A Taste for Home: The Modern Middle Class in Ottoman Beirut

A Taste for Home: The Modern Middle Class in Ottoman Beirut

by Toufoul Abou-Hodeib


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Monday, July 1


The "home" is a quintessentially quotidian topic, yet one at the center of global concerns: Consumption habits, aesthetic preferences, international trade, and state authority all influence the domestic sphere. For middle-class residents of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Beirut, these debates took on critical importance. As Beirut was reshaped into a modern city, legal codes and urban projects pressed at the home from without, and imported commodities and new consumption habits transformed it from within.

Drawing from rich archives in Arabic, Ottoman, French, and English—from advertisements and catalogues to previously unstudied government documents— A Taste for Home places the middle-class home at the intersection of local and global transformations. Middle-class domesticity took form between changing urbanity, politicization of domesticity, and changing consumption patterns. Transcending class-based aesthetic theories and static notions of "Westernization" alike, this book illuminates the self-representations and the material realities of an emerging middle class. Toufoul Abou-Hodeib offers a cultural history of late Ottoman Beirut that is at once global in the widest sense of the term and local enough to enter the most private of spaces.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804799799
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 04/04/2017
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Toufoul Abou-Hodeib is Associate Professor of History in the Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History at the University of Oslo.

Read an Excerpt

A Taste For Home

The Modern Middle Class in Ottoman Beirut

By Toufoul Abou-Hodeib


Copyright © 2017 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9979-9



The traveler who journeys to Beirut from the West is naturally impressed by its scenes of Oriental life, but to one who has come either from Lebanon or Damascus or even from Jerusalem, it seems almost a European city. Lewis Gaston Leary, Syria, The Land of Lebanon

We are in Beirut in 1910, a bustling port city on the Eastern Mediterranean coast. 'Aysha al-'Aris, a resident of the Bab Idris neighborhood, walks out of her home on a clear spring day in April. Fifteen years ago, 'Aysha had risked losing the home that sheltered her, her husband, and children, after the municipal council demolished parts of their house and then demanded an urban improvement tax she could not afford. After 'Aysha had made numerous petitions to the Sublime Porte and endured long years of conflict with the local and provincial authorities, the municipal council had finally decided earlier that month to reduce the tax she owed by half.

Not far away that same spring, in the government building housing the Muslim Hanafi court, pregnant Hasiba brings a case against her husband, Yusuf, a tramway company employee, for not having paid the remainder of her dowry. When Yusuf puts forward his prized possessions, a phonograph and sixteen records, as leverage in the bargaining process, the private life of the young couple is suddenly pried open to the disapproving scrutiny of the court. The case comes to an abrupt halt, with the judge rebuking Yusuf over the worthlessness of the phonograph and ruling in Hasiba's favor.

On June 3rd of that same year, Julia Tu'ma is delivering a speech before the Greek Orthodox Benevolent Society in Tripoli while on a visit from Beirut, where the twenty-eight-year-old Protestant educator will soon take up the position of academic administrator of the Maqasid Islamic School for girls. Referring to the home as al-sama' alula, the first heaven to be attained before actual heaven, Tu'ma describes the home as a kingdom and woman as its queen with a responsibility for the happiness and welfare of the family. Many in her audience were versed in at least two languages, and Tu'ma addresses her speech to the "Oriental woman," using the English word home to give her topic a more precise meaning.

At the center of these three vignettes of daily life in Beirut stands the middle-class home. Beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, the relatively new Beirut municipal council initiated urban improvements and projects based on a legal corpus that was the product of late Ottoman reforms. Aysha's home, like many other homes in the city, was caught up in the feverish rush to reshape Beirut as a modern city, with wide avenues and a well-ordered urban fabric. From within, domestic life reorganized itself around new commodities streaming into the city, with its growing prominence as an Eastern Mediterranean port city and first point of contact for many of the ships coming from Europe. At a time when consumption was politicized in terms of the changing economic and political balance between the Ottoman Empire and the European powers, these commodities often elicited reactions such as that of the judge in Hasiba and Yusuf's court case. At that same historical juncture, a group of educators and writers based primarily in Beirut spread novel ideas about the home in cities and towns across the region, using the lecterns of societies and the pages of the press as their fora. For the first time, "home" was being discussed as a building block in society and the educated woman was being seen as responsible for that home's management and for the upbringing of future citizens.

An emerging middle class was implicated in these processes through its material and moral investment in the home, as a consumer of domestic fashions, and as a target for a body of literature aimed at shaping a specifically middle-class domesticity. Focusing on the period stretching from the second half of the nineteenth century until World War I, this book argues that middle-class domesticity took form in a matrix of changing urbanity, the politicization of domesticity in public debates, and changing consumption patterns. My aim is to write a cultural history of domesticity that is at once global in the widest sense of the term and local enough to enter the most private of spaces.

