[Marxism] Fwd: Writers or Missionaries? | The Nation

Fred Murphy fred.r.murphy at gmail.com
Wed Sep 14 14:08:17 MDT 2016

The Nation
August 4-11, 2014

Writers or Missionaries?
A reporter’s journey involves writing with a sense of history and without
false consolation.

By Adam Shatz

      Time is education, even when they tell you it’s sophistication.
—Sly Stone

The author would like to thank Sara Roy and Elias Muhanna. This essay is an
adaptation of the 2014 Hilda B. Silverman Memorial Lecture delivered in May
at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies of Harvard University.

You have never been to the Middle East and have no personal connection to
it. Although Jewish, you have no family in Israel. Your parents are not
Zionists but left-liberals of the civil rights generation; neither has gone
to Israel. What sparks your interest in the Middle East is the first
intifada, which breaks out when you are a teenager. You are aghast at the
scenes of Israeli soldiers firing rubber bullets at demonstrators and
bulldozing homes. Instinctively sympathetic to the uprising by the
“children of the stones,” you set out to educate yourself about the
occupation. You read Noam Chomsky, I.F. Stone and Edward Said, and later
Israeli revisionist historians like Simha Flapan, Ilan Pappé and Benny
Morris (who has yet to reinvent himself as an apologist for the ethnic
cleansing he did so much to expose). In college, you meet left-wing Jews
like yourself, as well as progressive Arabs with whom you find you have
more in common than you do with the students in Hillel. You go to
demonstrations against the first Gulf war and the Israeli occupation, and
you rail against America’s double standards to anyone who will listen. The
tirades come naturally to you. You overflow with righteous indignation; you
are exasperating in your certainty.

I was that kid. I didn’t know very much about the Middle East, but I had
the right attitudes, or so I thought. I also had a sense of mission and the
energizing clarity that comes with it.

If you were a young leftist, it was easy to have a sense of mission during
the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a time of insidious propaganda and
deceit about “weapons of mass destruction” and the threat that Saddam
Hussein allegedly posed to “the homeland.” The American press was full of
Middle East “experts” explaining “why they hate us.” These experts
invariably started with the writings of Sayyid Qutb, a leader of Egypt’s
Muslim Brotherhood, who was hanged in 1966 for plotting to overthrow the
Nasser regime. The roots of violent anti-Americanism could be traced to the
basement of a church in Colorado in the late 1940s, where Qutb had been
horrified by the sight of boys and girls dancing together. We were attacked
a half-century later not because of what we had done in the Middle East,
but because of who we were back home: free, open and tolerant. The New
Yorker, which had distinguished itself for its opposition to the Vietnam
War, was publishing Bernard Lewis on the “rage of Islam” and Jeffrey
Goldberg’s dispatches from Cairo and Beirut, where everyone he met seemed
to be an anti-Semite or a terrorist, or both. Reading the coverage in The
New York Times, you might have concluded that the Palestinian leadership
was entirely to blame for the failure of the Camp David negotiations and
for the eruption of the second intifada.

One of my first articles about the Arab world was a review of a biography
of Frantz Fanon for The New York Times Book Review. Shortly after I filed
the piece, my editor called me to say that it was fine, except for one
thing: I had referred to “Palestine,” a country that, according to the news
desk, did not exist. We changed “Palestine” to “the Middle East.” It was
just as well. Like most Americans, I saw the Middle East through the prism
of the Israel-Palestine conflict, an error that I would discover only much

I felt strangely empowered by this brush with censorship. It was proof that
I was expressing things, naming things, that were forbidden by the paper of
record; that I was speaking truth to power. My task, I believed, was to
unmask the rhetoric used to justify America’s war in Iraq, Israel’s
repression in the occupied territories and other imperial misdeeds. And
there was plenty of such rhetoric to keep me busy, about “humanitarian
warfare,” “terrorism” and our unbreakable alliance with “the Middle East’s
only democracy.”

I still stand by most of the positions that I took when I was starting out.
But when I re-read the articles I published then, I find the tone jarring,
the confidence unearned, the lack of humility suspect. I have the same
reaction when I read a self-consciously committed journalist like Robert
Fisk, who seems never to doubt his own thunderous convictions. I recently
re-read Pity the Nation, his tome about the Lebanese civil war, and I was
struck by how little Fisk tells us about the Lebanese, a people he has
lived among since the mid-1970s. For all his emoting about the Lebanese,
their voices are never allowed to interrupt his sermonizing. That I agree
with parts of the sermon doesn’t mean I have the patience to sit through
it. Fisk’s book, which once so impressed me, now strikes me as a wasted
opportunity, unless journalism is understood as a narrowly prosecutorial
endeavor, beginning and ending with the description of crimes and the
naming (and shaming) of perpetrators. And yet Fisk’s example is
instructive, in a cautionary way. It reminds us that immersion in the
region isn’t enough: it’s how you process the experience, the traces that
it leaves on the page. The Fiskian cri de coeur substitutes rage for
understanding, hang-wringing for analysis.

