It may be unwise to follow the tweet-based utterances of Donald Trump, President and CEO. But sometimes a stupid tweet by Trump affords the opportunity to reflect on the ways American Empire is thought about today and in the past. Yesterday, following an attack in Barcelona that killed fourteen and injured many others, Trump wrote, “Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!” Before yesterday's tweet, Trump often repeated a false claim that during the American occupation of the Philippines, one of the United States's more famous generals, John J. Pershing “dipped fifty bullets in pig’s blood, lined up his captives, and then shot forty-nine of them, letting the last one go to spread the news.” The popularity of this untrue tale, apparently circulated on some Right-wing websites, speaks to a particular orientation toward American Empire: that ruthlessness against enemies must be celebrated. One historian’s response to Trump’s tweet on Slate, raises another understanding of American Empire. He describes Pershing’s campaign of counterinsurgency against Filipinos as a “cordial” relationship and his cultivation of Muslim elites and comments about Islam are seen as exemplary instances of intercultural understanding. Indeed, the historian writes: “It’s an admirable sentiment, brimming with tolerance for a foreign culture. Perhaps the president could learn from that.” For our historian, the brutal “pacification” of the Philippines deserves only passing mention, the lesson of war, he tells us, is tolerance.

Fortunately, we too can read Pershing’s writings. In his own memoirs, Pershing notes his debt to Lord Cromer’s policy on Islam during the British occupation of Egypt. High level administrators in an imperial bureaucracy, Cromer — the British Viceroy in Egypt — and Pershing were certainly not interested in any kind of equality with their Muslim subjects. Rather, they used the images and languages of Islam to further their respective imperial projects. Moreover, the ruthless methods of counterinsurgency deployed in the Philippines were first developed in the service of the United States's settler project on the North American continent. "Many of the US military governors of the Philippines," writes Laleh Khalili, "had fought and administered Native Americans." Decades later, American counterinsurgency would make its way to Vietnam, then back to Detroit, Newark, and Los Angeles. Trump is right in one sense, studying what Pershing and the rest of the U.S. forces of occupation did in the Philippines — as well as its antecedents and afterlives — is not a bad idea. But we must be cautious. In our attempts to counter Trump's own way of empire, we cannot simply celebrate another. Below, some notes, historical and historiographical.


The magnificent mosques of Cairo were filled with classes grouped in sitting posture around their white robed teachers, reciting in sing-song fashion their lessons from the Koran. The British wisely refrained from meddling with the religious faith of the people but devoted themselves only to questions of government. Their success under Lord Cromer left a striking example for us to follow in the control of our own Muhammadan wards—an example which I studied with much benefit…. The Moro is of a peculiar make-up as to character, though the reason is plain when it is considered, first, that he is a (semi) savage; second, that he is a Malay; and third, that he is a Muhammadan. The almost infinite combination of superstitions, prejudices, and suspicions blended into his character make him a difficult person to handle until fully understood. In order to control him other than by brute force one must first win his implicit confidence, nor is this as difficult as it would seem; but once accomplished one can accordingly by patient and continuous effort largely guide and direct his thoughts and actions. He is jealous of his religion, but he knows very little about its teachings. The observance of a few rites and ceremonies is about all that is required to satisfy him that he is a good Muhammadan. As long as he is undisturbed in the possession of his women and children and his slaves, there need be little fear from him…

— John J. Pershing, My Life Before the World War, 1860–1917: A Memoir, edited by John T. Greenwood (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013)

But most significant of all at this period is the fact that the colored population of our land is, through a new imperial policy, about to be doubled by our ownership of Porto Rico, and Havana, our Protectorate of Cuba, and conquest of the Philippines. This is for us and for the nation the greatest event since the Civil War and demands attention and action on our part. What is to be our attitude toward these new lands and toward the masses of dark men and women who inhabit them? Manifestly it must be an attitude of deepest sympathy and strongest alliance. We must stand ready to guard and guide them with our vote and our earnings. Negro and Filipino, Indian and Porto Rican, Cuban and Hawaiian, all must stand united under the stars and stripes for an America that knows no color line in the freedom of its opportunities. We must remember that the twentieth century will find nearly twenty millions of brown and black people under the protection of the American flag, a third of the nation, and that on the success and efficiency of the nine millions of our own number depends the ultimate destiny of Filipinos, Porto Ricans, Indians and Hawaiians, and that on us too depends in a large degree the attitude of Europe toward the teeming millions of Asia and Africa.

