Writing ‘thick narratives’ from thin sources? Social biography’s place in the historiography of the modern Middle East.

By Mark Sanagan
Submitted to Session P4405 (The Individual as the Subject of Historical Inquiry: Four Cases from Egypt and Palestine, 2016 Annual Meeting
If historical scholarship is marked by a certain set of tenets – namely work that follows basic norms of methodology in making an analytic argument about the past – crafting that argument into an accessible story has not always been part of the creed. The linguistic turn brought much needed critical focus to the asymmetry of power in the historiography of the modern Middle East, and discourse analysis came with a healthy dose of skepticism about the ways in which historians narrate the past.
In recent years, historians of the modern Middle East have returned to descriptive histories, placing narrative in the foreground of their scholarship to a degree unprecedented in the previous few decades. Biographies or microhistories more broadly, attuned to critiques of institutional power, or the colonial archive, can add to this growing collection. They also offer the opportunity, in some circumstances, of reaching a broad readership accustomed to iterations of the T. E. Lawrence story, or other variations on colonial narratives.
This paper first addresses the place of biography (and “social biography” in particular) in the historiography of the modern Middle East. I suggest that the biographical turn can open up new space within the discipline to compliment (or push back against) discourse analysis on the one hand, and challenge quasi-scholarly or essentialist popular narratives on the other.
I then address some of the methodological concerns inherent in writing this sort of history by taking the life of ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam as an example. Al-Qassam, who has been written about frequently but about whom little is typically said, left few sources on which a conventional biography can draw. How can a historian write what Peter Burke called the “thick narratives” required in microhistories with what some see as thin sources? Here, little material is available that provides the researcher with insight into al-Qassam’s life in a phenomenological sense. We are left to reconstruct his biography with disparate sources, finding traces of his life in Ottoman salnames; colonial commissions; memoirs of Palestinian nationalist politicians; oral interviews with guerilla fighters; the personal papers of prominent lawyers; contemporaneous newspapers; Jewish intelligence documents; British police files; the observations of a Swedish ethnographer. Shaping these voices into an accessible chorus can make a strong contribution to our understanding of the period.