The shaping of the Palestinian identity and the Palestinian national project.
This is the full transcript of the interview with Bassam Abun-Nadi, host of the podcast “Pre-Occupation, a Not So Brief History of Palestine”
I started my podcast essentially in the middle of 2020 during the pandemic. And it wasn’t the pandemic that actually got me started. It was the fact that my grandmother had fallen quite ill and I suddenly had the urge to capture her story. My grandmother who passed away shortly thereafter in the summer of 2020, she was our last window into the generation before the Nakba.
And despite the fact that I’ve been kind of plugged into this subject my entire life, I only ever sat down with her once to talk about this particular subject. Now, as somebody who lives in Palestine and is very familiar with Palestinians, you know that this is a difficult subject to speak with people about who actually went through this experience.
And so while she had fallen ill, I thought, well, she was going to recover from this, and I’m gonna take that opportunity now to start asking her questions before it’s too late. And sadly, I didn’t get that opportunity. And so I set about kind of initially putting together I guess a work of family history.
And so I thought, you know what? I’m gonna read one or two books on the Mandate era of Palestine and I’ll have a pretty good grasp of what the time period was like. And then I thought, okay, well I’ll just read a book on the Ottoman era and that’ll give me a good grasp. And here I am now, years later, hundreds of books, hundreds of articles into what has consumed my life. And it has transformed into something completely different. So the podcast now is really an economic, social and political history of the land of its people and its formation toward, or its, its movement toward the formation of a national identity and a national project.
That is what I really want to talk to you about. But before I start asking more and more questions, where was your family from originally and how did they end up in Canada? What is your personal story?
I’m gonna tell you a great family story. I’m from the Abun-Nadi family and we are from Jaffa, kind of.
The family really is the story five brothers. One being Mahmud and the other being Ismael. Both of their fathers died when they were very young. Now, Ismael lived in, well they both lived in Jaffa, but when Ismael’s father died, his mother went to al Lod.
And when Haj Mahmud’s father died, they stayed in Jaffa years later. And this is after Haj Mahmud had actually traveled to Argentina and came back to Jaffa. So when he returned, he was at a market and so was Ismael. Now these two people didn’t know each other.
I don’t know if they were at a fish market or in like a bread queue or something like that, but one of the merchants yells out “Abun-Nadi” and both of them came to the counter. So he turned to the other and said, who the hell are you? And the other said, well, who are you? I’m Mahmoud Abun-Nadi, I am Ismail Abun-Nadi. So Mahmoud took Ismail to his house and he said, mom, who is this?
And she said, are you so-and-so’s son? Like, you know, mentioned his mom. He said, yes. She said, this is your cousin. And the two became inseparable for the rest of their lives. Ismael is my grandmother’s father, and El Haj Mahmoud is my grandfather’s father. So this is the Abun-Nadi family’s origin story. It’s a family that is both from al Lod and from Jaffa.
After 1948, of course, my grandmother and grandfather were ethnically cleansed from Jaffa, and my father was born in a refugee camp ‘El Amari’ in Ramallah. So around the corner from, it’s a neighborhood that you’d be familiar with.
My father actually originally came to Canada in 1974, so he’s been here for a long time.
And actually on the west coast of Canada, there were very, very few Arabs and Muslims and Palestinians at that time. And this is how we ended up here. But as anyone who’s listened to my podcast and very early into my podcast, you’d recognize that Palestinian identity was very much a core part of my upbringing.
So despite the fact that my father came here in the seventies, I, like many Palestinians, grew up with a deep sense that we were connected to another place.
And so you do speak Arabic, right?
I do. Yes. Although, when I was like 12 or 13, I barely spoke any Arabic. My parents would speak to me in Arabic and I’d respond in English, very common diaspora story.
And then in the year 2000, I went to Jordan for the first time that mattered, I had been to Jordan before that as an infant, and Jordan, 22 years ago, was a place where nobody spoke any other language. Like you had to be from a really, really uppity, you know like a bourgeois family to have anyone that spoke English.
And for three months, I was in Jordan and it changed my life because you’re either gonna speak Arabic or you just weren’t gonna speak for three months. And that’s not something I was capable of doing. And so my wife is from Iraq and we speak Arabic a lot at home. I’m a fluent Arabic speaker, but if I spoke for long enough, people locally would say, I don’t think he’s from here. They’ll notice the different something. Something is off about his Arabic.
A total side point here, but diaspora Arabs in general have picked up little bits of other Arabic, so we all find, whether they are Libyan or Egyptians or Lebanese or Syrians or Iraqis or Palestinians living in somewhere like Vancouver, anytime any of us go home, they say “you’re using all of these words that are not from here”. Like you’re using some Egyptian and I Iraqi and all of our relatives in our ancestral homelands and adopted homelands, they all complain about the same thing. So it’s part of the diaspora experience.
You have like a melting pot also of even the Arabic language of all the different accents in the different ways that you say things. Did you visit Palestine? Did you manage to visit?
I have never been, and I have a friend who, shout out to Chris Whitman, who I think you might know because I think you guys operate in similar circles.
Yeah. Chris and me are all the time liking each other’s posts on Facebook. But we haven’t met each other yet, but there’s a plan for coffee!
