From one comrade to another
Hisham Sharabi, the Intellectual and Activist: Agonizing over Palestine
Prof. Halim Barakat
Having known Hisham closely for so long, I am thankful that our friendships left a great, mutual impact on our views and works. After all, our generation has been shaped by the 1948 Palestinian Nakba, the catastrophe, and the 1958 and 1975 Lebanese civil wars—and especially the 1967 defeat. Specifically, I am referring here to the serious outlook of an emerging generation of Arab intellectuals who joined social and political movements and who formed circles of their own in a number of Arab countries as a way of addressing public issues of great magnitude.

This is clearly reflected in some of Hisham’s major works, and especially Muqaddamat Lidrast Al-Mujtama Al-Arabi [Introduction to the Study of Arab Society], Al-Jamr wal-Ramad [Ember and Ashes], Suar min Almadhi [Neopatriarchy], and An-Naqd Al-Hadari [Civilization and Critique]. These books and others focused mainly on explaining Arab defeats and failures in confronting modern historical challenges.

Here I must point out that Beirut became one of the most vibrant centers of Arab intellectual activities. There, for instance, I met and established enriching, permanent relationships with Hisham, Adonis, and several others. In 1958, as I noted earlier, we started the cultural magazine Afaq, and Hisham wrote the opening editorial of the second issue in which he stated, “As long as the state system and society do not secure the minimum requirements of the citizen to live in freedom and security, we will not be able to establish a true humanistic civilization as the one we desire today.”

At the core of his works and activism was the Palestinian Nakba. I, a non-Palestinian, co-authored a novel on the 1967 war and co-authored with Peter Dodd a sociological analytical book entitled, River Without Bridges: A Study of the Exodus of the 1967 Palestinian Arab Refugees, which gives a different image than the film we saw.
As we conducted our sociological survey in the Zeezia Palestinian refugee camp south of Amman, Hisham was there to interview several leaders of the Palestinian Resistance Movement, out of whom George Habash seemed to impressed him most of all. Hisham told me personally at one point that Habash reminded him of Antoun Saadeh.
To refocus on Hisham some forty-seven years later, I wish to point out that Adonis wrote following Hisham’s tragic death a statement in Arabic, which in English says, “A bird over a tree. The bird is called Hisham, and the tree is called Palestine.” At that occasion, Ghassan Tweini, chief editor of the paper An-Nahar, wrote on 14 January 2005, “Is it written that those tormented in one’s thought and belief will be accompanied by bodily torment until the last moment?”
On Thursday, 13 January 2005, I was contacted by our joint friend Violette Yacoub to convey to me the sad news that Hisham Sharabi passed away at the American Hospital in Beirut. Though it was not completely a surprise given his health conditions, I could not accept the idea of his sudden death having deeply felt the loss of a great friend who died suddenly, inflicted with nameless sufferings for over a decade.
Almost four years earlier, it was also our friend Violette who called me the evening of 3 January 2001 to let me know that lovely Anis Bahrawi of Morocco, one of Hisham’s best friends, had been killed in a car accident. Through Hisham, I also became a friend of Anis for a number of years. We often exchanged visits in Rabat and Washington, and engaged in a number of joined activities. I had never seen Hisham so sad as upon hearing the death of Anis. He told me categorically that from then on, he will not be able to visit Morocco any more. I mention this because people know Hisham as a rational being, but he was also a very emotional person.
Since then, Hisham began to be haunted with the threat of eminent death. In 1991, when he had a prostate cancer operation, he began to feel deeply that it was the beginning of the end for him. He did not even fail to remind me where he wanted me to bury him whenever we passed near a cemetery next to Dumbarton Oaks Park on our way to The Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine.
This reminds me of a sad conversation we had with our friend Aziz Alazmy upon one of his rare visits to Washington. Aziz asked me when I would be going back home [to Lebanon]. Before I had the time to respond to this question, Hisham stated that he would not allow me to return back before I buried him. A deep silence prevailed for a while, but we managed to change the topic. But at the back of my mind, I continued feeling that would be one of his most challenging requests.
It was Hisham himself who decided to give up his residency in the United States since 1947 and to return for good to Beirut, which always reminded him of Yaffa and Acre, and became his third hometown. There were many friends there to carry out his challenging request. I am not sure I wished to be there. Yet, I began since that moment to seriously meditate the smiling face of death. Almost a year earlier, on 24 January 2004, one of our most beloved friends, Abdulrahman Munif, died in Damascus. On 25 September 2003, Edward Said passed away in New York. A few days ago Muhammad Al-Maqhut, a close friend since 1956, also passed away in Damascus on 3 April 2006.
In all of these instances, I have found myself overwhelmed with deep silence and feelings of great loss. It was immediately after Hisham’s memorial a year ago that I made the first serious attempt to say something elaborate on the life and death of Hisham. I planned to do so in Arabic, in which I can express myself much better on this issue, although I had already written, before his sudden death, an essay on his works and personality.
