Hold It All

Category: Middle East

Sara Roy speaks to Germans

Your sense of guilt, if that is the correct word, should not derive from criticizing Israel. It should reside in remaining silent in the face of injustice as so many of your forebears did before, during and after the Holocaust. —On Equating BDS With Anti-Semitism: a Letter to the Members of the German Government

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The Essential Edward Said–Summer Class 2019

Edward Said was a voice of sanity and courage for literally millions of people around the world and made a brilliant contribution to modern culture and understanding. He was the most eloquent, knowledgeable, and thoughtful spokesperson for Palestinian emancipation. His death was a loss for international intellectual life, for the suffering and oppressed all over the world, and for universal principles of justice and freedom.
—Noam Chomsky

I began reading Edward Said’s political works in the early 1990s after traveling to the West Bank and Gaza during the first intifada. His writing was an invaluable resource for people questioning U.S. foreign policy with Iraq as well as Israel. Even in the early 1980s he was a lucid critic of U.S. political and cultural propaganda on Islam. His probing work on intellectuals and Palestine informed my first book, Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership, published in 2001. My 2015 novel Dear Layla Welcome to Palestine was an attempt to meet a challenge posed years earlier by Said: “The major task—I say this actually without any qualification whatever—the major task of the American or the Palestinian or the Israeli intellectual of the Left is to reveal the disparity between the so-called two sides, which appear rhetorically and ideologically to be in perfect balance but are not in fact. To reveal that there is an oppressed and an oppressor, a victim and a victimizer, and unless we recognize that, we’re nowhere.”

In this summer class we will make good use of the recently published book, The Selected Works of Edward Said, 1966-2006. We will read one or two essays for each session, discuss with each other the enduring relevance of Said’s perspectives, and reflect on their implications in our journals during class and throughout the week. Primary emphasis will be given to Said’s investigations of Middle East political and cultural issues. But we will also reflect on such topics as activism, the canon, contrapuntal reading, identity, music, remembrance, and solidarity.

Our class will meet weekly on Wednesdays beginning June 12 and finish on July 31. We begin at 6:30 p.m. and go until 8:00. Andrew Wimmer will host us at his home at 4400 Arco Avenue (park around 1077 Newstead) 63110.

Tuition is $175.00 payable to me by check or Paypal.

Email me if you are interested: markjchmiel@gmail.com.

What Rachel Corrie’s work in Gaza recognized, however, was precisely the gravity and the density of the living history of the Palestinian people as a national community, not merely as a collection of deprived refugees. That is what she was in solidarity with. And we need to remember that that kind of solidarity is no longer confined to a small number of intrepid souls here and there but is recognized the world over. In the past six months I have lectured on four continents to many thousands of people. What brings them together is Palestine and the struggle of the Palestinian people, which is now a byword for emancipation and enlightenment, regardless of all the vilification heaped on them by their enemies.
—Edward Said, 2003

“Life Must Be Serious or It Can Go to the Devil”

Naguib Mahfouz, Mirrors [Al-Maraya]
Illustrated by Seif Wanli
Translated by Roger Allen

—March 2005

What an odd book! It can be a goad to do something experimental in the future. It is a series of vignettes, portraits of those who’s known at different stages in his life and it covers relations between the sexes, the political crises of the time (like the ’67 catastrophe, remember, this is an Egyptian’s perspective), various affiliations (Muslim Brotherhood, Communists), individuals’ demons (haseesh, alcohol). I read it in two different periods, and so can’t remember all the characters, though I made a list of their names. It’s a kind of non-linear memoir of an old man, portraits of those whom he’s known.

I can’t say that it is full of profundity, like Proust. I can’t say that it is chock full of hilarity, like Roth. I can’t say that I want to reread it, because I’ve missed so much (and knew I was missing something) the first time around.

Still, as Ginsberg counseled, “Notice what you notice.” Here’s some of what I noticed from this book by the author of The Cairo Trilogy, some of which I read in Gaza and Ramallah…

From Roger Allen’s Introduction: The vignettes are indeed ‘mirrors,’ reflectors of a process of rapid change that has radically transformed Mahfouz’s homeland and its people, and not always to its advantage, during the course of this century.

