Chloe Bordewich: Empires of Suspicion: Information, Power, and Social Trust in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1866-1956

What kinds of information should the public demand from those in power? Conversely, what kinds of information should the public be entitled to keep secret from those in power? Bordewich’s project examines how these questions were asked and answered in the late Ottoman Empire and in the aftermath of its dissolution. The rise of mass politics at the end of the nineteenth century paralleled and motivated the extension of state secrecy, stimulating new demand for controlling information. In particular, the advent of the new category of “political crimes” undergirded the employment of wider and deeper networks of informers. Bordewich’s dissertation investigates how this changing landscape of secrecy and social trust at the end of empire affected people’s private lives, their social relationships, and their understanding of their relationship to the state. Anchored in Cairo and Istanbul, parallel centers of both governance and subversion, it also looks beyond them, to the role of the Arab peripheries in generating uncertainty and suspicion among imperial authorities. Bordewich builds this account on memoirs, diaries, private letters, trial records, and government correspondence in Arabic, Ottoman, Turkish, French, and English, probing the lives and afterlives of secrets across the protracted transition from Ottoman to British and French imperial rule, and through to independence. At the beginning of the story, the state cared mostly about what people did; by the end, it was devoting vast resources to policing what they thought. By taking on secrecy as the subject of her scholarship rather than considering it a deterrent to it, Bordewich aims to show that faked texts, blank spaces, and closed archives hold interpretive possibilities richer than we have cared to imagine.

Chloe Bordewich is a PhD candidate in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. Her dissertation examines the intersection of secrecy, mass politics, and social mistrust in the late- and post-Ottoman Arab world. Recently, her research has been funded by the Social Science Research Council International Dissertation Research Fellowship, the American Research Institute in Turkey, and the Orient-Institut Istanbul. Bordewich received a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University and was a fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) in Cairo, Egypt, from 2012-13. Before beginning her PhD, she worked on international election observation projects in Egypt, Madagascar, and the D.R. Congo. Her most recent publication is “Diaries of an Ottoman Spymaster? Treason, Slander, and the Afterlife of Memoir in Empire’s Long Shadow” (Jerusalem Quarterly, May 2019).


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