Review: Hidden Histories, Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean by Basem L. Ra’ad

When I first tried reading Hidden Histories, I found the book confounding. I could not follow the narratives being presented, and I did not know enough about the various cultures being mentioned to follow a complex story about historical appropriations and distortions in a politically motivated scholarship. But after having become much more familiar with the mainstream narratives told about the history of Palestine, and having visited many of the sites discussed in the work, the book is now an inviting trove with a deep scholastic and moral depth, an invaluable tool for taking apart (dare I say “deconstructing?) the various stories we are told and we tell ourselves in order to have a grip on the place named “Palestine”.

 

 

The book concentrates on understanding ancient Palestinian and Eastern Mediterranean (an alternative to the colonial term, “middle east”) cultures and their languages: Canaanite, Phoenician, Assyrian, Babylonian, Aramean, Moabite and Phillistine. The author is able to show, especially through continuities from Ancient Aramaic to modern Arabic, how there is in fact cultural continuity to Palestine that even dates back past the tripartite rise of monotheism (Israelite, Christian, Muslim).  Moreover, the author convincingly argues that “Hebrew” is not its own language, independent of its semitic neighbours at all – rather it a square scripted form of Aramaic, and “ancient Hebrew” is nothing other than a scholastic fraud, whereby ancient semitic texts are in retrospect understood as part of a tradition which they themselves did not identify with.

The language arguments arguments in the book are important – they show that not only were the “ancient Israelites” not Jews (an equivocation not even claimed by Israeli state museums, which refer only to the 2nd temple Israelites as “Jews”), but that they they shared in the language of the surrounding region. Moreover, the author’s familiarity with ancient languages allow them to show that the texts of the Hebrew bible are not the texts of a monotheistic people at all, but a people with two gods – El and Yaweh: El being the chief god, and Yaweh a member of a council of gods. Translations obscure the difference by translating El as “God” and Yaweh as “the lord”. The links between the Hebrew bible and the Cannanite Pantheon are further secured by the discovery of the same stories appearing in pre-redacted versions of the Kings text in ancient Ugaritic texts from Northern Syria (the only difference involves which God conquers which other god). In the Old Testament, although not in the versions of those texts that appear in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the various characteristics attributed to different gods in the Canannite pantheon become appropriated into Yahweh, erasing the Pagan/Polytheistic characteristics of the “Ancient Israelites”.

 

The second half of the book focusses on the colonization of Palestine since the 1850s, and especially since 1948. Some of the points will be obvious to those who have studied Zionism before, such as the mounting evidence that neither Ashkenazi nor Sphardic jews are descended from the ancient Israelites, and the Israeli appropriation of Palestinian and Eastern Mediterranean food and dress as its own. Ra’ad also makes fairly traditional post-colonial critiques of colonial identities taken up by Palestinians, such as Palestinian muslims identifying with Saladin and the expulsion of the Crusaders, and Palestinian Christians making the claim that “they” have been on the land for 1700 years because they can be traced back to the Byzantine period – despite the fact both that their ancestors were not Christian for most of those 1700 years, and that the Christianization of their ancestors by the Byzantine empire was imposed on top of the pagan cultures which date back many thousands of years and which continued to influence the “monotheistic” religions attempting to efface them. Instead, Ra’ad argues that Palestinian identity should concentrate, at least more than it currently does, on connections to the ancient and pre-monotheistic past – both in order to recover their history, and in order to achieve the de-colonization of their own minds. This is perhaps the real motivation behind the scholarship Ra’ad pursues to show the connections between modern Arabic and ancient Aramaic and Phoenician, and the activist stance they take up trying to encourage people to use the ancient place names rather than the modern Hebrew variants. For Ra’ad, it might be said that language is culture, and is so in ways that the speaker need not be aware.

 

In the last chapter of the book, doubly titled an Epilogue and the beginning of a new book, Ra’ad tells a story of buying a kilo of tiny, traditional pears from an Arab woman at Damascus gate. The lady called out “Pears, Pears, Ba’al Pears”. When Ra’ad asked what it meant that the pears were “Ba’al”, the woman explained what she meant, but did “was obviously unable to articulate fully an ancient memory that the meaning originates from a pagan god and his attributes”. Ra’ad went on to reflect,

 

“I was satisfied. For her, as for other people in the , this word and many such expressions have retained thousands of years old associations they are unaware of – associations that are not fossilized remnants but rather surviving and functional folk traditions, subaltern meanings from past inventories conveying a host of values that merit being rediscovered” (210)

 

Copying out this quotation, I can almost hear my leftist and indigenous rights-activist friends making rude noises as they hear what they think is an academic elitist pomp which situates itself above, surveying over the “folk knowledge” from a higher position, and valuing or de-valuing it insofar as it fits the theoretical/moral model being put forward by the author. But I think such a response would be reactionary and unfair, and in fact serves to work against the critique of overvaluing theoretical over practical knowledge which in another situation the same folks would surely champion.

 

The position which I believe Ra’ad subscribes to, and which I think is the correct position – is that theoretical knowledge of traditions is pragmatically useful and a worthwhile project which can, and perhaps must happen as part of de-colonization. But theoretical knowledge is not an end in itself, and the reasons we value theoretical knowledge are rather in the manners that it permits new forms of practical life, the protection and enhancement of old forms of practical life, and the deeper criticism of forms of colonial forms of life which survive on the exploitation and de-humanization of enemies, and in a different way of the colonizers themselves.

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