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History told like it matters - because it does

 Real Change (USA) 24 May 2019

(Originally published: 10/2009) “This is a system that has come under great attack from western historians, who seem to imagine that newspaper accounts are more reliable,” says Lesley Hazleton. The Seattle author speaks to Real Change and explains how Islam’s oldest wounds still ache today.  - Adam Hyla

Real Change

Courtesy of Real Change News

In the sunlit living room of her Lake Union houseboat, Lesley Hazleton is about to make a point. She disappears for a moment and returns with a plain paperback. It's one of 39 volumes written by the ninth-century Arabic historian Al-Tabari, the first to record the early days of one of the world's newest religions, Islam.

For a whole year, Al-Tabari's histories were arrayed on the living room floor: source material for the book that we are discussing this morning. But they weren't hers; they belonged to the University of Washington's Suzzallo Library.

Since the library had only one copy of each, "I had to give them back if somebody else wanted them," she says. "Nobody else ever wanted them."

That may serve as a commentary on American incuriousness about a faith bound tight to the politics of some very important nations - places to which we're sending troops and treasure. But we ought to be glad that Hazleton could consult Al-Tabari's texts in peace. From them, she's rendered a gripping narrative of real events, "After the Prophet: the Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam" (Doubleday, 2009).

True history told with the narrative suspense of a novel, it begins with Muhammad's failure to name an heir. It's propelled by the ambition of his youngest wife, Aisha, and by the forbearance of his son-in-law, Ali, as the two lock in a decades-long rivalry over the soul of the new religion and the leadership of an empire. And it ends - well; this is where history takes flight into the mythic for the Shia, Islam's powerful minority sect. Because the book's ending culminates with the death in battle of Muhammad's grandson Hussein at Karbala, in present-day Iraq. Each year, the Shia re-enact the 10-day siege of his entourage in a period called Muharram, and if they can, they converge upon the spot where he fell: present-day Karbala, 50 miles from Baghdad. For them, Hussein's death was an act of self-sacrifice that would restore the faith of the new empire - an act consummate with that of Jesus on Calvary.

Knowing what Karbala means, we can begin to understand the import of March 4, 2019. It was the day called Ashara, the final day of Muharram in the first year after Saddam was removed. As Shia pilgrims converged on Karbala for the first time since before the dictator, a 30-minute barrage killed 178 and wounded 500. The perpetrators? Sunni extremists operating under the sobriquet Al Qaeda. It freshened the meaning, writes Hazleton, of the Shia phrase "Every day is Ashara, and every place is Karbala." In much of the Middle East, the bloodshed of history soaks into the present.

Hazleton is a former correspondent for Time, Esquire, and the New York Review of Books. She covered the 1973 war in Israel for Time Magazine, reported from Jordan and Egypt, and heard the poetic stories of Bedouin elders in the Sinai Desert as they recited legends of the stars - an experience she incorporated into her 1980 travelogue "Where Mountains Roar." Her other books include "Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother" (2004) and "Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen" (2007)."

Real Change: This book is just really fascinating. Great narrative non-fiction.

Lesley Hazleton Thank Al-Tabari for that.

R.C.: What was he relying upon? As he wrote.

L.H.: He was writing about 150 years later. He was based in Baghdad and he traveled all throughout the Muslim world at the time, interviewing people, getting them to give him the stories they had heard. This is a system that has come under great attack from western historians, who seem to imagine that newspaper accounts are more reliable. But he went to great pains to make it reliable. He would establish the chain of communication, so he would talk to A who would say: "I heard this from B, who heard this from C, who was there when it happened." Then he'd also talk to F, who'd say "I heard this from G, who heard this from H, who heard this from I, who was there when it happened." The reason it's 39 volumes long is that he almost obsessively visits the same events again and again. But each time it's told, it's in a different voice, from a different point of view. While the general ideas agree, some remember this detail, some remember that detail. But you can hear the individual voices very, very clearly. It's amazing that this ninth century Islamic history is so basically postmodern in its structure. Around and around in time. It is an extraordinarily vivid history. It has this pithiness and visceral energy to it which one is completely unused to in what you would usually think of as history. I realize that the way he tells it, is a way that most westerners would not enjoy, unless you were used to the Middle Eastern way of storytelling. What I've done basically is a kind of cultural translation of Al-Tabari and other early Islamic historians. Blending it in with what's happening now, because what happened then and what happened now is the same thing in the Middle East. There is no difference between then and now.

R.C.: These two characters who take up much the book, Ali [Muhammad's son-in-law] and Aisha [the prophet's most powerful widow], are so different and so well articulated. They are the two main contestants for the legacy of Muhammad.

