On 4 March 1923, a few months before the French mandate in Syria and the British mandate in Iraq came into force officially, the French consul in Baghdad, Roger Maigret, crossed the 805 kilometers between the Iraqi capital and Beirut in twenty-one hours, in the car of two Damascus-based traders, Bishra ‘Asfar and Muhammad ‘Abd Allah “Hajji” al-Bassam. A few days later, Maigret sent an enthusiastic report to the French minister of foreign affairs in which he praised the benefits of the desert route and envisioned the possibility of traveling from Bombay to Beirut in ten days.Footnote 1 Shortly afterward, the British consul in Damascus, Clarence Edward Palmer, and the British liaison officer in Beirut, Major Duncan McCallum, tried their luck in the opposite direction. Starting from Damascus on 1 April, they reached Baghdad on 4 April before returning to Damascus. In the account of their expedition, Palmer and McCallum explicitly mentioned the example of Muhammad ‘Abd Allah al-Bassam smuggling gold across the Syrian-Iraqi border to champion the appropriateness of their itinerary. The Damascus trader and his agent in Baghdad were, according to Palmer and McCallum's account, the only purveyors of the necessary Bedouin companions for the route.Footnote 2
Although Muhammad ‘Abd Allah al-Bassam was better known to the French and British authorities as a cross-border gold smuggler in the early 1920s, his experience as a member of the ‘Aqil network of caravan trade was crucial in establishing motorized connections across the territories that had formerly been parts of the Ottoman Empire. ‘Aqil (pl.,‘Uqaylat) traders who originated from Najdi cities formed an efficient network of caravan trade that connected the Arabian Peninsula to the Iraqi and Syrian Ottoman provinces until the late 19th century. Muhammad ‘Abd Allah al-Bassam was a native of ‘Unayzah and his reputation as a prominent ‘Aqil trader moving between Damascus and Baghdad was well attested in the Ottoman archives and private Arabic correspondence. He provided the Nairn Company's first convoys between Baghdad and Damascus with companions (rifāq, sing. rafīq) recruited from among his ‘Aqil men. The company, established in the aftermath of World War I by Norman and Gerald Nairn, had already organized a mail and passenger service between Haifa and Beirut. Muhammad al-Bassam secured their vehicles’ protection on the new Damascus–Baghdad highway by subsidizing the Bedouin shaykhs he was acquainted with. By way of compensation, he was allocated a percentage of the mail contracts’ returns, amounting to nearly £2,000 in gold per annum in the first years of the company's operations.Footnote 3 Al-Bassam was thereby instrumental in what contemporary observers described as the displacement of slow caravans by the accelerated motion of “modern motor and lorry services” between Damascus and Baghdad, and the reduction of this “ancient way” of moving for local and short-haul traffic across the Syrian and Iraqi steppes.Footnote 4
In scholarship from the 1970s, the decline of the Asian and Middle Eastern caravan trade has been interpreted as the result, first, of competition by the oceanic trade led by the European maritime companies in the 17th and 18th centuries, and, second, of the superseding of animals by much faster steam- and fuel-motorized devices in the 19th and 20th centuries.Footnote 5 From the 2000s onward, scholarship on the post-Ottoman Middle East has focused again on the impact of new motion infrastructures and technologies upon the region's politics and economy.Footnote 6 As in the last quarter of the 19th century, and with even more intensity during the first decades of the 20th, speed and its modern devices came to be considered primary elements of modernity in the Middle East, the effects of which were debated in the Middle Eastern press and travelogues as soon as the first decades of the 20th century.Footnote 7
By reevaluating the agency of mandatory or protectorate subjects such as traders, pilgrims, and Bedouin shaykhs in the use of new technologies, a range of studies have recently offered stimulating insights into the sometimes unsuspected ways local and regional patterns of mobility were adapted to technological and colonial modernity.Footnote 8 Licit or illicit trade across the borders of the post-Ottoman Middle East and the effects of fuel-motorized transportation upon moving people such as nomadic tribes have unsurprisingly been challenging topics.Footnote 9 Quite tellingly, although his involvement in regional traffic has been on occasion appreciated in such studies, Muhammad ‘Abd Allah al-Bassam has been styled as “a sheikh of the Ruwala,” a “desert tribal leader,” or a crafty smuggler of gold from Syria to Iraq.Footnote 10 Muhammad al-Bassam's experience in overland mobility did not derive from his tribal pedigree and desert orientation, however. The al-Bassam family belonged to the tribe of Banu Tamim and the sedentary (ḥaḍarī) population of Najd. His skills and knowledge were the result of his long career as an urban-based caravan trader, although this business would connect him to Bedouin groups such as the Ruwala quite closely and, on occasion, prompted him to move gold from Syria to Iraq. This career and the many ways it was reported by contemporary sources hint at the necessity of a more qualified story of the late Ottoman and early post-Ottoman Middle East traders and travelers’ reaction to possibilities of accelerated motion and to the widening variety of available kinds of mobility (Fig. 1).Footnote 11
The valorization of speed and availability of steam- or fuel-motorized devices in the Middle East often implies that older and slower means of transportation quickly lost their significance or that they were reduced to localized and niche activities as the region entered modernity, which, as argued by On Barak, “we implicitly ascribe to the political, social, spatial, and temporal effects of the aforementioned technologies.”Footnote 12 Already in the mid-1920s and early 1930s, mechanical achievements and the travel comfort they offered soon relegated mules and camel caravans to vestiges of an outdated era.Footnote 13 Two Beiruti entrepreneurs and brothers, Francis and Alfred Kettaneh, established the Eastern Transport Company to operate a Beirut–Damascus–Bagdad service through Palmyra as a rival to the Nairns’ route. In the advertisements for the services of the Nairns and their rival over the Damascus–Baghdad overland route (inaugurated with the help of al-Bassam), the caravans were depicted either as overtaken by fast vehicles or charming ancient relics (Fig. 2).
