Home Movies as Newsreel: The Story of Palestinian Non-Violent Resistance

Five Broken Cameras PosterSometime between 2000 and 2004, a remarkable example of grassroots, creative non-violent resistance to military occupation took root in villages of the West Bank. So much violence and upheaval was taking place in the region at the same time that this phenomenon may have gone unnoticed.

Thirty-plus years of Israeli military occupation (punctuated by intensified land grabs and settlement construction), as well as dashed hopes for a just peace, set the stage for this phase of Palestinian resistance. But, the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back was, ironically, Israel’s creation of a wall to insulate its population from Palestinians. Instead, the construction of the Separation Barrier (as deemed by its designers)  broke the fear barrier once and for all for many of the rural residents lying in its wake. (This occurred, incidentally, just as cracks in the wall of fear were about to undermine regimes all across the region).


Bil’in lies near the “green line” separating Israel proper from the West Bank. Israel’s “Separation Barrier” divided the town from its olive groves and sparked a resistance movement which has made international headlines and is brought home by Burnal and David’s film.

Sometime in 2008, Sandra told me to watch these amazing YouTube videos of protests against the wall in a little village in the district of Ramallah called Bil’in. Every Friday, villagers– women, men,  young, old– and, over time, Israeli and international supporters, would march up to the barrier to face off with heavily armed and armored soldiers. The army would respond with gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition. Defenseless civilians (alright, some of the boys through rocks) were gassed, wounded, and shot dead at point blank range.

I did not know at the time that these videos were produced by the village’s de facto chronicler Bil’in native Emad Bunat whose home movies turned into an extraordinary documentary. Burnat and Israeli director Guy David produced the extraordinary documentary Five Broken Cameras (2011). A theatrical trailer is available at the website of distributor Kino Lorber. I just saw it streaming on Hulu Plus. If you aren’t a subscriber, you can sign up for a free one-week trial. It is well worth it. A Facebook page has more details about the film.

My mentor Tony Bing used to say that you cannot understand Palestinians, especially the rural population, unless you understand their attachment to the land. He called “continuity of presence  on the land” the single most important Palestinian truth. Of course, Palestinians know this intuitively and I will never forget seeing Palestinian geographer Kamal Abdul Fattah tasting the soil as he examined the remnants of a village deserted and destroyed in 1948 as we stopped on a trip to the Galillee.

Emad and Gibril

Filmmaker Emad Burnat with his son Gibreel on the lands of their village Bil’in with the Separation Barrier and the Israeli settlement of Modi’in Illit in the background. Photo by Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times.

This passion for the land is made tangible by Burnat’s first person narrative (subtitled for English-language audiences). He and his neighbors had no desire to be caught up in politics and confrontation. But when Israeli settlers from the settlement of Modi’in Illit, which casts a larger and larger shadow over the village, burned a grove of olive trees, the villagers’ anger boiled over. As the backhoes scored the land to build the fence, Burnal decries “the wounds in the land” that leave scars like those left by bullets  tear gas canisters on the bodies of his compatriots.

Imad's Father

Burnal’s elderly father musters all the energy of a parent to try to stop his son Khalid’s imprisonment.

Burnat got the first (of the title’s five) cameras to take home movies when his fourth son Gibreel was born in 2005, just as the weekly protests began. Over the next five years, Gibreel grows as do the confrontations with the military. His birthday parties are bracketed by the arrests of his uncles Riyad, Eyad, Ja’far, and Khalid (not to mention the eventual jailing of his father). His first words are matat (cartridge), jidar (wall), and jaysh (army). Burnat’s wife Soraya is increasingly frustrated by her husband’s obsessive filming and propensity to find trouble. He is wounded, saved from certain death by camera no. 3 which takes two bullets, jailed, put under house arrest, and barely escapes death when his tractor collides with the fence. Soraya cries when her husband defies doctors’ orders to film again, “What are we supposed to do? I can’t take it! I am tired!” Burnat’s view is family focused and unflinching. When brother Khalid is arrested, Burnat films his elderly parents clawing at an armored jeep to prevent the soldiers’ retreat with their son.

Adeeb and Phil

Adeeb and “Phil” lead a demonstration in Bil’in. They march right up to a line of heavily armed and armored Israeli soldiers with nothing but deep attachment to their land and a spirited resolve to protect it any cost.

This is a film about family and friendship. Burnat’s two closest friends, Adeeb Abu Rahme and the larger than life Bassem Abu Rahme (Adeeb’s cousin), exhibit rare bravery as they use their bodies, voices, and, most importantly, imaginations, to challenge everything the Israeli military launches at them. Bassem is known as “Phil” for fil, Arabic for “elephant” for his size and his circus antics that keep village children  from growing up in complete despair. Together and with the aid of other villagers and solidarity activists, this motley band of citizen-resisters challenges every effort to take the land with progressively more creative responses. When Israeli settlers use a trailer to create “facts on the ground”, Bil’inis try blocking the cranes with their bodies. When that fails, they create an outpost of their own. When that is torn down, they replace it. When the second trailer is seized with activists locked inside, the villagers gather at night to construct a concrete version which is repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt. 

Little victories are achieved along the way. The Israeli High Court orders the fence moved and though it takes more than five years for this to happen, it was entirely the result of the resolve and resourcefulness of “little people”, villagers and their civilian supporters. When Palestinian politicians show up to take advantage of this resilience, the villagers are ambivalent if not entirely skeptical of their intentions.

[Spoiler alert; skip to the next paragraph.] It is not always, clear, however whether the small victories are worth the devastating costs. Soraya, the filmmaker’s wife knows this (as only a mother can) from the start. But, when the playful giant Phil is finally shot dead by an Israeli soldier, even Burnat has his doubts. Gibreel, aged five and very attached to Phil, begins to ask questions that reveal the loss of innocence. “What did Phil ever do to the jaysh to be killed?”

This deeply personal account will leave the most hardened viewer shocked and inspired. Bernat’s cameras capture the loss of humanity among Israeli settlers and soldiers who fire directly into crowds of unarmed civilians; who are unmoved by pleading mothers as they arrest and imprison children; and who volley enough gas to engulf an entire village.

Bernat concludes by reflecting on his broken community and his broken body. In the end, he says, resistance and healing are one and the same. That his community has maintained its resilience and  humanity in the face of such odds is a testament to the power of the human spirit and of non-violent resistance.

The film brings this message home up close and personal. For those of us watching from afar, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is a means for engagement in the same vein albeit from the comfort of worlds where our cameras are safe from bullets and batons.

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Inside the Mind of “Welcome Home” America

I arrived at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) to

In June 2011, the Costs of War project, a scholarly initiative of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, produced the first comprehensive analysis of a decade of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. The Costs of War Project analyzes the implications of these wars in the United States and internationally in terms of human casualties, economic costs, and civil liberties.

begin my teaching career three weeks before the attacks of 9-11. For those of us who teach about the Middle East and Islam and for those who have been actively involved in the US wars that followed, the events of 2001 continue to haunt us.

