It would be useless to turn one’s back on the past in order simply to concentrate on the future. It is a dangerous illusion to believe that such a thing is even possible. The opposition of future to past or past to future is absurd. The future brings us nothing, gives us nothing; it is we who in order to build it have to give it everything, our very life. But to be able to give, one has to possess; and we possess no other life, no other living sap, than the treasures stored up from the past and digested, assimilated, and created afresh by us. Of all the human soul’s needs, none is more vital than this one of the past…
The past once destroyed never returns. The destruction of the past is perhaps the greatest of all crimes. Today the preservation of what little of it remains ought to become almost an obsession. We must put an end to the terrible uprootedness which European colonial methods always produce, even under their least cruel aspects. We must abstain, once victory  is ours, from punishing the conquered enemy by uprooting him still further; seeing that it is neither possible nor desirable to exterminate him, to aggravate his lunacy would be to show oneself more of a lunatic than he. We must also keep, above all, well to the fore any political, legal, or technical innovations likely to have social repercussions, some arrangement whereby human beings may once more be able to recover their roots.
 That is, over the Axis: Weil wrote the book this excerpted from in 1943.
Simone Weil, The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Toward Mankind, translated by Arthur Wills (New York: Octagon Books, 1979), 51-52.
In thinking and talking about the work of history as a discipline, I have long enjoyed using the metaphor of ‘inhabiting’ a given past, but it has often occurred to me that I ought to build upon and expand from that metaphor, to develop an argument or an explanation—I am not sure what word works here—for why history matters, how one encounters the past, and what that does in one’s life, work, being. Here are a few thoughts towards that end, essentially my own thinking out loud, for which I ask your indulgence and, perhaps, participation should you feel inclined.
In the work of historical encounter, especially, I think, in the work of encounter with individual and collective lives in the past, one expands one’s own self, you become richer and deeper and are able to see the contingency of the present and the multitude of possibilities inhering in the past and in the flow of human history. There is a sort of loneliness and poverty that afflicts someone whose knowledge begins and ends with his contemporary world, in which the only emotions imaginable, the only configurations of self conceivable, the only moral universe explicable, the only languages comprehensible, are those of one’s own narrowly circumscribed present. What is more, one does not even fully grasp one’s own present: for all of those things—emotions, sense of self, morality, and so on—are expressed in and through us because of the work and being of past worlds. And whatever genealogies extend backwards from our particular presents at some point intersect with or overlap or contrast with other genealogies, other worlds of the past, spread out across this earth. We are now living in a historical moment in which our tools and our manner of life, at least in the post-industrialized nations, allows us an unprecedented ability to delve into the past and to encounter great sweeps and depths of the human experience. At the same time, we are perhaps more than ever in human history constrained by our governing and prevailing ‘inner technics,’ by our ideologies, by our habits of thought from looking beyond the narrow boundaries of the present or of what is familiar and safe.
Yet people long for these sorts of encounters with the past, they long for both the stability of connecting with long traditions and the dynamism and vitality that comes from stepping into streams of time and practice longer and larger than ourselves. Not unlike previous periods in modernity, false encounters with the past, and manipulative iterations of nostalgia and propagandized memory so often end up being the means whereby people try to ground themselves in history or seek encounters with other, past worlds. Such means can range from mostly benign indulgence in nostalgic media or advertising campaigns to recruitment into resurgent authoritarian leftist or rightist movements which promise the recovery of some lost golden age, whether it is one of the power of workers or the unity of the nation. Unsurprisingly the time horizons on such nostalgic endeavors is rarely very deep, the twentieth and nineteenth centuries providing the usual frames of reference, even if colored, on the right, with vague appeals to ‘tradition’ and to deeper pasts.
