"All Those Great Things: Power, Corruption, Loyalty, and Betrayal." BookNerd Interviews Middle East Historian Lesley Hazleton.

By Heidi Broadhead October 26, 2009


British-born Lesley Hazleton lives in Seattle, but she's very familiar with the Middle East. She spent 13 years in Jerusalem, where she worked as a correspondent for Time Magazine. Her books, such as Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen and Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother delve into the politics surrounding religious stories, particularly those that continue to affect the world today. Her latest book (a Josh favorite, also a BookNerd favorite) is After the Prophet, which takes a look at the source of the Sunni-Shia split in Islam, particularly the wars and struggles for power during the 50 years after the prophet Muhammad died without leaving a clear heir, and how those events continue to resonate.

On a recent rainy day, Hazleton invited me to her houseboat on Lake Union, where we sipped double espressos with a twist of lemon and talked about our mutual affection for green nail polish, William James, and broken down old books with the notes in the margins.

When reading After the Prophet, I became vaguely fixated on the late 9th, early 10th century Iraqi historian al-Tabari, a major source for the book. So I was giddy when Hazleton pulled a gray paperback, Volume 17 of the English translation of his work, from her shelf, and walked around demonstrating how all 39 volumes, checked out month-by-month from Suzzallo Library, sat on the floor of her living room for nearly two years. She talked about al-Tabari's insistence on isnad—a technique of crediting the sources of the first-hand accounts as they were passed down through generations (every quote is designated, as below, with all the names presented in order of account, which explains the 39 volumes):


Lesley Hazleton: I'm just so impressed by the way that he does not edit the history he gets. As I wrote in the book, there's a very fine sensibility at work here—the realization that, like in Rashomon, there are many, many different accounts of the same event. He's aware that everybody has their bias, and that there's no such thing as objective truth. He has clearly decided that, okay, the nearest you can come to truth is in the aggregate. Instead of me taking a position and choosing the story, I will take out all the stories, and the reader will bring them all together as he has and sort of find their way among them. It's a process I think of tremendous respect for history and for the way history is handed down, the way the story becomes history, because all history starts as a story. A tremendous respect for, and acknowledgment of, the ways that human memory and human desire change, the way that human desire changes memory. And tremendous respect for the reader that the reader will have enough intelligence to be able to make their way through all this. And also a wonderful respect for the people who are telling you these stories, to use their words, to quote them directly, without editing them.

He's very aware that this is the stuff of history, but he's not setting himself up as a sort of Western-style authoritative historian—"I am the great academic"—tenured, and blah blah blah blah and so on and so on. I am recording it for posterity, is his attitude, and I'm doing my best to record it as fully as I possibly can, which means talking to as many people as I can. He traveled all over the Middle East, just writing down what people said.

BookNerd: So this book (on the table) is "The First Civil War."

Hazleton: This is volume 17. The First Civil War includes the Battle of the Camel between Ali and, basically, Aisha [Muhammed's 9th and youngest wife].

BookNerd: Aisha's interesting.

Hazleton: Whether you like her or don't like her, she cannot be ignored, which is, of course, exactly what she always wanted. I've actually been amazed how many Muslims in America have been reading this book, and I've been hearing from them. They have to pick their nits and the major nit is always Aisha. Shia sympathizers maintain that I'm far too kind to her, that I've romanticized her and so on and so on. Whereas Sunni sympathizers say I've been far to mean to the point of disrespect, and how could I talk this way about the Mother of the Faithful and so on. This seems to me to indicate that I might have got it just right, right in the middle, where both sides disagree with how I've presented her.

BookNerd: But there's no disputing her influence?

Hazleton: There's no disputing her influence, no, except that it takes a little bit of time to realize as you're reading the original histories because in none of them is Aisha presented as a lead player, it's just that as you're reading, she keeps on coming up again and again and again and you start thinking, wait a minute, this woman's not disappearing. She's always there. And then you sort of start keeping track of it and you realize what a central role she did play in the early part of this history. And it's a role that's all the more amazing given our current stereotypes of the role of women in Islam. I think it's fascinating that the first Muslim to hurl a shoe in protest was Aisha.

BookNerd: It's so compelling at the moment when she has to start confronting her own mortality, not just her own physical mortality, but like you said, there's no children.

Hazleton: Yeah. And that's what you get when it's told this way, when history is told in this way, you get the human story. I think I wrote somewhere that sitting and reading them is like sitting in the middle of this vast grapevine of gossip. (Laughs) Whoa! I knew as soon as I started reading al-Tabari that I was going to write this book. Until then I wasn't sure.