He mentioned that. Chris and I speak around the clock, every day and he is always telling me that I should visit and I cannot bring myself to subject myself and my family to that type of treatment in a land that belongs to me. It would be like getting a tourist visa to visit my own house. So sometimes I get asked, you know, I do a lot of public speaking, and people ask, well, you know, what would it take? What do you imagine your return to Palestine to be like?
And I tell them, presumably on horseback at the helm of a million refugees, but to visit as a tourist and have some smug soldier pointing an M 16 in my face is not something I’m willing to subject myself to.
No, I completely understand.
Listen, I’m very impressed by all the knowledge that you gained over the last years because when I listen to your podcast, I learn so much information that I never learned here. Everybody who listens to my podcast regularly, knows that I studied the Tour Guide program at the Bethlehem Bible College. I learned very much there. Now, I’m currently also studying the Tour Guide Program in Jerusalem. And honestly speaking, most of what we learn is history that goes back to 2000 years ago because, you know, pilgrimage, we need to know the stories of the Bible.
And then we get a little bit of these different time frames where we learn who came here, the Crusaders and the Mamluks and the Ottomans. But we never go in depth into the era that you describe in your podcast. And that is also the era where the Palestinian identity is formed. And this is going to be the main topic of the podcast episode.
When I listen to, let’s say, anti Palestinians or Zionists, they always claim that there was no Palestine and that there were no Palestinians. That this whole national identity is something that was produced maybe in the last decades, but that it was a bunch of Bedouins and nomadic people that lived here. They came from other Arab countries. They didn’t have any identity that was attaching them to this land.
So when did Palestinians start to realize that they had a shared identity and that they were part of a nation? This is my main question, and we can break it down in smaller questions, but I can also just let you talk.
This is a fantastic point to start, and there are about seven or eight questions buried into that. And I’ll do my best to dissect them and I’ll start with a very important point. Palestinians and their supporters and their researchers and their activists and the pro Palestine community spend far too much time and energy and effort in what I call “counter-hasbara” responding to things that Zionists say. And not only that, but the presence of the Zionist troll community online and in the academic world and in the political space, kind of constricts the way that Palestinians are willing and able to express themselves. Because many Palestinians, even when I’m speaking, will say, well, maybe we don’t wanna talk about this.
Not because it’s not true, but because a Zionist is going to hear it and they’re going to interpret it in this way. Do not spend any time or any effort or any energy thinking about the way that Zionists are going to interpret your story and your work, because they will never give you a fair shake.
They will never give you an honest reading, so it’s not worth it. Instead, tell your story with a debt only to the truth. Nothing else. How they interpret it, how they feel about it. Because it’s so much easier to tell a lie than to disprove it, to tell a lie, you just put it out there. If you have a big enough media machine and enough resources and enough followers and whatever else you have access to, then you just put the lie out there.
And then the people who are working toward telling the truth will spend countless hours and months and years disproving this. And then they’re just gonna tell another lie. And you’re gonna do it all over again. So don’t bother.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. So as for the question of Palestinian identity, let’s divide this into two questions. One is: where did a Palestinian identity or a national consciousness emerge? Which is a separate question from where did the Palestinian National Project emerge? Cause those two are not the same thing and they emerged at different times.
So should I just dive in?
A national project is a combination of a few things. A national consciousness is a common story of the past, a common understanding of the present and a common vision of the future, all rooted in a very specific geography.That is what a national identity is.
So it’s important for us to know what we are talking about before we try to understand what it is that we’re looking for. And in order for this to emerge, a collection of technologies needed to exist first, because otherwise it was not possible to think on that scale. So we mentioned just before you started recording that you’re from the Netherlands originally, and the Netherlands is not a huge country, right?
Like I’m Canadian, so by Canadian standards, the Netherlands is super tiny, right? Canada is enormous. And so something that I mentioned on a very recent episode of my podcast is that 200 years ago, Canada could have been described as unimaginably large. And I mean that literally, not just large, but unimaginably large and the Netherlands, which you think of as very tiny was also in the imagination of somebody who lived 200 years ago, very, very big. What you needed in order to encapsulate your imagination into something that was realistic was something like a map, like a modern map. So that’s one technology that needed to exist. A census was necessary because you needed to imagine, you know, if you’ve ever seen census maps, they often use circles to identify how densely populated or how big the population of a place is.
Well, if you have no idea how many people live there, you don’t really know if this is a significant town or a big town or a small town or you don’t know any of these things. So you need information. You need things like high speed travel in order to be able to just share stories with other people in order to be able to have this kind of common experience.
You need newsprint to help establish a shared sense of common time. Nothing that I’m saying are my original thoughts. A great book that captures this is, and really like the premier book that captures this is Benedict Anderson’s: Imagined Communities.
But really important parts of this shared national consciousness are specific events that allow for a shared experience. I mentioned earlier that a national identity starts with a common story of the past. Well you need a bunch of events to trace back to, in order to say: this is where we began, or this is who we are.
I’m curious to hear more about how and what sort of events that were for the Palestinian people. If we are looking at the history, how far back do we go?
We are talking about a country that was a land bridge between three different continents and so many different societies. Then to where do you go back to see what somebody’s identity is?
So I think the most important part of the national story, and in order for it to be successful, the key ingredient is for it to be compelling. More than anything else, right? It needs to be a good story. And in terms of how far back you go, that’s part of making the story compelling. It helps if it’s true, but if you look around the world, there are many national stories that were not rooted really in something that was objectively true.
