Fantasy in Middle Eastern nation-making

Modern political rights are tied to citizenship and yet national mythologies die hard.
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Anyone in today’s Western Europe who claimed exclusive or special rights to a territory, based on his forefathers’ presence there, would be met with disbelief or even hostility. Such arguments are common enough in China, Hungary or the Middle East, and not a few Bolivians and Peruvians of indigenous stock regard the rights and claims of their white countrymen as less legitimate than their own. But in most societies where civil and political rights are tied to citizenship, such reasoning is now beyond the pale. However, this is the way humans have backed and justified their claims to land and legitimacy from time immemorial, from the Bible to the Versailles peace talks after the First World War. It is universal.

I was here first! And if I wasn’t, then my ancestors were. Or even if they weren’t, my ancestors were glorious and deserving people – unlike yours. If you doubt it I will produce a family tree to prove it! One very ambitious such family tree appears in an early European classic. In his epic about the Trojan prince Aeneas, Virgil inserts some stunning genealogical propaganda in favour of the new Emperor Augustus, who he presents as a descendant of Aeneas, a son of Aphrodite. Aeneas, the poet explains, was therefore a demi-god and Rome’s young dictator consequently of divine stock.

The Christian founders were obsessed, in a similar manner, with the pedigree of Jesus, and they traced his line all the way back to King David, Israel’s warrior king. Wasn’t it enough to be the son of God? Jesus preached peace and equality – did he need a bloodline to a rogue and sinner like David? This outlook is all over the Middle East. The legitimacy of Ethiopian kings rested on their ancestral connection to the queen of Sheba and her lover, the Israelite king Solomon (a union taking place around 800 BC, according to legend.) We have at least two kings today who are officially the descendants of the prophet Muhammad; Abdullah II of Jordan and Mohammed VI of Morocco. To be related to the prophet, to be a sharif, has long been an asset in the Muslim world. As soon as anyone rose socially or made money, he would claim blood ties to the prophet, as predictably as a newly rich European might angle for a title. In each of the Muslim Empires there was a special department of state, the Naqib al-Ashraf, tasked with examining the claims of sharif pretenders. Just as in the case of Jesus there is much irony in how soon egalitarian Islam got mixed up with Bedouin obsessions with lineage. And, of course, the ever-lasting Shia-Sunni schism began as a blood argument about the right to succeed Muhammad.

During Sweden’s short century as a European superpower, scientists at Uppsala University ‘proved’ that the Swedes, far from being barbarians on the fringe, were the descendants of the biblical Noah, and also of the famous Goths who had conquered Rome and Spain a thousand years before. This Gothicism kept reappearing in Swedish thought and poetry well into the 19th century. It didn’t begin in Sweden, however, but in the kingdom of Castile, when fourteenth-century Christians began to imagine themselves as the descendants of Goths. The most zealous Spanish Gothicist was the rabbi Shlomo ha-Levi, who later became a famous bishop. The Visigoths who conquered Iberia in the early fifth century were very few, far too few to provide enough ancestors to modern Spaniards. But the idea remained potent; the leading nationalist Spanish historian of the 20th century, Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, saw modern Spaniards as Romanized Goths who had hibernated through the many Muslim centuries.

When I first began to find my way around the Palestinian countryside in the early 1970s, I noticed that the villages had very similar myths of origin: The different clans of the village all hailed from three (or four) brothers who had fled from Arabia after a blood feud and settled here. Even the Christian village of Ramallah had a story like that. Those stories couldn’t all be true. There was very little migration from empty Arabia to crowded Palestine during the Muslim conquests in the 7th century, and probably even less after that. The Arabs brought a new language and a new religion, but they did not settle to any significant extent. But any Arab would be favoured by the new – Arab – authorities, and so it became an asset to be non-native. The real Arabs, meaning the Bedouin, were not impressed. Long into the 20th century they would refuse to call farmers or city dwellers ‘Arabs’. They’d call them Harari, ‘settled people’.

Zionism would create two new peoples, the Israelis and the Palestinians, who competed for the Land, and for the history leading up to the conflict. The Israelis turned archaeology into a nation-building tool in the early 1950s. Spectacular biblical sites were uncovered and presented to the public and to the world as title deeds to the country.

