C.L.R. James

It’s 1936, C.L.R. James is in Paris: “I look up in the archives. I look up, I look up, I look up in the archives, I spend three or four months looking up in the archives.” James’ friend Harry Spencer had given him seventy-five pounds to go to France and work in the
Archives Nationales. “Every morning, walk up the Seine, the bank of Seine, go to the archives... At twelve o’clock they shut down, everywhere is closed up till tow. Archives close up, ‘St. James” closes up, off to eat. Very fine. At two o’clock, I go back. I work. The archives close at five or six. I go home.” James was in the archives because he was writing the history of the Haitian Revolution. Published in London in 1938, the bibliography of The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution lists some eight archives consulted between France, Haiti, and Great Britain among many other printed primary and secondary sources. But even for the best historians and the most finely crafted (and critical) histories, the archive of the oppressed can be hard to find.


In the “The Black Proletariat in South Carolina,” chapter ten of Black Reconstruction in America (1935), W.E.B Du Bois wrote:

The opportunity to study a great human experiment was present in Reconstruction, and its careful scientific investigation would have thrown a world of light on human development and democratic government. The material today, however, is unfortunately difficult to find. Little effort has been made to preserve the records of Negro effort and speeches, actions, works and wages, homes and families. Nearly all this has gone down beneath a mass of ridicule and caricature, deliberate omission and misstatement. No institution of learning has made any effort to explore or probe Reconstruction from the point of view of the laborer and most men have written to explain and excuse the former slaveholder, the planter, the landholder, and the capitalist. The loss today is irreparable, and this present study limps and gropes in darkness, lacking most essentials to a complete picture; and yet the writer is convinced that this is the story of a normal working class movement, successful to an unusual degree, despite all disappointment and failure.
In his note on printed primary sources in the bibliography to A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905, Walter Rodney wrote:

Historical underdevelopment is also reflected in the material base for historical reconstruction. Printed series of official documents are not available, except for the Annual Blue Books, the Administration Reports, and the Official Gazette, copies of which were compiled into semiannual editions. From the metropolitan end, the well known Parliamentary Papers were accessible, the most relevant being the “Report of the West India Royal Commission,” 1898 (P.O. No. 50, 1898).


‘Unfortunately,” James wrote in the bibliography to The Black Jacobins, “suppressio veri and suggestio falsi are not the only devils to be contented with. Hard experience has taught the lesson that it is unwise to take anything on trust and an examination of even apparently bona fide quo­tations (with reference duly attached) has unearthed some painful instances of unscrupulousness.”


Still from: We the Palestinian People (Pacific Newsreel, 1973)

