Two Historians of Another Era: Abbas Al-Azzawi and Ya’qub Sarkis.
The Iraqi historians I met on my two trips to Baghdad are inheritors of a great tradition, that of Ya’qub Sarkis and ‘Abbas al-‘Azzawi, even though that tradition is now somewhat frayed, and Sarkis and ‘Azzawi are no longer the household names they once were. The first, Ya’qub Na’um Sarkis was an amateur historian, archivist, bibliographer and philologist who came from a wealthy family background and never had to work for his livelihood, the second, ‘Abbas al-‘Azzawi was a lawyer by profession. In Sarkis’s and ‘Azzawi’s period (roughly from the 1930’s to 1950’s), the historical profession went from being a universalistic field of knowledge, and a generalist’s discipline with deep roots in the tradition of Islamic learning (ta’rikh, or the term used for history was one of the subjects taught in madrasas or Islamic schools, along with other such subjects as grammar and religious exegesis) to a more rigorous, positivist “science” that drew heavily from Western traditions of scholarship from the Second World War onwards. Baghdad University, instituted in the 1950’s, taught that history must be “objective” and factual. Sarkis and ‘Azzawi wrote outside of those boundaries; even though their works were narratives and used documents to buttress their claims to historical authenticity, they were idiosyncratic in the sense that they followed earlier patterns of historiography, both Arab/Islamic and European, (‘Azzawi’s volumes are chronologies, not Western-type histories, even though they are enormously informative) and sometimes resembled encyclopedia treatises more than historical articles.
Where Sarkis and ‘Azzawi stood out, however, was in their terrific facility in languages, both regional (Arabic, of course, but also Farsi, Ottoman, Kurdish, Ancient Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Assyrian etc.) and European. Sarkis, a Christian, used the diverse languages of the Bible as a matter of course; ‘Azzawi mastered Farsi and Ottoman for his reading pleasure as well as for his more practical pursuits as a lawyer. Their histories are peppered with footnotes in a multitude of languages, and they used the documents of the periods under study with an alacrity that is now long forgotten. Today, after decades of research in Arabic, English and French alone (except for those leftist historians that studied in the USSR and read Russian), there is an encouraging change towards doing history in ALL the languages of the region. The reasons are many. First, during the sanctions era of the 1990’s, very little books and articles in any language entered Iraq. This necessitated rediscovering the books and manuscripts that had been thought of as archaic in the past, but were now, under more sustained study, seen to be valuable adjuncts to Arabic sources (and, under Baathist rule, all languages in the world remained adjunct to Arabic). Also, a massive sweep of private libraries in Ancient and Semitic languages was undertaken by the supervisors of the state libraries and archival repositories; these new holdings were sometimes, but not always, made available to professional historians.
However late, the return to the languages and cultures of the region is an extremely welcome development.The histories of 'Imad Abdul-Salam Rauf blend primary Ottoman sources with Arabic to create a much deeper portrayal of Iraqi society from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century, and Kamal Mudhhar Ahmad's book on Kirkuk draws on Kurdish sources to illuminate an important period in Iraqi history. However, there is a big difference between the language facilities of Sarkis and ‘Azzawi, and the more linguistically adept historians of the present. In Sarkis and ‘Azzawi’s time, Farsi, Ottoman, Kurdish, even Aramaic and Assyrian were a lived tradition, coexisting alongside Arabic as a matter of course. Today, it’s a tradition that has been curtailed for so long that the learning of languages has become a technique only; some historians (but not all)know enough regional languages to decipher the formulaic phrases in the court records of the Ottoman provinces but cannot speak the language properly. Having lost the cultural context of the early twentieth century, where minorities and majority lived cheek by jowl and learned the traditions of their neighbors, modern Iraqi historiography has become narrower and less assured, much to the detriment of us all.