Before Europe: The Christian West in the Annals of Medieval Islam

“Is it possible, then, to write a history of Europe using only Arabic sources? König’s answer is still a resounding yes, albeit with a caveat. He recognizes in medieval Muslim historians an impressive ability to trace the roots of Latin Christendom in the Roman Empire, follow the rise of the Franks, and record the development of the many kingdoms that made up the western world of the High Middle Ages. At least by the late-medieval period, they ‘undoubtedly’ had the notion of a distinct Latin-Christian sphere. But if their writings ultimately lack the sense of a coherent, uniform entity called Europe when viewed from the outside, then it was just “as vague and imprecise as their ‘Latin-Christian’ contemporaries’ sense of cohesion.’”

Love this! This is post-modern historiography done beautifully! Not rejection of narrative and contextualization abilities, but re-framing of narratives in a challenge to Euro-centric constructs and modes of thought!

Before Europe: The Christian West in the Annals of Medieval Islam

Why we’ve suppressed the queer history of the Holocaust

”Stories like Behar’s are the reason why I keep looking for traces that will allow me to shine a light on other experiences, outside the heteronormative Holocaust master narrative. Queer studies has been a field that embraces a difficult history riddled with gaps, failures, and difficulties. In the context of Holocaust history, it allows us to see a different kind of history, one that’s unafraid to include ambivalences and hierarchies.”

Why we’ve suppressed the queer history of the Holocaust

Hi, I’ve been reading about nationalism and identity and a book I read argues that nations are an imaginary construct and I was wondering how this would effect the way history is viewed. Also, for you, how significant are the values a country has in the way that a country presents itself? Should there be a shared history for shared values? Apologies for this being quite long

Was the book Imagined Communities? That is an excellent book, but what you need to keep in mind is that, as a historian, theory is not intended to stand in as a narrative for us to fit facts into, but as a tool which allows us to find the language to understand events and ask questions. But it is still an ahistorical narrative, and we have to be careful not to treat it as fact.

That said, I think it provides a helpful way to look at aspects of modern history. Now I’m gonna be real for a minute and tell you that my response is about to get hella Euro-centric.

In the Early Modern period through the beginning of the twentieth century, we saw the rise of the diverse, multinational empire. Those empires broke apart over the course of the twentieth century, and splintered into the nation-state; a political entity held together not by imperial bureaucracy, but by the idea of a shared historical identity and experiences. For that nation-state to sustain itself, there must be an other–a group which does not share that identity and those experiences–for the nation-state to define itself against. We also saw in the twentieth century, in the form of the Yugoslav Wars, the logical endpoint of the ethnic nation-state: genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Now, in the twenty-first century, the idea of the ethnically homogeneous nation-state is tearing apart at the seams as the globalized environment fractures. Nation-states are confronting ethnic, national, and racial diversity, forcing them to wrestle with how to accommodate the “other.” This is why you hear people (like me, alas) referring to the contemporary global environment as “post-modern.” It is also why so many “Western” nations are having a collective violent temper tantrum.

As you can see from what I just wrote, the discourse on the nation and identity etc provides a helpful lens by which to view the last 500 or so years of history. But the fact that it’s helpful doesn’t make it true. Every issue I addressed above is 1000x more complex than my two paragraphs will ever be able to convey, and that’s why the theory is a helpful way of processing large periods of history. But as your analysis becomes deeper and more nuanced, this theoretical framework may (and probably should) feel more and more remote and overly simple to your analysis.

As for the last part of your question: “Should there be a shared history for shared values?“

That, to me, implies, that I can just imagine a past. Ethno-national groups do imagine their pasts, absolutely (if you get me drunk enough, you are likely to hear me yelling about how I’m mad at Ancient Rome for fucking with my people ~2000 years ago), but those pasts are nothing more than a collection of narratives strung together to serve some sort of ideological purpose. The reality of history is that one million narratives and chains of interaction are ongoing at any moment in time, and that historians can only incrementally understand them through careful questioning and analysis.

And as for “shared values,” aren’t those just as false as an imagined past?

I hope this answer was helpful; don’t hesitate to ask follow-up questions if you have any.