In a 1974 article for the magazine al-Usbu’ al-’Arabi entitled “Jean Paul Sartre Shot Rockets at the Palestinian Research Center’s Offices?,” the Palestinian poet Mu’in Bseiso recounted the 1972 Israeli letter bombing that maimed the historian Anis Sayigh, who was then director of the Research Center’s headquarters in Beirut. Bseiso goes on to tell a different story in the article, an allegory about a devastating missile attack on the Center. “Palestinian blood,” Bseiso wrote, “mixed with Palestinian ink where the office once stood.”¹ The attacker in the story is Sartre himself, who by virtue of his Western passport could not be turned away at the Beirut airport, allowing him to enter Lebanon as an Israeli agent carrying missiles in his suitcase and wreak havoc. Here, Bseiso attacked both Sartre for his support of Israel and lamented the weakness of Arab sovereignty. While Sartre was not, in the end, the perpetrator of the act, the Palestinian Research Center was in fact looted by the invading Israeli army in 1982. “Israel’s seizure of the Research Center archive,” writes Hana Sleiman, a historian who has carefully tracked the archive’s fate, “is one in a series of Israeli appropriations of Palestinian memory.”
For at least two decades, contemporary art has moved in archival directions. Art practice today often involves historical lectures, the presentation of accumulated images from the past, and the display of acquired texts, official and otherwise. The archive, long associated with history, has now become—in its counter, radical, and affective modes—a major source of memory, remembrance, and testimony. The archive’s association with the making of the modern state and the subjugation of its colonies, explicated forcefully by Foucault, Thomas Richards, Ann Laura Stoler and many others, has set the tenor of this work.
Palestinian artists, along with other Arab artists like Akram Zaatari, Lara Baladi and Walid Raad, have made brilliant use of archival material and practices of archiving in their work. In her ongoing project, “Material for a Film,” Emily Jacir traces the life of the Palestinian writer and translator Wael Zuitar as it appears in the archives of Italian solidarity. Basel Abbas and Rounne Abou-Rahme’s installation and video project, “The Incidental Insurgents” places the infamous rebel-cum-bandits of Mandate Palestine in a global array of banditry from Victor Serge to Bolaño. Writing about Jacir’s work and that of others, the art critic Guy Mannes-Abbott has recently registered the significance of the “archival impulse” in Palestinian art.² And in her account of recent visual art and practices of witnessing in Palestine, the Israeli academic Gil Hochberg has argued that the such work produces “alternative archives of seeing.”³ But, where do these archives and this art come from? And where will these archives take us?
Palestine was one of the first places to be shot on film, its imprint can be found on the negatives of the Lumière brothers from 1896. During the Mandate the official propaganda films of the British served as important tools of documentation and indoctrination. On the eve of the nakba, the U.K. Ministry of Information’s 1947 film “Portrait of Palestine,” presented a narrative of progress in the region incumbent on European Jewish settlement, a story Palestinian filmmakers have had to contest ever since.
In the 1960s, growing numbers of Palestinian films were made and distributed as the Palestinian revolutionary movement grew more sophisticated in its methods and global in its reach. In Amman in 1968, under the auspices of the Palestinian political party Fatah (and later the Arts and Culture section of the PLO), Mustafa Abu Ali, Hani Johariya and Sulafa Jadallah formed the Palestinian Film Unit. La Lil Hal al-Salmi (No to the Option of Surrender), was the first film produced by this new group of Palestinian filmmakers, who would move from Jordan to Lebanon and beyond as politics dictated where and when Palestinians in exile could make art and revolution. In 1976, Johariya was shot dead in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War.⁴
Their ideas and practices of filmmaking were tied to the anti-colonial cinematic movement which began in Latin American known as Tercer Cine or “Third Cinema.” Teshome Gabriel wrote in his classic study of the movement that “Third Cinema must, above all, be recognized as a cinema of subversion. It is a cinema that emerges from the peoples who have suffered under the spells of mystified cinema and who seek the demystification of representational practices as part of the process of liberation.”⁵ In typical Third Cinema fashion, the manifesto of the Palestinian film unit condemned the frivolous, bourgeois films of the Arab world and called for the development of a cinema committed to “democratic and progressive content” and “a new aesthetic… able to coherently express a new content.” But they also specifically called for the creation of a “film archive which will gather film and still photograph material on the struggle of the Palestinian people in order to retrace its stages.”⁶ This archive was stolen.

