CMES Comments

Merry Zayishmihr!

December 19, 2017

On Thursday, December 21, Iranians will celebrate Shab-i Yalda or "The Night of the Birth," marking the winter solstice and the longest night of the year. On that day in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun reaches its lowest point on the horizon and subsequently begins to rise higher and higher, that is, the sun is (re)born after the solstice. In fact, another name for the celebration is Zayishmihr, or "The Birth of the Sun" or "The Birth of Mihr (Mithra)." According to the editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, "Mithra, also spelled Mithras, Sanskrit Mitra, in ancient Indo-Iranian mythology, the god of light, whose cult spread from India in the east to as far west as Spain, Great Britain, and Germany. The first written mention of the Vedic Mitra dates to 1400 BC. His worship spread to Iran and, after the defeat of the Persians by Alexander, throughout the Hellenic world. In the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, the cult of Mithra, carried and supported by the soldiers of the Roman Empire, was the chief rival to the newly developing religion of Christianity. The Roman emperors Commodus and Julian were initiates of Mithraism, and in 307 Diocletian consecrated a temple on the Danube River to Mithra, 'Protector of the Empire.' According to myth, Mithra was born, bearing a torch and armed with a knife, beside a sacred stream and under a sacred tree, a child of the earth itself. He soon rode, and later killed, the life-giving cosmic bull, whose blood fertilizes all vegetation. Mithra's slaying of the bull was a popular subject of Hellenic art and became the prototype for a bull-slaying ritual of fertility in the Mithraic cult. As god of light, Mithra was associated with the Greek sun god, Helios, and the Roman Sol Invictus. He is often paired with Anahita, Iranian goddess of the fertilizing waters."

John Woods

John Woods is Professor of Iranian and Central Asian History in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago.

Yawmiyyat Sha‘b Filastini: Hayyat Sami ‘Amr, 1941-1945
(The Diary of a Young Palestinian: The Life of Sami ‘Amr, 1941-1945)

by Kimberly Katz
Foreword by Salim Tamari
Translated by Ibtisam al-Khadra
Edited by Carol Khoury

December 5, 2017

While there have been a number of historical memoirs published over the past 20 years in Palestinian studies, from such well-known scholars and writers like Edward Said, Raja Shehadeh, Suad al-Amiry, Hanan Ashrawi, and Sari Nusseibeh, scholarship on personal diaries has been less visible. As historiographical artifacts, personal diaries are the individual threads of the fabric of historical context, offering a micro view of testimonial literature that introduces readers to the lives of individuals from Palestinian society across class, location, and time. 

A number of recently published diaries in Arabic focus on the late Ottoman to the immediate post-British Mandate period, including the diaries of Ottoman soldier Ihsan Turjman and the well-known educator Khalil al-Sakakini, and offer contrasting perspectives on Jerusalem. al-Sakakini’s daughter, Hala al-Sakakini, also kept a diary about her life in Jerusalem, adding yet another perspective on life in British Mandate Jerusalem (her diary is published in English). Muhammad al-Sharouf’s diary, which begins during the British Mandate period (1943) and ends during the Jordanian period (1962), reflects life in different parts of Palestine due to his work as a policeman, but focuses on his home life in Nuba, a village outside of Hebron. His entries note his frequent forays into Hebron, arguably the most significant southern city in Palestine. 

My own work has focused on the diary of Hebronite Sami ‘Amr, who wrote his entries during World War II when he was a young man of 17-21 years old. The publication of Yawmiyyat Sha‘b Filastini: Hayyat Sami ‘Amr, 1941-1945 by the Arab Institute for Research and Publishing (2017) adds to the growing body of historical diaries on Palestine and, in particular, to knowledge about the city of Hebron. Sami’s diary records his entry into adulthood when he left his home in Hebron after completing a seventh-grade education, not uncommon for the time period, to seek work in the British Mandate capital of Jerusalem. It is a “coming-of-age” story in which Sami attempts to further his education, find satisfaction with his job and, ultimately, choose a life partner. Although he includes one prophetic entry about the struggle between Zionists and Arabs in Palestine, Sami’s story is largely free from the politics of conflict. Whether old or young, sitting in a university classroom or reflecting back on one’s earlier days, one cannot help but feel a connection to Sami’s dilemmas about whether to change jobs, to his struggles on how to approach girls, or to his complex views on social life in his native Palestine. 

