Inheriting the Impossible

Historian Beshara Doumani, who holds the first endowed faculty chair in Palestinian studies at an American university, discusses his work and the shifting campus climate on Palestine.

Gabi Kirk
September 3, 2020
Historian Beshara Doumani, the inaugural Mahmoud Darwish Professor of Palestinian Studies at Brown University.

This past May, Brown became the first American university to endow a faculty chair in Palestinian studies when it announced historian Beshara Doumani’s appointment as the inaugural Mahmoud Darwish Professor of Palestinian Studies. According to the university, the creation of the position—named for the famed Palestinian poet—“signifies Brown’s commitment to the vitally important field of Palestinian Studies in perpetuity.” This commitment is especially significant considering the obstacles the field of Palestine studies has faced throughout its history. While the field is decades old—next year marks the 50th anniversary of its flagship publication, the Journal of Palestine Studies—for most of that time, scholarship by and about Palestinians has been marginalized or even suppressed. Outside groups have harassed Palestinian academics, who have been sued, had job offers revoked, and had tenure threatened or denied. Scholars in the field have also had to reckon with a range of methodological challenges, from Israel’s destruction of Palestinian archives to the difficulties of doing fieldwork in Israel/Palestine, where the occupation restricts Palestinian and others researchers’ freedom of movement to and within the region. 

Despite these challenges, a robust, interdisciplinary field has grown—and for more than 30 years, Doumani has been instrumental to its development. When his career began, the historical literature on Palestine was dominated by Zionist narratives that omitted Palestinian perspectives. If Palestinians appeared at all, it was only through the stories of leaders, elites, and international negotiations, rather than the lives of common people. In a 1992 article in the Journal of Palestine Studies, Doumani wrote, “In the paucity of bottom-up as opposed to top-down studies, the native population has tended to be excluded from the historical narrative.” 

Doumani’s first book—Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1700–1900 (1995)aimed to rectify this situation. The focus suggested by the book’s title, on a little-examined period and region, belies the scope of its argument. Doumani disputes the idea that a hegemonic European modernity was “imposed” onto Palestine by external colonization, arguing instead that capitalist market relations were already emerging in the rural hinterlands, cultivated by the local peasantry and elites alike. The book traces the development of Palestinian rural capitalism and the region’s uneasy integration into an imperialist world order, recounting the often-erased contributions of ordinary people. In the decades following his debut, Doumani continued to publish groundbreaking scholarship. He has also contributed to the field as the editor of the University of California Press’s book series on Palestinian Studies, a member of the editorial committee for the Journal for Palestinian Studies, and the leader of the planning team for the Palestinian Museum, Palestine’s first “national museum,” which opened in Birzeit, in the occupied West Bank, in 2018.

I discovered Doumani’s work in my graduate studies of political economy and agriculture in Jenin, Palestine, which I embarked on after years of Palestine solidarity organizing on and off campus. I was particularly struck by a line toward the end of the introduction to
Rediscovering Palestine. “Our knowledge of the past cannot be advanced by essentializing difference,” Doumani writes, “much less eliminating the agency of the ‘Orient’ by subjecting its history to the dichotomies of traditional/modern, active/passive, and internal/external.” I understood this as a call to question “essentialized” understandings of Palestinians: not only Zionist historiography—with its claim that Israel/Palestine was a “land without a people,” which erases and disposseses Palestinians—but also well-meaning yet romanticized depictions of Palestinians as passive victims, a people unchanged but for the violent imposition of European colonialism. These representations of Palestinians are still common in intellectual and organizing spaces; Doumani’s work—which reveals the complexities of Palestinian agency, political formations, and struggle—therefore remains indispensable. 

I recently spoke with Doumani about the field of Palestinian studies, past and present; what it’s like to teach about Palestine on campus today; and the relationship between the Palestinian struggle and the fight for global justice. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Gabi Kirk: You’ve argued that in politics as well as in contemporary scholarship, Palestine as a place and Palestinians as a people have ironically been severed from each other, and that this has resulted in the Palestinian people being sidelined in the telling of their own histories. How does your work seek to rectify this? 