Some titles you might enjoy in relation to this line of questioning include:

Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton Studies in Culture/Power/History) by Dipesh Chakrabarty

The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton Studies in Culture/Power/History) by Partha Chatterjee

Who Owns History?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World by Eric Foner

The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past by John Lewis Gaddis

Writing History in the Global Era by Lynn Hunt

Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge by George G. Iggers

Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea by Rosalind Morris

Gender and the Politics of History by Joan Scott

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

The Sacred, the Profane, and Pokémon Go

I am not here to tell you why it’s disrespectful to play Pokémon Go at the Holocaust Museum or wherever. Frankly, if you need to be told why, you’re too far-gone for anything I say to have any impact. So let’s just skip past my pearl-clutching and moral assessments and move on to meaning; what does it mean to play Pokémon Go in spaces with commemorative meanings assigned to them?

Before I go any further, and for those of you out of the loop (like my mom, who thought this game involved following clues to people dressed like Pokémon), Pokémon Go is a cell phone game which, using the mobile device’s camera and GPS, allows players to catch, train, and battle Pokémon in the physical environment, transformed within the augmented reality of gameplay.

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Oh hey look, there’s a Squirtle chilling in my office with my freshly processed papers.

Once a Pokémon is spotted, the player has to throw a Pokéball within the game and make a successful catch. And if the player catches all the Pokémon lurking in their immediate vicinity, they have to get up, and walk around their city, town, or local park to find more. If a player wants to buy supplies or battle with other players, they have to walk to a PokéStop or a Pokémon Gym, typically located at identifiable landmarks like monuments, local strip clubs, and some dude’s converted church house (no but actually).

I’ve thought a lot of about different spaces where gameplay could be perceived as tacky or inappropriate, and I’m going to focus on three sites: Auschwitz, where 1,100,000 Jews and 200,000 Romani, gay men and women, people with mental and physical disabilities, Resistance members, dissidents, and POWs were tortured, abused, executed, and tossed into the ovens; Tuol Sleng (previously known as Security Prison 21/S-21), a former high school used by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge regime as a prison, torture and execution center; and the September 11 Memorial and Museum, the site of death for nearly 3,000 people, and the grave of those whose remains were never identified.

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Installation at the September 11 Memorial and Museum between the footprints of the towers. Behind this wall is the

Office of Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York, where unidentified human remains are stored. Image courtesy of the September 11 Memorial and Museum.

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The women’s barracks at Auschwitz. Image courtesy of Yad Veshem.

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The Khmer Rouge photographed every S-21 incoming prisoner, and here are a fraction of those images on display at

the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Image courtesy of said museum.

NOTE: The images I chose to represent Auschwitz and Tuol Sleng are comparatively tame. I could have chosen much more disturbing ones, but I find those extremely triggering, and I have no desire to spring that on anyone.

I choose these three because these are inarguably sites of human suffering, murder, and/or torture. That legacy cannot be assigned; it’s intangible. These sites are not in any way spatially divorced from the horrors they commemorate.

I don’t think the game has been released in Cambodia (yet) so my use of Tuol Sleng is hypothetical. But it has been released in Poland and the US and yes, people have and are playing Pokémon Go at Auschwitz and at the September 11 Memorial and Museum.

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Here someone plays the game one of the two September 11 Memorial Pools, which lie in the footprints of the two towers. Image courtesy of Time Magazine.

So again I had to ask myself, what does this mean?

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Screen-cap of the Auschwitz gameplay. Image courtesy of the NYMag twitter.

Pokémon Go’s gameplay allows users to assert augmented reality over their surroundings. They engage as people on the game board of Pokémon Go, not as people taking in the meaning of the space around them. The game takes what exists, and projects itself over it. Thus, in these spaces I’m discussing, that is no longer a room where a Khmer Rouge official tortured a librarian, or where Jews were forced to huddle together like cattle before the slaughter,or where unidentified human remains still lie, but simply wallpaper; just the setting of a game.

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Superimposed Pokémon lurking outside the entrance to Auschwitz. Image courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

To play Pokémon Go at these sites is to divorce them of all meaning, wrest them away from the hideous pasts they and all visitors must bear witness to. And I guess I lied; I have to extend moral judgement here, because that act?-is pretty profane.

