Telling Histories, Telling Stories
by Gussai H. Sheikheldin
Narratives of history are stories told. The difference between them and the other types of stories is that there is a significant level of claim to accuracy in depicting events that had significant impacts in peoples’ lives back then with consequences that may still be felt by some of us nowadays. Basically, if the story has a verified claim to depicting actual events that happened sometime in the past, we tend to name that story ‘history’.
Being a story, however, it cannot take you fully back in time. It can only deliver to you what the storyteller(s) saw, perceived, and remembered. In other words, not everything. Storytellers can be worse or better than a video camera. They can only see events unfolding from one angle at a time, just like the camera. They cannot see 360 degrees at once. In addition to that, and unlike raw camera footage, storytellers edit the footage by having them processed through their memory and perception before they deliver the story to you. That can make the story richer or poorer. Memory and perception are woven with language, coloured with biases, and transferred to others in wraps of context. The end product we receive is anything but a fully accurate and comprehensive account, and we shall learn to live with that.
That said, it follows that no one should be surprised that there are many different versions of history out there; as there should be. There may be some dominant versions at given time periods and in most parts of the world, depending on the order of the time, but there has never been a single version of human history since the recording and communication of history – i.e. storytelling – ever began.
We can give brief examples to that. You know nowadays we live in the era of ‘the pristine West’? It is the era when the dominant version of history most people around the world embrace – fully or partially – says that Europe, throughout recorded history, was the center of historical developments of human societies, not just by influencing other civilizations outside of Europe over time, but also by having a continuous line of historical heritage that is almost autonomous of any major influence from outside of Europe. That continuous line is usually depicted as “ancient Greece begat Rome, Rome begat Christian Europe, Christian Europe begat the Renaissance, the Renaissance the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment political democracy and the industrial revolution. Industry, crossed with democracy, in turn yielded the United States [of America], embodying the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”[i] It is quite a spectacular story, in which the focal point (the hero) is identified throughout thousands of years, and the outcome self-evident in today’s modern civilization. This story also has another name. It is called the Eurocentric version of history. In this version, the storytellers are obviously Europeans. It is the story of the world according to Europeans. In this version there is no denying that other places around the world had their own histories, or that other old civilizations interacted with Europeans (such as Egypt and the Islamic empire), or that European colonization and settlement happened to Africa and Asia, or that there were already human groups in the Americas and Australia when European settlers arrived there. None of that is denied. But the premise is that all of it was not as critical in shaping human history as was the internal, self-motivated and self-generated dynamics of European history.
It should be quite obvious to see that there is quite a number of problems with this version of history, especially if claimed as the most accurate and verified version. For example we now have abundance of evidence regarding how ancient China did many things that together made Europe a dominant force in modern history, before Europe did them! The Chinese invented and used gunpowder first, built large ships that sailed across the big oceans, and had many critical advances in metallurgy and other applied sciences before Europe did. What is more interesting is that the Chinese dynasties of those times did not have the same interests in conquering and exploiting the rest of the world with those powerful technologies as Europe later sought to.[ii] Naturally, different forms of arts and culture, and ways of viewing the world, developed in China. In other words, China must have its own, different, and equally legitimate version of history. For example, the Chinese drew their own version of the world map, centuries ago, with China at the centre of the world, not ‘the far east’. Technically speaking, China could be at the centre of the world map; who decided that Greenwich is the centre anyway?[iii]
In addition to China, the Middle East and North Africa region easily has its own version of history too. Persia, Egypt, and the Islamic Empire have a continuous line of recorded history with many events, developments and major world influences that do not have a major role for Europe in the picture. The same could be said about the history of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and some parts of India. All in all, we don’t have one human history — we have many human histories.
There are some peoples in this world, however, in this post-colonial era, that have lost touch with their own historical narratives. Their own historical developments were severely interrupted, disconnected and mutilated. Their technologies, social structures, arts and memories, were deliberately emaciated.[iv] So they are left now with a bigger task of remembering their own stories. The African proverb says that until the lion learns to speak, the tale will always favor the hunter’s side. It is true indeed. More accurately however, until the lion’s voice is heard, and understood as a voice of another eligible storyteller, the hunter who won that battle will proceed to tell his own bias version of the story of lions everywhere. It should be obvious that if the lion was there, saw what happened, and was even part of it, then the lion has another legitimate version of the story. The late Azanian (South African) musician Miriam Makeba once said, “The conqueror writes history; they came, they conquered, they write. You don’t expect people who came to invade us to write the truth about us. They will always write negative things about us and they have to do that because they have to justify their invasion in all countries.” That in short, ladies and gentlemen, is how many of us – children of post-colonial societies – feel about the ‘pristine West’ (Eurocentric) version of history.
And our arts, and the histories of our arts? They are as critical for us today to excavate and illuminate – to ourselves and to the world – as it is for us to do the same to ‘our’ cultures; for culture is largely woven from the fabric of art, and then it becomes an identity. And the process of finding our histories, re-telling our stories and re-building our authentic identities, is “an act of culture” after all.[v]
i Eric Wolf, quoted in John M. Hobson’s (2004) The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization. Cambridge University Press. pg. 1.
ii Niall Ferguson (2011). Civilization: the West and the Rest. The Penguin Press HC
iii Well, we actually know who decided that Greenwich should be the centre of the map. Hint: it was not a ‘scientific’ choice.
iv Cheikh Anta Diop (1988). Precolonial Black Africa. translated by Harold Salemson (from French). Chicago Review Press.
v Amilcar Cabral (1974). “National Liberation and Culture.” Transitioin, 45: 12-17. (excerpt from a paper presented in 1970, Memorial Lecture Series at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, under the auspices of The Program of Eastern African Studies. Translated from French to English by Maureen Webster).