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November 17, 2004: Perspective


Illustration by Daniel Baxter

Teaching the past, on its own terms
When students view history through a 9/11 lens

By Molly Greene *93

Molly Greene *93 is an associate professor of history at Princeton.

usannah Elm, a friend and colleague of mine at the University of California—Berkeley, teaches courses on the ancient world and early Christianity. In this context, she has taught on many occasions about the Jewish revolt against the Romans at Masada. At Masada in A.D. 73, the Jewish defenders of the fortress chose to commit mass suicide rather than surrender to the Roman army. Every year before the September 11 attacks, the students rooted for the Jews. They were, after all, the underdogs — and Americans, out of an attachment to their own founding myths, like to be on the side of the little guy. This changed after September 11. Together Susannah and the class read Eleazar’s speech at Masada, in which he exhorted the Jews to commit suicide rather than submit to the Romans. He said: “It is life that is a calamity to men, and not death; for this last affords our souls their liberty, and sends them by a removal into their own place of purity.” The class was uncomfortable because, for the first time, they could see the issue from the Roman point of view. And they are unaccustomed to being the Empire.

Another friend and colleague, also in California, teaches all aspects of Islamic and Middle Eastern history. Every year she shows the famous film The Battle of Algiers. When the film was made in 1966, by the Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo, it was widely viewed as a left-wing tribute to the breathtakingly brave Algerian revolutionaries, who took on a brutal colonial regime and won. At least in my friend’s class, this original meaning of the film has been completely lost. Now the students simply recoil at the violence, at the veiled female revolutionaries who hide weapons under their cloaks. The students are uninterested in, or unimpressed by, the anticolonial aspect of the struggle. How quickly the past becomes remote, in the sense that we find it difficult to relate to the problems and preoccupations of an earlier time.

My own position is rather interesting. Many, although not all, undergraduates at Princeton are drawn to taking courses about this part of the world because of the wars and high-level political conflicts that receive such attention in the media. Being a historian of the Ottoman Empire, I teach courses on the Balkans as well as on the Middle East, and I remember that my enrollments rose during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. One fall semester I was teaching both a class on the Balkans and a class on Jerusalem. (Just when the semester began the Israeli government ignited a firestorm by opening an archaeological tunnel underneath the Dome of the Rock, creating even more interest and discussion in our class.)

All of these issues must, of course, figure prominently in my undergraduate teaching, and yet I am a historian of the day-to-day and of the ordinary. In my own research I work on the history of early modern business in the Near East and the Mediterranean. I am much more likely to be thinking about how someone transported wheat from Alexandria to Istanbul than I am about war.

I try to convey some of this ordinariness to my students. In part I do this because of my own interests. But I also do it because I think it is important to have students realize that there is more to Middle Eastern and Islamic history than war, religion, and struggle. There is music, the family, and the life of the village alongside some of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. In addition, conflict in this part of the world has been so intense lately, and has been covered in the media so extensively, that one could easily conclude that violence is endemic to the region. This has the effect of taking current political problems out of history.

Obviously, in a history course, I try to put the history back in. My students always are surprised to learn that under the Ottomans, Jerusalem was a rather sleepy backwater town for almost 400 years. This semester, I am teaching a course on early modern business in the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world. One of the assigned books is an account of the life of an Egyptian coffee merchant who lived in the early 17th century. Just a few weeks ago, a student came up to me and told me she was astonished. When I asked her why, she said she was amazed by the cosmopolitan and freewheeling nature of the commercial world of Cairo at that time. Then she wondered, “How have things gotten to be the way they are?” This is the beginning of thinking historically, part of which is coming up with a convincing account of how things change.

An equally fundamental task of historical analysis is understanding the differences between today’s world and the worlds of the past. In most of my teaching, this is where I put my energies. I try to convey the worlds of the past, specifically the Ottoman past of the modern Middle East. Since September 11 there is always the temptation either to focus on the present or to teach the past with present concerns in mind, the how-everything-led-up-to-the-events-of-9/11 version of Middle Eastern history. I avoid this approach. It fails to consider Ottoman society on its own terms.

I also think that students benefit from immersing themselves in a time and a place that have disappeared. Among other things, when they return to the 21st century, they can more readily see what is distinctive about our own world. For example, one can say that the Ottomans were Islamic rulers in the sense that they were both Sultans and Muslims. But Islamic rule in the premodern world has little in common with the demands of political Islam today. Al-Qaida, in its relentless insistence on religious authenticity and purity, is thoroughly modern. An Ottoman statesman from the 16th century would have turned up his nose at what he would have certainly seen as rabble-rousing. Ottoman rule followed an entirely different logic, one of protection and obedience. The Sultan extended his protection to his subjects, regardless of religious identity, and demanded obedience in return. It is this world of deference and submission, rather than the toxic brew of religion and politics, that is truly foreign to the 21st century. end of article



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