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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Palestine on the eve of modern Zionism

I just found a remarkably detailed yet concise article describing the state of southern Syria (which included Palestine) in 1883, written by Captain C. R. Conder in the Fortnightly Review, a major British magazine. Conder was a prominent British explorer and surveyor of the area for a number of decades.

As with other similar descriptions from that era, the article is filled with bigotry, but it solidifies the facts that we know about that era in Palestine:

* The only people that regarded Palestine as an entity, in any sense, were Westerners.

* The Arabs of Palestine identified themselves by their clans, not by their geographic area. They would never have referred to themselves as "Palestinian" but rather as "Husseinis" or "Keis".

* These Arab clans fought each other as fiercely as they fought non-Arabs. The idea of Arab unity was a fiction that they told each other but that never really existed.

* Palestine itself was in seriously bad economic shape before mass Jewish immigration. At that time, the only optimism there was about the Palestinian economy improving was with Jewish return to the land. This author was skeptical about it but he notes the growth of the Jewish population and investment.

Right before modern Zionism, things were getting worse for the local Arabs. The author saw a marked loss in their standards of living between 1872 and 1882.

Other interesting parts of the article are its prescient views on the colonialist designs on the area from France, England and Russia, and its findings on the lack of faith among the Muslims at the time.

Here is a very large excerpt from the article:
THE able administrator who for the last twenty-two years has impartially executed the laws framed immediately after the massacres of 1860 for the protected province of the Lebanon, has, only quite recently, been dismissed from an office which he had every right to regard as intended to be held during life ; and Rustem Pasha leaves (for no very evident reason) the government of a country which has grown rich and prosperous under his care. The condition of the rest of Palestine and Syria is, on the other hand, miserable ; and those who have known the country for the last ten years are able to judge how much it has declined from even the very modest degree of prosperity which it formerly enjoyed. It is true that at Beyrout and round Jerusalem many new houses have been built, while the American mission has spread not only through Lebanon but into the districts immediately adjoining. It is true that the Jewish population of Jerusalem has increased enormously, and that the Jews of Hebron and Safed have also augmented their numbers and attained to greater influence ; but these signs of progress, together with the spread of German colonists from Jaffa and Haifa to other towns, are not as encouraging as would at first be supposed.

The peasantry, who are the backbone of the population, have diminished most sadly in numbers and in wealth. Ten years ago the village Sheikh generally rode a fair horse, and was not ill-dressed ; now the tourist may travel for a whole day without meeting one of the native horsemen he used once to encounter ; and those who hate had to buy horses know how few remain in the country, and how the strong half-bred Arabs are now mostly in the hands of the contractors, who provide for the annual tourist army conducted by Mr. Cook, or some other enterprising organizer of travel. The Syrian dragoman, gorgeous in purple robes, as handsome a rascal as one could wish to meet, a capitalist working on his own account, is a thing of the past. He has disappeared before Western competitive prices, and is superseded by the humbler and less picturesque though more honest retainer of the British firm of Cook.

In village life the same process may be observed. The people are fewer, the villages even are less numerous. Many which I found prosperous in 1872 are now either deserted or half ruinous, and we never heard of a new settlement of Moslem or even Christian natives.

The cruel war with Russia half ruined Palestine. The flower of the male population was carried off to the Balkans, and the young Sheikh of Gibeon (a place of perhaps five hundred souls) told me in 1881 that out of twenty men taken from that one village he was the only one who had returned alive. Riding through the land I was more than once offered a village with its lands for sale, the peasants being no longer able to pay the taxes or meet the demands of usurers, Jewish, Greek, or Armenian, into whose clutches they were falling, after paying 60 to 70 per cent, for many years for money borrowed to pay the Government.

The consequences of this misery are, either that the population of a hamlet gradually dies out, the men being unable to marry, while illicit connections before marriage are very rare among the Moslems, or else the elders of the village, with the consent of the rest of the men, sell themselves and their lands into the hands of some capitalist, or of the usurer who has lent most money to the community. The evil does not, however, stop here. A capitalist willing to spend money on the rich soil of the Sharon plains might no doubt reap a good interest by employing the native labour, and he might considerably better the physical and moral condition of his serfs by judicious liberality in bad seasons. The peasantry are neither lazy nor stupid, and when contented and happy they will do a good day's work and serve their master cheerfully. But they find it hard to forget the means whereby generally their new master has obtained possession of the land, and they certainly cherish the dim hope of one day regaining the ancient fee-simple which they have generally held since the Moslem conquest in the twelfth century, or possibly for many centuries before. The plains of Jaffa have now been bought up by capitalists, some of whom are Jews, some Greek Christians, some Maronites from Lebanon ; but there is nothing more difficult in the lands ruled by the Porte than to establish a title to landed property. Theoretically any one who conforms to Turkish law has now the right to acquire property by purchase ; practically a flaw is soon found by one official after the other, and each official either increases his own income at the purchaser's expense or else involves the more scrupulous landowner, who refuses to pay an unending and ruinous baksheesh, in legal expenses which are almost equally ruinous, and which in turn entail other demands on the part of those who have the sale of the precious commodity ot justice.

