Educational Oases in the Desert

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

By Jonathan Sciarcon

Subjects: History, Jewish Studies, Ottoman Studies, Middle East Studies, World History
Paperback : 9781438465845, 226 pages, July 2018
Hardcover : 9781438465852, 226 pages, August 2017

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Table of contents

List of Tables

1. Pioneering Female Jewish Education: The AIU in Baghdad, 1864–1895

2. From Danon to Sutton: The Baghdad Girls’ School, 1896–1899

3. Making Adjustments: Oro Sémach’s Tenure in Baghdad, 1899–1904

4. From the Baghdad Girls’ School to the Laura Kadoorie School for Girls, 1905–1915

5. The AIU Girls’ Schools in Hilla, Mosul, and Basra, 1911–1915


A history of the French schools that pioneered female education in Ottoman Iraq's Jewish communities.


During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU), a Paris-based Jewish organization, founded dozens of primary schools throughout the Middle East. Many were the first formal educational institutions for local Jewish children. In addition to providing secular education, the schools attempted to change local customs and "regenerate" or "uplift" communities. Educational Oases in the Desert explores the largely forgotten history of the AIU's schools for girls in Ottoman Iraq. Drawing on extensive archival research, Jonathan Sciarcon argues that teachers viewed female education through a gendered lens linked to their understanding of an ideal modern society. As the primary educators of children, women were seen as society's key agents of socialization. The AIU thus concluded that its boys' schools would never succeed in creating polished, westernized men so long as women remained uneducated, leading to the creation of schools for girls. Sciarcon shows how headmistresses acted not just as educators but also as models of modernity, trying to impart new moral and aesthetic norms onto students.

Jonathan Sciarcon is Assistant Professor of History and Judaic Studies at the University of Denver.


"In Educational Oases in the Desert, Jonathan Sciarcon provides an engaging microhistorical treatment of the establishment and twenty-year operation of a school for Jewish girls in Ottoman Baghdad at the turn of the twentieth century. In doing so, he adds depth and texture to our understanding of the modernizing transformation in education that took place on a global scale between 1890 and 1930. " — AJS Review

"Sciarcon's book Educational Oases in the Desert fits into a body of scholarly literature that has flourished since the 1990s in the American academy … His book is encyclopedic in scope and will serve as a useful reference work on the topic. The book offers a wealth of detailed information, including enrollment numbers, deaths from yellow fever, tuition figures, administrative regime changes in the schools, and indications of space restrictions. " — Nashim

"Sciarcon's study is a significant contribution to Jewish women's history of Iraq not only in terms of educational aspects, but also with regards to the struggles of individual female directors to persuade local parents about the importance of female schooling within an adverse social environment. " — Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth

"The book is well-written … [Sciarcon's] detailed and concentrated account adds a valuable piece to the history of Jewish women in this period. " — AJL Reviews

"While the pedagogical empire created by the AIU has received broad treatment before, this book narrows its focus to a specific time period and locale, allowing for a more nuanced look at the interplay between girls' schools, issues such as gender and education, and concepts of Westernization, cultural transplants, and agents of change. " — H-Net Reviews (H-Judaic)

"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. " — Reading Religion