art of resistance

Call For Papers: Towards An Arab Left Reader.

borovoy-169hero-5mffnanowrimo-istock//illustration: iStock.com/Marvid//

Why is there as yet no reader or anthology of Arab leftist thought in English translation? If that question is of interest to you, read on.

The workshop will take place at the University of Cambridge, from 12- 14 April 2018. It will bring together an international group of scholars and translators from a wide range of disciplines to identify, discuss and translate a selection of documents that have played a pivotal role in the formation of socialist, anti-colonial and democratic thought in the Arab world.

The ultimate outcome of this gathering will be the publication of the first English-language Arab left reader, in which translated documents will be accompanied by essays that locate them within a larger historical, political and translational context. The collection aims to bring Arab leftist traditions into conversation with other non-Western and international political texts now available in English, as well as to function as a pedagogical tool and a resource for those interested in political thought in the Arab world.

The workshop will be comprised of six panels on the following themes:

1) Political Mobilization & Muslim Societies

2) Turath: Heritage and Cultural Decolonization

3) Literary Aesthetics and Politics

4) Nation, State and Liberation

5) Feminism and Gender Equality

6) Political Economy

Call for papers:

Proposals for texts on one of the above panel subjects (including party or anonymous tracts, collectively authored documents, etc) are invited for inclusion in the reader. After the workshop, participants who will contribute to the reader should be prepared to translate the entirety of their proposed text, and offer a short summation of its location in broader Arab leftist thought and political practice.

You should submit the following by October 15, 2017:

  • 400 word abstract with the following: description of the text and its author, including bibliographic information (date of production, length, publisher (if any), etc; and political location of text (i.e. when and why was it written, intended audience, distribution method), as well as the relevance of the text to the topic of your chosen panel (please state clearly on which panel you wish to present)
  • 1-2 paragraphs of proposed text in original Arabic and English translation.

Send the proposals to arableftreader@gmail.com.

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art of resistance, Iraq

Jamal Penjweny | Remembering Iraq’s Jews.

islamic-jewish-a1/art © Jamal Penjweny/

Iraqi-Kurdish photo artist Jamal Penjweny’s newest project envisions a new chapter in the history of Iraq’s Jews, written about on Mashallah News. It’s another great project by Penjweny.

In less than four years, from 1947 to 1951, most of Iraq’s Jews left their homes and moved to Israel. Their presence in Iraqi society has since been forgotten, intentionally or unintentionally, by many. But one man in Qal’at Saleh, a small town in south-eastern Iraq, keeps the memory alive.

jamal

That man is the school manager, Ahmad – he kept the names, school records and photos of Jewish students. Penjweny writes about Ahmad’s mission:

“The memory of the community may be fading away, but some Iraqi Jewish names have not been erased. They are still here, recorded in the school books in Qal’at Saleh, along with their grades and their black and white photos. Portraits of children, once five feet high and 10 years old, who are today in their mid-60s, possibly living somewhere in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Haifa. Most of them probably do not know that in this small town in south-eastern Iraq, Ahmad is still keeping track of their names.”

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Read the full story and see all the photos on Mashallah News.

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Israel, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Palestine

The State of Denial: The Nakba in the Israel Zionist Landscape.

Today is the 67th anniversary of the Nakba, the Palestinian exodus. In a poem written forty years after he fled his village, Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali described that evening of the catastrophe:

We did not weep

When we were leaving

For we had neither

Time nor tears

And there was no farewell.

We did not know

At the moment of parting

That it was a parting,

So where would our weeping

Have come from?

occupied pal/Nakba, photo via Occupied Palestine/

To mark the 67th Nakba anniversary, I am posting an excerpt from Ilan Pappé’s essay The State of Denial: The Nakba in the Israel Zionist Landscape. This essay can be found in the book After Zionism: One State For Israel and Palestine.