In 1993, I agreed with Adonis to prepare a special file entitled, “The Patriarchal System: Hisham Sharabi and Family Structure in Arab Society,” which was published that year in a special issue of Mawaqif, including contributions by a number of Hisham’s fellow writers such as Sayyed Yaassin of Egypt, Issa Boullata in Canada, Sahar Khalifi in Palestine and Muhammad Bennis in Morocco. I myself wrote an article entitled, “Transcendence of Subjectivity and Objectivity,” which was published along with the other contributions in that issue of Mawaqif (1).
I wish to share with you few highlights indicative of Hisham’s character and concerns as recorded in my diary. I wish to point out first that Hisham described his development mainly in two of his books, Souar Almadi [Images from the Past] and Al-Jamr Walramad [Ember and Ashes], in which he tells us, “My experiences in Chicago enriched the process of my intellectual maturity. So I became more capable of critical and realistic thinking in confronting difficulties.” (129-130 ).
Here I want to share a few selective excerpts regarding Hisham from my journal.
In early March 1971, we met in Beirut to primarily discuss the retreat of the Palestinian resistance movement. Hisham raised the issue of explaining the reasons for the weakness of contemporary Arab society and its inability to confront internal and external challenges. After a lengthy discussion, he concluded by identifying three major reasons for the weakness of Arab society. First, the suppression of individual personality in Arab society. Second, social and political fragmentation. Third, the dominance of emotional reactions instead of rationally planned action.
On 21 January 1978, Hisham told me with a great sense of bitter pain, “Zionists took our houses, ate using our spoons, slept in our beds, and have been calling us Mukharbeen and terrorists.” On another occasion, he published an article on cultural critics of contemporary Arab society, in which he mentioned that 1948, when he was a student at the University of Chicago “was the year I lost my country—and the source of my financial sustenance. My family lost everything when Israel was declared a state.” [Hisham Sharabi, “Cultural Critics of Contemporary Arab Society,” Arab Studies Quarterly 9:1(Winter 1987), 1-19.]
In the mid-1990s, Hisham, Adonis and I made several trips to Morocco. We met and developed close relationships with Anis Bahrawi, who I mentioned earlier; the writer Abdulkabir Alkhatibi; the poet and writer Muhammad Bennis; Fatima Mernissi, one of the founders of the Arab Women’s movement; Muhammad Barrada; Muhammad Shukri; and several others.
On one occasion Muhammad Shukri, who wrote a book called Al-Khubz al-Hafi, one of the best on the poorer segments of society, told Hisham and Emile Habibi, “You Palestinians keep dreaming of returning to Palestine. We Moroccans dream of migrating.” On that occasion, Hisham and I were consulted by the Moroccan Ambassador Ben Issa, who later became the Minister of Foreign Affairs, regarding the arrangement of a conference on dialogue between American and Arab intellectuals. We found out that he was inclined to invite Henry Kissinger, [Zbigniew] Brzezinski and William Safire. Instead, we suggested the following: Toni Morrison, John Updike, E. L. Doctorow, Noam Chomsky and Maya Angelo.
On Saturday, 18 August 2001, Hisham and I returned from attending a conference in Morocco on the Arab novel. There we heard the sad news that a Moroccan boat smuggling an overload of workers to Europe had been exposed to a rough storm. Somebody suggested they throw some of the passengers overboard to avoid drowning. There ensued a big fight and the whole ship drowned.
So far, the focus of this presentation has been on Hisham as a visionary intellectual. I wish to say few things about him as an activist, though these are two inseparable aspects of his personality. As a young man, he joined the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in 1947—he was about 20 years old. He became a close friend of its founder Antoun Sa’deh, and became an editor of the Party’s magazine, Al-Jeel Al-Jadeed ( the New Generation). I mention this because at one time, I asked the Party president what madra rahiyyeh, Antoun Sa’deh’s philosophy, meant. They said, “Wait until Hisham comes to Beirut and ask him.” Hisham became the only one who knew Sa’deh very well as an intellectual.
In fact, few years after the assassination of Sa’deh on 8 July 1949 by the Lebanese government of Bishara Al-khouri and Riad Al-solh, Hisham became the philosopher of the Party, after earning his master’s degree in philosophy in 1949 at the age of twenty two and a Ph.D. in the history of culture from the University of Chicago in 1951.
Since then, Sharabi became the independent editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies and co-founded the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. He also founded the Arab-American Cultural Foundation and its Allef Gallery; and the Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development and its Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine [now The Palestine Center].