Although speed and technology are valorized in recent scholarship as they were in the early 20th century, older forms of slower, nonmotorized mobility persisted, and caravans still figured in the story of moving Bedouin, border police, and regional traders in the modern Middle East. Muhammad ‘Abd Allah al-Bassam's story, therefore, can be envisioned from different perspectives. Most familiar is the displacement of slow caravans by faster, more competitive, and usually imperial- and state-controlled connections. Steam- and fuel-motorized devices accelerated the transportation of goods and people across the Middle East, while imperial authorities and more recently established national apparatuses struggled to channel mobility inside their territories and across their boundaries. Another perspective, adopted here, is to envision the resilience and the rationale of caravan networks and traders whose skills and wide-ranging businesses contributed to the implementation of new means of mobility such as the motorized services between Baghdad and Damascus, while keeping active older and slower means such as the caravans. Until the mid-20th century the conjunction of fast and slower patterns of motion characterized most of the experiences of mobility of regional traders and travelers. This conjunction was a by-product of the widening range of available technologies for motion and of the coherent yet gradually diverging economic geography. The coexistence of caravans and faster devices on connected albeit distinct networks reflected the interweaving rather than the succession of different regimes of mobility.Footnote 14
Put differently, the age of speed was an uneven one. The demise of caravans, as we shall see by focusing on the different ends of major trade routes connecting Bilad al-Sham to the Gulf, occurred at different paces, depending on social groups, routes, and trades. And the most up-to-date means of transportation such as steamships, trains, and cars entailed differentiated experiences of mobility, depending on their users’ socioeconomic status and purposes.Footnote 15 Envisioned from the caravan traders and travelers’ vantage, the age of speed also included contemporary, sometimes overlapping, and yet different forms of mobility that did not all hold speed as a determining factor. Traders and travelers could contemplate alternative and connected options while adapting their mobility to the challenge brought about by new and faster means of transportation across the region.
Although the resilience of the caravans and their contribution to the infrastructures of modern transportation have occasionally been noted by recent scholarship on mobility in the modern Middle East, rarely has this been envisioned from the caravan traders’ vantage point. Envisioning their experience of the age of speed is not only a way of understanding their multifaceted reaction to the availability of new modalities of travel and trade. When Ottoman and Arab sources are added to the records, we are able to relate a more qualified story of the time-space compression that geographers hold as a characteristic of globalization and the experience of modernity.Footnote 16
The traders’ stories incorporate forms of mobility that resist both time-space compression and the global “channeling” of mobilities, while proving resilient in the face of the challenge of speed. Although they were usually under the radar of the recording institutions, slower forms of mobility did not just exist concurrently with newer and faster technological options. They were comparable as well. As such, they could be combined in unevenly channeled circuits of travel and transportation. For many overland traders and travelers, it was the combination of both slow and fast modes of transportation that, indeed, characterized the age of speed. As it entailed the compression of such mobilities into a reduced number of usually preexisting and nonetheless recently standardized circuits, the overland funneling process of the interwar period also made such movement more uniform.
The first part of this article draws on the career of Muhammad al-Bassam and his colleagues trading across Syria and Iraq in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to examine the economic place of slowness in the age of speed, the specific geography into which older, slower modes of transportation contributed and fit in, and the most common experience of combining fast and slow mobilities. It argues that, although steam- and fuel-motorized devices did challenge older means of transportation, caravans retained an economic rationale of their own, with enduring impacts on the territory. The article then moves to study the way al-Bassam and his successors envisioned overland mobility once rail, and later cars, made the age of speed more widespread in the interwar post-Ottoman Middle East, albeit at an uneven pace. The argument is that the expansion of train and automobility concurred with the implementation of standardizing and channeling measures to undermine the rationale of combining overland modes of travel. This concurrence eventually led to caravans being increasingly out of place on the circuits of exchange in the region. The caravan traders and travelers’ experiences illuminate, again, the uneven pace and the comprehensive geographical dimensions of such transformations.
The Rationale of Slowness
Although in 1923 Muhammad ‘Abd Allah al-Bassam's cars followed a direct route running from Baghdad to Damascus through ‘Ana (on the right bank of the Euphrates) in Iraq, al-Sukhnah and Palmyra in the Syrian steppe or alternatively through Hit (160 kilometers west of Baghdad on the Euphrates) in Iraq then eastward via Kubaysa (20 kilometers west of Hit) up to Dumayr (40 kilometers east of Damascus) through the desert, many experienced caravan traders like him preferred to go via the much longer Euphrates route that connected Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul to Aleppo through Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa. At the same time that imperial harbors of the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Gulf flourished thanks to developing steamers’ lines, overland domestic trade also expanded. The increase of trade in cities such as Baghdad and Damascus was not only the result of global trade expansion, with growing amounts of imported merchandise trickling down to inner markets. In many regions of the Ottoman Middle East, agriculture, handicraft, and industrial production nurtured an active overland trade served by caravans as much as by railways and maritime or fluvial steamers. Caravans were, in turn, instrumental in marketing this production.Footnote 17
