Bread from Stones: humanitarianism’s impossible task — Heleen Murre-van den Berg

By Heleen Murre-van den Berg Professor of Global Christianity, director Institute of Eastern Christian Studies (hlmvandenberg.me)

Keith David Watenpaugh, Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism (Oakland, CA: CUP, 2015)

Although the research and writing of Watenpaugh’s book was started before the current humanitarian crisis in the Middle East broke out, in more ways than one it can be read as one long investigative commentary on how the world has dealt and continues to deal with the current crisis whose woes seem to seep in on every page. Part of that is probably my own preoccupation in looking for anything that helps to make sense of what is going on in the Middle East right now, but keeping in mind that Watenpaugh himself has been committed in programs supporting Syrian refugees in education (‘The War that Follows Them‘), one feels that much of what he writes comes from a similar tension between what one sees is happening, the will to do something about it, and the historical parallels that signal multiple warnings about the potential drawbacks of whatever one thinks of doing.

For anyone wrestling with similar questions, then, Watenpaugh’s new full-length study (after the much celebrated Being Modern in the Middle East (2006) is a must-read, if only for its piecing together the history of Western humanitarian involvement in the Middle East. Born out of the crisis of the early years of World War I, making use of the channels and contacts of the missionary organizations of the nineteenth century, international relief organizations, such as Near East Relief, played an important role in alleviating some of the worst suffering that resulted from famine, displacement and genocide. Their activities included the establishment of orphanages for the children whose parents were death or unable to care for them, and, immediately after the war, supporting resettlement schemes of groups that had been driven from their homes. In this, the organizations worked together closely with the emerging humanitarian activities of the League of Nations, including the first refugee camps in Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Notably, the Nansen passport as issued by the League of Nations organizations, a laissez-passer for those who had lost papers, homeland, and countries in the process, regularized processes of resettlement – something remembered and longed-for by their children and grandchildren who are on the run right now – see ‘Nansen legacy lives on for Syrian refugees in Armenia’ – UNHCR – august 12, 2015. Though Watenpaugh’s volume does not nearly cover the whole story of humanitarianism in this region in this period (the Syriac/Assyrian part of it, to name just one aspect I’m familiar with, definitely needs more attention), it is an important start that provides a solid framework for those that think of working in this direction. The work invites in-depth studies of particular subjects, concerning what happened to particular groups in the Middle East (most of Watenpaugh’s examples are on the Armenians), as to the follow-up of many of the projects, and as to the increasing socialization and bureaucratization of humanitarianism in the years in and around World War II, in the context of another round of expulsion and genocide.

Just as importantly, the study invites a further exploring of the theoretical issues involved. In telling this story, Watenpaugh argues that despite ongoing entanglement with colonial and imperial projects, it is necessary to distinguish humanitarian actions from the colonial and state sponsored activities, in being systematically non- or inter-governmental, and in performing best when governments and states are no longer able or willing to provide what is needed to all of their citizens. It also distinguishes itself, according to Watenpaugh, in time and again referring back to concepts of a common humanity that motivates compassion, regardless of political, religious, economic and social ties. At the same time, Watenpaugh makes a point of showing how compassion as such never is able to fulfil its goals without taking part in the very socio-economic, religious and political systems whose victims it wants to save. Thus the discussion about humanitarianism becomes a discussion about human rights, about what is to take precedence: social justice or social peace, immediate relief or long-term rights. Watenpaugh’s book merely opens that discussion, laying bare the complicated relationships between these different political and social stands, going far beyond what is often conceived as a simple antithesis between structural assistance and incidental charity.

The book’s title suggests that these underlying questions remain largely unanswered. It refers to a saying common in many Middle-Eastern languages (including both Armenian and Turkish), in which the attempt to squeeze bread from stones is near but not completely impossible, a Herculean task that despite its elusive aims, nevertheless brings some rewards at every stage. In this sense, it was used by a committed humanitarian like the Danish Karin Jeppe who laboured as the administrator of the League of Nations Rescue Home in Aleppo, in 1922. But it also refers to what the New Testament records as Jesus’ reply when the devil tempted him to do just that: create bread from stones. Indeed, it might be possible, to squeeze bread from stones, but is that what people really need? Watenpaugh’s study suggests that there are no simple answers to that question, that indeed simple straightforward humanitarian efforts may be just the right thing in the right place, but also that the problems are never over and the questions continue to multiply.

Heleen Murre-van den Berg is Professor of Global Christianity and director of the Institute of Eastern Christian Studies (Instituut voor Oosters Christendom) at the Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands. You can follow Heleen Murre-van den Berg on her personal blog hlmvandenberg.me.

The Radboud University, Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies in cooperation with the Institute of Eastern Christian Studies last year started the project Rewriting Global Orthodoxy.