At a site like the Vietnam War Memorial*, it’s a much more ambiguous relationship. This is a memorial to lives lost on a battlefield across the sea. It’s meaningful because we, as a society, have made it meaningful. People bring to it their grief and trauma and memories, and in doing so imbue it with  meaning. Or to put differently, the meaning of the Vietnam War Memorial is a constructed, but it’s a meaningful, important construct.

It is a symbolic site of mourning which means different things to each of the millions of people who visit it. One person could see playing Pokémon Go at the Vietnam Memorial as a horrific insult to fallen soldiers and veterans suffering from trauma, while another could see at as a tribute to a fun-loving grandfather, or never-met uncle. Because it is not on the site of death, the meanings of augmented reality gameplay at the Vietnam Memorial are too fractured for me to be able to make any definitive statements about them.

There’s a lot more to say here. About playing this and other augmented reality games at sites like cemeteries, war memorials, monuments, museums, art installations, gentrifying spaces; about space, interaction, memory, and human geography. I have really just begun to scratch the surface, and I welcome contributions.

*I used the Vietnam War Memorial as an example here, but this discussion can apply to any number of cemeteries or memorials or monuments located away from the site of death, or violence.

“Jewish Refugees and Shanghai”  by the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum

A reader wrote:

I spotted this exhibition (“Jewish Refugees and Shanghai”  by the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum) on the first floor corridor of the main building of the University of Basel the other day. Apparently the Confucius Institute at the University of Basel organised the exhibition here (the Jewish Museum of Switzerland, which is only two blocks away from the University, is not involved). Do you know anything about this exhibition?

I do. And as you may expect, I have some very strong feelings about it.

My problem with the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and that traveling
exhibit is that they both rest on a narrative of saviorism. And that narrative is false.

When the Central and Eastern European Jewish refugees began arriving in Shanghai in 1938, they were allowed in not because the city’s governments wanted nothing more than to save the Jews, but because the city lacked a united government that would be able to keep them out. By 1938, the city existed as three separately governed polities with Great Britain, the United States, France, and Japan as the main power holders. All three governments attempted to devise exclusionary policies, but the divided nature of the city governance created a situation in which neither these policies nor passport control
could be enforced to effectively keep Jewish refugees out of the city.

The Communist Party of China won the Chinese Civil War in 1950. Under the rule of Mao Zedong, most evidence of the Jewish refugees and their built environment was erased, their cemeteries built over, and their buildings re-purposed. The Jewish refugees and their historical experience in Shanghai had no place within the new post-imperialist Chinese state. This began to change in 1991.

In 1991, China officially recognized the State of Israel. In 2004, the government of Shanghai designated the Ohel Moshe synagogue—built by the Russian Jewish community of Shanghai in 1927 and later used by the WWII-era refugees—as an architectural treasure. In 2007, the People’s Government of the Hongkew District budgeted for a full renovation of the synagogue in accordance with its original architectural drawings. When the renovation was complete the government installed in the space the brand new Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. In 2008 the museum featured an exhibit dedicated to developments in the Sino-Israeli relationship; its website boasted:

“Mr. Yitzhak Rabin, the former Israeli Prime Minister, commented during his visit to Shanghai, ‘To the people of Shanghai for unique humanitarian act of saving thousands of Jews during the Second World War, thanks in the name of the government of Israel.’”

In 2012, historian Irene Eber wrote:

“Chinese interest in Jews and Israel as well as in Jews who once lived among them is
widespread today. Not only scholarly works, but also a number of recent popular publications support this interest. Several universities have Jewish Studies Institutes and visiting professors teach courses on Jewish topics. Translation work is flourishing and books on Jewish topics and fiction by major Israeli novelists are being translated. A new and very different chapter in Chinese-Jewish relations has begun.”

This is the context in which the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum must be understood.

The Museum’s website reads:

“From 1933 to 1941, Shanghai became a modern-day ‘Noah’s Ark’ accepting…Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust in Europe. In the ‘Designated Area for Stateless Refugees’…about 20,000 Jewish refugees lived harmoniously with local citizens, overcoming numerous difficulties together…Dr. David Kranzler, a noted Holocaust historian…commented that within the Jewry’s greatest tragedy, i.e. the Holocaust, there shone a few bright lights. Among the brightest of these is the Shanghai haven…the original features of the Jewish settlement are still well preserved. They are the only typical historic traces of Jewish refugee life inside China during the Second World War…[Hongkew] was the place where Jewish refugees lived in greatest concentration during the Second World War…in those days. Mr. Michael Blumenthal, ex-Secretary of the Treasury of the United States and the present curator of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, once lived in a small garret at 59 Zhoushan Road.”

