martedì 16 giugno 2009

Overthrowing Geography

I just bought the book because I wanted to learn the history of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, but the book proved to be enlightening from the first pages.

It also gives powerful arguments against the opposers of Turkey's joining the European Union, as it shows that Turkey is a nation no less modern than the 27 EU members, and Islam and modernity can match.


From Mark Levine’s book Overthrowing Geography. Jaffa, Tel Aviv, and the Struggle for Palestine 1880-1948, pages 8-10.

[page 8]

Indeed, as Pomeranz argues, Europe was neither the center nor even the dominant power in the world economy until the nineteenth century (China held that distinction), [20] while closer to home, intra-Ottoman trade was more valuable than trade with Europe until the same period. [21] The teleological narrative of Europe as the prime mover of modernity and everyone else as responding to it must therefore be discarded in favor of constructing a narrative of a polycentric world with long-standing interconnections and no dominant center until the nineteenth century, when a combination of luck, geography (its location vis-à-vis the New World), and favorable resource stocks, especially coal, enabled the completion of a transformation from competitive to imperial capitalism that Europe alone was fortuitously positioned to make. [22] This process necessitated a universalization of both the economic and the ideological aspects of modernity, and in so doing it constituted the “point of departure for the conquest of the world”. [23]

Although considerations of space prohibit a detailed rehearsal of the debates over and most recent scholarship on the historiography of the late Ottoman Empire, an analysis of Palestine must be situated within larger discussions of the nature and scope of Ottoman state modernization and centralization policies – which took place “under conditions of inter-imperialist rivalry,” particularly after the imposition of the Ottoman Public Debt Administration in 1882, yet maintained a fair degree of autonomy and agency [24] – and their impact on the country’s economic, cultural, and political development. Only then can we understand how and why, with the imposition of the British rule, a different kind of modernity emerged in Palestine, one that turned Jaffa into a space of nonmodernity vis-à-vis the increasingly Jewish landscape surrounding it.

If the Ottomans themselves understood their power to have begun to wane in the late seventeenth century, [25] the empire was considered one of Europe’s “best colonies” by the late eighteenth century, an attitude that was naturally translated into European politics toward and scholarship on the empire even after its demise. Any attempt to refashion a less Eurocentric historiography of the late Ottoman Levant must therefore escape the well-laid trap of colonial rationality and instead decolonize Ottoman history by exploring the roots and dynamics of its many political economies vis-à-vis their own intentionalities and rationalities, which are much richer and more authentic than their depiction as pale copies of the European master narrative suggests. [26]

A more complex and accurate narrative would begin by understanding that far from being a period of decline, the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries were a time of the institutionalization and transformation of the

[page 9]

empire, during which it was affected by many of the same processes that produced such dramatic changes in (at least northern) Europe. [27] Thus during the pivotal nineteenth century, although for very different and often contradictory reasons, both the European powers and the Ottoman elite sought to “modernize”, “centralize”, “individualize”, and thus strengthen the Ottoman state, [28] which produced a set of institutions that made it more powerful, rationalized, positivistic, specialized, liberal, and capable of imposing its will on its subject than ever before. [29]

Yet, “rather than a wholesale importation of European modes of political and social organization, Ottoman modernity involved a process of mediation and translation to adapt new ideas from the West to radically different settings across the Empire.” [30] One of the primary means to achieve this modernity was through the establishment of a “new” land regime (in 1858), and the tax revenues it would produce, whose goal was to establish title to every piece of productive land in the empire and in so doing establish a one-to-one correspondence between a piece of property and the person(s) paying taxes on it. If such a dynamic held in the more peripheral districts east of the Jordan, in the Jaffa region – one of the most productive in Palestine if not the empire – this Ottoman modernism would profoundly shape the region’s subsequent history. [31]

In fact, the late Ottoman state consciously imagined and portrayed itself in quite modern terms. Yet “modern” did not have to mean “European” (it often meant just plain “new”). [32] As Boutros (Butrus) Abu-Manneh argues, the well-known Hatt-ı Şerif of Gülhane, generally understood as inaugurating the Tanzimat period, can be interpreted as being grounded almost entirely in Ottoman-Islamic (and perhaps even Sufi) sources. Its resonance with “Western” or “European” modernizing discourses, at least until the second half of the century, was thus one of sympathy and correspondence rather than direct influence and imitation. [33]

In this sense, the “revival and regeneration of religion and state, land and community” could be interpreted as helping to usher in (or in some places, including perhaps Jaffa, solidify) a Levantine modernity – one in which “security of life, honor and property”, public trials, and the extension of basic rights to all subjects could have created a noncolonial liberal capitalism if they had the time to develop. [34] On the other hand, as the century wore on, the Sublime Porte increasingly considered itself a “modern member of the civilized community of nations” and the “committed advocate of reform in the Orient”; it even desired to emulate the other “civilized” nations by sending colonists to the “dark continent” to “bring the light of Islam into savage regions.” [35]

[page 10]

In this vein, religious law, or fiqh, was updated to the “needs of modern times” and deployed to “civilize” the provinces, while in Palestine and other Arab provinces the state pursued an educational “mission civilisatrice” in which the sons of prominent Jerusalem families (among others) were enrolled in the new schools that used the “splendor of the spectacle” of Ottoman modernity to inculcate the “blessings of civilization to the Arabs … still in a state of nomadism and savagery.” [36] Also of particular relevance to the Palestinian context – and indicative of the consequences of the modernity deployed by the state – is that while the Porte went to great lengths to prevent acquisition of land by “foreign” Muslims in key regions such as the Hejaz, it supported (or at least did little to prevent) such sales to Europeans, particularly Jews, in the Holy Land. [37]

In short, late-nineteenth-century Ottoman reforms often embodied an order that bore significant similarities to the colonial regimes that would replace the Ottoman state decades later. [38] But even as the Porte desired to join the European colonial club as a partner, by the Young Turk revolution in 1908 – one year before the establishment of Tel Aviv – the imbalance of power between the empire and Europe was such that it could only be understood as taking place “in a colonial context”, with the empire on the losing end of the equation. [39] Yet however negatively modern and deleterious for its Palestinian subjects Ottoman political discourses became during the nineteenth century, in fin-de-siècle Jaffa at least a specifically noncolonial modernity seems to have developed that in turn created a specifically Levantine “third space” in which incommensurable subcultures were, for a time, spatially reconciled. [40] Put another way, a unique balance of political and economic power and culture existed in the region that produced a cosmopolitan Levantine-Mediterranean culture that for several decades was free of the more pernicious effects of colonialism, nationalism, and even capitalism while retaining the hybridity and newness that have always defined modernity – and the modern city. [41]


[At last I decided against copying the notes, as they’re of little value to those who haven’t got the whole book and can’t therefore read the bibliography as well]


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