Antun Sa'adeh, whose commentaries, essays and books were an inspiration in a time of gloom and darkness, is the subject of a new book by Salim Mujais. Entitled Antoun Saadeh: A biography, the book deals with Sa'adeh's youth years from 1904 to 1930 set against the events and atmosphere of that period. The author takes us on a journey into Shweir, Sa'adeh's hometown in Lebanon, the misery of World War I, and the plight of migration, all of which are essential to an understanding of Sa'adeh's life and the development of his political and national ideas. The following is an exclusive interview with the author about the book.
Author: Salim Mujais
Title: Antoun Saadeh: A Biography (Vol. 1 The Youth Years)
Publisher: Kutub, 2004.
Reviewer: Adel Beshara
1. What motivated you to write about Sa'adeh?
Antoun Saadeh, while not the most influential, is the most important intellectual of the Near East in the 20th century from the standpoint of creative thinking and breadth of impact. It is impossible to consider the intellectual history of the 20th century in the Near East without addressing his standing and role in that history. I am personally devoted to the study of the intellectual luminaries of the Near East during its long history and Antoun Saadeh stands tall among the most recent of them. I also wanted to write about him in English because I believe that his ideas deserve an international forum and that his visibility to non-Arabic speakers enriches the global discourse about the political future of human civilization. It is regrettable that his major works have not been available except in a limited way in non-Arabic languages such as the translation of his seminal book "The Emergence of Nations" to Spanish. It is also crucial to highlight the importance of his vision of a new form of nationalism, a societal nationalism, in the context of the conflicts that threaten the fabric of many societies, and his secular enriching concept of human progress. While many other writers endeavor to highlight these aspects of his thought, I chose to focus on a biographical approach because it allowed me a better understanding of the man and a method to illustrate the emergence of his ideas in the context of the events of his life. Naturally, for a man like Antoun Saadeh, the biographical approach is by necessity also a tracing of intellectual productivity and I strive in the biography to illustrate his ideas as well as the events of his life.
2. There is a common misconception that Sa'adeh was influenced by the Fascism of his day. Did you find any trace of this influence in your study of his youth years?
Discussions of the impact of Fascism on Antoun Saadeh are of two kinds: the first kind is in the facile statements that one encounters in discussions with people that are remnants of worn out tabloid partisan slogans. The second kind is that found in the work and writings of authors about the political history of the Near East that reflect intellectual infantilism, a sort of mental laziness where an easy slogan suffices when the alternative would have been a thoughtful examination of facts. The superficial similarities of political displays in the 1930's are taken to imply deep philosophical concordance. It is remarkable how writers confuse the similarities of political trappings with the major divergence in political theory: the fascist movements in the West are manifestations of xenophobic, intolerant, aggressive streaks in colonialist nations, whereas Antoun Saadeh was in the business of founding a disciplined movement of national renaissance based on a modernistic, secular, and humanist nationalism. That different political movements use paramilitary approaches does not make them concordant in aims and goals. Further, the paramilitary aspects of Saadeh's movement was dictated by the threats that his nation and his organization were facing from the aggressive colonial powers and the encroachments of the Zionist movements on the sovereignty and integrity of the homeland. Finally, it is important to remind people that Antoun Saadeh's admiration of German culture in its philosophy, social science and music long antedate the unfortunate rise of Nazism in Germany.
3. What are the main factors that influenced Sa'adeh's intellectual formation?
The primary factor that gives impetus to all others is Antoun Saadeh's exquisite sensitivity to the fate of his people, and the great affinity that he had to the cause of their success and happiness. In the absence of such a motive force learning and scholarship would not produce a committed political thinker. To this must be added his great sense of responsibility and keen serious intent that are major personal characteristics. The fact that his personal conditions led him to leave Syria and spend a significant part of his life in the Americas (1920-1930 and 1938-1947) meant also that he was exposed to the general world issues of his age: this is a crucial aspect that needs to be emphasized, Antoun Saadeh was open to the intellectual life of his century, he kept abreast of political, social and philosophical thought in the world, he enjoyed the art of the century and participated in its intellectual life, he lectured at universities, attended philosophical seminars and corresponded with the luminaries of the age. He also had the advantage of having a father that was an intellectual giant with deep learning and fervent modernizing interests. Additionally, he found intellectual sustenance in his youth of the writings of other great Syrians such as Gibran and Hitti among others. He was also a student of other movements of national renaissance, and was well versed in the understanding of world cultures.
