MISREPRESENTING INDIA — ACHMED ABDULLAH (1922)



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.


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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.   

TELEGRAM FROM GRADUATES OF AMERICAN UNIVERSITIES IN IRAQ TO W. E. B. DU BOIS






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.  



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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.

"JUST THOUGHT I'D POINT OUT THE SIMILARITY BETWEEN THE CHEYENNES AND THE PALESTINIANS."

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.


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… 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)  


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“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.


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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)


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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.”


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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.