As the Ottoman authorities had established new garrisons and brokered new deals with Bedouin shaykhs to secure the development of markets and agricultural settlements from the mid-19th century, the Euphrates route between the Gulf and Bilad al-Sham was better protected from Bedouin attacks.Footnote 18 Although it would take traders two months to get from Baghdad to Damascus through Aleppo instead of the average twenty days by the direct steppe route, the longer route provided regular watering places for caravans. Its intermediate markets offered additional opportunities for trade along the way.Footnote 19 When their caravans were subject to attacks by the Bedouin, the traders were quick to complain to the highest Ottoman authorities and require from officials on the spot that they honor the sultan's reasserted commitments to ensure the security of routes and settlements. Copious correspondence with Ottoman officials illuminates the overland trade's briskness on routes connecting Iraq to Syria in the early 20th century. In 1906, a group of Damascene traders and their Baghdad partners petitioned the ministry of interior when one of their caravans that consisted of 5,000 loads was attacked and plundered while on its way along the Euphrates. The value of robbed merchandise alone, they claimed, was worth 20,000 Ottoman pounds.Footnote 20
A crossing point on the Euphrates, garrisoned by Ottoman troops since 1864, Deir ez-Zor experienced an unprecedented development that owed much to caravan trade and the settlement of traders from Mosul, Aleppo, Hamah, and Damascus. From 5,000 inhabitants in the early 1880s, the population grew to 20,000 by the late 1890s. As their business was challenged by the expansion of the Euphrates caravan trade and, starting from the late 1900s, by the Hijaz Railway, traders from older caravan cities such as al-Sukhna and Palmyra relocated to Deir ez-Zor as well.Footnote 21 Muhammad ‘Abd Allah al-Bassam himself routed his caravans through the city, even if these caravans would on occasion branch off and take the direct route to Damascus, according to trading opportunities.Footnote 22
Although several khans were built on the route to Aleppo with the support of the Ottoman authorities, business was not limited to transit trade between Iran, Iraq, and Syria. A booming caravan trade developed in synergy with the maritime global trade served by steamers calling at the ports of the Mediterranean coast and Basra. Exports from Deir ez-Zor were to a large extent made up of agricultural and pastoral productions (grains, sheep, leather, and wool). They exceeded imports and found their way to Syrian cities and ports like Beirut and Alexandretta, and eventually wound up in Europe.Footnote 23 For traders who kept opting for the lengthy Euphrates route to Aleppo and Damascus, movement was not “a cost and dead time” spent on crossing empty spaces.Footnote 24 Opportunities for safe business with Bedouin tribes and agricultural settlements on the way, and the strengthening of intermediate markets like Deir ez-Zor, endowed longer ventures with an economic rationale of their own. By supporting the reorganization of route networks and the development of intermediate markets at the expense of others (for example, the Euphrates route through Deir ez-Zor and Aleppo rather than the more direct route to Damascus across the steppe), caravan trade was both instrumental in the geographical processes of territorialization and nurtured by the same processes. The slow pace of camels did not preclude the caravans from reciprocating, overland, processes at work in the hierarchies of Mediterranean and Indian Ocean ports during the age of “speedier and timelier” steam services.Footnote 25
Although the Istanbul–Baghdad railway was not completed until the late 1930s and steamers on the Tigris rarely went beyond Baghdad from Basra, the persistence of caravan trade between Damascus and Baghdad was not just a default option. In the late 1890s, traders actually could choose to send their merchandise to the Mediterranean through Basra, and the other way round through Beirut or Alexandretta. Local trading houses with agents in Baghdad, such as Hamad al-Bassam, a relative of Muhammad `Abd Allah, could arrange the shipping to Port Said and Europe. As far as we can judge from published European sources however, the costs of maritime freight were still high in comparison to those of caravans. Sending goods to Port Said on steamers would cost the same price as to London: freight varied between 27.5 and 30 shillings per ton between the 1890s and 1910. Because of the necessary transshipment, freight for Beirut and Jaffa would start from 48 shillings for a metric ton (almost £2.5), and 52 shillings for Alexandretta, Smyrna, and Istanbul.Footnote 26 In relation to the steamers’ speed (a mere twenty days to connect Basra to Suez) and the distance separating the Gulf from the Mediterranean (8000 kilometers), these costs were low. However, additional costs such as insurance fees and freight from Baghdad to Basra or from Beirut, Jaffa, or Alexandretta to Aleppo or Damascus applied. Freight between ports and inland cities was still high in the late 1890s and the early 1900s: around £1.9 a ton by caravan between Beirut and Damascus (camels being the most competitive option) or £1–1.3 for steamboats between Basra and Baghdad. In the mid-1890s, caravan freight from Baghdad to Mosul started at £4.2 a ton, and £4 from Mosul to Aleppo.Footnote 27
Before their investments in infrastructures were recovered, railway companies did not fare much better than caravans. What is more, as they were challenged by maritime, river, and rail alternatives, the caravans’ freight kept decreasing on many overland routes throughout the region. It remained a competitive option after the opening of railways such as the Beirut–Damascus line in 1895. Caravans were even compulsory between the Beirut railway terminus and the harbor located one mile away from the station. Until the early 1910s, rail freight was so high that most Aleppo traders preferred commissioning caravans in their business with Alexandretta to using the Aleppo–Tripoli rail connection. Between Jerusalem and Jaffa, rail freight came to approximately £0.7–0.9 a ton. Once they had been unloaded in Jerusalem, however, most of the trains had to return almost empty to Jaffa. The structural commercial disequilibrium between the two cities impinged on the railway's cost effectiveness and compelled the company to keep freight prices high. The line, inaugurated in 1892 and stretching 90 kilometers, thus suffered from fierce competition with slower but much cheaper (£0.5–0.7 a ton) camel caravans. Once in Jerusalem, caravans could follow their journey southward to Gaza and Egypt, without incurring the train's financial losses. In Jaffa, camels were even compulsory for transshipment between the port and the rail station, which was 1.5 kilometers away; they were equally compulsory for transshipment between Jerusalem's station and the city (1.2 kilometers).Footnote 28 Because of additional costs to reach inland cities from the coast or the closest railway station, and because of the economic rationale of incremental albeit slow mobility, caravans were not supplanted by new means of transportation suddenly, nor did they lag far behind in their competition with steam and rail on routes that could be traveled either way.