Coming from a conservative environment in Mt. Hebron, Sami writes openly about modernity and tradition, both from a personal and a national perspective. While he challenges his own society in his reflections on relationships and on how Palestinian villages should develop, he also critiques the repressive colonial authority for which he worked, the one that also imprisoned his brother for going AWOL from the British military for which Sa‘di had volunteered to serve. As an older brother, Sa‘di provided him little source of comfort, though Sami loved him dearly and sought all means to ease Sa‘di’s suffering along with the suffering of his mother, much of which was caused by the British colonial apparatus. His father died when Sami was only five years old, so Sami’s mother provided a sense of home and stability for a young man trying to find his place in the world, evident in the letters he wrote to her that appear in his diary. Sami’s hometown of Hebron instilled in him a deep sense of place and his passionate diary entries, as World War II raged, reflect his longing for Hebron. In a number of Sami’s entries, he expresses his desire to return to Hebron, as his work for the British authorities kept him away from his hometown for extended periods of time. While Hebron remains a focal point for Sami throughout the diary, his descriptions of Palestine are an early and an integral historical voice in what has now become a chorus of recently published village memorial books that describe the Palestinian landscape.1

Sami kept his diary in Arabic, but I translated the diary into English, which was subsequently published as a critical edition by University of Texas Press in 2009. My Arabic edition showcases the diary in its near original form and includes Arabic translations of my historical and historiographical introduction. The Arabic edition will serve three important readerships: 1) students of Arabic, 2) native Arabic readers, both students and scholars, and 3) Arabs (non-scholars) who enjoy reading first-person accounts. For students and scholars, this publication adds to the primary source material on the critical period of the British mandate in Palestine, and the World War II period more specifically, just prior to the historical rupture in 1948 from which Palestinians still have not recovered. This young voice from World War II Palestine brings clarity and calm to a people and time period when Palestinians were not viewed, as they so often are in the English-language media today, as terrorists or as refugees. Despite the war, Sami writes of a more mundane life, recording his dissatisfaction with work, disagreements with his family, and wrestling with the cultural expectations surrounding courtship and marriage. All readers can enjoy the entries on family, descriptions of land and holidays, and on the struggles of his youth.

Many people kept diaries during the British Mandate period, including Mandate officials and the notable Palestinian educator, Khalil al-Sakakini. And now Sami ‘Amr’s diary has joined the list of historical diaries published in Arabic. Yet, when he first began to write, it is not clear that he intended the diary to be seen by others, and certainly not the prospect of publication. He simply picked up a copybook, produced in England, which opened from left to right. Sami flipped the notebook over and started from the back of the copybook, which had preprinted numbers on it. That became my system to follow his writing. He did not date every entry and skipped pages when writing particularly long entries. He would return to those skipped pages to add more writing and to add dates. As a result, those entries in the diary are non-sequential and needed reorganization and editing to ensure clarity of the entries. The writing habits of diarists can be idiosyncratic because the texts are not being shaped for an outside readership. Indeed, while Sami’s son, Samir, who requested that I work on his father’s diary and who served as my main interlocutor for questions on the diary, mentioned that his father wanted the diary to be published, it is not clear from the entries themselves that Sami sought publication. Some marginalia, however (likely added later), does indicate this possibility.

In many ways, the diary is an opening for future research. Many topics appear in Sami’s writing that lead scholars to unresolved questions. For example, more research is needed on the role that Palestinian Arabs played in the British military during World War II, including on individuals such as Sami’s brother, Sa’di, who went AWOL. Sa’di went to prison for the crime and this sentence had a deep effect on Sami and his mother. Reading Sami’s diary in its near original form will afford scholars and students alike the opportunity to see through the eyes of this Hebronite, a young man whose writings express his thoughts and deep feelings about his family, his city, and his country during a time of great social and political upheaval.

The Arab Institute for Research and Publishing displayed Yawmiyyat Sha‘b Filastini: Hayyat Sami ‘Amr, 1941-1945 at the annual Middle East Studies Association conference in Washington, D.C. (November 18-21, 2017). It can be ordered at

Kimberly Katz

Kimberly Katz is Professor of Middle East History at Towson University.

1. Rochelle Davis, Palestinian Village Histories: Geographies of the Displaced (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2011).

Muhammad Abd al-Majid Hilmi, the 1920s King of Gossip, and His Enemies

November 27, 2017

The Egyptian press in the early twentieth century was no place for the faint hearted. Still, those brave enough to enter this world were constantly starting new magazines, journals, and newspapers. This is no surprise; launching a successful periodical could lead to significant power and influence in the cultural or political world of the time. Simply publishing a magazine was only the first step on a journey that many ill-fated publications did not complete. Editors and writers had to come up with clever strategies to ensure the readership and circulation that would allow them to continue working. To see how this world worked, let us turn to the career of the young theatre critic from Assiut, Muhammad Abd al-Majid Hilmi. In his two-year spell as editor of al-Masrah magazine in the 1920s, he showed the lengths that some editors went to and the creative tactics that they used to make their products stand out in the crowded marketplace.

