Skip to main content

Middle East Migration Studies: Taking Stock, Plotting New Paths

The Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies in conjunction with the editors of the Mashriq & Mahjar: Journal of Middle East and North African Migration Studies will host a workshop that seeks to offer critical reflections on the core debates and methodologies of MENA migration studies and open up new avenues for research on May 15-17, 2024. The conference will be held at North Carolina State University (Raleigh, North Carolina, USA) in Withers Hall, Room 331.

Conference Program

Wednesday, May 15

3:00 PM: Check-in begins at Aloft Hotel

5:30-7:30 PM: Meet and greet – 1911 reception area – Invited Guests Only

Thursday, May 16

9:00-9:45 AM: Coffee and pastries

9:45-10:00 AM: Opening Remarks 

  • Dean Deanna Dannels, Humanities and Social Sciences 
  • Akram Khater, Director of the Khayrallah Center

10:00 AM-11:30 PM: Session I, Policing Bodies in Motion

Chair: Akram Khater

What does it mean to center the body as an archive of mobility and policing in early 20th century migration from the Eastern Mediterranean? Combining the methodological and theoretical tools and frameworks from American studies, gender studies, and Middle East studies, alongside engagement with rich archival narrations, this proposed paper intends to critically reflect upon the ill migrant body at the border. The paper is concerned with the body within the geographical and medico-legal space of transimperial borderlands, the perceptions of that body held by a range of audiences, and the responses by the migrant to surveillance. Using the methods of micro-narratives from different mahjars, the paper proposes ways to critically reflect upon 1) How the medico-legal border and notions of public health, disability, gender, and class factor into the histories told about displacement and migration; and 2) Migrants’ responses to what Eithne Luibhiéd (2002) refers to as immigration officials’ “trying to know” whether they were excludable based on their state of health.

Our paper centers on intimate moments of migrants’ lives—moments that hinged on the way legal and medical mechanisms interpreted their bodies. We focus on the coercion of women into wearing corsets as they travel through the threat of sexual assault cloaked as “virginity tests.” We write about women excluded from borders for suspected sexually transmitted diseases, and the effects of this medical surveillance. The paper will pointedly sidestep self-contained national histories of immigration and migration. By considering different mahjars, we raise new questions about migration, imperialism, medical knowledge, and the production of the migrant body. At the workshop we hope to engage with other scholars who want to critically reflect on the possibilities of mahjar and migration studies, and strengthen interdisciplinary methods in the field of MENA studies.  

On July 22, 2019, the Istanbul Governor released a statement titled, “The Struggle against Irregular Migration” (Düzensiz Göçle Mücadele), outlining the government’s plans towards deporting undocumented migrants, relocating Syrians, and transferring unregistered Syrians to eligible cities. Following this statement, police started to visibly detain young men who appeared “Arab,” often on streets and in alleys. Ordinary citizens also engaged in reporting their encounters with undocumented or unregistered migrants, and some even drove migrants to the borders as a “service to the nation.” Migrants caught faced forceful coercion to sign “Voluntary Repatriation” forms, leading to deportation and a five-year ban on returning to Turkey. Since then, this practice has continued sporadically but persistently.

Drawing on two years of ethnographic research conducted in the working-class neighborhoods of northwestern Turkey between 2016 and 2022, this paper examines the “Voluntary” Repatriation framework and its impacts on undocumented migrants and anti-immigrant citizens. Through in-depth interviews, participant observation, and written testimonies, the paper argues that this framework not only governs migrants but also crafts the governance capabilities of individual citizens. More specifically, the “Voluntary” Repatriation fosters a sense of active citizenship and popular sovereignty among anti-immigrant citizens by authorizing them to make significant decisions about the fates of migrants, even though these citizens themselves often lack real influence over border and migrant governance policies. By shedding light on the material manifestations of populist structural violence, the paper demonstrates that policies on migrant mobility management are not isolated from the governance of citizens. On the contrary, these policies actively contribute to the cultivation of national attachments and active citizenship roles for anti-immigrant citizens, even in the context of the widespread disenfranchisement of the broader population in Turkey.