I talk about that in the first season of my podcast a little bit. But an interesting place to start is the rise of Zahir al-Umar, who I did a, a full episode on who I refer to as the founding father of Modern Palestine. Now by the time, this is the early to mid 18th century, and by the time Zahir is born, Palestine is already overwhelmingly Arabic speaking, overwhelmingly Muslim with significant Christian and Jewish minorities.
But you already have social classes in place as well. So you already have ‘falaheen’ (farmers) you already have urban Palestinians and their families. You already have Bedouin communities. So you have the key ingredients to begin to see something that looks familiar. It’s not quite there yet, but you have all of the things and it’s not like Zahir al-Umar created these things.
They already existed, this was the world that he was born into. So you have these key ingredients that look like, and smell like, and walk like and talk like something resembling Palestine, but not quite yet. Now, I should say here, if we’re gonna talk about the toponymic identity of Palestine, so the place names, THAT’s really old, like really old, but that doesn’t always mean much.
I’ll let that hang in the air for a bit and maybe we could return to that later. Zahir al-Umar was originally a tax farmer, which was a very important institution in early Ottoman Palestine. These were people that were allowed to collect taxes on behalf of the Empire, and then they would skim off the top the difference between what they collected and what the Ottoman State wanted. This wasn’t illegal. Thi was the, the purpose of that institution.
Through a variety of spectacular accomplishments, and again, it’s an hour and a half episode I think that I have on him, so I’m not gonna cover it all here, Omar created the economic space to kind of solidify a pseudo state, as it were.
He created this cotton monopoly which then brought people from villages all over Palestine to major urban centers, specifically Safad, Akko, not for any political mission, but in order to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish economically. And this is what Nur Masalha refers to as not a Nation State, but a Country State.
So he possessed a kind of institutional sovereignty over the place that we recognize as Palestine, but not with any shared story or shared vision or shared mission, but it created the circumstances that allowed for Palestinians to have a very distinct cultural experience.
All of that made sense in my head, but did it make sense to you because I’m trying to take a lot of information and condense it.
So Zahir al-Umar then sort of rules over a group of people. How do these people relate to each other? Do they relate as families or tribes? Do they know what the borders of Palestine are? Or do they think more in cities or the places that they trade with? Their imagination would have been much more local?
Yes. And, and they would’ve thought in terms of their cities, in terms of their economic guilds. So the people who are involved in their trade, think about it another way. Like how many relationships can you truly manage at any given time? Psychiatrists talk about these things. I think the numbers are around 75 or something like that. And it takes those technologies that I referred to earlier for you to even be capable of imagining yourself in a bigger space. So they thought of themselves in the institutions that they recognize, their Sufi tarika’s, their economic guilds, their towns, their family units. The biggest scale, I think, that they would’ve been able to imagine themselves, would’ve been in the tribal alliances that existed at that time.
And those were, that’s a very interesting conversation in and of itself, but without the technologies that we had in the mid 19th century, an imagination beyond that, was just impossible for Palestinians. It would’ve been impossible for everyone. The only people who are naive enough to think that they always had a national imagination going back infinitely in time, are Zionists. Nobody else thinks like this, right? They’re the only ones naive enough to think that.
So these are people who very much understood that this was their land and this is where they lived and this is who they are. But relating to so many others in that way would’ve been very, very difficult at that time.
What was the extent of Zahir al-Umar’s power? Did he have any kind of power? He collected taxes, from where to where?
This is a great question. So Umar ruled as a sovereign. And I should be clear here, he grew so powerful that the Ottoman State at one point said, all right, enough is enough. Like we need to reign him in.
And they tried and failed. So the Ottoman State could not bestow upon Zahir al-Umar the kind of titles that would’ve been used in previous eras in the Islamic world, like Sultan or Emir, so they called him the Sheikh of Akka. This is the title that they were willing to give him, to say that you are clearly the person in charge here and we are not willing to call you a Sultan or anything like that, because that would be an acknowledgement of sovereignty that they were not willing to give up. And he ruled with or without their consent. It didn’t matter, because he was the one in charge.
He had, and this is the definition that I use of a State, he had a monopoly on violence. There was nobody who could challenge him. And he ruled very much with the consent of the peasant population because the monopoly that he created, the cotton monopoly that he created was in their interest.
They were able to get better returns on their product. And so one thing that’s very interesting that happens is that this era of strong men stretches from the time of Zahir al-Umar, so like the 1750s, right to his death in the1770s through Jazzar, Pasha, Sulayman Pasha, Abdallah Pasha. This era of strong men, right to Muhammad Ali of Egypt.
And then with the emergence of the Tanzimat era and the Ottoman Empire’s effort to transform into a Nation State, to really modernize and become a modern Nation State, the era of strong men comes to a crashing end. So Zahir al-Umar creates the space for Palestinians to begin having distinct cultural experiences or distinct political moments that would then make a Palestinian national identity possible.
I think the more traumatic an experience the better in terms of the development of a national identity. And in 1834, the Palestinians rise up in a mass rebellion against Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Khedive, who comes to rule Palestine for a 10 year stint. And this experience becomes something that touches virtually every Muslim Palestinian.
