Because of PalestineRoundup
tags: Palestine, Palestinians, Middle East history
N.A. Mansour is a historian and PhD candidate in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. She is writing a dissertation on the transition between manuscript and print in Arabic-contexts. She also produces podcasts for Maydan and the Middle East Studies Channel on the New Books Network, as well as co-edits Hazine.info, an archives blog.
I am a historian of art, material culture, society, and ideas. I am an archives and rare books worker. I am a writer: of essays, of criticism, of academic work, of fiction—although right now that’s just for me. I am a curator who desperately wants to keep working in museums, even though I’m uncomfortable in them most of the time. And I am Palestinian. It is because I am Palestinian that I can tell you that objectivity—in history-writing, in the archives, in museums—does not exist.
I mostly grew up in Palestine, with a few odd years here and there depending on where my parents were employed. But mostly Palestine. Palestine was where I learned how to ride a bike, foraged for herbs in the hills, and read science fiction outside under a tree. My parents taught me how to treat the Israeli occupation as ordinary, that I could take away its power if I did not think it was scary. I walked through checkpoints to go to school and developed reflexes I still have, that kick in whenever I’m threatened. Palestine taught me when it is appropriate to make myself small or big, depending on what’s going to help me survive. And from Palestine I also learned nuance: my mother is not Palestinian, but Mexican-American, and despite the fact that the Israelis treated her like they did the rest of us, despite the fact she served our community so well, she was never accepted by Palestinian society. When Israel forced my family out of Palestine, I had become so tired of everything.
But even though I left Palestine, Palestine came with me. It came with me into the classroom, as a student taking my first university class in Islamic political thought. At the time, I considered pursuing history as a career, and it was that class that did it. I was 19, still shell-shocked from my first academic year in America, my first time really living in the US; I had visited before, but I’d always been shielded from American society by my family. So Islamic political thought, after a lifetime of living in many Muslim-majority countries, felt familiar especially when feeling so lost. As the class progressed, I didn’t like the predominant narrative I was seeing in scholarship; I remember being angry when reading the seminal text Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age by Albert Hourani, published in 1966. While scholars often laud it as the text in Arabic-language intellectual history that started it all, I felt context was missing and I could see gaping holes, despite my lack of conventional historical training at the time. I called the text Islamophobic for its focus on Islamism, but I was told by other undergraduates, most of whom knew so little about Islam, that I didn’t know what that meant.
Classes ended and I pushed back in my own way. For my term paper, I tried to bring in more of the context. I knew this historical narrative mattered, in a way I don’t think my classmates did. And unlike them, I wove in primary sources. My bias as a Palestinian meant I knew how to write history without being told: I knew what the sources were because I had seen them in my life in Palestine under occupation, and I knew what the consequences of telling different historical methods were.