— W.E.B. Du Bois, The Present Outlook for the Dark Races of Mankind,” Church Review 17 (1900)

In the southern Philippines, the Moro Province became the exoticized setting for America’s greatest colonial saga. While indirect rule of the Christian lowlands was complexly antiheroic, the Moro province had all the ingredients for a classic colonial script: unexplored jungles, pirate-infested oral seas, and, above all, bloody combat against Muslim “fanatics.” Two of the greatest U.S. military heroes of this imperial age, Leonard Wood and John J. Pershing, served as governors of the Moro Province, leading mass slaughters of Muslim rebels that added to their allure in the eyes of the American public. In reportage, fiction, and later films, colonial writers celebrated the constabulary’s American officers as agents of civilization. “The Moros are incredible,” read a popular book published in 1938. “No word picture could paint … the ferocity and inherent fighting ability of these Mohammedans of the southern Philippines.” Using similarly hyperbolic language, Col. James Harbord, the first PC chief for Mindanao, noted that his work with the Moros was done “on the frontier of savage treachery.”

— Alfred W. McCoy, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009)

The American torture of prisoners—some fraction of which appeared in soldiers’ letters, newspaper accounts, and court-martial proceedings—was often, if not always, justified as a means of intelligence-gathering. The most notorious form of torture by the American side, if far from the only one, was the ‘‘water cure,’’ in which a captured Filipino was interrogated while drowned with buckets of filthy water poured into his mouth. The scale of its practice and the frequency of death remain difficult if not impossible to establish. Later blamed almost exclusively on the United States’ Macabebe Scouts, it was in fact the tactical expression of the military policy of attraction, undertaken in many cases by U.S. and Filipino forces working together both secretly and with the tacit approval of U.S. o≈cers. In the context of guerrilla war, the water cure would simultaneously cure Filipinos of their unknowability and Americans of their ignorance.

Despite later claims that distanced U.S. soldiers from torture, U.S. soldiers not only carried out the water cure but apparently did so in a jocular manner. In 1902, Albert Gardner, in Troop B of the First U.S. Cavalry, composed comic works that made light of torture in a way that suggested familiarity and ease. The first, playing with the torture’s name, was a mock-testimonial patent-medicine advertisement addressed to ‘‘My Dear Doctor Uncle Sam,’’ by a certain ‘‘Mariano Gugu.’’ The author complained of a recent bout of ‘‘loss of memory, loss of speach [sic] and other symptoms’’ of a disease called ‘‘insurectos’’; among other things, he ‘‘had forgotten where I placed my Bolo and my rifle.’’ He had been miraculously cured with ‘‘only one treatment of your wonderful water cure.’’ ‘‘No hombre’s shack is complete without a barrel of it,’’ he concluded in a postscript. More striking still was Gardner’s original marching song, ‘‘The Water Cure in the P.I.,’’ which made no mention of interrogation but simply urged U.S. soldiers to commit torture as an expression of U.S. imperial patriotism. Torture and liberation would be expressions of each other. The song form itself suggests singers and possible public performance:

Get the good old syringe boys and fill it to the brim
We’ve caught another nigger and we’ll operate on him
Let someone take the handle who can work it with a vim
Shouting the battle cry of freedom

Hurrah Hurrah We bring the Jubilee
Hurrah Hurrah The flag that makes him free
Shove in the nozzel [sic] deep and let him taste of liberty
Shouting the battle cry of freedom.

A subsequent verse promised to teach a captured ‘‘nigger’’ that liberty was ‘‘a precious boon’’ and pump him until he ‘‘swells like a toy baloon [sic].’’ Another hailed ‘‘[t]he banner that floats proudly o’er the noble and the brave’’ and urged the men to continue ‘‘till the squirt gun breaks or he explodes the slave.

— Paul Kramer, The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, and the Philippines (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006)

William Appleman Williams was among a small handful of American historians and scholars with the daring to “name” American imperialism and, to see it, as Marilyn Young testifies, “as not a passing phase but fundamental to the history of the country.” Something of Williams’ view and daring, still highly-contested, can bring back the ghost of forgotten perspectives (such as Rizal’s appreciation of the political potential of U.S. traditions). Young reminded a group of scholars gathered in a meeting to honor Williams' legacy that he coined the term, “anticolonial imperialism,” to specify or distinguish the forms of global suzerainty and national self-image that evolved in the United States. Williams' coinage struck Young as a “wonderfully flexible and resonant concept that reconciled America's righteous rhetoric with its venal practice.”