Almost immediately, students who had signed up for the National Guard to reap educational benefits found themselves called up for military service in Afghanistan. Less than two years later, scores were headed to Iraq.

I always have at least a couple of veterans– and sometimes a significant number– in my classes. For many, military service comes with educational benefits and, thus, increased opportunities for employment and a career. We are also only 20 miles from Scott Air Force Base which oversees transportation logistics for the entire US military. I have the impression this region has a well developed tradition of military service that passes from one generation to another.

This generation of soldiers faces social and psychological challenges that may rival those of their Vietnam predecessors. Statistics on military suicides for previous wars are hard to come by, but reports earlier this year indicated that even after the end of combat operations in Iraq and their projected end in Afghanistan in 2014, active duty suicides were at an all time high in comparison with other periods over the last decade. During the fist half of 2012, more US troops committed suicide than were killed in action.

The main reason is that Americans who fought in Iraq and in Afghanistan are more isolated from the American public at large than was ever the case before. According to a recent (2010) survey by the Pew Research Center, during the past decade only one percent of Americans has been on active military duty at any given time. This compares with around nine percent during World War II and signals a growing gap between the vast majority of civilians and a small minority in uniform.

How did this happen?

On the one hand, the managers of the American military industrial

The death and destruction of the Vietnam War played in living rooms around the US and aroused opposition to the war. The American public has been shielded from the bloody cost of war ever since.

complex learned the propaganda lessons of the Vietnam War. During that war, the draft made it inevitable that disenchantment with a misguided and stubbornly prolonged war would ripple through the ranks and, by extension, the populace at large. All American wars since have been fought by volunteers. The Vietnam War also unfolded in prime-time and the horrors of the war were visited upon families in their living rooms. Since then, the media has been carefully managed by government minders and corporate managers. The result: the US public is shielded from the human cost of war.

On the other hand, American society has inoculated itself from the “Vietnam syndrome”. As the Vietnam War became unpopular, many vets were either blamed for its excesses or ignored as most people wanted to put the debacle behind them. The result was a generation of soldiers who saw the disappearance of the social support that had accompanied soldiers returning from previous wars. The stigma of being a Vietnam veteran caused all manner of social and psychological trauma. Beginning with the first US Gulf  War (isn’t it distressing that there have been so many American wars in the region that we have to number them?), political leaders vowed never to let their misgivings about a war get in the way of offering unconditional support to soldiers once it was on. I remember the heated debates that preceded that war; it may have been one of the finer displays in recent memory to take place in the legislative chambers. But, once war was declared, everyone fell in line behind the Commander-in-Chief. The result is that criticizing US wars and the soldiers who fight them, is tantamount to treason.

Since 2001, 85 Illinoisans have been killed in Afghanistan and between 2003 and 2010, 162 were killed in Iraq. Every time the governor’s office gets word of a Illinoisan military death, we get an announcement on our faculty/staff list serve that the US flag will fly at half mast that day in memory of the fallen.

That is about as close as many of us get to these wars and their human toll in this country. (The toll for Iraqis and Afghanis is, of course, exponentially higher but that is a topic for a different discussion).

As of today, the flag has gone to half mast 247 times over the course of almost 4,000 days of war. And if it weren’t for the messages from the governor, who would know? Yet, many of us say we support the troops. Our leaders stumble over each other praising those who have paid with their lives for the sake of… our country? our freedom? our honor? for the sake of Iraqis and Afghanis? I venture that we are now at a stage where very few take these pronouncements seriously.

What do the soldiers think?

Since I have had students returning to the classroom after military service, I have wondered what is it like to be back from the battle zone. Everything we do must seem so petty when you’ve come back from war. PowerPoint, Katy Perry, Republicans and Democrats, trigonometry, lab manuals, fire drills. How do those stack up against life outside the Green Zone and in Helmand Province dodging (and not always missing) IEDs; hearing the screams of fallen comrades; confused by the behaviors of foreigners in their own land; the randomness of it all?

Few of my students are comfortable talking about their war-time experiences, but a new novel may offer some clues. The author is a keen observer and harsh critic of the culture that envelopes returning soldiers when they forced up as models of the heroism that the majority of us would rather toast than emulate.

Ben Fountain’s new novel is a biting critique of feel-good American patriotism in a time of war.

Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012) lays bear the naiveté, hypocrisy, commercialism, sexploitation and sheer– there is no other word for it– stupidity  of organized welcome home spectacles on the home front.

The novel centers on a dazed and dazzled crew of 18- to 24-year-old soldiers on a two-

week “victory tour”. Billy Lynn and his comrades happened to be part of a unit that fended off an enemy attack caught on film by an embedded Fox News team. As the footage is “viraling” through the culture, the military wants to maximize the public relations effect of  what they dub “Bravo Company”. The whole affair is managed and produced like the culminating half-time show at Texas Stadium (“the sheltering womb of all things American– football, Thanksgiving, television, about eight different kinds of police and security personnel… ” (21)) “Climax” may be more to the point, as the shell-shocked soldiers find themselves wandering on field at half-time, buffeted on one side by drill grunts “snapping their Springfields around in the rock-star version of close order drill” while Destiny’s Child ascends a massive stage “with their prancing diva strut” as stage dancers “go right on humping like the nastiest video on MTV.” (233)

As improbable as Fountain’s description of this peculiar Texas sized public display of sex, guns, and patriotism may seem, it is based on an actual 2004 Thanksgiving half-time show at Texas Stadium.

But the extravaganza is only the artifice that hides the hypocrisy of those who want to make a celebration out of a war that, Billy rightly suspects, no one believes in. All it takes to keep the patriotic machine humming is a host of nonsense phrases which filter through the culture, like memes, justifying without explaining. Fountain scatters these phrases on the blank page disembodied like the sound bites and Bushisms that spread through a comatose populace : nina leven, terrRist, wore on terrRr, double y’im dees…

The impresario behind the spectacle is the Cowboys’ owner, Norm Oglesby, who embodies the corruption of celebrity capitalism.  He appears at carefully timed intervals, surrounded by an entourage of lawyers in suits, to mingle with select crowds only to disappear into a smokey private lair where he makes deals and turns profits. He pumps up Bravo Company (“You have given America back its pride” (112)) before attempting to make a film deal at their expense.

The most compelling parts of the novel involve Billy’s effort to understand these people, his own people in his own country, who act so strangely. Military service has cured him of any illusions about the integrity or honor of war. “This huge floating hologram of context and cue that leads everyone around by the nose, Bravo included, but Bravo can laugh and feel somewhat superior because they know they are being used. Of course they do, manipulation is their air and element, for what is a soldier’s job but to be the pawn of higher? Wear this, say that, go there, shoot them, then of course there’s the final and ultimate, be killed. Every Bravo is a PhD in the art and science of duress.” (28-29).