* * *

Just to be clear: I’m not saying that one shouldn’t take positions or make
political arguments in writing about the Middle East. It would be very hard
not to. And part of what drives me is anger over injustice, and the hope
that I might persuade readers to think more critically about American
policy in the region. But developing friendships with Middle Eastern
writers and traveling to the region very much changed the way that I
understand my work. Two Arab writers have been particularly important in
shaping my understanding. One is the former FLN leader turned historian
Mohammed Harbi, whose books on the Algerian independence movement are a
model of critical history, and who has patiently guided me through the maze
of contemporary Algerian politics whenever I have seen him in Paris. The
other is Raja Shehadeh, the founder of Al Haq, a lawyer and writer in
Ramallah who has taught me what Zionism has meant—legally, politically and
psychologically—for the Palestinians. Anguished and somewhat fragile, he is
a man who, in spite of his understandable bitterness, has continued to
dream of a future beyond the occupation, a kind of neo-Ottoman federation
where Arabs and Jews would live as equals.

When I finally began to spend time in the place about which I had
pontificated for so long, I discovered that I was much more interested in
what the people I met had to say than in my own views. It dawned on me that
I could only be a good writer on the Middle East to the extent that I was a
good listener. I realized how insufficient it was to have the right
attitudes; they would provide me with little more than an entree. The brash
young man I was could write with a sense of mission in large part because
he had never spent any time in the region; he was intoxicated by the sound
of his own voice, the power that he felt it gave him.

Shortly after September 11, I interviewed V.S. Naipaul about his views on
Islam for The New York Times Magazine. Much of what he said was predictably
ugly, a provocation calculated to offend liberal sensibilities.
“Non-fundamentalist Islam,” he told me, is “a contradiction.” September 11
had no cause other than “religious hate.” But Naipaul said something else
that I will never forget: that ultimately, you have to make a choice—are
you a writer, or are you a missionary? At the time, this remark struck me
as glib, even dishonest. If anyone was a missionary, wasn’t it Naipaul,
with his crude attacks on Muslims, his extreme Hindu nationalism and his
snobbery, all of it dressed up as devotion to the noble calling of writing
and art?

Still, the remark stayed with me. I couldn’t dismiss it; I have since seen
its wisdom, although I am no fonder of Naipaul’s views now than I was then.
Naipaul was evoking the tension between the writer, who describes things as
he or she sees them, and the missionary or the advocate, who describes
things as he or she wishes they might be under the influence of a party,
movement or cause. The contrast is not as stark as Naipaul suggests, but it
exists, and the more closely you analyze a society, the more you allow
yourself to see and to hear, the more you experience this tension.

In Finding the Center, Naipaul writes that travel “became a necessary
stimulus for me. It broadened my worldview; it showed me a changing world
and took me out of my own colonial shell…. My uncertainty about my role
withered; a role was not necessary. I recognized my own instincts as a
traveler and was content to be myself, to be what I had always been, a
looker. And I learned to look in my own way.” He continues:

To arrive in a place without knowing anyone there, and sometimes without an
introduction; to learn how to move among strangers for the short time one
could afford to be among them; to hold oneself in constant readiness for
adventure or revelation; to allow oneself to be carried along, up to a
point, by accidents; and consciously to follow up other impulses—that could
be as creative and imaginative a procedure as the writing that came after.
Travel of this sort became an intense experience for me. It used all the
sides of my personality; I was always wound up…. There was always the
possibility of failure—of not finding anything, not getting started on the
chain of accidents and encounters. This gave a gambler’s excitement to
every arrival. My luck held; perhaps I made it hold.

In this passage, Naipaul captures some of the most crucial aspects of
reporting: an alert or receptive passivity; a willingness to expose oneself
to unfamiliar and even unsettling experiences and people, to give up
control and to get lost. This is not as easy as it sounds. That “readiness
for adventure or revelation” has to be cultivated. As Walter Benjamin
writes in his memoir Berlin Childhood Around 1900, “not to find one’s way
around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one
loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.”

* * *

Losing one’s way is exhilarating; but it can also be destabilizing, even
frightening. You may end up asking yourself the question Bruce Chatwin made
famous: What am I doing here? I remember asking myself this early one
morning last summer in Jenin, when I was awakened by the call of the
muezzin, my head throbbing from jet lag. I had spent the previous day
interviewing a group of activists working at the Jenin Freedom Theatre,
each more earnest than the last. I wondered if I would ever get closer to
the truth of what had happened to Juliano Mer-Khamis, the head of the
theater, who had been murdered there two years earlier. I thought of
declaring defeat and leaving until a close friend of mine, a
French-Moroccan woman living in Jerusalem, told me to get over myself and
to press on. And I did. I needed to trust the gambler’s luck that Naipaul
invoked; I needed to let go. This was not a matter of finding the story,
but of allowing the story to find me.

This is the experience I’ve had almost every time I’ve reported, but the
most memorable of these experiences took place in Algeria in late 2002, on
one of my first long reporting trips. It happened almost by accident. I had
been writing about the memory of the Algerian war of independence in
contemporary France, where the controversy about torture by the French army
had been reignited by an interview in Le Monde with a former FLN militant,
Louisette Ighilahriz, who described her ghastly experiences in a French
prison cell and her rescue by a man she knew only as “Dr. Richaud,” whom
she was desperate to thank after all these years. After Ighilahriz’s
interview, an even more explosive interview appeared in Le Monde with a
one-eyed octogenarian general named Paul Aussaresses, who emerged from
retirement to give an unapologetic account of carrying out a series of
murders, disguised as suicides, of leading nationalists during the Battle
of Algiers. Algeria was not my only interest in telling this story. Writing
about the French-Algerian war, a story of settler colonialism, guerrilla
warfare, torture and repression, was my indirect way of commenting on
Israel’s response to the second intifada. Like the French during the Battle
of Algiers, the Israeli government claimed that it was merely fighting
“terrorism” in the occupied territories, rather than a nationalist
insurgency with popular backing. The French, I noted, won the Battle of
Algiers, but this turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory.

After my article on the Aussaresses affair was published, I met a group of
Algerians visiting New York City, headed by one of the FLN’s historic
“chiefs,” Hocine Aït-Ahmed, the longstanding leader of a Kabyle Berber
opposition party. One of the Algerians at that discussion was an intense
young woman named Daikha Dridi, a reporter for the Quotidien d’Oran. Daikha
told me about the war between the security services and Islamic rebels that
had claimed more than 100,000 lives; about the machinations of the
so-called pouvoir, the dominant military-industrial clique that ruled
Algeria; about the country’s still-traumatic relationship with France, its
former colonial master. She urged me to visit: how, having written on
France’s repression of the Algerian independence movement, could I not care
about the fate of the independent Algeria? She was right. Not long after
that meeting, I booked a flight to Algiers.

When I arrived there, a city I knew mostly from Gillo Pontecorvo’s film,
the civil war had been over for about a year, but no one quite believed it:
no one had been punished for their crimes, and attacks at fake checkpoints
were still common. My editor probably expected me to write about Algeria’s
history and possible future in a tone—or at least an impression, an
impersonation—of authority. Authority, however, was not what I felt,
walking through Algiers and in the dilapidated Kabyle town of Tizi Ouzou,
where alienated young Berbers were in revolt against the central
government. What I felt was the utter strangeness and futility of trying to
explain Algeria, a notoriously opaque country. I was often followed,
particularly when I went to Internet cafes, by the secret police. One
agent, a fresh-faced man with reddish hair, saw that I was typing a message
in English and asked if I was from Texas, “like President Bush.”

I stayed in a dingy hotel; the only other guests were a group of German
tourists on their way to an expedition in the Sahara. I was incredibly free
and incredibly alone. I’d return to my room each night too tired to even
read my notes; there was so little hot water I didn’t have the relief of a
decent bath. So I turned on the TV. Every night the same movie was playing
on the state channel, Marcel Carné’s adaptation of the Georges Simenon
novel Trois chambres à Manhattan, the story of a love affair between two
French expats in New York, a depressed actor and a woman fleeing her
marriage. When they’re not in bed—or driving each other to tears—they’re at
a club where the house pianist is Mal Waldron, who performs with his usual
sorrowful elegance. He looks as if he’s always at the club—as if the club
exists so that he might play there. I would drift off to sleep as Waldron
played his trance-inducing, darker-than-blue blues, a cigarette dangling
from his lips.

My fixer in Algiers, Farès, was a hard-drinking man in his mid-50s whose
candy factory had been burned down by Islamist insurgents. He seemed
pleased to have someone like me to drive around, a Westerner who paid him
well, listened to his stories and spoke passable French. He wasn’t much
interested in talking about the present—it was shit, he said, though I
sensed he supported the éradicateurs, the hardliners who promised to wipe
out the Islamist rebels and restore security. I could understand that, even
if I didn’t share his sympathies for the army: if the Islamists hadn’t
destroyed his livelihood, he wouldn’t have been driving a taxi.

Farès became my guide to Algiers. Whenever we ran into people he knew, he
introduced me as a friend from Tizi Ouzou, a Kabyle city. He said I could
pass for a Berber; so long as I only murmured a few words in French, no one
would ask any questions. He wasn’t worried about walking around with an
American, but he enjoyed fooling people. We wandered through the Casbah and
the slums of Bab El-Oued, where the FIS leader Ali Belhaj had preached
jihad against the “impious” regime at the al-Sunna mosque; we went to
nightclubs and bars pulsing with strobe lights and frequented by wealthy
Algerians and Arab businessmen; we drove through the neighborhoods in the
hills where the leaders of the FLN settled after independence. We ate piles
of golden fried sardines at long, wooden communal tables, where men (only
men) watched football on television, and told the latest jokes about
“Boutef”—President Abdelaziz Bouteflika—and Khalida Messaoudi, the fetching
minister of culture he was said to be sleeping with.

One day, Farès told me about a novel he was writing, about his childhood
during the Battle of Algiers. It revolved around the stories of three
friends—a Kabyle Berber, a Jew and a pied-noir—growing up in the Casbah.
Algeria, Farès said, had lost something in 1962; the country’s radical
decolonization had sapped it of the diversity that had been a great source
of vitality. The Algeria he knew and loved had disappeared, and he wanted
to re-create it in his novel. Farès blamed the French for causing the
exodus of pieds-noirs to the métropole; Algerians and the “historic FLN,”
he insisted, never wanted them to go.

* * *

France’s ultimate responsibility for everything that had gone wrong in
Algeria, I found, was about the only thing Algerians agreed on. I
interviewed dozens of people, from high-ranking officials to Islamist
sympathizers; from mothers of the disappeared to hardline generals; from
Berber activists to human-rights campaigners. Each claimed to be a critic
of le pouvoir, including those who were plainly its beneficiaries. Each
expressed disappointment in the post-independence era. Each claimed
unimpeachable nationalist credentials and believed that his or her views
were faithful to the “historic FLN,” the leadership that had lost out to
those who had “confiscated” the revolution. What no one seemed to agree on
was what the Algerian nation actually was. One man, a former member of the
maquis who fought in the Aurès Mountains during the independence struggle,
insisted that Algeria was not an Arab country like Egypt; it had more in
common with Mediterranean countries like Italy, Spain and Greece. A Kabyle
activist told me, no less passionately, that Algeria was a Berber country,
and that its true character had been perverted by state-led Arabization.
Others told me that Algeria was profoundly Arab and Muslim in its identity,
and that anyone who told me otherwise was self-hating, a victim of a
colonial complex. Algerians had been having this argument for years. The
feud had started before the war of independence, when “assimilated”
Muslims, populists, Islamists and Communists quarreled over Algeria’s
identity, and it continued after independence was achieved. To be an
Algerian was, in a sense, to participate in this debate, to have a stake in
it. The fact that it remained so alive and so fraught after four decades of
“liberation” led me to a realization that applies with equal force to the
Middle East: nothing that is solid melts into air.

Algeria had been the prism through which I understood the Israel-Palestine
tragedy and, to some extent, the rise of an insurgency in Iraq. Now Algeria
helped me to develop a more nuanced understanding of power and identity in
the region. The Algerian story was, in part, the story of a military
government that refused to hand over power to civilians; but to tell that
story was barely to scratch the surface. The obsession with France and with
French plots, real and imagined, also suggested to me that the
French/Algerian story had never really ended with the rupture that
decolonization had brought about in 1962: independence was but a new and
more subtle chapter in a history of unequal relations between the two
countries, the two peoples. Every morning outside the French consulate in
Algiers, there was a line of Algerians requesting visas, hoping to get into
the country they at once hated and needed. There was no “solution” to
France’s influence over Algeria; it was too late for solutions.

Algeria made a mockery of my nostalgia for the heroic certainties of
anticolonialism and cured me of my lingering Third World–ism. The problems
of post-independence Algeria could not be divorced from the history of
colonization, but the failures were also homegrown, and they could not all
be laid at the foot of France, the native bourgeoisie or even le pouvoir.
And what was le pouvoir anyway? As one friend of mine put it, “Le pouvoir,
c’est nous.” Algerians deserved better than a regime that had kept itself
in power by distributing rents from natural gas. They had suffered
terribly, and the world had largely ignored them in the darkest hours of
the civil war. I wanted to give an account of their suffering, but I had to
do so with a measure of humility, without pretending that I knew more than
I did—or, more to the point, more than they did. Algerians were at once
impressively informed about their country and stunned by what had happened
to it during the civil war. Reporting on Algeria, I was forced to own up to
my own uncertainty and to make it a part of my writing. This is easier said
than done: readers want to be informed, not given a lecture on the limits
of knowledge. I don’t claim to have a method, but admitting to the
murkiness is a start.

I wish I could say that I always adhered to the uncertainty principle and
listened to my own advice, but I didn’t. Algeria changed me, but it took a
while for these changes to inform my writing. And the closer I got to the
Israel-Palestine conflict, the more of a missionary—a Fiskian—I became.
This is, as it were, an occupational hazard, the “Jerusalem syndrome” of
journalists, whatever their ideological bent.

I was reminded of this a few years ago, when a mysterious man living in
Damascus was killed in a car bombing. Imad Mughniyeh was one of the
founders of Hezbollah and the architect of some of its most spectacular
“operations,” from the 1983 bombings in Beirut to the attacks in Argentina
in the early 1990s. Sometime in the 1990s, Mughniyeh went underground, and
he was never mentioned by Hezbollah again until he met his fate in February

In 2004, several years before his assassination, I spent a few weeks in
Lebanon reporting on Hezbollah’s “Lebanonization” under the leadership of
Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. While Israel and its spokesmen in the press
continued to denounce Hezbollah as a “terrorist” outfit, Hezbollah appeared
to have evolved into a more pragmatic political organization, moderating
its rhetoric and entering Lebanese politics—including the confessional
system that it had excoriated in its founding manifesto. It no longer
seemed fair, or accurate, to describe Hezbollah merely as a proxy of the
Islamic Republic of Iran or as an unreconstructed global “terrorist”
organization, as Jeffrey Goldberg had argued in an alarmist series for The
New Yorker. Goldberg’s articles on Hezbollah read as if they had been
written by committee at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; he
even predicted that Hezbollah, a Shiite organization, might attack the
United States in solidarity with Saddam Hussein, the great persecutor of
the Shiites, a modern-day Yazid.

The fact that Hezbollah is a social movement and not just a militia or a
pro-Iranian proxy is widely accepted today, but at the time it was a highly
controversial thesis. My article came close to being killed. A platoon of
fact-checkers spent nearly half a year investigating my claims. The
excerpts from my interview with Nasrallah, with whom I had met for more
than an hour at the party’s headquarters in the southern suburbs, were
severely cut for reasons that were never explained. I had asked Nasrallah
why the movement hadn’t laid down its arms after Israel’s withdrawal from
southern Lebanon in 2000. Wasn’t Hezbollah handing Israel a pretext to
attack again? Israel, he replied, has never needed a pretext to attack
Lebanon. He pointed out that when Israel invaded Lebanon in order to
destroy Arafat’s PLO, it claimed to be responding to the shooting of Shlomo
Argov, the Israeli ambassador in London, even though the shooting was
carried out by the renegade Abu Nidal, an enemy of Arafat. Nasrallah’s
argument was self-serving, to be sure, but he was right about the Argov
pretext, and I succeeded in getting this passage restored.

Still, in my zeal to present a corrective to Goldberg’s take on Hezbollah,
I made errors of my own. When I asked Nasrallah about Mughniyeh, who
Goldberg claimed was still deeply involved in Hezbollah, he played with his
prayer beads and told me that Mughniyeh was no longer in the organization
and that his whereabouts were unknown. I was not fooled, but I didn’t push
him further; I did not want to be shown the door, and I was willing to
entertain the possibility that Mughniyeh had offered his services to the
Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Was I flattered by Nasrallah’s generosity and
politeness? Was the Mughniyeh relationship simply inconvenient for the case
I was building about Hezbollah’s evolution? Whatever the case, I remembered
these conversations when Mughniyeh was assassinated in Damascus. After
Hezbollah staged an enormous funeral procession for him, the world learned
not only that he had never strayed from Hezbollah, but that he had directed
the 2006 war. His image was revealed for the first time in years and is now
a fixture of Hezbollah iconography. I don’t blame Nasrallah for lying to me
when he denied knowledge of Mughniyeh’s activities: he was merely doing his
job. But I wasn’t doing mine.

Mughniyeh was, for Hezbollah, a heroic figure in what they call “the
resistance.” No word is more sacred for Hezbollah, which has sought to
portray itself as a “national resistance” rather than another sectarian
militia. When I started out in journalism, I was more willing to use this
word without quotation marks; it seemed preferable, after all, to the
alternative, “terrorism.” Today, I am more skeptical of terms like
“resistance,” “armed struggle” and “solidarity.” When I read these words, I
want to ask: What do they actually mean, and what do they conceal? What do
the people who use these words actually do? What does the word “resistance”
mean if it can describe a Sunni-based insurgency against Bashar al-Assad
and the Shiite-based insurgency in Lebanon that is fighting to crush that
uprising? What ambitions, what goals, lie behind floating signifiers like
“resistance”? What do those who hold up its banner hope to achieve? Mouloud
Feraoun, an Algerian novelist who kept an extraordinary diary of the
Algerian war before he was murdered by the OAS in 1962, put it well when he
stated: “Sometimes you start asking yourself about the value of words,
words that no longer make any sense. What is liberty, or dignity, or
independence? Where is the truth, where is the lie, where is the solution?”

A writer’s job, I believe, is to ask these questions, even when—especially
when—they are inconvenient. And the answers lie in the verbs, not the
nouns. They lie in the distance, sometimes the chasm, between words and

* * *

The aura of the “resistance,” of course, is not universal. I remember
sitting in a cafe in Beirut with the writer Samir Kassir. He had devoted
himself to Palestine but had grown increasingly alarmed by Syria’s meddling
in Lebanon, and by Hezbollah’s efforts, through its television station
Al-Manar, to Islamize the Palestinian struggle. Israel’s occupation, he
said, was not the first, or even the second, target of “the resistance.”
This was, above all, a power play inside Lebanon. I remarked that the
disaster of America’s war in Iraq had only heightened the prestige of
Hezbollah’s resistance model. To my surprise, he replied, “I’m less worried
about the fact that America is here than that it doesn’t know what it’s

Kassir was no fan of the American war, but he was a hardheaded analyst,
unwilling to take refuge in comforting ideological formulas. He was not
persuaded that the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon was an essential
component in the struggle to liberate Palestine: Lebanon, he believed,
deserved to breathe again, free of Syria’s corrupting influence. He made
this argument in writing, over and again, and paid the ultimate price. Two
years after our conversation, he was killed in a car bomb attack, most
likely by pro-Syrian agents. Though I did not share all of Kassir’s
analysis, I had great respect for his integrity, and I paid him tribute in
these pages [see “The Principle of Hope,” July 4, 2005]. In the eyes of the
blogger Asad Abu-Khalil, who calls himself “Angry Arab,” I had revealed
myself to be an Orientalist for praising Kassir, an opponent of “the
resistance.” This was a first: I was used to being attacked as a
self-hating Jew!

Identity: you can’t get around it when you write on the Middle East. I
consider myself a New Yorker first, an American second; although I have a
certain private connection to Jewish culture and humor, I don’t go to
temple, I don’t believe in God, and I am not a Zionist. My “Judaism,” such
as it is, is not political. The trouble is that, in the Middle East, the
idea of a nonpolitical or non-Zionist Judaism is virtually unintelligible.
I have never written as a Jew, much less tried to prove to others that
there are anti-occupation Jews like me, an effort that I find silly, if not
offensive. So the question has always been: How candid should I be about
something that matters to me, but not in a way that most people in the
region would ever understand? Would I be opening up the possibility for
serious misunderstandings? Isn’t it better just to shut up rather than shut
down the conversation? After all, I’m here to report the story, not to be
the story.

The problem is that sometimes, without your wanting it, you are the story:
the fact of your presence is news. So while I usually keep my Jewish
identity to myself, if asked whether I’m Jewish, I don’t lie. And
sometimes, if I’m lucky, I can use it to my advantage. Not in the sense of
opening doors, but in the sense of opening up the conversation in
surprising ways. I think, for example, about the albino Palestinian woman I
met in Jenin who, when she discovered I was Jewish, asked me, “Were you in
the Holocaust?” and began to chuckle. Fortunately not, I replied, laughing
at the absurdity of her question. This led to one of the most fascinating
conversations I had in Palestine, a conversation about the oppressions of
occupation, gender and, in her case, colorlessness.

I also think of the conversation I had in Nablus with Ghada, a local PFLP
leader who had spent much of her adulthood in Israeli prisons. I liked her
immediately. She was as playful as she was fiery, with a disarming, throaty
laugh. Before we began our interview, I asked her if she had any questions
about me. I usually do this—if people want to have a better sense of who I
am, I want to give them the opportunity to ask. Their questions can deepen
the conversation and help me to formulate my own. She paused, took a drag
of her cigarette and said: “If you are Israeli, or related to Israelis, or
even if you are just a Jew, I cannot speak to you. Do you understand?”
Abed, my fixer, sat there waiting, nervously, while I came up with a reply.
I said: “Really, you wouldn’t talk to Noam Chomsky? You wouldn’t talk to a
Jewish critic of the occupation?” She replied that a French-Jewish
journalist who had interviewed her recently had written that she supported
a two-state settlement when, in fact, she wanted to liberate Palestine from
the river to the sea. A Jew had betrayed her; how could I be trusted?

I said, a bit desperately, “If you read my work, I believe that you will
see that I am progressive, and honest. Now, you can decide not to speak
with me because I’m Jewish. That’s your right. I can’t force you to talk to
me. But I think you’d be making a mistake not to.” She looked at Abed; he
looked at her. “Because I love Abed, because I trust Abed, I will speak to
you, with total frankness.” And she did. She gave me great material.

When we left her office, Abed said, “You never told me you were Jewish!” I
said I assumed he knew. He said, “What you don’t understand is that for
Ghada, your kind of Jew is not really a Jew.”

What did I learn from this encounter, besides the fact that in the Nablus
offices of the Popular Front, I don’t quite count as a Jew? I learned that
having a trusted fixer makes a huge difference. And I realized that, in
some cases, you can create intimacy by showing your cards, by not being
sheepish about your identity, by owning up to your discomfort. I could have
lied to Ghada, but if I had lied to her, I would have shown her less
respect, and showing respect, I believe, is the yeast of any successful

When I started out, I didn’t have the confidence about my identity that I
displayed that day with Ghada. And I had not yet learned to listen; I still
took words, ideological formulas, slogans at face value. Around the time
that I met Ghada, I interviewed Hussam Khader, a Fatah leader in the Balata
refugee camp. Hussam, like Ghada, had spent a number of years in Israeli
prisons. He told me that he was sure that in time—maybe twenty years, maybe
fifty, maybe a hundred—they, the Jews, would all go back to wherever they
came from, and all of Palestine would be free. A few minutes later, he
spoke of his hopes for co-existence and offered, as proof, the example of
his own friendships with members of the Knesset. What did Khader actually
believe? Does it matter? Aren’t we all contradictory in our aspirations and
beliefs—particularly if, as in Khader’s case, an ocean lies between our
desires and our power to fulfill them? Doesn’t this paradox, this floating
between the dream of recovering historical Palestine and the dreary and
corrupt business of “peace processing” under occupation, tell you more
about the Palestinian predicament than any speech, than any declaration of

* * *

Words are all we have, but silences are sometimes more meaningful. In
Prisoner of Love, Jean Genet writes:

if the reality of time spent among—not with—the Palestinians existed
anywhere, it would survive between all the words that claim to give an
account of it. They claim to give an account of it, but in fact it buries
itself, slots itself exactly into the spaces, recorded there rather than in
the words that serve only to blot it out. Another way of putting it: the
space between the words contains more reality than does the time it takes
to read them.

How do we reach the space between the words, when our only way of doing so
is through words? I’m not sure, but I would suggest it is largely a matter
of listening, observing and describing—with a sense of history, and without
false consolations. It also requires resistance, not only to the clichés
and stereotypes that are often pilloried as “Orientalist,” but also to the
missionary temptation to mistake one’s hopes for realities. When the
uprising in Egypt broke out, I succumbed, like many, to the latter
temptation, when I wrote that Islamists and secular opponents of Mubarak
appeared to have laid aside their differences in the interest of national
unity. I had written about these divisions only six months before the
uprising, in an article called “Mubarak’s Last Breath”; but during the
early days of Tahrir Square, I allowed myself to forget just how deeply the
fear and distrust run, and how easily these emotions can be manipulated by
the army. I succumbed to this temptation again after Israel’s most recent
war in the Gaza Strip, when I argued that Israel’s strategic position had
been weakened by the emergence of a Muslim Brotherhood–led Egypt allied
with Hamas and Erdogan’s Turkey. That article, which felt so good to write,
could not seem more dated. Mohammed Morsi is in prison along with thousands
of Muslim Brothers; Erdogan, having revealed himself to be a thug rather
than a visionary Islamic democrat, is embroiled in several scandals; Hamas
is scrambling to repair ties with Iran; and Israel is deepening its
colonization of East Jerusalem and the West Bank and, once again, launching
an offensive in Gaza—only this time without much protest from Cairo.

Edward Said was fond of quoting Raymond Williams’s argument about the
struggle, in any society, between dominant, residual and emergent forces.
But the Middle East severely tests the teleological assumptions, or wishes,
of Williams’s formulation. “Emergent” forces like the progressive youth
movements in Egypt are not destined to win, however much we admire them and
hope for their success. And what about jihadi organizations like the
Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a Sunni Islamist group so extreme that it
was excommunicated by Ayman Zawahiri of Al Qaeda? Is ISIS, which has
captured several major Iraqi cities and declared a new caliphate, an
“emergent” force or a “residual” one, or some combination of the two?

The Middle East is the graveyard of predictions. Just after the uprisings,
the so-called experts declared that Al Qaeda had died in Tahrir Square. But
these days Tahrir Square seems moribund, while Al Qaeda is resurgent and
facing competition from still more radical offshoots. A military
dictatorship even harsher than Mubarak’s rule has returned to Egypt, and
Assad appears to be winning in Syria, thanks not only to his horrifying
tactics, but also to the fragmentation and brutality of the insurgents.
Nine million Syrians have been internally displaced, and more than 2
million have gone into exile; more than 100,000 have been killed.
Meanwhile, a highly sectarian government in Iraq has been fighting against
an extremist insurgency. The Arab uprisings brought about an end to the
political stagnation that had characterized the military dictatorships of
the region during the Cold War, but except in Tunisia, they failed to
deliver on their promise of establishing more democratic systems of
governance. The result, for now, is a deepening sectarian struggle
throughout the region and, in Syria, a vicious proxy war that has produced
a Nakba on a scale that, in numbers of dead and displaced, dwarfs the Nakba
of 1948. There is no obvious solution to this crisis, and it seems all but
inevitable that Syria—and perhaps Iraq as well—will be dismembered under
any transition.

Writing about the region, never an easy undertaking, is likely to become
still more difficult. I am not sure whether the most influential current of
oppositional thinking about the Middle East is equipped to deal with the
changes the region is undergoing. I am referring to the critique of
Orientalism that Edward Said initiated. This style of thinking was
formative for me, but I fear that it has congealed into an orthodoxy; and,
as George Orwell wrote, “orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a
lifeless, imitative style.” That we are now able to have a more open
conversation about Palestine, that students are mobilizing against the
occupation, is welcome; but Palestine is not the Middle East, and it seems
peculiar, if not myopic, to talk about Palestine as if it were insulated
from the rest of the region. And while it is understandable that young
American students are particularly concerned about their government’s
policies in the region, these policies do not wholly determine its shape
and direction. America’s power in the Middle East has weakened, though not
in favor of forces that most of us would consider progressive. Today, we
are witnessing a tacit alliance of Israel, the military regime in Egypt and
the Gulf states—particularly Saudi Arabia—against Iran, with which the
United States, in conflict with its own regional allies, is seeking
rapprochement. The latest Israeli offensive in Gaza is a measure of how
marginal Palestine has become to the agenda of Arab states.

* * *

But to quote a poster I recently saw in the home of a solidarity activist,
isn’t Palestine still the question? That “still,” you’ll note, qualifies
the confident “the”: it suggests an anxious insistence, perhaps a fear,
that Palestine might not be the only, or central, question in the
contemporary Middle East—especially now that much of the region is
preoccupied with other matters, like the wars in Iraq and Syria, Iran’s
overture to the West and the re-emergence of military rule in Egypt. It is,
of course, only natural that Palestinians would consider the question of
Palestine to be the question; they experience the daily humiliations of
occupation and the sorrows of exile, the ongoing and, it seems,
ever-deepening results of the 1948 catastrophe. It is only natural that
Arabs and Muslims, for national and religious reasons, see Palestine as a
sacred cause. For them, Palestine is not just a national struggle but a
metaphor for suffering and redemption, exile and return, dispossession and
justice. But that does not explain why Palestine is seen on the Western
left as the question, the key that opens all doors in the region, not just
those to the homes from which Palestinians were driven in 1948.

“Do you know why we are so famous?” Mahmoud Darwish asks the Israeli writer
Helit Yeshurun in Palestine as Metaphor. “It’s because you are our enemy.
The interest in the Palestinian question flows from the interest in the
Jewish question…. It’s you they’re interested in, not me!… So we have the
misfortune of having an enemy, Israel, with so many sympathizers in the
world, and we have the good fortune that our enemy is Israel, since Jews
are the center of the world. You have given us our defeat, our weakness,
our renown.” As Darwish suggests, this concern for the Palestinians is not
a matter of anti-Semitism, as Israel supporters claim, so much as it is a
reflection of self-absorption: the Palestinians are important to the West
because, through their oppression by Israeli Jews, they have become
characters in a Western narrative.

I thought of Darwish’s remark when I saw a poster in the Balata refugee
camp declaring, in English, “Our existence is resistance,” as if opposition
to oppression were a way of life. “A gift from our foreign guests,” the
Fatah leader Hussam Khader explained to me, unable to suppress a smile.

In an essay on French opposition to the war in Algeria, Pierre Vidal-Naquet
observed that for a small but influential current of French dissidents,
identification with the FLN’s struggle was a kind of surrogate religion;
for these so-called Third World–ists, “Algeria represented the suffering
just man and thus a Christ-like figure…the symbol of a humanity to be
redeemed, if not a redemptive humanity.” The most devout Third World–ists,
he noted, believed that Algeria’s liberation might awaken the dormant
French working class, spark a revolution in France and rescue the West from
its spiritual decadence. Vidal-Naquet, a scholar of classical Greece who
lost his parents in the Holocaust as well as an independent socialist who
campaigned tirelessly against torture during the war, saw this faith for
what it was: part of France’s conversation with itself. The Algerian
struggle, he understood, was a struggle for national self-determination,
not for humanity as a whole, and Algerian nationalists were themselves
profoundly divided, not some unified subject of history who could replace
the proletariat. Today, it seems to me, Palestinians are for the radical
Western left what Algerians were for Third World–ists in Vidal-Naquet’s
day: natural-born resisters, fighting not only Israel but its imperial
patrons, as much on our behalf as theirs. That is the role assigned to them
in the revolutionary imagination. Like the kaffiyeh worn by
anti-globalization protesters, this Palestine is little more than a
metaphor. Palestine is still “the question” because it holds up a mirror to
us. “Too many people want to save Palestine,” one activist said to me. But
it could just as well be said that too many people want to be saved by

I understand this Palestine-centrism and have felt its gravitational pull.
Israel’s occupation, now nearly a half-century old, is the longest in
modern history. It is subsidized by US tax dollars and maintained by a
state that claims to speak not only in the name of the Jewish people but,
more obscenely, in the name of those who perished in the Holocaust. I have
witnessed the occupation’s horrors firsthand: the subjugation of an entire
people through a system of pervasive control and countless petty
humiliations, always backed by the threat of violence; the confiscation not
only of that people’s land, but of its future. I have been shamed, as well
as touched, by the hospitality for which Palestinians are rightly famous.
While traveling in other Arab countries, I have seen the poisonous effect
that the occupation has had on the perception of the United States, the
well of resentment, suspicion and rage it has bred. Still, I am not sure
that the Palestinians benefit when their struggle—an anticolonial,
nationalist struggle like that of Algeria, no more, no less—becomes a
matter of metaphysics rather than politics; when their suffering is
romanticized, even sanctified. Palestinians need friends, not missionaries
or fellow travelers.

When Gershom Scholem scolded Hannah Arendt for showing no love of the
Jewish people in her book on Eichmann, Arendt replied that she could not
love a people, only friends. Her point was overdrawn for dramatic effect;
our political positions are almost always influenced by the bonds we form.
I would be the first to admit that my own hatred of the occupation has been
deepened by spending time in Palestine with friends like Raja Shehadeh, a
man who embodies sumud—steadfastness in the face of a system of oppression
as absurd as it is cruel. But, as Arendt warned, too strong a bond with one
people can lead to a contraction of empathy for others: the case of Israel
illustrates this all too well. Love of a people in particular can lead us
to engage in moral calculations that betray the principles we claim to
hold, even to defend the indefensible. Now we are told, by some who call
themselves friends of Palestine, that we shouldn’t concern ourselves too
much with war crimes in Syria, unless they are committed by jihadists in
the opposition; that, all things considered, perhaps Assad, the butcher of
Yarmouk, deserves our “critical” support, since he is a leader of the
resistance front, in the cross hairs of the West and the Gulf states. I
have seen this argument made privately by one well-known champion of
Palestinian rights; this person is a Quaker, but then so was Richard Nixon.
According to Amal Saad Ghorayeb, writing in the Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar,
support for Assad is a litmus test of support for Palestine. How different,
morally, is this from saying, as Benjamin Netanyahu has done, that Israel
is better off if its Arab neighbors remain dictatorships? Can Palestinian
emancipation be served by such vulgar anti-imperialism?

* * *

As the regional balance of power has shifted and American dominance wanes,
I have begun to worry that an all-consuming preoccupation with America and
Israel leads progressive writers to become strangely incurious about the
crimes for which the West can’t be blamed and the developments, such as the
politicization of sectarian identity, that are shaking the region far more
profoundly than the Israeli-Palestinian arena. This paradigm also leads
them to belittle, or simply to overlook, what academics call “agency”: the
fact that people act in this region, and are not merely acted upon by more
powerful external forces. And it has increasingly been my sense that much
of the work Said inspired fails to examine the lived experience of people
in the region; it often relegates much of that experience to silence, as if
it were unworthy of attention or politically inconvenient.

Enormously liberating when it was developed, the critique of Orientalism
has often resulted in a set of taboos and restrictions that inhibit
critical thinking. They pre-emptively tell us to stop noticing things that
are right under our noses, particularly the profound cleavages in Middle
Eastern societies—struggles over class and sect, the place of religion in
politics, the relationship between men and women; struggles that are only
partly related to their confrontation with the West and with Israel.
Indeed, it is sometimes only in those moments of confrontation that these
very divided societies achieve a fleeting sense of unity. The theoretical
intricacy of academic anti-Orientalism, its hermetic and sophisticated
language, sometimes conceals an attempt to wish away the region’s dizzying
complexity in favor of the old, comforting logic of anticolonial struggle.
Anti-Orientalism will continue to provide a set of critical tools and a
moral compass, so long as it is understood as a point of departure, not a
destination. Like all old maps, it has begun to yellow. It no longer quite
describes the region, the up-ender of all expectations, the destroyer of
all missionary dreams.

On Wed, Sep 14, 2016 at 3:53 PM, Andrew Pollack via Marxism <
marxism at lists.csbs.utah.edu> wrote:

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> On Wed, Sep 14, 2016 at 3:49 PM, Louis Proyect via Marxism <
> marxism at lists.csbs.utah.edu> wrote:
> > ********************  POSTING RULES & NOTES  ********************
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> >
> >  Now we are told, by some who call themselves friends of Palestine, that
> > we shouldn’t concern ourselves too much with war crimes in Syria, unless
> > they are committed by jihadists in the opposition; that, all things
> > considered, perhaps Assad, the butcher of Yarmouk, deserves our
> “critical”
> > support, since he is a leader of the resistance front, in the cross hairs
> > of the West and the Gulf states. I have seen this argument made privately
> > by one well-known champion of Palestinian rights; this person is a
> Quaker,
> > but then so was Richard Nixon. According to Amal Saad Ghorayeb, writing
> in
> > the Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar, support for Assad is a litmus test of
> support
> > for Palestine. How different, morally, is this from saying, as Benjamin
> > Netanyahu has done, that Israel is better off if its Arab neighbors
> remain
> > dictatorships? Can Palestinian emancipation be served by such vulgar
> > anti-imperialism?
> >
> > full: https://www.thenation.com/article/writers-or-missionaries/
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