Personally, I find it more symptomatic of U.S. imperialism than "characteristic" of it (as Young seems to mean here).  The term's paradoxical and oxymoronic overtones, I wish to argue, are symptomatic of the odd nature, singular novelty, and (in political and critical terms) the formidable unrecognizability of the U.S. Empire among its citizens, its assiduous advocates, and even its most astute critics. Here, we cannot even begin to speak of what this kind of imperialism has meant for its subjects and "dependencies" and the immense difficulties that it posed to their "independence" struggles. Probably, it is not that "America's righteous rhetoric" is contradicted by its "venal practice" and needs to be reconciled to it (a rich source, nonetheless, of the most searching critiques made of the exercise of U.S. power "in the decades after 1898" and as early as the Philippine war and conquest that followed the 1898 war and Paris Treaty with Spain) but that this righteous rhetoric is, in a highly important sense, the venal practice. (By righteous rhetoric here I now mean the genetic claims upon [natural] "right" and not exclusively the "idealistic-moralistic'' problematic we associate with the U.S. exercise of global power.)

Indeed, the righteous rhetoric guarantees the venal practice. Ultimately, it is not reconciliation that is achieved in the yoking together of such contradictory elements in the exercise and the self-definition of this power but an endemic ambivalence. It is an ambivalence at the heart of the U.S. imperial project so anxious that it, paradoxically, becomes the protean source of U.S. global power itself, and the shifting force of its peculiar shapes.

— Oscar V. Campomanes,1898 and the Nature of the New Empire,” Radical History Review 73 (Winter 1999)


Little is known about Athanasios Ignatius Nouri. We know he was baptized in 1857 and raised in the area between Aleppo,  Deir al-Zor and Mosul. We also know that on the 16th of April 1881, the Patriarch Jurjis al-Shalhat in Aleppo made Nouri a priest and sent him off to Baghdad. By 1899, he was the Bishop of madinat al-salam. And in September of that year he embarked on a seven-month journey to India. Traveling through Basra and Bahrain, Nouri made his way to Bombay and then across India, to Pune, Hyderabad, Nagpur and Calcutta. With him was an Englishman by the name of George Bleeny, who knew English, Arabic and Hindustani and would serve as his guide.  

In 1934, his account of the trip was published in Harissa. The travelogue is a vivid account of India through Arab eyes. Much is learned about Indian religion, urban life in the fin de siècle Raj, and the transformations gripping the late Ottoman Empire. Libraries and schools are investigated, as are churches, mosques and museums. While traveling, Nouri met with a number of important figures, including Rabindranath Tagore, the Nizam of Hyderabad and Lord Curzon. For more, see my dissertation (forthcoming). Below an excerpt for Eid from when Nouri was in Calcutta.


Eid, February 2, 1900: Mosques without Minarets!

I forgot to tell you what I saw on the morning of Eid al-fitr on February 2nd, 1900. We were leaving the hotel—in our usual daily manner—to go to mass at the Church of Sacred Heart of Jesus. We had not walked a few steps before we witnessed a great crowd of some 30,000 souls, all of them Muslims, gathered in the public square. A mosque cannot hold a mass of this size, so they had gathered in the square for the morning Eid prayer. They filled the alleyways to complete their religious duty. The police did what was necessary to prevent any tumult, they stopped all the carriages, trams, and horses and even those just passing through on foot, until the prayer was over. The police were unarmed except for big sticks. They spread across all the streets and alleys, an officer on each street. The public feared them greatly and the slightest gesture from a police officer could clear a huge crowd.

But if you saw those celebrating Eid you would think they were in the Ottoman lands. They were dressed in their finest clothes, with their heads held high like giraffes walking tall at midday. They rented all the best carriages. In fact we could not find one for ourselves. We finally rented one for sixteen rupees for half an hour, even though usually it would cost only two rupees for such a trip.

Between the Sunnites and the Shiites, the population of Muslims in Calcutta number about 160,000 souls, though the majority of them do not know anything beyond the shahada. They have many mosques, but they do not have minarets on their mosques like in our lands. The muezzins call the prayer in the courtyards or on the roofs of the mosques. We may never know why the English have banned the construction of minarets.  

Athanasios Ignatius Nouri, Rihla il al-hind, 1899-1900 (Harissa: Matba’it al-Qasis Bolis, 1934). Translated by Esmat Elhalaby.


Haj Amin al-Husseini presenting the Palestinian Flag to Maulana Shawkat Ali. Via Omar Khalidi.

