Remembering Abou Ali Yassin: A Life of Struggle

Mahmoud Saeed

Yassin Ahmad Yassin, the intellectual known in Syria and the Arab world as Abou Ali Yassin, is recognized  for his rich and far-reaching contributions in the fields of gender, political theory, sociology, psychology, literature of wit and jokes, and others. Yassin’s rich life ended on March 18, 2000, after a brief struggle with cancer. He was just 58 years old.

After falling briefly under the influence of Trotskyism in the 1960s, he distanced himself from this movement in the 1970s and 1980s. While studying in Germany on a scholarship, he was a member of the Baath Party and played a key role in the Syrian student movement in both Germany and Austria; some report that he participated in the 1968 student uprising in Europe. When the Baath Party was split into Leftist and Rightist factions in the late 1960s, he left the party for good.

Upon his return to Syria with an M.A. in economics and sociology, he took a job with the government while trying to pursue his intellectual interests on the side.  In a eulogy delivered at a tribute by Syrian intellectuals, his daughter Rosa Yassin, a novelist and engineer, revealed that it was quite difficult balance to strike.

Yassin’s intellectual legacy remained rooted in his early political history, although he experimented with many ideologies: Marxism and nationalism, materialism and idealism, revolution and realism. This diversity was evident in the debates he engaged in with some of the Arab world’s most important intellectuals like Lebanese Hussein Mroueh and Syrian Tayeb Tazini. Until the end, he maintained his belief in the materialist philosophy of history and the class struggle as the vehicle for historical change.

Though literature of wit and jokes is common in both ancient and contemporary Middle Eastern literatures, going back to Sumerian times, Yassin was one of a limited number of intellectuals and scholars to study humor.  He was the first to offer a comprehensive study of the subject through two books: “Biyaan al-Had bayn al-Jad wa al-Hazal” (The Borderline Between the Humorous and the Serious) and “Shamsiyyat Shibatiyya” (February Suns).

He made another important contribution to Arab thought with his “Al-Thalus al-Muharam” (The Forbidden Trinity) (1973), which tackles sex, religion, and politics. Although it is banned in several Arab countries, “The Forbidden Trinity” was reissued nine times, the last in 1980. These three concepts suffuse both Yassin’s original works and his translations from German. Aware that religion, sex and politics are a minefield of protection and prohibition in the Arab and Muslim world, he took it upon himself to detonate the mines around this trinity. His translation of German author Urzula Shoy’s “The Origins of Differences Between the Two Sexes” was a particularly brazen move.

Shoy claims that the differences between man and woman are cultural rather than biological, and that women’s attitudes, emotions, and social roles are imposed by society rather than genetics. He was aware that Arab and Muslim societies hardly accepted these ideas in 1973, when Shoy was published, or even at his death in 2000. Yassin’s next move in this mission went a step further; he translated Freud’s “Totem and the Taboo” (1983) from the German. This is the only Arabic-language translation from the German, for an earlier translation by the Syrian George Tarabishi was from French. Concerned that his Leftist colleagues, many of whom considered Freud an advocate of bourgeois ideology, might misunderstand his reasons for translating Freud, he stated in the book’s introduction that he was neither Freudian nor anti-Freudian. “Totem,” Freud’s God made by man, was another round in Yassin’s war against the “Forbidden Trinity.”

His analysis of Arab society was remarkable for its penetrating understanding of social issues. Yassin’s“Khayr al-Zad fi Hikayyaat Shahrazad” (The Best in the Tales of Shahrazad) (1986) argues that the Arabs still live in the times of “One Thousand and One Nights,” still inhabiting the mansions of conspiracies, pleasure, violence, and slavery in which the tales of Shahrazad were told. He proposes that Arab society has not changed for more than a thousand years.

“The Sources of Culture and Class Struggle” (1988), while the least known of Yassin’s books, is as important as his other works according to the Syrian novelist Nabil Suleiman. Here he first broaches the “crisis of marriage in Syria,” which later developed into the “Crisis of Woman in a Male-Dominated Society.”

Abou Ali Yassin published more than 20 books as either author or translator. The translations include Wilhelm Reich’s “Dialectical Materialism and Psychological Analysis,” and just before his death he finished translating a second collection of Bertolt Brech’s short stories, the first anthology published earlier as “Stories in a Calendar.”

Yassin’s personality was anything but conventional. He was soft-spoken, and listened more than he talked, according to his acquaintances. He even became vegetarian 15 years ago.  However, society’s greatest concern should be that his death leaves few Arab intellectuals who have the courage to challenge the “Forbidden Trinity.”


This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 6, no. 31 (Spring 2000)

Copyright (c) 2000 by Al Jadid

Translation Copyright © 2000 by Al Jadid

Translated  and edited from the Arabic by Elie Chalala