No sound draws Beshara Doumani's attention like silence. As a young graduate student at Georgetown in the 1970s, Doumani spent months in the library of Congress surveying every available text he could find on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After poring over the vast collection of literature, what made the strongest impression wasn't anything he found. It's what he didn't find.
In particular, virtually no scholarship existed that described Palestinian society or culture as it existed in the past. Outside the realm of political conflict--be it during Biblical times, the Crusades, or the 1948 war--the Palestinians appeared to have no history at all.
Today an associate professor of history at Berkeley, Doumani has devoted his career to giving voice to the everyday lives of Palestinians. His first book, published in 1995, told the story of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Palestinian merchants and peasants in Jabal Nablus under the rule of the Ottomon Empire. Ten years later, Doumani's current project stakes out more ambitious territory. When finished, his new book will mark the first modern social history of the Palestinian people.
"It's really quite an amazing fact that they're such a household word but we know so little about them: who they are, how they came to be, what do they want, how they live," Doumani says.
The challenges Doumani's project has faced on the road to completion--still at least two years away--speak pointedly to why no one has ever undertaken it before.
Palestinians, Doumani says, lack the kind of infrastructure historians typically rely on when writing the history of a nation. The absence of a national archives, well-entrenched educational institutions, and a critical mass of intellectuals, he says, demands that he go straight to the source. Doumani spends much of his time doing research in the Middle East, relying heavily on family papers, local artifacts, and the legal records of the Islamic courts, or sijill, for much of his information.
The end result, Doumani hopes, will provide a broad but highly textured portrait of the people, past and present, left out of what he calls "elite political histories" of the Middle East. Women, peasants, workers, artisans, and children are the people whose stories Doumani wants to tell--their families, their work, their art, their culture, the day-to-day struggle of getting by in a region where political turmoil has long meant displacement, violence, and loss.
Still, Doumani says, "my aim is not to elicit sympathy for the Palestinians and their cause."
"I can't really do that and be true to my ethical standards as a historian," he says, "because like any other people they have their good sides and their bad sides. And in fact that's precisely the aim of this project--to see the society in all its complexity, warts and all."
The better that complexity is understood, Doumani says, "the more we're able to imagine a better future."
This spring, Doumani has been at work on a series of essays in consultation with Berkeley rhetoric professor Judith Butler that deal with the theoretical conundrums and political minefields he must navigate to see his project through. (Their collaboration was facilitated by a program at the Townsend Center for the Humanities that brings together scholars from different disciplines.)
The Arab-Israeli conflict evokes such passion in people that even the most innocuous-seeming statements of fact have been known to stir controversy. Doumani says he realizes his book may upset many on both sides.
"I don't want to make people angry," he says. "But I want to make them think."
As someone who has committed himself to some of the most contentious scholarly territory in contemporary academia, Doumani has also become an outspoken figure in the debate over academic freedom on American college campuses.
Since September 11, he says, scholars of the Middle East have faced increasing political pressure to censor themselves, especially when it comes to discussing Israel, the Middle East, and Islam.
He has published articles and op-eds criticizing efforts aimed at "stifling" professors who take controversial positions on political issues. An anthology on academic freedom edited by Doumani will appear early next year.
"We're paid as academics to show that the world is not black and white. There are many shades of gray. If the political agendas of the powers that be don't like that because they insist on a black-and-white world, well, that's tough," Doumani says.
"Academic freedom is there to help us continue this work of showing the shades of gray without having to pay a political price for it in terms of arbitrary repression."
Doumani teaches undergraduate lecture courses in the history of the Middle East. He also leads a popular undergraduate seminar on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He says he strives in his classes to create an open environment where students feel they can speak freely, wherever they stand.
Only through that kind of open discourse, he says, can history be practiced with integrity.
"I think a lot of our imagination about how to understand ourselves, how to understand the past, and how to influence the future has to do with really being honest with ourselves about the diverse, messy, contradictory, and hybrid realities of the people who lived before us."