The meaning of Israeli troops carting off our archives from Beirut in September 1982 was lost on no one. — Edward Said, After the Last Sky
Mohanad Yaqubi’s 2016 film, Off Frame AKA Revolution Until Victory is the latest and most powerful presentation of the remarkable films made by the unit and their fellow travelers. Eschewing the narrative of decline that so often marks recent narrations of this period worldwide, Yaqubi adopts the form of his forbearers in constructing an hour long montage of their montages. Left melancholia is nowhere to be found. No story is told of how the revolution fares, no sorrowful account of the Oslo Accords or Abbas’s state. Even in the film’s epilogue in contemporary Ramallah, the revolution continues. Without any new narration, and therefore, without nostalgia, Yaqubi re-creates the feel and form of the Film Unit’s cinematic and political project. Despite the remarkable archival work Yaqubi undertook to make the film, in the end the film is not about the archive, but the imperative to liberate Palestine. It is not a film about the Israeli theft of Palestinian archives, but the theft of Palestinian land. It would appear that the mission of Yaqubi’s film, as Ousmane Sembene said of his own films, is “to prepare the revolution.”  
But of course the making of the film was also about the reconstitution of an archive. In an interview with Ivan Čerecina, Yaqubi described how he was able to track down the films he used: “After reading some texts, I found that for each film, 60 to 70 copies were made and sent around to universities, student unions, workers unions, political parties, cultural centres, festivals and so on, and from there I started. I went to work through the audiovisual archives of the French and Italian Communist parties and from there I started to find my material.” Like the materials Jacir uses to reconstruct the life of Zuatir, the films of the Palestinian Film Unit that Yaqubi edits were largely located in European archives. This is of course, ironic, though typical. For in 1976, Edward Said told an interviewer from the journal Diacritics: “that there exists in Europe a vast cache of Arabic texts, removed out of the Arab world by the colonial powers during the nineteenth century. Here Foucault's theory of the archive and discourse acquires a very material dimension; the archive of much of modern Arab history resides unmetaphorically, has been deposited in, has been physically imprisoned by, Europe.”
So where is the Palestinian archive? The land of Palestine, if you want to find it, is easy enough to locate on a map, even if mislabeled. But the archive of Palestinian history is seemingly nowhere and everywhere at once. Images, at least, are abundant. There are the countless Facebook groups and Instagram and Twitter accounts of varying quality that provide their followers (myself included) with a constant stream of historical images of Palestine and Palestinians. There are more academic endeavors, like the online Palestine Poster Project, a vast collection of ephemera. And now there is the Palestinian Museum, which is certainly the largest and most well-funded example of these attempts to display the Palestinian past, and also the one which most readily mimics the practices and global rules of art-making and state-building. Though at the museum, there is unfortunately an all too common obsession with Palestinian “crafts.” In searching for accounts of Palestinian culture in the mainstream, one sometimes wonders if Palestinians ever did anything more than embroider.
In his essay, “Beirut, A City Without history?” Saree Makdisi reflected on an archival project, the vast collections of Beirut’s Arab Image Foundation. Emerging from, if I may, the ruins of the Lebanese Civil War, alongside well-capitalized projects of reconstruction and reconciliation, the Image Foundation’s mission “to preserve and study photographs from the Middle East, North Africa and the Arab diaspora” appears at first as a welcome and familiar venture. But the limits of preservation and study are circumscribed by the very medium. The image is not enough. “In being frozen in visual form,” Makdisi wrote, “history threatens to become an aesthetic object, a commodity, a spectacle, a fetish, rather than a narrative, a process, or a struggle.”⁷
The Palestinian historian Mezna Qato has written that in her archival investigations across the West Bank she often faced the same obstacle: the “good stuff” had gone up in flames. Indeed, stories abound of Palestinian archives intentionally and unintentionally burned. Wadi al-Bustani, the self-described Lebanese-Palestinian poet and lawyer, burned most of his papers shortly before leaving Haifa in 1953. The great Palestinian poet from Musmus, Rashid Hussein was killed by his archive, when a dropped cigarette lit up his New York apartment full of cassette tapes bearing the sound of his poetry and that of other poets. The smoke from the burning magnetic strips suffocated him to death.
At moments of heightened intensity, especially right after assassinations by air raids, when Palestinian bodies are turned into ashes and televised, the Palestinian collectivity oscillates between total insecurity and total oneness. — Esmail Nashif, Palestinian Political Prisoners: Identity and Community
Qato continues, “as with the archival spoils of war from the Nakba, there is one remaining witness – the Israeli archives.” These archives are full of images, as the work of Ariella Azoulay and Rona Sela attests, but also many documents and books which have been used to write the history of Palestine and the Arab world by countless Israeli historians and increasingly by Palestinian historians themselves, as in the case of Leena Dallasheh and Adel Manna’s recent studies of Nazareth. But, the Israeli archives of the Palestinian past can never be enough.

Hana Sleiman and Ahmed Barclay’s recent installation at Dar al-Nimr in Beirut provides, perhaps, a way out of our archival impasse. As Sleiman put it in a recent interview, they see their work “as a history/historiographic project, more than an archival project. We are not collecting the archive of the archive, nor are we collecting a body of material that tells its story. We are using a body of material to tell a meta-history.” Their project, and others like the Palestinian Revolution website and the Palestinian Oral History Project, do more than simply collect or preserve, they expand our political imagination. Thawra hattal nasr.

¹. Mu’in Bsieso, “Jean Paul Sartre Yatlak al-Sawarikh ‘ala maktab markaz al-bath al-Filistini?,” al-Usbu’ al-Arabi, (December 16, 1974), 73.