And I make that distinction because there’s an important event that happens later, so let me drive this home. So in 1834, urban Palestinians and rural Palestinians, as well as Bedouin Palestinians, unite together in a failed rebellion to drive out Muhammad Ali Pasha. Not as a national revolt to become an independent Nation State, but to bring the Ottoman Empire back.
They just wanted things to be the way they were before, but the trauma of that experience must have spread like wildfire, must have spread everywhere. And you live in Palestine, so you know that when people want to build relationships, stories of their family’s accomplishments are very important.
People will traditionally say things like, you know, let’s look at the context of marriage. If they’re sitting down with another family, they’ll say, I’m from the family of so-and-so, and we fought in the battle of so-and-so, and we took part in this, and we did this, and we were here. So people would’ve exchanged stories about where they were when that rebellion happened.
Did you side with the Khedive? Were you against him? What did you do? What did your family contribute? And those stories must have been shared.
Again, this is not a national movement yet, but it’s just this proliferation of a shared experience in a very specific geographic space.
When you talk about Zahir al-Umar, what made him so different from other tax collectors, what made him so special and why do many Palestinians not know about him?
So if we go back to Zahir al Umar, his peak was from the 1720s to the 1770s. And in there gives you the first hint. Zahir lived for a really long time compared with his contemporaries, and this cannot be ignored. It was a very significant part of his story as a very successful tax collector. He was good at his job.
So there’s one thing, and then an incident happens where the collection of families in Nazareth and the collection of families in Nablus, and the families of Nablus were very powerful. They disputed over a very, very fertile plane, the Marj ibn Amer valley. So they took this to the Qadi (Islamic judge) of Jenin, to arbitrate over who actually owns this.
Now the basic laws of power would have been on the side of the tribes of Nablus, but geographically, like if you look on a map, you’d say, this is much closer to Nazareth than it is to Nablus. And so comes the dispute. The Qadi of Jenin rules that it belongs to Nazareth, not Nablus. And the tribes of Nablus refuse. They say, well, we’re not gonna let that happen. So, you know, thank you for your arbitration, but Zahir el Umar intervenes.
He is from Saffuriya. He is from a whole other place. He intervenes on behalf of Nazareth and so swoopes in as a sort of strong man. And pushes the tribes of Nablus back and makes a very compelling case to the other fellaheen (farmers) to say, join me, join my cotton monopoly and I will make sure that nothing like this ever happens to you in the future.
And they do. And one by one, you know, things like this can spread in a few different ways, but probably the most common way that, like in human history, that someone like Zahir el Umar emerges, is through a display of overwhelming force. And that’s what he does. And he just goes from one town to another and extends his sovereignty.
Because he lived for so long, he was able to do this for such a long time. Now, of course, he did many other things while extending his sovereignty, including building infrastructure. You know the Zionist project was very successful in erasing all evidence of indigenous life in Palestine. But some of Zahir el Umar’s relics still remain to this very day.
Didn’t he live in Arrraba? I think part of his house is still there, I read something like this. I’ve never been there, but this is what I remember.
Yeah I believe his home still exists. There are a few things that he built that still remain. And Akka swelled to become the second biggest city in the Levant only after Damascus. It was enormous during the reign of Zahir. So his time was significant for creating that space, in what we recognize today as Palestine between the river and the sea and south of the Litani River.
Essentially, he created the space to make those shared experiences possible. The 1834 Revolt created another traumatic experience that became a sort of benchmark for something that these people, a very specific group of people, have in common.
But the moment where a Palestinian identity really took off was with the establishment of standardized education. And this is my hypothesis and it turns out that a now acquaintance of mine, Zachary Foster, did his PhD on Palestinian identity and came to many of the same conclusions. And he’s a better researcher than I am. So I feel like I’m on the right track.
I remember listening to your podcast episode about that and it’s interesting if you then find somebody else who comes to a similar conclusion and this is maybe a totally new way of thinking about Palestinian identity.
I am a school teacher and I’m obsessed with, not just what we learn in schools, but the experience of being in a school is very powerful. So if you think when in your town, if you meet someone and you might ask them what high school did you go to? And even if they didn’t go to your high school, you feel like they had a similar experience to you. But when you meet someone who was homeschooled, you genuinely feel like they’re something different between me and this person because they don’t know what the cafeteria smells like. They don’t know what it’s like to rush to the washrooms.
At the end of the day, they don’t know, what it’s like to push through the parking lot and try to get to your parents’ vehicle and rush home. And all of these things are very important experiences. So just the feeling of being in school was a very powerful shaper for Palestinian identity. And in the case of Palestine, missionary schools were the first modern schools.
I urge everyone who’s interested in the subject to listen to the podcast episode about this. But, missionary schools were the first modern schools in Palestine. And initially the Muslim families were not very interested in sending their kids to missionary schools for obvious reasons.
But later, starting with the Faisals and the Hossainis and spread to other notable families, they kind of warmed up to the idea of possibly sending their kids to these schools and then later generations sent them quite readily in these schools.
Muslim children, Christian children, Jewish children, Jewish children to a lesser extent, and I’ll explain why in a moment, but Muslim, Christian and Jewish children sat together for the first time. And they were subjected to a curriculum that was obsessed with Palestine because the missionaries were obsessed with Palestine.