By repeatedly highlighting the synergetic relations between steam and rail on the one hand and animal (mostly camels, but also mules and horses) locomotion on the other, recent scholarship has challenged the assumed inherent competition of older and new transportation systems. Camels not only connected stations and harbors to unequipped hinterlands. They provided the fuel for faster modes of mobility as well. Along the Suez Canal and Egyptian railways, as in the Hejaz beyond the Medina rail terminus and between the harbor of Jeddah and inland Mecca, from the late decades of the 19th to the early decades of the 20th century increasing numbers of caravans supported the operations of steamers and trains by transporting water or coal and providing connecting overland transportation to disembarking travelers and pilgrims.Footnote 29 As many other caravan traders, al-Bassam had a share in such synergies. In the early 1900s, he provided the Ottoman authorities with hundreds of camels for the construction of the Hijaz Railway (1901–1908). Although he apparently supplied the animals on a nonprofit basis, al-Bassam subsequently asked for payment of the fares and compensation for 300 camels that died during the construction. The archives of the Ottoman Ministry of Interior (Dahiliye) do not say if al-Bassam managed to be reimbursed, nor do they disclose the trader's actual losses. Yet, by carrying materials, wood, water, provisions, and workmen along the rail track, these hundreds of camels were instrumental in the development of a major and much celebrated steam-powered Ottoman infrastructure (Fig. 3). Men like Muhammad al-Bassam, who bought their camels from Bedouin tribes, were the nexus that linked two seemingly concurrent kinds of mobility and made them synergetic. Through their agency, Bedouin providers of camels, guards, and guides could derive some benefits from the Ottoman and European investments in new infrastructure and investors and entrepreneurs could secure their operations on the spot.Footnote 30
From that perspective, al-Bassam's later involvement in the Nairn lines between Syria and Iraq was only a further instance of such synergies. He was a player among many others in the brisk camel trade between Bilad al-Sham and Egypt. Although some of the camels they had bought from Bedouin tribes in Najd, Iraq, and the Syrian Desert were used as pack animals, caravan traders such as al-Bassam repeatedly traded in camels meant for different uses during their long business ventures. Depending on their pedigree, camels could be used as beasts of burden for local transportation and agricultural needs, and sometimes for slaughter. Between the Syrian and Egyptian markets, Palestine was the main corridor for this trade, which, although it was a transnational and long-ranging one, could nonetheless supply local circuits of mobility. On the eve of World War I, an estimated 100,000 camels were carried every year from the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq to Egypt via Deir ez-Zor, Damascus, and Gaza.Footnote 31
Muhammad al-Bassam grasped other opportunities for investments along the rail tracks of the Ottoman Empire. In the early 1910s, with a trading partner, he embarked upon the purchase of lands in the vicinity of Nusaybin in northeastern Syria. Al-Bassam and his partner reportedly bought 400 dunums of land for an estimated 30,000 Ottoman pounds. As railway construction progressed across the region, land value increased in proportion to agricultural prospects. Although al-Bassam insistently denied it, the Ottoman governor of Diyarbakir and the interior ministry suspected him of engaging in land speculation with foreign investors. While addressing the matter of land purchases along the Baghdad rail track, however, the governor of Damascus, Mehmed ‘Arif Bey, tempered his colleagues’ suspicions by reminding them of al-Bassam's fame in the Ottoman domains and of his financial losses a decade earlier in the Hijaz construction works.Footnote 32
In Damascus during the early 1910s, al-Bassam was still known to the Ottoman authorities and his colleagues for his involvement in the ‘Aqil caravan trade between Najd, Iraq, and Bilad al-Sham. When his fellow ‘Aqil traders were accused in 1911 of selling firearms to the Bedouin, none other than al-Bassam was called by the governor of Damascus to vouch for the caravan traders. The many overland routes and the opportunistic mobility of caravan traders such as the ‘Uqaylat made it impossible for the Ottoman authorities to monitor the actual use of the weapons they brought with them. When some of the traders refused to hand their firearms over as they were requested to do upon entering the settled regions (bilād al-‘ammar), al-Bassam had to justify their need to be armed to protect their merchandise on the way from Najd to the Syrian cities. In a letter he sent from Cairo to one of his partners in Kuwait that year, the Najdi trader Muhammad ‘Abd Allah al-Qar‘awi gave a detailed account of al-Bassam's repeated interventions on behalf of the caravan traders between Syria and the Arabian Peninsula.
Himself a caravan trader who planned to return from Egypt after selling his merchandise, al-Qar‘awi could only praise al-Bassam's role in regional overland trade. While his letter to Kuwait was shipped by one of the Bombay lines’ steamers via the Indian Ocean to convey quickly the usual and yet much needed information on markets and prices, al-Qar‘awi told his partner that he was about to leave for Medina, and, from there, to Najd. Although he did not make it explicit, at least half of his journey back (the part between Medina and the Najd) had to be on a camel's back. On the Suez–Medina segment, available means included steamers (via Jeddah), sailing ships (via Yanbu‘), and caravans. From Medina to Najd and the Gulf beyond, caravans were, until the early 1930s, the only affordable means in addition to offering many business opportunities en route. Although speed obviously mattered for the transmission of business information, slow land-borne transportation still had its own economic rationale in the view of al-Qar‘awi and his colleagues.Footnote 33
A few years later, between 1917 and 1918, the Ottoman Ministry of War entrusted Muhammad al-Bassam in Damascus with more than 35,000 Ottoman pounds that had to be transferred to the army in Yemen.Footnote 34 As the British and French navies enforced blockades that cut maritime connections through the Suez Canal and the Gulf, and because the Hijaz Railway that al-Bassam had helped to build was subject to attacks and sabotage with increasing frequency, the Ottoman Army resorted to al-Bassam and his fellows’ caravans for what appeared to be the safest means of transporting valued items. Although the transition to accelerated and channeled mobility was made even more urgent by war operations along the Suez Canal and the functioning Middle East rail tracks, slow and unchanneled forms of mobility mastered by traders like al-Bassam proved vital to the war economy and overland trade. Through their incremental mobility covering territories from cities to steppes, caravans were instrumental in sustaining networks inherited from the Ottoman Empire that were now becoming transnational. The war made this only more evident.Footnote 35
