Essays and Features
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"Come, Salem. Come quickly.”
“Oh… What happened?”
“Mom has fallen ill.”
“She’s in the hospital.”
“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.”
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.