A Taste for Home
The Modern Middle Class in Ottoman Beirut
Toufoul Abou-Hodeib


Chapter 1

Beirut, City of the Levant

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’ al-ula, 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.1

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).2 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.3

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.4 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.5 ‘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.6

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.7 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.8 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.9

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.10 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.11

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.12 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.13 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 Osmanlılık.

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.

In discussing the birth of political economy in Europe and the shift away from a sovereign-based notion of rule, Michel Foucault points to the centrality of “the problem of the population” to the art of modern government.14 The demographic expansion of the eighteenth century coupled with the new science of political economy enabled a form of governance that for the first time in Western political history took the welfare of the population as its end. Eighteenth-century institutions such as schools, armies, and factories served not only their immediate practical ends but also aimed at managing the population in its details. They contributed to the production of subjects who internalized discipline and reproduced it on a daily basis in their relationship to their bodies, society, and authority. In that sense, modern state institutions are directly linked to the kind of relationship forged between the state and its citizens.

The Ottoman Empire faced similar challenges in its regeneration as a state, and many of the reforms undertaken were at least inspired by modern state institutions in the rest of Europe, particularly France. In the process of “stretching the short, tight skin of the nation over the gigantic body of the empire,” to borrow a metaphor from Benedict Anderson, the population increasingly became a category of political management.15 Whereas earlier reforms under Sultan Mahmud II (r. 1808–1839) focused on strengthening the army and increasing state revenue through taxation, towards the mid-nineteenth century, reforms began to deal more directly with the population as a category to be mapped, molded, and managed.16 Although the financial difficulties standing in the way of implementing these reforms consistently throughout the empire meant that they had a limited effect in homogenizing the population into a national entity, they did contribute to shaping the terrain on which the inhabitants of the empire, both Muslim and non-Muslim, could talk about themselves as Ottoman citizens and as modern.

This new form of governance instituted a dynamic in the relationship between the imperial center and the peripheries of the empire. A rising concern for the imperial capital was tying far-flung regions directly to the center through administrative and bureaucratic hierarchies.17 Both the vocabulary that entered the language of Ottoman policymakers and many of the reform efforts in the provinces took shape in conjunction with local visions of modernity, with the result that this more modern governance was most successful where twinned with a local desire for self-governance and an appetite for forging a localized modernity capable of living up to the challenges posed by a world knit tighter by new technologies, modes of transport, and trade patterns.

The development of provincial urban centers became the material expression of a constructive tension between bureaucratic centralization and the forging of a common Ottoman identity on the one hand and the manifestation of such an identity on the urban level in collaboration with “enlightened” Ottoman subjects on the other hand. Cities were important in the Ottoman polity, both as provincial centers of rule and as faces of the empire’s modernity. Urban management brought together the earliest forms of political representation, new technologies of transportation and services, and the management of urban population growth.

The natural starting point for urban reforms was the imperial capital, Istanbul, which served as the model later implemented in the rest of the empire. The loose regulations implemented in the capital in the 1820s and 1830s were revamped into a system of municipal government and a coherent set of urban management laws. These were first applied to areas of the city inhabited by large numbers of Europeans and therefore, it was reasoned, most amenable to their application. In 1858, the first municipality established under the control of a municipal council was designated as the altıncı daire, or the “sixth district,” after the affluent sixième arrondissement in Paris. The regulation of construction, streets, and the water supply was eventually turned over to an autonomous building council.18 As this form of urban management spread, it became directly linked to the centralizing logic of the Tanzimat, as the Ottoman reforms of 1839 to 1876 are collectively known. It also became constitutive of an urban modernity that created new dynamics of citizenship between Istanbul and inhabitants of cities as diverse as Izmir, Salonica, Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Damascus.19 The gradual extension of this system to the provinces by 1876 placed cities as far from the center as Baghdad under the authority of municipal councils, which answered to provincial councils, which in turn answered directly to the Sublime Porte.20 That same year, Sultan Abdülhamid II ascended to the throne.