At the very same time as he was helping French and English diplomats cross the desert, in 1923 (in the anecdote that opened this essay) al-Bassam was closely tracked by mandatory authorities for his involvement in smuggling gold from Lebanon and Syria to Iraq. The depreciation of silver currencies and the deficit of the Syrian balance of payments to Iraq were powerful incentives for gold exports from Bilad al-Sham to Iraq, the Gulf, and, beyond, the Indian Ocean. In the 1920s, these Ottoman era incentives concurrently with French franc fluctuations, heavy customs duties collected on imported goods by Syrian and Iraqi authorities, and the developing maritime trade between the Gulf and the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal stimulated what was now considered by mandatory regimes as gold smuggling.Footnote 36 Together with well-established associates in Beirut, Aleppo, and Damascus, al-Bassam would collect gold specie from other traders and retailers in Lebanon and Syria in exchange for sterling pounds he had bought in Iraq. Clients were eager to obtain pounds at good rates to clear the debts they owed to their Iraqi, Egyptian, and British correspondents for merchandise shipped from Baghdad or Basra to Jaffa, Beirut, or Alexandretta. On a weekly basis, al-Bassam's associates carried the collected gold across the desert and cashed it in the Baghdad-based branches of English banks. More often than not, the gold specie collected by al-Bassam and his associates was hidden in camels’ loads up to the Syrian-Iraqi border. There, the peacetime flow of caravans and the many origins of their merchandise made contraband much harder to track.Footnote 37 Once they had dodged the French-monitored customs in Deir ez-Zor and Abu Kamal and entered the recently defined Iraqi territories, the caravans’ traders and guides would transfer the gold to cars and carry it faster to Baghdad. On 4 March 1923, whether he knew it or not, French Consul Maigret probably joined one of Muhammad's return smuggling trips from the Iraqi capital to Damascus.Footnote 38
In a letter he wrote from Baghdad in 1925 to his partner Muhammad ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-‘Ajaji in Bahrain, the caravan trader Hasan al-Hadban gave further evidence of these fast-moving currency channels and their vital importance to the much less timely caravan trade connecting Iraq, Syria, and the Arabian Peninsula in the 1920s. The outbreak of the Great Syrian Revolution in Syria had made the route dangerous and brought the exchange of gold specie to a standstill. Some business was still being carried on, however, on a reduced basis. As he arrived in Baghdad from Kuwait on a routine business trip and considered a still unscheduled but nonetheless imminent return, al-Hadban urged his partner al-‘Ajaji in Bahrain not to stop arranging trade to Syria. Camel and stock caravan trade, in particular, was still active. Most importantly, drafts on London-based banks enabled the traders to settle their account balance in Ottoman and British pounds or rupees (the rates of which are duly mentioned in the letter) without transporting hard currencies.Footnote 39
The availability of steam- and fuel-motorized devices actually provided al-Bassam and his colleagues with means of fast transportation they valued highly for gold, drafts, and information on the market. Gold had not only to be smuggled out of Syria through monitored borders in the 1920s; it was submitted to frequent price changes as well, which made fast shipments vital to catching opportunities on the global exchange market linking Damascus, Aleppo, and Beirut to Baghdad through British banks. Such fast circuits existed in connection with slower caravan mobility on many other routes. A famous Hijazi businessman of the interwar period and the creator of a successful family company in Saudi Arabia, Sa‘id ibn Muhammad Bin Zaqr mentioned in his memoirs the increasing number and thriving business of the exchange counters inaugurated in Jeddah by Meccan traders in the 1930s. The expansion of motor vehicle connections between the two Hijazi cities were, according to the trader, the driving factor in that increase, although most pilgrims still traveled from Jeddah to Mecca on camels’ backs.Footnote 40 For money exchange, slow mobility was not relevant. Space had to be crossed uninterruptedly and, contrary to the caravans traveling on the same routes, movement was deemed a “dead” time. On the whole however, fast and slow circuits were equally useful to regional traders. As in the flow of correspondence between al-Qar‘awi and al-Hadban, the synergy of such networks of fast circulation with resilient (and sometimes developing) forms of slower mobility played a key role in upholding the coherence of the post-Ottoman regional economy between Egypt or Bilad al-Sham and the Gulf.Footnote 41
Although many pilgrims and traders switched to celebrated steamers and trains to ship their merchandise across the Middle East or to get to Mecca and Medina, the shift was far from complete. For overland traders and travelers in Syria, Iraq, and even later in the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula during this time period, fast connections were additional options—not exclusive—to incremental, opportunistic, and relatively slow mobility.Footnote 42 Their experience was one of a widening range of available options, combining fast and slower, channeled and unchanneled forms of mobility, cars, trains, steamships, and camels. Access to accelerated and technological means of motion, celebrated as they were by foreign observers as much as by their elite and middle-class local counterparts, should not distract our attention from persistent and seemingly out of date ways of moving and transporting across the region. The age of speed included slower mobilities that were neither circumscribed to specific activities nor to segments neglected by modern infrastructures. At the regional and local levels, even where and when a full range of fast and slow motion devices was available, speed was not held as the only determining factor of mobility.
Combining and Standardizing Overland Mobilities
From 1923 onward, perhaps because they knew they were under close surveillance, Muhammad al-Bassam and his associates dispensed with the usual camel expedition and resorted, at least occasionally, to fully automobile journeys from Damascus. On 15 March 1923, at the end of an epic chase on the Damascus–Baghdad direct route, two of their cars were brought to a halt by a military airplane, and the drivers were arrested by French police who had pursued them by car. The officers found the equivalent of more than 30,000 gold sterling pounds (a huge amount of money) astutely hidden in the cars’ bodies. In addition to the two drivers (one French, the other Kurdish), the three arrested “travelers” were, not surprisingly, tribesmen who had most probably been hired as rifāq or security companions. One of them, caught as he was running away, was reported to bear the name of Sulayman Mohamed Ibrahim Aguel (‘Aqil).Footnote 43 Whether his apprehension by the French police was a serious blow to his overland trading business or only a failed attempt in an otherwise successful transition to mechanized trade, al-Bassam's automobile expedition stands in sharp contrast with his previous journeys combining caravans and automobiles. It exemplifies, once more, the changing patterns of regional trade and mobility and emphasizes the unevenness of that change. It also underscores how caravan traders and travelers were in no way passive victims of imperial and technological powers—the fast-moving police cars and military airplane in al-Bassam's 1923 venture. Ironically, al-Bassam and his associates’ cars had proved easier for the French police they were meant to evade to track than the usual caravans.