For centuries, the Kurdish mountains of the Ottoman Empire were inhabited by Kurdish-speaking pastoralists. High altitude between the northern and southern portions of the region and the aridity of climate were driving forces of the transhumance migration across the Ottoman Kurdistan, a region comprising today’s eastern and southeastern portions of Turkey, northern Iraq, and Syria. Transhumance migration was the backbone of the nomadic lifestyle regulated by temperature, precipitation, availability of grasslands, and freshwater for humans and animals. It has influenced Kurdish identity, society, culture, and language as well as the dimension of their physical and emotional attachments to the environment. Migration was also a significant feature impacting their political and socioeconomic relationships with the neighboring agrarian communities. Furthermore, the degree of their mobility on the borderlands was a crucial element affecting their relationships with the imperial authority in Istanbul. However, during the nineteenth century, with the implementation of Tanzimat Reforms (1839-19876) and growing state capacity, the Ottoman administration began to consolidate its hegemonic power over its large nomadic communities by operating forced resettlement campaigns across the diverse geographies of the empire. The prohibition of seasonal migration was the first and most crucial phase of forced sedentarization (iskan in Ottoman Turkish) policy.

This paper aims to reveal the multifaced consequences of this imperial policy on pastoralists, their herding economy, and labor practices and offers an alternative narrative showing various forms of resistance and resilience applied by pastoralists against state violence. Such a perspective on transhumance pastoralism aims to generate a nuanced conversation on diverse forms of mobility and migration in the modern Middle East and beyond.

11:45-12:45 PM: Lunch

12:45-2:45 PM: Session II, Demarcating Migrant Landscapes

Chair: Ghenwa Hayek

The Karantina neighborhood—also known as Al Khodr or Maslakh—situated in northeastern Beirut, became one of the world’s first refugee camps, hosting Armenian communities following World War I. The initial camp was established under the auspices of the League of Nations on land owned by the Christian Waqf, a religious endowment that generously offered the terrain as a temporary measure. Despite the resettlement of Armenian refugees into permanent housing in nearby areas as early as the 1920s, the camp expanded over time instead of shrinking. The original refugees were gradually replaced by new migrants and displaced communities, primarily Kurdish, Palestinian, Syrian, and various groups of rural-urban migrants. By the 1970s, the refugee camp had effectively transformed into an informal squatter settlement on private property, densely populated by tin shacks commonly referred to as “tanakés.”

In this article, I excavate the Beirut Land Registry archive, a collection hitherto underutilized by researchers, in search of records related to Karantina’s informal settlement. A meticulous examination of this archive reveals a deliberate process of omitting or including “tanakés” in the official records to either facilitate or hinder real estate transactions and urban development projects. I intersect the registry’s archive with aerial images, newspaper archives, and oral histories of Karantina dwellers to contextualize the decisions of inclusion/exclusion and understand the everyday life dimension of these abstract actions. I argue that these archival practices reveal a process of simultaneous exploitation and erasure of refugees and migrant laborers from the realm of urban politics. In this context, Karantina’s transformation hinges on the delicate balance between legality and illegality, expressed through inclusion and exclusion from public records.

How does the materiality of a refugee camp affect the lives that people live in it? And how do people living in a refugee camp try to make and remake its material fabric? These questions loom large in refugee narratives, but less so in the scholarship. Using as its case study camps run for European refugees in Egypt by the Middle East Relief and Refugee Agency and its successor the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (MERRA/UNRRA), this paper explores the stuff of the refugee camp, to highlight the distinctive materiality of the camp, and the texture of camp lives.

It starts with the ground itself, stony, earthen, or sandy. The desert camp of Khatatba was dangerous ground for children; “the sand scorches their feet and fills their lungs with dust,” and sick children were sent to a camp on less hostile ground on the Egyptian coast. Hard surfaces such as paved roads for supply trucks, or concrete or tiled floors for tents and dining areas, were installed in some places and spaces: these provided a measure of permanence and stability, but were typically harsh and unyielding. Permanent structures, like water towers and other infrastructure, or buildings that housed certain offices and administrative personnel, were often the fixed points around which a camp was organized. But refugees and most staff lived in impermanent structures, tents, whose fabric provided some protection from the weather, but limited privacy and less security. Meanwhile, moveable objects of all kinds circulated: blankets, clothing, and other supplies; luggage; objects foraged or found.