Yet, although the peasant and the capitalist are thus in equally grievous plight, it must not be supposed that the Turkish Government is any the better off. Taxes are paid, it is true, two or three times over by peasant and landlord ; but the tax-collector refuses to disburse. There are cases in which an official defaulter has been tried and condemned, yet again reinstated in his office without paying what he owed the Government, partly on account of a judicious distribution of bribes, and partly because his superiors knew that a new man might be more rapacious, because poorer, than the old offender.

Another circumstance which has aggravated the misery of the country is the not unnatural suspicion which has arisen in the Sultan's mind regarding the designs of France, England, and Russia on his Syrian province. There can be no doubt that intrigue is rife throughout the country. The military attache of the French Embassy at Constantinople who visited the Hauran in 1881, but who was so successfully escorted by the Turks as to be unable to enter into any relation with the Druzes or Moslems, was probably but one out of many officials actively employed in intrigues directed against the Sultan. The recent rebellion of the Druzes was thought to be fomented by foreigners. The Maronites have been more than once encouraged by the promise of French assistance to gather and to protest against Turkish regulations. It is said that many thousands sterling have been spent by the French republican Government to assist the schools in Lebanon, and even in Moab, which have been inaugurated by missionaries of that very Church which has been so persecuted at home in France, yet which is found w useful a political engine abroad ; and in all cases where schools have been so assisted it is said to have been stipulated that French alone among foreign languages was to be taught, and that the learning of English should be discouraged.

Nor has Russia been less active in the Holy Land. Without counting certain surveys which are said to have been secretly executed in Northern Syria, there is abundant evidence of the pious interest which the Czar and his orthodox subjects are taking in the Holy Places of Jerusalem and Galilee. Almost the only new buildings in Nazareth are Russian chapels, and churches have sprung up —at Fuleh and Nain, at the newly-discovered site of the meeting of Christ with Mary near Bethany, at the home of John the Baptist at Ain Karem, and elsewhere — for which money has been found by the Russian head of the orthodox Church, or by the Roman Catholic cabinet at Paris. When, in 1881, the Grand Dukes came piously to pray for the soul of the late Czarina at the Holy Sepulchre, it was thought necessary to parade five hundred Russian sailors marching in column through the Jerusalem streets ; and in 1882 we saw a procession of a thousand French pilgrims in white cloaks, with banners and crosses, slowly pacing, with melodious hymns, down the narrow lane of David Street to the Crusading gateway of the Sepulchre Cathedral. Every year the number of Russian pilgrims, assisted by the Russian Government, increases. They have been seen in armies of a thousand or more, mounted on donkeys, and escorted by the Russian consular staff through the country. It is well known that at Bethlehem a Roman Catholic congregation has lately been induced, by a subsidy, to become converted to the Greek Church, and that the property of this congregation will be confiscated if they relapse to their former faith. The Jesuit missionaries in Madeba of Moab have, on the other hand, converted and taken away half the Greek population of Kerak ; and this has led to a visit from the Greek Patriarch to this long-forgotten Christian colony. To say nothing of visits of many royal personages of all nations, or of the attaches and consuls who have of late found Syria so interesting a country for private tours, the activity of the Greek and Latin Churches, and the money openly spent in Syria by French and Russian agents, are sufficient indications of political activity.

And what, it may be asked, is the attitude of Islam in face of this activity? To answer the question we must first consider what is meant by a Moslem. The peasantry, who form the majority of the supposed Sunnee Moslems, are in reality little better than Pagans. As in Egypt the fellahah women still secretly visit the temple of Athor for the performance of ancient rites, and still worship the old gods of Egypt, scarcely veiled under the modern names of Derwish saints, such as Seiyid cl Bedawi ; so in Palestine (as I have elsewhere endeavoured to show in detail) it is the local worship of the old Canaanite divinities which survives in the veneration of Mukams, named after Moslem heroes. There are but few of the country towns in which the minaret of a mosque is to be seen ; there are few of the fellahin who can even recite the Fat-hah, or first chapter of the Koran. Religion in Syria, as in some other countries, is a matter of class, and the peasant knows nothing of the questions which occupy the Moslem doctor. I have heard the Sultan — the head of the faith — openly cursed by Moslem peasants without a dissentient voice, and the fanatical spirit, which Arabi Pasha vainly strove to arouse in the breast of the Egyptian fellahin, is equally unnatural to the Syrian ploughmen. The Christian and the Moslem live peacefully together in the East, until the paid foreign agent comes to stir up their passions and to excite their cupidity. The Damascus massacre of 1860 would be found, were its history studied, to be no less of political origin than the Bulgarian atrocities. The traveller who loses his way at nightfall in Syria will (as has been proved more than once) probably meet with courteous hospitality from the inhabitants of a Moslem village. It has been so since the days of Omar or of Saladin, and so it will be while a Moslem peasantry remain ; but who shall say how soon the fellahin will become an extinct race if the present misery continues ?