When Norm thanks them for giving America back its pride, Billy thinks, “America? Really? the whole damn place?” (112)

When people are surprised to hear that they think the war is fucked, Billy wonders, “Well duh. Nine-eleven? Slow train coming. They hate our freedoms? Yo, they hate our guts! Billy suspects his fellow Americans secretly know better, but something in the land is stuck on teenage drama, on extravagant theatrics of ravaged innocence and soothing mud wallows of self-justifying pity.” (11)

By delving into the minds of soldiers caught between battle ground realities and the un-realities of stage managed welcome-home-ism, Fountain may have exposed the most sensitive nerve in this generation of soldiers’ relationship to their society at large. Though they may be inspired by positive intentions, knee jerk support-the-troops-ism may do more harm than good.

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Lest We Forget (the Nonviolent Resistance of) the Syrian Spring

“Strike for Dignity”, a slogan of the Syrian protests captured by a Local Coordinating Committees logo.

Before pundits, politicians, and gunmen succeed in convincing us that the uprising in Syria has become a civil war, it is worth remembering that the uprising began as a seemingly spontaneous mass-based movement of non-violent resistance. It was unprecedented, but that doesn’t mean it came out of nowhere.

Realists would have us believe that politics is determined by the exercise of power. During the spring of 2011, Syrian moms, dads, children, students, merchants and young professionals demonstrated otherwise. A motley crew of tech-savvy urban youth, poor farmers, frustrated merchants, unruly teenagers, and outraged parents carried the revolutionary fervor that had already gripped Tunisia and Egypt into Syrian cities and the countryside. In late January and early February 2011, sporadic demonstrations broke out in the Jazirah region of northeast Syria and in the Bab Tuma and Suq al-Hamadiya neighborhoods of the old city of Damascus. In early march a group of boys– aged between 9 and 15 and– were arrested for  scrawling anti-regime graffiti on the walls of Dar’a, in the drought stricken southern tip of the country. On March 15, when government forces fired on protesting parents and supporters killing four, popular outrage exploded and the uprising was on.

The crowds of demonstrators grew exponentially from Friday to Friday. From hundreds to thousands and tens of thousands, protesters poured into the streets carrying banners and shouting slogans against the regime. From Dar’a and Damascus, the demonstrations spread to the length and breadth of the country, from Banyas and Latakia on the Mediterranean coast to Hama and Homs in the center to Deir ez-Zor near the eastern border with Iraq.

As with the organizers of the Tahrir Square demonstrations in Cairo, these gatherings were facilitated by computer literate youth across gender, sectarian, and even class divides. Decision-making was deliberately decentralized. (That said, two of the most outspoken activists were women, Razan Zeitouneh and Suhair Atassi). By the beginning of the summer, local groups began to work more in tandem while maintaining logistical autonomy under the umbrella of the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs).

The regime demonstrated its intransigence and cruelty by unleashing the force of the military on unarmed civilians. As the death toll mounted, calls for taking up arms increased and by late July renegade soldiers announced the creation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The LCCs, however, insisted that it was a mistake to “militarize the Revolution” in an August 28, 2011 statement.

Today, Aleppo is besieged by tanks and FSA and other rebels are holed up inside ready for full-scale urban warfare. The death toll has surpassed the 10,000 mark. Sectarian violence perpetrated by both the regime and some of its opponents are transforming a popular uprising into a sectarian civil war. Comparisons to the violence in Iraq are more prevalent and seem more and more convincing.

But, before we get mired in such dire predictions and before news of one massacre after another fogs our memory, I think it is worth taking stock of the achievements of the Syrian Spring. In the heady days of early 2011, the first demonstrators were not only breaking the law but were breaking a psychological barrier that had been in place for at least a generation. The Asad regime had effectively banned politics from the lives of ordinary citizens. To criticize the state outside of the closest circles of family and friends– not to mention organizing demonstrations– was tantamount to courting imprisonment, torture, and worse.

Those early demonstrators broke the fear barrier. And once the momentum caught on, there was no stopping the “people power” that filled the streets, that mobilized citizens of different backgrounds and persuasions, and that powered the creative energies that kept people organized, cooperative, and ready to meet whatever challenge the regime fired at them. Homegrown journalism via phone-cam became almost synonymous with the Syrian uprising. Every Friday was given a name as protests in different parts of the country were synchronized (“Friday of Rage”, “Friday of Dignity”, “Day of Solidarity with Dar’a”). The underground hospitals that served Homs when it was under siege got international attention when Western journalists were targeted as they reported from within the city. In general, the targets of popular outrage and violence were circumscribed and precise: Ba’th Party offices, police stations, court houses, and Syriatel, the communications company owned by Rami Makhlouf, part of the Asad clan.

Was this creativity, determination, and bravery spontaneous? What unleashed such popular resistance in such a disciplined and non-violent fashion so quickly and for so long?

Part of the answer is that, despite their best (and most violent) efforts, the Asad regime never completely snuffed out the will to resist. The notorious political prisons of Mezze and Tadmur were always chock full of resisters. Some of them are legion: Riyad al-Turk, the indefatigable Communist, who spent at least 20 years in prison; Haitham Maleh, founder of the Human Rights Association in Syria; the writer Michel Kilo and many others. Syria’s Kurds have been the most actively organized and protests in Qamishli, the capital of Syrian Kurdistan, and other predominantly Kurdish towns erupted in 2004.

There are doubtless other precedents for political engagement and opposition. I have a hunch, however, that there is more behind this uprising than the legacy of dissident forces.

The most compelling analysis of the background to the Arab Spring as a whole with obvious implications for– if not direct evidence from– the Syrian Spring comes from a 2010 publication by the sociologist Asef Bayat titled Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East. Bayat’s theoretical approach and the evidence it is based go a long way toward explaining what otherwise might have seemed as spontaneous a year ago. That he was working out this explanation of popular resistance over the previous decade is a testament to  his ability to anticipate what caught most observers (and participants) by surprise.

Based largely on examples drawn from Egypt and Iran, Bayat characterizes this phase of political activity at the grass roots as one of “social non-movements”. Unlike the more explicitly political movements that most observers look for in their research, “non-movements” are not guided by ideologies or leaders or institutions. They represent collective action by actors who are not consciously acting in unison but whose combined efforts and practices shape social change. He focuses on three specific groups that typify this kind of politics: the poor, women, and youth. One specific example that resonates with the Arab Spring, is the tendency among street sellers in urban areas to encroach on public space and to occupy it for their own purposes. Bayat calls this the “quiet encroachment of the ordinary”. Given this analysis, it should not have been surprising that it was the action of Muhammad Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who was pushed from his perch by the police, that set the whole region on fire.

The lens of current events may obscure the fact that there was a Syrian Spring during which a people reclaimed their humanity from the clutches of regime intent on crushing the popular tide at any cost.

