No One Will Read This

by Zachary J. Foster

This work appears in Khabar Keslan Issue 1. DISORIENT

  Page from a notebook in the Khalidi Library (Old City of Jerusalem). Credit: Zachary Foster.

Page from a notebook in the Khalidi Library (Old City of Jerusalem). Credit: Zachary Foster.

Acknowledgments should be the first thing you write.

Acknowledgements are usually the most interesting parts of dissertations. They are wells of information about advisors, insights into networks of patronage, friendship circles and bodily fluids that have circulated around the field. An old college friend happened to peak over my shoulder one Saturday afternoon in January 2017 while I was drafting these very words. “You are already writing your acknowledgments months before your dissertation is due?” he asked in disbelief. I said: “I’m an idiot for starting this late. This is the only part of the dissertation anyone’s going to read.”

To start, I would to like to thank my advisor, dissertation committee members, and most importantly, the true inspiration behind this project: Lady Gaga. This dissertation would have been impossible to complete without having listened to Just Dance on repeat for 10,000 hours. Full disclosure: to diversify my neurological stimulations, I also listed to Poker Face and Bad Romance. 

But there is also a long trail of people I actually know without whom this dissertation would have impossible to write: Ze’ev Maghen, who first introduced me to pre-modern Middle East history and who also taught me to never let history get in the way of a great joke; Big Bird, for teaching me the importance of sharing; Nicole Fruth, for nominating me to be a part of the extremely elite “community of entrepreneurs, artists and innovative professionals like myself” called Ivy. Were it not for that boost to my self-worth, I doubt this dissertation would have ever come to completion. I would also like to thank the Twitter handler @realjamesbowker. Without having followed me, I would have never been able to reach this important milestone in my life: 289 twitter followers (note: by the time you are reading this, that number will have probably since decreased).

I’d also like to emphasize my great indebtedness to all the archivists and librarians I’ve met over the past six years who played no role in the dissertation at all – but who are important to acknowledge to show I, in fact, visited archives and libraries. Some archivists deserve special thanks: the dude at the Lebanese National Archives who offered me three coffees and a free copy of a book about the Tripoli Islamic court records, but not access to the court records themselves. How could I have forgotten the extreme political sensitivity of eighteenth century marriage records and waqf property repairs? Later I discovered the entire collection digitized and browsable at the ISAM library in Istanbul. 

I would like to acknowledge the guy—his name also escapes me—I met on a fall 2014 afternoon circulating the cavernous alleyways of Jerusalem’s Old City on a hunt for the Khalidi Library. He mistakenly thought I was part of the Khalidi family, which was the greatest mistake I’ve ever neglected to correct. It got me access to browse the library’s uncatalogued shelves. The Khalidis assumed my Arabic was “heritage” Arabic—even if they were shocked to discover how quickly their language deteriorated in the diaspora. The whole experience was exhilarating, not because of anything I found in the library, but because I got to pretend to be member of the Khalidi family.

Being a member of the family got me in the door, but it didn’t get me access to everything. I had asked multiple times to see the personal papers of Yusuf Diya Pasha al-Khalidi and Ruhi al-Khalidi, two late 19th century intellectuals whose papers were housed in the library. Strangely, the library staff insisted no such papers existed. So I pulled out my copy Rashid Khalidi’s Palestinian Identity and flipped to page 267, which read: “Unpublished sources: In the Khalidiyya Library, Jerusalem.” Several of their letters were on the list. At that point, things got awkward. I was told the files were in the Beirut branch of the library. I politely told the librarian on staff that there was no branch of the Khalidiyya library in Beirut. Incidentally, he knew that. I haven’t been allowed back since.

Arabic was useful in the Khalidiyya Library but less so at the library of the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem, and my Armenian was abysmal at the time. I knew three-quarters of the alphabet, and the word Tagavor, which means king, I think. My plan to gain access to the library’s rich collections was to spot the word Tagavor someplace on the wall and let the librarians marvel at my profound mastery of Armenian. The plan failed: when the time came, I forgot the word, Tagavor.

Let’s also acknowledge the bureaucrats who served the Ottoman Empire and who left behind a paper trail of millions of documents. Their obsession with bureaucratic pleasantries, arcane Sultanic salutations, and abysmal handwriting have only one obvious purpose: to make the lives of future historians a nightmare. Once properly deciphered, Ottoman documents exhibit a second quality of great bureaucratic writing: their ability to induce sleep quickly.

Muslim court scribes also deserve our acknowledgement. They had even worse handwriting than the Ottoman bureaucrats and used almost as obscure language. During my period of dissertation research, I sat down for an afternoon of reading a single sixteenth century Jerusalem court record with one the world’s foremost experts, ‘Abla Sa‘id Muhtadi. Three hours passed, and we had partially deciphered six lines of text. By we, I mean ‘Abla.

Lastly, I’d like to acknowledge the financial support I received from Princeton University. PhD. students at Princeton are among the most privileged in the world. We make more money than professors do in countries like Russia and Greece. We can also request an unlimited number of books free of charge from any library in the world. According to Princeton’s records, I’ve requested 292 books in total, and have received most of them. When the inter-library loan staff see my name, I imagine they think, “someone break Foster’s kneecaps.” I also frequently attended Princeton’s so-called “language tables,” where students enjoy free dinner at a campus dining hall but must commit to speaking a designated foreign language for the whole dinner conversation. I confess to having attended those language tables with great diligence—and at torturous pain to the other attendees. I also frequently enjoyed free lunch around campus—at least until my immunity wore off to cruel and unusual punishment—the brown bag lunch talk. My department also offered free coffee, tea and filtered water. I nearly considered sleeping in the student lounge and showering at Princeton’s Dylan Gym to save money. The plan ran into an unforeseen hurdle: my girlfriend was living with me at the time. Money makes the world go round, and if Princeton controlled the world, it would be going round and round a bunch.

Acknowledgments usually conclude with bodily fluid exchanges, also known as significant others. In my case, the critical person to acknowledge here is Jennifer Garner, the lead covert agent on the late 1990s and early 2000s hit action series, Alias. My subconscious told me to seek out a partner who appears to lead a life as a double-agent for a shadowy underground organization, speaks more languages than knows what to do with them, and makes a killer Bolognese.

 Alas, it hasn’t killed me yet.


Zachary J. Foster is a Product Manager at Academia and a PhD candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. The title of his dissertation is “The Invention of Palestine.