BookNerd: What brought you to al-Tabari to begin with?

Hazleton: It started off with a friend—actually it was Jonathan Raban, who's a good friend, another writer here in Seattle. When I finished writing the previous book about Jezebel, he said, "You should really write a biography of Muhammad now," and I said (whispers), "Jonathan, it's been done."

So I start reading a little and he was still trying to persuade me to do it and I'm trying to persuade him that there's really no point and so on, and he says—and by then I know something about it—and he says, "From what you're saying, what's really interesting is how Mohammad, the prophet of unity—one God, one people, united the tribes of Arabia—could leave behind this terrible, unending, bloody legacy of division between Shia and Sunni?" And the moment he said that, I thought, that is the question, yes, yes, yes, yes--and that's when I started going deeper into it and that's when I realized I had to read al-Tabari. And, as I say, when I found al-Tabari, it's what you do—I think any research is like this—you start reading, you take a look at the back, at the notes, you think, where did this come from? You look at the bibliography—you go deeper, wider and deeper. Sometimes that leads you to some fascinating things. Sometimes it leads you to some unintentionally fascinating things.

Like, when I read a book by one of the leading Middle East historians, who shall go unnamed. There was a phrase that kept on coming up about the Arab conquest, to explain why it happened so quickly, basically within the first five years after Muhammad died. And I kept coming across this phrase—the phrase itself or a variant of the phrase—"a tribal imperative to conquest." I used to be a psychologist and I've studied quite a bit of anthropology and I've never come across the phrase, and it actually doesn't make any sense because if there is such a thing as a tribal imperative, it would be "live and let live." So I did a search across anthropological literature and I couldn't find it. I narrowed it down to where it was used for the first time, which was of course by this major very influential academic. And it was used without quotes, it was used without reference (laughs). It just came out of the blue. And I thought it was fascinating. It was one of the many, many times researching this book when—I really, deeply regret that Edward Said had to die—and I wished so many times that he was alive so I could call him and say, "You won't believe this!" This lingering Orientalism, these attitudes that infect—like a virus—even the best, or even the most highly regarded research. It's disturbing. It's highly disturbing. There's no need to invoke such a thing as a "tribal imperative to conquest." Well, I wrote it there (points to her book), you've got this huge power vacuum created by the dissipation of the Byzantine and Persian Empires just at the time that the tribes of Arabia are being united and poof (hands bursting) it's like an invitation to walk in. Why invoke a "tribal imperative to conquest?" Because it jibes very nicely with all our old attitudes toward the Arab world from the Crusades on.

BookNerd: Is that a theme of the West's relationship with Islam?

Hazleton: I wouldn't say it's a theme. I wouldn't go quite that far, but there is a distinct threat of that, yeah. I think it's getting less so now that more Muslim academics are coming into American academia, but the novelists and academics to start with were called the "orientalists" and they're mainly retired now, but a tone was set that I think has been very counterproductive and it really needs to change. I think there's a recognition of that now. Still, you'll find those weird phrases repeated.

BookNerd: Did you have an idea how the book might shape up as you were doing your research?

Hazleton: It always takes me ages until I figure out the shape of the book. I read and I read and I take notes and I take notes, taking great care that the notes from other people's books are in quotes and identified and then there's my own notes which always go inside square brackets with "L.H." Generally what happens is that when there's somewhere between 100,000 or 200,000 words of notes, when I feel like I'm reading the same thing for the umpteenth time, or I find that I'm repeating the notes that I'm making, that's when I realize: Okay, now it's time to sit down and actually write the book. Then it's just a matter of finding the shape of it. It's like this huge block of really rough hewn marble and I know that somewhere in there is this perfect sculpture that I want, I just have to discover it. That's what it feels like. It's a very hard way to work, though. There are far easier ways, far more sensible rational ways to write books, I just make it very hard on myself. (laughs)

BookNerd: When I first heard about the book, I thought, it's a history book. And then I started reading and really thinking about it and decided, no, it's a book about religion. And then I got to the last page and said, Nope, it's about politics. What is it for you?

