Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Hidden History of Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean

It is safe to say that the Palestinian cause has never had its own functional and independent intelligentsia or academia, as their members have always been either co-opted to endow a corrupt liberation organization, and later the authority it spawned, with validity, or assigned titular positions at some "western" institutes or NGOs to offset their hard-earned reputation for being unconditionally biased toward Israel.

But then among the few who opted, and still opt out of becoming stooges for either side, there was Edward Said, who not only bore the brunt of fending for the Palestinians and their rights in some of the most elite intellectual circles in the "west", but also was a founder of post-colonial studies, therefore creating a space for the once-colonized, non-European nations worldwide to fight back the Eurocentric mode prevailing in the fields of humanities; a final battle to round off a process of decolonization that is thought to have been less than immaculate.

The void left by Edward might be hard to fill, but some Palestinian scholars are already proving themselves worthy successors, such as this Al-Quds University Professor of the name Basem L. Ra’ad, a historian who brings his knowledge, especially of the nineteenth century travel writing and other relatively recent historical discoveries, to bear in mounting a devastating critique, in the form of a book titled "Hidden Histories: Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean", that undermines much of what is widely taken to be the genuine history of the Levant, and, therefrom, the Zionist claims to Palestine.

The book is divided into two equal parts, "Ancient Myths, Religions, And Cultures" and "Modern Myths and (De)Colonized History", but the division bears very little significance to what you might expect from the content in each, and that can be equally said about the ten chapters (eleven if you consider the epilogue to be a one) making up the book. In fact the purport of Dr. Basem's arguments is presented in a rather peculiar way, where by arbitrarily reading through any set of subsequent pages, the reader would still get something of every major thing the book has to offer, an experience that was oddly enough reminiscent of zooming in on a fractal. This was manifest, for one of many examples, as the most recurring refrain in the book, which took the form of "(for more: see chapter A, chapter B, and note D on chapter C)" where A, B and C could be any seemingly unrelated chapters. 

That was quite irksome at the beginning, and I kept wondering whether this was the best way to convey the critique, which is already written in terse, hence hard, language. However, towards the end of the first division I figured out that the style was not entirely gratuitous. Almost all of the arguments in the book were made of different combinations of four major distinct, but interdependent strands, namely; the history of the Levant as seen through solid archaeological proofs in contrast to through the traditions of the three monolithic religions, the precursors to the rise of the Zionist ideology in the "west", the Zionist movement evolution and adaptive strategies to circumvent the accruing evidence in the face of its claims' legitimacy, and the question of identity for the Palestinians, the answer to which should, according to the author, strike a delicate balance between a requirement to enable an effective resistance against a multifaceted occupation, and, simultaneously, to preclude a rise of fanatic nationalism.

Indeed, as I was going through the book I could not help thinking about the depth of the identity quandary into which the Palestinians have fallen. The complexity of the situation is captured in the text by the description of their real history as a "palimpsest", a metaphorical mot juste. defines a palimpsest as:

  • a manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing.
  • something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form."

The complexity stems largely from the fact that the Palestinians themselves partake of and subscribe to the altered history upon which Zionism is founded; the Christians among them believe that "their arrival" with the Roman Empire some 2000 years ago grants them the status of nativity today, while the Muslim ones hold that their "ownership" of Palestine for 1400 years is more than enough to render annulled the Jewish proprietorship, when in all reality none of them came from anywhere else. They have always been the natives of the land, as continuity in their culture, embroidery, dialects and myths, among many others, shows, a continuity that stretches back to 3500 BC at least, i.e. the dawn of recorded human history.

The reason they identify themselves distinctively today - what the author terms self-colonizing - is that their respective ancestors simply had to convert out of duress; once Pagans, now Jews, Christians, or Muslims. Of course, there are "exogenous" - the quotes are meant to express the irony the word brims with in this context - sources to this quandary. Palestinians were always part of a larger, at-all-levels unity; the Levant (historically known as Canaan). But with newly born, out of this unity, three independent nations, each singed up to its very own blinkered notion of identity, the Palestinians are one more time at a loss to figure out their true history.

I always avoid the must-read ethos, and replace it with the highly-recommended one. However I will make an exception for this book. It is a must read for anyone who calls the Levant home, or who is simply interested in the history of the region and I can even say humanity. To me it is that in the not so distant past, Palestine was largely the stuff of slushy literature and mawkish orations. After I was introduced to Edward Said, things began to change. But Edward's approach had Arabism for a framework. That can be quite misleading in the contemporary discourse on the Middle East.

Equating Palestinians with Arabs is equal to saying that their existence in the "holy land" amounts to nothing more than a short historical stint. And now that the original owners of this land have returned, the squatters should pack their stuff and go back home, i.e. the Arabian Peninsula. But Dr. Basem's approach on the other hand is nothing other than the first mile of steps in the right direction; people of the East Mediterranean, what I have been referring to as the Levant thus far, and regardless of the traditions they profess to, should finally awake and understand who they truly are.

[One of the illustrations in the book Hidden Histories. A reader whose knowledge of the Middle East goes beyond crude stereotypes, might be wondering rightly what on earth a photo from so distant a region as America is doing in here. The answer is that the river in the picture is purported to be the Jordan, and those "savages" are Arabs, as "encountered" some 150 years ago! It originally appeared in a book that recounts the details of a conspicuously made up journey along the aforementioned river by a British explorer called John MacGregor. This was introduced in the Hidden Histories book to give a taste for the environment in which Zionism started growing.]