Learn what you Love
June 18, 2022

Imperial Connections: Syria, Lebanon and French West Africa with Dahlia El Zein

Imperial Connections: Syria, Lebanon and French West Africa with Dahlia El Zein

Dahlia El Zein talks about how colonial peoples travelled through the French Empire, interacting and changing their world.


Today’s guest episode is by Dahlia El Zein. Dahlia is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania focusing on race, migration, and empire between sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East in the 19th and 20th centuries. Dahlia is currently writing her dissertation on the cross-colonial relationships and racial constructions of Lebanese Shi’i migrants in Senegal, and West African soldiers (tirailleurs sénégalais) who served in Lebanon and Syria as part of the French colonial army during the French mandate period from 1920-1946. She has an MA in Arab Studies from Georgetown University. Dahlia was previously a history teacher and has taught courses on the Middle East and Immigration at the W.E.B. Dubois Scholars Institute. She also worked for the Middle East Institute and Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University and prior to that in human rights for several years covering the Middle East and North Africa region. Today she delivers a remarkable talk about a topic you may never have heard of: the migration of French colonial peoples across the empire.

This story is not about the metropole or mainland France at all, our story today is about empire from below, from the perspective of the colonies, and most of all about the cross-colonial exchanges between colonial peoples under the same French imperial order.

During the French mandate in Syria and Lebanon (1920-1946), the migration of Lebanese Shi’i Muslims swelled to French West Africa (Afrique Occidentale Française 1895-1958). Meanwhile, West African soldiers known by their misnomer tirailleurs sénégalais arrived in newly divided Lebanon and Syria as part of the French colonial army. By 1922, there were 10,022 tirailleurs sénégalais in Greater Syria. Meanwhile, during this same period in the 1920s and 1930s with the opportunities provided by the French mandate, thousands of Lebanese Syrians migrated to the Afrique Occidentale Française (AOF)

Our story is about them, these two unlikely groups of people under French empire, Lebanese Syrian migrants and West African soldiers, tirailleurs sénégalais


The trans-imperial migrations of Lebanese Syrians to West Africa and of tirailleurs sénégalais to Greater Syria is an untold story of empire from below, of everyday cross-colonial encounters within a framework of South-South migrations. While emphasis is most often placed on the migrations of peoples from the Global South to the Global North emphasizing population movements from former colonies to imperial centers. As a result Africa is often relegated as a place of settler colonial migration or emigration and ignores the dynamic history of South-South migrations


Let’s situate ourselves in our story


Lebanese Syrians refer to migrants from Greater Syria which included the current nation-states of Lebanon and Syria because that is how they are referred to in the Arabic primary sources. I also use Lebanese Shi’is to refer to Shi’i Muslims migrants from the region of Jabal ‘Amil in Southern Lebanon.

Let’s pause for a minute on the French mandate

With the conclusion of the first World War and the subsequent fall of the Ottoman Empire, France’s secret negotiation with Britain known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) granted it new mandatory territories in the Arab world. Greater Syria, Bilad al-Sham, Suriya al-Kubra including Mount Lebanon would become French mandates while the British took Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine.


Afrique Occidentale Française was a federation of French colonial territories in present-day Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Mauritania, Mali (French Soudan), Guinea (French Guinea), Burkina Faso (Upper Volta), Benin (Dahomey), and Niger.



Imperial Subjects on the Move

The tirailleurs sénégalais serving in the Levant and the Lebanese Syrian migrants living in AOF although living under very different colonial contexts and occupying different positions in the colonial order, shared a common experience within the larger French imperial polity. These were individuals on the whole existing in the margins, both navigating through a core/metropole/colonial-periphery relationship.

The men who made up the tirailleurs sénégalais came from communities across the AOF from present-day Senegal, Mauretania, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Togo, Benin, and several countries in former French Equatorial Africa.

Except for the early years of recruitment and conscription in the Senegal region, the tirailleurs sénégalais were comprised of soldiers from all over French West Africa but they retained this earlier association. Although soldiers came from all of AOF, a good number were drafted from post-independence Senegal including the nation’s first President Leopold Senghor who fought in France in WWII and was captured by the Germans as a prisoner of war.

In 1908, the first group of tirailleurs were sent to Morocco as the first overseas colonial post. But the French practice of recruiting and dispatching colonial soldiers began much earlier in 1818, especially in establishing political supremacy in West Africa. Morocco was a training and testing ground for France’s imperial soldiers to see if the tirailleurs sénégalais could “succeed” outside sub-Saharan Africa. Morocco was a training and testing ground for France’s imperial soldiers. After they were found useful outside sub-Saharan African, these men were sent to fight in French trenches on the front lines of World War I.