And so suddenly they have exposure to all of those technologies that I was talking about, like maps, right? Maps that you, in your industry as a tour guide, are the inheritor of these. These are maps that were designed to cater to Christian pilgrims who were coming into Palestine by the thousands. And it was a highly Biblisized version of what Palestine actually was, but it was something for them to imagine together, right?
So if you were a notable who was from outside of Jerusalem, who was attending one of these schools, so if you were from, wherever, if you were from Haifa or Jaffa or something like that and your parents mustered up the courage to send you to a school in a place that was not your home like a boarding school, you got an experience that was the same as the experience of your co-religionists and your cross sectarian neighbors.
And suddenly, for the first time, you have all of these people. And you know it’s impossible to pinpoint a moment where the light bulb of national consciousness suddenly emerged. But I believe it was there. I believe suddenly there, the language for a unique Palestinian identity began to emerge.
And we are talking now about the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century or earlier?
The first missionary schools are popping up in the early to mid 19th century; really begin to proliferate throughout that period.
And then Ottoman State Schools began opening around that same time. And Ottoman State Schools were designed to rival the missionary schools in part, at least as an effort to build an Ottoman national identity.
But in addition to that, to protect Muslims from the impact of these missionary schools, many Muslims also sent their children to the Alliance Israelite schools.
So the Jewish community were plugged into this network of schools that were sponsored by the French Jewish community and the French Jewish community established these schools throughout the Ottoman world because they viewed their Sephardic cousins as lesser than,… So, I mean, you could read their own literature and you can make of that as you will, but they wanted to de-orientalize them, essentially make them more modern, make them more sophisticated.
But the appeal of these schools for the Muslims of Palestine was that they did not proselytize. Many Muslims sent their kids to these schools, including, I believe Saed el Husaini went there, who became mayor of Jerusalem for a time and he was a member in the Ottoman Parliament. I could be mistaken, but I believe that Ruhi el Khalidi he went there.
These are very important people in early 20th century Palestine. And so they left with a level of literacy and fluency in Hebrew and an experience with the local Jewish community. But they also reported experiencing profound loneliness in these schools as well, which is maybe another subject.
But it is in these schools that I think the national consciousness emerged.
If we’re talking about the Palestinian identity and heritage, then what kind of things are we talking about? And when you say that there were Christians, Muslims, and Jews living here, then I wonder if you’ve come across any information, whether the Jews at that time would also feel something towards that identity and heritage. So can you give us maybe some practical examples of what was part of the identity?
So when I say that a national consciousness emerged, what I mean is that they thought of themselves as Palestinian. That’s the first thing. And if we take the writings of people who wrote at that time, that meant they were very much plugged into their Arabness and the Islamic as well as Christian origins of that place. The Jewish story is interesting because you are constantly contesting with the Zionization of Jewish history, so it’s very difficult to put a precise finger on precisely how the Jews of the time felt.
But there are a few really good books on this subject. One is Michelle Campos’s: “Ottoman Brothers”, which was one of the best books that I’ve read on that period. Lewis Fishman wrote a book on the period as well. The name of the book is escaping me, and they have very different hypotheses about the time.
So Michelle Campos writes that the shared experience of the time was sufficient to give people a type of shared identity. However, in both cases, and this is really important to mention, it was still common in the late 19th century for you to go through different communities throughout the Ottoman Empire and find multiple languages being spoken in different homes. It’s really hard for us to imagine that in the modern world, but to be walking down the street and to find people speaking Hebrew and Greek and Arabic and Aramaic like that, and we’re not talking that long ago.
I’m kind of jumping over because I’m trying to answer so much. In terms of specific things like: they ate this food, where their neighbors did not, you know, their neighbors in Syria did not eat this, or they danced a particular kind of dance where their neighbors did not do this.
Palestinians thought of themselves, very much at the same time, as Palestinian, but as an organic part of the Arab Ottoman whole. The question that you are asking like, well, how were these people distinct from the people on the other side of that river or somewhere else? They didn’t put a ton of energy into making that distinction because whether we realize it or not, this is the point where the conversation starts to diverge from a Palestinian national consciousness to a Palestinian national project.
The people of the time that I’m speaking about who refer to themselves as Palestinians and thought of themselves as Palestinians, they had advertisements at that time in the late 19th century that refer to Syria and Falastine. These are not political manifestos. These are just advertisements clearly distinguishing between two separate geographic territories.
And yet they would’ve never thought that we have to somehow distinguish ourselves culturally from Damascus or from Beirut or from somewhere else. Now, the reason why, and I’m gonna try to put this delicately, the fact that Palestinians did not try to distinguish themselves as radically distinct from the Arab and Ottoman whole, does not mean (this is why I hate counter-hasbara) does not mean that somehow these people are interchangeable with the people of Damascus and the people of Beirut and the people of Baghdad and everything else. That’s not what I’m saying.
Because they had unique personal experiences and unique family stories, and unique political and economic and social ties in their specific geographic space. Period. But did they try to say, no, we are different than everybody around us? No, they did not. No, that wasn’t a thing.
But maybe this is the point where we could start jumping from the Palestinian national consciousness to the Palestinian National Project if you’d like.
I was just wondering if you think that the emphasis for the Palestinians to have more focus on that came with the Zionist project, that you want to sort of identify yourself more because you have people who are trying to deny your identity, or am I in the wrong track here?
