Essays and Features

Assia Djebar (1936-2015)

Second Title 
Home in France; Heart in Algeria
By 
Elie Chalala

The remarkable Assia Djebar has proven almost as controversial in death as in life. Some argued that the writer, who focused on the very human concerns of women, could not be a feminist. Other issues of contention included the Algerian author’s choice to write in French, the language of her country’s former colonizers. Certainly, her induction into the prestigious French Academy as an “immortal,” or life-long member, created controversy, with many critics overlooking the fact that the writer used “the language of the colonizer to document its savagery and some of its bloody memories.” In death, as in life, it appears that Djebar will continue to challenge her critics and provide topics of lively debate. Read more about her life and final journey back to Algeria in the following article.

Assia Djebar has been a problematic for some Arab intellectuals, both when she became an "immortal" or a life-long member of the prestigious French Academy, and when her name was frequently mentioned as a Nobel Prize contender. Her recent death on February 6 proved no exception.  As her body lay in one of Paris’ hospitals, the same questions arose:  Why were her works not translated enough into Arabic, while her novels were translated into scores of other languages? A valid question.

Novelist Salwa Bakr Dares to Say it Aloud

Elie Chalala

Salw Bakr was asked to explain the large quantity of novel publications in the Arab world. Once again, Bakr pointed at political repression as a clue, especially when repressive regimes, under which most Arab intellectuals live, curtail freedom of expression. She indeed found the large number of published Arab novels amazing, for half of the Arab world remains illiterate, something that hits home, since Egypt constitutes half of that population. According to statistics, the average Arab reader reads no more than a quarter of a page annually.

 

Revolution’s successes and failures; the taboos broken, how political Islam’s “holiness” mask dropped; the intelligentsia’s flight to the past to avoid analyzing the present.

Radwa Ashour (1946-2014)

A Literary, Cultural and Political Activist Icon, Echoing in Egypt's Valley
Nada Ramadan Elnahla

The valley was flooding with apparitions . . . Silence, followed by a crescendo. A sound that will echo in the valley years later. ("Apparitions")… Radwa Ashour—novelist, educator, human rights activist, politically committed intellectual figure, and critic—opened her 1998 autobiographical novel "Apparitions" (or“Specters”) with this powerful scene. Seventeen years later, on November 30, 2014, Ashour would join those apparitions, her gentle soul forever filling our valley with her inspiration, resistance and writings.

The valley was flooding with apparitions . . . Silence, followed by a crescendo. A sound that will echo in the valley years later. ("Apparitions")

 Radwa Ashour—novelist, educator, human rights activist, politically committed intellectual figure, and critic—opened her 1998 autobiographical novel "Apparitions" (or“Specters”) with this powerful scene. Seventeen years later, on November 30, 2014, Ashour would join those apparitions, her gentle soul forever filling our valley with her inspiration, resistance and writings.

Hanna Batatu (1926-2000)

A Scholar with Passion for Knowledge, Disdain for Spotlight
Elie Chalala

Hanna Batatu, 74, a leading authority on the contemporary Arab world best known for his writings on Iraq and Syria, died June 24, 2000, at his brother’s home in Connecticut after a brief battle with cancer.  He passed away just a few days before American University of Beirut was going to honor him as one of its Millennium Scholars.

I met Hanna Batatu in the mid-1980s, when I was a graduate student at U.C.L.A., where he lectured on Iraq. I and other colleagues interested in the politics and history of the Middle East met with him publicly and privately. Once while giving him a ride to the Los Angeles International Airport, he gave me his home telephone number, for he frequently worked at home when he did not have teaching commitments in Georgetown University. Sometime later I called him and asked if he would agree to be interviewed about the Kurdish question on a radio program hosted by a friend of mine.

After Charlie Hebdo Attacks

Assad’s Disinformation Machine in High Gear to Exploit a Terrorist Moment
Elie Chalala

The mumanah or the rejectionists have flooded the media market with opinion-based analysis, as have the anti-Assad groups. The Assad disinformation machine, however, buries its head in the sand, refusing to face the fact that Assad’s brutality, more than any ideology, has been the most effective recruiter for the Islamic state and other jihadist groups. Those who lost homes, parents, and children do not need a Wahhabi interpretation of Islam to join jihad.

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The latest mumanah (anti-Western alliance of "leftist"-Baathist-Hezbollah supporters) media has been on a new mission: to redeem the bankrupt argument of its masters by exploiting a terrorist moment and sabotaging a counter argument to the rise of radical Islamists in Syria. This new “operation” does not challenge or poke holes in the pro-Syrian revolution argument. Rather, it inundates the media battlefield with a cacophony of feeble-minded voices explaining how the Charlie Hebdo attacks took place only for the purpose of muddling the field of criticisms of the French government.

The Picture of a Woman From Aleppo!

Elie Chalala

This photograph lingers in the consciousness of the viewer. It displays, against a background of dust clouds, an exhausted woman accompanied by two children, fleeing the danger and distress of the bombing. There is something desperately poignant about her expression. Distress and shock mark her state of mind, as some newspapers wrote, but one wonders whether that does full justice to her mental state. She is flanked by her two children…

 Every time I watch the images from Aleppo or hear the news that the poor suburbs of the city have again been the targets for Assad's bombs, I recall the mumanah or "leftist" diatribe of their championship of the downtrodden and the impoverished, the students, workers and peasants whose interests the Assad regime claims to have at heart. Never mind the fact that we haven't heard the word "socialism" uttered by the Syrian regime for almost three years, and that we do not expect to hear it from the Assad junta in the foreseeable future.

Life From Beneath The Knife

Hanna Saadah

My schedule brimmed with appointments like a bookshelf, stacked back to back. The names, silent like book titles, filed in the waiting room.  I motioned to Norma to follow me into my office.  She hesitated, trying to disengage from a conversation she was having with Mrs. Stitchmaker who stood at the window with questions about her bill. (From "Life From Beneath The Knife," by Hanna Saadah. Click on the link to read the full short story).

"Come, Salem. Come quickly.”

“Oh… What happened?”

“Mom has fallen ill.”

“What?”

“She’s in the hospital.”

“Why?”

“She’s had a stroke.  Her right side is paralyzed.  She’s babbling: life… knife… fingers...  No one understands.  We don’t know what to do.  Everyone is waiting for you.”

“Ok, Sis.  I’ll be on my way.”

Lebanon and Algeria: Collective Memory and Cultural Trauma

By Wided Khadraoui

Lebanon and Algeria: Collective Memory and Cultural Trauma

Wided Khadraoui writes an analysis of two plays, Algerian playwright Slimane Benaissa’s “Les fils de l’amertume” (Sons of Bitterness,) and Lebanese playwright Wajdi Mouawad’s Incendies (Scorched). Both works examine themes of collective memory, repression, and cultural trauma instigated by violent upheavals within Algeria and Lebanon. This leads to a fascinating discussion of the role that these issues have played in stifling “Arab Spring” movements in these two countries.

Taking the form of a dialog between a terrorist, Farid, and journalist, Youcef, “Les fils de l’amertume” explores the overlapping influences of religious fundamentalism and nationalism in Algeria. The play also addresses the fall-out from a devastating civil war, economic crisis, and a multitude of social injustices. Even Algeria’s attempts to control violence creates unforeseen consequences.

Unlike Benaissa’s play. Mouawad’s Incendies, never reveals the setting, although that anonymous land obviously represents Lebanon. The plot centers on the theme of hiding and demystifying secrets. Twins Janine and Simon return to the Middle East to fulfill their dying mother’s wish, after sending off two letters from her, one to the father they thought had died before their births, and one to the brother they never knew existed. As shocking as these events may be, many more surprises await discovery. Like other survivors of war hoping to make sense of what has happened, the twins will encounter “…a truth that is like a green fruit that has never ripened,” but which, with exposure, finally become digestible, if not palatable. Students, scholars, and those who appreciate intelligent, well-written and reasoned drama, will not want to miss this beautifully crafted analysis of two unique and timely plays. 

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Literature can be a useful tool for confronting tragedies of the past.  In their newest plays, Algerian playwright Slimane Benaissa and Lebanese playwright Wajdi Mouawad examine the trauma inflicted by the violent upheavals in their respective countries, exploring ideas of collective memory and rebuilding a society that has imploded.  

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