History by itself is not sufficient to give people a sense of meaning or to ground them in connection with others and with deep pasts and traditions. In some ways the discipline of history runs counter to any political project that would seek to use the past for justification, in fact, for the discipline of history rightly done reveals a dynamic and contingent past, looks at the inner logics and developments of traditions and ways of life. Rather, history offers a space for encountering the past in its complexity and wonder (and, to be sure, terror and darkness), of enriching one’s self through stepping into other worlds and out of one’s own, expanding the bounds of what is imaginable. History erodes the feeling of loneliness and of a crippling ‘autonomy’ by revealing the interconnections and interdependencies that all humans, ourselves included, partake of. We inhabit, for a moment and of course partially (but this is always true for us) the lives of others, encounter their fears and dreams and catch glimpses of how the world looked through their eyes. What we may then do with the knowledge—a knowledge that is, or at least should be, multifaceted and not easily described—so gained is not dictated by the knowledge itself. There is no political program determined by deep encounters with human pasts. Rather, any political program or cultural ambit or whatever else that we may embark on in the here and now ought to be informed by, situated within encounters with and awareness of many human pasts, with persons in the past, an experience and knowledge which may then help lead towards wiser, more human, more emphatic and adroit, actions and policies and works of life.
i. I am standing, a few miles north of the Holy City, on a rise of ground that slopes off to one side towards the Jordan River, on the other towards the Great Sea. Like every rise of ground in this angry and holy land, it is covered over by a vast sea of the past and present commingled and churning. When the Crusaders crested this hill they could see the walls of their goal, or so the story goes, though today we can see only the ever expanding sprawl of modern Jerusalem, rising and falling over hills where a few decades ago there were only olive trees and flocks of sheep and goats and little villages. But we are not looking out over the rolling hills that spill out, east and west, from along the invisible Green Line that divides—in theory at least, one that that grows less relevant day by day—Israeli and Palestinian territory. We are watching, my friend and I, in transfixed anger, a momentary act in the interminable drama that plays out on this hill and in so many other places in this land, day after day after day, the long ugly drama on endless repeat. As the sun sets over the great corrupting sea to the west, I find myself right in the thick of that drama, feeling emotions to which I am unused and which terrify me even as they shoot through my body and heat my blood. I clench my fists, fight back hot tears, fight back the urge to pick up a stone and crack someone in the head. Instead I curse under my breath, tell M. that I am going back to the car, and hurry down the hill to the rental, parked precariously on an incline. I climb inside, grab the wheel, and weep angry tears. M. follows close behind and we drive off in bitter silence, processing what we’ve seen and felt and how very ordinary it is for this land.
ii. I was staying for several days in an Airb&b rental on El-Wad street, one of the main arteries of Jerusalem’s Old City, in an apartment being rented out by a French archeology student whom I never met. M. was staying there as well, while taking Arabic lessons. We had spent this particular day taking a break from the Old City and its tensions, the strain of soldiers on every corner with heavy weaponry slung in front, the constant watch of cameras on every other rooftop, perched above the street, the heaviness that percolates through the air, the loud silent confrontation of the settlers’ bristling rooftops. I could not then and cannot now imagine what it must be like to live here as a resident, to have this be your reality every day and night. After a week it was too much for me. Perhaps you adjust. Perhaps you bottle it up until it snaps. During my stay I wondered more than once what I would do were I in the place of a Palestinian Jerusalemite, or an Israeli settler. I don’t know, but I can speculate, and it’s not very pretty.
After picking up our rental car, at an agency down the street from the King David Hotel of lore—every block, every stone here has some world-historical significance, it gets old really, and I’m a historian—we cross through the Separation Barrier into the West Bank, then through another checkpoint, past a settlement, eventually winding down to Ein Prat National Park, our main destination for the day. Like almost everywhere else here it goes by at least two names—in Arabic it’s Ayn Farar, close, but not quite the same, as the Hebrew. Unlike most places around this city, though, it is an island of calm and coexistence. Apart from a couple of Japanese tourists who arrive as we are leaving, we are the only foreigners. Israelis and Palestinians—more of the latter than the former, at least today, it seems—are enjoying the cool waters of the springs and creek cutting through the desert, or are out hiking along the steep wadi, or enjoying a picnic in the eucalyptus groves planted during the British Mandate (growing alongside the ruins of a Byzantine church, in the shadow of a still functioning monastery inhabited by monks of Eastern European extraction…). There are no guns or uniforms or political slogans in sight. The settlements that cling to the ridgetops in this part of the West Bank are invisible, having receded behind the crags lining the wadi. We climb into caves used by late antique hermits, trail gazelles up a hill to a village site dating back, so they say, to the late Neolithic, sink into the marvelous papyrus reed jungles that hug the course of the stream. The conflict is far away, and here, at least, we feel as if there are possibilities open beyond merely tracing new permutations in the never-ending struggle.