Posted in Arab World, Nonviolent Resistance, Syria, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Update: Resources for Teachers

“Alice followed the rabbit through the little door and began to fall.” This children’s drawing comes from an exercise on Persian miniatures at “Art for Small Hands”.

It was a almost a year ago that I posted some resources for teachers related to Islam and the Middle East. We are nearing the end of the first week of Ramadan and, in my children’s school district (Illinois District 7), the last few days of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr, which brings it to a close, coincide with the first week of school.

Here’s hoping that administrators, teachers, and fellow-students are aware of the importance of this period for Muslim families.

A resource that has just come to my attention is TeachMideast, a project of the Middle East Policy Council, “a nonprofit organization whose mission is to contribute to American understanding of the political, economic and cultural issues that affect U.S. interests in the Middle East.” The Council was founded and is run by “Arabists”, diplomats, business people, and academics who favor a more balanced and engaged American foreign policy vis-a-vis the Arab world.

TeachMideast is the Council’s outreach tool. It is chock full of resources for teachers. The web site is organized according to kinds of resources (essays meant for a lay audience, activities, resources, maps, audio-visual materials, image galleries, a blog, and information about teacher institutes) and according to themes (stereotypes and realities, geography, history, people and languages, religion, culture, current issues, pedagogy, and projects).

The website offers a host of materials and activities to challenge the stereotypes that cloud so many young (and older) minds when it comes to Islam, Arabs, and the Middle East as a whole. One activity involves analyzing a short excerpt from Disney’s Aladin (1992)(I can say from experience that too many of my university students have gotten most of their information about Arabs and the Middle East from this film).

The creators of the site emphasize the importance of geography. There are resources specific to each country of the region. The pedagogy section is devoted to explaining the use of google maps for educational purposes.

I was most taken by an exercise in a lesson on Persian miniatures in which students

Logo of the Middle East Policy Council.

create a “Me-niature” employing classical techniques while representing their own realities.  The blog “Art for Small Hands” offers an even more detailed version of the same kind of project. 

The Council offers FREE workshops and teachers institutes for those interested.

Posted in Sources for the Rest of US, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Against Orthodoxy: The Story of Alawi Origins

Since the outbreak of the popular uprising in Syria last spring, the media have focussed on the Alawi minority which controls the levers of power in that country. Most often, one hears echoes of mainstream Sunni and Shi’i sources that Alawis represent a heretical or, at best, syncretic deviation from Muslim orthodoxy.

Such allegations are not justified. They represent the tendency, especially among Western scholars, to accept Sunni orthodoxy as the norm. As my favorite historian of the Muslim world, the late Marshall Hodgson put it, “[Scholars of Islam], both Muslim and Western, have had a way of absorbing the point of view of orthodox Islam; this has gone so far that Christian Islamists have looked with horror on Muslim heretics.” Of course “heresy” lies in the eyes of the majority. As we know too well from the history of the 20th century, majorities can be as wrong and as untruthful as dissidents except that the lies and delusions of majorities always have more dire consequences.

A fairly recent (2010)  book by the Israeli scholar Yaron Friedman reveals that such views are the sorts of prejudices that many a majority group uses to vilify those with whom they disagree. In The Nusayri-Alawis: An Introduction to the Religion, History, and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria, Friedman mines a recently published (2006) set of volumes of hitherto unavailable Alawi (the more historically accurate term is “Nusaryi”) religious sources. He demonstrates that Alawi religious views are as fully Muslim as those of any other sect.

The title of the book is misleading as the fact that members of this group are the “leading minority in Syria” is late 20th-century phenomenon while the book deals almost exclusively with the period from the origins of the sect in the 9th century to the period of political, social, and theological consolidation in the 14th century.

To the layperson the significance of 500 or so years in the medieval period may seem purely academic. Far from it. Understanding the origins of the Nusayri sect  gives the lie to many of the prejudices and misconceptions that cloud contemporary views. Even beyond the world of Islam, the case of the Nusayris reminds one that orthodoxies are themselves the products of historical forces and that their handle on authority is more a function of political and social forces than of access to truth.

The Nusayris are named for one Muhammad ibn Nusayr who was on the margins of Shi’i groups active in southern Iraq in the second half of the 9th century. He represented a mystical brand of Shi’ism in which the power of the Imams who were descended from Ali, the fourth caliph of Islam, was accessible to those with a certain kind of divinely inspired esoteric knowledge. As the sect grew and gained opponents as well as adherents, it was pushed from Basra to Baghdad to Aleppo to the mountains above the Mediterranean coast in western Syria. By the 12th century, a theology that blended the esoteric with more outward manifestations of Islamic belief took shape. Far from seeing themsevles as heretics, Nusayri leaders considered themselves “unitarians” (muwahhidun) because they strove to synthesize mystical and exoteric knowledge. Not surprisingly, they considered themselves the true Muslims.

For Nusayris, the five pillars of Islam  are as important as they are to their mainstream co-religionists. However, according the Nusayris, these tenets have an esoteric element that is lost on the orthodox. Friedman dubs this an “allegorical interpretation of shar’ia.” The hajj, for example, is not so much a physical journey to Mecca as it is meant to be a personal journey of striving to move from one stage of spiritual understanding to another, higher one.

Like mystics in other religious traditions, Nusayris conceive of a very complex hierarchy of spiritual development. They also have a special understanding of key religious figures, most notably Ali, and a distinct calendar of religious holidays. Friedman stresses that Nusayri beliefs are grounded ultimately in the Qur’an and that those elements that strike some as unIslamic (like celebrating Christmas and the ritual use of wine) are derived from the same pre-Islamic Near Eastern traditions that shaped Islam as a whole, if in different ways.

It is important to restate that this discussion tells us very little about the social, political, and economic status of today’s Alawis (a term early 20th-century leaders developed to replace “Nusayri” as part of a historically recent effort to “mainstream” the sect). The esoteric knowledge discussed above was the domain of a small group of men and ultimately had little impact on the society as a whole. We know very little about the lives of ordinary Nusayri-Alawis for most of their history until the late 19th century.

Over the course of the 20th century the religious component of Nusayri-Alawi identity has diminished as a result of social, political, and economic realities. On the one hand, Alawi leaders have done their utmost to assimilate with the broader Syrian population and overcome the poverty and isolation that shaped the lives of their ancestors for most of their history. On the other hand, Alawi political leaders, most notably the Asad clan,  increasingly fall back on narrow tribal and family ties to secure their hold on power.  The result has been catastrophic for almost all Syrians, including the mass of average, politically weak Alawis. Because of the misdeeds of the Asads and their cohorts, all too often Alawis as a whole have been demonized by stereotypes, including those that denigrate their spiritual heritage.

