Lead book review

Light and shade in the Holy Land – a century in spectacular images

Justin Marozzi on the troubled history of a small, much-coveted country

14 May 2022

9:00 AM

14 May 2022

9:00 AM

The Bride: An Illustrated History of Palestine 1850-1948 Roger Hardy

Anthony Eyre, pp.304, 25

Roger Hardy is a romantic. That much I deduce from the language he uses to describe how photographers were drawn to the special quality of light in Palestine. Their images, he writes, ‘capture the play of light and shade on the limestone walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, the glistening watermelons on sale at open-air markets, the white apartment blocks of the new metropolis of Tel Aviv, the dusty rubble of houses blown up by soldiers during the rebellion of the 1930s’. The last few words reveal a steely realism, too, a quality developed, no doubt, during the more than 20 years he worked as a Middle East analyst for the BBC World Service. As a cub reporter at Bush House 25 years ago, I used to interview him for the language services and always found him owlish, donnish and impressively well-informed.

Here he turns his attention to Palestine in the century before it became Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, using the testimony of letters, diaries and memoirs to tell an alternately tragic and triumphant story, illustrated by superb photography. The book is worth buying for the wonderful black-and-white images alone.

This was a critical century. It saw Europeans, and in time Americans, rudely interrupt, interfere with and ultimately replace the Ottoman colonial rule which had existed in Palestine ever since Sultan Selim the Grim took Jerusalem in 1517 – just one of the 35 times the city was conquered from antiquity to 1917. In Hardy’s nicely laconic turn of phrase: ‘Palestine’s historic misfortune was to be coveted by others who were convinced they had a better right to it than its inhabitants.’ From the mid-19th century, the British, French and Russians led the charge, manoeuvring for advantage, joined by other powers and the proliferating Christian sects in a rivalry famously described by Edward Lear as ‘Jerusalem squabblepoison’.

Hardy deftly blends history from on high with street-level and (because this is Palestine) street-fighting history. So we have the fateful Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which ‘one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third’, in Arthur Koestler’s summary – the foundation for everything that went right if you were Jewish and wrong if you were Arab. We have the rapidly escalating Jewish immigration, encouraged by the Zionist movement, which doubled the size of the Jewish community in the 1930s and changed the ‘facts on the ground’, followed by that decade’s rising tensions and increasingly bloody conflicts.


Then there are all those interminable British commissions of inquiry, among them Lord Peel’s 1937 commission, one of the 19 produced by our battalions of pen-pushers during the British Mandate from 1920-48, which stated a stark and inconvenient truth: ‘An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities within the narrow bounds of one small country. There is no common bond between them. Their national aspirations are incompatible.’ In Hardy’s words: ‘Like the child in the fable, Peel blurted out that the emperor had no clothes.’ And, of course, there are the machinations of men like David Ben-Gurion, the main founder of Israel; Amin al Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, rabble-rouser of the 1936-39 Arab Revolt and later bed-fellow of Italian fascists and German Nazis; Churchill, Bevin, Truman and so on. So far so familiar.

If much of this protest and politics is predictably violent and unedifying, the characters Hardy chooses to tell their very personal stories make The Bride hugely engaging on a human level. There are many brilliant cameos. How about the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who considered Jewish officials ‘the rudest people on Earth’ during his visit in 1934, their British counterparts not much better: ‘The English lower officials are a poor, tired, washed-out lot; the upper, patient, disillusioned, uninterested policemen.’ We might ask whether anything has changed 90 years later.

There are British teachers and administrators; the Arab writer and artist Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, who translated Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas into Arabic; and George Antonius, whose hugely influential The Arab Awakening, published in 1938, provided the literary foundations of Arab nationalism. Why, he asked, should Palestinians pay the price for Hitler’s abominations against the Jews? ‘No code of morals can justify the persecution of one people in an attempt to relieve the persecution of another.’ One of Hardy’s principal characters is Tawfiq Canaan, who became the first Arab doctor to establish a clinic in Jerusalem in 1905, and later wrestled with his competing Ottoman and Arab identities. He, his German wife and his sister were arrested and imprisoned on 3 September 1939, the day Britain declared war on Germany.

Ever the Bush House veteran, Hardy takes a particular interest in radio stations in Palestine. Of the British-launched Palestine Broadcasting Service he writes: ‘Modelled on the BBC, the new station was designed to be non-political and a force for unity, but ended up being neither.’

The star of the show is the collection of sumptuous photographs which Hardy reminds us reflects the contested status of Palestine, whether it is calculated Christian efforts to portray Palestine as an unchanged biblical home – think Arab shepherd with his flock amid crumbling ruins to illustrate Psalm 23’s ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ – or Jewish propaganda to show pioneer progress and modern development in the settlements.

Hardy plays his cards close to his chest right until the end of this even-handed study. Then, on the last page, he concludes that ‘the Zionists won their state not through the force of argument but through the force of arms’, and that the expulsion and exodus of Palestinian Arabs left ‘a moral ambiguity at the heart of Israel’s existence’. Crusader knights, Ottoman pashas, British imperialists, Zionist settlers, not to mention Arab landowners, had all bought, sold and abused the bride of his title. His last line laments how, during the British Mandate, Palestinians’ ‘rights were denied’. As they continue to be denied today.

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