Offering an insightful account of a period often neglected by historians, Salim Tamari’s book The Great War and the Remaking of Palestine provides a window into the lost world of late-Ottoman Palestine and the intricate web of political and social relations it enabled.
Despite the old adage that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, in the case of The Great War and the Remaking of Palestine, readers can gauge a great deal from the image which has been used. The cover sports a now famous photograph of Britain’s General (later Field Marshal) Edmund Allenby entering Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate, as British forces captured the city in 1917 during the latter stages of the First World War. Towering above the scene is a colossal clock tower, erected atop the ancient gate as an homage to Ottoman modernity and progress in 1908. An American flag flies from a nearby building. The star and crescent, adopted by the Ottoman Empire as its flag in the mid-nineteenth century, can be seen reimagined in decorative tiling. Men wear tarbushes, and women carry parasols as they watch among the crowd.
This is Jerusalem, and indeed Palestine, in the midst of great change. It was a time of plurality, of diverse Ottoman identity, or Osmenlilik, and of social development. It was also a time of rivalries, revolutions and counter-revolutions. It is this moment in time that Salim Tamari sets out to explore. The Ottoman period has been neglected and derided by historians of all shades, and shunned by Palestinian scholars seeking to emphasise the distinct Palestinian-ness of their history; by Turkish scholars keen to distance themselves from the imperial forerunner of the modern Turkish state; and by Europeans clinging to the notion that, were it not for their intervention, the Levant would have remained a backwater devoid of modernity and civilisation.
Yet what Tamari shows is that far from a decaying empire swept along passively by international currents of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire, and with it Palestine, has a vibrant and colourful history that deserves to be studied. The author begins by focusing on the work of Rafiq Al-Tamimi, a Nabulsi Palestinian educated in Istanbul and Paris, who later worked as a history lecturer in Salahiyya College in Jerusalem. Tamimi is believed to be the primary author of Filistin Risalesi, or the Treatise on Palestine, a military manual given to Ottoman soldiers during the First World War. For Tamari, this manual, combined with Tamimi’s other work. Wilayat Beirut, “constitute[s] an important benchmark in the literary discourse on the remaking of Palestine as an autonomous geographic entity within greater Syria and the Ottoman Arab provinces.”
Contrary to claims made repeatedly in the decades since — that Palestine “never existed” or was only created under the British Mandate imposed on the region in the early 1920s — Tamari demonstrates that, as early as the sixteenth century, “the term Filistin was systematically used to designate the southern Syrian districts.” While acknowledging that the borders were often amorphous and overlapping, Tamari points to numerous examples of early Ottoman mapping marking Filistin as a distinct geographical area with an equally distinct character.
Whether in the form of Ottoman maps, unpublished diaries from the early twentieth century or other original sources such as memoirs, the extensive research that has gone into Tamari’s book is clear to see. Even the most cursory glance at his bibliography demonstrates his propensity to work across English, Arabic, Ottoman Turkish and Hebrew sources, allowing him to draw on a rich body of knowledge that rarely comes together in one study.
In chapter six, for example, he draws on the accounts of two early twentieth century historians, Muhammad Izzat Darwazeh and Ihsan Al-Nimr, to compose a detailed account of local Nabulsi history. In doing so, Tamari challenges Nablus’s often fiery and revolutionary image by recounting an episode in which the city acted as “a bastion of conservatism and a centre for counterrevolutionary activities.” Tamari points to a case in 1909, when Nablus rallied against the Young Turks revolution of the previous year, seeking instead to restore the dictatorship of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the Ottoman ruler renowned for his repressive policies. Although this was a small, somewhat short-lived countercoup movement, by reading the incident through the eyes of two local historians of the time, each with opposing views, Tamari demonstrates the value of “local history [as] a window on the larger forces transforming Palestine and Syria at the end of empire.”
What is more, those familiar with Tamari’s work will be able to discern his attention to detail and thoughtful style throughout The Great War and the Remaking of Palestine. It is the small details — for example, the inclusion of Ottoman Turkish or Arabic place names and dates from the Ottoman and Rumi calendars — that attest to the careful manner in which Tamari goes about his work. The influence of his previous publications can also be seen, with five of the book’s chapters building on previous articles published by him in the Jerusalem Quarterly.
Just one example is Tamari’s reference to Wasif Jawhariyyeh, a Jerusalemite who kept detailed diaries of daily life in the city and its mix of cultures, religions and social groups. Jawhariyyeh regularly observed different confessional communities engaging in the religious festivals of others, such as the Sephardic and Arab-Jewish festival of “Shim’on the Just” in Sheikh Jarrah, in which Christians and Muslims also took part. In citing such examples, The Great War and the Remaking of Palestine stays true to Tamari’s academic roots as part of the relational history movement. This is an academic approach which seeks to move beyond nationalist narratives of Israel-Palestine and focus on microhistories, on points of interaction between the multiple communities that have existed in the region for centuries; it is a far cry from the polemics that dominate the political arena today.
It is a shame that a number of basic typographical errors were not picked up during the editing process, but this should not detract from what is otherwise a beautifully compiled collection and an insightful look into late-Ottoman Palestine. Although far from a general Israel-Palestine reader, The Great War and the Remaking of Palestine is an important contribution to the study of Palestine that moves beyond the by now well-trodden national narratives and seeks to understand the region through the eyes of those who lived in it.