From Empire to Empire by Abigail Jacobson (thoughts)
I know: two Netgalley posts in one week! I planned to run this last week, but then I wanted to get my Dutch lit post up in June. So there you have it. ;) As I’ve mentioned before, my favourite aspect of Netgalley is the access to university presses; I get to read solid academic nonfiction on obscure topics that my public library has no need to acquire. This is a Syracuse Press offering, and I’ve already got their other two current galleys (A Band of Noble Women: Racial Politics in the Women’s Peace Movement and Islamist Opposition in Authoritarian Regimes: The Party of Justic and Development in Morocco) loaded up on Athie, which should give a clue as to how I enjoyed this one!
The two empires Jacobson (an Israeli professor) is referring to are the Ottoman and British; this book looks at Jerusalem during WWI, when it transitioned between rulers. As such, it’s an exploration of boundaries: identity, temporal, and otherwise. Jacobson does a marvelous job of showing that the ‘divisions’ academics employ tend to be far more rigid than the fluid realities of people on the ground. She also presents a good mix of big picture analysis with details about individuals’ lives, relying on a variety of primary sources. I particularly enjoyed her microanalysis of one Jerusalem resident’s diary. The descriptions of the various ethnic groups in Jerusalem at the time, and how each them responded to developments, was fascinating. Since Jacobson limits herself to such a specific time and place, she really has the latitude to explore a bunch of themes, and she does it in a way that is consistently intelligent and interesting. Also, her evenhanded treatment of the different religious and ethnic groups is both a relief and an inspiration, as anyone who reads Middle East-focused nonfiction will agree. While not a ‘popular history’ book, I think any educated lay reader with a bit of interest in the Middle East or WWI or imperialism or culture & identity politics would definitely enjoy this. I just wish she had more books for me to read!
Suggested Companion Reads
- City of Oranges by Adam LeBor (another nonfiction book about a Palestinian/Israeli city: Jaffa/Tel Aviv; this history begins after WWI and continues through present day)
- I Saw Ramallah by Mourid Barghouti (a memoir by a Palestinian poet; I read this in 2010 and found it quite powerful but didn’t blog about it)
- The Age of Homespun by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (Ulrich is another historian who analyses her subject, in this case women in 18th century New England, through a non-standard-issue lens.)
- O Jerusalem by Laurie King (Part of her historical mystery series featuring Mary Russell, this is set in and around Jerusalem during WWI, so the same time period.)