When we turn to the larger cities, where many mosques remain with families in charge who trace back to the days of Saladin, and who claim to have been established by Omar, we encounter, it is true, another class, among whom fanaticism has a real existence. That the Sultan's Pan-Islamite propaganda had been assiduously fomented among them just before the Egyptian war can hardly be doubted. Those whe had known this class well for many years were then of opinion, from the greater reserve of their manners, that they had something on their minds. The excitement and tall talk at Gaza and elsewhere, at the time when a wide rumour prevailed, according to which Arabi Pasha had taken the heads of the English commanders to Cairo and had driven the British army into the sea, showed the interest felt by the class of the Ulemma, the Sokhtas, and the Moslem gentry in the expected triumph of Islam and in the coming of the Mohdy. This excitement has fortunately been repressed, and it does not appear to have affected the peasantry. The upper class in Egypt held the same views, and looked forward to the same future, but they failed to excite any true relgious fervour among the peasants who filled the trembling ranks at Tell-el-Kebir. They might look with disfavour on Frank interference, but they have no real power to resist it. Pan-Islamism is but a dream, the futility of which was evidenced in Egypt, when Indian Moslem soldiers, Egyptian peasants, and the Sheikhs of El Azhar were alike without religious sympathy. To expect the Sunnee to combine with the Shiah, or even the Turkish Hanifeh, the African Maleki, the Indian Shan, the Arab Vahhebi, to combine heartily in the cause of the faith, is as fruitless as to suppose that the Latin Frenchman and the Russian Greek will combine, for a common Christian cause, with the Armenian and the Maronite, or with the Protestant sects of Great Britain. The cry of the people is the same throughout Syria, whatever be their sect or stock. " Give us British rule, French rule, nay even a Russian, or a Greek, or a Jew to govern us, but save us from the Sultan and the Turk ! " And yet they little know the troubles which such a revolution must bring upon them, and little estimate the danger of Syria becoming a battle-field of European nations when, wheever gains the day, the peasantry are equally certain to be the immediate sufferers.

That the Sultan will give up Syria to any nationality without a severe struggle is not to be supposed. One of his chief claims to the office of Khalif lies in the practical guardianship of the Holy Places. Of these, the "distant Mosque" (El Aksa), to which the Prophet came flying on his cherub, " the lightning," and where he prayed before ascending to heaven, is second only to tho sacred Kaaba itself. The very pith of the question is to be recognised in the fact, that the glorious dome of 'Abd-el-Melek, at Jerusalem, enshrines the sacred rock, which is the foundation stone of the world. Turkish power in Syria has certainly not decreased in the last fifteen years. The officials of the Porte (mostly of the fierce Kurdish race to which Saladin belonged) have shown a vigilance and activity greater than that of the older times of inert obstruction. A barrack has been built in the middle of the turbulent district of the Hauran, and another under Hermon, to check the Druzes. The Governor at Es Salt has firmly established himself in Gilead, in a town which, fifteen years ago, was practically independent. By intrigue and force he has broken the power of the Adwan and Sakhur, and levies taxes on the Bedawin as far south as Kerak.

On the west side of the river, the traveller who sees the shepherd or the pedlar leave his flock or his donkey and fly to the hill, you the approach of the irregular policemen or Bashi Bazouk, knows well what species of tyranny must be exercised by these unpaid emissaries of the Government.

The policy of the Turk has been directed to the breaking up of all the native power of Syria. The ancient families have been ruined or degraded ; the rich mosques have been robbed ; the various factions have been pitted against one another ; and quietness and peace reign in the land because a sturdy race who, within the present century were practically their own masters, have been cowed and ruined so that there is no longer any spirit left in them. The country is certainly more secure, and the tourist is safer than of old, but diminished population and decreasing cultivation are not indications of a good administration. The whole population of Syria (including some fifteen thousand square miles) is estimated to be considerably less than that of London, and so far as the Arab race is concerned, it appears to be decreasing rather than otherwise. But, it may be asked, why do not these oppressed subjects of a foreign power help themselves to liberty? There are, it is true, perhaps only a dozen real Turks in the country, for the Pashas even are Kurds, Armenians, or Europeans. Yet to expect a national rebellion is to argue a great want of acquaintance with Oriental character. The power of combination for a common object is unknown in Eastern communities. Arabi's army might — so some of his officers said — have deserted en masse if any one of them had been able to trust another with his real wishes. To the peasant, the village faction appears more important than any national league, and the Turk knows well how to rule by dividing. Southern Palestine, within the memory of living men, was divided into two fierce factions — the Keis, who seem to have been mainly the original peasantry on the west, and the Yemini, allied with the Eastern Arabs, who were pushing northwards from Yemen. The battles fought between these factions are yet related by the village elders, and much courage and daring was then exhibited by the peasantry.