Beyond the bloody and increasingly sectarian civil war that grips Syria today, the lesson of medieval Nusayri history is that orthodoxies are created at the cost of the spiritual, intellectual, and cultural richness that usually accompanies the birth of a new religious tradition. Early Christian history, for example, teems with competing interpretations of the nature of Jesus and of the sources of knowledge and of experience of the divine. Many of those were lost to history as what became orthodoxy– in tandem with state- and empire-building– took hold. Some of those losses were physical: lost and destroyed texts, for example. Some trends were lost to accusations of deviation and heresy and outright wars to eliminate them. What is most striking about Nusayri-Alawi history is the ability of this small group (totaling less than 2 million worldwide, almost all of them in Syria) to survive 1,000 years in an area that was subject to repeated wars (including those of the Crusades many of which were fought in Nusayri territory) and in which they were usually reviled as heretics.

The adage “History is written by the victorious” applies not only to victory in conquest but equally to victory in the creation of orthodoxy. The power of history-writing, however, is that orthodoxies can be divested of their truth claims– if not undermined outright– by re-search and re-writing.

Posted in History and Historians, Islam, Syria, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Mt. Lebanon: Holy Land or Den of Heretics?

Two weeks ago I participated in a memorial conference at the American University of Beirut (AUB) dedicated to Dr. Kamal Salibi and his legacy. On what would have been his 83rd birthday in what was once the campus chapel, he was feted (and mourned) by his colleagues, friends, family, his pastor and such luminaries as HRH Prince Hassan of Jordan, patron of the Royal Institute for Inter-faith Studies (of which Dr. Salibi was founding director), former Lebanese Prime Minister and Ras Beirut neighbor Fouad Siniora, and AUB President Peter Dorman.

Dr. Abdulrahim Abu-Husayn speaks in memory of Dr. Kamal Salibi (pictured behind him) at a memorial service in honor of Dr. Salibi on May 2, 2012 at Assembly Hall, American University of Beirut.

Among his colleagues to speak at the ceremony was his prize student Dr. Abdulrahim Abu-Husayn who organized an academic conference to coincide with the memorial.

One of lessons I have learned during my study and teaching of Islamic history is that there are a multiplicity of views among those who might otherwise be lumped together by ethnic, religious or social origins. In the American Midwest we should be aware of this. For example, one of the most famous trials in American history– the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925– pitted two lawyers from small towns in the Midwest, both of whom were Democrats. However, one was an agnostic modernizer, Clarence Darrow, who was in favor of the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution and the other, William Jennings Bryan, opposed it vigorously partly because he thought it undermined the Bible. Interestingly, a similar debate ripped through the Syrian Protestant College (which later became AUB) in the early 1880s when the administration of the college fired several professors for praising Darwin. The college also expelled several students including Jurji Zaydan (d. 1914), a luminary of the Arab literary renaissance, and Ibrahim al-Salibi (Kamal Salibi’s grandfather) who was a medical student and had to finish his studies in Istanbul.

The organizers of the conference were judicious enough to put two of us on a panel that illustrated the insight that intellectual, political, even moral orientations derive from something more than just one’s education, religious upbringing, social context, political proclivities, and ethnic background. My presentation concerned Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulusi (d. 1731), who is the focus of most of my current research and writing. Nabulusi was one of the most important Arab intellectuals of his time. Like most of his scholarly counterparts, he memorized the Qur’an at an early age and then mastered a host of other Islamic fields of learning including hadith studies, Quranic commentary, mysticism and law as well as allied fields such as Arabic grammar and rhetoric and poetry. He also dabbled in more secular subjects such as dream interpretation, architectural aesthetics and agronomy. He made his most indelible mark as a Sufi mystic and defender of the ideas of Muhi al-Din Ibn Arabi (d. 1240) who was the foremost exponent of the Sufi metaphysical concept of “unity of being”. Nabulusi probably expended his most energy as a tireless defender–  through treatise after treatise– of popular practices associated with Sufism including tomb visitation, listening to music, and the consumption of tobacco and coffee. Nabulusi was not a religious free-thinker like Clarence Darrow, but he believed that the spiritual life and the here-and-now were not in contradiction. According to Nabulusi, one should be pious and live life to its fullest. His approach was in contradiction, however, with a literalist, austere understanding of religion in general, and Islam in particular, which ran through Damascus in his own day and probably has run through all religious societies before his time and since.

My colleague on the panel, Dr. Suleiman Mourad of Smith College, presented the case– as it were– for the prosecution. Mourad’s focus was on a Sunni legal scholar of the 14th century, Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). Ibn Taymiyya’s education was probably much like Nabulusi’s and both were raised in Damascus and made their marks there as vocal exponents of very different views. Where Nabulusi celebrated tomb visitation and opposed the narrow legalism of many of his contemporaries, Ibn Taymiyya placed the law above all else and chastised those who engaged in any behavior that could be construed as a replacement or substitute for God, such as a ritual, an image, or a popular practice (such as tomb visitation). Had these two lived at the same time, they would have created the kind of courtroom drama that Jennings Bryan and Darrow did.

Mount Lebanon: holy land or den of heretics?

Unbeknownst to me before this conference, they did clash over a place if not at the same time. For Nabulusi, Mt. Lebanon, in whose shadows we were meeting, represented a sacred land. It was chock full of shrines devoted to prophets and religious figures from Noah, Seth, and Mary, mother of Jesus, to local mystics whose influence extended only into the neighboring valley. As any visitor to Lebanon knows, its majestic peaks, lush valleys, secret caves, and crystalline sink holes easily seduce the eyes and animate the heart. No wonder, then, that Nabulusi returned to Lebanon more than twice during a series a travels he took in the late 17th century.

In an fun- and fact-filled meditation on Ibn Taymiyya’s attitudes toward the same mountainous region, Dr. Mourad demonstrated how a land, its people and their practices can be an enemy. According to Ibn Taymiyya, not only was Mt. Lebanon a haven for Christians and heretics (Shi’is, Alawis, and Druze) but it had seduced Sunnis, some of whom visited sites and relished the area’s nature beauty in the same vein as Nabulusi centuries later. Ibn Taymiyya was the intellectual standard-bearer for a series of Mamluk (the ruling regime of his time) attacks on Lebanon and its people. The Mamluks eventually gave up trying to “Sunnize” the area and their successors, the Ottomans, never even tried. But not Ibn Taymiyya. To his dying day, he advocated jihad against the Mountain.

So many questions spring from these insights. What makes for the Darrows and Nabulusis, on the one hand, and the Jennings Bryans and Ibn Taymiyyas,  on the other? Are there “liberal” and “conservative” trends in all societies that reveal themselves more forcefully at some times than at others? How determinative are social forces, on the one hand, and individual personalities, on the other, in making for such intellectual trajectories? “Liberal” and “conservative” are probably not the most precise ways of characterizing such varied intellectual sentiments. Are there better terms that are more precise but not so specific as to disallow the recognition of patterns across the time and place?

More questions than answers.

I am certain, however, that Lebanon is a holy land with the added burden of all that is unholy and accompanies that designation.

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Ottomans and Homeland Security: Who Determines Who You Are?

