"Doing" Early Islamic History: Brooklyn Baseball, Arabic Historiography, and Historical Memory

Article excerpt

Mindful of the historic event that we commemorate this evening, I have chosen for my remarks the subject of history itself. To be more precise, I have decided to speak about "Doing Early Islamic History" with specific references to "Brooklyn Baseball, Arabic Historiography and Historical Memory." The catchy title was deliberately chosen to evoke curiosity among the more dour of our learned colleagues, those individuals once described as waiting laconically for the onset of the twentieth century, or perhaps it was the nineteenth. Be that as it may, in choosing the subject of my presidential address I had no intention of being frivolous. Even the seemingly incongruous reference to baseball has the full support of scholarly precedent, albeit from an unexpected source. The title and style of my remarks are derived from a well-known collection of historiographical essays by Jack Hexter, the former Charles J. Stille Professor of [Modern European] History at Yale.

In less than two hundred pages of neatly crafted prose, Hexter ranged far afield and, with humor worthy of a David Lodge novel, he grappled with the larger problems of the historian's workstyle and workplace, displaying at all times precisely the right mix of scholarship and playful irreverence. In doing that, he managed both to infuriate and disarm critics waiting anxiously to pounce on every word, a trick that occasions the envy of all serious scholars save those for whom to infuriate is sufficient recompense in itself. Although published some twenty years ago, this witty and easily read book remains delightful. And while Hexter's optimistic assessment of understanding the past may find fewer adherents today, his book, Doing History, still gives professional historians of all fields cause to reflect when they themselves attempt to do it.

One of the more compelling aspects of Hexter's analysis was his knowledgeable appeal to baseball. I found particularly poignant his reference to the National League pennant race of 1951, a struggle of life and death that ended dramatically at the Polo Grounds in New York City. In an instant, the barbarians of cognoscenti Bluff, otherwise known as the New York Giants, triumphed over the forces of virtue, the beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. For historians and baseball cognoscenti with residual loyalties to the old Brooklyn team, especially those who, like myself, experienced the event "wie es eigentlich gewesen," the catastrophe that befell the Dodgers on that fateful autumn day may be compared to the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem, the sack of Rome and the Mongol conquest of Baghdad, events indelibly etched in historical consciousness. To be sure, there were future successes, even a world championship, but the Dodgers soon abandoned the fleshpots of Brooklyn for Los Angeles and nouvelle cuisine, and baseball, once a way of life, became, like everything else in Southern California, a business that sustains neither interest nor compels loyalty. For those who were nourished, as I was, by Brooklyn baseball, the world has never been and will never be the same.

I realize that these references to circumstances forty years ago may seem terribly arcane, perhaps puzzling or even irrelevant to the younger or foreign orientalists in our presence. What have pennant races and disenfranchised athletic teams to do with understanding the world of Islam, a civilization far removed in place and time from that of our own? I would contend that for those who remember baseball and the borough of Brooklyn as they once were, there is much in that past celebrated by Hexter which provides historiographical insight. The Brooklyn team was part of narrative history, a wonderful if highly tendentious story made larger than life itself. The Los Angeles Dodgers are part of what Gertrude Himmelfarb disparagingly referred to as "The New History," a rather different story, one that lacks texture and heroic ballast and which explains historical transformations in theoretical terms and with an ideological focus that does not ordinarily grace the lively fact-filled pages of Sports Illustrated or The Sporting News. …