Much has changed since Ibrahim Abu-Lughod published “The Pitfalls of Palestiniology” in 1981. No longer are studies of Palestine confined to the confrontation with Zionism. And unlike the studies Abu-Lughod surveyed, the primary sources of Palestinian historiography are not anymore simply the British, Israeli, and other European archives. Work over the last 30 years has moved beyond imperial grand strategy to enrich our understanding of the social, cultural, and intellectual history of Palestine. Arabic sources—periodicals, personal papers, oral histories, court and ecclesiastical records—have finally received the serious attention they deserve. Today, “Palestine Studies” is not confined to a few committed institutions, but has become a field in and of itself. Book series, journal special issues, and workshops have cultivated a new generation of academics competent in a vast literature on what college course catalogs and D.C. think-tanks call the “Israel-Palestine conflict.” Moreover, what Edward Said once called “America’s last taboo” is no longer so. While Palestinian activism continues to be criminalized on college campuses and in state legislatures, in certain academic spaces, Palestine is cool.

Alongside the work of a committed band of mostly Arab or Arabic-literate scholars pushing intellectual and political boundaries, raising new questions, and mining new archives, another body of literature has proliferated. In this corpus, “Palestine” is less a place and history, than a keyword. Mary Grace Albanese has recently registered a similar phenomenon in Haitian Studies: “in a moment when every nonfrancophone, non-Kreyòl-reading scholar seems to have a ‘Caribbean chapter’ in the works, one fears Haiti has become a conceptual site to be exploited, recolonized in the garb of a trend.” Losing land and lives everyday, Palestinians have gained citations.

The Palestine of contemporary American cultural studies and critical theory is sheared of its history. Unmoored from its Arab context and its Ottoman past, Palestine transforms into of a symbol of radical politics; a metaphor for resilience or tragedy. In the rhetoric of Pan-Islam, from the Indian khalifat movement to the Islamic Republic of Iran, Palestine was and is the Holy Land first and Palestinian second, or never. And as white academia discovers the settler-colonialism native scholars have long attended to, Palestine has become relevant. A not unrelated phenomenon was “taking religion seriously,” the academic equivalent of buying a Quran after 9/11. American scholars, previously uninterested in all things Middle East and Islam, turned their attention to “the Muslim Question” and the veil.

Despite all this, American universities remain hostile to Palestine and Palestinians. Junior scholars are warned that their scholarship may hinder their professional prospects. And while a number of academic associations in the United States have voted to boycott Israeli institutions, the Middle East Studies Association remains a shameful exception. It’s clear that many academics are far more concerned with the fate of their discipline than they are with their subjects. Could Middle East studies be more important than the Middle East? Meanwhile, we all contend with the growth of Israel Studies.


In 1974, the journal of the Institute of Race Relations’, Race, was taken over by the British Asian intellectual A. Sivanandan. In his opening editorial he condemned the “above it all” attitude and “crass insensitivity” of the journal’s editors and contributors. The journal was “first-hand evidence of the complicity of bourgeois scholarship in the management of racism.” The work the institute produced, Sivanandan argued, was an affront to the peoples of the Third World “in their own countries and the metropolis.” “There is, however,” he wrote:    

a growing realization among the subject populations, especially of the ’underdeveloped’ countries, that to submit to theories of social reality which have no bearing on their lives, or which bind them to the existing order of things, is to relinquish their authority over their own experience and to undermine their will to action. Hence the questions they pose to those who investigate them are quite simply: What good is your knowledge to us? Do you in your analyses of our social realities tell us what we can do to transform them? Does your analysis contain some indications of strategies for change? Does your apprehension of our reality speak to our experience? Do you convey it in a language that we can understand? If you do none of these things, should we not only reject your ‘knowledge’ but, in the interests of our own liberation, consider you a friend to our enemies and a danger to our people?

The contents of the first issue under Sivanandan illustrates the scope and tenor of the journal. Beginning with a study of “Repression, Radicalism and Change in the West Indies” by the Howard University sociologist Dennis Forsythe, the rest of the issue includes studies of the relationship between imperialism and archaeology, the origins of Afrikaners and their language, trade unions in the GDR, the Dhofar revolution in Oman, and a critique of Ira Katznelson’s Black Men, White Cities. In the years that followed and until today, Race & Class—as the journal was soon rechristened—became the platform for powerful writing and analysis by Ali Mazrui, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Basil Davidson, Joy James, Hamza Alavi, Paul Gilroy, John Berger, Cedric Robinson, Walter Rodney, Barbara Harlow, Manning Marable, Eqbal Ahmad, Brenda Gayle Plummer, Rosemary Sayigh, and many others. History and theory, anthropology and literature, and the so-called metropole and periphery, all in one journal, four times a year.