After World War I, France created the Armée du Levant (Army of Levant) to maintain order and quell disobedience in their newly acquired mandates in Greater Syria.

Tirailleurs sénégalais comprised a sizable portion of these colonial troops along with Indochinese and North Africans. As many of the listeners probably know, France’s empire stretched from North to West Africa and included Indochina.


These men were sent to Beirut and Damascus, Tyre, and Aleppo to prevent any potential rebellions from locals particularly Arab nationalists who were glad to see the end of the Ottoman empire but displeased to find another colonizing force. Some Lebanese, however, particularly some Maronite Christians in Jabal Lubnan (Mount Lebanon) welcomed the French presence especially after centuries of Muslim rule.

It should be noted however, that unlike the front lines along the French trenches, this was not an active combat zone in the same way. There were surely intense flare ups and periods of martial law like the Damascus revolt of 1925 and 1926 against King Faisal which necessitated a violent response from the tirailleurs. However, on the whole, the daily lives of these soldiers in Greater Syria during the interwar years were not impacted by active combat in the same way. These men were more or less living a semblance of a quotidian life in this new imperial context. This set up was not unique to the French colonial army and should be noted that the British engaged in a similar set up, sending Indians to East Africa and Iraq.

Sarah Zimmerman has an excellent book about West African soldiers in colonial contexts Militarizing Marriage.

Lebanese-Syrian Migrants in AOF


Historians pinpoint the beginning of Lebanese-Syrian migration to West Africa starting in the late nineteenth century. While overall migration to other parts of the diaspora like the United States and Latin America from Greater Syria declines in the interwar years as a result of the Great Depression and impact of the war, it was actually during this precise time that migration reached its peak in AOF.

If you are interested in learning more in the Lebanese Syrian diaspora in colonial French West Africa, I highly recommend Andrew Arsan’s book Interlopers of Empire.

This age of empires also brought the age of steam and print allowing the movement of people and ideas at a speed that had never been seen previously. The contours of empire is precisely what facilitated the movement of these peoples. For colonial troops this was an opportunity to gain social standing and travel. At the end of the nineteenth century the men enlisting were often of lower social standing or formerly enslaved individuals. Volunteering for the French colonial military offered a certain status that came with financial and social capital that could be accumulated outside traditional paths to authority. Tirailleurs sénégalais would often marry formerly enslaved women allowing them to circumvent the customary exchange of bride wealth. Meanwhile, for Lebanese migrants the technologies of steam and print which became more affordable in the first decades of the twentieth century allowed for new economic opportunities to increase their social standing in communities back in Greater Syria. Many of these migrants became merchants, traders, and shopkeepers constantly moving between the towns and cities of the AOF, some in colonial capitals like Dakar and Conakry, others in interior trading hubs like Kaolack and Kankan.

French colonial rule also facilitated travel within and between imperial polities. Lebanese Syrians Kamel Mroueh and Abduallah Hushaymah were beneficiaries of this intra-colonial travel, both of whom wrote extensive travelogues about their experiences in West Africa. These were travel accounts of elite Lebanese Syrian men who spent many expeditionary months traveling around West Africa, visiting from one city to the next, village to village, mixing and posing with locals, jotting down their observations of local customs and cultures, meeting with Lebanese Syrian migrants in the places they visited, and utilizing the numerous modes of transport the empire had to offer.

Kamel Mroueh, a Lebanese Shi’i publisher from Jabal ‘Amil and founder of the Arabic daily newspaper Al-Hayat (1946) and the English language newspaper The Daily Star (1956) wrote an extensive travelogue which might also have been considered a type of historical and anthropological study in 1938 entitled Nahnu fi Ifriqiya (We are in Africa). Mroueh was a member and founder of the Shi’a ‘Amiliyah Association and was sent by then- president Rashid Beydoun to travel around West Africa and collect donations among Lebanese Syrian Shi’i families for the association. In his 385-page travelogue divided into three parts with 44 sections he says he is writing both for the Lebanese Syrian migrant and about them. He offers a detailed history of Lebanese Syrian migration to West Africa, their numbers at the time, professions and geographical distributions both in French and British West African colonies.

