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Revisiting the Past

May, 2004
By John Huckans

I almost abandoned bookselling nearly 20 years ago when we launched what was then called Book Source Monthly. At the time I was convinced there would be a conflict of interest in publishing a book-related magazine while remaining a bookseller and it’s taken quite a while to shake the notion. Paul Minet, who founded Antiquarian Book Monthly Review, writes for this magazine, and is presently editor and publisher of The British Diarist and Royalty Digest, has also been a bookseller for most of his career, and continues to operate two antiquarian bookshops, one of which, Baggins Books, may be one of the largest in Britain. Antiquarian Book Monthly Review, after having gone through two title changes, is now owned by another bookseller who also happens to be the owner of Bloomsbury Book Auctions. With that sort of precedent it took little persuasion for me to change my mind.

We have a substantial collection of good antiquarian material originally bought and priced in the ’70s and early ’80s, so it seems like a wonderful time to revisit my bookselling past. A recent trip to book fairs in Washington, DC and St. Petersburg, Florida taught me that in the Rip Van Winkle sense, my old valuations are somewhat behind the times, and so if as a bookseller most of my best finds turn out to have been sleeping on my bookshelves for 20 years or more, as a reader I must rely on the rest of the antiquarian book-trade for additions to my private stash of books on subjects which interest me.

Nearly every weekend during good weather we travel down U.S. Route 20 on our way to the foothills of the southern Adirondacks where we usually attend an auction in Fulton County and spend some time at our son’s camp on Great Sacandaga Lake. Until the other day I hadn’t realized, when driving through East Springfield, that I’ve been passing by the home of James Hurley, a retired career foreign service officer who now operates a book business specializing in South and Central Asia, Regional Islam, Persia [Iran], etc. Also, I hear that Mr. Hurley’s large collection of books relating to Kashmir may soon be offered for sale en bloc, in all probability to a major research library. For many years I’ve been gathering and reading books relating to the Middle East and I’m happy to learn of a new source so close at hand.

And since I’ve introduced the subject of the Middle East, I feel compelled to say that recent events reinforce my opinion that the antiquarian and second-hand book trade, more than talk-radio or television rent-a-pundits-with-an-agenda, offer good sources of information for people wanting to make sense of what’s going on in the world today.

I think the most surprising thing to me about what’s been happening in Iraq in recent months is to learn that some people are in fact surprised at the way events have been unfolding. When I wrote a month before the war “…administration hard-liners and al-Qaeda are probably of one mind. Both want the invasion to happen, because for the latter it becomes a terrorist-recruiter’s (wildest) dream come true…” (since echoed by Richard Clarke and others), my prediction was based on information drawn not from television, but from the books in my library, starting with the trade edition of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. (Garden City, 1935).

They were independent and would enjoy themselves - a conviction and resolution which might have led to anarchy, if they had not made more stringent the family tie, and the bonds of kin-responsibility. But this entailed a negation of central power. The Sherif might have legal sovereignty abroad, if he liked the high-sounding toy; but home affairs were to be customary. The problem of the foreign theorists - ‘Is Damascus to rule the Hejaz, or can Hejaz rule Damascus?’ did not trouble them at all, for they would not have it set. The Semites’ idea of nationality was the independence of clans and villages, and their idea of national union was episodic combined resistance to an intruder.

And as for the tactics of resistance Lawrence observes (of the Howeitat, Juheina, Harb, Billi, Ateiba, Ageyl and other groups):

In mass they were not formidable, since they had no corporate spirit, nor discipline nor mutual confidence. The smaller the unit the better its performance. A thousand were a mob, ineffective against a company of trained Turks: but three or four Arabs in their hills would stop a dozen Turks. Napoleon remarked this of the Mamelukes.

The need to resist an invading or colonizing power is in marked contrast to the time when under the leadership of Umar ibn-al-Khattab, Abd-al-Rahman I and others, the Arabs, inspired by their new religion, conquered and proselytized most of western Asia, North Africa, and part of Europe. There are many good sources for learning about Arab and Islamic history but for background I would especially recommend the books of Philip K. Hitti, a Lebanese-born scholar who was professor of Semitic Literature at Princeton for many years. Two useful titles would be his Makers of Arab History and The Arabs: A Short History, but for the more ambitious reader I’d suggest Hitti’s more comprehensive History of the Arabs.

