Hidden Histories – Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean. Basem L. Ra’ad.Pluto Press, New York London, 2010.
The clear majority of the modern works that examine the Palestine/Israel conflict do so with a strong emphasis on the ‘nakba’ of 1948, with subsequent arguments based on covering events that led up to it, and then arguments based on events that have followed from it. For the former it is usually a discussion of the early Zionist writings merging into early Christian Zionist beliefs in the U.S. and Britain, and then gaining huge momentum from the Balfour Declaration, a statement of policy and not international law or international agreement. For the latter, the post nakba events, much of the focus is appropriately placed on the mechanisms of control established by the newly declared Israeli state up to the 1967 war, and after that critical juncture, a discussion of the settlements and their expropriation/annexation of occupied Palestinian land. The formation of valued international norms of law and human rights since the Second World War, established through various international means (the Nuremburg trials, the UN, the Geneva Conventions and other accepted norms of customary law), plays in important role in these discussions.
Basem L. Ra’ad’s new book Hidden Histories – Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean adds a relatively new component to the discussion of Palestinian and regional history. It is impossible to not include the above elements in a discussion of Palestine, yet they receive minimal treatment, almost as an already understood if understated context. Instead, Hidden Histories explores two perspectives that are not completely ignored but not fully well developed, in part because the dominant media discourse of the U.S., Europe, and Israel do not particularly want them to be heard.
The first perspective is to examine the ancient histories of the region through current knowledge of archaeology and linguistics, a duality that highlights not the uniqueness of a chosen people and its exile and return, but the commonality of a stable indigenous population that underwent various permutations and adaptations as different forces controlled to the region to varying degrees.
The second perspective looks at the modern implementation of the Israeli narrative – normally looked at in the manner in which the ethnic history is used to justify the appropriation and annexation of the physical landscape, of the declared intent to settle all of Eretz Israel, as a divine right of the Jewish people. Ra’ad turns this appropriation and annexation perspective and focuses on the appropriation of the cultural artifacts, the cultural heritage, the language, and the cultural beliefs of the indigenous Palestinians, to the extent, as he argues, that the Palestinians themselves are becoming unaware of their own true patrimony and unknowingly reflect Israeli mythology into their own background. This is a very important construct to recognize as it is one of the strongest ways in which a dominant society can not only control but emotionally and culturally delete another culture and its history. The people become others, wanderers in the desert, true “Arabs” who arrived with the Islamic conquests of the seventh century, whose true home is beyond the borders of Israel.
A large part of the work then is a call to awareness for the Palestinian people to be aware of the loss of their patrimony, to re-educate themselves as to what is truly theirs in a cultural sense as well as the with the loss of the land. It has been noted more than once in both revisionist and ‘traditional’ historical writings on Zionism that “early Zionists did not shy away from seeing the Palestinians as rooted in the land from prehistoric times….Up to the 1930s, many Zionist theorists saw the Palestinian farmers or ‘fellahin’ as descendants of Judean peasantry, as Jews who converted to Islam to avoid taxation.” Afterwards, following upon the more violent nature of the conflict, the holocaust, and the nakba, the “affinity early Zionists felt toward the local Palestinians, for utilitarian reasons, has now disappeared overall and been replaced by antagonism or dismissal.” Even more effectively Ra’ad argues the “Israelis have appropriated a semblance of nativity and have relegated the Palestinians to cultural invisibility or active demonization within the Zionist system.” By appropriating the nativity of the Palestinians, the Zionists attempt to claim or as they would put it to reclaim their divinely ordained land, their own nativity.
The arguments and presentations cover the historical and archaeological evidence from the early existence of a Canaanite culture with a widespread geography that is a precursor to many of the myths and traditions of the region as a whole. By looking at the linguistic patterns and developments throughout the region, Ra’ad argues that “Hebrew is merely a script style that is known in Aramaic as square Aramaic,” and is not the ancient language of the land. Nor can the earlier languages, much more similar to the Arabic language, be considered “paleo-Hebrew” this or “ancient-Hebrew” that. The Arabic language is shown to be “a native regional language,” not imported with the Arab Muslim conquest of the seventh century, and it is the “live continuation and natural extension of the earlier languages as they were submerged.” In other words it is not a foreign language to the region, but a natural evolvement under organic adaptations to the trade, commerce, and warfare so prevalent in the region. In sum “whether it is in this totality of artifice of changing the map or in relation to the ancient names on the ground, or theories about ancient languages, there is a great deal of invention, guile, backdating, and fabricated justification.”
For the Israelis, if the god-covenanted land narrative falls apart, their whole universe disappears and they become just another group attempting to survive by way of dominance over a weaker group. To prevent that from happening, the narrative needs to be constructed both forward and backwards: forwards from the given biblical time lines to create a lineage representing the ‘true’ heritage of the Jews; backwards from current times as linguistic and archaeological evidence is phrased and manipulated towards the same heritage. Ra’ad’s work creates a discussion that poses huge problems for the overall narrative.
The future for Palestine involves education to decolonize the mind – their own minds, to reclaim their heritage from appropriation as Jewish heritage. Education is paramount in this, and this work serves as an excellent starting point in re-educating not only the world but Palestinians as to the nature of their patrimony and the manner in which it is being appropriated. With five million Palestinians already deprived of any land as their heritage, it is incumbent upon them to retain, to regain, their cultural voice, their cultural history as a bulwark against further denial and invisibleness under the domination of the Israeli occupation. Beyond that it suggests a way forward for research, to accumulate and record what can be retained and discovered of the Palestinian heritage, to not allow it to be subsumed by the Zionist project of Eretz Israel.
Given the media dominance of the U.S., Europe, and Israel, it will remain a struggle to retain and open up the broader perspective of awareness. Basem Ra’ads Hidden Histories is an intriguing and challenging work, a positive study leading toward a more honest fundamental understanding of the Eastern Mediterranean, and it also serves as a warning as to how historical narratives can be manipulated and created by the dominant part of society to fully disown both physically and culturally the weaker part.