As geopolitics move China and Israel together, the history of this refugee community suddenly has a place within the history of the Chinese state; it is no longer a forgotten moment in the imperialist chapter of Chinese history, but a piece of history which demonstrates China’s enduring interest in and care for the Jewish people.

The museum’s narrative is clear: Shanghai was a Noah’s Ark, not a city which, by accident of its history, had on opening into which ~20,000 Jews could squeeze; the Jews and the Chinese lived in harmony, not in separate communities which rarely interacted; the Chinese government is the preserver–the savior–of the history of the WWII-era Jewish refugees, not the Mao-era destroyer.

In the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, Shanghai is legitimized not simply as a place where Jewish refugees spent the years before, during, and after the Second World War, but as a space in which the refugees were actively saved. This museum, then, neither serves the memory nor speaks to the experiences of the refugees, but instead speaks to and serves contemporary Chinese political interests.

The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum currently has a traveling exhibit making the rounds with the cooperation of a variety of non-profit organizations. This, of course, is what you encountered at your university.

I attended the Capitol Hill kick-off event for that exhibit; one of my professors got me on the invite list. The event really had nothing to do with the historical experience of the Jewish refugees who spent ~1938-1950 in Shanghai. To be quite honest, it made me angry and upset, especially on the behalf of several former Shanghai refugees present. The event was filled with giggling Congressional staffers and interns who were only there for the free wine and food, and the exhibit got several simple facts wrong.

And then the speeches started. They had nothing to do with history. But, they did have a lot do with the relationships between the United States, China, and Israel, with a
little Japan thrown in as well.

Was it naive of me to be as taken off guard as I was? Yes. Should I have been surprised considering what I already knew about the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum? No. Am I well aware of the fact that the identities of and relationships between modern nation-states in the context of global capitalism are all about narratives and myth making? Yes. Am I still annoyed by that exhibit? Absolutely.

I’m glad that more people are becoming aware of this history, and I am glad that, despite the motivations, the Chinese government is preserving the history of this community and offering resources for researchers. I love that so many people in China are becoming more aware of and demonstrating a growing interest in Jewish history in China.

But I’m a historian and this is my research. I want to see those refugees and their memory put out there because they’re an important and fascinating piece of Holocaust history, not because they’re politically useful. But, here we are.

And those are my feelings on that museum and that exhibit.

Malintzin and the Subaltern

January 11, 2019: After I posted this on 5/17/2013, readers pointed out problematic, harmful elements of my presentation of this history. As a result of my casual writing style, I made light of the historical and contemporary violence, sexual and otherwise, which has been affecting the lives of Latina women since the time of conquest. This line has since been edited out, not to cover my rear, but because I listen to criticism, and strive to make my writing a space where members of marginalized groups can feel safe from microaggressions. Further, I’d like to make it clear that I do not seek to interpret this history through a modern Chicana lens. That is very much not my place as someone who shares neither that historical nor that lived experience. For these mistakes I would like to issue my deepest apologies to Latina readers of this blog, and I invite your ongoing commentary and critique.

Malintzin, also known by the pejorative La Malinche, and the Spanish title of Doña Marina, was a noble of the Nahua people. Her actions take place in the very complex historical setting of the end of Aztec hegemony in what we now refer to as Mexico, and the beginning of the Spanish conquest of Mexico and South America.

The relationship between the Aztec Empire and its subsidiary peoples and neighboring polities—which included Mayan groups—informed Malintzin’s contextualized actions, and the actions of other Mexican peoples.

The Nahua were the group from which the Aztec emerged, and were thus privileged within the Aztec sphere of influence. As a noble, Malintzin was afforded a phenomenal education, including in-depth language instruction. Her father died when she was still quite young. Her mother remarried, and soon bore a son to her new husband. For reasons which can never be determined, but which were probably to do with issues of wealth transference, Malintzin’s mother sold her to Mayan slave traders soon after the birth of her son.