No. The presence of another always helps in terms of defining your identity. There’s no doubt about this. But was the Zionist project the event that precipitated or the event that created a Palestinian national identity? No. Or was it the event that created a Palestinian national project? Also no.
If we fast forward a tiny little bit right to the turn of the 20th century. You had at once numerous competing visions for the future in Palestine. One vision of the future said that the Ottoman Empire is on the right track. There was a revolution in 1908. Many, many people were happy with it.
Okay, so maybe that this has something to offer us. There is another vision for the future that says that the Ottoman Empire is decaying. We don’t think that that’s where our future energies should be invested. These are sort of the competing visions of the time. Still an independent Palestine is the way that we understand it right now would’ve been not just out of the question, but would have seemed so unviable.
Who would’ve desired something like that when you have these much grander political projects to be imagining? Rashid Khalidi has a line in his book titled “Palestinian Identity” that stuck with me. He said, in this time period, the future seemed pregnant with possibilities, most of them positive. So it was a very hopeful time.
With the First World War, the Arabs of the Mashraq, the Eastern Ottoman Empire, so from Palestine to Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula, were very much divided on the question, do we stay loyal to the Ottoman Empire or do we defect once the war was over and the Empire had collapsed? The question then became, does the Sykes Picot arrangement offer us something?
Or does it take something away? Does it present to us an opportunity? Through this terrible event that happened? This incredibly devastating war that killed between one third and a quarter of all of greater Syria. Is this something good that has come out of this that we could take advantage of? Or has it taken away something?
The two camps could broadly be described as such? One with the camp of honorable cooperation. So that is that, if we simply persist in telling the colonial powers that we are sovereign, intelligent, civilized, then they will eventually recognize our independence and that these borders might have something that can work for us. Take a little bit from here, give a little bit there. But you know, broadly speaking, the separation offers us something.
The other camp perceived the words honorable cooperation as oxymoronic, that these two things cannot go together. That the only way to deal with the colonial powers, is to resist them.
By and large, the people of that camp were eager to either put the Ottoman Empire back together or engage in some other type of pan project. A Pan Islamic or Pan Arab, or some type of, we could call them the unity camp. These were the divisions that defined the world immediately following the First World War.
In the period between 1918 and 1922, the overwhelming majority of Palestinians were very enthusiastic about the prospect of being united in a world with their neighbors, with the Arab Kingdom of Syria, that was the short-lived kingdom of Faisal, eventually with Iraq. They didn’t think of themselves as constrained to a tiny sliver of land.
One of the most fascinating things from this chapter, to kind of give you an idea of where Palestinians were at the time when the Arab Kingdom of Syria was declared: so the advisors around Faisal told him like, this is what you have to do, that the Treaty of Versailles, they’re not going to recognize you. They are tricking you. They’re, you know, like all of these things are happening in the background and they push Faisal, what was called the Syrian Congress, pushes Faisal to declare independence of the Arab Kingdom of Syria. And standing from a dais over thousands upon thousands of jubilant listeners who are waiting for this declaration is Izzat Darwaza, a Palestinian from Nablus, who read the Declaration of the Independence of the Kingdom of Syria.
So, Palestinians very much considered themselves not just part of this project, but leaders of this project. There was at this time a unique Palestinian sense of self, but that sense of self was viewed as part of this grander political project. When the French arrived, when the French military came to crush the Arab Kingdom of Syria, an event that really peaked with the battle of Maysalun, and the arrival of total French rule in Syria, Musa Kadhim Husaini, who then headed both the Muslim Christian Association and was really the most senior figure in the Arab executive, told those around him: Southern Syria, that’s what they called Palestine for that brief period in time, he said, Southern Syria is dead. Now we need to work on a Palestinian project.
And so Palestinians went from imagining themselves as part of the Ottoman whole to imagining themselves as part of this Arab project and imagining themselves as part of the kingdom of Syria, and then imagining a much smaller project.
And this is really I think the most significant point in the birth of the Palestinian National Project.
Did they really envisage how that would look like or was that something that was in their minds, but was never something that they really worked on in more practical terms?
The Palestinian National Project really responded to the circumstances. Now, just because Mousa Kadhim Husaini said that does not mean that all of the other projects died. You, at the same time, have events going on in Syria. You have events going on in Iraq and this dream of dissolving the colonial borders never entirely went away, it still hasn’t gone away. This dream is still alive somewhere, right?
But the viability of it seemed more distant. So there was now two clear administrative zones governing the Levant. There was a French ruled Syria, and there was a British ruled Palestine. And with this division, were created two distinct challenges. In the case of French-ruled Syria, they had their challenges with religious minorities and minority rule and the cantonization of Syria, and a whole bunch of really fascinating things that were happening there.
In the case of Palestine, they had to contest with their forced minoratization or the threat thereof because that is what they were looking at. So the Zionist project, now gave them a very unique challenge that just was not replicated in any other mandate.
In Iraq they had other circumstances to deal with. In Syria they had other circumstances to deal with. And in Palestine they had very, very unique circumstances to deal with. And this is something that has been exacerbated over the course of Palestine’s colonization.