In 1997, on the anniversary of a massacre in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin when more than a 100 were killed in cold blood, Edward Said wrote:

Yet the question remains: why has Deir Yassin mostly been forgotten, and why has 1948 been removed from the peace agenda by Palestinian leaders and intellectuals? After all we are dealing with Israeli Jews who constantly, and justly, remind the world of the evils of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and of the reparations thereby made necessary. In his book Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, the Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot discusses how in Western accounts of the Haitian revolution of 1798 the Westerners always seem finally destined to win, the Haitians to lose, in addition, most accounts of that period simply ignore what happened in Haiti. He refers to "the silencing of the Haitian revolution," which he says happens because the narrative of Western global domination makes the defeat of native people seem inevitable, unless there is an attempt by native peoples to retell the history of Western domination and thus provoke "a fundamental rewriting of world history."

As Arabs and Palestinians we are very far from that stage. Our history is written by outsiders, and we have conceded the battle in advance. Our leaders negotiate as if from a tabula rasa. The agenda is America's and Israel's. And we continue to concede, and concede more and concede again, not only in the present, but also in the past and in the future. Collective memory is a people's heritage, but also its energy: it does not merely sit there inertly, but it must be activated as part of a people's identity and sense of its own prerogative. To recall Deir Yassin is not just to dwell on past disasters, but to understand who we are and where we are going. Without it we are simply lost, as indeed it seems we really are.  


As the perils of over-research have illustrated, Palestinians don’t need your books. Palestine, already a laboratory for Israeli weaponry, is not a lab for your latest theories. Palestine is a place and Palestinians are a people. Certainly, Palestinians have consciously made their liberation a global affair. Solidarity is beautiful and internationalism necessary, but a career made off Palestine is neither.


Etonian, “Broadway Afghan,” “British intelligence officer,” writer of Oriental tales and other pulp, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, or simply “a Turk,” it’s hard to know who exactly Achmed Abduallah was. Born—they say—in Yalta in 1881 as Nadir Khan-Romanoffski, Abduallah was a naturalized British citizen, who after studying in the finest schools of Britain and France and a career in the British army, made his way to the United States where he became a professional writer.

Below, a review of the New Cambridge History of India by Abdullah in The Nation from 1922. “Post-Orientalist avant la lettre, Abdullah’s stinging criticism of the Cambridge volume and its forms of knowledge prefigures the critiques of colonial historiography and epistemology— and the “Aryan theory” in particular—scholars would make many decades later. Indeed, Abdullah’s evaluation of the West is akin to those made by other prescient “Easternists” of the early twentieth century.


New Cambridge History of India. Vol. 1—Ancient India. Edited by E.J. Rapson. Macmillan Company. $7.

There exists a type of academic mind which soaks itself in facts as a sponge drinks water. Press the sponge, and the water squirts out, a little more muddy, a little more stale. Press the academic mind, and we have for instance the first volume of the “New Cambridge History of India,” dealing with ancient India from the pre-Vedic twilight to the end of the Pahlava suzerainty. If you look for data and facts—and facts, without correct interpretation, are often synonymous with lies—neatly marshaled and labeled, you will find them here, every last one of them, excellently printed, superbly indexed, soberly bound in chaste bottle-green. You will be able to look up these data and facts as you would a proper undertaker's name and number in the Telephone Red Book. Both books are valuable for the “trade.”

This History of India is as platitudinously impressive as a Methodist bishop. It reaches that apex of good breeding: a complete vacuity of soul. It is filled to the brim with the common-school logic in which all the truths stand one behind the other, holding each others’ trails. It is studded with great and shining jewels of Chautauqua Kultur. It is as inspiring as the rule-of-three, a little less so than a problem in abstract dynamics. No miracle of Indian achievement—achievement in the days when the Anglo-Saxons painted their bodies blue and confessed to a penchant for human flesh, cooked plain—can stand up before its withering patronage, unless in some way, more often back to Arya influence. The influence may be that of early Arya infiltration in Vedic days or that of the latter-day Arya invasion under Alexander the Great, that alcoholic and vainglorious Greek highwayman, the direct spiritual ancestor of all the latter-day European philanthropists who believe in carrying the White Man’s Burden as a hundred per cent profit on the investment, with assurance of having heaven thrown in as a stock bonus. There is nothing its writers, a dozen of them under the supervision and guidance of Professor E.J. Rapson, M.A., have not read, reread, examined, indexed, and cross-indexed, from Lüders and Wackernagel to Oxford-Muller, from Crooke to Winternitz, from Elphinstone to Ramprasad Chandi, from the Rig-Veda to the driest reports of the Honorable John Company. It follows safely, if not sanely, in the footsteps of a half hundred similar Indian histories and cyclopedias.

