2014年8月18日星期一

The Question of Rewriting Palestinian People into History

After a summer hiatus due to my 8-week intensive Hindi language program, I am back to frequently blogging about what I have been learning. I am a listener of the excellent Ottoman History Podcast and their newest episode interviewed the author of Rediscovering Palestine, social historian . The interview is very enlightening for historians and graduate students.

I always found it difficult to explain my interests in post-colonial history and Dr. Doumani, a professor of history at Brown University, explained the mission of the contemporary historian very well. Here is an excerpt of his insight on historiography typed by me from the recorded conversation. 
Writing Palestinians into history is a very difficult theoretical problem. Because one cannot do history first without unpacking and being critical of their own identity. So if we begin from the premise that nationalist construction of the past are usually false, and predictable, and meant to bolster specific political positions, we see our missions as "professional historians" not so much to write history as it is but to ask different kinds of questions that mess up these narratives of power, really, to do a subversive history, in the good sense of the word. So does one then write people into history when the notion of peoplehood itself is subject to critique. 
The host, Chris Gratien brings up the point that Golda Meir once said,  "There were no such things as Palestinians." And Dr. Doumani continues--
When Golda Meir says there is no such thing as Palestinians, and we have slogans such as 'a land for a people for a people without a land,' then, writing those people into history becomes a nationalist act... So that is where the theoretical problems lies.
So how does one maneuver? That's a simpler proposition for people who write about an end of a conflict or when it is no longer hot. ... In the case of those who want to write Palestinians into history, but to do it in a way that is not reinforcing nationalist constructions of the past, at a time when the conflict is still hot, then it becomes a problem, because the political stakes are complicated. ... For me, I was aware that writing Palestinians into history could be seen as a nationalist act. I was determined to write it in ways to be critical of nationalist constructions of that past, not just for the sake of being critical, but because what I was finding was very different from what they were saying. 
Doumani continues to argue that the erasure of Palestinians started even before Zionism, with three different forces at play: Orientalists, Zionists, Arab Nationalists, and Islamists. They all agreed that the history (especially before the 19th century) of Palestinians were not important. Doumani continues to explain that Islamists looked at this period of golden Islamic justice that was shattered by western intervention, so the period was idealized and hard to study. Palestinian nationalists considered that the Ottoman rulers oppressed the land of milk and honey, which paved the way for British colonialists and Zionists. These narratives argue that all these forces of change were external,
...so whatever people did at that time didn't matter. They were victims or bystanders of what was being done by outsiders. And the periodization was the same. Nothing really happened until the 1880s or 20th century. These are just two of the many binaries agreed by all four narratives of the past. ... It shows the depth of the problem they face and have faced throughout the 19th and well into the 20th century, which is the refusal of the world to recognize the right of Palestinians to constitute as a political community. 

We see this continue in contemporary debates that Palestinians are "Arabs" and should be able to relocate to Arab. As Doumani draws connections between the past and the present, he says, "The idea that close to 2 million people are thrown in to one big open prison... to keep them alive but not really living, it's amazing that people accept that." To declare Gaza as an ahistorical place of no connections to anyone, is another example accomplished through the erasure of the Palestinian people, he argues.

Another interesting point Doumani made in the podcast regarding the destruction of olive trees has both a material and symbolic element--
One has to do with livelihoods; the other has to do with the fact that the less a commodity becomes important in society, the more it becomes a symbol. The less the Palestinians lived off of olive trees, the more they became a symbol for what it means to be a Palestinian... I don't think it's accidental that the Israeli occupation authorities regularly resort to the cutting down  olive trees as a way of not just punishing but psychologically ruining and repressing a population.
Both Gratien and Doumani discussed the different sources emerging. As a scholar interested in material, Doumani calls for more specific studies of sources to generate new questions and insights. Still, he also values the the question of how we use our sources and political vocabulary also have to be examined carefully (reg: Edward Said / Orientalism.) Gratien also laments that many materials are often understudied, "Oral history is only when it's too late becomes important. It's when the people are about to die do they become important." Doumani counters that "Archives do not preexist the questions that we ask; it's our questions that create archives. Archives are constructed and they will never end." Still, Doumani also understands the urgency, as he regards "The land itself is the biggest archive, and it is being changed as we speak." He mentioned new technologies, such as GIS, enables historians to interpret the past.

The sources Doumani used for his book Rediscovering Palestine, such as court records and family papers of the region in question (Nablus), is also very important resources to keep in mind for (social) historians. He physically visited the West Bank for research, but he laments the lack of national resources for preserving Palestinian archives. He also observes that Israeli scholars have more access to these archives than Palestinians. Doumani considers that there is a war going on with representation in the contemporary as well as the past events. This is a universal task that conscientious historians must tackle in any area of study, but obviously should be done more actively in the case of disputed regions, such as Palestine.

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