². Guy Mannes Abott, “This Is Tomorrow: On Emily Jacir’s Assembling Radically Generative Archives,” in Arthur Downey, ed. Dissonant Archives: Contemporary Visual Culture and Contested Narratives in the Middle East (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2015)

³. Gil Hochberg, Visual Occupations: Violence and Visibility in a Conflict Zone (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 8.  

⁴. This sketch of the founding of the Palestine Film Unit is based on: Mustafa Abu Ali and Hassan abu-Ghanam, ʿAn al-Cinema al-Falisteniyya  (Tripoli: Palestine Film Unit, 1975); Qays al-Zubaydi, Falisten fi al-Cinima (Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2006); Nurith Gertz and George Khleifi, Palestinian Cinema: Landscape, Trauma and Memory (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008); Nick Denes, “Between Form and Function: Experimentation in the Early Works of the Palestine Film Unit, 1968–1974,” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 7:2 (2014), pp. 219 – 241.

⁵. Teshome Gabriel, Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetics of Liberation (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982), 95.

⁶. Palestinian Cinema Group, “The Palestinian Cinema and the National Question: Manifesto of the Palestinian Cinema Group,” Cineaste 9:3 (1979), 35.

⁷. Saree Makdisi, “Beirut, a City without History?” in Ussama Makdisi and Paul Silverstein eds., Memory and Violence in the Middle East and North Africa (Bloomington and Minneapolis: University of Indiana Press, 2006), 206.


It may be unwise to follow the tweet-based utterances of Donald Trump, President and CEO. But sometimes a stupid tweet by Trump affords the opportunity to reflect on the ways American Empire is thought about today and in the past. Yesterday, following an attack in Barcelona that killed fourteen and injured many others, Trump wrote, “Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!” Before yesterday's tweet, Trump often repeated a false claim that during the American occupation of the Philippines, one of the United States's more famous generals, John J. Pershing “dipped fifty bullets in pig’s blood, lined up his captives, and then shot forty-nine of them, letting the last one go to spread the news.” The popularity of this untrue tale, apparently circulated on some Right-wing websites, speaks to a particular orientation toward American Empire: that ruthlessness against enemies must be celebrated. One historian’s response to Trump’s tweet on Slate, raises another understanding of American Empire. He describes Pershing’s campaign of counterinsurgency against Filipinos as a “cordial” relationship and his cultivation of Muslim elites and comments about Islam are seen as exemplary instances of intercultural understanding. Indeed, the historian writes: “It’s an admirable sentiment, brimming with tolerance for a foreign culture. Perhaps the president could learn from that.” For our historian, the brutal “pacification” of the Philippines deserves only passing mention, the lesson of war, he tells us, is tolerance.

Fortunately, we too can read Pershing’s writings. In his own memoirs, Pershing notes his debt to Lord Cromer’s policy on Islam during the British occupation of Egypt. High level administrators in an imperial bureaucracy, Cromer — the British Viceroy in Egypt — and Pershing were certainly not interested in any kind of equality with their Muslim subjects. Rather, they used the images and languages of Islam to further their respective imperial projects. Moreover, the ruthless methods of counterinsurgency deployed in the Philippines were first developed in the service of the United States's settler project on the North American continent. "Many of the US military governors of the Philippines," writes Laleh Khalili, "had fought and administered Native Americans." Decades later, American counterinsurgency would make its way to Vietnam, then back to Detroit, Newark, and Los Angeles. Trump is right in one sense, studying what Pershing and the rest of the U.S. forces of occupation did in the Philippines — as well as its antecedents and afterlives — is not a bad idea. But we must be cautious. In our attempts to counter Trump's own way of empire, we cannot simply celebrate another. Below, some notes, historical and historiographical.