iii. We spend the rest of the day exploring, down to Jericho, motoring into town past the languid Palestinian Authority checkpoint, get a bite to eat, and try to find an Umayyad ruin. We end up by the Jordan instead, at a site claimed to be where St. John baptized Jesus, but which today is dominated by a looming Israeli military instillation and mine-seeded zone, a parking lot full of tourist buses, and gaudy new churches across the holy river on the Jordanian side. It’s a strange and vaguely disturbing scene, and I remark that I feel like I’ve scene it all in a dream. Continue reading “The Incident at Nabi Samwil”→
While the world probably doesn’t need any more commentary on the recent American election, I’d like to offer some anyway, though in a way that looks at happenings beyond the US to the rest of the world, where we see related patterns unfolding according to local particularities and conditions. While the US is its own case, it is also part of an interconnected world, the ties of global capitalism, human movement, globalized classes, elites, and political structures, and other things working to move American realities in directions broadly congruent with other, often quite different, parts of the world. My thoughts here—which are reflective of the halting directions my political thought have been taking as of late, but should not be interpreted as final or fully coherent—are springing off an article by Jonathan Haidt from back in the summer, but which is rather prescient and worth reading in its own right. What follows here, then, are three interlinking thoughts precipitated by, but in some cases sharply diverging from, Haidt’s article.
One, while right now the dominant options are either liberal ‘cosmopolitan’ globalism or some form of nationalism, within the framework of nation-states (whether more autonomous or more directed from supra-national entities being at question) and of some form of globalized (if not globalist) capitalism, those are not in fact the only options. To give but one example, Continue reading “Nationalisms, Globalisms, and Their Alternatives”→
Political ideologies are deeply toxic, psychologically destructive things. Their function is fairly simple: they allow people to navigate the contours of states and industrial economies, and they offer the surest routes into the ‘core’ of such entities. They map the terrain. But in so doing, they also preclude all other terrain. Modern ideologies, even when they incorporate ‘extraneous’ elements, reduce all other forms of identity and meaning and value into a homogenized, internally bound whole. When these ideologies encounter insurmountable incongruity, or outright collapse, the damage to individual psyches and emotional well being is enormous, as all the erasures of identity and personality come to light in the gaping wound left by epistemic collapse. The subject is left confused and troubled, anxious to rediscover the surety that was there before.
In the American context, liberalism—here understood in the American vernacular rendering, though the broader sense should be kept in mind—is the primary, or perhaps, strongest vehicle of this totalizing effect, of this subsumption of all else into one overriding, all-structuring political and ideological identity and generator of meaning and social value. Conservatism by its very nature lacks systematization, and requires the existence of other values, other traditions, other forms of life, to give it meaning—even if all those other things are themselves deeply deformed and distorted by the effects of modernity (and in the American case this is especially true). Over time, it is true, many of the identities and traditions and forms of life which flow into conservatism have themselves become artefacts of ideology, integrated into the logics of the state and its political, value, and linguistic systems, albeit in often erratic and unpredictable ways (the current political disruption being one such effect). But the multiplicity of identity and meaning among conservatives remains, if only in tatters—not necessarily healthier or less damaging psychologically, but perhaps with slightly more openings out. Perhaps.
Indulge me, dear reader, some of my out-loud thinking, taken from my common-place book, where I jot down, in a sort of haze of free-form association and reckless philosophizing, unbound by genre or affiliation, and often indirectly occasioned by the dreary roll of the day’s headlines, my scattered ideas and attempts to corral my thoughts and emotions into something coherent-ish, and, perhaps, of interest to others…
1. One knows not to indulge in O tempora tropes, knowing that one’s own age is ultimately not really all that different from any other. At every age there are madnesses at the center, and the madnesses of the periphery, the strange and terrible machinations of the human heart spilling out of the prevailing discourses and modes of behavior, at once shocking, at once emerging from what is normative and central.
