Literary breakthrough in Ramallah

This must-read transforms into a flying carpet on which the writer glides through the past as confidently as he can only wish to be in Gaza.

June 3, 2011 16:43
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Mahmoud Abbas_521. (photo credit: REUTERS)

A Short History of Everything
By Mahmoud Abbas
Random Spouse,
1948 pages,
67 Palestinian dollars

‘Remember the days of the world,’ the will that Moses bequeathed to the Palestinians as he shepherded them to Mecca, Medina, Gaza and Al-Kuds, has never been fulfilled more inventively than in this monumental work, written improbably not by an academic, but, like the Torah, by a reluctant statesman with few possessions other than his truth.

A retrospect of mankind’s evolution since Israel evicted God from Eden, this work is probably the most comprehensive, original and entertaining history book written yet. The author’s background as a statesman on par with Charlemagne, Saladin and Bismarck only lends more authority, depth, mystique and flair to his latest work, one that will surely overshadow his previous best-seller, The Other Side: The Secret Relations Between Nazism and the Leadership of the Zionist Movement, and in fact revolutionizes the entire discipline of historiography.

True, history’s chronicling by its protagonists is not new.

Thucydides wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War where he served as a general, Josephus Flavius wrote The Jewish War in which he changed sides, Winston Churchill’s six-volume The Second World War chronicles the war in which he was a major actor, and Charles de Gaulle wrote his three-volume War Memoirs about the same war, in which he was a major extra. In this regard, A Short History of Everything is but a link in a long chain that is as old as historiography itself. What’s pioneering about this work is its deployment of a kind of imagination that no historian until now ever displayed, a kind that allows, indeed encourages, the treatment of the past’s limbs as Lego bricks worthy of rearrangement in ways that shed previously caged light on cryptic events that traditional scholarship, in its obsession with “facts,” grossly misunderstood.

INGENIOUSLY DIVIDED into the three sections of “How?,” “What?” and “Why?,” and written as colorfully as Johan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages, this book opens not with politics, but with technology, highlighting the pivotal invention of the slingshot, before movingly eulogizing its first victim: Cain. It is already in those very opening pages, just before his book begins to cross continents, navigate oceans and span millennia, that the author demonstrates his unique ability to express personal emotions even while nurturing a highbrow discussion of distant events. “Oh Abel,” he laments, “all that youth, gift and grace squandered; and for what?/ For envy, for villainy and for haste/ Oh how have you chosen – to murder, to slaughter, to hate?”

This, in fact, provides the basis for the book’s first of several great theses, that the relationship between mechanical innovation and social decay, forged already by that early encounter between passion and instrument, produced devastation once man invented kingdom and kingdom invented war. “War,” writes the peacemaker from Ramallah, “began when Joseph the Dreamer emerged from his Egyptian pit leading a cavalry of Hebrew slave-masters with whom he stormed the tower that his uncle, Esau the Pacifist, built in Babel, so that he, Joseph the warmonger, could enjoy that turret’s shield and shade in the arms of Potiphar’s wife.”

Yes, this improbable exegete puts to shame generations of commentators, theologians, mystics, numerologists and text critics who over the centuries looked above, under, within and behind the lines, as if craving to be sucked in by them, and therefore failing to rise above them and reach the worlds that lurk beyond the evidence.

Well now, thanks to this groundbreaking work, new vistas are opening, ones in which the scholar no longer zooms in on a fraying parchment’s characters, a cracked stone’s inscription, or the sketching on a dusty sliver of clay, but rather zooms away from them, so far away that they actually blur, mingle and merge into one exciting salad, like a junkie’s psychedelic vision after a good shot of heroin. That’s when the imagination of the post-factual historian fully sheds the old historian’s scales, and assumes full command of the past.

FREED OF conventional historiography’s shackles, this must-read transforms from motionless paper into a flying carpet on which the writer glides through the past as confidently as he can only wish he could roam the streets of Gaza.

This is how we learn, in the breathtaking “What?” section, that World War II, sparked by Finland’s invasion of Russia and Liechtenstein’s of Germany, ended with the Elders of Zion emerging from under Europe’s rubble and successfully planting their flags atop the Kremlin, the White House, the Chrysler Building and the moon, from which there was no stopping their descending on Mecca, Medina, Gaza and Al-Kuds.

Which brings the author, a master storyteller the like of which statesmanship has not produced since Haroun al-Rashid, to Solomon, the Jewish king who once cut a baby in half despite a United Nations resolution to ban anyone’s partitioning of anything.

The “Why?” section, where we learn that America attacked Pearl Harbor in order to test the bomb it had resolved to hand the Jews, and that the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, television, the Internet and feminism were all parts of a conspiracy to cripple Arab government, culminates, of all places, at Mount Sinai.

Having described Sinai’s aridness, remoteness, solitude and sanctity, the author introduces Moses upon his return from the mountaintop, as he prepares to address the people from atop his Golden Calf, “looming above the multitude as majestically as Lenin’s statues towered above Moscow’s sidewalks back when the communists at Lumumba University made of me a historian.” It took but several seconds until even babies shut their mouths and crows sealed their beaks, at which point Moses held his tablets aloft and, his finger running along the corresponding words, his voice suddenly rumbled resoundingly between the cliffs of the wilderness: “Thou shalt not murder,” he ruled, “but your coalition partner shall,” and “thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor, unless it is the neighbor on whom you waged a war that he didn’t expect to fight and you didn’t expect to lose.”

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