Although the coming of Abdülhamid II to power and his suspension of the newborn 1876 constitution signaled the end of the Tanzimat period, his reign of more than three decades constituted in many ways the culmination of some of the guiding principles of preceding reforms. It was under the autocratic paternalism of Abdülhamid II that the role of the state in the management of everyday life underwent a qualitative expansion. In contrast to the late Tanzimat reforms, which had concentrated power in the hands of the provincial governors, under Abdülhamid II the Ministry of Interior developed a highly centralized system, ensuring adherence to regulations issued in Istanbul and requiring approval for the smallest expenditure or action in the provinces. The sultan also often moved to centralize control over provincial governors by establishing direct lines of communication between them and the palace.21

The focus on the category of “the population” blended well with Abdülhamid II’s autocratic tendencies. Education and urbanization, coupled with tight control over the press and the provincial bureaucratic structure, expanded governance further in the sense expounded by Foucault. These approaches were aimed at monopolizing the representation of the state and at shaping citizens who recognized legitimate rule in the figure of the sultan. Their effects remained limited, though, particularly given the competition from missionaries on the educational front, but they did succeed in “generating new categories of collectivity and subjectivity.”22

Under Abdülhamid II, the forceful hand policy towards the hinterlands, particularly those populated by unorthodox groups, contrasted sharply with the position of provincial cities in the late Ottoman period.23 Seen from Istanbul, the latter were relatively integrated into the Ottoman bureaucracy and served as centers for the surveillance and administration of their surroundings. To reinforce this relationship, the Ottoman government executed an array of projects seeking to inscribe the imperial presence on these cities and educate their subjects in the language of citizenry—what historian Selim Deringil calls the public image focusing on the school-mosque-barracks triangle.24 This approach bolstered cities as centers of governance from which the hinterlands could be controlled and surveilled, but it also reinforced cities themselves and their inhabitants as showcases of Ottoman modernity.

As historian Jens Hanssen shows, with its proximity to the Ansari Mountains in the north and to the unruly Mount Lebanon, and with its burgeoning intellectual and commercial life, Beirut was fertile ground for the kind of modern urbanity nurtured by late Ottoman rule.25 It had been under the authority of Damascus since the formation of the super-province of Syria in 1864. At the time of Abdülhamid II’s ascension to the throne, local personages in Beirut were campaigning for the removal of this authority. Consciously employing the language of reform, Christian and Muslim dignitaries sent petitions to Istanbul arguing for the city’s commercial and intellectual importance and asking for it to be made a capital. Whereas the strong European presence in the city had previously been cause for hesitation, the balance of fortunes tipped under Abdülhamid II. In 1888, Beirut became the capital of a noncontiguous province of the same name.26


1. Tu‘ma’s speech was published as “al-Sama’ al-Ula,” pts. 1 and 2, in al-Hasna’, June and July 1910. ‘Aysha al-‘Aris’s story is discussed in Chapter 3 of this book, and the case concerning the phonograph is discussed in the last section of Chapter 4.

2. The most attractive of these parks lay in the direction of Dubayyah and Antilyas, about an hour’s carriage ride northeast of Beirut. Within a shorter distance, southeast of the city, stood the Dawra and the Furn al-Shubbak parks; the latter had a privately owned cafe that played “Lebanese music” on Fridays and Sundays (Khuri, Dalil Bayrut, 48).

3. “Al-Iqtisad fi al-Manzil,” al-Mahabba, 25 May 1901.

4. See the section “Authenticity and Ifranji Excesses” in Chapter 4.

5. On salons, see Zeidan, Arab Women Novelists, 50–55.

6. Khalidi, Jawla fi al-Dhikrayat, 32.

7. For example, Badran, Feminists, Islam, and the Nation, 52, 62–65; Kashani-Sabet, “Patriotic Womanhood,” 33, 34, 39; and Khater, Inventing Home, 4, 16, 71.

8. For Najmabadi, on the one hand, the use of either discourse or cult to describe this literature prevents an understanding of how adopting the notion of the woman as “manager” formed an empowering basis for entry into public life (Najmabadi, “Crafting an Educated Housewife,” 109). Pollard, on the other hand, is concerned with carrying an understanding of the home beyond the niche topic of women, arguing that home life “shaped modern, bourgeois debates about nationalism” for both sexes (Pollard, Nurturing the Nation, 8).

9. Ibid. Similarly, Alan Duben and Cem Behar show how state-centered reform with its ideals of modernity and nationalism found an echo in bourgeois domesticity and its ideas of marriage and family (Duben and Behar, Istanbul Households).

