BEIRUT: Fiction writers and historians have more in common than you might imagine. During their 20th-century romance with Modernism, both species were tempted to be skeptical of “narrative,” but in practice fiction and history are deeply attached to storytelling.
Readers like heroes. So historians (particularly popular historians, who imagine there is a public to read, or at least to purchase, their books) are sometimes drawn to prominent public figures – politicians, business leaders, crime bosses and the like.
There is a strong precedent for this. The lives of “great men” have provided fodder for historians and biographers since antiquity. This age-old tradition is nowadays dwarfed by the vast literature that has grown up against it.
As many a baffled college freshman discovers, academic historians tend to be less interested in the characters running things than the institutional, economic, social and cultural factors that historical actors, great and small, must navigate. A lively literature has grown out of writing history “against the grain” – scratching at conventional sources in search of disenfranchised voices.
Writing against the grain has limits. If he doesn’t have documents to eyeball, a historian is little better than a newspaper columnist. Yet, as many historians of Lebanon will tell you, documents can be scarce. Burnt libraries and neglected archives offer testimony to how ephemeral historical footprints are, particularly those of subaltern figures.
That said, stubborn researchers do uncover previously unnoticed sources. Some recent state-of-the-art work has examined groups ordinarily misrepresented by the mainstream historical record.
Take Stefan Winter’s 2010 study “The Shiites of Lebanon under Ottoman Rule, 1516-1788.” Marshalling an impressive arsenal of data – from Ottoman archival materials to provincial court records to European travelers’ tales – the scholar goes far to debunk two long-cherished myths of Ottoman Lebanon: that of the Druze-Maronite creation of a “Lebanese” polity and that of the Ottoman state’s systemic persecution of Arab Shiites.
Winter’s work underlines how the art of history lies less in packaging and retailing compelling narratives than in the practice of uncovering voices that contest comforting tales of the past.
When it comes to retailing compelling narratives, fiction writers enjoy a definite edge. Take U.K. novelist Hilary Mantel, whose last two fictions (“Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies”) have won consecutive Man Booker Prizes.
One of Mantel’s great accomplishments is the dexterity with which she depicts her protagonist. Thomas Cromwell – the Machiavellian Tudor middleman credited with abetting the English Reformation – is crafted into a humane and complex figure, capable of provoking sympathy, amusement, even affection.
Precious few historians of Henry VIII’s reign can make such a claim. Then again, it’s likely few would set out to do so.
It is onto the wind-swept promontory between scholarship and fiction that T.J. Gorton’s “Renaissance Emir: A Druze Warlord at the Court of the Medici” strode earlier this year.
Gorton’s tome is an historical biography of Fakhr al-Din Maan (1572-1635). The scion of a Druze notable family rooted in Mount Lebanon’s Chouf region, Fakhr al-Din used force of arms, diplomacy and bribery to vastly extend his clan’s influence. From the port town of Sidon, he eventually came to administer Beirut and Tripoli and acquired control over what are today wide swaths of Palestine and rural Syria.
The handsome castle looming over the Roman-era ruins of Palmyra bears his name. Further architectural residues have been preserved for tourists in Deir al-Qamar, the Chouf village with which he’s most closely associated.
In historical convention, Fakhr al-Din is depicted as an emir (prince), whose family held hereditary rights over their lands. This was a rarity in Ottoman administrative practice, where insecurity of tenure, confiscation of properties and redistribution of taxation rights were the norm.
A montagnard who successfully exerted influence over the coast and beyond, Fakhr al-Din has a heroic aspect that’s made him an appealing figure for nationalist historians. Some would depict him as a key figure in founding a Druze-Maronite “Lebanon,” defiant of the despotic Orient and embracing of the liberal West in a way that, they argue, presaged the Lebanese republic.
As Istanbul then saw things, the authority to sanction such prerogatives as Fakhr al-Din exercised resided in the Ottoman household (albeit contingent upon its inclination to enforce its will). In this regard, the late Kamal Salibi – author of one of the two Lebanese national histories published in English – dismissed Fakhr al-Din as an ambitious tax farmer with limited legacy.
Gorton would like to argue that his subject’s legacy – his inclination, say, to put practical matters of business before parochial sectarian prejudice – was more significant than that. To make his case, he consults the handful of extant contemporary accounts of Fakhr al-Din – all of which, he acknowledges, betray such bias as to discount them as reliable sources.
From these, and a few more-recent studies, the author stitches together a story of the notable’s public life – both in Syria and during his 1613-18 European exile. Both facets of Fakhr al-Din’s career make him an intriguing figure for students of the region’s history.
“ Renaissance Emir” is an earnest and interested study, but it’s woefully misguided.
The sources at Gorton’s disposal simply divulge too little detail for a political biography. To caulk the gaps, the author added context (a mixture of secondary source information, personal interpretation, narrative reiteration and summation) so that the work resembles history.
Here too the book falls short. Too few, too biased and limited for biography, his sources are even less useful for balanced history, saying much more about the cultural positioning of their authors than their putative subject.
Gorton is an Arabist who has lectured at such prestigious universities as St. Andrews, Scotland, and Georgetown. He’s written widely on the poetry of Al-Andalus, and published volumes of Arabic poetry in translation. “ Renaissance Emir” is his second publication to make use of Lebanese history. “Lebanon Through Writers’ Eyes” (2009), the first, is a reader sampling writings from Sinuhe (circa 1875 B.C.) to Amin Maalouf.
An habitué of the commercial life of the Arab Middle East, having spent a quarter of a century negotiating oil concessions, Gorton’s autobiography (were he to write one) would likely be more pertinent to students of the region’s history than anything he’s published so far.
The fact that he’s not a professional historian may explain the vaguely antiquarian approach to his subject.
Since “ Renaissance Emir” makes no pretense to be a scholarly history, there is no point itemizing the several shortcomings that will compel serious students of the discipline to grind their teeth, or pour another glass of whiskey.
Perhaps the most egregious of these resides in the author’s relationship to sources. The book’s bibliography has no shortage of references, but there are few fresh studies (like Winter’s, say) that might bring conceptual or scholarly girth to the discussion.
Gorton betrays more affection for the historic accounts from which he draws than criticism. He remarks knowingly upon the untrustworthiness of this material but uses it anyway – presumably deciding that, though skewed, it’s the most authentic available. That could be interesting if his subject were Fakhr al-Din’s “biographers,” but it’s not.
His subject enjoyed a successful career framed by the contingencies of the 16th- and 17th-century Ottoman Empire. To depict the former requires a fair assessment of the latter. Yet, when Gorton briefly turns his attention to that polity, the discussion is riddled with references to its “decline.”
Use of this term betrays the influence of mid-20th-century Orientalist studies (championed by scholars like Bernard Lewis), premised on the authors’ naive reading of Ottoman sources and their knowledge that (three centuries later) the empire was defeated in World War I and dismembered.
Historical hindsight of this sort is the cardinal sin of the discipline. This is one of the reasons Lewis’ brand of Orientalism was discredited – and a once-distinguished scholar reduced to the status of political hack.
With historical fiction, at least, there is less chance innocent readers will mistake the writing for fact.
T.J. Gorton’s “ Renaissance Emir: A Druze Warlord at the Court of the Medici” (2013) is published by Quartet Books and is available at discerning booksellers.