Clearing the Name of the Arab Emperor

Palestinian author Yasmine Zahran tries to persuade readers that the negative image associated with the Roman emperor Philip is the result of age-old anti-Arab sentiments.

Benny Ziffer
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A bust of Philip the Arab.
A bust of Philip the Arab.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Benny Ziffer

Philip the Arab: A Study in Prejudice,” by Yasmine Zahran, Gilgamesh Publishing; First Trade Paper Edition edition, 172 pages, $19.95

The voice on the phone sounded hesitant and timid. She introduced herself as Yasmine Zahran – a Palestinian writer, born in Ramallah, who lives part of the time in Paris and writes in Arabic and English. She got my phone number from a friend of hers who lives in Jordan, and who knows me. Now she’s in Ramallah and wants to meet.

“I’ve written books,” she said, speaking in French, “but nobody cares. I want people to know about them.”

For me to go to Ramallah is complicated, I told her. And I am afraid to come to Israel, she replied. I assured her that nothing untoward would happen, and we arranged to meet at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem.

A taxi with dark-tinted windows brought her to the entrance of the hotel. A graceful, elegant lady emerged. Something about her instantly made the desk clerks and waiters treat her with the utmost respect. And every bit as quickly, a hierarchy was created between us: She settled into the role of veteran aristocrat, and my wife and myself were the Israelis – in other words, the newcomers.

Yasmine Zahran.Credit: Courtest

She took pains to ascertain that we were anti-Israeli. This declaration was critical to her, as a prerequisite to starting the conversation, and she was actually surprised when we refused to declare ourselves as such. She asserted that all the Israeli intellectuals she had met over the course of her long career had always been happy to declare themselves anti-Israelis.

Zahran was born in 1933 in Ramallah, educated at the local Friends School, completed a bachelor’s degree at Colombia University and a master’s at the University of London, and received a doctorate in archaeology from the Sorbonne, Paris. She worked for UNESCO for a number of years as an educational adviser, and later established, directed and taught at the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology at Al-Quds University, Jerusalem, before turning to writing.

Zahran recounted for us her bitter fate as a Palestinian. Hers was a world of chronic frustration, in which the only thing left to do was to complain about everyone and everything – not only about Israel, but also every other nation in the world, including the publishers in Britain, who were deceitful, and the French, noteworthy for their disagreeable nature.

Paradoxically, Israel was actually low on her scale of injustice, since the people who established and directed the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology were Israeli archaeologists and Middle East Studies scholars, who became her best friends and had been extremely helpful to her.

She didn’t bring any of her books to our meeting. Afterward, we ordered two of them (both written in English) on the Internet: a novel entitled “A Beggar at Damascus Gate”; and the history book “Philip the Arab: A Study in Prejudice,” which I read with abundant interest, even more than the novel.

“Philip the Arab” was written, as its subtitle declares, to refute the prejudices that have taken root over the centuries vis-à-vis Arabs and their status in the ancient world, specifically with regard to the Roman emperor Marcus Julius Philippus, known as “The Arab,” whose contribution to history has been suppressed and intentionally forgotten, according to Zahran.

One of the allegations made about her people, she says, is that they haven’t produced individuals considered particularly noteworthy in the West, and have been awarded a minuscule number of Nobel Prizes. But take note, Zahran warns: As far back as ancient times, we produced a Roman emperor.

Some critics would even dispute the fact that Philip was an Arab, as per the accepted contemporary perception of the term. He was an Arab in the geographical sense, since he was born in the region of Hauran, part of the Roman province known as Arabia, in what is today Syria. Natives of this province are counted among the peoples of the Levant who adopted Greek and, subsequently, Roman culture. But for the purpose of ethnic identity, let’s go with Zahran on her path of historical logic.

A few objective facts: Emperor Philip the Arab – who rose to prominence in the East and took over Rome by virtue of his prowess on the battlefield – reigned for only five years (244-249 C.E.). His greatest achievement was successfully forging a peace alliance with the Sassanid Empire of Persia, which had threatened Rome from the east. He conceded to the Persians the territory of what is now Armenia; in exchange, Rome gained a period of temporary peace along its borders with Mesopotamia.

Philip was known as a ruler who increased the burden of taxes on subjects of the empire in order to underwrite his own megalomaniac whims, and who savagely suppressed revolutions that broke out (as a result of the heavy taxation) in the Danube and Balkan regions, where he did not protect his subjects from the Barbarian invasions.

One of his caprices was instituting a celebration to mark the millennium of the establishment of Rome; another involved rebuilding his hometown in Syria as a magnificent Roman city, complete with statues gracing its plazas.

Zahran’s retelling of the emperor’s story is decidedly different from the accepted historical version. She alleges that he came to power in Rome during a turbulent period, after the House of Severus had been decimated. The Severans constituted the legitimate dynasty of Roman emperors, but their rule had fallen into the hands of the usurpers, who kept replacing and/or liquidating one another.

She sees the “time-out” during which Philip the Arab reigned as a period of relative calm within the stormy instability that characterized that era. Furthermore, Zahran claims that the negative image attributed to him by Western historians, intimating that he was some sort of savage, can be chalked up to their prejudice toward Arabs.

A magnificent past

A sizable portion of the book is an attempt to enhance the prestige of the Arab peoples who lived under Roman rule. Zahran describes the processes of Hellenization that were undertaken by residents of the desert regions and provinces the Romans called Arabia.

Their integration into the general Roman culture was so complete that it is no wonder, she says, that a military leader from a remote provincial district like Hauran could so naturally become ruler of the empire.

Over time, Zahran relates, the Arabs also became adherents of Christianity, and Philip himself admired the new religion and carried on a correspondence with Origen Adamantius, an early Christian theologian and leader. It is possible, then, that he could be termed the first Christian Roman emperor.

Philip, Zahran claims, was not guilty of imposing onerous taxes on his subjects. Instead, the guilty party was the bureaucracy, which was impassive to the suffering of the people.

If historians have depicted this ruler as cruel, corrupt and bloodthirsty, Zahran seeks to draw a contrary picture for the reader: one of an educated king who meets for philosophical discussions with a contemporary, Plotinus (although there is no actual historic affirmation of this).

The author excuses the hostility the empire created in the wake of the millennial celebrations for Rome, which emptied the coffers of the empire, by saying that others simply envied him and his accomplishments.

All of this exaggerated praise for Philip only reinforced my admiration for Yasmine Zahran, and for the impossible situation in which she lives and creates. She tries to rewrite or somehow rebalance history in favor of the Arabs.

And all this at a time when you have to wonder if anybody in Ramallah or the West Bank or the Gaza Strip cares whether she exists, or if she is writing books in Arabic and English that are aimed at improving their prestige by way of a story about the history of some Roman emperor who could scarcely be considered Palestinian.

What she wrote is meant to say, “See, we Palestinians are not savages from the desert, as we are portrayed. We are people of culture, Europeans through and through, and we have been these same people since ancient times.”

But for whom are you, Zahran, laboring so hard? After all, there is nothing the intellectuals of Europe denigrate more nowadays (in the wake of Prof. Edward Said and his book, “Orientalism”) than people from the East trying to prove how European they are. That’s considered being obsequious to the West! Collaborating with colonialism! And that’s verboten according to the unwritten rules of the post-colonialist era.

One could sum up by saying that “Philip the Arab” is a historical book written for a nonexistent reading audience. And if it is meant to encourage Palestinians to feel pride in their glorious past, how will said Palestinians know such a book exists? Or that it was written by such and such author? Through a newspaper of the Zionist enemy.