L.H.: With totally different styles. One is far more self-contained as the spiritual successor and the other, who has no chance of being either the spiritual or the political, because of her gender - but she was right there in the middle of it all nonetheless. Whether you like her or don't like her, she is outspoken, she is out there, she is involved. Whenever she can be, she's center stage. She is the antithesis of our usual image of Muslim women.

R.C.: We've often had on hand the idea that we went to Iraq in ignorance. Yet it hasn't always appeared that way to the Muslim world.

L.H.: Yes. Arrogance is ignorance. It's as though, if the tables were turned, the Muslim world were totally unaware of the Christ story. Of course the Muslim world is not totally unaware of the Christ story, not the least because it's part of their history too and Jesus is one of the great Muslim prophets. But also because the colonialized knows the colonialist far better than the colonialist knows the colonialized. What's been happening recently is a continuation or a culmination - I don't know which - of the history of colonialism in the Middle East for the past 100 years. Which has been a history of the most cavalier actions from the west, all in total ignorance. There is a very strong feeling that the , a word used for civil war, discord or dissension within Islam, has been manipulated from without by western powers in order to weaken them. From their point of view this is an argument that you can see might have some merit. Of course they accord the west far more awareness and knowledge than it's ever had. I don't think they can see that it's done out of this abysmal ignorance. But as I say, ignorance is the basis of arrogance.

R.C.: Given the deep riff between Sunni and Shia, does a secular democracy look possible in that region?

L.H.:The whole of the Middle East is a place where religion and politics are so inextricably intertwined that to not even acknowledge that is just asking for trouble. Is it possible? I don't know. But the very idea that one can impose democracy is a fundamentally undemocratic idea. One of the wonderful things about Americans is that you think if you can just figure out what the problem is, you can fix it. But it's also a naïve idea in the context of the Middle East. It's an irony that in the oldest place in the world, Iraq, in a sense it's like there's no history at all. What happened at Karbala in 680 might as well have happened yesterday morning. It's kept alive in people's minds and their hearts. You trample all over it at your own peril, let alone theirs.

R.C.: What would you say should happen in Afghanistan?

L.H.:Out, out, out. We have to let go of this obsession with Al Qaeda. I wish we could fix Afghanistan, but we can not. The most we can do is understand it. We have to listen to them. There is nothing we can do in the region to make matters better for the people there, because we do not understand the region. The very fact that this story, if it's told at all, is told in two or three sentences is a major symptom of what's wrong in our whole approach.

R.C.: How did you come across this story?

L.H.:I wrote a biography of Mary, as in Virgin. And I wrote a biography of Jezebel, from the other side as it were. These stories begin as political issues and in 200-300 years they become theologized. A friend said I should write a biography of Muhammad, and I said, "Don't you think that's been done before?" But I read a few, and what really interested me about those biographies was what happened after. I could see that the Shia-Sunni split began the moment he died, and this horrible massacre at Karbala took place less than 50 years later. Then I came across Al-Tabari and thought, "Oh my God, this story has to be told in the U.S."

R.C.: So many people after 9/11 went out and bought copies of the Koran, yet I don't believe that's a very good guide to modern Islam. This is.

L.H.:Yes, the Koran doesn't tell a story as the Christian gospels do, as the Hebrew Bible does. It's intended as a record of revelations. and it's all the more confusing because the original sequence of the revelations has been changed.How is this story transmitted in the Islamic world? Partly through ritual, as in the 10 days of Muharram, the reenactment of the siege of Hussein's forces. Every single detail is re-enacted in homes, and of course the details accrue, much like the apocryphal details of the story of Jesus and Mary. It's continually learned. What stories work themselves deep into your heart are an essential part of your identity. And there are times when being Shia or Sunni do not figure prominently, and there are other times when they are foremost. Those are often times when there's a vacuum in power and everything is up for grabs.

R.C.: What effect would you like this book to have in 10 years?

L.H.: The immediate effect I'd like to have is for someone to close this book and say, "Oh my God," to say, "What have we done?" The longer term effect is to have a greater respect for other cultures, other people. This is obvious to say, but: a respect for what is sacred to other people. To recognize that our tendency, the very American tendency to look for good guys and bad guys, is both self defeating and defeating for the people we label good guys and bad guys. What I've done here is to tell an immensely complex story in a way that would not be felt as immensely complex. But I would love it if we could have some respect for complexity. I know it's not easy - I know it's easier to choose sides. But we really must stop doing this. We can't afford it and the people we think we're doing it for can't afford it. We need to be wiser.

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