Archive for the ‘History’ Category

☞ There is no question that the Palestinian problem is one of the great humanitarian crises of today. Like some of the historical problems of this nature, it has to do with the attempt to manufacture, promote and impose a dominant narrative through unjustifiable and savage means. In this case, as the Palestinian-American author Susan Abulhawa notes — in her review of a film which shows how the Zionists tried to demolish the Palestinian identity and intellectual heritage through the robbing of their books — the interpretation of the Palestinian narrative might depend on “who tells it, in what context is it told, how is it told, and, ultimately, who owns it.” To Abulhawa, unless the narrative is told from a historically-informed Palestinian perspective, there are bound to be gaps that do not allow the more complete picture of Palestinian nationhood from being conveyed.

(Image: Via Al Jazeera)

(Image: Via Al Jazeera)

“I finally watched The Great Book Robbery at the University of Pennsylvania this weekend with some friends.  It’s a film documenting Israel’s systematic looting of over 70,000 books from Palestinian public and private libraries after Jewish gangs in Palestine proclaimed the state of Israel and ethnically cleansed the native population.

The film itself is excellent and I have a lot of good things to say about it.   But I was bothered by a certain element, at the very end, which was repeated by the Director, Benny Brunner, who was at the showing to answer questions.  So I raised my hand and asked a question about it.  Mr Brunner became very defensive.

His reaction made me think and re-think on a topic that already preoccupies me on a near daily basis – namely, the Palestinian narrative: who tells it, in what context is it told, how is it told, and, ultimately, who owns it.    The importance of such a discussion regarding a people’s narrative should not be underestimated, particularly in instances of oppression and ethnic cleansing.

Putting aside the single, albeit important, element that bothered me in the film, and the film director’s unfortunate reaction to uncomfortable questions, I will first tell you everything that was right and good about this documentary.  For starters, it unveils another facet of the Zionist project to strip the indigenous Palestinians of everything tangible and intangible, not merely out of pure greed and opportunism, but also to necessarily fill in the various gaps and requirements of manufacturing a Jewish state in the 20th century.  This documentary deals with our books – some ancient, others contemporary; some rare one-of-a-kind books, others reproduced.  Most of them were personal, all were historic, and each was a piece of Palestinian cultural and intellectual heritage and identity.

As Zionists did with our homes, bank accounts, photographs, farms, orchards, and all remaining worldly possessions, they also stole our books.    A large number of them were looted from wealthy families from Jerusalem and Haifa, and in the process of watching this documentary, the viewer gets a sense of the cultured and highly-educated Palestinian society that was dispossessed of home and history by foreign Jewish newcomers.  One man in the audience made reference to this in a comment to the director.  This film clearly changed the image of Palestinians in his mind from something other than cultured, to people he could relate to.   That says something about the film’s power.

Several Palestinian personalities were featured, including Nasser Nashashibi, whose tears fell as he spoke of the loss of his library.  Ghada Karmi, too, was in the film.  Footage showed her returning to her home in Qatamon and finding the same lemon tree and porch tiles from her youth.  Another poignant interview was with a Palestinian by the name of Ahmed Batrawi.  He described himself as a prisoner of war who was forced to work and to clear out other Palestinian homes, including his own, and turn over all loot to Zionist authorities.  Although the director did not mention this, all evidence points to Batrawi having been in one of the many forced labor camps that Israel apparently established just 4 years after Nazis closed the last of their forced labor camps.  Little is known of these camps and I first heard of them from Dr Salman Abu Sitta, whose research into the archives of the Swiss Red Cross revealed 5 camps with 6,360 prisoners who were forced into slave labor after 1948.  But I digress.

The story was haunting and compelling.  It provoked anger in me that plunged into a depth of sadness and loss.  I think it would seem silly to some to mourn old books, especially when there is so much more to mourn, from stolen futures to extinguished lives.  But perhaps it is precisely for the magnitude of our loss that our books, our intellectual heritage and narrative, matter so much.”

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I once had a teacher at Berkeley named Robert Brentano, a historian of medieval Europe whose mind crackled with all the restlessness and complexity The Swerve lacks. In an afterword to his most famous book, Two Churches, a study of English and Italian churchmen in the 13th century, Brentano wrote of his desire to dispense with narrative in history altogether. The best historical writing, he wrote, can present “a series of images and ideas whole, clear, bright, and let the transition occur, as it should, without the dullness of written words. Without words, transition becomes beautiful. If I ever have enough nerve, I shall write history completely without transition.”

From the conclusion of Jim Hinch’s review of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Read more…

Why Stephen Greenblatt is Wrong — and Why It Matters