Educational Oases in the Desert

The Alliance Israélite Universelle's Girls' Schools in Ottoman Iraq, 1895-1915

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Jonathan Sciarcon
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , August
     226 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Educational Oases in the Desert, Jonathan Sciarcon examines the establishment and development of Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) schools for Jewish girls in Baghdad and other towns in the Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Drawing from letters written by the schools’ directors and teachers as well as correspondence from AIU’s boys’ schools in the same cities, Sciarcon crafts a compelling and engaging narrative that highlights the dedication of the schools’ young female directors and chronicles problems they face while contending with a myriad of challenging local issues and continually lobbying AIU’s Central Committee in Paris for more resources.

After discussing the historiography of the AIU and problematizing the use of letters as sources, the introduction provides background about the AIU’s activities in the region, its goals for female education, and the context of educational reforms in the Ottoman Empire within which these schools developed. Sciarcon argues that the AIU’s directors, both male and female, acted as “models of modernity” and “viewed female education through a gendered lens linked to their understandings of an ideal modern society,” seeing its main goal as creating modern wives and mothers who would help rejuvenate local Jewish communities by raising “polished, Westernized men” (xxvii-xxviii). To the directors, modernity included adopting European methods of hygiene, wearing Western clothing and hairstyles, acquiring self-discipline and proper manners, mastering useful vocational skills such as sewing, and of course learning French. They also worked to educate the girls’ families about problems caused by child marriage and encouraged the families to marry their daughters at a later age. Indeed, most of the girls who attended the school seem to have adopted the worldview and values of AIU directors, which in some cases alienated them from their families, but also allowed many to delay marriage until the age of 17 or 18 and gain more freedom of movement.

Most of the book is organized chronologically, with four chapters on the AIU girls’ school in Baghdad from its establishment in 1895 to its brief closure during World War I and a final chapter on the AIU girls’ schools in three other towns: Hilla, Mosul, and Basra. Although the first four chapters examine the development of the Baghdad girls’ school under different directors between 1895 and 1915, the problems faced by its directors were so chronic that sections of the book occasionally seem repetitious. In each chapter, the directors grapple with issues such as inadequate funding from AIU’s Central Committee in Paris, convincing the local community to pay for their daughters’ education, hiring qualified teachers, dealing with the low salaries paid to the directors as well as the teachers , locating an appropriate building, and dealing with Baghdad’s challenging physical environment, especially the summer heat and outbreaks of disease such as cholera. Like proponents of women’s education in other Ottoman communities, the girls’ schools also faced some opposition from religious leaders—in this case local rabbis. The AIU girls’ schools in Hilla, Mosul, and Basra faced similar problems as well as additional issues such as opposition from Ottoman officials. Despite all these challenges, by 1911, the girls’ school in Baghdad finally obtained a permanent home and became the Laura Kadoori School for Girls, attended by close to eight hundred students including a number of girls from prominent Armenian, Greek, and Muslim families. After briefly closing during the war, the school continued to function until 1951. The AIU girls’ school in Hilla, by contrast, shut down after a few years.

As noted in the introduction, Educational Oases in the Desert represents the first monograph that focuses on AIU girls’ schools in the provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul. Through comparing the goals and approaches of AIU directors towards the education of women with those of educators in other Ottoman communities, the book also highlights cultural similarities among the various religious communities that made up the empire. In addition to immersing the reader in the fascinating world of turn-of the-century Ottoman Iraq, this book contributes to the growing body of scholarship about Jewish girls’ education, the AIU, and female education in the Ottoman Empire during this period.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Corinne Blake is Associate Professor of History and Associate Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey.

Date of Review: 
January 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathan Sciarcon is assistant professor of history and Judaic studies at the University of Denver.


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