History as Identity
An excerpt from An Inside Story of Modern Syria: The Unauthorised Biography of a Damascene Reformer [published 30 Jan 2023]
History, as Mahmoud el-Kati, my professor at Macalester College, once taught me, is primarily concerned with the manufacturing of an identity [i]. In his mind, all the talk one hears and reads about history being useful for learning lessons from the past—for avoiding the repetition of past mistakes and identifying how and why things turned out the way they did—is essentially rubbish! History is a factory of identity; the art of using past events to legitimize a specific narrative. The Nation of Islam, for example, as el-Kati would explain, succeeded in attracting followers not because it provided them with a factual history. It succeeded, rather, because it provided African Americans with a historical narrative that empowered them with an alternate identity; an identity they could be proud of, an identity that made the experience of slavery a catalyst rather than a burden.
To grow up in the family of al-‘Imadi (henceforth Imady) was to know that it had its own version of history, and, in turn, a distinct sense of identity. Stories upon stories of who my ancestors were and all the values they allegedly upheld were shared with me throughout my childhood, often for no apparent reason. And whether it was my elderly aunt who was sharing these stories in her organic, fluid manner, or my father who had a far more sophisticated and formal way of articulating them, the impact on me was the same: because of all this, I was different, my father was different, in fact, all Imadys were different. We carried this distinct sense of identity with us everywhere.
Our Friday trips to Zabadani, a summer resort town around forty kilometres from Damascus, could not take place without pointing out pieces of land or even an entire village that the Imady family allegedly once owned; a gift from an Ottoman sultan to one of the Imady religious scholars or part of a trust that had found its way through marriages and inheritance into our family. A visit to a mosque could easily unleash stories of Imady grand muftis, all forty of them (I would later learn they were, in actuality, only seven). And a random encounter with a Damascene woman could remind my aunt of the fact that this woman’s family were once recipients of the Imady family’s charitable gift to Damascus: Waqf al-Qadi Muhibb al-Din al-‘Imadi, the charitable trust of Judge Muhibb al-Din Imady. And while some of these stories had no basis in actual history, there was, in fact, a solid historical foundation for the Imady sense of identity; a foundation which was as old as the Ottoman conquest of Damascus.
The main outline of the Imady family history is not difficult to identify. Who were the main players? When were they primarily active? When and why did they become less prominent? All these questions are fairly easy to answer. What is difficult is trying to go beyond what was obvious, and, later, trying to solve the ‘glitches’, or historical anomalies, that even now remain resistant to my extensive attempts to unravel them. But as el-Kati would remind me, what you know and what you don’t know about your past are both equally important when it comes to how your sense of identity is ultimately shaped.
[i] Mahmoud El-Kati is Professor Emeritus of History at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. In recognition of his scholarly and community work, Macalester College has established the Mahmoud El-Kati Distinguished Lectureship in American Studies. For his biography, see the entry on his official website.