Writing an Alternative History
Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean
By Basem L. Ra’ad
London: Pluto Press, 2010, 272 pages, $35.00
Visiting Palestine in 1867, Mark Twain was shocked by how reality confounded his Sunday-school images, and he went about satirising all the romanticised and sentimentalised fantasies that pilgrims carry with them. In Hidden Histories, Jerusalem-born Basem Ra’ad takes us on a time-and-space travel across millennia to help Twain and the rest of us to “unlearn” all the religious, political, and ideological distortions about Palestine’s roots in ancient history. He draws upon the latest research in archaeology, linguistics, and history to expose how the past has been appropriated for orientalist and colonialist purposes. In the process, he also reveals how the presence of native people, the “forgotten, submerged and subaltern,” stubbornly persists from ancient Cana’an to contemporary Palestine.
Among the problems in writing a history of Palestine are the shadows cast by religious narratives and cultural biases that confuse legends with facts, as well as the present Zionist system that keeps circulating old myths and images to legitimise its claims and protect its investments. False notions about Palestine and its people, either through ignorance or deception, seem almost resistant to correction. It is not only that Israel succeeded in turning past imaginaries into realities on the ground, such as by Hebraising place names in counterfeit ways in order to bolster its claims - a subject Ra’ad deals with in detail. The larger problem is that most Western scholars and travellers, not to mention the general public, viewed Palestine through biblical lenses, as they still do. They failed to see the real people and history of the region, instead contriving myths that fitted convenient colonising models of “an idealized land and a demonized or invisible people.” Christian Zionist interest in Palestine “needed to have demonstrating tools, which fixated on ‘biblical illustration’ that required the Palestinian population to be used as evidence of ‘biblical life’ and, simultaneously, to be invisibilized because their presence contradicts the claims.”
Over the past decades, there have been many archaeological and other findings that debunk Zionist and Western notions. But these findings are often avoided, muffled, or misinterpreted to fit old preconceptions. Almost all scholars of Palestine’s past have been complicit in creating a politically contentious, colonialist history, effectively marginalising any non-conforming accounts, and thus supporting an intensifying effort to displace modern Palestinians from their ancient cultural roots. This book calls for an alternative to the present acceptance of colonising “facts on the ground” - an alternative that is necessary. It deals with knowledge that historians and archaeologists have ignored or excluded, thus challenging scholars to unsay what has been lied about or suppressed. It tells us to get rid of the bogus histories which are fed to the larger public, and instead find the integrity to rewrite a more accurate past for the sake of a more truthful future.
To rescue history from the grips of such religious and cultural blindfolds, Ra’ad takes the reader on a search through archaeological discoveries, ancient alphabets, popular customs, language expressions, and agricultural practices to show the continuity of ancient cultures and their influence on Palestinians and regional peoples up to the present day. Archaeological finds in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Ugarit in Syria, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, indicate that monotheism grew gradually out of polytheism in a number of locations. Yet most of the discoveries have either been neglected or interpreted in ways that conform to the dominant narratives, thus allowing the self-interested to continue to see the Bible as the unique factual source for charting the geography and history of the “Holy Land.” Ra’ad presents a convincing case for Arabic as the only storehouse and successor of earlier regional ancient languages, in contrast to Hebrew which was merely a priestly version of Aramaic (“square Hebrew” being an appropriation of square Aramaic). He exposes other linguistic and cultural takeovers in the Zionist system of scholarship. In making careful distinctions among the terms “Hebrew,” “Israelite,” and ancient “Jew,” he aims to disrupt the intended confusion between these largely idealised entities and present-day Jews. All this flies in the face of Zionist contentions that “Arabs” first came to Palestine with the seventh-century Muslim conquest and that “Jews” are returning to the land of their “ancestors.” Unfortunately, in inadvertently accepting such fallacious religious and historical sequencing, many Palestinians in effect bypass their much older roots and undermine their ancient heritage, thus falling into Zionist traps - an example of self-colonisation, a subject addressed in several chapters.
Scrupulously researched and persuasively argued, Hidden Histories: Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean has arrived at an opportune time. The book is illustrated with 30 photographs and art works, some mesmerising in their impact. Its 11 chapters run the gamut of subjects that are essential for an understanding of Palestine and the region: Western and Zionist constructs, the development of monotheistic religions, the history of sacred sites, the importance of Ugarit to Palestine, the alphabet, identity construction, appropriation, self-colonisation, and heritage retrieval. They all build up the overarching thesis about the need for a corrective history that affirms regional and Palestinian historical-cultural continuities.
Hidden Histories is an inclusive work of decolonisation. It is concrete and utopian, politically blunt and stylistically elegant at the same time. A study in deep time, it is also an anthropology of the present and a tool for informing the future.
The book is available at Educational Bookshop and the American Colony Bookshop in East Jerusalem.