The City of Abraham: History Myth and Memory--a Journey Through Hebron
Picador, 384pp, [pounds sterling]18.99
Edward Platt decided to write about Hebron in 2001, when he first encountered the idea that not only was land subject to conquest but its sub-terrain was, too--the history and myths written into and buried beneath the surface of the land. It changed the way he thought about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, making him want to "understand the city's mythic history and the ways in which it continued to inform its inhabitants' lives". What he discovered there was that history is constantly being overwritten to fortify competing opinions.
One of the most ancient and contested cities in the West Bank, Hebron is named in Genesis as the place where Abraham settled and founded monotheism, hence its significance to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Abraham and his wife, Sarah, are said to be buried there, along with Abraham's sons, Ishmael, the father of the Arabs, and Isaac, whose son Jacob became the father of the Jews.
While biblical claims to the city are very old, the seemingly intractable conflict over its land began surprisingly recently. Even after Muslim armies conquered Palestine in 636 and turned the building above the tomb into a mosque, Jews and Muslims lived pretty peacefully in Hebron until as late as 1929, when 67 Jews were massacred by local Arabs and the remaining Jewish population was evacuated. Forty years later, in 1968, a group of messianic settlers moved in and the current problems began.
In his award-winning debut, Leadville (2001), a "biography" of the A40 trunk road, Platt made use of a mix of interviews, reportage and travelogue that worked brilliantly. Exported to the Occupied Territories, the same formula is less successful. Platt meanders from claim to counterclaim about past and present without shedding much light on either. So archaeologists make "narrative assumptions" and extremists use history to serve their own ideologies--tell me something new!
A deeper problem is Platt's assertion that, being neither Jewish nor Muslim, he has a degree of neutrality that qualifies him for the task at hand. He has clearly gone to considerable lengths to interview Israelis who represent different viewpoints from those of the settlers in Hebron but he remains strangely oblivious to the cultural baggage that his observations carry with them. …