Deductions from history
October 7, 2000
If we think our problems of the great divide are intractable, we should pause to remember that there are more ancient and deep-rooted cleavages elsewhere, such as in the Middle East, Ulster, and the Balkans. And it is in the last-named area that an interesting project is currently underway. According to a Reuters report earlier this week, Balkan historians gathered in Istanbul last month for the fifth of seven meetings, "to discuss the suspicions and the hatreds arising from the many contested histories taught to young minds across the region." According to Halil Berktay of Turkey's Sabanci University, it was not an attempt to "prettify" history, because "of course people butchered each other." However, it was an abuse of history, "to exalt this past and to deduce from it an eternity of hostility."
In 1453 Sultan Mehmet, ruler of the Ottoman Turks, captured the Byzantine capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul). The Islamic armies of the Ottoman Empire also sallied forth into the Christian Balkans, different portions of which they occupied down until the First World War. On the one hand, the Turks glorify the entry into Constantinople and the imperial heyday of the Ottomans, while on the other, the Christian populations of the Balkans remember the "calamity" of the fall of capital, and the imposition of the "Turkish yoke". The various Balkan revolts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are revered as "nationalist uprisings" on the one side, says the report, and reviled as "big power meddling" on the other. The meetings have focused on how Balkan countries can address their joint Byzantine and Ottoman heritage, in order to move away from a situation in which the differing approaches to teaching a shared past have "encouraged mistrust and enmity."
As mentioned earlier, this country has nowhere near as entrenched a problem as does the Balkans, and at this stage in our educational development, the contentious recent history of Guyana is probably not even covered in the school syllabus. Nevertheless, there are two antagonistic visions of the near past which are all too apparent in our letter columns, not to mention every time a politician opens his or her mouth. Both sides have demonized the other, allowing no room for the more complex perceptions and insights which are the stuff of serious historiography.
This does not mean that what we should be aiming for is some bland, amorphous account of events which offends no one, even if that were possible. Nor does it mean that there should be some authorized version of the true history of Guyana. Such a concept is unthinkable. Like every other subject area, history needs the cut and thrust of debate, and the space to allow the flowering of a variety of interpretations.
What we are talking about, perhaps, is moving away from the simplistic formulae which are recited ad nauseam about the other side, and which encapsulate notions of perfect good on the one hand, and perfect evil on the other. They contribute little to our understanding of the past, our understanding of the present, and our understanding of each other. Far from expanding the debate, they narrow it, allowing no leeway for the real exchange of ideas on what has gone before. What we want, is genuine communication on the matter of the past, the locked-in views of which have so corrupted our current perceptions. Out of that communication might come some level of common reflection, although not necessarily complete agreement on what went wrong.
Whether the kind of exercise in which the Turkish and Balkan historians have been engaged would excite any interest here is doubtful. However, perhaps at some time in the future not just the professional historians, but also those knowledgeable in the field as well as those with a political stake from all sides of the divide, would be able to get together over a generous time-frame to discuss the post-war history of Guyana in the best academic tradition, and with a minimum of rancour. We need to learn again to talk to each other, rather than at each other. And we too need to learn that it is an abuse of history to "deduce from it an eternity of hostility."
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