“I challenge Israel to do to us what we’ve done to ourselves!” 35

I recalled Zuhayr Kamil’s words: “I now believe that people are bastards with no ethics. It would be better for them to admit it and build their communal life on that admission. The new ethical issue becomes how to maintain public welfare and human happiness in a society of bastards and scum.” 52 Read the rest of this entry »

The Way It Looked in 1987

A huge amount of work obviously remains to be done, and as the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza enters its third decade one realizes that the magnitude of liberation required can only be accomplished by great and concerted effort. The thing to be remembered, however, is that nothing–and certainly not a colonial ‘fact’– is irreversible. There are greatly encouraging signs of a notable change of attitude in numerous Israelis, and some of their Jewish and non-Jewish Western supporters. The Palestinians have since 1974 premised their political work and organizing on the notion of joint community for Arabs and Jews in Palestine; as more Zionists see the wisdom of that option, as opposed to continued militarization and inconclusive war, there will have to be more joint political and scholarly work by like-minded people. This collection of essays is presented in advancement of that goal.

–Edward W. Said, New York, July 1987
Introduction to Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question, with essays by Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Christopher Hitchens, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, and others.

The Long Trail behind You

Shirin Ebadi, with Azadeh Moaveni, Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope

But a personal story is more powerful than any dry summary of why a given law should be changed. To attract people’s attention, to solicit their sympathies and convince them that these laws were not simply unfair but actively pathological, I had to tell stories. Iranian culture, for all its preoccupation with shame and honor, with all its resulting patriarchal codes, retains an acute sensitivity to injustice. The revolution against the shah, after all, had premised itself on the ethos of fighting zolm, or oppression; it was a revolution conducted in the name of the mustazjin, the dispossessed. People had to see how the dispossessed had now become the dispossessors. [111]

Shirin Ebadi, 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is an inspiration of staying in the struggle for the long haul. Unlike 4-5 million other Iranians, she stayed put in the Islamic republic and worked from within to offer humane resistance to the religious fundamentalism that would deprive her of her own career as a judge. She is both a strong feminist, using her lawyer skills to advocate for women in a system that sees them as merely half the value of men, and she is also a faithful Muslim, although one different than those Khomeini wanted to hold up as a role model for women. She is also a dissident, who was willing to take strong stands, oppose the Republic’s interpretations (not defame it), did jail time, was on a death list, raised her daughters, did the proverbial twice as much work as the man, and stayed put. The authorities weren’t going to drive her away. Read the rest of this entry »

To Have Been Exiled by Exiles

I was rereading Edward Said’s Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, which is a great collection of essays on literature and  culture with exploration of the experiences of dislocation, exile, migration, and empire as well as an examination of autobiographical themes, like Egypt, music and piano; the intellectual and academic life; and Palestine.  Here are some reflections that caught my attention…

 

[Mahfouz] is not only a Hugo and a Dickens, but also a Galsworthy, a Mann, a Zola, and a Jules Romain. 318

Mahfouz’s novels, his characters and concerns, have been the privileged, if not always emulated, norm for most other Arab novelists, at a time when Arabic literature as a whole has remained marginal to Western readers for whom Fuentes, Garcia Marquez, Soyinka, and Rushdie have acquired vital cultural authority.  320

Indeed, in Lebanon the novel exists largely as a form recording its own impossibility, shading off or breaking into autobiography (as in the remarkable proliferation of Lebanese women’s writing), reportage, pastiche, or apparently authorless discourse.  322

What Khoury finds in these formless works is precisely what Western theorists have called “Post-Modern”: that amalgam principally of autobiography, story, fable, pastiche, and self-parody, highlighted by an insistent and eerie nostalgia.  323

Read the rest of this entry »

Unpronounceable Words

George McGovern and William R. Polk, Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now

March 2007

Dear Andrew,

I have finished McGovern and Polk’s primer on the catastrophe in Iraq and how to get out of it. It does remind me in form of Carter’s book on Palestine: short, succinct, easy to read, intended for a huge audience. Certainly, a huge audience in America could and should be enlightened by this book. Early on, the authors ask, “How can a person distinguish between propaganda and fact?” And they respond in a way that is a challenge to us, CTSA, and our students: “The short answer is diligence and time, plus a healthy dose of skepticism.” [14] “The challenge is to devote the time. On the Iraq war the American public and Congress clearly did not.” [15]

The early chapter on what is Iraq and who are the Iraqis would be welcome, I think, for so many of our students, given their (our?) poor sense of history and geography. I am reminded of a remark a young Palestinian woman made to me in Ramallah, “We know everything about America, and Americans know nothing about us.” Her remarks generalize beyond Palestine, of course. The authors show how embedded journalism does us no real service: “Few reporters went to Iraq knowing the local language, and so they could not hope to get the opinions and observations of most Iraqis. We tend to accept this fact as a given, because Arabic is a difficult language known to few Americans, but we should ask ourselves how we would rate reports on American political affairs written by a Chinese journalist who could not speak or read English.” [10] Read the rest of this entry »

Finkelstein’s Gaza

I just received  Norman  Finkelstein’s latest book, Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom.  I noticed this blurb by Alice Walker:

“This is the voice I listen for, when I want to learn the deepest reality about Jews, Zionists, Israelis, and Palestinians. Norman Finkelstein is surely one of the forty honest humans the Scripture alludes to who can save ‘Sodom’ (our Earth) by pointing out, again and again, the sometimes soul-shriveling but unavoidable Truth. There is no one like him today, but in my bones I know this incredible warrior for Humanity and Justice is an archetype that has always been. And will always be. Small comfort in these dark times, perhaps, but a comfort I am deeply grateful for.”