10. The genealogy of this form and its rootedness in regional architecture as well as other currents specific to the nineteenth century is in and of itself an interesting story, tackled in many of its aspects in Maison Beyrouthine, a volume of essays edited by Michael Davie. See also Bodenstein, Villen in Beirut; Khater, Inventing Home; Mollenhauer, “Continuity and Change”; Saliba, Domestic Architecture; and Sehnaoui, L’occidentalisation de la vie, 83–112. In his 1923 article, “Notes sur la maison libanaise,” Michel Feghali also places the origins of the central-hall house in the nineteenth century, positing a kind of authenticity centered on what he considers a truly indigenous form, “the Lebanese house.” In addition, there are also surveys of domestic architecture such as Kalayan and Liger-Belair, L’habitation au Liban, vol. 2; Davie, “Maisons traditionelles de Beyrouth”; Ragette, Architecture in Lebanon; and the work done by the Association pour la protection des sites et des ancienne demeures in Beirut.

11. Bodenstein, Villen in Beirut, 159–166, 188–192, 223–224, and the drawings on 259–260, 265–266.

12. Ayalon, Press in the Arab Middle East, chaps. 2 and 3.

13. Zachs and Halevi, “From Difā‘ al-Nisā ’.”

14. Foucault, “Governmentality,” 98–102.

15. Anderson, Imagined Communities, 86.

16. What James Gelvin calls “defensive developmentalism” took the population as its object. As Gelvin explains, beginning in the early nineteenth century, Ottoman sultans, Persian shahs, and Egyptian dynasts undertook policies that aimed at “[strengthening] their states in the face of internal and external threat and [making] their governments more proficient in managing their populations and their resources” (Gelvin, Modern Middle East, 73–74). Not coincidentally, it was during that same period, under the leadership of Ottoman Grand Vezier Midhat Pasha, that the census was envisioned as useful in relation to broader educational, economic, and social reforms, rather than being strictly for military and cadastral purposes (Shaw, “Ottoman Census System,” 328). Significantly, the Census Department was placed under the Ministry of Interior in 1874, rather than under the Cadastral Section of the Ministry of Finance where it had been languishing since 1858.

17. On the importance of bureaucratic centralization to nineteenth-century Ottoman reform, see, for example, Shaw and Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire, vol. 2, chaps. 2 and 3; Akarlı, “‘Abdülamīd II’s Attempts”; and Kayalı, Arabs and Young Turks, 75–80.

18. Shaw and Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire, vol. 2, 92–94; see also Çelik, Remaking of Istanbul; and Denel, Batılılaşma Sürecinde, 15–16, 52–54.

19. See Zandi-Sayek, Ottoman Izmir; Lafi, Municipalités méditerranéennes; idem, “Municipality of Salonica”; Findley, “System of Provincial Administration”; Kark, “Development of Jerusalem and Jaffa”; Mazza, Jerusalem, chap. 1; and Weber, “Reshaping Damascus.” On the limits of urban governance, see also Freitag and Lafi, Urban Governance under the Ottomans.

20. Although the Provincial Code was promulgated in 1864, lack of funds restricted its initial application to four model provinces: Tuna (Danube), Erzurum (northeastern Anatolia), Aleppo (northern Syria), and Bosnia. These initial efforts formed the basis for the extension of provincial organization to the entire empire by 1876, with the exception of the autonomous provinces of Egypt and the Arabian peninsula (Shaw and Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire, vol. 2, 88–91).

21. Ibid., 88, 243; Abu-Manneh, “Province of Syria,” 7–8.

22. Wedeen, Peripheral Visions, 24. Wedeen makes this point regarding Ottoman rule in northern Yemen. On education under Abdülhamid II, see Fortna, Imperial Classroom. For a study of the ways that imperial notions of citizenship were reflected on the local level, in what the author calls “civic Ottomanism,” see Campos, Ottoman Brothers.

23. Secessionist movements and the ensuing migration of Muslim populations from newly formed nation-states such as Greece, Malta, and Bulgaria to the remaining Ottoman lands, underlay a shift of emphasis from a multireligious identity to a decidedly Muslim version of Ottomanism. For more on the focus on Hanafi orthodoxy as the official ideology of the state under Abdülhamid II, see Deringil, Well-Protected Domains, esp. chaps. 2 and 3.

24. Deringil, “Invention of Tradition.”

25. See Hanssen, Fin de Siècle Beirut, esp. 55–73.

26. On Beirut becoming a capital city, see ibid., 41–42.