Hilmi was a gifted student at Assiut Secondary School. In 1920, while still at school, he sent some of his writing to the newspaper Abu al-Hawl. They were so impressed that they sent a letter to Assiut to ask if he was, really, still a student. He confirmed that he was and was soon writing regularly for them. After he had graduated from secondary school (in either 1921 or 22) he moved to Cairo and began to write for Kawkab al-Sharq. Before long, Hilmi had made friends with Gamal al-Din Hafez Awad, the critic for Khayyal al-Zill. The two soon began to talk about the state of theatre criticism in Egypt. Awad says that they both used to go to the theatre every day and covered everything they could find that was connected to the stage; still, they felt limited in what they could write in their newspapers. Then, the idea to start a magazine dedicated to theatre alone came to them. Before long, they had submitted an application to start al-Masrah and on 9 November 1925 the first issue was published. It was to be, according to Hilmi, “a weapon in the arsenal of artistic jihad, for the sake of an artistic renaissance.” And, it would have a unique selling point as the only specialist theatre magazine in Egypt.

Al-Masrah primarily covered the theatrical goings-on in Egypt but it also featured broader articles on European theatre as well as historical and theoretical articles. The first issues include, for instance, a discussion of Beethoven’s music and the play Hamlet alongside news about Egyptian theatre troupes, writers and actors and an article on the Egyptian national anthem. The editors made sure the magazine contained the subject matter to appeal to a wide readership. They were also savvy enough to know that this alone was not enough, and they devised several other strategies to grab the public’s attention.

Firstly, al-Masrah was visually striking. Every 32-page issue featured an eye-catching, coloured cover with a prominent headshot of a theatrical star—usually, but not exclusively, female. Throughout, the magazine was full of more pictures of actors and actresses, sometimes in a professional capacity and sometimes at home or on their holidays. Since it was very difficult (perhaps impossible) to take photographs during theatrical performances, Hilmi employed the Turkish cartoonist “Rifqi Bey” to draw some sketches of the action of the popular plays of the moment. Browsing through the pages of al-Masrah made the theatre scene in 1920s Egypt seem wonderfully glamorous. All the women were flappers, who reclined on their chaises-longues at home after performances. All the men were elegant and dapper.

Unlike the more serious periodicals like al-Hilal, which focused on improving the mind of the reader, al-Masrah made sure to indulge the reader’s desires for fun and rumour. Every issue started with two pages of theatrical gossip by “Charlie Chaplin” (which I assume was a pseudonym for Hilmi). In later issues this was expanded to three pages, sometimes more. The magazine talked about the private lives of the stars as much as any of the plays they were producing. Al-Masrah also published satirical “trials” of actors and actresses, which poked fun at the eccentricities of their styles. A few issues had a section of “frivolities” (fukahāt), one of which spent a whole page making fun of the dandy Sheikh Hamed Morsi for spending 21 Egyptian pounds on a shirt.

The main tactic that Hilmi relied upon is rather more surprising. The principal way he ensured that al-Masrah was a relevant cultural phenomenon was by making powerful enemies. From the very first issue, al-Masrah launched a relentless attack on Yussef Wahby, probably the biggest star of 1920s Egyptian theatre and the head of the most important troupe (Ramses Troupe). Hilmi began by trashing Wahby’s production of “The Plague”. In later issues, he went on to insinuate that Wahby had lied about his dramatic training in Italy and hinted that he was having a string of extra-marital affairs. During one of Wahby’s tours to Upper Egypt, Hilmi had all of the mirrors removed from his dressing room in Assiut so the performers could not do their makeup.

Wahby was not the only target that Hilmi had in his sights. He also spread rumours about the morality of the star Umm Kalthoum, speculating that she had married one of the supporters who flocked to her house. Virginia Danielson, in her book The Voice of Egypt, says that these rumours almost ended her career, as her father threatened to take her back to the family village. Danielson suspects the influence of the singer and actress Mounira Mahdeyya, who was a big rival of Umm Kalthoum and a friend of Hilmi. Mahdeyya’s picture appears on the cover of the first issue of the magazine, and Danielson said that she claimed to “supervise the magazine’s editing and organization of the articles and pictures”. (We might speculate too that the feud with Wahby sprung from Hilmi’s friendship with Rose al-Yussef).

To attack two of the biggest rising stars of the 1920s has always seemed to me like a strange editorial choice. That was until this year. In the US (as well as much of the rest of the world) there seems to be a small industry forming based mostly on attacking Donald Trump. There is a race to be the first person to respond to his tweets, and interpreters of Trump’s actions are in high demand. Sales of major newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post have increased hugely since Trump’s election.

Journals in the 1920s needed to be read. Hilmi and his partner, Gamal al-Din Awad, tried a variety of tactics and tricks to ensure their success. Some techniques were a little sordid, but al-Masrah succeeded in becoming the first important Egyptian journal of theatre. The name was subsequently revived for the most important theatrical periodical of the 1960s, to which the legendary University of Chicago Arabic Professor, Farouk Mustafa, was a regular contributor. There is still a quarterly magazine called al-Masrah published in Egypt today.