On the Baghdad–Damascus route, as elsewhere in the post-Ottoman Middle East, fast, motorized devices challenged the monitoring of mobility by mandatory and national authorities.Footnote 44 At the same time, motorization was instrumental in the channeling of these mobilities. Although they were usually localized on existing caravan routes, automobile roads, stopovers, and their facilities as well as new border posts and border-crossing procedures agreed on by the post-Ottoman States worked together to standardize overland transportation. Available accounts by caravan traders from the Gulf frequently mentioned how, once they arrived in Palestine or Egypt, they had to arrange their travel by train between the two countries. Although it was rarely needed as long as they traveled in caravans, they usually had to procure a passport with the help of established businessmen (more often than not ex-caravan traders from Najd), such as Fawzan al-Sabiq in Cairo, to enter Egypt and come back to Palestine by train. The many rounds of inspection (taftīsh) during the rail trip between both countries required as many tricks from the traders to pass the gold currencies they received from sales and money transfers in Egypt, although they were in dire need of it to arrange their caravans’ return ventures. In the mid-1940s, Ibrahim al-Musallam's father even resorted to the help of a caravan trader's son, who was employed in the rail companies or mandatory administration, to smuggle his currencies while returning from Egypt to Palestine by train.Footnote 45
Caravans were still active between Aleppo and Mosul, a major caravan route before it was supplanted by maritime connections via the modernized port of Beirut in the early decades of the 20th century.Footnote 46 Until the late 1930s, short-haul camel caravans were vital to connecting villages not accessible by roads with Aleppo, Hama, and Deir ez-Zor.Footnote 47 The unevenness of mobility was even more pronounced in the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula where ‘Aqil and other traders kept caravan mobility active in combination with faster, mechanized mobilities. In 1932, Musa‘id Ya‘qub al-Badr, the scion of an important Kuwaiti merchant family, traveled to Mecca on hajj. In the account of his three-month journey, al-Badr described the mixed caravan he traveled with and the many combinations available for mobility across the Arabian Peninsula. Trading opportunities accounted for the slow progress of the caravan. Pilgrims (about fifty tents) accompanied loads of merchandise being traded between the Gulf and the Hijaz via important markets on the caravan's path, such as Buraydah.Footnote 48 Many other pilgrims from Kuwait with whom al-Badr eventually caught up in Medina would get to the Holy Cities by steamers and come back either directly or, more often than not, via Bombay. As his caravan got close to Medina, its path ran parallel to what al-Badr interestingly called “the motor-way” (jādat al-mawātir), to distinguish it from his caravan's path. Upon arriving at their penultimate stopover, the Saudi governor sent a car to pick up a member of the Kuwaiti princely family who had traveled with al-Badr and the other pilgrims.Footnote 49
Although caravans could still run in parallel and sometimes combine with cars and trucks between the Gulf and the Hijaz, on the Damascus–Baghdad route the former were gradually being displaced by the latter's services. Syrian, more specifically Damascus-based, merchants gradually lost their interest in the overland trade to Iraq, whereas their partners in the Gulf such as al-‘Ajaji began resorting to maritime connections. Although Syria and Iraq ranked behind Lebanon and Palestine in motorization, both countries were home to a growing number of cars and trucks. Whereas Syria counted only 100 motorized vehicles at the end of World War I, by 1937 some 2,515 automobiles, 348 buses, and 873 trucks were on the roads. In Iraq, the number of motorized vehicles leapt from “a few dozen” in 1920 to 3,500 private cars and 1,000 trucks in 1930.Footnote 50 The rapidly expanding availability of automobiles, however, was the not the only driving factor leading al-Bassam and his colleagues to abandon their camels. Nor was the later expansion of automobiles in the neighboring countries of the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf the sole reason for the caravans’ resilient overland trade with the Bilad al-Sham.
French and British officials had deemed the Damascus–Baghdad route to be essential for imperial communication between Europe and Asia. A transit agreement between Syrian and Iraqi authorities was signed in 1925 to ease cross-border trade. A series of free-trade agreements were concluded between Syria, Palestine, and Transjordan between 1921 and 1925, which sometimes predated border definition agreements and kept those markets integrated throughout the interwar period.Footnote 51 Ibrahim al-Musallam's ventures in Bilad al-Sham, which I will cover in the remaining part of this article, should not, therefore, come as a surprise. By contrast, between Syria and Iraq on the one hand, and between Syria and Egypt on the other, overland exchange was decreasing to a limited amount of merchandise (cereals, livestock, mechanical equipment, and textiles). During the 1930s, the caravan trade of Syria with Iraq and Egypt would face rising tariffs, in addition to increasing travel restrictions such as quarantines and customs inspections as the camels moved across boundaries. The bulk of the Syrian-Iraqi trade was now a transit trade carried by steamers through the Suez Canal.Footnote 52
What fit well with scheduled and direct automobile or rail services eventually undermined the rationale of the incremental and opportunistic pace of caravans. Whereas businessmen like Muhammad al-Bassam and the Nairn brothers were still in the need of ‘Aqil guides for their journeys through the desert in the early 1920s, they also would employ European or Kurdish drivers and mechanics whose technical skills prevailed over their ignorance of tribes and intermediary markets. As the steppe and the desert turned into “a fast-moving landscape” between main cities, the Nairn brothers themselves in 1926 dispensed with al-Bassam's role as an intermediary with Bedouin shaykhs and companions, although not without giving him a number of the company's shares.Footnote 53
Available reports about al-Bassam's gold expedition by car did not mention any other merchandise. Yet the gold specie smuggled overland probably helped a lot in settling the accounts of Syrian and Iraqi traders. As the bulk of trade between the Mediterranean and the Gulf was carried on steamers, Nairn and the other companies operating motor vehicle connections between Baghdad and Damascus made most of their profit from transporting people, not freight.Footnote 54 Along the routes of Palestine between Bilad al-Sham and Egypt, the numbers of camels traded decreased, because of the extension of mechanized transport in Egypt for local and national connections, increasing border impediments, and the reorientation of the Egyptian market for camels toward supplies from Sudan.Footnote 55 As a result of protectionist tariff policies and the promotion of national economy development, the markets of once intensely caravan-connected countries gradually diverged. Policies adopted in relation to the Great Depression only accelerated this process. Economic divergence undermined the coherence of long and lengthy caravan routes followed by traders like al-Qar‘awi between the Gulf, Syria, and Egypt, while it fostered the channeling of mobility through newly defined corridors and customs. The policies adopted by the Middle East governments in reaction to the Great Depression intensified the nationalization of their economies.Footnote 56
What happened between Syria and Iraq unfolded somewhat later between the neighboring countries of Bilad al-Sham and the Arabian Peninsula. The contrast between the two regions highlights the unevenness of the standardization of mobilities overland as envisioned by regional traders. The journey of Ibrahim al-Musallam and his father's (an ‘Aqil trader) caravan over a three-year span (1945–48) is a case in point.Footnote 57 His circuit (maṭāf) from Najd (inner Arabia) to Transjordan, Palestine, and Egypt not only confronted al-Musallam with a faster means of transportation that prevailed in Egypt and Bilad al-Sham earlier than in the Arabian Peninsula; he also faced the repurposing of caravans’ mobility in the transforming geography of the Middle East, a more complex transformation than the mere reduction of caravans to the service of local routes.
