Last Lecture

The last class is always a challenge. What can I say that best ties together the big issues of the course? Can I say something new, provide novel insights or insightful interpretations for the things we’ve been doing, not be redundant, offer encouragement if not wisdom?  I usually spend a lot of time thinking about what to say during my last chance with the students. And, since we had (rather unconventional) guest speakers all last week, I really wanted to try to work with the students to integrate the guests’ presentations into the rest of the course.

On Friday, five days before my last class, rumors began to circulate that President Obama–and Jimmy Fallon–would be coming to campus. Rumors were confirmed by a Sunday email sent to all faculty asking us not to penalize students absent to see the President of the United States.

The students entered to an interview with the creators of the Egyptian “revolution song” I had shown some weeks earlier. The song is so upbeat, it is terrific to begin on even a rainy day. (President Obama arrived on one of those amazingly beautiful days when the sky really is Carolina blue.)

I began with a quote from an oped I had read just that morning. I wanted to bring home to the students that what we had been doing all semester was not some kind of avoidance of “real education,” the dates, names and places they had learned as “history” before coming to UNC. For both conservatives like David Brooks and for progressives, education is about critical thinking, complex reasoning, and learning to communicate effectively in writing. That was what we had been engaged in all semester. The technologies, the questions, the efforts to get students to think about causes and outcomes, they were all part of that project.

I revisited the mind map, reminding them of the four big questions we had been trying to answer and the ways that events and ideas could be connected to larger questions. Then it was back to those historiographical issues: how do historians do what we do? What is the difference between argument and opinion? How do we analyze evidence?

I really wanted to find out from them how they thought the poetry and music we heard last week could be used as sources for understanding history.  They had read James Gelvin’s Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know. But in class, we had focused on performance and culture: on Tuesday, Will McInerny introduced them to Poetic Portraits of a Revolution and on Thursday, Omar Offendum talked about music and Syria and uprisings and growing up Arab in America.

What role should historians give this kind of information when trying to understand the past? The students were remarkably articulate. One student explained that we can learn about emotions, about fears and hopes, from poetry and music in ways that political economy cannot match. Another emphasized the role of poetry, story-telling, and narration in the history of the Middle East over centuries. And one provided a metaphor. Learning about politics and economy are like studying the banks of a river, he said. They show the shape and direction of history. But to really understand the river, you need to wade in, to feel the temperature of the water and get wet. Poetry and music allow us to do that.

Finally, I turned to the role of the lecturer–me.  Because critical thinking and historical scholarship require the analysis of evidence, I pointed out, lectures are inherently problematic.  I had encouraged them to view me as a source, and I pointed to their digs to remind them of their responsibility. In the course syllabus, I had encouraged students to do brief research in primary sources:  Something you read, I say, or the class analyzes will strike you as inaccurate, outrageous, or otherwise unacceptable. You get credit this semester for proving it wrong (or proving it accurate). You can get up to 5 points for writing a “dig” based on primary sources that will let you bring new information to the debate and give you firsthand experience with how historians write history.  I summarized the 15 digs I had received in which their classmates had taken the initiative to critically engage with course material.

I ended with that David Brooks quote, thanking the TA’s for their remarkable efforts to help the students develop those critical thinking, complex reasoning, and especially, coherent writing skills.  And now they are gone to exams and to summer, some to graduation and new lives.  I hope some of them stop by next year.

Zionism, Identities and Nations

I was not happy to realize that I had only allowed one week for the interwar period, and it had to include Zionism and Palestine.  This isn’t the first time that my syllabus seemed to have been created by a phantom whose plans were different than mine.

I decided to turn the dilemma into an opportunity: I would connect the issues attending the new postwar borders and identities with the development of political Zionism, to embed the Palestine mandate into the regional—and global—history of which it is part.