In the end, it was not lack of popularity that ended al-Masrah’s run in the 1920s, but rather Hilmi’s sudden and unexpected death in 1927. In his obituaries, his age is not mentioned but, given that he graduated from secondary school around 1921, he could not have been older than his mid-20s. During a trip to Palestine he had pains in his chest and so returned quickly to Egypt but died shortly after. The magazine was relaunched in October 1927 as al-Naqid, but without Hilmi’s acerbic editorial voice, it faded into obscurity. Today, this two-year run of al-Masrah magazine stands as the most important thing to survive from Muhammad Abd al-Majid Hilmi’s short life: an example of the cut-throat world of 1920s journalism in Egypt and a celebration of an Egyptian theatrical movement that was growing in stature. 

Raphael Cormack

Raphael Cormack earned his Ph.D. in Arabic literature from the University of Edinburgh and is editor, with Max Shmookler, of The Book of Khartoum, a collection of Sudanese short stories.

“The only place where an Arab can hit a Jew and get a medal for that”

Israeli Arab boys warm up prior to a fight. Arab village of Arabe, northern Israel. June 29, 2012. Credit: Associated Press.

October 27, 2017

In 1963 Hamze Yunes was a rising boxing star and represented his Israeli sports association, Beitar, in international competitions. Eight years later, in 1971, he was captured in the Mediterranean Sea while commanding a group of Palestinian naval guerillas on their way to kidnap Israeli soldiers. In 1974, he became a Palestinian national hero after an escape from an Israeli jail to Lebanon. Hamze’s life story, from Israeli boxing star to Palestinian guerrilla, is not only material for a Hollywood action film, it is also a compelling case study that illustrates how the relationship between sports and politics depends on personal biographies and the social location of the actors involved. 

The integrative orientation of Arab boxing in Israel

Arab athletes in Israel, and boxers in particular, have rarely taken part in political protests like the recent kneeling protests of NFL players in the United States. This “a-political” character has deep historical roots. Under the Military Government1  (1948-1966), Israeli authorities cautiously encouraged muscular empowerment of Arab youth as long as it was considered a distraction from subversive political activity. At the same time, the combative nature of some sports made them a subject of close surveillance. Under these circumstances, the only way for Arab boxing to survive was by obfuscating any nationalist connotation. 

Starting in the 1980’s, Arabs gained complete domination in boxing in terms of participation, achievements, and representation in administrative positions. In the 2005 championships, for example, among the 460 participants, 234 (more than 50%) came from clubs representing Arab towns, and 75 (16%) came from clubs representing mixed towns and cities. Following the arrival of large numbers of Jews from the former Soviet Union, which started in 1989, some of these more recent immigrants became boxing champions, but without really threatening Arab domination of the sport. Between the years 2001 and 2004, 40 out of 52 (77%) championship titles for male seniors were won by Arab boxers. This is remarkable considering that Arabs make up only 17% of Israeli citizens. 

An intriguing aspect of this overrepresentation of Arabs in such a high-contact, combative sport is that it has rarely translated into explicit expressions of political protest or ethno-national confrontations. Samir Arafat, an international boxing referee and a former member of the boxing association board, provided a blatant expression of the tendency to avoid any Palestinian nationalist connotation. His last name is identical to that of the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. In boxing competitions, however, Samir Arafat usually asks the announcer to use his first name only. His son Fares, a boxer who was in the Israeli cadet squad, also insisted in press interviews on distancing himself from any association with Yasser Arafat.

In a 2003 interview with the Hebrew daily Haaretz, Ghanem Mahrum, the coach of Golden Gloves Nazareth, the most successful Arab boxing club in Israel, joked that, “The only place where an Arab can hit a Jew and get a medal for that is Israel’s boxing championship”. To what extent does this joke reflect the quietist tendencies of most Arab-Israeli boxers? 

The intimidation, humiliation, and routine indignities that Arabs endured under the Military Government in Israel are well documented, and there is also robust evidence for boxing’s popularity among Arab men in Israel at that time. Yet, we rarely find an articulated narrative that links these two phenomena. This is exactly what makes the story of Hamze Yunes, and his memoirs, published in 1999, so important.

Becoming a boxer

Hamze Yunes was born in 1944 in ‘Ara, a small Arab village annexed to Israel following the ceasefire agreement in 1949 between Israel and Jordan. As a five-year-old child, he witnessed the entrance of the Israeli forces into his village. From his adolescent years, he had strong memories of fear and humiliation. In his memoirs, he explained how these feelings propelled him to be a boxer:  

“Suddenly the withdrawal [of the Arab forces] happened and the strangers went in without fighting, and started humiliating the people. They built near the mosque of ‘Ara a big arc and hung on it a foreign flag and ordered the village’s men to stand in line and to pass underneath the arc. Some youngsters and men were able to hide, escaping from the surrender passing.  But those who escaped did not dare to boast, [and did so] only quietly and without full confidence.