Hazleton: It's all of those. At base, you're right, it's a political story. The story I told in Jezebel was, at base, a political story, too. Politics gets theologized and it achieves this other level where it will not die. It just stays alive on another level altogether. It becomes a sacrament, as it were. Yes, of course, it's a story about power. And corruption. And loyalty and betrayal. All those GREAT THINGS. And pragmatism vs. idealism, above all, I think. You've got this tremendous idealism of a figure like Ali and the wonderful, wily pragmatism of someone like Muawiya. I was amazed I'd never heard of Muawiya. Nobody I know has ever heard of Muawiya. He managed to save the Arab empire, he kept it together, the Muslim empire. If not for him, Islam as we know it today would not exist.

BookNerd: He's the poisoner, right?

Hazleton: Yeah, but so much more! He's a really really brilliant politician. I got some of some of those quotes from him. Wow, Machiavelli's got nothing on this guy. I have to confess, I enjoyed him tremendously.

BookNerd: It's so interesting that you say that, because when I was reading that section—and I forget how much I bring to it as a reader—but I really felt sympathy for Ali and Ali's family, almost the whole time. I would never have picked up on the fact that Muawiya was one of your favorites.

Hazleton: Well, your favorite's not necessarily the one you'd like to go to bed with. Sometimes it's the wicked ones that are, perhaps, more fun. Ali is too noble for his own good very often. So, one may sympathize with Ali but one may also look at it and think, well, maybe there's a reason he only ruled five years.

I've tried not to take sides, but inevitably what happens is that the story-ness of it, the narrative weight of it, is so strongly the Shia narrative of Karbala and the massacre at Karbala. Until then it's more or less evenly weighted. The Sunni say first the Koran, and the sunna, the practice of the prophet. And Shia says the Koran, and the sunna, and the sunna of Ali, and the sunna of Hussein, and of all 12 of the Imam. But that addition is such a story in itself, it's hard not to be sort of drawn into that story and have it appear as though that's where your sympathies lie.
I find it very hard to say where my sympathies lie, because that would imply judgment of what Islam is today or where it is today and I see no point in making that kind of judgment. This is the story of what happened, of how this divide came about, of how it endured, how it lasts into today, how it affects what's happening today, what role it plays in what's happening today. God, you would have thought that would be enough. And yet, reading after reading, people keep standing up and asking me which side is right and which side is wrong. They're not putting it as crudely as that, but they really want to know, Who are the goodies and who are the baddies?

BookNerd: Do they have an agenda when they ask you that?

Hazleton: I think it's a very American question. I think it's a question that comes from distance. We're halfway around the world. It's an attitude that has bedeviled American—and all Western—policy, in fact, because it means that you should back one side or the other, in a conflict that is not yours to intervene in. Both sides—both branches of Islam—have excellent claims to being the spirit of Islam, the soul of Islam. So, for us to pass judgment and then sort of carry out foreign policy on that basis, well, it's proved to be absolutely, bloody disastrous. Especially since we keep on changing our minds. We go into Iraq to liberate the Shia, and then we start arming and handing out wads of cash to the Sunnis, and then ba ba ba (escalating). It's madness.

BookNerd: And it's still a problem, one of the last things you say in the book, on page 211 is "Westerners finally need to stand back, to acknowledge the emotive depth if the Sunni-Shia split and to accord it the respect it demands."

Hazleton: And to get out of it. What we don't seem to realize is that, first of all, there is this suspicion in the Middle East that the split has been manipulated, and I'd say there's a quite a bit of justification for that, which gives far too much credit to the West, as though we know what we're doing. The fact is that, for long periods of time, it's a conflict that's been dormant. There are times in history when it erupts into flame again. The embers look like they're dead, but there's still light inside, so all you need is for someone to come along and blow very hard and you've got a total conflagration. And the times that that happens is when there's a vacuum of power. And we've been the ones fanning those flames the worst.

BookNerd: Whether it was on purpose or not.

Hazleton: Out of ignorance or out of arrogance or are they the same thing? I tend to think they are the same thing. There's a very very close relationship between ignorance and arrogance. At one time, we were kinder to ourselves and called it innocence, but I don't think it's innocence. And this has been so counterproductive, not only in the Middle East, but to ourselves. By now, I don't think the West has any credit left in the Middle East. We can offer guns and money and anybody will say anything we want them to say and they'll gladly accept the guns and money and use them how they see fit.

Dexter Filkins shows how this happens very well in his book The Forever War, that Americans have no idea what they're doing. We tend to believe anything that anyone who speaks good English tells us. With no idea that they're just telling us what they know we want to hear and no idea about what's really happening. In fact, it's so complex there's doubt that there's anybody who knows everything that's really happening. There are so many ways that the allegiances go, and Sunni-Shia is only one of them. A major one, but only one. But I don't think we have any credit left, not to impose a solution, not even to suggest a solution, not to broker a solution, and I think, if we get out, pragmatism will eventually win. I have no idea how long it will take, but sooner or later a stage is reached where you just can't go on like this.