Beshara Doumani: I try to expand the horizons of knowledge production beyond nationalist and state-centric ways of thinking in order to center ordinary people in historical narratives—that is, moving from Palestine as an object to Palestinians as a subject. Historically, there has never been an acceptance of the Palestinians as a political community. This is very clear, for example, in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which talks about the non-Jewish indigenous population as having civil and religious rights, but not political rights. The Balfour Declaration was written into the British Mandate charter. The irony, then, is that the formation of Palestine was based on the erasure of the Palestinians.

Another irony is that, during the Mandate period, the recognition of Palestinians’ right to represent themselves was conditioned on a British demand that they accept the legitimacy and priority of the colonial project of Zionism. In order to represent themselves, Palestinians had to allow themselves to be colonized. These ironies speak to the tension between the concept of Palestine and the Palestinians, as historically constituted. To be a professor of Palestinian studies—as opposed to Palestine studies—is to put Palestinians back at the center of historical inquiry. I want to focus attention on the Palestinians themselves. This also means understanding that the Palestinians are no longer limited geographically to Palestine, since over half the population lives outside historical Palestine. 

Palestinian studies can also democratize the meaning of politics. When we think about Palestine, we often think about elites and organizations, the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] the Palestinian Authority, in a never-ending struggle. This narrow understanding obscures how politics is hardwired into everyday life in Palestinian society. It’s time that we paid attention to how a much larger spectrum of Palestinian society has been involved in the political process, historically. What women do, or Bedouin, or the working class, or other marginalized groups who are not at the center of attention—that matters. 

GK: One major factor contributing to the exclusion of Palestinian voices has been a repressive campus climate, particularly toward Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims, in which teaching and scholarship about Palestine are often censored. In this climate, it must have been difficult for the university to establish your chair position, but perhaps its existence is also a sign of change. How have the boundaries of what can and cannot be said by and about Palestinians in academia changed over your career?

BD: There was a time when one did not say the word “Palestine” in polite company. The very mention of the word was considered to be transgressing a boundary. Now one can speak about Palestine and the Palestinians relatively freely in academia. This doesn’t mean that student and faculty activism for Palestinian rights is not censored and repressed by university administrations or groups outside of the university. And we have always had outside groups monitoring what’s happening on campuses and trying to draw red lines, but in the old days, this was a bottom-up process as well—there were lots of students and faculty who would very vigorously defend Zionist mantras. You don’t see that much anymore.

On campus, most people who care about the world recognize and accept the justice of the Palestinian cause. I don’t know if I can convey adequately how exciting and rewarding teaching is these days. A justice-centered frame for understanding the world comes naturally to this generation. They are great at de-exceptionalizing Palestine and Palestinians, and they make connections between the Palestinian condition and global issues almost instinctively. This generation helps us understand why the Palestinian situation has become such a symbol for progressive activism around the world. 

The experience of the Palestinians calls to mind two different visions for where this world could go. The Israeli government, and the Zionist movement more broadly, has become associated with a very exclusivist vision, based on military might. Israel is like a gated community bristling with weapons, imposing a racialized understanding of the people around them—ready to defend, with force, a set of privileges that are based on the exploitation of others. The Palestinians [represent another vision, because they] cannot undo this situation by themselves. They need to be much more inclusive in the way they think about themselves and the world in order to imagine possibilities for coexistence, for life with dignity, for equality and justice. This requires connecting to people in similar situations and, more broadly, to everyone willing to accept a justice-centered existence.

When people see walls and checkpoints, when they see the expropriation of land and demolition of houses, they don’t just see Palestinians—they see a certain vision acting upon the world. They see structural injustices or racial positions and inequalities all around them, in their own societies; they see how all these things are related to each other. They recognize themselves when they see the Palestinians. 

GK: Popular representation of Palestinians in the United States and globally seems to have increased quite a bit in the past five years. You have political figures like Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who’s become a leading progressive voice in US politics, and celebrities like the Palestinian-American model Bella Hadid on the cover of Vogue. There are Twitter and Instagram accounts posting historical photos of Palestine daily that get thousands of likes and retweets. What might this increased visibility of Palestininians make possible? 