The Palestinians were baffled by this. Suddenly their proud Arabian myths of origin had become an embarrassment, an admission that they were not there first and not even genuine natives with roots in prehistory.

It wasn’t only the Israelis who proclaimed themselves an ancient people returning to history. All across the Middle East persons who’d been eager to call themselves ‘Arabs’ were suddenly busy proving that they were not Arabs. In Lebanon the Maronites launched Phoenicianism, a brand new political creed which made the Lebanese the descendants of ancient traders. This took hold. During my first stay in Lebanon, around 1980, I was confused to learn that it could be insulting to regard people as Arabs. A little earlier than Phoenicianism, a parallel movement, Pharaonism, took shape in Egypt. The first great modern Egyptian writer, Taha Hussein, wrote: ‘The Egyptian is Pharaonic before being Arab. Egypt will never become part of some Arab unity.’

The leading politician of the times, Sa’ad Zaghloul, was on the same page, as were later Egyptian writers Naguib Mahfuz and Tawfik al-Hakim. On the other hand the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hasan al-Banna, detested Pharaonism and regarded it as a form of paganism. This identity struggle was played out in a curious way during the career of Gamal Abd al-Naser, the charismatic young officer who took power in the early fifties. He had been fascinated by Pharaonism. But then, dazzled by his own surging regional appeal, he switched to Pan-Arabism – the competing ideology which regarded all Arab-speakers as one large people.

This is not the place to enumerate all the grandiose identity-myths of those times. One outlandish example was the ‘Babylonianism’ of Saddam Hussein, with him cast in the role of Nebuchadnezzar II. At other times Saddam styled himself as a latter-day Salah al-Din, or Saladdin, the great warrior-hero of Medieval Islam. It was a gross comparison: Saladdin was a Kurd and Saddam was a mass-murderer of Kurds; Saladdin’s treatment of his enemies was the epitome of battle-field courtesy whereas Saddam tortured his enemies and raped their wives.

In 1928 the views of both Jewish and Christian believers were rocked in a spectacular way, when a farmer near the Syrian town of Latakiya stumbled on some old tablets. They were the tip of an enormous cuneiform library, from the Canaanite city-state of Ugarit.

The treasures of Ugarit were deciphered by some young Russian Jews in Paris. They were shocked to discover that much of the Hebrew Bible was already there: its sayings, idioms, ideas – even the forbidden four-letter-name of the Hebrew God. All of what was supposed to have been handed by God to Moses around the year 1250 was already long buried in the ground of Syria. A whole new view of the ancient world opened up and suggested a new identity myth for the Jews: Monotheism, argued these young intellectuals in Paris, had been forced upon the Hebrews by Persian agents during the rebuilding of the temple of Jerusalem. In the process the Hebrews lost their original, Canaanite identity. Judaism, in this view, was one huge mistake and Jewish history an irrelevant digression. Zionism, based on Jewishness, was also cast off.

These ideas became enormously popular among young intellectuals and writers in pre-state Israel. People who had been militant Jewish nationalists stopped calling themselves Jews, gave their children Canaanite names and began to regard Palestinians and Lebanese as fellow Canaanites. This ethos was vividly expressed in the sculpture Nimrod, the most scandalous Israeli work of art ever. It shows the ancient hunter-hero, known from the pre-Jewish part of the Bible. It was cut in 1938 from Nubian sandstone – a material not found in Palestine – by a very young ‘Canaanite’, the German-born Yitzhak Danziger. It raised a furore. The Hebrew University, who had ordered it, didn’t want it. Why? Because it so blatantly went against the spirit of Zionism and its agricultural ideals. Danziger’s Nimrod was a hunter with a falcon on his shoulder, looking more Egyptian than Jewish. And he was uncircumcised.

After the shocking defeat of 1967, a fresh threat to Palestinian identity emerged in Jerusalem. The Israelis began to excavate the city of David, the area just south of the Old City walls. Most of the archaeologists involved were sober scientists, but there was no shortage of politicians and propagandists who presented the finds as proof of an ancient Israelite presence – and present Israeli rights.

