Vanity Post 1: News and Rumours, 2014

Over the last three weeks or so, I was without a working a computer. And even now that a new one has arrived I am struggling to get into some sort of routine with backup passwords and other obstacles. That being said, my access to sources and literature is somewhat hampered at the moment. Therefore, I have revisited some of my own writings from the 2010’s. This post contains a summary as well as some notes on my book chapter “News and Rumor – local sources of knowledge about the world”. A PDF is attached at the end.

“News and Rumor” developed out of a conference at the Anne Marie Schimmel Kolleg, University of Bonn, which had the aim of bringing more theoretically informed approaches to Mamluk History, in this case historical network approaches. The blurb for the conference volume states it thus: “we try to understand the “Mamluk Empire” not as a confined space but as a region where several nodes of different networks existed side-by-side and at the same time. In our opinion, these networks constitute to a great extent the core of the so-called Mamluk society; they form the basis of the social order.”

At the time, I was interested in network approaches but certainly had no solid understanding of the underlying methods. Nonetheless, I was not happy with those approaches then dominant at least in German Islamic Studies that used “network” more as a metaphor than a method (see Reichmuth’s entry on European History Online).

I tried to resolve this conflict by looking at rumors within the larger sphere of mouth-to-mouth communication in late 15th-century Damascus (obviously). Rumors are intriguing because they continue to influence public discourse and today are often connected to certain social ‘bubbles’. Due to dislocated online communication, those bubbles are less permeable today than they were in the age of the primary witness the book chapter relied on: The court clerk Aḥmad Ibn Ṭawq whose “cultural capital depended on his credibility and thus, on ̇him checking his sources and the truth value of the reports they gave him” (p. 285) and “diligently distinguish[ed] between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ in his journal which ̇was all the more difficult since it did not share the gift of hindsight with other historiographical accounts.” (p. 286)

As Ibn Ṭawq’s journal was written in daily entries, it gives a unique perspective on how rumors emerged, spread, and died down, and how people were influenced by them in their decision processes. In this context, rumors usually mark the limits of his networks: they become necessary to make sense of events when his own networks fall short in providing more reliable information (pp. 305-306).

Rumors are not defined as “typically untrue information” but as stories whose truth value “is debatable, questionable and doubtful”, in short, whose credentials cannot readily be verified. They are therefore the antipodes of official News, which more or less explicitly state that they “always speak or know the truth … The truth value of news is further supported by the reliance on authorities of knowledge (e. g. eyewitnesses, public figures of good repute, documents) as well as on rituals for delivering information in public.” (p. 287)

From these distinctions, we can deduct the following:

  • A report cannot be news and rumor at the same time to the same person
  • It can be considered a rumor first and, once confirmed, news or falsity later (or the other way around)
  • It can be considered news by one person and rumor by another (e.g. if only one of them has access to additional information)

In contrast to most other writings from the Late Mamluk Period, these developments are repeatedly visible in Ibn Ṭawq’s journal. It thus allows us to partially follow the evolution of a rumor, from its emergence through its dissemination but usually omits the final phase, its demise.

The remainder of the book chapter applies this analytical framework to the specific Late Mamluk Damascus context. An overview section of how news and rumors were disseminated, with special attention to the emergence of rumors, is followed by two case studies. In these, I focus how common people (in this context all people who were not privy to “government” communications and remained mostly local). I further compare Ibn Ṭawq’s accounts of the respective events to how the historians Ibn Ṭūlūn and Ibn al-Ḥimṣī framed them in their histories with greater temporal distance and the gift of hindsight. [At the time, I was repeatedly making a strong case that Ibn Ṭawq’s text was NOT a historical work.]

The first case study revolves around the rather famous Ottoman contender Cem (whom he writes as Jumjumah) and provides a decidedly Damascene perspective on the transregional machinations that resulted from his attempts at gathering a backing for his claims to the Ottoman throne.

The second case study addresses the, on the surface, internal Mamluk revolt of the high-ranking Mamluk officer Āqbirdī in 1499. However, as Ibn Ṭawq’s account attests, there was some anxiety among Damascenes as well as the Mamluk establishment that this would develop into a second Mamluk-Ottoman war. In this case, the local Damascene perspective points towards a larger, transregional context which has, to my knowledge not been explored any further.

In a way, both case studies emphasize how much the Ottomans were on the minds of a lot of Mamluk subjects decades before the eventual Ottoman conquest took place. At the same time, those episodes reveal how well even common people were informed about “World Events”, especially if they threatened to exert their influence on their own lives in the near future. In addition, it has to be remembered that rulers were neither isolated from nor immune to the power of rumors. On the contrary, rumors had—and continue to have until today—influence on political decision-making processes which historians need to take into account in assessing the legacy of any ruler or other historical figure.

Finally, the conclusion makes exactly these points, arguing for a larger consideration of rumor-studies. I was surprised to rediscover that research into political, social, and psychological responses to epidemics is my first proposition—how timely.

Whereas I cringe at some of my writing in this piece, and it contains some erroneous English, both the analytical framework for defining rumor and the case studies do hold up. And the case studies offer new perspectives on events on which relatively much has been written. If you agree or if you do not agree, please tell me about your reading experience in a comment or on twitter.

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "Vanity Post 1: News and Rumours, 2014", in Damascus Anecdotes, April 10, 2020, https://thecamel.hypotheses.org/2056.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.