The Border Police Troops, who are more evil than the army, conducted campaigns of search, looting, and destruction, after they gathered the men of the village and ordered them to sit on the ground. Because of what I saw and heard about the actions of the Border Police I felt, for the first time, fear. How do the men sit on the ground?  And how do they allow strangers to invade their homes? I understood that the metal pipes [i.e. the guns], not those who carry them, are the reason for the surrender that made feel the fear. These feelings disturbed me very much, so I begun to think about learning how to defend myself."

Notably, the first foreshadowing of his boxing career is introduced by his description of the men of the village being forced to walk under Israeli flag in a literal rite de passage of surrender and to sit on the ground, unable to resist.  For Hamze, boxing became an important sphere for rehabilitating an undermined image of masculinity; his participation in the sport was an act of self-strengthening and not just a means for self-defense.

In middle school, Hamze studied in Ha-ma’apil, a Jewish kibbutz; in his memoirs, Hamze insists on mentioning that the kibbutz was built on the ruins of the village of Kakun, emptied and destroyed in the 1948 war. His reference to this period in his life shows us that Hamze, like other young men of his generation, tried to find his place among his Jewish peers but felt rejected. He writes about some friends he found among the Jewish students, although he always felt that they were somewhat reserved and even racist in their treatment of the Arab students. But one incident received special attention in his memoirs.

At the age of 16, the Jewish students left for several days for para-military youth exercises (known as gadna). This is a regular occurrence aimed at preparing Jewish youth for their military service two years later. When his schoolmates came back and were sitting with the Arab students, they talked about practicing shooting a gun, and these stories caused tension between the Jewish and Arab students. Now, not only did Hamze face the helplessness of being subjected to military rule, he also had a frustrating point of reference and comparison – the Jewish male youth who had the opportunity to hold a gun and perform their masculinity as warriors. Hamze continues:

"Anyway, the kibbutz members were covering their discrimination with a cover of rationality, and did not treat us as it was common in the Jewish street. For example, if an Arab argued with a Jew, immediately the latter would shout: ‘an Arab, an Arab’. These words were like a call and a sign to other Jews that an unwanted person is among them and immediately some Jews gathered from everywhere to add kicking and beating. If they heard this call they would compete with one another in capturing the prey. Then, if an Arab’s blood spilled on them, they would say to the police that the Arab should be blamed because he soiled the Jew’s clothes!

This reality forced me to learn boxing to defend myself, and to avoid being an easy prey to fanatical aggressions. Quickly I was successful in boxing and after one year of continuous practicing I won the state’s championship for youth. After one more year I became the best boxer and in 1963, I won the state championship in the Light Middleweight category."

Here, Hamze gets closer to justifying his boxing career in the need for self defense. It is important to remember, however, that Arab-Jewish fist fights of this kind were not a daily phenomenon. At the end of the day, Jews had the state apparatus, including the armed forces on their side, and being a boxer would have been very little help to an Arab citizen in most incidents of daily interethnic conflict.

After finishing middle school Hamze went with his older brother to work in construction in Tel Aviv, where he had the opportunity to join a leading boxing club and be trained by one of the best coaches in the country. In 1963, he joined the Beitar Netanya club, following his beloved coach, Yazi Ya’acbowitz, who also joined this club.

While writing in the late 1990s, Hamze expresses full awareness for the potential propagandist value that his athletic success gave Israel: “I understand today very well that those who were coaching me, or at least some of them, did not see any problem with me being a brilliant champion as long as they related me to Israel and it helped Israel for public relations purposes.” Again, this argument is uncommon among Arab athletes and former athletes, who usually prefer to present their success as a desirable model of integration.

The metamorphosis

One evening in March 1964, Hamze and his cousin Makram were involved in a fistfight between Arab and Jewish youngsters in a gas station. A Jewish man was severely injured and the two cousins were anxious that someone had been quick enough to write down their motorcycle number. Afraid of the police, they decided to escape to the Gaza Strip, which then was under Egyptian rule. 

From this point on the plot becomes highly complicated and partly obscured due to the involvement of the Egyptian and Israeli security services. The Egyptian authorities sent them back to inside Israel, where they were immediately arrested. On April 17, they escaped from jail and crossed the border back to the Gaza Strip, where they were arrested again by the Egyptian forces who were suspicious about their escape story. After being convinced that the two were not Israeli agents, they were recruited to Egyptian intelligence as translators. Hamze was able to renew his boxing career, and his victories against Egyptian boxers made him very popular among the Palestinians in Gaza. During the 1967 war, Hamze was severely injured in his leg but was able to flee to Egypt. Later he moved to Lebanon, where he joined the Fatah forces. After being caught in 1971 on a guerilla mission, he was imprisoned in the Ramleh jail, from which he escaped to Lebanon in March 1974. In the late 1990s, Hamze lived in Jordan, and today he lives in Sweden.