The magnificent mosques of Cairo were filled with classes grouped in sitting posture around their white robed teachers, reciting in sing-song fashion their lessons from the Koran. The British wisely refrained from meddling with the religious faith of the people but devoted themselves only to questions of government. Their success under Lord Cromer left a striking example for us to follow in the control of our own Muhammadan wards—an example which I studied with much benefit…. The Moro is of a peculiar make-up as to character, though the reason is plain when it is considered, first, that he is a (semi) savage; second, that he is a Malay; and third, that he is a Muhammadan. The almost infinite combination of superstitions, prejudices, and suspicions blended into his character make him a difficult person to handle until fully understood. In order to control him other than by brute force one must first win his implicit confidence, nor is this as difficult as it would seem; but once accomplished one can accordingly by patient and continuous effort largely guide and direct his thoughts and actions. He is jealous of his religion, but he knows very little about its teachings. The observance of a few rites and ceremonies is about all that is required to satisfy him that he is a good Muhammadan. As long as he is undisturbed in the possession of his women and children and his slaves, there need be little fear from him…

— John J. Pershing, My Life Before the World War, 1860–1917: A Memoir, edited by John T. Greenwood (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013)

But most significant of all at this period is the fact that the colored population of our land is, through a new imperial policy, about to be doubled by our ownership of Porto Rico, and Havana, our Protectorate of Cuba, and conquest of the Philippines. This is for us and for the nation the greatest event since the Civil War and demands attention and action on our part. What is to be our attitude toward these new lands and toward the masses of dark men and women who inhabit them? Manifestly it must be an attitude of deepest sympathy and strongest alliance. We must stand ready to guard and guide them with our vote and our earnings. Negro and Filipino, Indian and Porto Rican, Cuban and Hawaiian, all must stand united under the stars and stripes for an America that knows no color line in the freedom of its opportunities. We must remember that the twentieth century will find nearly twenty millions of brown and black people under the protection of the American flag, a third of the nation, and that on the success and efficiency of the nine millions of our own number depends the ultimate destiny of Filipinos, Porto Ricans, Indians and Hawaiians, and that on us too depends in a large degree the attitude of Europe toward the teeming millions of Asia and Africa.

— W.E.B. Du Bois, The Present Outlook for the Dark Races of Mankind,” Church Review 17 (1900)

In the southern Philippines, the Moro Province became the exoticized setting for America’s greatest colonial saga. While indirect rule of the Christian lowlands was complexly antiheroic, the Moro province had all the ingredients for a classic colonial script: unexplored jungles, pirate-infested oral seas, and, above all, bloody combat against Muslim “fanatics.” Two of the greatest U.S. military heroes of this imperial age, Leonard Wood and John J. Pershing, served as governors of the Moro Province, leading mass slaughters of Muslim rebels that added to their allure in the eyes of the American public. In reportage, fiction, and later films, colonial writers celebrated the constabulary’s American officers as agents of civilization. “The Moros are incredible,” read a popular book published in 1938. “No word picture could paint … the ferocity and inherent fighting ability of these Mohammedans of the southern Philippines.” Using similarly hyperbolic language, Col. James Harbord, the first PC chief for Mindanao, noted that his work with the Moros was done “on the frontier of savage treachery.”

— Alfred W. McCoy, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009)

The American torture of prisoners—some fraction of which appeared in soldiers’ letters, newspaper accounts, and court-martial proceedings—was often, if not always, justified as a means of intelligence-gathering. The most notorious form of torture by the American side, if far from the only one, was the ‘‘water cure,’’ in which a captured Filipino was interrogated while drowned with buckets of filthy water poured into his mouth. The scale of its practice and the frequency of death remain difficult if not impossible to establish. Later blamed almost exclusively on the United States’ Macabebe Scouts, it was in fact the tactical expression of the military policy of attraction, undertaken in many cases by U.S. and Filipino forces working together both secretly and with the tacit approval of U.S. o≈cers. In the context of guerrilla war, the water cure would simultaneously cure Filipinos of their unknowability and Americans of their ignorance.

Despite later claims that distanced U.S. soldiers from torture, U.S. soldiers not only carried out the water cure but apparently did so in a jocular manner. In 1902, Albert Gardner, in Troop B of the First U.S. Cavalry, composed comic works that made light of torture in a way that suggested familiarity and ease. The first, playing with the torture’s name, was a mock-testimonial patent-medicine advertisement addressed to ‘‘My Dear Doctor Uncle Sam,’’ by a certain ‘‘Mariano Gugu.’’ The author complained of a recent bout of ‘‘loss of memory, loss of speach [sic] and other symptoms’’ of a disease called ‘‘insurectos’’; among other things, he ‘‘had forgotten where I placed my Bolo and my rifle.’’ He had been miraculously cured with ‘‘only one treatment of your wonderful water cure.’’ ‘‘No hombre’s shack is complete without a barrel of it,’’ he concluded in a postscript. More striking still was Gardner’s original marching song, ‘‘The Water Cure in the P.I.,’’ which made no mention of interrogation but simply urged U.S. soldiers to commit torture as an expression of U.S. imperial patriotism. Torture and liberation would be expressions of each other. The song form itself suggests singers and possible public performance:

Get the good old syringe boys and fill it to the brim
We’ve caught another nigger and we’ll operate on him
Let someone take the handle who can work it with a vim
Shouting the battle cry of freedom

Hurrah Hurrah We bring the Jubilee
Hurrah Hurrah The flag that makes him free
Shove in the nozzel [sic] deep and let him taste of liberty
Shouting the battle cry of freedom.

A subsequent verse promised to teach a captured ‘‘nigger’’ that liberty was ‘‘a precious boon’’ and pump him until he ‘‘swells like a toy baloon [sic].’’ Another hailed ‘‘[t]he banner that floats proudly o’er the noble and the brave’’ and urged the men to continue ‘‘till the squirt gun breaks or he explodes the slave.

— Paul Kramer, The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, and the Philippines (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006)

William Appleman Williams was among a small handful of American historians and scholars with the daring to “name” American imperialism and, to see it, as Marilyn Young testifies, “as not a passing phase but fundamental to the history of the country.” Something of Williams’ view and daring, still highly-contested, can bring back the ghost of forgotten perspectives (such as Rizal’s appreciation of the political potential of U.S. traditions). Young reminded a group of scholars gathered in a meeting to honor Williams' legacy that he coined the term, “anticolonial imperialism,” to specify or distinguish the forms of global suzerainty and national self-image that evolved in the United States. Williams' coinage struck Young as a “wonderfully flexible and resonant concept that reconciled America's righteous rhetoric with its venal practice.”

Personally, I find it more symptomatic of U.S. imperialism than "characteristic" of it (as Young seems to mean here).  The term's paradoxical and oxymoronic overtones, I wish to argue, are symptomatic of the odd nature, singular novelty, and (in political and critical terms) the formidable unrecognizability of the U.S. Empire among its citizens, its assiduous advocates, and even its most astute critics. Here, we cannot even begin to speak of what this kind of imperialism has meant for its subjects and "dependencies" and the immense difficulties that it posed to their "independence" struggles. Probably, it is not that "America's righteous rhetoric" is contradicted by its "venal practice" and needs to be reconciled to it (a rich source, nonetheless, of the most searching critiques made of the exercise of U.S. power "in the decades after 1898" and as early as the Philippine war and conquest that followed the 1898 war and Paris Treaty with Spain) but that this righteous rhetoric is, in a highly important sense, the venal practice. (By righteous rhetoric here I now mean the genetic claims upon [natural] "right" and not exclusively the "idealistic-moralistic'' problematic we associate with the U.S. exercise of global power.)

Indeed, the righteous rhetoric guarantees the venal practice. Ultimately, it is not reconciliation that is achieved in the yoking together of such contradictory elements in the exercise and the self-definition of this power but an endemic ambivalence. It is an ambivalence at the heart of the U.S. imperial project so anxious that it, paradoxically, becomes the protean source of U.S. global power itself, and the shifting force of its peculiar shapes.

— Oscar V. Campomanes,1898 and the Nature of the New Empire,” Radical History Review 73 (Winter 1999)


Little is known about Athanasios Ignatius Nouri. We know he was baptized in 1857 and raised in the area between Aleppo,  Deir al-Zor and Mosul. We also know that on the 16th of April 1881, the Patriarch Jurjis al-Shalhat in Aleppo made Nouri a priest and sent him off to Baghdad. By 1899, he was the Bishop of madinat al-salam. And in September of that year he embarked on a seven-month journey to India. Traveling through Basra and Bahrain, Nouri made his way to Bombay and then across India, to Pune, Hyderabad, Nagpur and Calcutta. With him was an Englishman by the name of George Bleeny, who knew English, Arabic and Hindustani and would serve as his guide.  