This collection of miniatures represents the color and variety of Ottoman officialdom, both male and female. This tag reads, in modern Turkish, “Look, but do not disturb!”

Anyone who thinks fiction is stranger than non-fiction has not read enough History.

I spent last weekend in the rarefied company of scholars of the Ottoman Empire. I was fortunate to be at a conference-workshop organized by renowned Ottomanist and mentor-par-excellence Prof. Virginia Aksan of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada under the banner “Living Empire: Ottoman Identities in Transition, 1700-1850”. She was ably assisted by Vesel Simsek and Edita Marinic in pulling together a polyglot group of historians from Turkey, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Germany, Britain, the US, and Canada to explore a critical “middle period” in Ottoman history.

Participants and organizers at the Living Empire conference held at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, April 20-22, 2012. Standing to the far left in the second to last row and partially obscured is the ever-modest Prof. Virginia “Ginny” Aksan, principle organizer.

Conferees shared stories of soldiers and rebels, travelers and homebodies, clerics and clerks, governors and prisoners, sultans and domestics, and many more individuals of all walks of life in an effort to get at the meaning and significance of identities. How were people identified and did they identify themselves. How salient were political, ethnic, religious, kinship and occupational categories?

These stories came from all corners of the Empire; from the capital at Istanbul to peripheral towns like Bougie on the Algerian coast; from the lands of the Hungarians and Bulgars in central Europe and the Balkans to the Arab-speaking territory of geographical Syria; from Sarajevo in Bosnia to Homs (yes, that Homs) in Syria; and from the estates of Cyprus to outposts on the frontier with Russia north of the Black Sea.

These stories came from the period of Ottoman expansion in the 15th century to the period of re-centralization in the first half of the 19th. Here is one story which returned to me as I was passed through US passport control.

In 1792, a group of Greek-speaking corsairs who were subjects of the Ottoman sultan and, yet, had been caught in the service of Russians (arch enemies of the Ottomans) went on strike in an Ottoman prison. They were protesting a plan concocted by Russian and Ottoman officials in the aftermath of a war to turn them over to their fellow Christians and former employers, the Russians. “No way!” the Greek prisoners said. They preferred to go back to their homes on the islands of the Aegean (perhaps to resume their piracy) even if it meant converting to Islam, which, in the end, they did. Who were these people? Ottomans? Greeks? Russians? Christians? Muslims? All of the above? A hybrid of two or more of these?

What a difference 200 years makes.

A couple of hours after I heard this story, I was proceeding to the plane for St. Louis from Toronto. I had to present my passport at least a half-dozen times so that American and Canadian officials could ensure that I am whom my passport says I am and nobody else. (On an international trip earlier this year, my eyes were scanned for extra measure).

It is as though my fellow travellers and I were prisoners of a different sort; prisoners of an identification card. Without that card each of us is nobody. Due to an accident– my father’s refugee status and a love affair– I happen to be carrying the platinum card of passports, the passport of passports.

I couldn’t help but think those Greek-speaking pirates who were Ottoman subjects in the employ of the enemy and who had turned from Chrstianity to Islam on a piastre had more options, not to mention the gumption to protest to both Sultan Selim III and to Empress Catherine the Great.

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Bilad al-Sham, Arabic for Geographical Syria

I returned this week from the ninth annual meeting of the “Committee for the History of

A satellite view of Bilad al-Sham, with the Taurus Mountains to the north, the desert to the south and framed by the Mediterranean to the west and the Euphrates to the east. The borders of the modern nation states of the region have been added.

Bilad al-Sham” held in the Jordanian capital Amman.

Most representations (popular and scholarly) of the Middle East focus on Islam, the nation state, and broad social categories like gender and class. But there are other important loci of identity and history, including geographical regions.

Since the borders of most of the states of the Middle East region were drawn by European colonial powers or shaped by European colonial pressure, degrees of attachment to existing nation states among their citizens have fluctuated. Patriotism among Turks is probably fairly strong; Lebanese national identity has taken a long and tortuous road toward (still tenuous) fruition. And, today, one can’t help but worry that the current civil strife in the Syrian Arab Republic will leave that polity in tatters.

“Bilad al-Sham” is the Arabic term for geographical Syria. Though it has rarely functioned as a political unit, many of the people of the area identify with it in one way or another. Geographically, Bilad al-Sham extends from the Taurus Mountains in modern-day Turkey in the north to the Syrian steppe (which itself folds in to the Arabian Desert and encompasses the southern part of the modern Syrian republic, Jordan, and southern Israel/Palestine) in the south. East to west, it runs from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean. There is a modern political expression of “greater Syrian” nationalism in the form of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party which has had limited success in Lebanon and, to an even lesser extent, Syria. Most expressions of attachment to, and interest in, Bilad al-Sham are cultural and, in this case, scholarly-historical.

Cultural affinities defined by geography are not unique to the Middle East. Where I live, on the bluffs above the Mississippi Valley, we are considered part of the Midwest region of the US (how “mid” and why “west” has to do with historical constructions, just like “Middle East”, but that’s a topic for another discussion). “The South” and “Southern” has resonance (positive and negative) for many, as does “New England”. “North America” includes Mexico as well as Canada and some Americans feel more affinity to the former and others to the latter. Southern Florida is very much a part of the Caribbean basin and the Pacific world links much of California and the northwest to East Asia.

The Committee for the History of Bilad al-Sham was established in 1972 in Amman at the

Ever the gracious host, Dr. Bahkit (right) welcomes Lebanese historian Joseph Abu Nahra on the first day of the 2012 conference of the Committee for the History of Bilad al-Sham at the University of Jordan in Amman.

University of Jordan and has been an active player in the development of historical studies in the nation states of Bilad al-Sham and beyond. Its founder was legendary Iraqi historian Abd al-Aziz al-Duri (d. 2010), though the driving force behind it is Prof. Muhammad Adnan Bakhit. The Committee has published close to 50 monographs in Arabic and English and has held a series of international conferences. Dr. Bakhit began the process of creating a centralized repository of archival materials drawn from local and national collections in Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon (The Center for Documents and Manuscripts). The richest of these collections are the records of Ottoman-era (16th through early 20th century) courts in which one finds indications of all kinds of social and economic interaction, from marriage to murder, divorce to debt, oaths to loans.  Even more important than this institutional infrastructure is that Dr. Bakhit has trained a least two generations of historians who have taken social history into universities and classrooms throughout Bilad al-Sham, the Arab world, and beyond.