Pappé writes about Nakba denial in 20th century (in Israel), and the way it changed in 21st century. I think it captures the essence of Nakba issues today – today we all know about Nakba, we know what happened and how it happened, but it’s what we do with that knowledge that differentiates us. What’s being done with what we know is what we should focus on.

Nakba Denial and the Israel/Palestine Peace Process

“Even before the U-turn in American pulic opinion after 11 September 2001, the movement of academic critique in Israel and the West and its fresh view on the 1948 ethnic cleansing was not a very impressive player on the local, regional or international stages. It did not in any way impact the Israel/Palestine peace agenda; and Palestine was the focus of such efforts at exactly the time when the fresh voices were heard. At the centre of these peace efforts were the Oslo Accords, which began rolling in September 1993. The concept behind this process was, as in all the previous peace endeavours in Palestine, a Zionist one.

Hence, the peace process of the 1990s, the Oslo Accords, was conducted according to the Israeli perception of peace – from which the Nakba was totally absent. The Oslo formula was created by Israeli thinkers from the Jewish peace camp, people who have played an important role in the Israeli public scene ever since 1967. They were institutionalised in an ex-parliamentary movement, ‘Peace Now’, and had several parties on their side in the Israeli parliament. In all their previous discourses and plans, they had totally evaded the 1948 issue and sidelined with the refugee questions. They did the same in 1993 – this time with the dire consequences of raising hopes of peace as they seemes to find a Palestinian partner for a concept of peace that buries 1948 and its victims.

It is noteworthy that the potential partners withdrew from the process twice at the last moment; ultimately, they could not betray the Palestinian Right of Return (nor is any leader empowered to do so, as the right is an individual one). The first was Yasser Arafat at the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000. He was later followed by Abu Mazen in the various, admittedly much less significant, attempts to reach a solution  with the Israeli governments of Olmerr and Netanyahu.

AlNakbaExpulsion3/Expulsion from Ramie, November 1948. Photo via Desip/

When the final moment came, and the Palestinians realised that on top of not witnessing a genuine Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, there was no solution offered for the refugee question, they rebelled in frustration. The climax of the Oslo negotiations – the Camp David summit meeting between then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Arafat in the summer of 2000 – gavethe false impression that it was offering the end of the conflict.

Naive Palestinian negotiators located the Nakba and Israel’s responsibility for it at the top of the Palestinian list of demands, but this was rejected out of hand by the Israeli team, which succeeded in enforcing its point of view on the summit. To the Palestinian side’s credit, we should say that at least for a while the catastrophe of 1948 was brought to attention of a local, regional, and, to a certain extent, global audience. Nonetheless, the continued denial of the Nakba in the peace process is the main explanation for its failure and the subsequent second uprising in the Occupied Territories.

Not only in Israel but also in the United States, and even in Europe, it was necessary to remind those concerned with  the Palestine question  that this conflict entailed not only the future of Occupied Territories, but also that of the Palestinian refugees who had been forced from their homes in 1948 (and indeed from the whole area that was once Palestine). The Israelis had earlier succeeded in sidelining the issues of the refugees’ rights from the Oslo Accords, an aim helped by ill-managed Palestinian diplomacy and strategy.

The Nakba had been so efficiently kept off the agenda of the peace process that when it suddenly appeared on it, the Israelis felt as if a Pandora’s box had been prised open in front of them. The worst fear of the Israeli negotiators was that there was a possibility that Israel’s responsibility for the 1948 catastrophe would now become a negotiable issue; this ‘danger’ was, accordingly, immediately confronted. In the Israeli media and parliament, the Knesset, a position was formulated, no Israeli negotiator would be allowed even to dicuss the Right of Return of the Palestinian refugees to the homes they had occupied before 1948. The Knesset passed a law to this effect, and Ehud Barak made a public commitment to it on the stairs of the plane that was taking him to Camp David.

The mechanism of denial therefore was crucial not only for defeating counter claims made by Palestinians in the peace process, but, more importantly, for disallowing any significant debate on the essence and moral foundation of Zionism.