Residents of the MERRA/UNRRA camps also tried to reshape their material surroundings (planting gardens, moving or amending structures) and adapt them to their own needs (turning tent linings into clothes, bamboo tent poles into whistles or tools, and empty petrol cans into almost anything). Residents of other camps have done the same. This paper will draw comparative examples from across the past century in the Middle East.

Drawing on research about the Syrian cross-border taxi trade to Lebanon, I propose in this paper that thinking with Syrians’ mobility experiences advances our understanding of war and conflict. This proposition has to do with the geographical dimensions of war and the usefulness of the concept of “warscape.” The concept of warscape helps to limn the ways in which the Syrian war’s effects have gone beyond the geographical borders of the nation, through the regime of forced conscription, for instance, in which Syrian military-age male mobilities have been ensnared. The threat of forced conscription that imperils Syrian male bodies is a central feature of Syria’s transnational warscape, and it shapes how the taxi drivers plan for and undertake their movements as they prepare for and develop strategies to navigate the delays and scrutiny that male military-age passengers undergo at checkpoints.

The Syrian taxi drivers’ mobilities also broaden our understanding of Syrian civilian life in relation to the “flashpoints” in the war, showing us that war cannot be neatly fixed to spatial location. For, the Syrian drivers who hail from a province in Western Syria that was not reduced to rubble are no less inhabitants of Syria’s warscape. Moreover, the war’s violence, insecurity, and economic devastation have shaped the lives of Syrians who have not been forcibly physically dislocated from the place they call “home.” It is in this sense that I seek to demonstrate the limits of a transnationalist vision of the warscape that focuses solely on refugee mobilities. A singular focus on conflict-induced permanent transnational migration as, essentially, the only movement that matters, risks our neglect of other kinds of transnational mobilities, connections, and innovations that people forge in response to conditions of conflict. 

3:15-4:00 PM: Spotlight on the KCLDS Archive

4:00-6:00 PM: Break

6:00-8:00 PM: Welcome Dinner and Khayrallah Awards Ceremony at Sitti – Invited Guests Only

Ghassan Zeineddine is the author of the story collection Dearborn and co-editor of the creative nonfiction anthology, Hadha Baladuna: Arab American Narratives of Boundary and BelongingDearborn was longlisted for the 2023 Story Prize and was named a Best Fiction Book of 2023 by Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, the Chicago Public Library, Powell’s, and the Writer’s Bone, among other places. It is also a 2024 Michigan Notable Book. Zeineddine’s fiction has appeared in the Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Michigan Quarterly Review, TriQuarterly, the Arkansas International, Witness, Pleiades, Fiction International, the Common, Epiphany, FOLIO, Grist; A Journal of the Literary Arts, and the Iron Horse Literary Review, among other publications. Ghassan lives with his wife and two daughters in Ohio, where he is an assistant professor of creative writing at Oberlin College.

Sélim Saab is a Lebanese-French movie director, journalist, and radio host. He worked as a freelance journalist for several magazines and from 2013 to 2021 he hosted the radio show Aswat El Madina on the international Pan-Arab radio Monte Carlo Doualiya in France. In 2017, he directed and produced the documentary Beirut Street: Hip Hop in Lebanon – the first documentary about the Lebanese Hip Hop scene. Screened in various countries and festivals, the movie attracted significant international media coverage. In 2018, he released Forte, a documentary about women street artists in the Arab world. In 2020 he released The October Cedar, a one-hour documentary about the October revolt in Lebanon. His latest project is TOXIC HOPE. A documentary about the idea of Hope in Lebanon and how it is perceived in a country that is going through many crises. The film won various awards such as The Best Documentary at the Lebanon International Short Film Festival in Tripoli (2023), The Direction and Criticism award at the International festival of documentary film in Khouribga – Morocco (2023), and now the Khayrallah Prize (2023).

