The Power of Memory

Collective hatred comes from narratives of cultural memory.

In 1916, anticipating victory, France, Russia, and Britain created the “Middle East” out of the remains of the 600-year old Ottoman Empire. Lebanon and Iraq were directly controlled, others kept in spheres of influence. Haifa, Gaza, and Jerusalem were an Allied “condominium.” Arms control was strictly European. The Arab powers learned of this at war’s end (1917). Agreements assuring Arab independence had disappeared.

Such are the ingredients for a future cultural memory.

The Ottoman Empire was corrupt but, except for focused examples such as the Armenian genocide, generally carried an attitude of conflictual co-existence toward religious difference. Now arrived a master race that thought itself justified in controlling and systematizing the locals, without any social contract, often by remote control. An inchoate resentment stirred in people at ground level who could not combat this transformation. Women felt it strongly, thinking of men as holding their dignity. The skeleton of a cultural memory in the making now fleshes out.

With the Balfour Declaration (1917), approved by the League of Nations (1922), Britain is charged to administer parts of the defunct Ottoman Empire, “until such time as they are able to stand alone.”

Nothing should be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, the declarations say. Now the sense of a religious as well as civil right is ready to form without internal institutional intellectual support, and the narrative of “cultural memory” thickens further. The outrage is strongest in those–less privileged, landlocked–who are made to feel that they do not deserve to live on their land.

After 1948, the power that had passed from Ottoman to Europe, passes to United States and Israel. Israel begins to justify itself by cultural memory: biblical narrative. The question of the right to religion solidifies, transformed into the new abstract idiom of the state. For Israel this is sharpened by past European oppression and denial of Europeanness. In Palestine, however, the right to land as sacred space cannot invoke that pre-history as justification for the displacement of original inhabitants, who also now begin to inhabit religious rights discourse.

Islam is international. The discourse of religion permitted connections: with the CIA-backed Taliban in Afghanistan, the post-independence recoding of Hindu-Muslim conflictual coexistence upon the Indian subcontinent, the emergence of the Wahhabis, consequences of the Shah’s deposition in Iran, and, after 1989, the “Islamic” post-Soviet bloc. Cultural memory as “religion” can now create an ideology of just war through early childhood education of the deprived.

After World War II, the United States picked up Europe’s burden. And “America” seemed to get away with everything–remaining the repository of Enlightenment virtues, the shining land where immigrants flock. Yet, looking at Haiti, the Congo, or Chile–Aristide, Lumumba, Allende, the list goes on–it seems absurd to say that America stands for justice and right. And Israel is regularly described as the only democracy in the region.

That’s why “they” want to harm “us”–because, for a long time, “we” seem to have wanted to harm “them,” and own “them,” for no reason at all: imperial foreign policy, narrativized into cultural memory. Yet “we” are the angels. As a literary critic/activist/educator, I think to find such causes–though I applaud Helen Thomas’s tenacity–is as counterproductive as avoiding the question. For the point is to dislodge the polarization, unmake narrative, undo memory. Impossible tasks.

by Gayatari Spivak

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