Past Blog Posts
- December 01, 2007
Harry Potter. Stephen King. Mars and Venus. But no Edward Said.
Forsaken, neglected, or forbidden? How could Edward Said be unavailable in an Arab land which prides itself on its anti-colonial struggle and its intellectual prowess?
Arriving to teach sociology and comparative studies in Algeria, I was so confident of the influence of our esteemed Arab savant that I thought it unnecessary to bring with me my copies of Orientalism and his other important books from the US. It would be best to use a local French edition in any case, I decided.
My first shock came on my initial meeting with post-graduates students signed up to take my course anthropological methodology. In any campus, Arab or otherwise, we would find much to discuss about Said’s theories on cultural dialogue. Here in Algeria, there would surely be much for me too to gain from a dialogue on Said's ideas about culture and imperialism as well as the Occidental presentation of Islam.
Reviewing the students’ academic experience, one Algerians admit are, in general, heavily weighted in social theory in contrast to methodology and field research, I noted Said was not included in their accounts. When I introduced the name of our celebrated Arab theorist, the response of these graduate students was a feeble curiosity.
The name was surprisingly unfamiliar to the group. “A Palestinian? He's a leader of the Palestinian struggle for their homeland," one replied uncertainly. "Yes." Yet no one could name any of Said's 8 or more book titles.
“Orientalisme” I proffered; "1978. One of the most important theories of cultural understanding in the last 50 years?" No recognition. I named two more of the savant’s books—Covering Islam; Culture and Imperialism. They would be essential in our course.
Still no recognition. Surprised, I was not however dismayed.
Ignorance of the writer gave my presence here in Algeria and on the campus a clear and new direction. I would redesign the course so that a good part of it would be devoted to the practical application of Said's ‘orientalist debate’. But we needed the books, as many of his titles as possible.
I set out to locate what I decided would be the 2 essential volumes: Orientalism and Covering Islam. We could use them in Arabic or French. So I felt we had multiple options.
A month has passed since my search began. Neither at the Annual Exposition des Livres in Algiers, nor in all the city’s major bookstores I visited, can I find a copy of Said’s theories-- in any language.
In most cases where I inquire, directors of the Algiers’ largely French language ‘libraires’ recognize the name Edward Said. “Yes. Palestinian; American. We know his work”. Some say their store carried his book years ago. “Not today. No you won’t find his books now. Try La Maison de la Press. At Audin." "Try Les Beaux Arts Magazine.” The director of the latter, seeing my puzzlement, added, “Oui; C’est une scandale." I searched on. “What about ordering it from France? I asked one manager. "Non, ce n’est pas possible!" “How do you get your books, here, a store with hundreds or more of ‘editions francais?’" "Non, ne peut pas. The books we sell here, we obtain from a list sent to us by French distributors; we go through the list and order what we need. If it is not on those lists, so we cannot obtain a title you may want.” Scanning the shelves I see handsome coffee table books on Orientalist art and the history of orientalism in N. Africa. Beautifully illustrated French editions.
One can still find in old bookstores, discolored post cards displaying the now scandalous images so popular a century ago of 'the exotic East'--black slaves, odalisques and harems, camel caravans and sward-wielding horsemen.
But no Edward Said.
As it happened, the annual book fair was underway that week at the Salle des Exposition near the Hilton Hotel. The fair is a major event in the city every fall. Many hundreds of dealers from around the world (France and Arab states) converge here to display new titles. I found a prominent display of the recent Harry Potter volume, the latest French and Arabic writers as well as classics. Many children’s books. Books on CD were for sale. But no Edward Said.
What about university libraries or private holdings of colleagues in the academy? “Yes. We know Said. His volumes must be in someone’s library but I cannot tell you where. No, I doubt if you will find them in a university library.”
Why is there no interest in this man’s theories. Forget that he is a pre-eminent Arab thinker of the last half century. Forget that Algerians are ideologically and politically in total support of the Palestinian struggle. Put aside their determined anti-colonial history and their many writings on imperialism and colonialism. (So aware were Algerians of their former ruler’s use of anthropology to fragment and control their populations that they banned its study here for forty years.)
Is it state control of what Algerians read? Is it French censorship of Edward Said as a thinker who might eclipse their own lauded theorists? Or simple anti-Palestinian bias by a strongly pro-Israel France? Is it an attempt to exclude the Arab intellectual contribution to contemporary literary and historical studies? The search continues.[ Harry Potter. Stephen King. Mars and Venus. But no Edward Said. ]
- September 30, 2007
Presidents today are falling far short of our expectations…this includes university presidents. Many of you must be aware how the president of Columbia University in NY, one of our nation's most prestigious and wel endowed universities, behaved with his opening remarks to the Iranian president. If you missed the spectacle, you can witness it on Youtube.