Friday, May 17

9:00-10:15 AM: Coffee, pastries, and conversation with Ghassan Zeineddine

10:15-12:15 PM: Session III, Recasting Migrant Identities and Imaginations

Chair: Akram Khater

Middle Eastern refugees have always engaged in extensive reflective political and social thought, and have expressed that thought through writing, film, poetry, and art. That thought has largely remained unacknowledged and ignored in the study of intellectual and social history. If refugees have appeared, it is as part of an undifferentiated mass of survivors, mostly female and young with little or no capacity to produce thought, let alone the right to be political beings.

This article confronts this exclusion by bringing the writings and activism of the Ottoman Armenian feminist writer and genocide survivor, Zabel Yesayan (1878-1943), and Palestinian journalist and revolutionary, Ghassan Kanafani (1936-1972), into conversation with the American political theorist, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), and in a methodological departure, approaches them collectively as refugee thinkers. Like Arendt, each of these individuals has drawn on the lived historical experience of their own exile and statelessness to become keen observers of what it means to be both a rights bearing human and “the scum of the Earth.” Unlike Arendt, neither is part of the intellectual mainstream despite the richness and relevance of their work, highlighting the fact that while refugees may be the objects of study, rarely are they permitted to contribute definitive expert knowledge on their own human condition. I argue that only by bringing together the unique and the shared in their life-stories of exile and responses to core 20th century political, social, and cultural concepts, can the global significance of their thought be fully understood.

Significant progress has been made in rethinking migration and diaspora studies in the Middle East over the past decade. Nevertheless, despite this surge of welcome interdisciplinary scholarship, focus tends to lie firmly on one side of the geography of migration or the other, and often within sites of diaspora or immigration. Here, I develop and expand on a methodology to unpack a homeland’s cultural imaginary of its diaspora. Specifically, I turn to the case of Lebanon to unpack the geographical imaginaries and affective grammars mobilized across a century of ongoing emigration. By considering the manner in which the diaspora is imagined from within the homeland, I prioritize the role of the dialectical relationship between these two sites in the conceptualization of Lebanese identity. In doing so, I demonstrate that diaspora is not a monolithic experience for emigrants, nor for their compatriots who choose to remain. Instead, diaspora is a complex constellation of experiences engendering specific cultural and social resonances.

I argue that particularly close attention needs to be paid to the manner in which a homeland ascribes different affective meanings to different diasporic spaces. To do so, I pay close attention to the geographical imaginaries haunting the use of the term “Africa” in Lebanese culture. I discuss the manner in which Africa and the Arabian Gulf are sites of diaspora that are seen as temporary, rather than permanent. While migration to Paris or New York was cast positively in terms of upward social mobility, migration to Africa, and later to the Arabian Gulf countries, was seen as less socially “desirable,” albeit necessary. I parse the class, racial, and sectarian anxieties behind these various values through an overview of the Lebanese press from Ottoman Beirut, the mandate period, and the post-independence period to uncover their similar attitudes and anxieties about emigration.

This article aims to discuss spatial categories such as countries of origin, transit and destination in the context of migration, demonstrating that these statuses do not capture the complexity of migrants’ journeys and aspirations. Through an ongoing multi-site feminist ethnography conducted in Abidjan, Tunis and Marseille among migrant women from West Africa, this article seeks to empirically illustrate how Ivorian migrant women imagine and experience the Tunisian stage in their migratory experience.

For some women migrants, this North African country, which has been undergoing radical political change since 2011, can be seen as a destination for work or study but can also become a place of transit for varying lengths of time and vice versa. This article explores how the migratory experience and decisions to stay in Tunisia, return to Côte d’Ivoire or continue across the Mediterranean to France are negotiated daily, shaped by a particular relationship with the Tunisian, Arab, or North African “other,” and imbued with gender and racial dynamics, in a context marked by the violent externalization of borders in the Mediterranean and tighter controls in Tunisia. I argue that, beyond their simple status as transit or destination, these women are transforming and being transformed by the Tunisian space. It is a place where they embark on a process of learning and self-assertion, but also a place where they discover another form of African otherness. In this in-between zone, xenophobia, rejection and even racism emerge, but so do forms of solidarity and cohabitation. By shedding light on the gendered and racialized subjectivities of West African women in Tunisia, this article also aims to establish a dialogue between African studies and studies of the Middle East and North Africa region.

