Mountain against the Sea: Essays on Palestinian Society and Culture

January 29, 2009

Historians over the past few decades, both in the Middle East and outside it, have mined rich seams of archival sources and oral narratives to construct a resonant and productive body of scholarship examining the politics, economics and social lives of the people who lived in the region known as the Mashriq over the past 200 years.

Much of this historiography sheds light on the lives and struggles of ordinary people, illuminating how they worked, where they lived and how they interacted with their states, foreign invaders, political elites and with each other. Even more recently, interest in the popular cultural expressions of the Arabs of the Mashriq has led to a series of fascinating articles and books. Salim Tamari's Mountain against the Sea belongs to this category, even if it is so much more than just a history of pleasure and leisure.

The book is a collection of essays, some previously published in various journals and all already published in Arabic in Palestine. Drawing on memoirs, diaries and contemporaneous accounts, Tamari's book is held together by two common threads: the first is a richly detailed and entertainingly narrated story of Palestinian intelligentsia during the early 20th century, which includes revealing details about the leisure activities of this circle. We read about music and its audiences; about cafes and festivals; about love, both licit and illicit.

The second theme tying the disparate essays together is the story of the tensions that emerged between "mercantile coastal communities and mountain-dwelling smallholder peasants" in the 19th and 20th centuries. As the coastal urbanites dismissed and discarded the rituals of the mountain people as "backwards" and unmodern, the latter appropriated certain public practices and physical markers as authentic, and increasingly nationalist, symbols.

Almost wistful, the essays recount how the modern urbanites became disenchanted as communal rituals and festivals were abandoned and, in the process, religious practice acquired inflections of puritan piety. This tension is touched on throughout, even if not all the essays are directly concerned with this theme.

The reader is in the hands of a confident master storyteller. Essay after essay is enriched with arresting descriptions, illuminating anecdotes and intriguing details. A fascinating chapter on musician Wasif Jawahariyyeh, for example, offers not only the suspenseful story of the alliances Jawahariyyeh made with notable Jerusalem patrons, but also a fabulously readable sketch of life in late 19th- and early 20th-century Jerusalem. Surprisingly, for the leisured and middle classes in Jerusalem, the city wasn't only the dour and pious place one often finds in the accounts of the time, but also a city of much interaction between different sects, offering a second life of music and pleasure that was seemingly not lived in the shadows.

The chapters on nativist ethnographer and folklorist Tawfiq Canaan and the pedagogical reformist and prolific diarist Khalil Sakakini are equally abundant in the shimmering invocations of the lives and languages of the people of the era. Even the slighter chapters on Ishaq Shami of dual Jewish and Arab identity, "the last feudal lord" Omar Al-Salih al-Barghouthi and Najati Sidqi (the now forgotten Jerusalemite Bolshevik), have their share of telling, sometimes breathtaking, detail, such as Sidqi's serving on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.

The parts that explicitly counterpose the conflicting aesthetic, ethical and political sensibilities of the coastal and mountain people are most focused in attending to the spatially marked divisions and differences that intersect with class, gender and national belongings, but the more biographical essays have a coruscating quality - and a more narrative format - that makes them pleasurable to read.

Some of the book is marred by perfunctory and repetitive concluding sections that bring the essays to an all-too-abrupt ending, while the volume as a whole is missing an overall conclusion. The latter would have been a welcome counterpoint to the masterful and fluid introduction, and could have been a useful occasion for reflecting on the intersections, overlaps and gaps in the topics of the essays and on what this oft-forgotten history might mean for Palestinian historiography. But despite these minor flaws, the volume is an erudite and original contribution to the history of the Middle East and an inspiring and enjoyable piece of scholarship.

Mountain against the Sea: Essays on Palestinian Society and Culture

By Salim Tamari. University of California Press 256pp, £24.95. ISBN 9780520251298. Published 4 November 2008

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