In 1934, his account of the trip was published in Harissa. The travelogue is a vivid account of India through Arab eyes. Much is learned about Indian religion, urban life in the fin de siècle Raj, and the transformations gripping the late Ottoman Empire. Libraries and schools are investigated, as are churches, mosques and museums. While traveling, Nouri met with a number of important figures, including Rabindranath Tagore, the Nizam of Hyderabad and Lord Curzon. For more, see my dissertation (forthcoming). Below an excerpt for Eid from when Nouri was in Calcutta.


Eid, February 2, 1900: Mosques without Minarets!

I forgot to tell you what I saw on the morning of Eid al-fitr on February 2nd, 1900. We were leaving the hotel—in our usual daily manner—to go to mass at the Church of Sacred Heart of Jesus. We had not walked a few steps before we witnessed a great crowd of some 30,000 souls, all of them Muslims, gathered in the public square. A mosque cannot hold a mass of this size, so they had gathered in the square for the morning Eid prayer. They filled the alleyways to complete their religious duty. The police did what was necessary to prevent any tumult, they stopped all the carriages, trams, and horses and even those just passing through on foot, until the prayer was over. The police were unarmed except for big sticks. They spread across all the streets and alleys, an officer on each street. The public feared them greatly and the slightest gesture from a police officer could clear a huge crowd.

But if you saw those celebrating Eid you would think they were in the Ottoman lands. They were dressed in their finest clothes, with their heads held high like giraffes walking tall at midday. They rented all the best carriages. In fact we could not find one for ourselves. We finally rented one for sixteen rupees for half an hour, even though usually it would cost only two rupees for such a trip.

Between the Sunnites and the Shiites, the population of Muslims in Calcutta number about 160,000 souls, though the majority of them do not know anything beyond the shahada. They have many mosques, but they do not have minarets on their mosques like in our lands. The muezzins call the prayer in the courtyards or on the roofs of the mosques. We may never know why the English have banned the construction of minarets.  

Athanasios Ignatius Nouri, Rihla il al-hind, 1899-1900 (Harissa: Matba’it al-Qasis Bolis, 1934). Translated by Esmat Elhalaby.


Haj Amin al-Husseini presenting the Palestinian Flag to Maulana Shawkat Ali. Via Omar Khalidi.

Much has changed since Ibrahim Abu-Lughod published “The Pitfalls of Palestiniology” in 1981. No longer are studies of Palestine confined to the confrontation with Zionism. And unlike the studies Abu-Lughod surveyed, the primary sources of Palestinian historiography are not anymore simply the British, Israeli, and other European archives. Work over the last 30 years has moved beyond imperial grand strategy to enrich our understanding of the social, cultural, and intellectual history of Palestine. Arabic sources—periodicals, personal papers, oral histories, court and ecclesiastical records—have finally received the serious attention they deserve. Today, “Palestine Studies” is not confined to a few committed institutions, but has become a field in and of itself. Book series, journal special issues, and workshops have cultivated a new generation of academics competent in a vast literature on what college course catalogs and D.C. think-tanks call the “Israel-Palestine conflict.” Moreover, what Edward Said once called “America’s last taboo” is no longer so. While Palestinian activism continues to be criminalized on college campuses and in state legislatures, in certain academic spaces, Palestine is cool.

Alongside the work of a committed band of mostly Arab or Arabic-literate scholars pushing intellectual and political boundaries, raising new questions, and mining new archives, another body of literature has proliferated. In this corpus, “Palestine” is less a place and history, than a keyword. Mary Grace Albanese has recently registered a similar phenomenon in Haitian Studies: “in a moment when every nonfrancophone, non-Kreyòl-reading scholar seems to have a ‘Caribbean chapter’ in the works, one fears Haiti has become a conceptual site to be exploited, recolonized in the garb of a trend.” Losing land and lives everyday, Palestinians have gained citations.

The Palestine of contemporary American cultural studies and critical theory is sheared of its history. Unmoored from its Arab context and its Ottoman past, Palestine transforms into of a symbol of radical politics; a metaphor for resilience or tragedy. In the rhetoric of Pan-Islam, from the Indian khalifat movement to the Islamic Republic of Iran, Palestine was and is the Holy Land first and Palestinian second, or never. And as white academia discovers the settler-colonialism native scholars have long attended to, Palestine has become relevant. A not unrelated phenomenon was “taking religion seriously,” the academic equivalent of buying a Quran after 9/11. American scholars, previously uninterested in all things Middle East and Islam, turned their attention to “the Muslim Question” and the veil.