I wonder if Bollinger realized how much he sounded like a puppet parroting a slogans forced on him by his political 'owners'.
For over 15 minutes, in an introduction to the demure, still silent guest, Columbia's president, prefaced by remarks on the merits of free speech in America, launched into a tirade of unparalleled rudeness and foul taste. It is hard to believe this happened in the USA, let alone at a center of higher learning. We condemn white extremists for talk like this. Yet, Bollinger's remarks were actually applauded by some in the audience.
There is general agreement, that in response to the odious remarks by the Columbia chief, the Iranian head of state handled the situation with grace and intelligence. He may even have gained support from within Iran, from Iran's university faculty as well as the general public, and from people arorund the world who are already familiar with America's excesses in nationalism and displays of self righteousness.
What adds to my surprise about this regretable display by the Columbia U. president is the American response. Forget about the mainstream media here, for we well know about their loyalties and their agendas. What shocks one is the complete silence and therefore endorsement of Bollinger's behavior by our American academic community.
Richard Bullet, a senior professor and director of the ME Institute at Columbia has first of all chosen to remain silent. A resignation in protest would be in order, I think. Or he could appear in a public protest. At least he and supporters might publish a letter threatening the president with a boycott.
Alas, we hear not a word, neither from Bullet, nor from the coterie of Arab American faculty who are Columbia's prized in-house Arab World experts. For years now, one by one, those men have been subjected to threats, attacks; now with this crisis, they seem to be duly cowed. They had been fighting for years to hold on to their shaky seats. Perhaps, having succeeded to fight off the campaign to oust them, how could they again jeopardize that hard won security?
OK; let's say I understand why Columbia's faculty are in too tenuous a position. To openly object, they risk their jobs. But what about professors of our other universities?
Our universities, whether private, state, city, or otherwise, claim to be islands of progress, imbued with superior morality, enjoying limitless free speech. Have you heard a word from heads of universities, faculty, and students associations about Bollinger's behavior? Are there any campus actions underway anywhere in the country in defense of traditional university ethical and ideological standards?
If so, let me know, for I have missed them.
In the 70s, I was a research associate at that same department, the School of International Affairs at Columbia, where Bollinger made his remarks. I saw then how that institute is linked to the US State Department Not only ideologically by its choice of staff and teaching matter, but in terms of its faculty, it works within government policy. I tolerated that at the time. I also accepted as a fact of Columbia University life, the overwhelming Zionist influence in faculty appointments, on-campus programs, public lecture series, and recruitment of students.
But this recent display crosses a boundary. Given that a program was planned and a dignitary was invited, why and how the odious tirade by Bollinger was permissible, I cannot comprehend.
Fortunately, I chose not to work in an American university. Being an independent scholar is difficult on many fronts. One works with neither medical insurance nor a pension. Yet, today I feel proud that I can speak freely about this disgusting event and I feel I am beyond the intimidation threats that a university career imposes on its members. I am fortunately not beholden to people like Bollinger and his gang.
With the publication of my new book, I had recently been considering a speaking engagement at Columbia. Now I voluntarily abjure that idea. Who will join me?[ Presidents today fall far short of our expectations…this includes university presidents ]
- September 02, 2007
In mythical stories, likable, humble little creatures have big dreams. Through diligence and kindness, they win friends and respect. They face obstacles with determination; drawing on common sense and the support of friends, they successfully pass through trials, emerging, in the end, as heroes. They achieve great things despite their modest goals.
This is not to be the history of a new school for Arabic language and heritage planned for an immigrant neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York.
The school had not even opened its doors to students when it found itself besieged by hostile neighbors. The attacks were initiated by a Zionist assault in the NY media. The national spotlight followed the Zionists and picked up the story. The school's position was weakened still more. The Arab American principal resigned; the school's board of advisors went into hiding. Parents of would-be students questioned whether their children should attend the school. And to ensure total disarray and controversy, a Jewish woman was named by the NYC board of education as the new principal.
The school in question is called the Khalil Gibran International Academy. Such a lofty title may have helped its planners win generous funding from a branch of the reputable Gates Foundation. But it did nothing to garner the support of city officials.