4. Sa'adeh has been described as the architect of Syrian nationalism. Do you agree with this description?
Saadeh is the architect of a new Syrian nationalism. If by Syrian nationalism is meant the belief in the existence of a Syrian homeland, then that nationalism antedates Antoun saadeh and was the dominant form of nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th century in the Levant. This is the nationalism of Gibran, Rihani, Bustani, Shumayel, Hitti, Nuaimeh, Khalil Saadeh etc. The Syrian nationalism of Saadeh, while starting with the prevalent notion of his predecessors, starts to vary in the early 1930's on two fronts: the limits of the homeland and the definition of nationalism. In his writings of the 1920's, the Syrian homeland of Saadeh does not differ from that of Gibran or Rihani or the traditional concepts of the Syrian politicians and the majority of the Syrian masses. During his lifetime, however, and as a result of his historical studies Saadeh arrived at an expanded definition of the Syrian homeland that encompasses the entire Fertile Crescent. The other major difference that is less appreciated is the definition of nationalism, an area in which Saadeh diverged significantly from the various schools of nationalism in Europe and the Near East, a nationalism that he referred to as "social nationalism", but that is likely better described as "societal nationalism", an expression put forth originally by Dr Sofia Saadeh that I think is an important qualifier for the uniqueness of his concept of the nationalism of the future.
5. Why did Sa'adeh drift toward Syrian nationalism when just about everyone around him, including to a certain extent his father, was drifting either in a pan-Arab direction or toward separatism?
Saadeh did not drift towards Syrian nationalism he redefined it in terms of the expanse of the homeland and the content of the concept. What happened, however, was that the political conditions in the Levant favored the emergence of state-based nationalism (such as Lebanese nationalism, Palestinian nationalism, Jordanian nationalism, Iraqi nationalism etc.) in view of the creation of these states under the auspices of the colonial powers. In a sense, there emerged a family of invented nationalism around invented national constructs centered on artificial states of colonial provenance with the stamp "Made in France" and "Made in Britain". It is interesting to note that the north of the present state of Iraq was originally to figure as part of the French Mandate and consequently would have been part of the present Syrian state were it not for the need of Clemenceau to gain the support of the British in affirming his occupation of the western part of the Fertile Crescent, so he relinquished control over the region which became the north of the Kingdom of Iraq in return for political support and shares in the oil revenues of the new kingdom. So the history of these invented nationalism is filled with quirks and accidents of colonial fortune or misfortune. The case of Arabism is different: many of the proponents of Arabism used it in parallel with Syrianism in the early part of the century because it was poorly defined. Early Arabism was a diffuse concept with mixtures of romantic imagery, political machinations, and religious tendencies. Even after it became ideologically more concrete with Baathism and Nasserism, it remained more as an ideological excuse for internal political strife: throughout the 20th century the exponents of Arabism used it to solve political crisis within the invented states they inherited from European colonialism. Many of the early exponents of Syrianism drifted into either the invented state based nationalism or the diffuse Arabism. This is a reflection of the fact that their understanding of nationalism and its basis was superficial. Indeed, Antoun Saadeh makes this characterization of his own father in a letter to his brother Edward when he compares the latter's drift towards a peculiar form of Arabism (Arabia and the Fertile Crescent only) to the writings of Dr Khalil Saadeh in his final days because in Antoun's opinion "Dr Saadeh did not have a firm grasp of the issues of nationalism and the meaning of a nation."
6. How would you characterize Sa'adeh's early writings?
They are the writings of a brilliant mind finding its way through the issues of the world, the politics of nations, the beauty of art, and the requirements to alleviate human suffering particularly in Syria. We find him tackling a broad range of issues from the beauty of opera music to the intricacies of translations to the implications of French policy on the future of peace on the European continent. He is a young man with broad horizons, insatiable zest for learning, and humanist rationalism.
7. Why did Sa'adeh not turn out like his compatriots an immigrant merchant or businessman?
The answer to this question lies in the essence of his character: he believed he had a duty towards his nation and its issues and concerns always had priority in his life and thoughts over his personal needs.
8. This volume is the first in a series of books you intend to publish on Sa'adeh. How many volumes are there in the series and will they be published to a specific schedule?
The overall plan is to have the biography published in four volumes corresponding to the four phases in Saadeh's life conventionally defined based on his geographic whereabouts: The first volume covered his youth until his return to Syria. The second volume will cover the years of confrontation with the mandates, the third his years in exile, and the fourth his final years. The actual number of volumes may vary depending on the length of the material, but the overall four part division is the working plan.
9. Is the book available on online?
The first volume is available for purchase online. The publisher has arranged for it to be available through Abebooks.com.