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Friday, February 03, 2006

Sluglett gets Slugged

I have always had contempt for people who set themselves up as experts of a subject,
shroud themselves in a mystery of learning and use that position to talk down to everyone else. It is in this light that I noted with some pleasure that Wafaa’ Al-Natheema knocked Peter Sluglett down a peg or two. She posts the full email exchange on her blog - but below is a more readable summary.

Professor Peter Sluglett considers himself an expert on modern Iraqi history with good reason - he has studies the subject for 30 years. Along with his late wife, Marion Farouk Sluglett, they wrote one of the important books on modern Iraqi history called "Iraq since 1958". However, he uses that position to stifle any debate on Iraqi history. He considers himself the expert and nobody has the right to contradict him. The problem is that in many cases he is wrong.

Professor Sluglett started by writing to Wafaa' about a letter she wrote on Iraqi Jews:
Dear Wafaa’ Al-Natheema,

Someone has shown me your letter to Nissim Rejwan. I think the record has to be set straight. I have been working on 19th and 2oth century Iraqi history for the last 30 years.

In the Iraqi context, it’s nonsense to talk about ‘Jewish Arabs’. The correct terminology is ‘Arabic-speaking Jews.’ It’s like this. Arabs originate in the Arabian Peninsula. They begin to migrate out in the 4th and 5th centuries AD, and then do so in a big way in the 7th century, with the Arab conquests. Long before the Arab conquests, there were Jews in what is now Iraq. We cannot call them Arab Jews (unless we mean ‘Arabic-speaking Jews’) because their ancestors were there many centuries before the Arabs. ...

Oooh. Well if you have been working for 30 years on this us lowly mortals have no right to breathe the same air as you. So Wafaa' passes Slugletts letter to a real expert, Joachim Martillo, who is motivated to respond to Sluglett and the president of his university:

Dear Professor Sluglett:

Some friends of mine passed your email to me because I am an expert in the period that you address in the above paragraph.

I am completely astounded that anyone with any sort of training in history would try to equate ancient Arabs of 4th-7th century Arabia with the modern Arabic population.

It is a combination of primordialism and essentialism that went out of style with the defeat of the German Nazis, who tried to equate modern Germans with ancient Germanic and Teutonic tribes.

All the populations of the Middle East that spoke some form of Semitic or Egyptian language were Arabicized with the development of the early Islamic empires, and those populations included all the Aramaic-speaking populations that practiced some form of Judean religion. All these populations together evolved into the ethno-linguistic groups that are commonly called Arab today.

It is a major error to describe any populations before the 10th century as Jewish. Modern Rabbinic and Karaite Judaism do not crystallize until the time of Saadya Gaon. There are several cumbersome terminologies to describe various categories of Judean or earlier Judahite populations, but one point is clear as Shaye Cohen of Harvard University has carefully pointed out. "Judean" lost all ethnic or territorial sense by the 3rd century CE. I would argue that his time frame is several centuries too late, but any attempt to trace modern Eastern European Yiddish-speaking populations to ancient Greek and Aramaic-speaking populations of the Roman Empire that practiced some form of 2nd Temple Judaism belongs more to the realm of essentialist and primordialist propaganda than it does to genuine scholarship.

Because you pretend to be a scholar in Middle East Languages and Area Studies, I have appended a very simple introduction to the terminology necessary to discussing Judaica coherently since the development of Zionist ideology.

Patrick Geary has written a basic history book entitled The Myth of Nations. You should read it, for the very elementary points that he makes applies as much to the Middle East and North Africa as it does to Europe.

Joachim Martillo

Ouch. Let see how Sluglett gets out of that....

I accept, and am grateful for, your criticism and detailed information on the 'Jewish Arabs', a subject I should not have raised since what I know about is the 19th and 20th century, and I defer to your evidently greater knowledge of the earlier period.

Frankly Professor Sluglett, that is a little lame. Especially considering Utah University is paying you a Professor's salary to act like a historian. Just knowing details about the 19th and 20th century and then to act with complete ignorance about everything else does not cut it. Anyway, Peter goes on to excuse his opinion...

Howewver, while I know that Iraqi Jews always thought of themselves as Iraqis , I am not sure that they thought of themselves as Arabs (who just happened to be Jewish) -- unlike, for example, the Greek Orthodox population of Syria who are quite unambiguously Arab in their own self-identification. Under the Ottoman Empire, of course, people thought in sectarian and religious terms (Muslims, Christians and Jews), but while it's clear that Iraqi Jewish novelists, poets and so on between 1920 and 1950 felt that they were participants in Arab culture (since they spoke Arabic -- and only Arabic) I wonder whether - after the foundation of the state in 1920 - they thought of themselves as Arabs. Frankly, I rather doubt it, but I'm ready to be proved wrong !

Get ready to be proved wrong... cue Wafaa':

Most Iraqi Jews considered themselves Arabs, but the Industrial west and western Ashkenazi Jews didn't care or paid attention to this reality. They always made their own assumptions, distorted facts and worse yet invented their own "facts" and terminology to fit their agenda about various matters related to the East.

When Jewish Arabs lived in IRAQ, until they had to flee to Israel (a country that treated them horribly), they considered themselves Arabs. Many continued to consider themselves Arabs and even spoke Arabic or Arabized Hebrew even while living in Israel at least until the defeat of neighboring Arab countries in confronting Israel.

Then Wafaa' goes on to describe Professor Sluglett's kind of expertise:

Peter Sluglett or any of the western so-called scholars did not live in IRAQ in that era to witness that reality. They copy each other's findings, writings and statements often without listening to far better sources; the people themselves and their stories, concepts and behaviors.

Peter Sluglett should listen to the commentary by Iraqi Jews in Samir's documentary, "Forget Baghdad", should read the scholarly writings of Naeem Giladi who currently lives in NY and should also read the writing of the great Iraqi Jew, Ahmed Soussa, who never left IRAQ and converted to Islam later in his life, not because he wanted to stay in Iraq. He also should read the carefully written and well analyzed writings on the subject by Prof. Ella Shohat who also lives in NY. Jewish Arabs like the late Sameer An-Naqqash (Iraq) and David Shasha (Iraq/Syria) would have given Sluglett and other such history teachers a good piece of their mind.



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