2. It is best not to begrudge people their fantasies, their naivety, their willful, unreasonable optimism. If people were in the habit of dealing with reality, and not their delusions, it would be utterly crippling for most. Perhaps it is better to imagine a world in which things work out they way you imagine they will—by the time the time comes and they don’t turn out that way, the infinite flexibility of human thought and perception will not be perturbed, but will merely adapt its future-looking vision, untroubled by prophets proved wrong, cheery—or apocalyptic, cheery in their own way to our odd little minds—prognostication unfulfilled, and forgotten, new ones replacing. Human memory is akin to the cellular structure of our bodies: seemingly stable and self-reproducing, but constantly in flux, dying and being reborn to meet the passage of time, the perils and presses of biology, heading towards a biological end but a spiritual and historical afterlife and extension elsewhere and in others, transformed. Memory—particularly our memory of the future—is largely unstable and flexible, at once incongruent with the world as it is and yet malleable to what the world turns out to be, or what we come to remember the world having been. The material traces, the psychic echoes…
3. I suppose it makes me a conservative in the technical, and not the ideological sense, in that I no longer suppose—and in the back of my mind, I have never supposed—that history moves on some progressive, teleological line, without terrible (or wonderful—who knows) and fundamentally unforeseen feedback loops built into that movement, which can, in time or suddenly or both, send history into new and unexpected directions, directions that belie any talk of ‘progress’ or unidirectional (or bidirectional) movement. History, time, is a welter, and there is no telling how things will move, what will become.
Proceeding from this conviction—or, I would say, observation—is the congruent conviction that for many ‘problems’ there is in fact no ‘solution.’ If time, human societies, ecology, history, so on, are infinitely complex, malleable, their ontology at once visible and invisible to us, driven by logics and processes known only to God, as it were, then why should we expect our lives capable of division into neat moral binaries, or liable to neat solutions and resolutions? That is not to deny the possibility of moral certainty, in propositional terms, or even in a deep sense of the self before the world and God: but when we attempt to arrive at a ‘social’ morality, at a morality that is dispersed, woven into our human and natural ecologies in ways that preclude personal reckoning and analysis: then we enter territory for which ‘ambiguity’ is too mild a term.
Value judgments need not collapse utterly, but we are more in the realm of tragedy and comedy wherein the sheerness of the world, its apart-from-us-ness, is the primary operative reality. In the face of everything, then, what is best…? Prayer, sorrow, the momentary discoveries of good and gladness, small comforts perhaps, unless joined to a conviction, in the movement of prayer, liturgy, and the pin-points of sanctity, human and natural, that beyond our immediate, history-bound ken, there is God, there is an eternal stability in eternal movement, as unpredictable as that of this world, but in a movement of fundamental goodness and wholeness, moving Itself and us and all towards a fulfillment beyond, behind, our temporal knowledge, into an unending, ever expanding Completion.
Bribery, looting, civil unrest; public meetings and unresponsive government officials; tangled lines of communication, competing stories: these things are the stuff of many a contemporary political struggle, but they are hardly unique to the modern world, or any period, probably. As the story below reveals, these ‘key words’ could be quite apt in describing provincial Ottoman power struggles and governance. This particular story, of a ‘unjust’ Ottoman governor of Syria and the repercussions of his apparent ‘crossing the line’ in and around Damascus, comes from the ‘notebook’ of Ismā’il al-Maḥāsinī, briefly described in the post preceding this one. As a member of the ‘ulama, the body of learned, elite men who constituted one of the key political and economic power groupings of the Damascene body politic, Ismā’il was not a disinterested observer, unsurprisingly. In this story the ‘ulama are seen uniting around the qadi, the Ottoman-appointed judge (and one of the most respected and powerful, though by no means unchallengeable, public figures in any Ottoman city); alongside the ‘resident’ military class (here probably one of the two groupings of janissaries stationed in Damascus) they support the qadi in his attempt to bring the rapacious governor and his lieutenant to bay.