We seem to imagine—again, it's a very Western idea, specifically a very American idea—that peace means brotherhood and sisterhood and everybody fawning over each other. The peace I always think of is the peace between Israel and Eqypt, which has lasted now for 30 years, and Israel and Egypt do not like each other. They are not hanging over each other's necks and calling each other brothers and sisters and so on. It's an entirely pragmatic arrangement. We will not fight each other. We will maintain the minimum amount necessary of diplomatic and trade relations. Coexistence, but let's not imagine that coexistence means any kind of love or anything like that. This is called Peace. This is what peace looks like. It's not doves all over the place or balloons in the air (laughs). Peace is when you're not killing each other, it's a good thing. Peace is when those guns are not aimed at you. It's even better when the guns are not there at all but that's another level of peace. And for long periods of history, Sunnis and Shia have lived together in that kind of peace. Relative tolerance of difference. But anybody can come along at any time and manipulate this. They can call upon this wonderful 7th century saga. They can call up images from it, scenes from it, slogans from it, and so on, as Khomeini did and others did before him. As Muqtada did in Iraq.

BookNerd: I was thinking about that, through the whole book, how similar it is with any religion.

Hazleton: Even to the extent that George Bush declared—disastrously—that this was a "crusade" against Al Qaeda. What a disaster. What total ignorance of the very immense emotive depth of that very word in the Middle East. A "crusade" against Islam.

BookNerd: Based on your connections in the Middle East and from talking to academics, would you say our reputation has improved since Obama was elected, or is that just an American idea that, "Okay, now Obama's been elected. The world loves us now. We're fine."?

Hazleton: Well, the world doesn't love us, but the world is definitely more hopeful. On the other hand, we're not seeing a lot yet. Before he was elected, the way he was talking about Afghanistan, I was a bit concerned. People would say, he's just saying it to be elected. But, well, he seems to be obsessed with Al Qaeda, and Afghanistan and Pakistan. It's not even clear that this obsession is with any clear organization anymore. It's a dangerous obsession. Did you see Frontline the other night?


Hazleton: It was pretty good, but there again you saw the stress now on what they call "strategic communication" or "cultural communication." The idea is that, instead of walking around in full gear and so on, these soldiers, these kids, from towns you've never heard of in Kansas or Tennessee, should be out there halfway around the world strategically communicating with villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan, making friends. They don't speak the language. In the documentary, they had a translator who barely spoke English and did not speak the dialect of the persons to whom they're trying to talk. And again, I've seen this, I don't even remember how many times I've seen the photographs. You have a bunch of kids and a couple of adults lined up here like this (stands), right? And they're all standing very straight. Six feet away from them, there's this group of American soldiers in full combat gear with the camouflage vest and so on and they're trying to talk to them. It's heartbreaking. You're asking the military to do something that the military is not trained to do. The idea is probably good, but I don't want them doing it. Now in Afghanistan, they're using Hazara, Shia, militias to patrol Pastun, Sunni, areas. They don't speak the same language. It's disturbing that Obama still seems to be so stuck on this.

We'll see. God knows when he decided to run for president, he didn't know that he was walking into this mess, with the financial crisis, the size of the mess is so enormous now. Without that, maybe there would have been progress, who knows? But one wishes... I don't know what one wishes for. There's so much to wish for. What can we do about it? I don't know. It's an utter mess.

I think we need to step back and if we're going to talk about cultural communication, start by just having the basic respect of knowing what's important and what's sacred to them. Understanding someone else's culture and history, and understanding, too, that we're only 200 years old as a society in the United States, but Iraq is probably the oldest culture in the world, with the longest memory in the world. So here you've got this country with the longest history in the world and yet, in a sense, there's no history at all, because it's like whatever happened in the past is still happening in the present. It's like it happened just yesterday. Karbala could have happened just yesterday morning. The crusades could have happened just last year. They're still happening, so far as many Middle Easterners are concerned when they look at American foreign policy. Obama keeps on saying, "We should agree to disagree about the past and move forward." When he said that in Cairo, he never sounded younger to Muslim ears. No, you can't. The past is part of us. It's part of who we are. It's part of our identity. You can't just let it go. It's true for us here in the states, as well, we just don't know it.

(Images of devotional posters provided by Hazleton via her website gallery.)
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