I met Professor Edward Said twice in the 1980s at UCLA, where I was doing graduate work. A group of graduate students and faculty invited several scholars and intellectuals to speak on the Palestine question; those scholars included Said and Noam Chomsky, among others.
Essays and Features
Along with inflation, a growing gap between the rich and poor, and never-ending bickering between self-serving politicians, Beirut, this summer, hosted a conference entitled: “A Salute to Edward Said.” With the growing censorship found in Beirut, this auspicious event was held during the first week of July and sponsored by the well-known publishing house, Dar al-Adab, which provided a positive impetus for diverse Arab intellectuals to communicate. The conference created much debate in Beirut, as well as in the Arab press.
With the one-year anniversary of September 11 approaching, and as recurring “terrorism alerts” continue to fuel waves of panic and paranoia, the American public remains overwhelmingly mute about violations of civil rights perpetrated against Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. It is an old silence, one which has allowed the demonizing of Arabs to become woven into all aspects of the political and cultural fabric.
Arab intellectuals are mourning the loss of Abd al-Rahman Munif, one of the greatest and most controversial Arab novelists, who died of a heart attack on January 24 in Syria. He was 71.
Born in Amman, Jordan, to a Saudi father and an Iraqi mother, Munif completed his secondary school education in Jordan. After studying law in Baghdad, he continued his studies in Cairo, ultimately earning a Ph.D. in petroleum economics at the University of Belgrade. During his oil industry career he served as an oil economist in Baghdad, and for OPEC.
“Imagine! When I first came to Detroit, I thought that I was still in the Arab world.” Muhammad, once a Lebanese, but now an American, remarked when I asked him if he felt a longing for his homeland. He went on, “In fact, this city is much better than southern Lebanon where we were continually dodging bombs and waiting for the next Israeli incursion. Here, I live in an almost Arab city. There are more Arab things to do in this town than in my country.”
Arab cultural circles have recently mourned the loss of the prominent Egyptian intellectual Latifa al-Zayyat, who died of cancer in Cairo on September 10, 1996. She was 73 years old. Her death came soon after she had received Egypt ’s highest State Prize for literature. While the state’s acknowledgment of her achievements was long overdue, al-Zayyat had much popular and collegial support throughout her often difficult life-journey.
Awarding Shirin Ebadi the Nobel Peace Prize this year is perhaps the greatest event, symbolically, in the history of this prize in all its fields, literary and scientific. It is the first time that an individual did not earn it merely as an acknowledgment for his/her work or creativity, however unique. Granting the award to a Muslim woman lifts this honor to something beyond--and more significant. It mandates a type of deep questioning of a culture in its entirety—of its values, relationships, human dimensions, horizons, and its roots.
In past wars and crises, Arab culture has become an issue, if not by inviting stereotypical characterizations, then in the debates and controversies among its most celebrated thinkers. During the war on Iraq, this was nowhere more apparent than in the Arab world, though still visible to a lesser extent in the United States, namely among Arab-American intellectuals and academics.
Certainly a majority of Arab intellectuals and journalists used to identify with a popular discourse devoid of any rationality; only a small number refused to believe the Iraqi regime's deception. That small group of Arab intellectuals developed a unique understanding, free from the strong emotional agitation which Saddam's regime used so effectively. One cannot deny that there are lessons to be learned from it concerning the condition of the Arab culture, especially those on the production end of the culture.
In 1978, while in his 20s, the young writer Sattar Jabr Naser caused a controversy in Baghdad with his book, "Reflections on the Book of Ali al-Wardi: Glimpses of the Modern History of Iraq." Naser denied that he was seeking fame by studying the flaws of his teacher, but insisted that he wanted to accomplish what his teacher could not. However, the destiny awaiting him was indifferent to his motives.