Domesticity in Turn-of-the-Century Beirut

The second half of the nineteenth century was characterized by a set of relations between Beirut, on the one hand, and its regional surroundings, the imperial center, and the world beyond the Ottoman Empire, on the other, that had particular effects on domesticity. Ottoman reforms during the latter half of the century redefined the meaning of "public" and instituted a new dynamic between domestic space and its urban setting. Beirut's growing importance as an economic and intellectual hub and port city also entailed rapid changes on the level of daily decisions taken by people in their private lives.

Old and new classes who had access to the city's newly acquired wealth and to the new array of commodities brought forward by the industrial revolution in European countries, witnessed a change of lifestyles in their public and private lives alike. One of the most visible manifestations of this shift was the sight of horse-drawn carriages on Fridays and Sundays, the city's weekly days off, carrying the city inhabitants to parks located on the outskirts; these parks were referred to as muntazahat, from nuzha (promenade or outing). If the word promenade evokes thoughts of the flâneur, this is for good reason. While such retreats outside the city were not an entirely new phenomenon, they fused into modes of leisure that linked to new modes of transportation and new patterns of consumption. Weekend outings to some of those parks were also sexually mixed and developed a reputation for providing the opportunity to exhibit the latest fashions for men and women alike.

Changes in forms of leisure constituted some of the ways the middle and upper classes made an impression on the urban fabric of Beirut, but that impress remained gendered. Even in public places where women could go without an enveloping robe and an uncovered head, particular modes of dress and behavior were expected. When Christian women began to appear uncovered in the souk and to dress fashionably to attend church, this evoked anxiety first and foremost among their coreligionists. Women's behavior in these two settings elicited criticism from moralists in a way that weekend promenades in the park did not. But if these differences were pronounced in some public places, domestic habits and leisure pastimes took place behind closed doors and were, therefore, less amenable to the scrutiny of moralizing members of society.

New standards of living and technologies simultaneously opened up the home and closed it off to its social surroundings in various ways. The new houses built outside the old city were architecturally more extroverted, with open windows and elements of pomp exhibiting themselves to the outside world. During the late Ottoman period, the expanding size of the home and the activities and services brought inside it with the introduction of individual water supplies and indoor toilets meant that more of domestic life was spent indoors, rather than at water wells and spaces shared by neighbors, such as latrines and cooking facilities. But as women became more active participants in social life and sexually mingled gatherings became more common, many homes also became places for literary salons and more lighthearted social gatherings. 'Anbara Salam al-Khalidi recounts in her memoirs that the men and women in her maternal grandparents' family, the Sunni Muslim Barbir family, used to gather weekly in the 1860s and 1870s to read and discuss the latest in periodicals, such as Butrus al-Bustani's al-Jinan and 'Abd al-Qadir al-Qabbani's Thamarat al-Funun.

Given the impact of new modes of consumption and lifestyles, the changes characterizing turn-of-the-century Beirut have a strong material dimension to them, and changing tastes constituted an important link between the public sphere and the lives the middle class led at home. For that reason, the home stood at the intersection of debates considered central at the time on the topics of public benefit, eastern modernity, and ifranji (Western or, more specifically, European) cultural influence. Here, the home was not just a sphere where ideas about modernity were negotiated, tested, and contested, it also took an active part in giving form to these ideas, in general, and to the middle class, in particular.

This took place against an Ottoman modernity that stamped the face of the public sphere, making the home a contested space in terms of both the aesthetics of urban modernity and the commodities within the home. In addition, contemporary debates foregrounded the role of taste in articulating the shape and position of the middle class. What I mean by domesticity is, therefore, a constellation of ideas and lifestyles in which the home played a crucial part both as a concept and as an actual material object. Such an approach takes the home beyond intellectual discourses and state reforms, bringing in the question of capital and how it transformed both the way domesticity was thought of and the way it was lived.

Although women do not constitute the explicit focus of this work, the home as a topic of study brings them into the mainstream of history both as objects and as subjects. The central role assigned to women, and articulated by female participants in the discourse of domesticity, integrated women into a modern vision of society where, through their domestic work, they complemented and challenged the transformations in the public sphere. As middle-class women, they were implicated in inculcating children, the future citizens, with ideals of behavior, moderate consumption, and proper taste — all meant to better define the middle class and reinforce its political and economic relevance in society. The topic of home also brings women forth into history as educators, mothers, housewives, consumers, and property owners. Thus, they appear at various junctures in this book as vocal advocates of a new role for the modern woman, active contestants in urban municipal projects, and litigants in court cases involving domestic possessions.