Hamze Yunes might be the only sporting star who chose to cross the border and join the PLO. Moreover, while some Palestinian poets and intellectuals inside Israel express firm nationalist stands, it is very rare to find these voices among athletes. Sport has the power to tie the athletes to the state with bonds of commitments, hopes, and aspirations which minimize the chance that a revolutionary national leader will ever come from their ranks. 

Nevertheless, young Hamze’s world view was probably not unique among other Arab boxers of his generation. What retroactively shaped his boxing narrative in such a unique way are his decades as a fighting member of the PLO, and his social and physical location during those years. Unlike Arab athletes of his generation, he is not concerned with the reactions of Jews in Israel to his opinions, and he long ago gave up on his integrative aspirations. He never had a chance to be a ‘Palestinian Muhammad Ali’ since his metamorphosis is a direct result of him being outside of the Israeli public sphere. Had he avoided the hasty decision to escape to Gaza in 1964, it is likely that he would have continued in the supervised and co-opted Israeli boxing framework and would have adopted its prevalent discourse.

Tamir Sorek

Tamir Sorek studies the social, political, and cultural dynamics that shape ethnic and national identities, particularly in the context of Israel/Palestine. He is Professor of Sociology and Jewish Studies at the University of Florida.

1. The Military Government of Israel was a form of martial law imposed on a majority of the Palestinian-Arabs living in Israel from 1948 to 1966. Rights and protections afforded to these Palestinian-Arabs by virtue of their status as Israeli citizens were suspended during this period.

Minorities and the Kurdish Referendum

Kurds celebrating in Erbil, Iraq, on September 27, 2017 after the results of the independence referendum were announced. Credit: Ivor Prickett for The New York Times.

September 29, 2017

"We must write a new constitution for the region [Kurdistan Regional Government] that guarantees the rights of all components, and reassures them of their role in writing the constitution for an independent Kurdistan. We need a new national anthem, and changes to the Kurdistani flag so that it includes symbols of the components and is reflective of all." 1   -Masoud Barzani, August 2017

"In addition to the threat which this war has aimed at the existence and legitimate aspirations of our people, both Kurds and Assyrians, it has brought disaster and affliction upon all its victims, deprived the people of Kurdistan, particularly the Assyrians and the Kurds, of education and health [needs], and rendered tens of thousands of them refugees. All these [calamities] have been inflicted upon us only because we have claimed the basic and legitimate human and national rights, to which we, like any other people, are entitled." 2  -Mustafa Barzani, 1967

Faced with reluctance towards and outright rejection of the Kurdish referendum, Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has turned to minorities for support. Under increased pressure and feeling more isolated, Kurdish politicians are resorting to a tactic they abandoned in 2003: negotiating with minorities. The similarities between the two quotations above, half a century apart, are revealing of an earlier period of political maneuvering and cross-communal partnership. Is it too late for negotiations? And have the historic links – cultural, economic, political – connecting the diverse ethno-religious communities in this region become too disrupted? 

Though treated as welcome “guests” of the Kurdistan Regional Government, many of these “components,” to use Barzani’s term, are historic communities indigenous to the region. They include ethno-religious and linguistic groups, like the Assyrians, an Aramaic-speaking community belonging to a handful of Syriac Christian denominations; the Yezidis; and the Turkomen. Over the course of the twentieth-century and into the twenty-first, all of these communities have experienced dramatic shifts in their status. With the rise of nationalist and extremist ideologies, several events (Genocide of 1915, Simele Massacre 1933, Anfal Campaign 1988, and most recently ISIS) have precipitated significant declines in their numbers.

Kurdish policymakers and diplomats in the US have attempted to present the KRG as providing a safe haven for minorities that have escaped persecution in the rest of Iraq. This narrative, however, should be challenged on a few grounds. 

The Kurds and Assyrians have deep cultural roots across the same region, and members of both communities began migrating to major urban centers in the second half of the twentieth-century in search of better educational and employment opportunities, mainly in the oil and transportation districts (Kirkuk, Baghdad and Basra). Following the civil war in 1961 between the Iraqi state and the Kurds, who were supported by various Assyrian groups and Iraqi leftists, many Assyrian villages were destroyed. The 1975 Algiers Agreement between Iraq and Iran put an end to Iranian support for the Iraqi opposition, and saw the onset of government campaigns against Kurdish and Assyrian villages along the Turkish and Iranian borders that persisted into the 1980s. Hundreds of thousands of Assyrian villagers were displaced, and their crops and cultural sites were destroyed. Most were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and relocated in central and southern parts of the country. Iraq’s Ba‘ath regime subjected the Kurds and other groups inhabiting the territorial remit of today’s KRG to forced demographic movement – particularly in oil-rich Kirkuk, which was heavily populated by non-Arabs. 