It may be lèse-majesté to speak unfavorable of anything conceived at Cambridge, Oxford, or Harvard. I realize perfectly that I should be investigated by the American Legion, the Ku Klux Klan, the Ellis Island authorities, the Attorney General’s office, the Near East Relief field agents, and the Brooklyn Board of Fire Underwriters. Still to me the very title of the book sounds too respectable, too well bred. Dealing with ancient India, with one of the most glorious pieces of Asian civilization, it is too Anglo-Saxon. It is not so deliberately, but instinctively, which is the more naive, therefore the more dangerous, form of prejudice. It looks at the great peninsula through blue spectacles. These spectacles are eminently well-fitted, eminently practical. But they focus wrong when used to look beyond Boston, Regent Street, and the pleasant Downs of Sussex-by-the-Sea. The psychology of the writers remind me of ancient Begari proverb: “God made wisdom of three parts and a half, of which the half went to the world, the rest to one man.” And, where the book makes reference to the Vedas, I might quote another Behari proverb: “Little was written by the poet Tulsidas, but a great deal was added by the commentators.”

More by inference than by direct statement the book, here and there, makes once more of the Arya a wonderful demi-god and a noble and high-minded conqueror. And may I, in this connection, remind Professor Rapson that the Sanskrit word for war means literally a “desire for more cows”? I never realized that the desire for more cows could be interpreted as high-minded nobility.

Again, by inference, the book tries to prove that these “more-cows-desiring” Aryas (and how history does repeat itself! Consider the Occident’s recent and less recent cow-desiring Oriental policy) were the Lord's own anointed, the original vessel of everything fine south of the Himalayas, that, while they put the brand of their hegemony upon the aborigines, they “civilized” them, straightened them out spiritually, financially, and sartorially, and left a lasting impression upon them for all time to come.

Now, what is the truth of this? Is it not a fact that the very Vedas, those chronicles of ancient and lying Arya conceit, speak of intermarriages between the invaders and the original lords of the soil of India? The caste system was not a bright invention to put a stamp of inferiority on the conquered aborigines, but it is the outcome of a low, evolutionary process, helped by the machinations of Brahmin priests who wished to preserve the profits arising from their sacerdotal profession within a restricted circle of families, and who increased their ranks and influence by drawing recruits from the priests of the aboriginal tribes, although the latter worshiped a different brand of idols from those of the invaders. Is it not, furthermore, a fact that the Aryas were absorbed as completely by the “inferior” races whom they conquered as the Normans were by the Saxons, the Saxons and Normans in Ireland by the Celts, and the Mongols of the Horde and later on the Machus by the Chinese?

Yet the book is labeled “New.” It is not. It is a mere rehashing and redigesting of old fallacies and prejudices. A new history of India would, basing itself on facts, interpret these facts truthfully and fairly, without racial or “civilizational” prejudice swinging one way or the other. To choose an example, it is useless to state, as does the Cambridge Volume, that to the Greek the beauty and intellect of man was everything, that the apotheosis of this beauty and this intellect remained the keynote of Hellenic civilization even in the Orient, and that these ideals awakened no response in the Indian mind. Now, why should these Hellenic ideals awaken a response? Will it ever dawn on the Arya mind, of Cambridge and elsewhere, that its standards are not necessarily the standards for all the world? To me, for instance, and to a great many other Oriental artists and scholars, Hellenic civilization, Hellenic art, is the apex of soulless, fleshed stupidity; to us the Venus of Milo is a rather ugly and vulgar mass of female meat without brains¹, without beauty of any sort; to us the Apollo Belvedere seems like a highly-glossed and brainless Regent Street shop-walker; to us there is more beauty and more intellect in a pair of Fo dogs of the Kang-he dynasty and in a sang-de-boeuf vase of the Yung Ching period. It is all a viewpoint; and history should not be a viewpoint, but a truthful interpretation of a variety of viewpoints.

The Cambridge History in its account of India in Arya and pre-Arya days bases itself largely on Arya monuments and Arya chronicles. Would it be fair to write a history of the Roman Catholic Church in America by basing it on the reports and pamphlets of the A.P.A., a history of Charles Parnell by basing it on the contemporary files of the London Times, or a history of the I.W.W. by basing it on the recent comic articles in the Boston Transcript? The Vedas were biased, quite naturally. The Vedas call the earlier Indian tribes dasyus, which is the Sanskrit for enemies. They abound in scurrilous epithets for the aborigines, calling them “disturbers of sacrifices,” “gross feeders on mean,” “raw-flesh eaters,” “lawless,” “godless,” and “without rites.”

Yet, later on, when praising the prowess of their own race, they make much of the pluck and shrewdness and warlike achievement of those aborigines, speaking of their “seven castles” and “ninety forts.” The Vedas are filled with stark racial prejudice and conceit. So is the “New Cambridge History of India.”

