An Atypical Orientalist?

by Steven Gertz

Nadia Abdulhadi-Sukhtian, wife of CCAS Board Member Ghiath Sukhtian, has carefully translated the work of a German Orientalist, Gustaf Dalman (1855-1941), who defies mainstream notions about Orientalist scholarship.

In the introduction to her two-volume English translation of Dalman’s “Work and Customs in Palestine” published this year by Dar Al Nasher in Ramallah, Palestine, Abdulhadi-Sukhtian writes that while Dalman’s “main aim was to shed light on the biblical and post-biblical past of Palestine” (a typical goal of Orientalists), he also “studied the daily activities and customs of the Arab population of Palestine.” She goes on to observe that not only did he describe in his work Palestinian customs and beliefs but that he also studied “their environment and everything connected to it.” For this purpose, he “combined anthropology, comparative religion, music, and biblical scholarship with geography, geology, botany, astrology, meteorology, and zoology into a ‘Universalwissenschaft’ (universal science).” Dalman’s work is organized around the four seasons, and considers such topics as the popular calendar, weather patterns, kinds of vegetation, agriculture, and religious holidays and feasts in Palestine.

Abdulhadi-Sukhtian discovered this work through the late Dr. Kamel Asali during a lecture he gave at the Goethe Institute in Amman, Jordan. Inspired to translate it for English speakers, Abdulhadi-Sukhtian traveled to the institute that bears Dalman’s name at the University of Greifswald on the coast of northeastern Germany. The Gustaf Dalman Institute, she writes, “includes a museum consisting of various original Palestinian agricultural tools, Palestinian traditional dress, a herbarium with over 2,000 items, musical instruments, coins, weights, stones, wooden branches, and glass and metal objects.” She notes that the institute is in the process of digitizing these items, which can be viewed on the university’s website. She also mentions that the German Protestant Institute of Archeology in Jerusalem and the Environmental Education Center in Beit Jala still house a part of the collections that Dalman did not take back with him to Germany.

Abdulhadi-Sukhtian’s portrayal of Dalman seems a far cry from Edward Said’s depiction of the British and French Orientalists who, like Edward Lane, “disengaged” from Arab life in order to scientifically study the Orient. On the contrary, Abdulhadi-Sukhtian portrays the work of a scholar thoroughly engaged with his surroundings. It should be noted that Said reproached himself in the introduction of his Orientalism for not taking proper account of the work of German Orientalists. Abdulhadi-Sukhtian, it would seem, is helping to address that oversight.

Abdulhadi-Sukhtian has done the public a tremendous favor in unearthing a wealth of environmental data about Palestine near the turn of the twentieth century, and making available to the English-speaking world a work that merits further study.

Steven Gertz is the Multimedia and Publications Editor at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.