The struggle over Nakba denial in the 21st Century

When the twentieth century came to an end, it seemed that the struggle against Nakba denial in Israel had had a mixed impact on the society and its politics. The appearance of the ‘new history’ and a far more concentrated effort to protect the Nakba memory by the Palestinians in general, and those within Israel in particular, did crack the wall of denial and repression that surrounds the Nakba in Israel. The new atmosphere has also been helped by a clarification of the Palestinian position on the refugee issue towards the end of the Oslo peace process.

As a result, after more than fifty years of repression, it became more difficult for Israel to deny the expulsion and destruction of the Palestinians in 1948. However, this relative sucess  has also brought with it three negative reactions, formulated after the outbreak of the Al Aqsa Intifada. The effect of these reactions is still felt today, and it characterises the state of the Nakba denial in Israel in this century.

45190f/An early refugee camp. Late 1940s, Palestine. Photo via Jacobin/

The first reaction was from the Israeli political establishment, led by Ariel Sharon’s two governments (2001 and 2003), through the Ministry of Education, to expunge the actual history of 1948 from the education system. It began systematically removing any textbook or school syllabus that reffered to the Nakba, even marginally. Similiar instructions were given to the public broadcasting authorities.

The second reaction was even more disturbing and encompased wider sections of the public. Although a very considerable number of Israeli politicians, journalists and academiccs ceased to deny what happened in 1948, they were nonetheless wiling to justify it publicly, not only in retrospect but also as a prescription for the future. The idea of ‘transfer’ entered Israeli political discourse openly for the first time, gaining legitimacy as the best means of dealing with the Palestinian ‘problem’.

Transfer was and is openly discussed as an option when the captains of the nation meet annually in one of Israel’s most prestigious academic centres, the Centre for Intersdisciplinary Studies in Herzliya. It was openly discussed in the early twenty-first century as a policy proposal in papers presented by senior Labour Party ministers to their government. It is openly advocated by university professors and media commentators, and very few now dare to condemn it. As the very end of the last century, the leader of the majority in the American House of Representatives openly endorsed it.

There was a third reaction that followed in the footsteps of the renewed denial and worse disregard for the Nakba; this was the appearance of a neo-Zionist professional historiography of the war, some of it written by a former new historian. This U-turn was led by Benny Morris, formerly one fo the most important new historians of the 1990s. Murris has not changed his narrative: Israel was still in his eyes a state that was built with the help of ethnic celansing of the Palestinians. What he changed was his moral attitude towards that policy and crime. He justified it and did not even rule it out as a future policy. This justification appears also in his latest book on 1948, aptly called 1948: every means is justified in a war against a Jihadi attempt to destroy the state of Israel.

Morris’s retraction was typical to the whole professional historiography of the 1948 war in Israel in the twentieth century. As I have shown elsewhere, the pattern in the new century is very much the same. The facts that the ‘New Historians’ exposed about 1948, in particular those concerning the depopulation of the indigenous people of Palestine, are not doubted any more.

What changed is the total acceptance of the moral validity of this policy. In many ways, the professional historiography in Israel once more regards 1948 as the miraculous pristine moment of the state’s birth.”

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Algeria, art of resistance

Frantz Fanon: Concerning Violence (part one).

The following is an excerpt from Frantz Fanon’s great book The Wretched of the Earth.

F.-Fanon/Frantz Fanon, photo via Zimbabwe Daily/

“National liberation, national renaissance, the restoration of nationhood to the people, commonwealth: whatever may be the headings used or the new formulas introduced, decolonization is always a violent phenomenon. At whatever level we study it — relationships between individuals, new names for sports clubs, the human admixture at cocktail parties, in the police, on the directing boards of national or private banks — decolonization is quite simply the replacing of a certain ‘species’ of men by another ‘species’ of men.