Though divided by periods of violence – for example, the Kurds were deployed by the Ottoman state in the 1915 Genocide against Assyrian and Armenian minorities, whose removal they ultimately benefited from economically – the Kurds and Assyrians have shared a similar fate, pursuing common political goals for most of the twentieth century. Both communities historically leaned left, joining parties espousing secular, nonsectarian principles. Kurds and Assyrians subscribed to leftist ideals that supported workers’ and farmers’ rights. Moreover, the pro-Iraqist political stance of leftist parties appealed to Assyrians and Kurds alike, who felt alienated from Arab nationalist and conservative ideologies. 

Both economically and culturally marginalized, and under the influence of the powerful Barzani network, Assyrians joined the Kurdish uprising of 1961. Later, in the 1980s, Assyrians participated in the formal Iraqi opposition. In the early 1970s, 3,000 Assyrian men enlisted in the battalion of the Higher Committee for Christian Affairs in the north. In 1982 the Assyrian Democratic Movement – a political party founded by Assyrian students and youth – moved its bases to the north. Eventually, thousands joined its militia, which fought Saddam’s authoritarian regime alongside Kurdish and other Iraqi opposition groups. It is this momentous demonstration of Kurdish-Assyrian unity that Mustafa Barzani, leader of the KDP and father of Masoud Barzani, invokes in his 1967 statement.

Following the first Gulf War, the Kurdistan Regional Government was created in 1991, presiding over the safe haven and no-fly zone established by the United States and protected by coalition forces. Under this political configuration, the region’s identity was ethno-nationally Kurdish, but Kurdish leaders made room for Assyrians in the public sphere and civil society. However, disputes began to emerge when Assyrians, displaced by the Ba‘ath regime, sought to return and rebuild their villages now populated by Kurds. Lawsuits have been filed in Kurdish courts relating to 45 or so villages, with little or no effect, and new violations against other villages continue.

After Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘athist government fell in 2003, Assyrian groups active in the opposition turned south to negotiate with the new government in Baghdad. The KDP leadership felt betrayed, preferring to take the lead in discussions involving its “components.” Territories heavily populated by minority communities along the KRG borders, though officially under Mosul’s administration, came to be contested between the central and regional governments. Minorities preferred to administer their regions locally, as was allowed by the Iraqi constitution. Concerned that its territorial goals were being undermined, the KRG co-opted minorities by creating and funding civil society organizations and political groups on whose loyalty it could depend.3 More directly coercive methods followed, which included preventing ballot boxes from reaching contested territories and blocking the creation of independent local police forces. This last step would foreshadow the break in relations between the KRG and minority communities following the 2014 ISIS invasion. As both the Peshmerga, the KRG’s military arm, and Iraqi government forces withdrew from Nineveh and Sinjar, leaving Assyrians and Yezidis to face ISIS’ brutal onslaught alone, community leaders rallied to form independent local forces, as they had done just two decades before. 

In a lecture delivered earlier this year, Dr. Muna Yaku, assistant professor of law at Salahaddin University-Erbil, suggested that for minorities to feel fully engaged with the referendum they must have real dialogue with Kurds on equal terms, instead of being treated as guests. She highlighted KRG violations against minority communities ranging from political manipulation of quota seats, the continuation of forced demographic change, and the exclusion or misrepresentation of minorities within educational curricula.4 Dr. Yaku was chosen to represent Christians in a committee formed to amend the KRG constitution, but eventually she withdrew in protest at violations of minority
rights.5 Similarly, Dohuk native Ashur Sargon Eskrya, President of the Assyrian Aid Society-Iraq, recalling atrocities experienced by minorities, insisted: “When our Assyrian Christian people are facing challenges that affect their national existence on their historic lands…the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples must be adopted in a manner that preserves for our people the right to self-determination and the preservation of their lands and cultural and social heritage, as well as all peoples of the world.”6

A day before the referendum, the high committee for KRG’s referendum issued a declaration guaranteeing the rights of minorities.7 Many community leaders have since criticized that statement, calling it unbinding and shortsighted.8 Whether the referendum drives the KRG to independence or stifles it in the face of mounting pressure, the discussion that led up to it has highlighted the need to revive real and transparent dialogue between the Kurdish leadership and minority leaders, as well as between civil society groups and intellectuals on both sides. Relations between the two will take time to normalize, but engaging with politically independent, local representatives of minorities is a step in the right direction. It is important to remember that only a few decades ago, the Kurds themselves insisted on their community’s rights to full political participation. 