Whereas at one point the entirety of the land between the river and the sea were contesting with this threat of forced minoratization, now you have a distinct experience in the West Bank and a distinct experience in 48 and a different catastrophic experience in Gaza and a different experience where I’m sitting from in the diaspora. And my experience is also different from those who are living in the diaspora in places like Jordan or Lebanon.
And this is what happens with separation. And you have to say that in that regard, the various colonial projects that have descended upon us have been very successful.
I realize that Palestinians who grew up in the diaspora and they know the stories about Palestine from their parents, great parents, that maybe they have also a very different sort of romanticized idea of Palestine.
I’ve had some Palestinians coming here for the first time visiting, and I always heard from them that there were things that they really loved when they came here and they felt overwhelmed because they recognized their culture and heritage, but there were also things that were really disappointing.
For example, the traffic is crazy. There is so much trash everywhere. And then they were like, oh, I didn’t know it was so noisy. I had this picture in my mind of 18th, 19th century valleys and hills and nice little towns and women wearing traditional clothes. And things have developed in a very different direction.
It’s very interesting if you think about Palestinian identity, what do we look at? As you said, it is split between now so many different peoples with again, different experiences. The Palestine identity, it’s very interesting, but I feel that every Palestinian, whether if you put now together somebody from Gaza, from Jerusalem, from 48, from West Bank, from diaspora, they will all still extremely connect on the fact that they’re a Palestinian.
So there is something very special about that identity. And you can say about that, like how do you feel? I do still wanna connect it to, to one thing that I always hear from people around me, from Zionist people and Israelis that live around here, They the last so many hundred years, the people who lived here were Turks. You know, it was the Ottoman Empire. I even had a teacher the other day, who was like, oh, yeah, there’s always this discussion about food, Palestinian food, Israeli food. He said, the whole food culture is Turkish. Look at the Turkish salad, he said. And I was like, I’m sorry, but in the Ottoman Empire, it wasn’t the Turkish people that lived here. You maybe had some Turkish governors and soldiers here, but the people who lived here who prepared the food, they were the locals. Then he mumbled something about Bedouins and mansaf (a Bedouin dish) and he made it sound like this region was just full of Turks.
This is why counter-hasbara is not worth the time, because there’s zero validity to that claim. The only person who can say something that stupid would be somebody who doesn’t understand anything about Turkish history either.
Zionists now try to appropriate every single Palestinian food imaginable, whether it’s knafeh or whatever, or mensaf or anything else. And then they say, no, no, you don’t understand, wee, we had these things in Iraq because we are from there and they think they’re fooling us, right?
Because they think that the people in Iraq and the people in Palestine eat exactly the same thing, so they can make a claim like that. This is idiocy. This is nonsense. So it’s not really a claim worth rebutting.
The point that you said about that romanticized Palestine though, I have a name for that. I call it the Palestine Frozen in Time.
There is this very, very specific period in Palestinian history that is preserved in family stories, in the few photographs of that era that gives this kind of, really like an imagined nostalgia. And that is the period that my podcast is at right now.
Like chronologically, where I’m at right at this moment is that just, we’re just on the cusp of that Palestine frozen in time. Now, what’s so fascinating about that to me, why I’m so passionate about this, is because I imagine a future after Zionism. But in order to imagine that, I think the healthiest place to start is to think about where we were before Zionism.
And the reality is we had so many challenges, like there was a lot going on. When I said that there were all those competing visions about are we Ottoman, are we Arab? Do we have a more regional identity, like Syrian? These are things that were bouncing around all over the place at that time, and they were competing with each other and they complemented each other, but they also competed.
People thought on a familial level. They also thought in the way that they did for hundreds of years prior, in their economic guilds, in their sectarian boundaries. They thought on all of these levels at the same time.
And in a post Zionist Palestine, it’ll be a mess. Like you’ll have people like me coming from Vancouver and Carlos coming from Chile, and people coming from the camps of Naher el Barid and Ain el Hilweh and Yarmuk and they’ll be coming from all over the place and it’ll be a mess.
Right? Like all these different expectations, all of these different desires, all of these different visions of the future, but it’ll be ours. And that’s enough. That’s okay. There’s no nation on earth who ever operates in a perfect blank slate, in a pristine vacuum. Where everyone just agreed on everything and everything was happily ever after, right?
Every, every project is messy, and that’s okay. I welcome that.
I’ve never heard somebody say this, to imagine what Palestine will be like after the Zionist project. When you describe it, I can see all these people from all over the world coming back and just celebrating. And then just at some point, starting like, okay, what we’re gonna do now and then maybe starting from the beginning to re-find themselves to re-find the togetherness.
Yes. And it’s sad that more people don’t think about this. They’re busier articulating the nature of the occupation, which somebody has to do. Right. It’s just, I find that work to be soul crushing and I don’t do it, but somebody has to do it. But somebody else also has to tell the story of who we are and where we’re going.
And so I am maybe out of place in that I dedicate all of my energy there, to helping identify, helping, Palestinians understand who we were and when we figured out that we are something distinct, whatever that meant, cause that meant different things to different people. And then figuring out at what point was this our mission to liberate this particular place between the river and the sea, like when that national project emerged.
We’ve talked about that in this conversation, but there’s something that we actually haven’t talked about yet. And I think this, you know, just looking at the time, this might be the point to close off on, which is how is it possible that given the absurdity of the combined forces against Palestinians, how is it possible that a thing like a Palestinian still exists?