Yet there are other political groupings as well- significantly, the heads of the craft guilds, presumably supported by the larger body of craftsmen, rally against the governor, going so far as to participate in (and perhaps initiate) a general strike across Damascus, shutting down their shops and joining in the chorus of discontent with the governor. In other words, it was not just the ‘ayān, the so-called ‘urban notables,’ who participated in politics. Others could have a voice (indeed, the irregular soldiery should also be seen as political participants).
Things proceed from the strike and ‘public meeting,’ growing more complicated as the governor’s faction- which in this story seems to consist solely of a few lackeys and a mob of irregular soldiery- tries to ‘control the narrative’ at the seat of imperial power in Edirne and Constantinople, against efforts by the qadi and others to do the same. In Ismā’il’s somewhat breathless and sometimes hard to follow account things eventually work out: justice is eventually had through the intervention of the imperial center, or so it would seem from the somewhat abbreviated conclusions (this is, after all, someone’s personal diary, albeit probably with a semi-public intention). In read it, we should keep in mind that it represents one particular perspective- the governor would no doubt have had a different view of things, as would his followers, such as they may have been (and he may indeed have been isolated- a crucial factor in his downfall).
In my translation I have tried to retain as much of the tone of the original as possible. I ran up against some difficulties, noted in brackets, due to my limited knowledge of colloquial Syrian in the period; there are also what appear to be either errors in the original text or in the editing of the printed text. Words of Turkish origin I have presented in their Turkish rendering for clarity.
Praise be to God. When Ḥusayn Pasha Yek Shasham was Pasha [governor] of Syria [al-Shām—here also simply Damascus] in the middle of the year 1085 , he had a katkhudā [steward] named Ḥasan Agha who had previously been kutkhudā for Ibn ‘Abd al-Raḥīm Efendi, previously Shaykh al-Islām. Ḥusayn was ordered to accompany the pilgrimage, [but before leaving] and he carried out the utmost oppression upon the subjects (ra’īya) and the villages, and he took from the heads of the craft-guilds (arbāb al-ḥiraf) many things which would have been worth a great deal had they been sold on the market, and he left Syria and did not pay anyone anything. He left in his place the aforementioned Ḥasan Agha. He undertook oppression, transgressions, the reception of bribes and refused to listen to the command of the Qāḍī Shahlā ‘Abd al-Bāqī Efendi. And he had in his service a man whom the pasha used to send as a mutasalim [a deputy of the governor, and often a tax-collector], named Aḥmad Agha. The aforementioned Ḥasan sent him to around five or six households [? jihāz] in the eyalet [province] of al-Shām, and he killed unjustly, plundered, and the community was ashamed, he not fearing God at all. When the pasha returned, this Ḥasan kept on with what he had been doing, and the pasha likewise, as he no longer listened to the qadi’s commands and prohibitions. And things become dire for the Muslims to the extent that the pasha had saricas and sekbans [locally-raised irregular cavalry and infantry] who would interfere with the property of the people of al-Shām and the villages, and with their very lives, obliterating public safety. Then they went so far as to begin meddling with the sacrosanct households of the Muslims—and the people could not tolerate that. So, on Friday, Rabī’ al-Ākhir 4, 1086 [June 28, 1675], the people of the city gathered together, shut down their shops, and came to the qadi in order to complain about their condition. The ‘ulama and the soldiers (al-‘askar) also gathered together in the place of the court, and the qadi sent a contingent drawn from the ‘ulama and the soldiers to the pasha, who reported on behalf of the people the injustice against the people and the injustice of Ḥasan and [called for] his dismissal. But nothing came of their visit to quench the burning thirst of the Muslims [i.e. no remedy to the oppression was forthcoming].
