Arts & Culture

The Unmaking of the Middle East

Imagine writing seriously about French intellectual history without speaking French. Consider publishing books on Mayan indigenous cultures without knowing their languages. The pretense of knowledge and political bankruptcy would be self-evident. Yet this sort of intellectual masquerade occurs much too … Read More

By / November 18, 2008

Imagine writing seriously about French intellectual history without speaking French. Consider publishing books on Mayan indigenous cultures without knowing their languages. The pretense of knowledge and political bankruptcy would be self-evident. Yet this sort of intellectual masquerade occurs much too often in contemporary scholarship of the Middle East. Scholars should be able to read or speak the languages of the human cultures they engage. Doing historical or cultural research in translation, or teaching from translated materials one cannot read, is to live within epistemological close confinement. Language-learning is the key to breaking through such confinement, and Middle East scholarship especially needs cross-cultural and multi-linguistic work if it is to function as a bridge between the multiple isolations of the region’s divergent nationalisms and their narratives. It cannot be too strongly emphasized that it is critical for scholar-teachers to set an example and learn the languages of the cultures, peoples, and governments they study and write about. Where scholars cannot select, read, and analyze primary sources in their original language, then their work is hopeless and can only be dismissed. Among scholars of the Middle East, from whatever political perspective they claim, such language-deficient authors represent repetition, albeit from a different source, of those non-Arabic-speaking Arabists who were the instruments of European colonialism. Scholars who do command the necessary languages to address the Arab-Israeli conflict have a major advantage. One thinks of Anton Shammas, fluent in both Arabic and Hebrew, and others who are able to argue their views articulately from within a full and commanding cultural knowledge. Apologetic defense of a non-language-based standard of historical or cultural scholarship often seems no more than an excuse for fundamental antagonism and social avoidance, not any serious engagement. A Middle East scholar at an Ivy League institution wrote me an e-mail message along these lines, claiming that that "many of the primary documents of Israeli history have always been composed in European languages; and a substantial number of Israel’s citizens have always written and expressed themselves primarily in other languages, including English, French and Arabic." Having done research in various Israeli archives, both government and private, I am profoundly aware of precisely the opposite. The vast bulk of those documents, almost to their entirety, is in Hebrew: they have never been translated into any other language. It says a great deal about a fundamental misunderstanding of the pre-state Yishuv or Israeli society that a scholar would even consider asserting that many of the primary political, legal, or social documents of Israeli society have been composed in European languages. That this sort of error passes for commonplace knowledge is perhaps an expression of an ideological and anti-historical predisposition to view Israeli society as thoroughly European, another profound and too-frequent error.
Let’s turn to Jeremy Salt’s The Unmaking of the Middle East: A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands (University of California Press) as an example of the dangers of language-deficient scholarship. Salt, based at Bilkent University in Ankara, whose major previous work concerns Armenian history, has produced this volume without evident knowledge of either Arabic or Hebrew. His lengthy bibliography contains only English-language sources (almost no translations from regional languages among them), mostly published in London or New York, as if the Middle East required Euro-American publishers for self-understanding. Salt’s historiographic method lies in weaving a skein of selected secondary sources that suit his theses, primary sources be damned. As if this were insufficiently problematic, the book has quite limited purchase on its expansive title, which promises an address to “the Middle East” and “Arab lands”. The volume begins with brief reviews of well-known histories of the end of Ottoman rule; the fate of the Armenians; and developments in Egypt, Syria and Iraq after World War I. The middle two-thirds of the book deal entirely with a history of Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts, after which it explores the Bush wars before concluding with another address to the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

This makes for a highly unbalanced book, one that treats Israel and Palestine while neglecting the remainder of the region. Entire histories of Western imperialism and economic exploitation disappear behind this focus. When formative diplomatic events such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement evaporate in the briefest of references, or the Arabian peninsula as a whole remains nearly excluded from discussion as a site of petro-imperialism, then the scope of absences renders the book unusable even as a general history. Since central drives of imperialism involve capital, labor and the profitability of colonial enterprises, it seems near-inexplicable that Salt includes almost no address to these issues – and to class – throughout the volume. On the real topic of this book, Israel and Palestine, Salt displays inexpert scholarship-from-a-distance. His lack of cultural and political knowledge sprinkles the text with errors such as where he identifies the killer-rabbi, Moshe Levinger, as “ultraorthodox”; in fact, Levinger emerged from the national-religious stream of the Mercaz Ha’rav yeshiva and such an error indicates Salt does not understand basic social differences. Salt’s problem is not simply misinformation, but persistent ideological blinders that disable his historiography. One would never know from his account of the events of 1948 that the Arab Legion was officered, trained and equipped by the British, as completely realized a manifestation of Western imperialism as existed in the Middle East.

Salt claims regarding 1948 that “The image of massive Arab armies descending on Palestine from all directions was a lie”; provides a wildly inaccurate account of the balance of forces at the beginning of the war; and describes ensuing events as one-sided conquest. Again, an uninformed reader would never know of southern kibbutzim overrun by the Egyptian army in bloody fighting, the Etzion massacre, the fall of the Jewish quarter in Jerusalem’s old city, or that the Iraqi army held the San Simon neighborhood of Jerusalem while the Egyptians held Bethlehem. This decisive period of conflict between Arab and Israeli forces was an immensely hard-fought and costly battle for all sides, not the rout that Salt describes. The same pattern of misleading history and absent consideration evidences itself elsewhere in The Unmaking of the Middle East, but there is little point in paying it more attention. Some books are masterful engagements with the communities and conflicts of the Middle East – for excellent treatments of Israel’s mini-empire in the Palestinian territories, see any book by Amira Hass or Eyal Weizman’s recent Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation – and there are books that will fade quickly and unremembered.

This weak effort lodges in the latter category. One formative difference separating out memorable scholarship lies in a capacity to speak local languages, to engage in primary research, and contribute new perspectives. This is not simply a matter of competent cultural knowledge, but rather it reflects a democratic ethos. A democratic scholarship, one that witnesses against class, racism, colonialism and imperialism, listens to the voices of peoples and stories told by the disenfranchised.

all images from Maya Escobar’s piece you and your friends vol 1