Because nobody would have put their money on that. Like if you were a betting person in the late 19th or early 20th century and right throughout. How did that happen? And I think that there are a few explanations to that.
So one simple explanation, and I said earlier, the more traumatic an experience, the better, in terms of preserving a national identity.
And there was very little that was more traumatic than the Nakba. The Nakba really was the great leveler of Palestinians. It hit falahee (farmers) madani (villagers) masihee (Christians) Muslims . Like it hit across economic boundaries, across geographic, across sectarian. And everyone wound up in refugee camps, right? Or everyone wound up somewhere where they weren’t just days prior.
And so that’s a huge explanation. Like suddenly you didn’t just have a shared experience, but a very, very vivid and similar shared experience. So without a doubt, the effort to extinguish a Palestinian identity certainly amplified it, not the opposite. But that’s not all. I’m not sure when this is gonna air, but we just wrapped up a World Cup where Palestinian flags were everywhere and the vast majority of the people waving them were not Palestinian.
And for all of the failures of the Palestinian elite in the mandate era, and there were a lot, there were a lot of missteps and wrong turns and things they could have done and should have done and would’ve done, but didn’t. But for all of their mistakes, there were two key moments that were indispensable.
In the early 1930s, a global Islamic Congress was convened specifically by el Haj Amin, who I’m no particular fan of, probably not for the reason that hasbara emphasize, you know, his time in Nazi Germany and things like that. But even his position as a Palestinian leader shows just constant missteps, almost comedic, were it not so tragic, but they convene this Islamic Congress to bring the Muslim world’s attention to the Zionist threat to al Masjid al Aqsa. And in this Congress, Muslims from India, Muslims from all over the Arab world, Muslims from everywhere convene on Jerusalem and begin to understand what it is that’s happening here.
And this was already proliferating in the press, but you could have seen at this congress, important individuals from all over the Muslim world suddenly convening and seeing for themselves what was happening.
But as was the case with Haj Amin and his very healthy relationship with the British, he agreed to make sure that this Congress did not allow for antagonism of the British occupation. And so another Congress was held shortly thereafter. This one began in the home of Auni Abdelhadi. And Auni Abdelhadi was from the Abdulhadi family of Nablus.
He was also one of the top advisors of Amir Faisal during that period of the Arab Kingdom of Syria. And he, along with Izza Darwaza, along with Subhi el Khadra, Rashed Ibrahim el Haj, like along with all of these people, I don’t wanna say people on the periphery of the Palestinian nobility, but maybe the most significant quality among them is that they were not from Jerusalem.
Overwhelmingly, the people who attended this meeting, who then put the revival of Arab unity back on the map after it had been crushed in 1920, after another revolt in Syria had been crushed in 1925. They revived it and they revived it in the form of the Istiqlal party, Hizb al-Istqlal, and it became Palestine’s entry into mass politics.
So not just the politics of notables, not just the politics of the elite, but really mass politics as we understand it today. And they, through their networks that were created and fermented in that experiment at sovereignty in Syria, in that Arab Kingdom of Syria period, they then reactivated all of their old networks that had developed at that time.
And Palestinian independence in the scope of broader Arab Unity became one and the same. So in large part, because of their work, the obsession with liberating Palestine became not a peripheral, but a core piece of Arab and Muslim identity. From then on, you begin to see these Palestinian intellectuals everywhere.
If you study Iraqi history of the 1930s, you’re sitting there reading about the curriculum that was being developed in Iraq in the, I don’t wanna say the post British period, cause the British were still there, but a period approaching independence. Well, they had their own education system that they ruled independently over. Well, it was Izzat Darwaza and Akram Zuyaitar who were writing their books.
They were Palestinians who were there. You start looking around all over the region, you find the same individuals proliferating the importance of Palestine as an organic part of the Arab world. And it became an integral focal point of the collective identity of not just the people in Palestine, but the region.
I want to go on and on, but you are right. We have one hour and 12 minutes, and I think I want to give you the last word to wrap it up, but we can also refer people to your podcast because there is so much more and they can all listen to that, to Preoccupation a not so brief history of Palestine, where I think you make a great effort to talk about Palestine, not as we always tend to do now in relation to Israel, the state of Israel in relation to Zionism, but really what is the Palestinian identity and what is Palestine before all of that.
If there’s anything you want to add briefly that you feel like this is a point that should be made and that listeners of this podcast should know, then do it now and otherwise we can listen to your podcast!
Actually, if there was a note I would give your listeners it would be this. I tell every audience that I speak with: dreams are for free. So we are only limited by our imagination. I wanna give you two distinct visions, and I want the listeners to really understand this. Today we are no closer to getting Yaakov Fauci out of the home of the Kurd family in Sheikh Jarrah than we are to the liberation of all of Palestine.
So if your petty dream is distant and your big dream is distant, then dream big. Don’t bother settling. You shoot for the moon. It’s okay. And the moment that the Palestinian dream dies is when you stop having it, when you stop carrying it in your heart. And I’m the biggest dreamer there is.
I have a vision for my children where they can fly into Baghdad and drive to Damascus and then take a train to Al Quds and watch the sunset in Gaza, all in the same week, without anything more than the fare for travel in their pockets. That’s my dream for them.
Check out the podcast PreOccupation a not so brief history of Palestine: