Andrew Arsan’s family moved out of Lebanon at the end of the civil war when he was just seven years old Image Credit: Syed Hamad Ali

Andrew Arsan is a historian at Cambridge University specialising in modern Middle East and French and British imperialism. His book, “Interlopers of Empire: The Lebanese Diaspora in Colonial French West Africa”, won last year’s Gladstone Prize, an annual award from the Royal Historical Society for the best first book in non-British history.

“We tend to think about the Middle East only in terms of the flow of refugees,” Arsan tells Weekend Review as we sit in his office at St John’s College, Cambridge. “People who are forced out by war, by dislocation, by conflict. Yes, there is clearly a truth to that, especially at the moment. But we tend to forget the ways in which Middle Eastern people moved about freely, for economic reasons — as economic migrants, as labour migrants ... in the late 19th, early 20th century, people who were moving across the Indian Ocean, and also people who moved out to the US, South America, West Africa. So I was interested, in a sense, in not treating the Middle East as an exception, as very different to other parts of the world, but trying to think about it as a region, like other regions, which fits into a general pattern of global history in the 19th and 20th centuries.”

Part-Lebanese and part-British, Arsan grew up in Lebanon, France and then Britain. His family moved from Lebanon because of the civil war; he was only seven then. “We left right at the end of the civil war. We lived in the Mount Lebanon region, which was particularly badly affected ... There was a lot of fighting in that region at that time.”

Interlopers of Empire

By Andrew Arsan, C. Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd, 420 pages, £28

The Lebanese migrants in colonial West Africa lived in a large expanse which covers present-day Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Guinea, Benin and Mauritania. Arsan’s own family had no direct links with West Africa. “There are lots of people in Beirut and south of Lebanon who have those connections. My family is not one of them. I had always heard about people moving to West Africa, and always found it intriguing and interesting. In my last year in university I studied a course in African history and fell in love with the subject. So I wanted to find a topic through which I could reconcile and bring together Middle Eastern and African histories, and studying that made sense.”

A lot of the research for the book was based on archival work in France, Senegal, the UK and the US. Arsan also met Lebanese people living in West Africa. “I stayed in a hotel owned by a Lebanese in Senegal and became friends with the owner. I also met quite a few of his friends. I explored the Lebanese social settings and was able to get a feel of those communities in an informal way, not necessarily doing very structured interviews.

“The hotel owner told me that his grandfather first migrated to Venezuela, and after a few years, returned to Lebanon to meet his relatives. He then set off for Venezuela, stopping at Dakar — like the coaling station to refuel. He went for a drink in town and I guess had a good night and missed the ship. And so stayed back in Dakar. It is a story that shows the way in which serendipity, just the way incidents in individual lives can change migration patterns, as much as large-scale events,” he says.

The story of the Lebanese in West Africa offers a complicated picture of the history of colonialism in the continent. “We have a tendency to think that the colonial situation is characterised by a relationship between the coloniser and the colonised. It is a very binary and complex relationship. A lot of scholars have looked at the tensions of that relationship, as well as its ambiguities, paradoxes. Very rarely do people think about other communities and the way in which they complicate that relationship. There has been some work done, for instance on Asians in East Africa, or on the Chinese in Southeast Asia — the way in which they complicated that relationship between the Dutch and the Indonesians, the British and Malays. But the same hadn’t really been done on Lebanese in West Africa.”

The Lebanese immigration to West Africa was part of a much broader wave of immigration from Lebanon and Syria in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was primarily a wave of economic migration. “The bulk of migrants wanted to move towards North and South America. But some people along the way ended up in West Africa because it is on the navigation routes. Some people didn’t have the money to get all the way to South America, or were dumped by unscrupulous ship captains. They were told they had arrived in Brazil or Mexico, when in fact they had only just arrived in West Africa. When people realised that there was money to be made in Africa, they began to send for others from their native villages.”

The Lebanese weren’t always welcomed by the French. “The Lebanese posed unwelcome competition to French companies which were dominant in the local and global economies. The French tried to control it. The problem was that the Lebanese were, in the eyes of the French at the time, racially ambiguous. They were neither African, neither black or European. And so how to place them was a complicated problem for the French.”

Curiously at that time, a diverse range of people was lumped together and labelled as Syrians — including people from East Mediterranean, Italians and Jews. “I think that was because Syria was the dominant geographical term for that part of the Levant. The Moroccans, the Italians, the Maltese — there were a few of them who were lumped with the bulk of the people who were from the region that became Lebanon and Syria after the First World War.”

Over time, differences arose between the Lebanese living in Africa and those living in Lebanon. “The ones in Africa often think of themselves as in more civilised than the Lebanese in Lebanon ... They are not as obsessed with Lebanon’s political system and its machinations. They have greater access to European culture and society, and the wealthy ones spend a lot of time in France or Britain. So there is this idea that they are closer to Europe than the Lebanese in Lebanon.”

For Arsan, winning the Gladstone prize was a “wonderful” affirmation of the work he has been trying to do. “I won it along with another scholar, Lucy Ryzova, who also worked on the Middle East — Egypt in particular. It was nice that two scholars of the Middle East won the prize the same year. It said something about the development of Middle Eastern studies in Britain.”

How long did he take to write the book? “It took a few years. I did my PhD on the Lebanese in West Africa. So that took about — all in all — five years of work.”

And where does he prefer to write? “I like to write in coffee shops or in office but with music. I like to write with noise.”

A lot of his teaching is on the Levant, from Iraq to Egypt. “Some of it increasingly on the Gulf, partly because there is so much interesting work being done on the Gulf at the moment, on the way in which the Gulf states work and on their economies.”

Is there a growing interest in the Gulf? “I think increasingly you are seeing French, British and American scholars who are interested in the UAE, Saudi, or Qatar, and the way in which those states work, the way in which legitimacy, authority and sovereignty function in those states ... and also, the political economy of these states — the energy economy, labour migration, and different aspects of it.”

Arsan has been working on a couple of more books on Lebanon. One is a history of the country from the 1560s with the advent of the Ottomans up to 2005. The other is on contemporary Lebanon.

Researching through the archives of history Arsan has found how immigrants from the Middle East have brought benefits to their host societies. “I mean looking at Middle Eastern migrants in not just West Africa, but places such as Australia, Latin America, North America — you can see the way they have integrated very successfully. Often over the course of several generations, [they] have become an integral part of those societies. Look at places such as Colombia, Mexico, or Brazil ... one of the main hospitals in São Paolo was built by Lebanese and Syrian migrants. As trite as it sounds, migration can have clear benefits. But also sadly, you are seeing the reproduction, the reiteration of a lot of the discourses and the rhetoric — the racist kind of imagery — that were being used in an earlier period against these migrants. Also, the way they are exploited by people smugglers — I found the same stuff in the archives from 100-120 years ago.”

Did he see the same kind of racist words being used at the time? “Yes, suspicion of Islam and Muslims, suspicion of people who lacked European culture and therefore lacked ‘civilisation’,” says Arsan. “And they would therefore be difficult to integrate, assimilate into European societies — white societies. You see a lot of debates in the early 20th century about whether Lebanese and Syrians in Australia and the US can be classified as white. And what it is that will allow them to be classified as white, and therefore to escape segregation and be allowed entry. People smuggling is a very sad echo of the past. You see the same pattern in which people are being sold tickets or even visas at exorbitant prices, being defrauded of their money and transported in very inhumane ways.”

Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.