So they sought from the qadi, and the ‘ulama and soldiers who were present, a petition to the exalted Sultan with all the relevant information contained therein. So the qadi, with the ‘ulama and soldiers, wrote the petition and handed it over to Muḥammad Agha ibn ‘Abdī Agha, previously a regimental commander, for him to take it to the Threshold of the sublime Sultan— God grant him victory! So he took the two of them [sic—two separate petitions?] and went out from al-Shām covertly, at night, on the night of Monday, Rabī’ II 7, 1086 [July 1, 1675]—may God make the Muslims heard through him so as to gladden them, and repel from us and from them what afflicts us and them, amen.
Then the pasha sent the aforementioned Katkhudā Ḥasan to the Sultan also in order to defend himself—may God rather defend those who believe! Ḥasan Agha went via postal-horse and overtook Muḥammad Agha in reaching the place of the exalted Sultanic abode, Edirne, by many days. And by embellishing his speech he gave off impressions in order to derive benefit. He sent out a report the pasha. He went out with it on al-Jumādī I 7. He came to Istanbul and it just so happened through the divine decree that He beheld the matter of the judgment of al-Shām. And he came to Mīrzā Muḥammad Efendi, and he took the report and went with it to al-Shām, reaching the city at noon on Saturday, Jumādī II 9. And Mīrzā Muḥammad Efendi sent a letter to Aḥmad Efendi Bakrīzāde delegating him for duty, so he sat for judgment in a courtyard in the place of the court, and on Sunday in the Nūriyye. On this day the pasha summoned the aforementioned qadi ‘Abd al-Baqi and all of the ‘ulama to the Ṣālihiya, [then] to the palace of Ḥusayn Efendi ibn Qarnaq, and he showered the qadi and the rest with great hospitality and kindness. After the hospitable reception was over, he sent the qadi a horse as a gift.
As for Muḥammad Agha, report came from him to al-Shām that that he entered Edirne on Jumādiī I 12, and the cause of his delayed coming was that he went to Edirne from al-Shām upon a different route from Ḥasan Agha, and that he was riding his own mount, not upon a postal-horse.
And ‘Abd al-Bāqī travelled from al-Shām on Monday, Rajab 2, 1086. And on the night of that Tuesday an agha, named Ḥasan Agha, a qapuju [warden-officer] of the Sublime Porte, entered al-Shām, in order to adjudicate regarding the truth of what the qadi and the people of al-Shām reported, and the truth of the words of Ḥasan Agha and his pasha. Then our lord Mīrzā Muḥammad Efendi entered al-Shām on Monday, Rajab 16 of the aforementioned year [October 6, 1675]. On the second day [after his arrival] the notables (‘ayān) of the land from among the ‘ulama and soldiers gathered together in the place of the court, and the Qapuju Ḥasan Agha came and read the sultanic order which he had brought, and its gist was that the petition of the Qadi of al-Shām and of the people present with him had risen to the Sublime Porte, and his complaint had arrived, they mentioning that Ḥusayn Agha took many things from them. ‘So We sent Ḥasan Agha so that for everyone from whom something had been unjustly taken he might restore what had been taken from him, after establishing the matter in accordance with the Shari’a, in the presence of the qadi.’ He specified that the qadi would listen to the claim, and specified that the commanding and the realization of the supplication be the affair of the Sultan—God grant him victory! And the people came out, as everyone who had a complaint came to the place of the exalted Shari’a.
Then Ḥusayn Agha assigned Kutkhudā Ḥasan Agha to listen to the complaints of the supplicants from among the assembly. And they laid charge [upon him and the pasha] with some eight of the specific points written out in the petition of the qadi and the people. So Ḥasan Agha [the qapuju] acknowledged that and the qadi wrote his report and put in six items of authorized evidence, and the veracity of the petition of ‘Abd al-Bāqī and the people of the land present was made manifest. The qapuju sent the authorized evidence along with the written report of the qadi to the Sublime Porte on Ramaḍān 2, 1086; he himself left al-Shām on Ramaḍān 27. Then on the second of Shuwwal [December 12, 1675] Ḥusayn Agha turned away from al-Shām, in the company of our lord Vezier Ibrahīm Pasha, who had previously governed al-Shām distant from Ikrīd [this last line’s meaning is unclear to me].