Without any period of transition, there is a total, complete, and absolute substitution. It is true that we could equally well stress the rise of a new nation, the setting up of a new state, its diplomatic relations, and its economic and political trends. But we have precisely chosen to speak of that kind of tabula rasa which characterizes at the outset all decolonization. Its unusual importance is that it constitutes, from the very first day, the minimum demands of the colonized.

To tell the truth, the proof of success lies in a whole social structure being changed from the bottom up. The extraordinary importance of this change is that it is willed, called for, demanded. The need for this change exists in its crude state, impetuous and compelling, in the consciousness and in the lives of the men and women who are colonized. But the possibility of this change is equally experienced in the form of a terrifying future in the consciousness of another ‘species’ of men and women: the colonizers.

Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder. But it cannot come as a result of magical practices, nor of a natural shock, nor of a friendly understanding. Decolonization, as we know, is a historical process: that is to say that it cannot be understood, it cannot become intelligible nor clear to itself except in the exact measure that we can discern the movements which give it historical form and content.

Decolonization is the meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature, which in fact owe their originality to that sort of substantification which results from and is nourished by the situation in the colonies. Their first encounter was marked by violence and their existence together–that is to say the exploitation of the native by the settler–was carried on by dint of a great array of bayonets and cannons. The settler and the native are old acquaintances. In fact, the settler is right when he speaks of knowing ‘them’ well. For it is the settler who has brought the native into existence and who perpetuates his existence. The settler owes the fact of his very existence, that is to say, his property, to the colonial system.

Decolonization never takes place unnoticed, for it influences individuals and modifies them fundamentally. It transforms spectators crushed with their inessentiality into privileged actors, with the grandiose glare of history’s floodlights upon them. It brings a natural rhythm into existence, introduced by new men, and with it a new language and a new humanity. Decolonization is the veritable creation of new men. But this creation owes nothing of its legitimacy to any supernatural power; the ‘thing’ which has been colonized becomes man during the same process by which it frees itself.

In decolonization, there is therefore the need of a complete calling in question of the colonial situation. If we wish to describe it precisely, we might find it in the wellknown words: ‘The last shall be first and the first last.’ Decolonization is the putting into practice of this sentence. That is why, if we try to describe it, all decolonization is successful.

The naked truth of decolonization evokes for us the searing bullets and bloodstained knives which emanate from it. For if the last shall be first, this will only come to pass after a murderous and decisive struggle between the two protagonists. That affirmed intention to place the last at the head of things, and to make them climb at a pace (too quickly, some say) the well-known steps which characterize an organized society, can only triumph if we use all means to turn the scale, including, of course, that of violence.

You do not turn any society, however primitive it may be, upside down with such a program if you have not decided from the very beginning, that is to say from the actual formulation of that program, to overcome all the obstacles that you will come across in so doing. The native who decides to put the program into practice, and to become its moving force, is ready for violence at all times. From birth it is clear to him that this narrow world, strewn with prohibitions, can only be called in question by absolute violence.

The colonial world is a world divided into compartments. It is probably unnecessary to recall the existence of native quarters and European quarters, of schools for natives and schools for Europeans; in the same way we need not recall apartheid in South Africa. Yet, if we examine closely this system of compartments, we will at least be able to reveal the lines of force it implies. This approach to the colonial world, its ordering and its geographical layout will allow us to mark out the lines on which a decolonized society will be reorganized.

The colonial world is a world cut in two. The dividing line, the frontiers are shown by barracks and police stations. In the colonies it is the policeman and the soldier who are the official, instituted go-betweens, the spokesmen of the settler and his rule of oppression. In capitalist societies the educational system, whether lay or clerical, the structure of moral reflexes handed down from father to son, the exemplary honesty of workers who are given a medal after fifty years of good and loyal service, and the affection which springs from harmonious relations and good behavior–all these aesthetic expressions of respect for the established order serve to create around the exploited person an atmosphere of submission and of inhibition which lightens the task of policing considerably.

In the capitalist countries a multitude of moral teachers, counselors and ‘bewilderers’ separate the exploited from those in power. In the colonial countries, on the contrary, the policeman and the soldier, by their immediate presence and their frequent and direct action maintain contact with the native and advise him by means of rifle butts and napalm not to budge. It is obvious here that the agents of government speak the language of pure force. The intermediary does not lighten the oppression, nor seek to hide the domination; he shows them up and puts them into practice with the clear conscience of an upholder of the peace; yet he is the bringer of violence into the home and into the mind of the native.

The zone where the natives live is not complementary to the zone inhabited by the settlers. The two zones are opposed, but not in the service of a higher unity. Obedient to the rules of pure Aristotelian logic, they both follow the principle of reciprocal exclusivity. No conciliation is possible, for of the two terms, one is superfluous. The settlers’ town is a strongly built town, all made of stone and steel. It is a brightly lit town; the streets are covered with asphalt, and the garbage cans swallow all the leavings, unseen, unknown and hardly thought about. The settler’s feet are never visible, except perhaps in the sea; but there you’re never close enough to see them. His feet are protected by strong shoes although the streets of his town are clean and even, with no holes or stones. The settler’s town is a well-fed town, an easygoing town; its belly is always full of good things. The settlers’ town is a town of white people, of foreigners.

The town belonging to the colonized people, or at least the native town, the Negro village, the medina, the reservation, is a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die there, it matters not where, nor how. It is a world without spaciousness; men live there on top of each other, and their huts are built one on top of the other. The native town is a hungry town, starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light. The native town is a crouching village, a town on its knees, a town wallowing in the mire. It is a town of niggers and dirty Arabs.

The look that the native turns on the settler’s town is a look of lust, a look of envy; it expresses his dreams of possession — all manner of possession: to sit at the settler’s table, to sleep in the settler’s bed, with his wife if possible. The colonized man is an envious man. And this the settler knows very well; when their glances meet he ascertains bitterly, always on the defensive, ‘They want to take our place.’ It is true, for there is no native who does not dream at least once a day of setting himself up in the settler’s place.

This world divided into compartments, this world cut in two is inhabited by two different species. The originality of the colonial context is that economic reality, inequality, and the immense difference of ways of life never come to mask the human realities. When you examine at close quarters the colonial context, it is evident that what parcels out the world is to begin with the fact of belonging to or not belonging to a given race, a given species. In the colonies the economic substructure is also a superstructure. The cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, yon are white because you are rich. This is why Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem.

Everything up to and including the very nature of precapitalist society, so well explained by Marx, must here be thought out again. The serf is in essence different from the knight, but a reference to divine right is necessary to legitimize this statutory difference. In the colonies, the foreigner coming from another country imposed his rule by means of guns and machines. In defiance of his successful transplantation, in spite of his appropriation, the settler still remains a foreigner. It is neither the act of owning factories, nor estates, nor a bank balance which distinguishes the governing classes. The governing race is first and foremost those who come from elsewhere, those who are unlike the original inhabitants, ‘the others.’

The violence which has ruled over the ordering of the colonial world, which has ceaselessly drummed the rhythm for the destruction of native social forms and broken up without reserve the systems of reference of the economy, the customs of dress and external life, that same violence will be claimed and taken over by the native at the moment when, deciding to embody history in his own person, he surges into the forbidden quarters. To wreck the colonial world is henceforward a mental picture of action which is very clear, very easy to understand and which may be assumed by each one of the individuals which constitute the colonized people. To break up the colonial world does not mean that after the frontiers have been abolished lines of communication will be set up between the two zones. The destruction of the colonial world is no more and no less that the abolition of one zone, its burial in the depths of the earth or its expulsion from the country.

The natives’ challenge to the colonial world is not a rational confrontation of points of view. It is not a treatise on the universal, but the untidy affirmation of an original idea propounded as an absolute. The colonial world is a Manichean world. It is not enough for the settler to delimit physically, that is to say with the help of the army and the police force, the place of the native. As if to show the totalitarian character of colonial exploitation the settler paints the native as a sort of quintessence of evil.

