s the sanjak was a refuge for Turks loyal to the vanished Ottoman Empire and opposed to Mustafa Kemal's nationalist republic. In other parts of northern Syria, notably the city of Aleppo, substantial turcophone communities became increasingly Arabised during the mandate as Syrians.

(35.) In the words of Roger Owen and Şevket Pamuk, ‘from an economic point of view … the whole area [of ‘Syria’] was governed more or less as a single unit’. A History of the Middle East Economies in the Twentieth Century (London: I. B. Tauris, 1998), p. 64.

(36.) The term can refer to Muslims, but by the nineteenth century this was not the normal usage. Later instances of this word will not be italicised. It is pronounced mil-LET. (p.18)