Alda Benjamen

Dr. Alda Benjamen specializes in the history of the modern Middle East; in particular she focuses on twentieth-century intellectual, cultural and social history of Iraq and Syria, Middle Eastern minorities and their transnational networks, and women and gender issues. As a postdoctoral Researcher at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, University of Pennsylvania Museum, she examines cultural heritage in times of conflict, focusing on intangible heritage within agricultural domains.

2. Department of State, Division of Language Services (Translation), LS No. 10056, T-58, Arabic, April 22, 1969, “The Honorable William Rogers, Secretary of State of the United States of America,” 1. 
3. Alda Benjamen, “Assyrians in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains: Grassroot organizations and Inter-Communal Conflict.” The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq no. 6-1 (Spring 2011): 13-20. 
4. “A lecture by Dr. Muna Yaku on the future prospects for the region and the view of our peope,” Facebook video, 18:52, posted by “Radio Ashur,” February 12, 2017,     
6. Ashur Sargon Eskrya statement was issued on the on the tenth anniversary of the UNDRIP, September 13, 2017, on his facebook page. 
7. ;
8. ;

The Solar Eclipse in Islamic Tradition

August 21, 2017

"Astrology informed a great deal of medieval Islamic art. It references the solar calendar, which in any preindustrial society, is extremely important—it tells you when to plant, when to go to war, when to lay foundations for buildings. Any court had its astrological advisors, who had their own fans and enemies." -Persis Berlekamp, Associate Professor of Art History

"In the Islamic tradition, a solar eclipse is both ordinary and extraordinary. It is extraordinary in the sense that it disrupts our everyday expectation of night and day and their regularity; in this sense, it is another sign of God's power. It is ordinary in the sense that it is part of a divine plan and has no significance beyond its attestation of divine omnipotence." -Alireza Doostdar, Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and the Anthropology of Religion

More: "Eclipse reflects sun's historic power" by Louise Lerner, UChicago News Office.

Fighting Nazis – Middle Eastern and Islamic Style!

Lime Balla, an Albanian Muslim and one of the Righteous Among the Nations honored by Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

August 14, 2017

We were all troubled, like many Americans and concerned citizens across the globe, by the images we saw coming from Charlottesville, VA. In CMES, we teach classes on the modern Middle East, and how WWII profoundly affected the region, whose countries became actual battlefields (especially in North Africa) and whose elites were influenced by the competing ideologies of democracy, social democracy, socialism, communism, fascism and Nazism.

Much has been written on Middle Eastern and Muslim leaders who sought collaboration with the Axis powers, partly mesmerized by Germany's speedy economic and military recovery under Hitler and partly believing that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," namely that collaboration of Arabs and Muslims with the Germans and the Italians would help Arabs and Muslims fight British and French colonialism and imperialism.

However, in recent years, a new wave of scholars has underscored the significance of groups who resisted fascism and Nazism in the Middle East. Who were these groups? Some were democrats and liberals who feared the Nazis' disregard for human life and human rights. Since part of the Middle Eastern elites were educated in France, many intellectuals bemoaned its fall, the humane cultures it represented, and the bleak future that anticipated Europe after its occupation by Germany. Arab intellectuals also reminded readers that German anti-Semitism was directed against Arabs as well. It continued a long tradition where Arab writers took pride in their Semitic origins and Semitic contribution to world civilization. Egyptian writers in particular, terrified by the conquest of Ethiopia by Fascist Italy, feared that they were next in line. The 1930s and 1940s marked the rise of the Arab left and many an Arab socialist and communist condemned the German regime, especially after the entry of the USSR to the war. There was also a political camp that still supported collaboration with the French and British and many other Arab writers who argued that it would be a fatal mistake to replace the older colonialism with the much more horrid form of German and Italian colonization.

Finally, Muslim scholars, Sunni and Shi'i alike, argued that Fascism and Nazism were inherently contradictory to Islam. These Western regimes and ideologies, with their deifying the state, with the preference their leaders and ideologues gave to ethnicity and purity of blood over ethics, with their admiration of power, and with their conquest of Muslim subjects in the name of racial superiority, contradicted the Islamic religion whose foundations centered on the unity of God, underlined the preference of faith over ethnicity, and celebrated mercy and compassion. Scholars have likewise documented the many Muslims, in North Africa, Albania, Turkey, and Iraq, as well as the foreign Egyptian, Palestinian, Iranian and Turkish diplomats and subjects residing in Europe, who provided help to Jews fleeing death. Such behavior gives us much hope in this day and age.

Orit Bashkin
Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History
Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies

For Further Reading

Online resources

On Palestinian views, and on the Palestinian leftist Najati Sidqi, his involvement in the Spanish Civil War and anti-Fascist activities:

Israel Gershoni and James Jankowsky on Egypt:

Diplomats and Muslim subjects in Europe who assisted Jews:




Albanians who saved Jews in Europe:

Armenians who saved Jews:

On the Farhud:


The following books provide information about resistance to Fascism and Nazism across North Africa and the Middle East