Native society is not simply described as a society lacking in values. It is not enough for the colonist to affirm that those values have disappeared from, or still better never existed in, the colonial world. The native is declared insensible to ethics; he represents not only the absence of values, but also the negation of values. He is, let us dare to admit, the enemy of values, and in this sense he is the absolute evil. He is the corrosive element, destroying all that comes near him; he is the deforming element, disfiguring all that has to do with beauty or morality; he is the depository of maleficent powers, the unconscious and irretrievable instrument of blind forces.”

• • •

For those interested in more – there is also a good documentary Concerning Violence (2014) based on Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth book – precisely the chapter Concerning Violence (hence the name of the film).

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art of resistance, India

The Book To Read: Sea Of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh.

Sea of Poppies is a historical novel about 1830’s India, in the midst of blossoming of the opium trade. I’ve been reading a lot about the opium trade these last couple of months, particularly about Afghanistan (I also wrote about it a little), so Sea of Poppies served as my time machine, a ticket to 19th century opium trade. Although this is a novel, Amitav Ghosh did a remarkable amount of research to provide a credible portrayal of the period. That is, to me, the biggest achievement of this book.

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Reading about opium trade, I still don’t know what to make of it, is it a good thing, bad thing, can we really moralize about it, how do we deal with people dependent on it, people whose only income comes from the opium trade… This novel deals with the complex moral questions of the opium trade in an emphathetic way, it provides context, immersing in true motivations and needs. Ghosh writes:

“It was a single poppy seed…she rolled it between her fingers and raised her eyes past the straining sails, to the star-filled vault above. On any other night she would have scanned the sky for the planet she had always thought to be the arbiter of her fate – but tonight her eyes dropped instead to the tiny sphere she was holding between her thumb and forefinger. She looked at the seed as if she had never seen one before, and suddenly she knew that it was not the planet above that governed her life: it was this minuscule orb – at once bountiful and all-devouring, merciful and destructive, sustaining and vengeful. This was her Shani, her Saturn.”

Sea of Poppies is the first book of Ibis trilogy. Ibis , a vast ship, is at the heart of this saga. Its destiny is to sail across the Indian Ocean, to fight China’s vicious nineteenth-century Opium Wars. The Ibis crew is as diverse as it can be – sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts, bankrupt raja and French oprhan, Indians and Westerners…

“Sometimes, the lascars would gather between the bows to listen to the stories of the greybeards. There was the steward, Cornelius Pinto: a grey-haired Catholic, from Goa, he claimed to have been around the world twice, sailing in every kind of ship, with every kind of sailor – including Finns, who were known to be the warlocks and wizards of the sea, capable of conjuring up winds with a whistle.”

When they board Ibis, they must leave their history behind and became ship-brothers. In this story about colonialism, the characters are just as diverse as the British Empire itself, each with their own dialects and idiosyncracies. The language Ghosh uses is too old school and uptight for my taste but it is very much in spirit with the time described. Although dialects add to the authenticity of the voices of the characters, emphasizing  dialects was distracting at times, almost a little annoying. That was one of my problems with the novel.

Another problem is the overly black and white portrayal of some of the characters. The British are represented by Ghosh as unsymptathetic buffoons, which is understandable, taking in consideration the colonial context. Still, at times it is almost like a caricature. It could be intentional, of course, for they are not to be liked, but I think there were more subtle and nuanced ways of showing the cruelty and ignorance of colonizers. It could have provided a deeper criticism, and this way – I don’t feel like Ghosh says anything new (in relation to colonizers).

Those were some of my issues with this novel, but I would still recommend it, for it offers a great historical insight into an interesting and very much defining period of time for India and for the opium trade.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

Late For Tea At The Dear Palace 

A Sky So Close by Betool Kheadiri

My Happiness Bears No Relation To Happiness

Suad Amiry & The Absurdity of Life Under Occupation

and more.