On another level, Hisham was very close to his students. This was clearly reflected in a memorial to Professor Sharabi by Usama Abi-Mershed on 23 February 2005 here at the Palestine Center. He said,
“I wish to share with you some thoughts on what Hisham Sharabi meant to me as a teacher, mentor and friend. … I enjoyed his company tremendously. Certainly, he was economic with words, but when he spoke, one tended to listen; and of course he tended to be cryptic, using terms like ‘Hegelian’ or ‘communicative reasoning’ in the most mundane conversation. … He could be funny when he wanted. He did not tolerate jokes very well, but he appreciated wit and humor. He loved wry irony….”
I would like to conclude with a more optimistic note. For those who have not read Hisham’s work, I would particularly recommend three of them: Muqaddamat Li Dirast al-Mujtama al-Arabi (Introductions to the Study of Arab Society); Aljamr Wal-Ramad (Ember and Ashes); and Neopatriarchy.
The first book, published in 1975, was an attempt by Hisham to explain Arab crises and failures in confronting troubling challenges in modern times such as the 5 June 1967 defeat. His central argument was that the repressive pattern of family socialization and child-rearing practices in Arab society had been responsible for the development of tendencies toward dependency and escapism from the task of confronting historical challenges.
Neopatriarchy, published in 1988, is a highly rational and analytical work whose central thesis is that Arab society has as a result of encounters with the West, and becomes neither traditional nor modern in its social structure and value orientations. The crucial characteristic of “neopatriarchy” is the dominance of the relationship of oppression and tyranny between the ruler and ruled, state and society, the colonizer and the colonized.
In all these instances, we witness coercive consensus resulting in fragmentation of society and nation. In other words, Sharabi considered neopatriarchal Arab society as the outcome of European colonization of the traditionally patriarchal Arab world. The integration of the Arab world into the capitalist world system led not to modernity but to a modernization of patriarchy. Dependency relations did not replace or modernize the patriarchal structures of traditional Arab society. Instead, they were maintained in deformed forms. The result has been a hybrid sort of which has continued to prevail in present society being neither modern nor traditional.
What is most crucial about it is the dominance of the father, or patriarch, who constitutes the center around which the national as well as natural family is organized. Thus between ruler and ruled, between father and child, there exist only vertical relations. In both settings the paternal will is the absolute will, mediated in both the society and family by a forced consensus based on ritual and coercion. [See Hisham Sharabi, Neopatriarchy: A Theory of Distorted Change in Arab Society (NY: Oxford University Press, 1988), 7.]
Al-Jamr Wal-Ramad (1978 ) is a witty and sentimental autobiographical narration of desperate search for an identity and place in current intellectual movement. It shows both the dark as well as the lighter sides of Hisham’s search. I would like to mention three narrations in which he highlighted in a unique way the rather gray side in between.
First, Hisham speaks of his relationship to his grandmother who worried over his sitting on the balcony by himself watching the sea thinking without ever moving. She would then come to the balcony and ask him lovingly “Why are you sitting alone, my sweetheart? Do you have a headache? Do you have a fever?” Her only treatment of psychological or physical ailments was a cup of chamomile tea. She used to impose it on all members of the family, particularly on him and his grandfather.
Second, when Hisham’s daughter Leyla was six years old, he began telling her stories about his own life and his friends. Leyla would insist every night that he tell her about his adventures with his friend Nadim. He told her about Nadim’s sickness, sudden death, and his funeral. That story captivated her so much that she would ask him to tell her a story about Nadim every night.
Third, in Chicago he met his first girlfriend and went out with her on a double date to a night club. While the other couples were dancing, he sat sipping his Gin Collins and talking to Carol continuously about Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky.
On a more philosophical level, Al-Jamr wal-Ramad is a highly reflective narration for a memoir, but I tend to disagree with the repeated statement among Arabic-language readers that Sharabi may be best known as a writer of memories. In my opinion, Hisham is best known to Arab readers as being able to combine both reflective narration and sophisticated critical analysis of Arab society and culture. His main concern was the articulation of his compassion for Palestine and Palestinians. The aim was and continued to be confrontation and victory.
Similarly, in a piece he published in al-Safir paper on 11 October 1996, Hisham asserted, “My Anglo-American education never made me deviate from my identity or heritage, nor did I adopt American identity. … On the contrary, American diversity encouraged me to assert my identity and heritage.”
On 25 July 2001, al-Safir published an article by Hisham entitled, “What Are the Choices of the Palestinian People in Confronting Israel?” In response to this question, he pointed out that “there is no other alternative choice other than the one clearly declared by Palestinian people: the continuation of resistance, and rejection of any other alternative as long as Israel continues to occupy the West Bank and expand, insisting on not defining its borders.”
In a final note, Hisham used to sign some of his letters to me, “al-Haboob Hisham” [the beloved Hisham]. He was truly a lovely human being and we continue to miss him a lot. I always thought that he sarcastically wanted to tell me by using that phrase, “al-Haboob Hisham,” that he can depart from his seriousness and overcome the dichotomy of reason and emotion or, if you wish of objectivity and subjectivity.