The Palestinians had to make a move. They began to play down the Arab aspect of their identity and emphasize the Canaanite one. If Israelis from Germany and Poland could suddenly appear as Canaanites, why not they? During the first Palestinian revolt, in the 1980s, I first heard masked young Palestinian stone-throwers in Jerusalem refer to themselves as Jebusites – being the Canaanite people kicked out of Jerusalem by king David. (Palestinian and anti-Israeli polemicists eagerly picked up Arthur Koestler’s revival of the fascinating – but erroneous – Khazar theory, according to which East European Jews were the descendants of the Turkic Khazars, who adopted Judaism in the 9th century AD, and thus genetically unrelated to Palestine.)

This shift is now complete. While Israeli Canaanism is out of fashion and unknown to younger generations, the Palestinians have Canaanized their story completely. Most ordinary Palestinians still regard themselves as Arabs, but Palestinian intellectuals and spokesmen will always claim Canaanite status during debates, usually while denying the Canaan-hood of Israelis.

Not all ethnic fantasies are created by harking back to real or perceived forefathers. They can be constructed by declaring a new beginning and cutting off the past. The ideologue of the Mexican revolution, José Vasconcelos, proclaimed that the Europeans and the natives of his country had been forged into a new, ‘cosmic’ race, better than either of its components. It wasn’t scientific but it certainly helped to defuse ethnic tension and build a modern nation. In Portugal and especially in Brazil, another such myth had a serious impact. According to the so-called Lusotropicalismo, Portugal’s colonialism had not been the greedy, intolerant kind. Instead, the Portuguese, free of racial prejudice, had mixed blood with the natives and forged the first multi-cultural societies, from India to China, Africa and Brazil. This was an extremely beautified account, but it was not altogether baseless.

For instance, in the Brazilian Empire before abolition (in 1888) there were more free persons of colour than slaves, and a large proportion of leading figures and cultural lights, including the outstanding author Joaquim Machado de Assis, were of African descent. Peru, another frightfully complex ethnic society, hasn’t been blessed with any similarly useful ethnic falsehood, which could have evoked national feelings beyond class and race. On the contrary, Peruvians were long classified by law as belonging to one of three categories: ­’Civilized’, ‘Semi-civilized’ and ‘Savage’. This legal order, and the abysmal injustices sanctioned by it, have delayed national cohesion and kept social trust at a minimum. The most influential ethnic myth of Peruvian politics, the weird etnocacerismo of ex-president Ollanta Humala and his clan, is a master-race ideology preaching the superiority of Inca natives over whites.

In recent years the mapping of DNA-profiles has put a limit to far-flung identity speculation – while confirming some such fantasies. The Phoenicianism of Lebanon has passed laboratory tests. The country’s inhabitants, not only the Maronites who postulated the scheme for their own greater glory, are indeed closely related to their ancient countrymen. The Egyptian Pharaonism has been less triumphant under the microscope: today’s Egyptian genepool is more Arabic and more African than the Pharaonist Romantics liked to imagine. The issue, however, is no longer charged with meaning for contemporary intellectuals, and the only Egyptians who still cultivate their national and spiritual ties to the ancient Egyptian empires are the Copts. And, no less fascinating: the Palestinians are, by and large, Canaanites. The Jews, despite their long and winding route through centuries and countries, also are. Genetic evidence inexorably points towards an awkward conclusion: the Palestinians are the ex-Canaanite Jews who stayed on when others left, in spite of the Roman reprisals after the abortive revolts of 70 and 135 AD, and who later accepted Christianity and then Islam.

As early as the 1920s, long before the discovery of DNA, anthropologists and travellers in the mountains around Hebron found a richness of words, habits, traditions and notions which could only be explained in one way: their ancestors had been Jews. In some of those villages there are still devout Muslim families who acknowledge this past. A modern democrat must reject blood-nostalgia. Rights and self-determination are universal ideals, worthier than the kinds of fable-making described in this article. But few Israelis and few Palestinians react with indifference when informed of this curious state of affairs. If the peoples do share a common origin it does cast an eerie light on the mutual atrocities, hatred and anguish that have dominated their lives for a good century.

Fantasy in Middle Eastern nation-making by Nathan Shachar was first published in Past and Present, 2020, Axess Publishing

Nathan Shachar

Nathan Shachar is the Jerusalem correspondent of the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter. He is the author of The Lost Worlds of Rhodes: Greeks, Italians, Jews and Turks between Tradition and Modernity.

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