Here we are, at the beginning of the school year, 2007, with a grand name, ample funding, but no real school. Without having initiated even a single class for neighborhood kids, the place seems doomed.
Why? And what should be done?
It seems that the school, however honorable its source of funding, and however qualified its appointed director, lacked a community base. Its board, rather than composed of Arab cultural and language authorities, was an 'interfaith' collection of local notables: three rabies, three Christian ministers and three Muslim imams, plus one or two other 'advisors'. What such a collection of characters has to do with a secular school focusing on language and heritage, escapes me. One would have expected a largely Arab board of cultural experts and educators. Moreover, their silence of that board, after the resignation of its principal, is more than odd. It's suspect. Were these 8 men and 2 women chosen to please the government and neutralize and community position? Their silence after their principal's resignation was even more deafening when her replacement was announced. Was it this board that sanctioned the city's appointment of a Jewish woman as the new school director
The particular incident that put the focus on the school's principal and drew the wrath of the Zionist press is irrelevant.
Americans of Arab heritage today, as in the past, should be accustomed to public criticism from that quarter; indeed we must be prepared for it. Debbie AlMontassar, the erstwhile Khalil Gibran principal is not the first community leader to be set in the cross hairs of the vicious Zionist press and longtime campaigners like Emerson. At the national level and locally, our Muslim and Arab leaders have found themselves under assault for all kinds of fabricated associations. Newly appointed members of human rights boards have been forced to resign; professors who dare to include books giving he other side of Palestinian history have been threatened and dismissed Heads of Muslim charities have been driven out. Attorneys have been silenced. Teachers have been removed. Writers have been slandered. Advisors on school curricula have been discarded. The major assault is against Arab experts--all Americans. But the campaign also extends to non-Muslims who dare speak out in favor of Arab and Muslim rights.
Given the potential of the designated school, even though others exist on a more limited basis, the director and her community should have expected some problems from the vigorous, ever creative Zionist lobby. Clearly the principal, despite her experience, was not sufficiently toughened and prepared for an assault. Moreover, there needed to be strong community (I mean Arab American) support. And a seasoned community-based board who knew the history of our struggle needed to be in place. This local base was surely more critical than Gates Foundation funding or the haughty title of "international academy' title.
After a hundred and fifty years' experience in this country, the Arab people are still not ready for leadership. Not only has the scandal damaged a local community and downed a young leader; it has dishonored the name of our foremost Arab American thinker and writer[ A little school that wanted to be an academy, and couldn't ]
- August 05, 2007
American soldiers' testimonials: Part 2
Chris Hedges is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School who went on to a career as a foreign correspondent for a number of newspapers. So one should not be surprised that he is the thinker and writer who is asking questions about how soldiers view their killings and their related war work. In a recent article " The Death Mask Of War: American Marines and soldiers have become socialized to atrocity" (Information Clearing House, July 29, 07), Hedges concludes "The war in Iraq is now primarily about murder. There is very little killing."
He proceeds to ask essential questions one rarely hears: what is the culture supporting these murders? He recognizes the answer does not lie in a profitable defense industry, or the appeal of advanced weapons technology, or the immaturity of soldiers, boys barely out of highschool.
Hedges, like many of us, has heard those gruesome, soft-spoken, often cool-headed testimonials by US Iraq was veterans recalling their murderous careers. "The Iraq war", he notes, "has unleashed a new wave of embittered veterans not seen since the Vietnam War. It has made it possible for us to begin, again, to see war's death mask."
Those testimonials seem to have the affect of absolving the young Americans from person responsibility. --He was just doing his job. He was young and ill-prepared. It's the officers and politicians who are responsible.-- That's the spin of the anti-war movement. It's almost like a Truth-and-Reconciliation exercise. Except this one is just for local consumption; it reconciles nothing with Iraqis.
Hedges' report looks more deeply than others into what lays behind the barbarity of US troops. "War", he notes, "is also the pornography of violence. It has a dark beauty, filled with the monstrous and the grotesque. The Bible calls it "the lust of the eye" and warns believers against it." Let us admit to the appeal in examining, over and over, the naked bodies of abused Iraqi men held at the US's Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Surely there is some irresistible voyeurism to be indulged in as, in the comfort of our living rooms, we view body parts and mutilated corpses of the enemy.
It is not just the troops on the ground doing the killing. It is the culture which educated and trained these men; it is the community who, voluntarily or otherwise, support the invasion and occupation.
