It is an irony that our region, which produced "civilization" ("the cradle of civilization"), has now become so embroiled in the very question of what is true and what is false. My book Hidden Histories aims to shift essential understandings by the West, as well as to broaden our own understandings within the region.
Much of history has been covered up or veiled by invention, is partial and distorted, written by the winner or the dominant mainstream. Vested interests blind us. Often Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean is a palimpsest-much has been hidden, paved over; whole towns and villages, even societies, reside below the surface. What was ignorance in the past is now designed deception.
Though history writing is problematic everywhere, its distortions are most acute when it comes to our region-which I call the East Mediterranean (an equivalent to "Levant"), as an alternative to the colonial "Middle East" or "Near East." Inculcated public opinion and belief systems entrench notions that are far removed from genuine accounts of the region's culture and history.
How might we unravel this history, unlearn much of what is dominant, and search for alternatives that would reclaim hidden truths and deepen awareness?
People ask how long it took me to write Hidden Histories. I answer that it is un-measurable in normal time. Perhaps four years to write the text, 10 or 12 years to search its ideas and arguments. But, in reality, it has taken a whole life to produce this book-out of a sense of incongruity, in an attempt to explain people's predicament as well as the question of truth. Certainly my experience as a Palestinian forced me to explore new directions. How else can I comprehend the Nakba, seeing what had happened to my family and my people in 1948, coming to terms with our dispossession, the utter disruption of lives? The incubus of that event, the nightmare we live in today, has driven me on a long search for answers.
Though "Palestine" is in the subtitle, the book is about much more than that. One commentator described it as "a study of deep time . . . an anthropology of the present." It transcends the usual political rhetoric and the narrative of what happened in the last century. It goes beyond present inanities of some Arab regimes and the illegal practices of the Israeli state. It is about knowledge and about humanity in all places and all time. It is about how history is understood and how people adopt their beliefs.
My introduction begins with what a student once requested: "Give me a book to read." He was eager for more information about subjects we were discussing, wanted one book to tell him everything. It was impossible. I wanted a new regional history that would incorporate recent discoveries and translate their significance. "Well, isn't it too late? Palestine has been lost," he responded. I explained that his search will not end, even in many books. In fact, the rows of books weighing down library shelves are mostly ill-informed expressions of habituated bias or invention. In view of elision and ignorance of history in the scholarly and public mind, my own content and arguments needed to be extracted, using multiple methods, from innumerable sources in many fields, to fill in knowledge gaps and retrieve what is possible, to extrapolate-then build a new whole. That could involve everything from interpreting an epigraphic discovery to seeing the ancient meaning of a common language expression.
What has brought our region to a historic predicament that requires such surgical extraction of knowledge fragments? What political, cultural and religious biases and misconceptions have become embedded here over millennia? Western perceptions of the East Mediterranean have been formed by complex factors: 1,700 years of idealized constructions about a "Holy Land"; enmity between Europe and Muslim empires (first Arab then Ottoman); various kinds of crusades (starting in the 11th century); assumptions inherent in a fairly recent paradigm called "Western civilization"; employment of biblical models of empowerment in furthering colonizing projects; the sacred geography of nineteenth-century Christian fundamentalists; writings by travelers, pilgrims, orientalists; recent colonization by Western powers; the region's division into "countries"; and now the Zionist project and its colonizing activities.
At the heart of such perceptions lie operative notions, derived from classical and biblical precedents, for perceiving people and land, for ownership and self-worth. It is convenient (and profitable) to construct demonizing models. One such model is "Canaan" as the ideal place, whereas the people who inhabit it ("Canaanites" of various types), whose fruitful land is craved, are unworthy demonic pagans. I analyze such models and their exploitation in colonizing projects in America and elsewhere. These models are now re-employed in Zionist ideology, which depends on and cultivates Western pre-conceptions and assumptions to build its own claims. What was imagined before, or applied elsewhere, is now collapsed onto "Palestine," "Canaan," or the "Promised Land." This is why unwary "Palestine" is not just the site where fabrications have materialized; it is the site from which we must retrieve the truth.
The region has been ceaselessly fragmented by imposed divisions to further colonial controls, its scholarship ill-equipped to formulate a response, and its people engulfed by more recent self-colonizing identities that shorten their long history. While the region has been suppressed in developing awareness of its cultural depth, the employment by Zionists of dominant mythic accounts is made familiar by relentless repetition. This tension questions how it might be possible to retrieve an accurate history.
Several chapters in my book address claims and monopolies. If we know, as already discovered, that the Old Testament god is not monotheistic as has been assumed (that in fact there are at least two different gods), or that the Exodus and Diaspora are myths, or that antecedents, such as Flood and Covenant, were copied from other people's literature into the Bible, or that there are no "Jewish people" (cf. The Invention of the Jewish People, Shlomo Sand), or that Jews have nothing to do with the idealized "Hebrews" and "Israelites," or that places believed to be sacred are now being exploited though they are not related to the events or characters they purport to represent-then the whole system of exclusivism and privileging collapses. When we realize that this obsession with "the Biblical World" has built up imaginary notions and has erased or appropriated the real culture of the region, falsified it, we also begin to realize the absolute imperative to reclaim the true culture and heritage of the region. Education and information should own what is our inheritance rather than allow it to be taken by others who have no real entitlement to it.
Other chapters describe important discoveries such as Ugarit and the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as the dangers implicit in phenomena such as appropriation by others and consequent self-colonization in our attitudes.
And there is much more in the book.
We must find in history sufficient replies and alternatives to misunderstandings and claims. However, the true owners of the region's culture, history, beliefs and languages must also make their voices heard, affirm the depth of their civilization-its continuities and accomplishments. What larger debt is there than to the people who stayed on the land and preserved its most ancient customs and heritage? What better goal is there than to write the future with truth?
Basem L. Ra'ad is a Professor at Al-Quds University in occupied East Jerusalem. He was born in Jerusalem and has worked and taught in Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Canada. For the past two decades, he has been researching the ancient past of Palestine, much of which concerns the Western and Israeli appropriation of ancient languages and cultures, from the Canaanite alphabet to the Canaanite pantheon of gods and goddesses.