The slower pace of caravans continued to enable the traders to keep active a dense and coherent transnational network. Lengthy periods of camping during winter and the camels’ grazing seasons provided many occasions to meet Bedouin shaykhs. When ‘Uqaylat in Amman, Gaza, al-‘Arish, and Cairo helped his father's business and administrative procedures, al-Musallam could observe this trading network's enduring reliability and appreciate the true value of prolonged stopovers and unhurried motion. Villages and stations where the Saudi and Egyptian states had located their checkpoints and bureaucratic apparatus remained places of usual sociability between caravan traders from Najd, Syria, and Transjordan. Key information on markets and partners could be gathered, and new partnerships could be established. Local officials such as the treasury officer in al-Nabak (northern Saudi Arabia, close to the Saudi-Jordanian border) hosted frequent dinners with visiting traders. Once they had checked the caravans’ documents, patrol officers were invited for tea and coffee, exchanging information as before.Footnote 58
Al-Musallam's account nonetheless makes clear that mechanized devices were now playing a major role, even when it came to caravan trade. Automobiles and trains actually enabled the traders to go ahead of their caravans to strike their deals directly by dispensing with intermediaries, multiply business ventures in parallel to the progress of their caravans, and check the situation of the markets ahead of their camels’ arrival. Even caravan traders like Ibrahim al-Musallam's father were now moving by car, autobus, and train in Bilad al-Sham, Egypt, and Iraq. They would meet up with their caravans (and the employees in charge) only as they approached the markets and customs points. Many among the ‘Aqil traders al-Musallam met in Amman and Cairo had actually settled there definitively and fully converted to steam- and fuel-motorized trade, exchange, and banking activities.Footnote 59
The privilege given to direct and fast connections extended to the local level as well. Al-Sukhnah, an important provider of caravan traders and camels and a major stopover for caravans in the Syrian steppe until the early 20th century, was gradually being transformed into a “nest of mechanics and drivers succeeding the camel drivers.” The city's traders were now “exporting the products of a tiny local market” directly to the main Syrian towns.Footnote 60 Trucks and cars were extending the reach of main commercial centers deeper into sedentary zones around capital cities such as Beirut and Damascus, whereas intermediate markets and even bigger ones such as Aleppo retained only a local redistributing role. Equipped with cars and trucks, urban traders, rural producers, and Bedouin shaykhs could now, over time, dispense with the caravans that used to connect them.Footnote 61 The businesses and networks of caravan traders were challenged by the segmenting of previously coherent routes, the growing distance between previously densely connected capitals and intermediate markets, the concentration of regional trade in a limited number of major towns, and the resulting prevailing of faster and direct over slower and incremental connections.
The interplay between rail or automobile transportation and caravans was not always a smooth one. And yet nowhere in his account did Ibrahim al-Musallam describe them as in competition. Although his father's trade in camels in the Palestinian and Egyptian markets was subjected to repeated failures and prices that hardly balanced expenditures, he did not ascribe it to the extension of cars and rail for local connections. Automobile traffic sometimes had to be interrupted for several hours to let the camels walk, but the only incidents over the use of routes occurred with Bedouin, not car drivers. Ibrahim al-Musallam appreciated the comfort and speed of the sayyarāt (automobiles) and the autobuses as they enabled him to travel with his father between the main towns of Transjordan, Palestine, Iraq, and Egypt smoothly. Autobuses and cars occasionally brought much-needed supplies to the caravan during the winter encampments.Footnote 62 When they had to hurry back from Amman in 1948 because of the war and the border closure, al-Musallam was quickly put into a car by his father and reached Riyadh in a mere three days.Footnote 63
A few years before this, when al-Musallam had traveled from Saudi Arabia to Jordan, the slow path of the Najdi traders’ caravans had been challenged by the fast-moving vehicles of their colleagues and rivals from Tabuk. In July 1939, the traders of Tabuk asked the Saudi Ministry of Finance for the authorization to import their merchandise from Transjordan directly by car. Until then, they had to transfer it on camels once they entered the Saudi territory. The traders of that important trading town of Saudi Arabia, 250 kilometers from the Saudi-Jordanian border, actually required permission to trade with Transjordan, and, through it, with Syria without interruption. According to the local treasury officials, the bulk of the prevailing caravan trade with Syria and Transjordan was carried by Najdi caravans through the Saudi border village of al-Qurayyat, east of Tabuk. There, Najdi traders used cars “only rarely” to bring their merchandise from Syria and Transjordan. When they did so, they would transfer their merchandise to camels once they had passed through Saudi customs.Footnote 64
In addition to the fears of contraband entering by fast-moving vehicles from neighboring countries deep into Saudi territory, local customs officials were obviously concerned about the competition between two different means of transportation. By contrast, the council of ministers was easily convinced of the economic benefits resulting from fast and direct trade. Cars following the only highway (ṭarīq) suitable for automobile between Tabuk and Syria, it was argued, could easily be channeled and submitted to border regulations. Although, in so doing, they were actually bypassing the long-established networks of Najdi traders to get a slice of the growing import market, Tabuk's traders also managed to persuade the authorities in Riyadh that the benefit (maṣlaḥa) of automobile transport did not encroach on their business.Footnote 65 As their circuits had not been fully standardized yet, cars and camels could still be envisioned not as inherent rivals, but as distinct modes of mobility.
Tabuk's traders and their Najdi counterparts were not, indeed, supplying the same local markets. Their itineraries had still not been unified by trading regulations and border agreements. Between Tabuk and Bilad al-Sham, as elsewhere in the Middle East, the number of routes suitable for motor vehicles remained limited until the early 1940s. Only in 1932 had an automobile connection for travelers been inaugurated between Kuwait and Riyadh.Footnote 66 The extent of motor vehicle transportation also was constrained by the limited number of petrol and repair stations (usually referred to as “garages” in Arabic) scattered along the existing roads, at the main stopovers and border posts.Footnote 67 In addition to supporting the channeling of automobile mobility along a limited set of fixed itineraries, such features explain why al-Musallam and others’ caravans could still venture along extended networks that bypassed the circuits of mechanized transportation, without being confined to short segments and resenting the competition of mechanized means of transportation.