Despite all this, American universities remain hostile to Palestine and Palestinians. Junior scholars are warned that their scholarship may hinder their professional prospects. And while a number of academic associations in the United States have voted to boycott Israeli institutions, the Middle East Studies Association remains a shameful exception. It’s clear that many academics are far more concerned with the fate of their discipline than they are with their subjects. Could Middle East studies be more important than the Middle East? Meanwhile, we all contend with the growth of Israel Studies.


In 1974, the journal of the Institute of Race Relations’, Race, was taken over by the British Asian intellectual A. Sivanandan. In his opening editorial he condemned the “above it all” attitude and “crass insensitivity” of the journal’s editors and contributors. The journal was “first-hand evidence of the complicity of bourgeois scholarship in the management of racism.” The work the institute produced, Sivanandan argued, was an affront to the peoples of the Third World “in their own countries and the metropolis.” “There is, however,” he wrote:    

a growing realization among the subject populations, especially of the ’underdeveloped’ countries, that to submit to theories of social reality which have no bearing on their lives, or which bind them to the existing order of things, is to relinquish their authority over their own experience and to undermine their will to action. Hence the questions they pose to those who investigate them are quite simply: What good is your knowledge to us? Do you in your analyses of our social realities tell us what we can do to transform them? Does your analysis contain some indications of strategies for change? Does your apprehension of our reality speak to our experience? Do you convey it in a language that we can understand? If you do none of these things, should we not only reject your ‘knowledge’ but, in the interests of our own liberation, consider you a friend to our enemies and a danger to our people?

The contents of the first issue under Sivanandan illustrates the scope and tenor of the journal. Beginning with a study of “Repression, Radicalism and Change in the West Indies” by the Howard University sociologist Dennis Forsythe, the rest of the issue includes studies of the relationship between imperialism and archaeology, the origins of Afrikaners and their language, trade unions in the GDR, the Dhofar revolution in Oman, and a critique of Ira Katznelson’s Black Men, White Cities. In the years that followed and until today, Race & Class—as the journal was soon rechristened—became the platform for powerful writing and analysis by Ali Mazrui, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Basil Davidson, Joy James, Hamza Alavi, Paul Gilroy, John Berger, Cedric Robinson, Walter Rodney, Barbara Harlow, Manning Marable, Eqbal Ahmad, Brenda Gayle Plummer, Rosemary Sayigh, and many others. History and theory, anthropology and literature, and the so-called metropole and periphery, all in one journal, four times a year.


In 1997, on the anniversary of a massacre in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin when more than a 100 were killed in cold blood, Edward Said wrote:

Yet the question remains: why has Deir Yassin mostly been forgotten, and why has 1948 been removed from the peace agenda by Palestinian leaders and intellectuals? After all we are dealing with Israeli Jews who constantly, and justly, remind the world of the evils of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and of the reparations thereby made necessary. In his book Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, the Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot discusses how in Western accounts of the Haitian revolution of 1798 the Westerners always seem finally destined to win, the Haitians to lose, in addition, most accounts of that period simply ignore what happened in Haiti. He refers to "the silencing of the Haitian revolution," which he says happens because the narrative of Western global domination makes the defeat of native people seem inevitable, unless there is an attempt by native peoples to retell the history of Western domination and thus provoke "a fundamental rewriting of world history."

As Arabs and Palestinians we are very far from that stage. Our history is written by outsiders, and we have conceded the battle in advance. Our leaders negotiate as if from a tabula rasa. The agenda is America's and Israel's. And we continue to concede, and concede more and concede again, not only in the present, but also in the past and in the future. Collective memory is a people's heritage, but also its energy: it does not merely sit there inertly, but it must be activated as part of a people's identity and sense of its own prerogative. To recall Deir Yassin is not just to dwell on past disasters, but to understand who we are and where we are going. Without it we are simply lost, as indeed it seems we really are.  


As the perils of over-research have illustrated, Palestinians don’t need your books. Palestine, already a laboratory for Israeli weaponry, is not a lab for your latest theories. Palestine is a place and Palestinians are a people. Certainly, Palestinians have consciously made their liberation a global affair. Solidarity is beautiful and internationalism necessary, but a career made off Palestine is neither.