Year of the Locust : A Soldier’s Diary and the Erasure of Palestine’s Ottoman Past

Year of the Locust : A Soldier’s Diary and the Erasure of Palestine’s Ottoman Past

William Armstrong -
Year of the Locust : A Soldier’s Diary and the Erasure of Palestine’s Ottoman Past ‘Year of the Locust: A Soldier’s Diary and the Erasure of Palestine’s Ottoman Past’ by Salim Tamari (University of California Press, 2011, $36.95, pp 214)

Ihsan Hasan al-Turjman’s life as a clerk in the Ottoman military headquarters in Jerusalem during the First World War was uneventful, but his diary provides an unparalleled window into everyday life in the city at the time. While almost all other chronicles from the same time and place are authored by political leaders, military commanders, or intellectual-activists, Ihsan’s is unique for its vivid, personal intimacy. Palestinian scholar Salim Tamari recently brought the diary to light, and it was also Tamari whose sleuthing cracked the secret code in which much of it was written.

We have the inefficiency of the Ottoman administration in Jerusalem to thank for allowing Ihsan to pass the war doing little more than, as he writes, “just sit there playing with my moustache.” This gave him the time to observe and capture the texture of everyday Jerusalem street life as things deteriorated around him, and his entries contain an engaging mixture of private and public concerns. Some of the recurring subjects are Ihsan’s interest for the improvement in the position of women, his reflections on the various privations experienced during the war, his conversations with prominent Arab intellectuals living in the city at the time, and his endless use of family connections to avoid being sent to fight in the Suez. It’s also full of elusive references to the ups and downs of his frustrated wooing of his sweetheart, Suraya, whose family was far from keen on him.

While Ihsan’s diary gives us the minutiae of daily life in Ottoman Jerusalem, Tamari’s detailed introduction presents it within the context of the broader, seismic upheaval that was underway across the Arab East at the time. Along with death and destruction that left nowhere untouched, the First World War brought about geographic fragmentation and deracination from old certainties, as the Ottoman Empire’s dismemberment became increasingly inevitable. Tens of thousands of Arabs died fighting for the empire, and although many were unwilling conscripts, many still identified with the Ottoman state. However, while the period immediately after the reinstatement of the empire’s constitution in 1908 opened new horizons for all minorities in the empire, the authoritarianism of the new Young Turk regime and the carnage of war created new realities. Young generations of Arabs were compelled by circumstances to rethink their national identity, ideological commitments, and political activities. The pressures of war and the crackdown on Arab nationalists – always lurking in the background of Ihsan’s diary – effectively crushed any chance of a multi-ethnic Ottomanist consensus persisting among the Arabs.

In a sense, Ihsan’s diary exemplifies this loss of innocence process. In it, he displays a profound ambivalence to the Ottoman state and an increasingly cynical attitude to the “hypocrisy” of its leadership. His mentions of Cemal Pasha are unflattering throughout, with the Ottoman commander of the region sarcastically referred to as “our Great leader” and “our leader towards the abyss of destruction.” Food shortages, diseases, and locust invasions all hit Jerusalem in 1915, and with each new hardship Ihsan’s mood – along with that of the city itself – hardened against the Ottoman authorities. At a moment of particular indignation, as he contemplates being conscripted in to fight a war for a state he feels no particular loyalty to, Ihsan writes:

What does this barbaric state want from us? To liberate Egypt on our backs? Our leaders promised us and other fellow Arabs that we would be partners in this government and that they seek to advance the interests and conditions of the Arab nation. But what have we actually seen from these promises?

He goes on, quite majestically, to profess that “as things stand, I hold a drop of my blood to be more precious than the entire Turkish state.”

Ultimately, Ihsan did manage to avoid being drafted in to fight, but his diary ends abruptly in the middle of 1916. He died of unknown causes in 1917, before reaching his 25th birthday, not living on to see that the Great War would be far from the last period of violent upheaval in Jerusalem’s history.

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William Armstrong,