Although his account of the routes, prolonged stopovers, and many redirections is modeled on medieval geographers and encyclopedists such as Yaqut al-Hamawi to give a sense of permanency, Ibrahim al-Musallam's 1945–48 story nonetheless highlights the developing challenges of overland mobilities. Caravans between Najd and Bilad al-Sham would have to follow set itineraries through specified checkpoints and border stations (marākiz and makhāfir). Traders had to submit to controls that increased as they approached boundaries, and bureaucratic procedures at departure points would fix their otherwise opportunistic ventures once and for all. Al-Musallam recorded that his father and his associates took great care to comply with bureaucratic formalities and submitted to the many controls of their manifests, the counting of their merchandise and camels, and the paying of customs duties. As they were afraid of being suspected by border patrols of smuggling, caravan traders such as his father even preferred not to move during the nighttime hours anymore, a very odd strategy for caravans crossing the desert.Footnote 68 In so doing, Ibrahim's caravan submitted to a process that duplicated the differentiation, regulation, standardization, and bureaucratization of mobility described by Valeska Huber for connections across the Suez Canal. Although it was never fully complete and triggered many forms of evasion, this funneling or channeling process affected overland travel and gave an advantage to faster and standardized connections. Similar processes gradually unfolded across the Saudi-Kuwaiti and Kuwaiti-Iraqi frontiers in the late 1930s and early 1940s, whereby economic transformations combined with states’ endeavors to standardize cross-border trade along fixed circuits, to the detriment of the caravans.Footnote 69
Automobiles fared better in that changing economic geography and the channeling of mobilities which, albeit belatedly, reflected processes at work earlier in Bilad al-Sham and Egypt. Ibrahim al-Musallam often crossed paths with cars and trucks, sometime driven by fellow countrymen from Najd. As they came closer to Bilad al-Sham or moved between the main cities of Iraq, he and his father shifted into cars with increasing frequency. On their quick journey from Transjordan to Baghdad in November 1947, they were driven on the itinerary inaugurated by Muhammad al-Bassam twenty-five years earlier. Once in Baghdad, they prepared to arrange for a new caravan to return home (to Najd) and carry out trade en route. Merchandise was carried by car to Najaf, where the camels were available. Once assembled on the camels’ backs, the caravan departed to Najd.Footnote 70
During the interwar period, caravan traders had to adapt to a series of economic, bureaucratic, and technological transformations that radically affected the patterns of overland mobilities. These transformations gradually but unevenly converged to undermine the geography that had hitherto allowed the coexistence and combining of faster and slower, direct and circuitous, standardized and opportunistic mobility. The prevailing of standardized and direct connections at the local and the regional levels, the increasing nationalization of the Middle East economies (only intensified by the reaction to the Great Depression), and the subsequent divergences between hitherto interwoven markets contributed to the erasure of the geography that had fit the slow caravans so well. Speed and technology, thus, were part of a comprehensive reconfiguration that not only had a channeling and standardizing effect on the ways of transporting goods and moving people overland, but gradually reduced the heterogeneity of overland mobility. Although it unfolded at a very uneven pace between Bilad al-Sham and the Gulf in the period leading up to the 1948 Palestine war, this double process brought the caravans to a final stop.
Quite tellingly, the end of caravans was not ascribed solely to the triumph of steam, rail, or trucks in the accounts of Ibrahim al-Musallam and other regional caravan traders. Rather, it was the end of the integrated geography in which the caravan's slow pace had fit so well that was thought to have had the most brutal impact. The race from Amman back to Riyadh at the outset of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War closed al-Musallam's account and put a final end to “what [he] had endured during these journeys.” He would not take over his father's regional business. He opted, instead, for the career of civil servant with his hometown postal service. World War II and the 1948 War were turning points in the accounts of cross-border traders. They are envisioned as a culmination of the process that entailed the closures of such vital corridors as the Palestinian routes between Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, and Bilad al-Sham, a general tightening of transnational trade regulations by national governments and police, and transformations of the regional and local economic geography that undermined the rationale of slow and lengthy mobilities.Footnote 71
This does not mean that the opening of the Suez Canal and the expansion of rail and motor vehicle transportation had not been challenging caravans for a long time or that slow mobility had remained as competitive in the age of speed as before. Caravan traders and travelers had managed to deal with such challenges by adapting their circuits and combining mobility options. Resorting to slow means such as the caravans on parts of a transnational journey was not the default option modernist travelogues and European accounts would have us believe. In the age of speed many options were actually available. Fast and direct connections were not always the most efficient, nor the most competitive.
Envisioning the story of mobility in the late Ottoman and post-Ottoman Middle East from the traders’ vantage point also enables us to go beyond the story of the displacement of caravans by overwhelming steam- and fuel-motorized devices and the expansion of Foucauldian government in the Middle East, as exemplified by the states’ control over mobility. Well into the 20th century, the slow (as opposed to fast), incremental (as opposed to “Fordist” connections), and unchanneled pace of caravans supported the integration of transnational networks of trade inherited from the Ottoman common market. Although they fell under the radar, these networks were not confined to niche or illegal activities. Highlighting the traders’ experience is a way of understanding the rationale that underpinned the persistence of the “old” as a common experience of modernity, even by well-off urban traders and travelers.Footnote 72 Switching from camels’ backs to trains and cars was not only a technological experience. It entailed heterogeneous experiences of territories along the trade routes. This also reminds us that transnational not only succeeded, but very often predated national frameworks in the post-Ottoman Middle East, even though older transnational mobility was more often than not regarded by upper class travelers and the post-Ottoman states’ standards as underpinning a “smuggling” or “Bedouin” mobility. As such, the caravans’ mobility and the many networks of both slow and fast mobility these caravans helped to organize exemplify the economic and geographical dimensions of the Ottoman legacy along the lengthy routes between the Gulf and Bilad al-Sham.Footnote 73
This article owes much to the inspiring suggestions and challenging comments of IJMES editor Joel Gordon and the anonymous reviewers. I also thank Adam Mestyan, Mehdi Sakatni, Talal al-Rashud, Faisal al-Wazzan, Eid al-Yahya, Abdulrahman Alebrahim, and ‘Ali al-Kandari for discussing many of the topics dealt with in this article, and Badr and Sami al-Bassam for uncovering the family's history.