Writing for the Future

By Sally Bland

Hidden Histories: Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean. Basem L. Ra’ad. London-New York: Pluto Press, 2010. Pp. 272

Most Palestinians, Arabs and their sympathizers know all too well that turning Palestine into Israel involved a truckload of falsification, but few know the extent and detail of the deception, or the full spectrum of the lived history that was submerged in the process. In “Hidden Histories,” Jerusalemite Basem L. Ra’ad takes the reader on a time and space travel that shuttles between the ancient Cana’anite civilization and occupied Palestine today, affirming the demographic and cultural continuity of the Eastern Mediterranean over successive millennia.

It is not only that Israel changed place names in order to bolster its claim to the land (though Ra’ad deals with such counterfeiting in detail). The broader issue is that Western scholars and travelers viewed Palestine almost exclusively through biblical lenses, and thus failed to see the real people and history of the region, instead contriving myths that resulted in “an idealized land and a demonized people” (p. 15). Only due to public acceptance of such mythologizing was Zionism able to succeed in colonizing Palestine. “Past ignorance and now circumlocution make it possible to exploit the sacred geography common in the West until the nineteenth century as well as the fundamentalist Christian Zionism that preceded (and in many ways prepared for) the Jewish Zionist movement” (p. 132).

At the heart of the matter is “an intersection of literal religious thinking with colonial ambitions,” which engendered false notions about the emergence of monotheism and Western civilization (p. 80). Archaeological finds in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria (Ugarit) and Palestine/Jordan (the Dead Sea Scrolls) attest to the diverse origins of monotheism, indicating that it grew gradually out of polytheism in a number of locations, rather than emerging in a single flash of divine intervention. Yet, these findings have most often been neglected or interpreted in a way to merge with the dominant narrative. Though at least two gods are named in the Old Testament, and messianic traditions predate the time when Jesus is thought to have lived, mainstream Western and Israeli thinking has employed the Bible as though it were a unique factual source — the compass for charting the geography and evaluating the history of the Holy Land. As a result, the interaction between the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations and the Cana’anites are denied, which means concealing the latter’s contribution to what came to be regarded as Western civilization. Similarly, monotheism has been severed from its polytheistic roots — also a denial of Cana’anite history and contributions to civilization. Hiding this major part of the past made it possible to present the Israelites as the most significant people of ancient Palestine, Hebrew as the key language, and Judaism as the oldest and predominant monotheistic religion.

The author’s exacting use of language is well-matched to his research goals, as seen in his deconstruction of self-serving mistranslations and the false labeling of villages and holy shrines. In order to rescue history from the grips of religious and cultural blindfolds, Ra’ad walks the reader through a range of archaeological finds, ancient alphabets, folk customs and agricultural practices to show the continuity of ancient cultures and their influence on Palestinians and regional people even today. He argues persuasively that Arabic is the true successor of the ancient languages of the area, whereas ancient Hebrew was a version of Aramaic, one of the languages gradually integrated into Arabic. All this flies in the face of Zionist contentions that “Arabs” first came to Palestine with the 7th century Muslim conquest. Unfortunately, some Palestinians and Muslims accept this trajectory, turning it around to proudly assert that they have been in Palestine for centuries, while actually undermining their much older roots — an example of self-colonization which Ra’ad addresses at length.

Ra’ad reviews a variety of old and new writings on “sacred geography” and related topics, from Mandeville and Sandys to Mark Twain and Meron Benvenisti, and highlight parallels to biblical justifications for the European conquest of the Americas, making the book a useful reference on that subject. In addition to analyzing Western perceptions and monotheistic monopolies, he illustrates the great cultural accomplishments of the region, as well as the ill-founded and ungrateful takeover of cultural achievements by the Zionist claim system. The book’s 11 chapters (ranging from ones on Western and Zionist constructs, religions and sites, Ugarit and the alphabet, to others on identity, appropriation and self-colonization, and  retrieval of ancient regional heritage connections) build up his overarching thesis about the need for a corrective history that affirms regional and Palestinian historical-cultural continuities.

“Hidden Histories” is a well-documented scholarly work; it is also a committed one. Ra’ad’s quest for truth aims at reinforcing Palestinians’ rightful claims to their land and culture, but he does not advocate a return to the past; nor does he indulge in nostalgia or argue for exclusive claims. Instead, he poses the existential question of how human beings should use history. He hopes his book will spark new research to help to “unlearn” false notions in order to develop a new cognitive framework which would promote education, development and possibly peace and reconciliation, should the Israeli side respond accordingly.

Ultimately, the author’s quest for truth involves everyone, especially previously colonized peoples. In his words, “For me, metaphorically speaking, more than half the world is still ‘Palestine,’ in the sense of being oppressed, hidden, and subaltern. A fresh approach to Palestinian history could be a globally valuable enterprise in relation to enlarging human consciousness and perhaps achieving a modicum of human justice” (pp. 10-11). In this sense, Ra’ad is very much writing for the future, as he exhorts others to do.

– To order the book click here. (This article was originally published in the Jordan Times, July 19, 2010)

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