In the post World War I modern era, there are many good books to complement Lawrence’s Seven Pillars… One of my personal favorites, perhaps because of the provenance, is George Antonius’s The Arab Awakening … (London, Hamish Hamilton, 1938). My copy was owned and signed by Harlan Cleveland when he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in 1939. Cleveland was a professor at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, Under Secretary of State during the Kennedy administration, and, I believe, is still living in Sterling, Virginia. Laid in is an ALs, dated December 20, 1945, from Katy Antonius. Writing to a friend on the stationery of the Karm al-Mufti in Jerusalem she speaks of her relatively pleasant life there albeit “at times a bit irksome and full of restrictions.” She concludes by saying “May 1946 bring you (days?) full of blessings and happiness…”

A few months later on July 22, 1946 at 12:37 in the early afternoon, Menachem Begin’s Irgun Zvai Leumi (the forerunner of modern terrorist groups such as Hamas) and their associates set off a massive 350 kilogram bomb in the basement of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. This event, accompanied by great loss of life, if not the first, was certainly the most dramatic and iconic act of terrorism in Israel/Palestine during the period immediately following World War II. It marked the beginning of a nearly 60 year (and counting) unhappy cycle of reciprocal terrorism that has spread far beyond the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. A minute and thorough account, together with details of the aftermath, may be found in Thurston Clarke’s By Blood & Fire (New York, G.P. Putnam’s, 1981). Katy Antonius, who had been on her way to the King David for a noon luncheon appointment with Richard Graves on that day, was delayed by conversation en route and narrowly escaped being one of the victims.

More than other regional conflicts involving heated disputes over national determination and/or land and property rights (Cyprus, Kashmir, Northern Ireland, etc.), the question of Israel/Palestine went global when too many outsiders decided that not only did they have a dog in this fight but they should be part of it. With countries and people within countries becoming more passionate and divided on this issue, and with politicians in power driven by narrow agendas, you now have a wonderful recipe for expanded conflict that could, in time, make many of us long for the good old days of the USSR and the Cold War.

People writing on this subject have a hard time separating history and analysis from advocacy (which is not to say we should ignore the pamphlets cranked out by polemicists on either side), but I would like to recommend a few books that may prove useful for people trying to gain an understanding of the dynamics of the Israeli/Palestinian impasse. One would be Amos Oz’s Israel, Palestine, and Peace: Essays (New York, Harcourt, 1995), still in print and available at many large antiquarian and second-hand bookshops. Oz was one of the founders of the Peace Now movement and is no great friend of the right-wing Likud party.

Another good book would be Barbara Victor’s anecdotal portrait of Hanan Ashrawi entitled A Voice of Reason: Hanan Ashrawi and Peace in the Middle East. (New York, Harcourt, 1994). Because of Ashrawi’s excellent command of English (she’s an expert in Old English literature with a PhD from the University of Virginia) she has, in the past, been quite effective in articulating the Palestinian position.

The late Edward W. Said, former professor of comparative literature at Columbia and author of books on a variety of topics, published The Question of Palestine (New York, Times Books, 1979) nearly 25 years ago and a re-reading today would demonstrate just how prophetic his vision was. Another book by Said (who was not a Muslim) worth mentioning is Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World. (New York, Pantheon, 1981). This was written shortly after the Iran hostage crisis during a period when many people were caught unawares and were trying to make sense of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and general disaffection towards the United States and much of Europe.

Based on my reading of Said, I believe he would have agreed with many of us who think that fanatical religious fundamentalism (whether Islamic, Christian or Jewish) is one of the major causes of much of the evil in the world today, yet when he died, not all that long ago, he was eulogized publicly and privately by people of all three religions.

You will be happy to know there are a few people around trying to light candles while most of their neighbors are cursing the darkness. About half way between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv there is a small community called “Neve Shalom / Wahat al-Salam,” an experiment in living conducted by 50 families – half Israeli and half Palestinian. Local affairs are conducted and decisions reached, so I have been told, in a manner as much like a New England style democracy as one is likely to find anywhere on the planet. But whether the Israeli government would allow this model to flourish beyond the immediate setting and include the entire nation, in the event of formal annexation of the West Bank and Gaza, remains to be seen. For more information you may visit either www.nswas.com or www.oasisofpeace.org.

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