In Jerusalem itself, three of these factions still divide the Moslem population. The Hoseini, in the middle of the town, are the most powerful ; the Khaldi occupy the east quarter ; the despised Jauni abide among the Jews on the south. A Hoseini mother would rather see her daughter die unwedded than suffer her to take a Jauni husband. The same survival of faction I have traced in many other towns of Palestine, and the division of these Moslem parties, even in the petty villages, is almost as great as that which separates the Moslem from the Arab Christian, Latin, Greek, or Maronite. It is by fostering such ancient enmities, and by playing the Druze against the Maronite, the Arab against his elder brother, the Greek against the Latin, that the Turk retains his power over the numerous sects which are found in Syria. It was the same spirit of disunion which in older days gave birth to fifty Gnostic sects in the Holy Land, and which created the twelve Christian creeds which are now to be found side by side in Jerusalem.

The same spirit of disunion exists also among the Bedawin, and, indeed, manifested itself among the early conquerors of Islam as soon as their prophet was dead. Recent events in Egypt and Sinai have not shown us the "noble Arab," in whom we have been told we are to place our trust, in a very favourable light ; and the student of history, whether in Omar's time or in the days of Napoleon, will find that the Bedawin have never fulfilled the expectations of their admirers, and have rarely evinced any great nobility of character. As allies no nation could be more unsatisfactory. They skulked over the Kassassin battle-field to rob and mutilate the dead ; they took money to murder Englishmen who trusted to their reputation for good faith ; and they stole a few cows from the British camp. They never took a side heartily for or against Arabi, and they deserted him at his need. Truly, the noble Arab is not found either in Moab, in Sinai, or in Egypt; and we may well question if he exists in Arabia, for those who know the Syrian Arabs well say that the Nejed and Yemen tribes differ only in being fiercer and more warlike ; while as regards the Sakhur and the Anezeh and other large clans who are more remote from European influence than the Belka Bedawin, it has been my experience that they only differ in being greater savages, more ignorant, crafty, and unreliable than those who know better the power of the West. Truly, one is tempted to regard the noble Arab (as the Red Indian has already been described) as " an extinct race which never existed."

The increasing number of the Jews in Syria is another element of some mportance in the question. It is more than doubtful whether their presence adds to the prosperity of the country. At Jerusalem they now number fifteen thousand out of a population of perhaps thirty thousand. Before the Crimean war there were only a few Hebrew families in the city, but now their cottages extend for more than a mile along the Jaffa road, while their building clubs have erected a quadrangle of houses (called "The Hundred Gates ") on the northwest,
and another group of cottages on the north, near Jeremiah's Grotto. The Jews are almost all abjectly poor, and the majority are of the Polish and Russian Ashkenazim ; the nobler Sephardim having a distinct quarter on the south-east side of Jerusalem, not far from the Haram. The Ashkenazim are a degraded people, of very poor physical type, and of most repulsively unclean habits. They are, perhaps, the most superstitious race in the country, and are led entirely by the Rabbinical autocracy.

The Jews have established pickets round Jerusalem, and buy up a large proportion of the market produce from the peasantry before they come in sight of the town ; for the poor Fellahah woman, who has to trudge back so many miles to her home, with her baby slung on her back, is only too glad to part with her vegetables, eggs, skinny fowls, or firewood of olive-roots — the last vestiges of the once fair olive-yard of the hamlet, for even a very low price. The cost of living, on the other hand, within the walls has risen most considerably ; and a Jewish paper currency has been established which the issuers refuse to redeem except at a very large discount, and which, though periodically suppressed by the Turks, is found so lucrative a method of trading without capital that it appears again and again in the market, and is even forced on the tourist.

Such are the benefits which the Ashkenazim are conferring on Judea, and it need hardly be said that the better class of Jews in Palestine look with disfavour and alarm at the sudden increase of the pauper element of the population, especially as consisting of the more degraded of their own countrymen.

Colonies, we hear, are established at Gaza and Jaffa, and in Northern Syria, but we may well doubt whether a people who have never thriven as agriculturists can add to the prosperity of a ruined land where they can find no trade to develop.