BD: I’m not on social media, I’m embarrassed to admit. But I am informed about what’s happening. My daughter told me that [Bella Hadid] had shared a post about the establishment of the Mahmoud Darwish chair in Palestinian studies—about me—and my daughter was scrolling through one comment after the other filled with hearts and smiley faces and people saying something to the effect of, “I can’t believe in these terrible times something good can happen.” 

Palestinians are a stateless people—what does that mean in terms of how information about a people is produced, packaged, consumed? There is no central Palestinian archive; there are no huge Palestinian institutions with the resources and capacity to gather information and make it accessible. Instead, there are what I call thousands of little fires: small individual or collective projects and institutions. There are initiatives to memorialize destroyed villages, or family surnames, or food, or the forgotten cadre of the Palestinian armed struggle in the ’60s and ’70s, or everyday resistance to the wall, or a million other topics. With social media, this information becomes more accessible and transcends state boundaries. Now, online, Palestinians can see each other in ways that they could not before, and academics are not the sole or even the most important producers of knowledge about Palestine and Palestinians. Palestinians everywhere are producing knowledge about themselves. On social media, Palestine and the Palestinians have come to occupy this disproportionately large position because they have become symbols for justice-oriented visions of the world.

GK: Your chair at Brown is named for the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. In one of his last poems, “Tibaq,” Darwish recounts a last conversation with the scholar Edward Said before his death, in which Said implores him, “if I die before you, I leave you the impossible!” The word Darwish uses for “leave” is “waṣṣā,” and that phrase can also be translated as “I entrust you,” or “I will to you.” This line reminds me of your latest book, where you discuss wiṣāyā, or wills—derived from the same root—as one legal and religious structure of inheritance in Ottoman Palestine and Lebanon. In thinking about the history of inheritance in modern Palestine, I wondered what this line in Darwish’s poem might mean now, after decades of occupation, with Israel planning to annex the West Bank and the far right on the rise around the world, when justice feels impossibly far away. What do you think it means for Palestinian thinkers today to be entrusted with the impossible, and what do you entrust to the next generation? 

BD: Justice feels impossible because the disparity in power relations is so huge that one can hardly imagine things will fundamentally change in one’s lifetime. But I think that’s an illusion. Things can change very quickly. There is a grinding, inch-by-inch, day-by-day experience of being Palestinian that is shared across generations. But there are moments that are earthquakes, when tectonic shifts take place very quickly. That the simple demand for Palestinian rights so often provokes such a violent response betrays the weakness of the powerful.

But there’s another reading of your question about the impossible, which is that the Palestinians cannot be free until the whole world is free. The Gordian knot of the Palestinian condition is one that cannot be broken by one state or one people or one event. It’s deeper than just one solution or one agreement. For Palestinians to be free, I think the whole world would need to be free. And that seems impossible. Many activists believe that justice shall necessarily prevail, but I don’t see any evidence, as a historian, that this is true. So this belief that eventually we will win cannot be the reason why we fight for justice. What if we don’t? Fighting for justice has to be an everyday, lived condition—because that’s the way I want to live. Passing on the impossible means passing on a willingness to fight, regardless of what the future might bring.

My most recent book does deal with how something is passed from one generation to the next, and who is included and who excluded in this process. Even though the book is about the 1660s to the 1860s, I think there’s a lot that we can learn from that period. If we look at the lives of people, in their intimate details, well before colonization took place, we find a treasure chest of lessons and practices. It enriches us to think about the ways they struggled and tried to live a dignified life. Of course, that inheritance is marked by a deeper kind of impossibility—the past is a different country, or so they say. But I think that an ethical, moral, and rigorous investigation into the social lives of ordinary people before the colonial period can help us recognize the presence of this inheritance in who we are and what we do. Rediscovering this deeper inheritance is our compass for decolonizing the world and building a just and sustainable future.

Gabi Kirk is a PhD candidate in geography with a designated emphasis in feminist theory and research at the University of California, Davis.