Starting in the 1870s with the burgeoning of the Beirut press, a debate centered in Beirut but drawing in other cities in the region, such as Tripoli, Hama, and Damascus, placed the woman at the center of domestic life as manager, mother, and wife. The result was a vigorous debate on modern woman's position in society through her role at home. Several scholars refer to this body of literature as making a "cult of domesticity" — that is, consisting of a repetitive, mantra-like set of prescriptions put forward in the press and aimed primarily at women. But following the critique of both Afsaneh Najmabadi and Lisa Pollard on the use of the word cult, I see the publication of this literature as a process that carved out a larger place for women in public life, not just at home, and as a debate that tied the home to more encompassing discussions of the time. As Pollard argues, debates on the domicile and the family "formed a basic framework through which abstract concepts such as nation and, along with it, loyalty and citizenship were imagined, articulated, and debated," and through which both men and women learned how to be modern citizens.

Modern domesticity constituted part of wider shifts in thinking not only about politics but also about society as a whole and the position the middle class occupied in it. Fresh ways of conceiving of domesticity centered on several main concerns circulating in intellectual circles and in the press at the time: the necessity of educating women; the importance of the family, as the smallest unit of society, to the welfare of the whole; the upbringing of modern citizens; and the cultivation of an ethics of consumption. For the men and women writing and lecturing on the topic, the home was posited as key to bringing together these disparate notions about society. The home became implicated not only in reconceptualizing woman's role in society but also in the very understanding of this society.

The existing books and articles that concern themselves in part or wholly with domesticity in Ottoman Beirut and in the region that later became Lebanon are primarily concerned with the free-standing, central-hall house, an architectural form that developed in Beirut around the mid-nineteenth century. Usually consisting of one or two floors, these houses featured several rooms and services arranged around a central hall. As this design came to be seen as an ideal and as an embodiment of riches, many of the elements of the central-hall house were widely copied, both in the city and in the region, even though the fully realized form remained beyond the means of the majority of the city's inhabitants, including the middle class. As some of the examples architectural historian Ralph Bodenstein analyzes show, the typology was far from being a static or finished product. Rather, it developed and transformed over time according to changing needs and transformations in family structures.

However, rather than focus on the central-hall house, this book concerns domesticity as a category of analysis, tying together its various material changes, of which the physical form and appearance of the house was one aspect among many. In the case of migrants returning to Mount Lebanon, Akram Khater argues that the central-hall house typology was a way by which the middle class communicated and affirmed a position in its peasant surroundings. The central-hall house functioned as a status symbol in Beirut as well. But the home, both as an idea and as a physical form, went beyond signaling a class position, it also responded materially to its surroundings in ways that often escaped a straightforward identification with class. Particularly in a port city affected directly by Ottoman reforms and by a growing influx of commodities, middle-class domesticity was a product of its local as well as its regional and global contexts. The middle class, in that sense, can be said to have been shaped by the home even as it distinguished itself through the home.

Equally important is the position Beirut occupied culturally in its regional setting. Intellectually, the city was a magnet for a new generation of intellectuals, educators, and readers in the region who were finding an outlet in the Beiruti press. Thus, the debate around women and domesticity does not reflect a sense of Beiruti provinciality but rather of the city as a melting pot for ideas and with the towns and villages that constituted its urban peripheries also taking part in the conversation. This was also true of other main cities in the region such as Cairo, Alexandria, and Istanbul, where the peripheries were intellectually active contributors to the urban center. With its rise as main port city during the course of the nineteenth century, Beirut became a regional trendsetter, looked to by other cities and towns in the region for the latest ideas and debates, as well as for the latest in domestic typologies and furniture. If we are to better understand how Beirut functioned on different geographical scales, it first needs to be placed in the context of late Ottoman reforms and the attempt to forge a new Ottoman identity, or Osmanlilik.

An Ottoman Urban Modernity

The entanglement of the different levels of the city, the region, and the Ottoman Empire took form through the changing position of Beirut within the overall matrix of Ottoman governance, not least on the urban level. Within the larger setting, Beirut's relationship with the imperial center was recast by the Ottoman reforms of the nineteenth century. Although Beirut had already been transforming intellectually and commercially by the mid-nineteenth century, the political and administrative changes brought on by the reforms accelerated and underpinned the process that eventually led to its promotion by the Ottoman Sultan to provincial capital in 1888. In that promotion, Beirut benefited from a comparatively new conception of rule that brought the techniques of governing the population to the forefront of technologies of rule, placed greater emphasis on fostering closer relationships between the imperial center and the provinces, and sought to address the inhabitants of the empire as citizens rather than subjects.