Achmed Abdullah, “Misrepresenting India,” The Nation (November 15, 1922). For a cogent and thorough scholarly treatment of this same question, see: Romila Thapar, “The Theory of Aryan Race and India: History and Politics,” Social Scientist v. 24 n. 1/3  (1996)

¹Like other men of his time, even in the most lucid moments of anti-colonial critique, a latent misogyny loudly announces itself.   


The Arab itineraries of W.E.B. Du Bois’s wife Shirley Graham Du Bois and his step-son David Graham Du Bois are well known. Shirley’s writings on Arab politics in The Black Scholar and elsewhere have recently received extended scholarly attention in Vaughn Rasberry’s Race and the Totalitarian Century (2016). And David’s long career in the Middle East was fictionalized in his 1975 novel of Black American expatriates in Cairo ... And Bid Him Sing.  

But the contours of W.E.B. Du Bois’ own career in the Middle East are less known, though his curious entanglements with Israel and Zionism have recently been explicated in Alex Lubin’s Geographies of Liberation (2014). Du Bois's  wide and deep learning in the machinations of imperialism globally meant that the tribulations of the region were certainly known to him. Indeed, in a brilliant book which Gerald Horne approvingly calls a “militant tract” and Foreign Affairs disparagingly reviewed as “little more than an anti-imperialist—especially an anti-British—tract,” Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace (1945), Du Bois observed that the “situation in the Middle East—the oil of Iran, the subjugation of Syria, the unrest among the Arabs—is a serious threat to the possibility of maintaining peace after this war.” The elder Du Bois’ international connections and internationalist commitments were exceptional, so further research into his reception in the Arab world is necessary.

Below, a message from some Iraqis to Du Bois. Who exactly the authors were is not known. Nor do we know how they learned of Du Bois or why they sent him this telegram (perhaps they sent similar messages to other prominent Americans). 1958, the year of this message, was also the year Du Bois regained his U.S. passport eight years after it had been confiscated by the government and was able to travel internationally again.  


Dear Mr Boise [sic] on behalf of American universities in Iraq we appeal to you in the most urgent manner to stop United States aggression in our sister Arab state Lebanon the aggression against our sister state Jordan and the aggression being contemplated against our own beloved country. It is not possible for us to see how the United States with complete disregard the principles of the United Nations and without paying any heed to the report of the United Nations commission in Lebanon can give itself the right to land troops in Lebanon which is according to the report of the UN commission torn by civil war the United States position on the revolution in Iraq is equally deplorable. It is well known that the previous royalist regime was a police state intensely hated by the people of Iraq who staged several unsuccessful revolutions to overthrow it in 1941 1948 several unsuccessful revolutions to overthrow it in 1948, 1948, 1952 and 1956 we should not have to remind you that the right to revolution is an inherent right of the people of any country and that the United States of America was founded by such a method. Our young republic which came into being a few days ago enjoys the support of the overwhelming majority of our people whose slogan on the day of the revolution then arouse the ire of Mr. Henry Cabot Lodge and be used as a pretext for intervention in Lebanon and possible intervention in Iraq? Such western intervention in Iraq as is being prepared will not deceive world public opinion no matter under what pretext it is carried out, even though it may deceive the American people thanks to the lies and distortions of the monopoly press if such aggression be unleashed against us we will meet it with with all the forces at our disposal including the support of the Asian African and socialist countries and the sympathy of decent people all over the world should this lead to an atomic war which may well be the case it will indeed be tragic. But the responsibility will clearly and entirely rest upon the shoulders of the United States we sincerely hope that common sense and simple human decency will prevail and will curb the hotheads in Washington who seem to be insistent on drawing the world into the abyss and that world peace and our freedom will be saved.

Telegram from graduates of American universities in Iraq to W. E. B. Du Bois, July 19, 1958. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries. The text has been slightly edited for clarity.


Page from: Etal Adnan, The Arab Apocalypse (Sausalito, CA: Post-Apollo Press, 1989) 

“We Rejoiced that Carson and Godey had been able to give so useful a lesson to these American Arabs who lie in wait to murder and plunder the innocent traveler,” wrote John C. Fremont, “the conqueror of California” of the indigenous people who got in his way. Fremont’s expeditions in the 1840s, commanding role in the Mexican-American war, and governorship over the territory of Arizona, made him a central figure in the building of the United States’s continental empire in the nineteenth century.