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art of resistance

Remembering Howard Zinn: To Be Hopeful In Bad Times.

In his 2002 autobiography You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn wrote:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

howardn/Howard Zinn, photo via Howard Zinn facebook page/

Zinn passed away five years ago, a remarkable historian, a passionate activist. He wrote more than twenty books, including his best-selling and influential A People’s History of the United StatesHe was the first historian to write about American history from a perspective of indigenous people, from a perspective of the working class – people who worked in the steel mills, people who worked in the mines, people who worked on the railroads. He told the stories of immigrants, and presented all the rough hands and tortured faces that built the country we know as America.

When talking about his motivation and inspiration to write A People’s History of the United States, Zinn reflected on his first real teaching job in Atlanta, Georgia. He taught at Spelman College, a college for black women in Atlanta. He did so for seven years, from 1956 to 1963. Those were important years. In an interview on Democracy Now! Zinn described the experience:

“Those were the years of the civil rights movement and of turmoil, and they were very exciting and still perhaps the most intense experience of my life. And I became involved in the movement. I became a kind of participant, what sociologists call a ‘participant observer’ or participant writer. I was involved in the movement, and I began writing about it for The Nation and for Harper’s, and became involved with SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And I began to think about history from the black point of view, because it’s hard to live in the black community and teach in a black college without beginning—at least beginning to think of history from a different point of view.

And everything looks different in history when you look at from the black point of view. If you take just something like the Progressive period in American history, anybody who studies history goes through and there’s always a period called the Progressive Era or the Progressive period in American history, which is the first years of the 20th century, roughly between 1900 and, you know, World War I, the Progressive period. Why is it called the Progressive period? Well, because some reforms were passed, right?

The meat inspection—Meat Inspection Act was passed. You notice how good our meat is? Meat Inspection Act, railroad regulation, 16th Amendment, 17th Amendment, Federal Reserve Act—this is what you learned in school, right? You got multiple-choice questions about—to see if you knew the difference between, you know, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve Commission. And if you read a black historian, which I read while I was teaching in Spelman College, a black historian named Rayford Logan, who wrote exactly about that period—he didn’t call it the Progressive period, he called it ‘the nadir,’ the bottom. The Progressive period was the period in which more black people were lynched than any other period in American history. And still it continued to be called the Progressive period in American history.

So, from a black point of view, all the presidents of the United States look different. Lincoln looked different. Lincoln suddenly was not, you know, the Great Emancipator represented in that statue with the black kneeling before him gratefully, you know, where Lincoln bestows emancipation. From the black point of view, or from any decent point of view, Lincoln was a reluctant emancipator. Lincoln had to be pushed into it, by a movement, by an anti-slavery movement, by black abolitionists and white abolitionists, by a crescendo of criticism of him for not doing anything about slavery, even while a civil war was going on and even after the South had seceded. You know, Lincoln looks different.

Roosevelt looks different. Did any of you see this new series on the Great Depression? There are some—a few of you are nodding your heads, so a lot of you haven’t, I assume, right? I won’t berate you for not seeing that, but it’s very good. Some of you may know the series Eyes on the Prize, and this is a little follow-up by the same producer, Henry Hampton, and it’s about the Great Depression. And the interesting thing about this, about the Great Depression, is that black people and their point of view—and I guess because Henry Hampton is doing it—are much more evident in looking at the Great Depression. And so, he points out to what anybody who has studied FDR fairly closely knows, that Roosevelt, who was, you know, I guess, one of our best presidents, in many, many ways—no question—but Roosevelt would not support the passage of an anti-lynching law in Congress, because he was tied in with the Southern Democrats and dependent on their political support.

