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Yusuf Diya’ al-Khalidi (1842-1906), mayor of Jerusalem

Contributed by Jerusalem Quarterly on 07.01.2008:

An Ottoman Bismarck from Jerusalem

By Alexander Scholch


Jerusalem Quarterly

Summer 2006

Alexander Scholch was a leading light among the new geographic historians of Palestine and Egypt when he died prematurely in the 1983 at the young age of 43. We are reprinting here his profile of Yusuf al Khalidi, from his path-breaking book, Radical Transformation of Palestine, long out of print, because it sheds significant light on the interaction of biography and collective national identity at a crucial time in the transformation of the Arab East.

Yusuf Effendi al Khalidi (1842-1906) was a significant figure, though relatively unknown, in the early Arab Renaissance – although as we shall see he was not a precursor for the Arabization movement. He was an Ottoman patriot and an active participant in the reform of the system following Egyptian withdrawal from Syria. His rise to prominence accompanied the emergence of Jerusalem as a significant provincial capital. For several years he served as mayor of Jerusalem, and parliamentary representative of the city’s population to the Imperial Parliament in Istanbul. He also served in a number of posts outside the Arab provinces: in Istanbul as a government translator; in the Russian Black Sea as Ottoman consul to Poti, and in several other public posts for the High Porte, including as governor of the Jaffa District; governor of Hasbayya and Jabal al-Druze, and governor of the Kurdish district of Betlis. As a writer he was also very productive. He was scholar in residence at the Oriental Academy in Vienna, and in that capacity he authored an Arabic-Kurdish dictionary.

Along with several revisionist historians of the Ottoman period, Scholch recognized the significance of interpreting Khalidi’s life (based on his autobiography) and writings in the context of internal debates among contemporary Levantine thinkers about the direction of the Ottoman state, rather than as a nascent leader of Arab resistance against Turkish hegemony. In other words Khalidi, who was proud of his Jerusalem and Arab heritage, was a relentless reformer of the Ottoman system from within, rather than a precursor of Arab, or Syrian independence from the Ottomans. He continuously refers to his homeland (watani) as Jerusalem, and his country (biladuna) as the Ottoman Empire.

Scholch’s essay is still poignant and fresh a quarter of a century after it was written. Only his complaint at the beginning about the absence of autobiographical works on Palestine needs to be updated. Since then two works have arrived to fill this gap: Adel Mana’s A’lam Filasteen fi Awakhir al ‘Ahd Uthmani, Beirut 1990; and Ya’oub al Odat, A’lam al Fikr wal Adab fi Filasteen, Amman 1992.

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