This year’s international conference focused on agriculture in Bilad al-Sham from the latter years of the Byzantine period through the end of World War I. Almost 90 presentations over the course of five days covered a host of topics. Here’s just a sample: “Astrology and Agriculture in Bilad al-Sham”, “Agricultural Technology in Bilad al-Sham during the Byzantine Period”, “Agriculture in the Ghor es-Safi (Ancient Zoar or Bela) during the Byzantine and Islamic Periods”, “Cultivation of Olives from the Byzantine through the Ottoman Periods”, “Patterns and Principles of Irrigated Market-Garden Cultivation in Ottoman Syria: Damascus, Homs, and Hama”, “Water and Its Distribution in the Lebanese Countryside during the Ottoman Period According to Monastic and Court Records”, “Fruit and Vegetable Marketing in Ottoman and Mandate Nablus”, “Mythology and Jordanian Agricultural Proverbs”, “The Orange and its Significance for Social and Economic Change in 19th-Century Jaffa”, and “Challenges Facing the Agricultural Sector in Palestine during World War I”.

Conferees at the 9th Conference on the History of Bilad al-Sham.

Scholars of Bilad al-Sham from Morocco, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, the US, Greece, Japan and, naturally, from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan participated.

There was a time when I thought the only people who cared about Bilad al-Sham were card-carrying members of the SSNP or stodgy academics.

It was a nice to see so many young scholars at this conference and my pop culture adviser (Sandra) has turned me on to a couple of recent references to Bilad al-Sham. The “first lady” of Arabic hip-hop, Palestinian-Briton Shadia-Mansour mentions Bilad al-Sham in “Kufiyya Arabiyya” (The Kufiyya is Arab”; thanks to Jaouad Naji for translation help):

Come on, raise the kufiyya

Come on, raise the kufiyya

Raise the kufiyya

The kufiyya, the Arab kufiyya

Raise it for Bilad al-Sham

And my personal favorite, Palestinian folk-rocker Reem Banna has adapted a traditional Palestinian ballad, “Maliki” (“What’s Wrong with You”), in which the land (barr) of al-Sham figures prominently:

What’s wrong, what’s wrong, what’s wrong with you?

Why are you crying?

Your father is from Barr al-Sham (Bilad al-Sham)

And your mother comes from Mecca

Unfortunately, scholars from public universities in Syria were unable (prevented?) from attending the conference. The current crisis in Syria was on everyone’s mind with hopes that the human and cultural bonds that have nurtured this land and its people for so long would overcome the political violence that is tearing the nation apart.

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The Syrian Awakening?

Ghiyath Matar, a 25-year-old Syrian human rights activist from Darayya near Damascus, was best known for handing out roses to soldiers sent to monitor or quell demonstrations. He died in detention in September 2011.

This year has been gut-wrenching for anyone who loves Syria and Syrians. For Syrians living outside Syria it has been worse. For Syrians inside, I can’t even imagine.

One of the best sources of measured information and commentary on events and developments Middle Eastern (from an explicitly anti-imperialist and anti-corporatist point of view) is Middle East Report. Published by the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), it has been in the business of reasoned analysis as though Middle Easterners count since 1971. It represents Middle East reporting and analysis for the “Democracy Now” crowd.

In their latest on-line publication, Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group and Sarah Birke of the Economist have put together the most comprehensive yet still relatively concise, realistic and optimistic assessment of the Syrian uprising one year on. It is also very readable with nice turns of phrase: “Calls for aid are somewhat worse than a pact with the devil: They entail pacts with many devils…” If you have a chance you should read it in its entirety, but here a summary with some excerpts.

In Beyond the Fall of the Syrian RegimeHarling and Birke go beyond the two dueling narratives that shape most interpretations of the violence between the Asad regime, on the one hand, and the motley but wide-spread opposition, on the other. Most Americans are familiar with the narrative that coincides, not surprisingly, with American foreign policy: the Asad regime is destined to collapse because it has no legitimacy internally or externally. This is the line touted by the exile-led Syrian National Congress which has proved to be as representative, as politically astute, and as in touch with struggle inside the country as was the US’s Iraqi handmaiden, Ahmad Chalabi’s ill-fated Iraqi National Congress, on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq. The fact is that regime has a resilient and powerful base of support and will not whither away. Furthermore, Russia and China have proven that the US and the West cannot have their way in the region as they might have had before the Iraq debacle. Certainly, the US (which leads the Security Council in vetoes, most in support of Israeli aggression), cannot “cry wolf” and expect the UN to be a politically free deliberative zone.

The narrative of the regime and its supporters inside and outside Syria paints the country as one ridden so with sectarian fault lines and susceptible to outside conspiracies and that the brute force of the militia-state is all that stands between Syrians and the abyss of civil war and outside aggression. Many Syrians, fewer and fewer though, buy this line.

As Harling and Birke point out:

“What does not fit any prior stereotype is the behavior of Syrian society. It certainly is fissiparous, but not along predictable lines. Past uprisings — the Muslim Brother-led insurgency in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Druze intifada of 2000 and the Kurdish rebellion of 2004 — raised suspicions in society at large for their communal nature. In contrast, today’s protest movement is surprisingly broad-based and cross-cutting. Many an ‘Alawi, especially among intellectuals and simple villagers, resents how his community has been taken hostage by the regime. The Druze are split somewhere down the middle. Christians, who are geographically dispersed, adopt remarkably different viewpoints depending on how much they see of the security services’ abuse on the ground. Those in Damascus and Aleppo have generally rallied to the regime’s side, but in many other areas Christians at least sympathize with protesters. Ismailis, based in the town of Salamiyya, were among the first to join the opposition. And Sunni Arabs, of course, are not all against Bashar; the Shawaya tribes in the northeast, to cite one example, tend to be supportive.

Nor is a communal prism the only one through which the conflict should be seen. Although it started off as an underclass and provincial phenomenon in the Hawran plain, the protest movement has crossed socio-economic boundaries, drawing in doctors, engineers and teachers. It has spread to the capital, where flash demonstrations stand in for the large rallies that would take place were it not for massive security deployments. The business establishment, whose interests initially made for a cautious, conservative stance, has realized the regime is compromising them: Most — even within crony capitalist circles — have long been donating money to the opposition. Fault lines have appeared in less likely places still. Within the same family, older generations are more likely than the youth to cling to the devil they know. Couples are sometimes torn; some women are prone to prefer stability and dialogue, while others push the limits of dissent beyond what their husbands are inclined to do.

The uprising has caused parts of Syrian society, which had long been apathetic and fragmented, to undergo a sort of renaissance. Protesters have been extraordinarily dedicated and creative. They have set up committees to collect and distribute money and document individual deaths with a fastidious sense of duty. In the midst of bloodshed, they have expanded their inventory of smart slogans and eye-catching posters, chanted in support of besieged cities in different areas of the country, stitched together new flags, and spoofed the regime in video and animation. Areas such as Daraya, close to Damascus, have become known for their acts of civil resistance. Ghiyath Matar, a young activist who was later killed under torture, had ordered roses and water to hand out to soldiers and security forces sent to police the area.”