"War allows us to engage in lusts and passions we keep hidden in the deepest, most private interiors of our fantasy life," notes Hedges. "It allows us to destroy not only things, but human beings. In that moment of wholesale destruction, we wield the power to the divine, the power to revoke another person's charter to live on this earth. The frenzy of this destruction -- and when unit discipline breaks down, or
there was no unit discipline to begin with, frenzy is the right word -- sees armed bands crazed by the poisonous elixir our power to bring about the obliteration of others delivers. All things, including human beings, become objects -- objects to either gratify or destroy or both. Almost no one is immune. The contagion of the crowd sees to that.
"It takes little in wartime to turn ordinary men into killers. Most give themselves willingly to the seduction of unlimited power to destroy, and all feel the peer pressure to conform. Few, once in battle, find the strength to resist. Physical courage is common on a battlefield. Moral courage is not."
Are sergeants and other officers who receive recruits into the battlefield know they are taping into these conditions--the unlimited power to destroy; the ease of seeing someone darker skinned and unable to communicate with him, as subhuman?
So the Iraqi street, which is the battlefield, is like a graduate school that turns boys into men. There, they can indulge in unlimited exercises to prove their manliness, to justify their being in an alien land, to make America's (and their own) presence there seem totally right, and justified.
Hedges, by the end of his review of soldiers' confessions, suggests that these testimonials have the redemptive power to save us from ourselves. They remove the mask.
Here, I disagree with Hedges. These are exercises of cleansing that will allow us to do them again, and that allow us to become the only arbiter and moral judge of war. We ourselves are not the appropriate persons to assess our wrongs.
For me, the danger of these truth sessions is to conclude that since we have told the truth, there need be no further searching-- neither jural, moral, spiritual or psychological. It is as if no one else need judge an American. A very dangerous outcome.[ Soldiers Tell the Truth--Is It Enough? ]
- July 14, 2007
American soldier testimonials…and then what?
It's becoming fashionable for young Iraq war veterans to confess how they brutalized people under occupation-- in this case, Iraqis. (Doubtless similar violations by Israeli occupiers of Palestinians occur; but Israel is not so foolish --or democratic--to allow testimonials by ex-military to reach the press.)
Confessions by these American brutes, it is suggested, are acts of atonement. These men are cleansing themselves of the awful things they did to Iraqi women and men. By giving these public testimonials detailing their killings and other atrocities, they are somehow absolved. Yes, they are. Think about it.
These interviews amount to a kind of confession where these 'basically good American boys' seeks redemption. Some authors of these reports along with the perpetrators themselves-- now veterans-- suggest moreover that these admissions are an expression of anti-war sentiment. They expose resistance inside the military. Thus these confessors are accorded a status something close heroism. "How brave they are to divulge these wrongs"; "they do this for a greater good--to stop further war atrocities." This is how the progressive press interprets the men's disclosures, in my opinion. We are made to listen sympathetically to their gruesome tales; we take in the grim details. Somehow we do not associate these horrible details of torture and murder with the young American voices, calmly, dispassionately telling these stories.
I guess the point of these exposes is to reaffirm the basic decency of these Americans: "Yes, war is bad". But "I love America; military service is an honorable profession". "I never expected to behave like that"; "they made us do it". "It was the system"; "I did not engage in these things but I saw others doing them".
In other words, America is still good, as shown by these conscientious youngsters; so is service in the American military a noble action. And American patriotism remains sacred, beyond question.
We are led to the conclusion that what is BAD is losing control, doing things against 'our American values' and national pride, against a 'hostile' although sometimes innocent population. Implicit in some of these confessions is the culpability of superior officers, and ultimately, American politicians. According to these accounts, officials must bear responsibility for the occupation and military actions.
The anti-war movement in the US seems thrilled to have these testimonials; they provide yet further proof that the Republicans and their leaders, especially the disagreeable and 'stupid' Bush, are the true scoundrels. Oust them. and all will be well. American values themselves are solid and we do not need to search our souls.
To be continued… in our next blog: "What have these atrocities to do with American culture and history?"
We are confronted with the fierce urgency of Now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time.
Martin Luther KIng Jr.
- a poem.. a song..
- "What She Said", by Lisa Majaj
A poem from Palestinian experience Flash
- Allahu Ya Allah
Praises to the Prophet, by women of As-Siddiq Institute and Mosque
- Book review
- Monica Ali's
reviewed by .
- Tahrir Team
- Read about Sally Sharif in the team page.