Mroueh reinforces the tale that has been told time again that Lebanese Syrian migrants found themselves in West Africa by accident. They were all, according to the story, bound for the United States or Latin America. Most Lebanese Syrian migrants wanting to immigrate to the Americas would board ships in the port of Beirut for Marseille. In Marseille, Lebanese Syrians would either fail the necessary health exams to continue to the United States or run out of money to pay for the onward journey and decide instead to continue to Dakar. Many ships would also make a stop in Dakar or St. Louis before continuing its transatlantic journey and some early migrants believed they had arrived to “Amreeka.” One of Charles Issawi’s interlocutors in the 1940s told him, “I am emigrating to that part of Amreeka that is under French rule; it is very hot there and the people are black.” Mroueh writes that Senegal, was “’atabat ifriqiya” the doorstep to Africa, where Lebanese Syrian migrants would either stay in Dakar or St. Louis, move to the interior of the country, or make their way to other West African polities like Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Cote D’Ivoire, and the Gold Coast (Ghana). According to Mroueh, in 1900 there were 400 Lebanese Syrian migrants in West Africa with 267 in Senegal. In 1938 at the time of his writing he claims there were more than 10,000 with 2800 in Senegal and 1600 in Dakar.


Although The first wave of early migrants in the late nineteenth century were mainly Maronite Christians from Jabal Lubnan (Mount Lebanon) as a result of famine, civil war with the Druze, and rising competition in the silk trade which created a severe economic downturn in the region. The second wave of migrants in the 1910s in West Africa and through the interwar years were overwhelming Lebanese Shi’is from Jabal ‘Amil, estimates claim about 75 to 95 percent.

Many of the Lebanese migrants received loans and worked through the French company, Compagnie Francaise de l’Afrique Occidentale (CFAO) which oversaw most of trade in the AOF. The Lebanese, unlike their African counterparts were often given access to loans from European banks. According to French administrator Jean Desbordes, there was almost no village in Senegal where you would not find a Lebanese family or two, even though the greatest concentrations of Lebanese migrants could be found in Dakar and St. Louis. Lebanese migrants’ relationships with Africans were essential to their success as businessmen, interlocutors, traders, and middlemen of the bustling lucrative African trade. It is no secret however that these Lebanese migrants had (and still have) a reputation for being shrewd businessmen who took advantage of economic opportunities wherever they could be found and with whomever would provide opportunities for profit. Admittedly, not all Lebanese-Syrian migrants of this period (or now) fell into that homogenous description, there was inevitably a wide range of class, religious, and economic difference among migrant families.



Back in the French mandate, The French mandatory presence in Lebanon and Syria was very much shaped by a military occupation which influenced the way West African soldiers were viewed by locals.

Siham Turjuman, was a journalist from Damascus born in 1932. In her memoir she recalls these “French Senegalese soldiers” She writes:

I’ll never forget how the French Senegalese Soldiers in a snowy year tried to imitate the people of Damascus when they played in the snow. They started putting stones inside snowballs and hitting the people in the street as if playing a game of imperialism with the white snow covering the blackness of the core inside.


These racialized portrayals driven by fear of the “Senegalese” who for Turjuman were an extension of the colonizing entity, according to her “playing” some sort of “game of imperialism.” The tirailleurs sénégalais wore special uniforms which differentiated them from the rest of the colonial military and made them easy racialized targets for Arab nationalist anti-colonial propaganda, who were portrayed as “menacing” and ready to prey on Lebanese Syrian women. As Elizabeth Thompson shows (in Colonial Citizens), the presence of “black” “proxy colonizers” in positions of power and domination threatened gendered masculinities around emerging ideas of Lebanese and Syrian nationhood.

This accusation of “proxy colonizers” was similarly felt by West Africans of Lebanese Syrians in their hometowns. The combination of economic exploitation and access to European loans leading to financial successes on the backs of local West Africans made many locals see Lebanese Syrians as intermediaries of empire.

For example, in Senegal as the groundnut trade expanded significantly after the first world war, Lebanese migrants became “middleman.” In the nineteenth century, European trading companies would buy directly from peasant farmers. As the demand increased more middlemen were required. They would buy directly from peasants in the fields and subsequently transport the produce to a provincial trading center. Lebanese increasingly took up this role from local interlocutors. What aided Lebanese traders’ successes was that European banks were willing to offer them credit but reluctant to do the same for local West Africans In turn, Lebanese merchants would often extend credit lines to locals at exorbitant interest rates. Senegalese merchants would often call Arabs, “naar,” (meaning fire) as a critique of this exploitation.

French treatment of Lebanese Syrian migrants was inconsistent however, for even though they were preferred middleman, they also attempted to restrict Lebanese Syrian migration to their West African colonies for fear of their growing competition and economic power at different points.


