- Middle East Historiographies: Narrating the Twentieth Century
The product of an Istanbul conference and edited by Israel Gershoni, Amy Singer, and Y. Hakan Erdem, Middle East Historiographies: Narrating the Twentieth Century provides many thought-provoking contributions from well-established scholars of Middle East and North African studies. The stated purpose of the conference, and the book, is one of self-reflection on the profession as it has developed and an assessment of the historiography it has produced over the past century. The essays included in the published collection present aspects of established historiographies as well as revisionist studies pointing out the flaws and misconceptions of these commonly accepted narratives. It ought not be surprising, however, given the ambitious breadth and depth of this undertaking, that there is some difficulty in linking these disparate contributions together into a coherent arrangement. Yet, overall, this collection of essays is a rich reserve for specialists in the field and provides a concise outline of major debates, sources, and critiques.
Following the introduction, R. Stephen Humphreys provides a sweeping analysis of the sociology of knowledge and the production of power that has informed how the history of the Middle East has been written over the past century. Humphreys thus focuses on the social and cultural background of who wrote this history and in what political and economic context. He provides an initial sketch of the first half of the twentieth century, a period dominated by a handful of Europeans writing for a European audience, in the context of colonialism and with an orientalist outlook. This sketch begins to change during the 1960s as colonialism recedes and new educational structures allow for scholars of different backgrounds to emerge. Often contrary to the stated purpose of the government funding that opened up many of these educational avenues, the new sociological context, marked by the experience [End Page 370] of Vietnam and the emergence of feminism, allows for a new, more sympathetic, outlook of the “other” to find a hospitable terrain in which to take root.
Israel Gershoni’s presentation, in a different section of the book, fleshes out this brief sketch of the early twentieth century and deconstructs the latent orientalism of H. A. R. Gibb, G. E. von Grune-baum, W. C. Smith, and Nadav Safran. Together, Gershoni argues, these scholars constructed a narrative of intellectual and cultural crises affecting Arab intellectuals during the 1930s. Ultimately, Gershoni’s presentation is meant to provide for the rehabilitation of intellectual or elite history by taking into account the latest developments outside of the field, namely, the cultural turn, which maps the complicated web that situates intellectual production within its social and political context, and by taking into account the intended audience and their reception of these works. The stated purpose of rehabilitating this approach to nationalism from an intellectual or elite perspective is curiously limited to a by-now decades old treatment by Charles D. Smith.
Smith, who is credited by Gershoni as having provided the most systematic deconstruction of the “intellectual crisis” narrative, provides another deconstruction of the latent aims of the historiography of World War I. In the book’s second contribution, Smith demonstrates how European and American scholars have constructed a narrative aimed at absolving colonial powers of the consequences of their actions as well as bolstering Zionist claims for statehood over any other. This contribution is followed by two more, under the section heading “Colonialism and Nationalism.” The first is by Julia Clancy-Smith, who examines the overlapping use and construction of gendered identity by both colonialism and nationalism. It is followed by Fatma Müge Göçek’s essay dealing with Turkish historiography concerning the Armenian deportations and massacres of 1915. Taken together, these three contributions provide a systematic treatment of how the sociology of power and the production of knowledge have shaped Middle East lives as well as the academy.
The next section falls under the rubric “Narratives of Crisis,” with two contributions. The first of these, as previously discussed, is by Gershoni...