A conventional view of nomadic tribes is that motorization—the passage from animal to automobile transportation—brought about the transformation and eventually the obliteration of the nomadic pastoralist lifestyle in the long twentieth century. But through the example of nomadic tribes in French mandate Syria, this essay shows that creative appropriation of the automobile actually helped nomadic groups to strengthen their position and to defend their economic and political interests. Automobiles allowed tribal chiefs to experience enhanced mobility, facilitating a faster connection between the bulk of the tribe and the towns. Nomads could thereby reliably sell their livestock and products more easily. Motorcars also presented nomads with a new weapon with which to challenge the technical hegemony commonly associated with colonial power. Consequently, it forced mandate authorities to adapt and transform their own ways of policing and controlling the steppe to counter the pioneering use of cars by armed Bedouins. Last, it enabled tribal chiefs to gain social prestige and, therefore, to assert themselves as ruling elites in the soon-to-be-born independent state. Overall, the Syrian nomads should be seen as pioneers of automobile culture at the start of the global Fordist period, rather than as its victims.

You do not currently have access to this content.