Same thing with Kennedy. Kennedy, you know, the liberal president, the young and, you know, we all know the good things about—that everybody believed about Kennedy. But from the point of view of people in the movement, people in the South in the movement in the early 1960s, Kennedy was no civil rights advocate. Kennedy appointed racist segregationist judges in the deep South, in Alabama and Georgia and Mississippi. Kennedy’s Justice Department stood by while people were being beaten, and Kennedy didn’t respond. Same thing with his attorney general, Robert Kennedy. Heroes look different, everything looks different, when you look at it from a different point of view. So all of these things affected my thinking about history.

In the first chapter of People’s History, Columbus, The Indians, and Human Progress, we are, maybe for the first time in Western history textbooks, presented with a different view of Columbus and his great ‘discovery’ of America.

“Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:

‘They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned… . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.’

These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

Columbus wrote:

‘As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.’

The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold?

The Indians’ attempts to defend themselves failed. And when they ran off into the hills they were found and killed. So, Las Casas reports, ‘they suffered and died in the mines and other labors in desperate silence, knowing not a soul in the world to whom they could turn for help.’ He describes their work in the mines:

‘… mountains are stripped from top to bottom and bottom to top a thousand times; they dig, split rocks, move stones, and carry dirt on their backs to wash it in the rivers, while those who wash gold stay in the water all the time with their backs bent so constantly it breaks them; and when water invades the mines, the most arduous task of all is to dry the mines by scooping up pansful of water and throwing it up outside….’

After each six or eight months’ work in the mines, which was the time required of each crew to dig enough gold for melting, up to a third of the men died.

When he arrived on Hispaniola in 1508, Las Casas says, ‘there were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it….’

Thus began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European invasion of the Indian settlements in the Americas. That beginning, when you read Las Casas-even if his figures are exaggerations (were there 3 million Indians to begin with, as he says, or less than a million, as some historians have calculated, or 8 million as others now believe?)-is conquest, slavery, death. When we read the history books given to children in the United States, it all starts with heroic adventure-there is no bloodshed-and Columbus Day is a celebration.”

I think there are no words to thank Howard Zinn for all his efforts, his work, dedication, strength and optimism. History is something we make every day, and it is not seealed in a vacuum, high above, out of our reach. It is up to us to stand up for change, it is up to us to release the pressure. “Historically, the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience”, Zinn always warned.

The best way to thank Zinn is to keep on educating ourselves, to keep on thinking from different perspectives, to be active, to participate in our society and help all the ways we can. Zinn will always be remembered, for he was a true freedom fighter and one of the rare ones who used history as a tool to show the stories of the oppressed majority, and not as a celebration of the oppressing elites.

Paul Laverty, the screenwriter of También la lluvia (the film is depicting the struggle of the indigenous people of Bolivia against the privatization of their water supply, and is dedicated to Zinn’s memory), reflected on Zinn’s influence:

On the 27th of January 2010, while we were editing the film, Howard Zinn, after a lifetime of teaching, writing and activism, died while swimming at the age of 87. It was  a blow to lose such a wonderful collaborator, and modest friend, and I wish we could  have sat in that darkened cinema together, along with another 1000 strangers at the Toronto Film Festival, to watch the first public screening, and thereafter to have  participated in what was a wonderful debate. It was not to be, but I was massively  touched by the spontaneous applause from the audience when his name went up on screen.

Howard’s books are a homage to the courage and creativity of ordinary people. He doesn’t romanticise them, but he makes them central to our understanding.

You can read Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States online. You can also visit the website dedicated to Zinn’s work, offering a great archive of his articles and interviews, bibliography and video & audio material. Long live Howard Zinn!

• • •

Previous Remembering… sessions:

Remembering Pablo Neruda: Pablo Neruda, Presente!

Remembering Nadia Anjuman: One Day, My Hands Will Become Weavers

Remembering Meena Kamal: Hope is The Thing With Feathers

Remembering May Ziadeh: Ahead of (her) Time

Remembering Edward Said: In The Name of Humanism

and more.

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