12:15-1:00 PM: Lunch

1:00-3:00 PM: Session IV, Beyond the Journey: Afterlives of Migrations

Chair: Lauren Banko

The multiple generations of Palestinian refugees inhabiting refugee camps in Lebanon are exemplars of forced migration. While the nakba continues to cast a long shadow, it is one of many migrations experienced by those forcibly displaced in 1948 by the establishment of the state of Israel. Analyses based on “encampment” by focusing solely on host-states’ and humanitarian aid organizations’ formal constraints on refugee mobility may preclude an examination of the significant role played by circular migration in the livelihood strategies of the displaced. This paper examines oral accounts of the circular migration of Palestinian inhabitants of Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp located in the suburbs of Beirut to the Gulf and to Libya during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1991). The paper analyzes ways in which this circular migration was shaped by regional conflicts, the refugees’ protracted statelessness, the national political economies of the host-states in question, as well as by shifts in the positions of those states within the global capitalist economy.

Changes in receiving states’ policies towards Palestinian refugee migrant labor over the course of the 1990s with the first Gulf War (1990-1991) and the signing of the Oslo Accords between the PLO and Israel (1993-1995), resulted in significant generational differences in access to employment opportunities, which were already rendered precarious by the labor migration policies of the receiving states in question. This circulation of refugee/migrant labor complicates the distinction between forced and voluntary migration posited in international law. It also raises questions about the ways in which the social and economic capital accumulated through this labor was redistributed within the political economy of the refugee camp. In addition to contributing to a global history approach towards migration in the Middle East, the paper seeks to highlight ways in which the local political economies that emerge within long-term refugee camps are connected to the political economies of their host environs, as well as to the global capitalist economy. 

In response to the call for queering migration studies, this paper contributes to the debate (Moussawi: 2015; Makarem: 2011; Merabet: 2014) on the appearance of LGBT+ civil organizations in the Middle East in the beginning of the 21st century as either a result of “Western imperialism” or of local “authentic” initiatives, offering an alternative outlook through the analysis of the diasporization of the Lebanese organization Helem (first LGBTQ+ NGO in the MENA region), founded in 2001 in Beirut. Moving beyond national borders, I discuss how Helem simultaneously combines queering the Lebanese nationality and “ethnicizing” a queer identity in Montreal as a way to participate of a global ecumene (Hannerz, 1996), often simplified as the West and the rest. 

In 2004 Lebanese queer migrants founded Helem Montreal in Canada, as part of a larger project of transnational diasporization involving other developed Western countries, and a direct consequence of the migration of Lebanese queers (or descendants growing up in those countries) and the increasing prominence of an international LGBTQ+ global agenda. Ethnographic research undertaken between 2021 and 2022 consisted of participant observation in community creative consultations supporting the development of a TV series about queer Arabs in Montreal, in the annual elections and semi-structured interviews or informal conversations with some of the active 33 members, considering the fluidity of engagement with the NGO.  

Through time, Helem Montreal has been juggling to balance its Lebanese core identity with a broader Arab one, influenced by the Canadian multicultural setting. The prerogative of “giving back to the community” often repeated by volunteers, was constructed as a transpolitical (Silverstein, 2004) project to become a private sponsor of resettlement of queer refugees from the MENA region, giving Helem Montreal a sense of purpose and mission as a mediator between Montreal and the Middle East

In Athens, Greece, Middle Eastern queer migrants navigating housing precarity prioritize “Raaha” (راحة) as essential to their well-being. To them, Raaha embodies comfort and security amid adversity, reflecting an ongoing quest for stability and ontological security. Through negotiations of privacy, autonomy, and intimacy, Raaha becomes a site of resistance against housing insecurity. Drawing from four months of ethnographic fieldwork between 2022 and 2024, I center the experiences of Ziri and Tilila, two trans migrants from Morocco and Iraq, and argue that their daily rituals around a communal dressing table affirm their bodily autonomy and foster solidarity. This creative space serves as a symbol of resilience and defiance. Commemorative rituals honor fallen comrades and confronted structural injustices. Ultimately, the dressing table and its rituals becomes a beacon of hope and resistance, illuminating the path toward Raaha.

3:00-3:30 PM: Concluding Remarks