Excerpted from A Taste For Home by Toufoul Abou-Hodeib. Copyright © 2017 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents and Abstracts

1Beirut, City of the Levant
chapter abstract

This chapter introduces the concept of domesticity and sets the general historical background for the rest of the book. Looking at how new ideas on Ottoman urban management in Istanbul and foreign investments in infrastructure helped transform Beirut from a sleepy harbor town to major entrepôt, the chapter also foregrounds how the emergence of a middle class shaped life in the city. It explores the various characteristics of the middle class and places it in the context of the nahda , the late-nineteenth, early-twentieth century vibrant intellectual and cultural production in Arabic. It also investigates how the middle class spread across the city's new neighborhoods. Finally, the chapter closes with an overview of the archival sources used in the book.

2The Global Intimacies of Taste
chapter abstract

This chapter investigates the concept of "taste" and how it challenged the divide between public and private, and between the interior and the exterior of a culture. The argument is elaborated on in relation to the global production of taste, the culture of class, the position of the middle class between tradition and modernity, and the quest for authenticity. Engaging postcolonial theory, Pierre Bourdieu's work on class, and recent literature on the middle class as a global phenomenon, the chapter argues that because it was globally produced and brought together local and industrialized labor in the production of domestic commodities, taste complicated attempts at grounding authenticity in the middle-class home. Even as it functioned as a mark of distinction in contemporary debates on class, taste linked the Beiruti middle-class home to its urban, imperial, and global contexts.

3Home Is Where the Investment Is
chapter abstract

This chapter details how late Ottoman reforms introduced notions of hygiene and aesthetics that reshaped the relationship between the home and its urban context. Drawing on nineteenth-century global modes of knowledge that privileged rectilinear urban forms and sought to manage daily lives in expanding cities, new bodies of Ottoman law introduced an understanding of "public benefit" that tied domestic habits and individual lives to the public collectivity of the city. The implementation of these laws by the municipal council of Beirut also brought capitalist changes into the home, redefining it as property with a value linked to urban beautification projects. But in the absence of a clear understanding of the relationship between public benefit and the home, the latter remained an open site of contestation, amenable to interpretation as a link between private lives and the larger project of modernity.

4Things at Home
chapter abstract

This chapter looks at how objects that entered the middle-class home in the late nineteenth century generated a new kind of domesticity. Although its relation to public benefit remained ambiguous, the home was indirectly transformed by its changing urban environment and by new spatial ideals. In addition, Beirut's prominence as port city and its growing appetite for the new exposed it to a stream of novel domestic objects that were often adopted, adapted, and embraced. Domestic things, the meanings embedded in them, and their potential to communicate social status contributed to giving the middle class its identity even in the most intimate of spaces. The impact of new imports, such as phonographs, on life at home as well as in marital disputes in the Hanafi court, shows the potential for new objects to redefine social relations, making taste more than just an individual matter.

5A Matter of Taste
chapter abstract

This chapter explores modern domesticity as articulated by men and women in the pages of the press and on lecture podiums, arguing for a project that carved out an economic and cultural place for an emerging middle class. As industrial production in Europe and the United States brought wider swathes of society in contact with new commodities, articles in the press on the use and disposition of objects at home attempted to differentiate the consumption habits of the middle class from the tasteless riches of the upper classes. While this functioned to culturally distinguish the nascent middle class in its social surroundings, the chapter argues that the debate went beyond, emphasizing the importance of distinguishing this middle class from "ifranji" (Western/European) modes of consumption and attempting to ground modern domesticity in "Oriental" or "Syrian" authenticity.

6Local Forms and Ifranji Pleasures
chapter abstract

Looking beyond the anxiety over "ifranji" influence, this chapter examines how popular domestic items were marketed, the outlets where they could be acquired, and the labor, material, and styles that went into their production. The chapter shows how advertisements in the press promoted the latest fashionable imports while trying to advocate local industries. In addition, both modern and old inner city souks were not set apart by imported and traditional goods, respectively, but rather by a growing separation between areas of production and consumption across the city. Finally, the most popular domestic items involved labor, raw material, and stylistic influences that cut across the local, regional, and global levels. This crisscrossing not only rendered the line between ifranji and Oriental difficult to trace in reality, but also complicated the intellectual project of middle-class modernity.

chapter abstract

The conclusion looks at how a study of middle-class domesticity in late Ottoman Beirut contributes to demystifying the idea of "Westernization." It suggests that it would be more useful to think of Oriental and ifranji differences as internal opposites that structure each other and as part of the process of realizing the imagined realities of "Europe" and "the Orient." Taste becomes part of this process of differentiation in as much as it is the material manifestation of difference. But even more importantly, taste is itself constitutive of that difference in the way it is constructed globally and in its ability to find its way into the most private of spaces. The chapter concludes by pointing out how a history of modernity understood in these terms can relate to contemporary debates and phenomena.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews