The nation recently mourned the passing of Hisham Sharabi, an exceptionally gifted Palestinian writer and struggler. Born into a well-to-do Palestinian family, Sharabi studied at the Friends School in Ramallah and at the American University in Beirut, where he graduated in 1947 with a B.A. in philosophy. He earned an M.A. in philosophy in 1949 and a Ph.D. in the history of culture from the University of Chicago in 1953. Sharabi's political activism started at an early age, when he joined the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) in 1947. He was deeply influenced by its leader, Antun Sa'adeh, whose charisma and stern, uncompromising determination, especially on the issue of Palestine, appealed to the young Sharabi. Sa'adeh confided in Sharabi, showing great interest in the promising young intellectual.
Although Sharabi officially ended his affiliation with the SSNP in 1955, he remained faithful to Sa'adeh. His autobiographies al-Jamr wa al-Rimad and Suwar al-Madi contained two very interesting and moving accounts of his relationship with Sa'adeh. The following is an extract from one of them:
I accompanied Sa'adeh to these parties regularly from the very first occasion and never missed a single one. One party I remember particularly vividly, perhaps because it took place in early spring or because it was given shortly before the catastrophe. The party was to be given at the home of a comrade in Shwaifat. We started by car at about four o'clock, and drove by way of the Raoucheh road in the direction of Ramala-l-Baidha. Sa'adeh sat in silence, watching the sea on his right. Calm after winter storms, the sea looked as green as spring grass. Suddenly, Sa'adeh burst out with a song in Italian. He sang a tune from a Verdi opera. I looked at him in astonishment, but he turned to me with a smile and continued to sing at the top of his voice. Anyone seeing him would think he had no cares in life. In fact, I never saw him even once giving way to worry or anxiety. The affairs of the hour were all that mattered to him. What had been or what would be, he laid aside. I have never known a man, like Sa'adeh, living his present from moment to moment and from hour to hour. He did not care for death, and life meant nothing to him either.
Versatile and subtle, Sharabi was better at elucidating distinctions than formulating systems. A secular humanist with a healthy respect for religion, he was a member of the academic elite; yet he inveighed against academic professionalism, venturing into territories well outside his area of specialty, insisting always that the true intellectual's role must be that of the amateur, because it is only the amateur who is moved neither by the rewards nor the requirements of a career. His literary energy was prodigious. His English work Arab Intellectuals and the West is considered one of the most important works on the Syro-Arab literary revival of the nineteenth century. Sharabi also maintained a lively interest in the structure of Arab societies, feminist issues, and, of course, in the Palestinian cause, despite half a century of exile. In 1971, Sharabi was chosen to be editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies; he co founded the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University; he founded the Arab-American Cultural Foundation and Alif Gallery in Washington, D.C; and he founded the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine. Sharabi was also the founder and chair of the Jerusalem Fund.
Sharabi was a flexible and pragmatic intellectual. He studied and professed liberal views and, in his latter years, adopted leftist semi-Marxist ideas. But as events unfolded, proving the inadequacy of these ideas, he drifted back to Sa'adeh and spent his last years active within the Antun Sa'adeh Cultural Institute in Beirut. He lived long enough to celebrate with his comrades, past and present, the 100-year anniversary of Sa'adeh's birth.
The Passing of a Great Intellectual