I welcomed them with a wonderful collection of images of Palestine set to music, then proceeded to questions from last week.  After reviewing the World War I settlement and the mandates, I reminded them of identity issues around the Mosul Question, which they had discussed in sections last week.  I wanted to give them another example of the ambiguity of national identities: the Sanjak Question.  I told them the story of Yusuf:

Yusuf, a fisherman in the coastal city of Alexandretta, was intercepted by Nedim Ward and two other Arab nationalists sitting at Ali’s café on the morning of May 4, 1938. They demanded to know why Yusuf, an Arabic-speaking Alawite, was wearing a hat with a brim, symbol of Kemal Ataturk’s revolutionary Turkish nationalism.  A poor man, Yusuf responded that he had no other head covering to wear.  Nedim Ward handed Yusuf twenty francs, telling him to go buy himself a fez.  In response, Yusuf ripped off his own brimmed hat, threw it on the ground, and immediately purchased a fez from a nearby shop.  As he was leaving the store, he encountered two Turkish nationalists, who crushed his new fez and demanded, “Come, show us who destroyed the hat.” When the Turkish nationalists encountered Nedim Ward and his friends, the confrontation described in Alexandretta’s police records began.

My research suggests that national identities in the Middle East did not emerge before World War I, except among small groups.  For many, like Yusuf, a hat was simply a hat and not an identity–they already had many collective identities and nationalism had no resonance.  That meant presenting Sharif Husayn not as an Arab nationalist (as Antonius had in his classic The Arab Awakening), but instead as a would-be King seeking his kingdom from the British.  Rethinking the emergence of nationalism requires providing a different narrative of the interwar period that focuses on anti-colonialism instead of identity politics.

The new frame helps place Zionism in a broader context.  The Zionist movement was a European-style nationalist movement, dissimilar from the anti-colonial sentiments that drove the 1920 opposition to British and French occupations in Iraq, Palestine, and Syria.

To talk about Zionism, I actually began with the “Jewish Problem,” centuries of attacks on Europe’s Jews based, first, on religion and then on race.  After providing some details, I asked the students to think about the treatment of Ottoman minorities under the Tanzimat, and the problems of how to deal with internal “others.”  What were the options for resolving the “Jewish Problem,” I asked?  I should have anticipated their reticence.  They did, after a bit of persistence, come up with the various alternatives: conversion (more difficult after racialization), expulsion, ghettoization, assimilation, or state-creation (like Liberia).

Then we moved to France in 1870, the aftermath of French defeat at the hands of the Prussians.  The parallel with the Ottomans was striking: how to deal with defeat?

  • Return to the faith (construct Sacré Coeur basilica)?
  • Or modernize (Eiffel Tower), especially the army?

It was the latter, the creation of a military meritocracy, that led to the rise of Captain Dreyfus, a Jew, to the rank of Captain.  The students, I hope, understood the parallel—the range of Ottoman responses to defeat were remarkably similar.

Covering the humiliation of Captain Dreyfus for treason based on little evidence (and subsequently overturned), assimilated Austrian Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl decided that, if the French couldn’t provide equality to Jews, no one could.  They needed a state of their own, because, he argued, Jews were a nation.  He rejected the other options the students (and Herzl’s contemporaries) had proposed, claiming none would solve the “Jewish Question.” This new kind of Zionism was based on nationalism, the idea that the Jews were a separate nation that could never fit in anywhere else.   The Zionists decided that they needed to establish their state in Palestine.

How could they decide to set up somewhere that others already lived?  I showed them the map of the world c. 1914, in which Europeans obviously had no hesitation about controlling lands on other continents.  The Palestine to which the Zionists arrived was the southern part of the Ottoman province of Syria, in the midst of Tanzimat reforms, self-strengthening movements, and debates over how to move into the future.

Zionists insisted that the lack of national identity in the region meant no one else had rights to the land; only nations had claims to territory–consistent with European notions–and the Palestinians were not yet claiming a specifically national identity.  The existence of farms and schools and churches and mosques and cemeteries were not relevant to those whose political and ideological world was circumscribed by notions of nation.