Religious and Marital Encounters

The colonial order imposed policies of separation between soldiers and locals in the Levant and broader Muslim colonial territories as well as between African Muslims and Lebanese Syrian migrants in Muslim colonial centers. Historians of French empire and its colonies have well-documented the French fear of the mixing of “Islam noir” and “Arab Islam” and did everything to maintain a colonial order to keep them separate. French colonial authorities went through great lengths to attempt spatial and intellectual control of its mixed colonial populations. “Islam Noir” engineered by French colonial administrators William Ponty and Robert Arnaud, and further elaborated by Paul Marty, outlined an African version of Islam that was “inferior” and less threatening than “Arab Islam.” “Islam Noir” they believed was a softer Sufi-based version of Islam mixed with pre-Islamic African Traditional Religions. Even though, Islam had spread to West Africa in the early eleventh century (or even earlier perhaps) and many West African Muslims knew Arabic, the French found “Black Islam” much more “amenable” to colonization.

Especially in Muslim-majority Senegal, Lebanese Syrian migrants were not allowed to live in the same popular neighborhoods as locals, they were prohibited from praying in local mosques and a number of Arabic-language publications were banned including the Shi’i periodical, Al-‘Irfan. The French feared that pro-Arab nationalist and anti-colonial propaganda from the Levant would filter through these publications and stir “pro-Arab” sentiments in West Africans. Al-‘Irfan was banned from 1925 until at least 1938. To a certain extent these French attempts at keeping their colonial populations separate succeeded. A combination of these policies and the influence of racial ideologies amongst Lebanese Syrians prevented substantial assimilation. Unlike the Lebanese migrants who travelled to Latin America and the United States and were praised for their highly assimilable nature, Lebanese Syrian migrants in West Africa took measures to separate themselves from locals and turn further inwards.

As rigid as these distinctions were, intermarriage between migrants especially Shi’i men and African women, was not uncommon. Fuad Khuri during his anthropological fieldwork in the 1960s estimates that in Guinea, Senegal, and Sierra Leone there were about at least 2000-5000 Lebanese African children in each place. A generation of Lebanese-Africans are leading anti-racism campaigns in Lebanon

As in West Africa, French fears of tirailleurs sénégalais mixing with Lebanese Syrians was so substantial that French colonial authorities began recruiting further away from urban areas and in regions without exposure to Islam. But during WWII many of the soldiers from the Sahel region were Muslims and there were even Arabic speakers among the Sara troops in the Levant. The French monitored their troops in how often they visited local mosques and Muslim households. By late 1944 an exodus of tirailleurs were repatriated to sub-Saharan Africa for being “subversive.” Any “subversive” troops were diagnosed with “medical disorders” and sent away

We have less details about the unions between tirailleurs sénégalais and Lebanese Syrian women in Greater Syria. They did exist however, Sarah Jean Zimmerman documents that there were consensual romantic relationships and marriages between them. This presented an issue for both French colonial racial hierarchies and also for the Lebanese Syrian state’s gendered ideas of nationhood and masculinity. French administrators strongly feared the disruption of their racial order and the potential of mixing colonial populations. Petitions to the French government by West African soldiers who married Arab women in Syria and Lebanon to relocate their foreign wives to West Africa between 1918-1947 were often denied. These Arab women were classified as “white” in French colonial documents and introducing them to the West African context was seen as too great a threat. Meanwhile, if Lebanese Syrian women (or Moroccan women) separated or divorced in AOF, the French administration expedited their repatriations. This was not the case for Madagascan women married to tirailleurs sénégalais residing in AOF.

The intense reactions by French colonial authorities to the intermingling of Arabs and Africans leads us to believe there were relationships between and across these colonial subjects in West Africa and Greater Syria that were disrupting the colonial project. Religious and conjugal encounters posed a threat to gendered and colonial hierarchies and challenged rigid racial boundaries.



By way of conclusion, I will just say that what I think makes this story distinctive in the long and complex history between sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, including its entanglements with African enslavement, is that Lebanese Shi’is established permanent communities. Today, they make up the largest non-African migrant community in West Africa. Meanwhile, a hidden French military cemetery in Beirut hosts gravestones for almost two thousand tirailleurs sénégalais. It represents a tangible reminder of the West African soldiers who lived and died on foreign soil, many with Muslim names, leading us to wonder about their lives and interactions with Lebanese Syrians with whom they shared a French colonial past.