 

“True Happiness and Joy”

Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.  He was the author of 40 novels, 350 short stories, and five plays.  When I was in Palestine in 2003, I would read his Cairo Trilogy at night.  Much later, when we were reading Arab Writers in Translation during and after the Arab Spring, we read his short novel, Karnak Café.

An interesting introduction to Mahfouz can be found in Mohamed Salmawy’s collection,  Naguib Mahfouz at Sidi Gaber:  Reflections of a Nobel Laureate, 1994-2001 (American University in Cairo Press, 2004).  I recently completed a class during which we discussed the relationships among reading, remembering, and writing.  One old-fashioned practice  is keeping a commonplace book of significant excepts from one’s reading.  The following passages from Salmawy and Mahfouz’s exchanges now make their way into my commonplace book, to serve as reminder, inspiration, and goad.

____________________

I have read voraciously throughout my life. Every time I was interested in a subject – and my interests were always diverse – I would read everything I could lay my hands on, however remotely related. I would go to the National Library to read the classics, and regularly frequented the bookstores that sold works in modern literature. I read novels, of course, but also history, philosophy, politics, science…. Human curiosity is limitless, but one life is nowhere near enough to satisfy it.  12

“Writing” – expressing my ideas and thoughts – is, for me, the moment when the ink begins to flow through the pen and onto the paper. I know of no other way.  20  Read the rest of this entry »

Hearts and Minds, Revisited by Mark Chmiel and Andrew Wimmer

This article was first published at Counterpunch, January 12, 2005.

 

The ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds
of the people who actually live out there.

–Lyndon Johnson, on Vietnam

There is no peace because there are no peacemakers. There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war ­ as least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake.

–Daniel Berrigan, on the peace movement

In the months before the election, there was a lot of talk about the Vietnam War, some concerning where George W. Bush had been during that time, some dealing with what John Kerry had done, both in Vietnam and back at home. At the Democratic Convention, John Kerry declared himself proud to have served in Vietnam-consigning to Orwell’s memory hole his post-war activism against the war. In a campaign where he had to be seen as strong to rival Bush’s macho (yet fumbling) discourse, Kerry conveniently let that conscientious part of his own past slip away. (That “forgetting” is at least congruent with his support of the current war in Iraq and his enthusiasm not to withdraw but to stay and win.) And, of course, Kerry uttered the infamous non sequitor that even if he had known there were no WMD beforehand, he would still have gone into Iraq had he been President.

Gore Vidal’s apt subtitle for his latest book is “Reflections on the United States of Amnesia.” John Kerry wanted to be the Commander in Chief of this land of Amnesiacs, and he certainly offered himself as role model for abject forgetting.

Much nonsense was spewed forth at both ends of the political spectrum with each trying to trump the other when it came to proving militarist bona fides. The press can never resist a good martial tune, and so we all pretended, for what we told ourselves would be just a moment, that an illegal invasion and immoral occupation could be set right by a few more troops and better armor on the Bradley Fighting Vehicles. The price we will pay for this collective amnesia will be enormous, though we have only begun to see the faint outline of its contours.

A stirring antidote to such amnesia is the 1974 Oscar-winning documentary by director Peter Davis, Hearts and Minds. Each semester in his Social Justice theology course at Saint Louis University Mark shows his students this film, which has been recently reissued in the Criterion series on DVD. Some students, in their early twenties, share observations of how hard it is for their relatives ­ fathers and uncles, mostly ­ to speak about their experience in Vietnam. Some have testified that these men, now in their fifties and sixties, are still suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. For them, and their families, the Vietnam War is not yet over, there is not yet healing. The war lives on, enfleshed yet mostly mute, and still dreadful, with a new generation.

And yet hardly a week goes by that we don’t come across-in newscasts, on the Internet, in newspapers-a pious invocation of our efforts to win Iraqi “hearts and minds,” harking back to Vietnam, and willfully forgetting that our military efforts there (where we learned to “destroy the village in order to save it”) killed 3.5 million Vietnamese before they came to an end.

Read the rest of this entry »