Malintzin then disappears from the historical record until 1519, when she was purchased by a group of Spaniards. Most estimates put her in her mid to late teenage years at this point. Though Cortes gave her as a gift to one of his men, he decided to keep her at his side as a translator because of her fluency in both Mayan and Nahuatl. Sources from this period also speak highly of her looks, which may have also influenced Cortes’ behavior towards her. According to similar sources, she mastered the Spanish language within two weeks of the purchase of her person.

With Cortes, she helped to inform him of revolts against Spanish rule, accompanied him as an interpreter as he put down rebellions, and acted as a translator between him and Mexican peoples hoping that he would defend them against Aztec hegemonic oppression. Indeed, Adelaida R. Del Castillo argued that the Aztec Empire fell in part as a result of a coalition of their subsidiary peoples acting in concert with the Spanish conquerors.

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Cortes and Malintzin meet with Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II in 1519, from the Historia de Tlaxcala. Image courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

In 1521, soon after the fall of the Aztec Empire to Spain, Malintzin gave birth to a son fathered by Cortes. As a mark of esteem for her within the Spanish hierarchical system, he married her to Spanish noble Juan Jaramillo before his first return to Spain. Some scholars argue that Malintzin died in 1529, however, others argue that she is alluded to as though she is alive in letters found in Spain dated 1550, and referred to as though she was deceased in letters dated 1551.

Her role as translator and helper to Hernan Cortes, the man who destroyed the Aztec Empire and began the Spanish Empire in the New World, has caused her to be remembered primarily as a traitor, a whore; the woman who handed her people over to the man who slaughtered them and destroyed their civilization. Others remember her as a woman who liberated the Mexican peoples from the oppressive rule of the Aztecs, some characterizing her as the founder the modern Mexican nation. Chicana Feminist literature beginning around the 1960’s sought to attempt to reconstruct her life separated from the actions assigned to her over the past four centuries, and the most recent attempt to reconstruct her life devoid of myth and in historical context was penned by Camilla Townsend.

A problem, however, in the reconstruction of her life and the analysis of her actions is that most of what we know of her comes from Spanish sources; sources penned by Malintzin’s buyers, sellers, owners, and conquerors. Meaning, the very sources from which she can be reconstructed exist within a colonized context—the academic/theoretical term for the instance in which the only record of a person, or a people, was penned by their oppressor or conqueror is “subalternity,” with the study of these people, or groups, being “subaltern studies.” I use quotes not to imply that I am mocking this form of post-colonial criticism, but because I am introducing the term to those unfamiliar with it.

Malintzin was interacting with the intricate historical circumstances in which she lived, and must be understood within that context. And within that context, I would argue that she was a highly educated, highly intelligent member of the nobility who was able to become a political actor for both Spaniards and Aztec subsidiary peoples by virtue of that intelligence.

Which is pretty fascinating.

On Nationalist Historiography

Nationalist historiography is a way of looking at or studying history with the preconceived notion that a modern nation exists as a result of history, or, with the preconceived notion that history has being leading up to the existence of a modern nation. So if you are French, this means that you read and/or teach French history with the perspective that everything which occurred in the geographic area which is now France before the present happened because it was leading up to modern-day France.

I’m not picking on France here, because literally every nation/group that wants to be a nation does this. And often, they don’t even realize that they are doing it because it is a logical thing to do. People instinctively center their world view on themselves, so why shouldn’t they center their world view on their nation? The study of history is so challenging because, if you want to truly understand it, you have to have to be able to de-center yourself from your view of the world.

Image courtesy of Bill Watterson and gocomics.com

History is the study of past political, social, and economic interactions, and the effect of those interactions on subsequent events and interactions; it is like a gigantic never-ending web, and it is the job of the historian to try to understand and trace that web in really really tiny increments. If you are a proponent of nationalist historiography, then the web has an end, and all the threads were leading up to you. In erasing and discounting those other threads that didn’t lead directly up to you, you are erasing people, perspectives, lives, and interactions.

Thus, as a historian, I look at the present as a product of past interactions, and as the creator of subsequent interactions. I look at today as part of the whole; something which will grow and change and one day be as completely foreign to people as the Middle Ages are to us, and I try to base my personal actions and my political attitudes on this fact (I even succeed occasionally!). I am not naïve enough to think that everyone should, can, or will take up/aspire to this decentralized view of the world, but I do think the world would be a less violent place if they did. If that ever happens, you guys have to buy me a unicorn, okay?