In contrast to the revolutions in Libya and Egypt, Syrian opponents of the regime have created an original and uniquely Syrian culture of dissent:

“Unlike Libyans, who in a matter of hours defected en masse, took up arms and called upon the outside world to step in, Syrians took months to resort to weapons or cry out for international intervention. Unlike Egypt, where revolution was a sublime but somewhat shallow moment of grace, the Syrian uprising has been a long, hard slog: The protest movement has gradually built itself up, studied the regime’s every move and mapped out the country to the extent that small towns such as Binnish in the northwest are now known to all.”

Harling and Birke do not suggest, however, that the road ahead will be easy or free from potential catastrophe. They point to three possible pitfalls. If the opposition refuses to acknowledge that millions, rather than dozens, have thrown in their lot with Bashar, it will do so at its peril. The SNC, which has done little more than alienate potential allies who are on the fence (like the Alawi poor and Alawi intellectuals who oppose the regime but fear a backlash and Kurds who are suspicious of the SNC’s reliance on the Turkish state),  has misjudged the situation almost as badly as Bashar and his cronies.

Finally, and of most relevance to Americans who are wary of their government’s policies in the region:

“As increasingly desperate protesters call for help, there is a danger that the outside world will make matters worse as it plays at being savior. Calls for aid are somewhat worse than a pact with the devil: They entail pacts with many devils that do not agree on much. The Gulf monarchies, Iraq, Turkey, Russia, the US, Iran and others all see geostrategic stakes in the fate of the Asad regime. The greater their involvement, the less Syrians will remain in control of their destiny. Crying out for foreign intervention of any kind, to bring this emergency to an end at any cost, is more than understandable coming from ordinary citizens subjected to extreme forms of regime violence. Exiled opposition figures who pose as national leaders have no excuse for behaving likewise, when what is needed is a cool-headed, careful calibration of what type of outside “help” would do the minimum of harm.”

For Americans who have a historical consciousness that stretches back at least a decade:

“Close to home, another Middle Eastern experience — Iraq — serves as an example… A political process excluding even a relatively small minority within Iraqi society led to a collective disaster. A group of returning exiles, without a social base but enjoying international support as the only visible, pre-existing “alternative,” quickly took over the transition and agreed only on splitting up power among themselves on the basis of a communal calculus. Their division of the spoils gradually contaminated the entire polity, and ultimately led to civil war. And the US, presiding over this tragedy, succeeded only in turning Iraq into a parody of itself, a country that now fits every sectarian and troubled stereotype the occupying power initially saw in it.”

That said, Harling and Birke close their assessment by celebrating the achievements Syrian protesters have made. In the world of political calculus and punditry that we inhabit, it is worth remembering how much the generation of 2011-2012 has already achieved:

“Prior attempts at breaking with the legacy of colonialism, in the revolutionary bustle of the mid-twentieth century, failed, grounded as they were in narrow politicized elites and military circles. What is different today is the awakening of a broad popular movement, motivated less by parochial interests and grand ideologies than by a sense of wholesale dispossession of their wealth, dignity and destiny.

This awakening, in a sense, is precisely what the regime has been fighting. Although foreign interference is a fact, there is less a conspiracy in Syria than a society on the move, headed along a path that the regime simply will not follow. The road ahead is a dangerous one, and the chances are real that it will lead Syria, and the region, into the maze of civil war. But for all too many Syrians there is no going back. The regime was given a year to stake out a safer way forward, but has clung ever more fiercely to its old narrative, ultimately recasting itself as a historical cul-de-sac.”

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Kamal Salibi (1929-2011), the Model Teacher-Scholar

Kamal Salibi, 1929-2011.

Scholars of the Arab world and of Lebanon in particular lost a pioneer with the passing just over a week ago of historian Kamal Salibi. I was fortunate to have met him and to have spent time with him during a much too short stay in Beirut in 2008-2009. He will probably be best remembered for his penetrating analysis of sectarian and national identity in Lebanon, House of Many Mansions (1988). His earliest published work is the meticulous Maronite Historians of Medieval Lebanon (1959). He achieved some acclaim (and more notoriety) for three books, notably The Bible Came from Arabia (1985) that used place names to postulate the theory that ancient Israel existed in the Arabian Peninsula. This is only to scratch the surface of his prodigious output which includes other seminal works on medieval Syria and one of the earliest interpretations of the origins of the Lebanese Civil War, Crossroads to Civil War: Lebanon, 1958-1976 (1976).

I have been reading histories of the Arab world and the Middle East for the better part of 30 years. Unfortunately, very few of those who write in English write books that are enjoyable to read. I count three works among the best written in English: Albert Hourani’s Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939 (1962) (someday I will write about the best article ever written, Hourani’s “The Changing Face of the Fertile Crescent in the Eighteenth Century” (1957)); Hanna Battatu’s magnum opus The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of Its Communists, Ba’thists and Free Officers (1978), too bad they don’t make titles like that any more;  and Salibi’s House of Many Mansions. I can’t help but think that the passion of all three for the peoples of the Arab world and their rootedness in that world helped the English flow more beautifully than is otherwise the case.

Salibi may be remember even more for his decades of mentorship and the generations of students who benefited from his critical counsel and his boundless encouragement. Aside from a few stints abroad, he spent his entire teaching career (1953-1998) at the Department of History and Archaeology at the American University of Beirut. There are many others who could comment on this better than I. While in Beirut, I came across a recently published book, Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967-1975 (2009) by Makram Rabah. I began to learn then about Salibi’s non-sectarianism and his devotion, first and foremost, to his students. He was a Protestant by birth but was involved in organizations representing the spectrum of Lebanese and Arab identities. He was a mentor to many of the Palestinian students who were politically active in their heyday at AUB in the 1960s and 1970s. After retiring from AUB, he became founding director of the Royal Institute for Inter-faith Studies under the auspices of Hasan b. Talal, uncle of King Abdallah II of Jordan. When I met him his office was at the Druze Heritage Foundation where he was a consultant. I am sure I am just scratching the surface of his activities on behalf of students of all backgrounds.

As a scholar, a mentor, a secularist, and one who never turned his back on his Arab heritage despite the horrors of civil strife and despotism that continue to plague the Arab world, Kamal Salibi is nothing less than a hero. I am reminded of a line from a book I reviewed here not long ago, David Wengrow’s What Makes  Civilization?: “civilization is the historical outcome of exchange and borrowings between societies, rather than… attributes that set one society apart from another.” This is the kind of Lebanese, Syrian, and Arab civilization that Salibi celebrated.

Sectarian fault lines persist and they are rearing their ugly heads in the current struggle in Syria. But, both outsiders and insiders are often too quick to point to sectarianism as the defining characteristic of complex and diverse societies such as those of Lebanon and Syria. Kamal Salibi’s life and work are testimony to the limitations of such analyses. There are many other examples among the Sunni, Alawi, Druze, Christian, Isma’ili, Kurdish, Turkoman, and Armenian citizens of Syria. I hope to profile some of them here in the coming weeks, months…

Did I mention that House of Many Mansions played a role in the romance that led me to my life-partner Sandra? No, I won’t go there…

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