… the famous Cherokee Catherine Brown, “the lovely convert from heathenism” celebrated by the American Board becuase she repudiated her native Indian culture but also because she vindicated missionary labor in the face of white American racism, donated her earrings for the mission to Palestine. Far from reflecting failure or underscoring a history of American intolerance, the domestic errand to the wilderness was made to bless explicitly a much bolder errand to the world. (Ussama Makdisi, 2008)  


“I write these lines as the horrific waste and potential violence of today's gulf crisis focus all efforts on war and confrontation. Is it too much to connect the stark political and military polarization with the cultural abyss that exists between Arabs and the West?” Edward Said wrote these words in the September 17th, 1990 issue of The Nation. Four months later, on January 17th, 1991, the United States and its ancillaries began a bombing campaign that would last more than a month and kill many thousands of Iraqis. Operation Desert Storm, as that much media theorized exercise in mass murder was dubbed, did not inaugurate American violence in the Middle East. Nor did it end it.

Said wrote the above words in his essay Embargoed Literature.” There, Said criticized the dearth of English translations of Arabic texts. Arabic, a publisher told Said, “is a controversial language.” American translator and critic Robyn Creswell has recently noted an ironic reversal in Arabic’s American fortunes:  

Arabic literature is no longer embargoed—9/11 effectively lifted those sanctions—but the language remains controversial. In the media and the popular sphere it is reduced to the lexicon of sectarianism (Sunni, Shia, Alawi), religiously inspired violence (jihad, shahid [martyr]), and female subjugation (niqab, hijab). Complex traditions like the sharia are cartoonishly misrepresented, and the region is generally made to serve, as it often has, as the mirror image of our idealized self.

Arabic indeed remains controversial, but Arabs themselves more so. Translations of Arabic literature flourish, while a people is embargoed. But Arabs and Palestinians are not the only—or the people most often—murdered by American Imperialism. And they certainly weren’t the first.


As ethnographers, we must take the interruption of settler capitalism enacted by #NoDAPL seriously. Oceti Sakowin are not engaged in some transitory, passing moment. Neither are the people I work with at Unist’ot’en camp, where Wet’suwet’en peoples have been living on the land and stymieing pipeline construction for over seven years. Nothing was or is fleeting about Oka, Wounded Knee, Alcatraz, Gustafson Lake, Elsipogtog, the Peace River Valley, Oak Flat, Klabona, Lelu Island, Mauna Kea, or Muskrat Falls. While these movements may appear to be interruptions of the normal progression of relations between settler states and Indigenous peoples, they are in fact continuations of hundreds of years of Indigenous resilience and resistance. What other structures of industrial expansion, of academic capital, and of knowledge production need interruption in order to remake our relations beyond extraction? I will leave this question to you. In the meantime, see you on the front lines. (Anne Spice, 2016)


After Said’s essay was published, David Seals wrote to The Nation from Rapid City, S.D.:

As a “Native Indian” inside the illegal borders of the United States, I would like to thank you for your fair and excellent coverage of the similar racism practiced in this country toward those other brown and red people of Mesopotamia. Christopher Hitchens's “Minority Report” and Edward W. Said’s “Embargoed Literature” could easily have transposed Sioux Indians for Arabs.

I am an “Indian” writer in America, and I have had the same trouble getting my novels published as has Hanan al-Shaykh. After many eyars, and a bad Hollywood movie, my novel the Powwow Highway was very reluctantly brought out by the same Penguin Said praises for Publishing Gamal al-Ghitani and Adonis. That same Penguin then ignored the book and refused to publish another they had contracted for, saying, in the words of New American Library executive editor Michaela Hamilton, “it needs to be more accessible to white Americans.”

I realize this issue includes the usual marketplace censorship of commercially questionable literature, but it also involves the sheer hostility of Americans toward the slayers of Custer and pioneers. We are a constant reminder that the American heart is buried forever at Wounded Knee. Just thought I’d point out the similarity between the Cheyennes and the Palestinians.

Said responded to the letter: “David Seal’s experience with Penguin is, I agree, very discouraging. It should be said that even though Penguin did publish Ghitani and Adonis, it didn’t do anything to promote or advertise the books, so they just disappeared. Seals also has a point about white Americans not being able to deal with 'Native Indians': It’s a common characteristic of all settler/colonial societies.”


In 1989, Robert Warrior, then a student at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, wrote:  

Is there a god, a spirit, who will hear us and stand with us in the Amazon, Osage County, and Wounded Knee? Is there a god, a spirit, able to move among the pain and anger of Nablus, Gaza, and Soweto? Perhaps. But we, the wretched of the earth, may be well advised this time not to listen to outsiders with their promises of liberation and deliverance. We will perhaps do better to look elsewhere for our vision of justice, peace, and political sanity—a vision through which we escape not only our oppressors, but our oppression as well. Maybe, for once, we will just have to listen to ourselves, leaving the gods of this continent’s real strangers to do battle among themselves.