My Guru

Edward Said

Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, a former professor of political science at Northwestern University who later became vice-president of Bir Zeit University on the West Bank, died at the age of 72 on 23 May in his Ramallah home, after a long illness. I learned of his death as I was walking out of Tel Aviv airport on my way to see him. He was my oldest and dearest friend, remarkable as an introspective thinker and a charismatic political teacher and leader, whose insight had sustained a friendship that lasted nearly fifty years. There were hundreds of mourners at his funeral in Jaffa, and at the ‘azza – the wake – at his home and the Qattan Centre in Ramallah. Several of his friends spoke at the commemoration, held in a theatre in Ramallah the day after he was buried next to his father in a hillside graveyard overlooking the cove where he used to take his visitors for a swim – always refusing to visit the adjoining Israeli beach café, which looked very inviting just the same. One of the speakers at the funeral in Jaffa was Faisal Husseini, who was to die exactly a week later in a Kuwait hotel room.

In all sorts of ways, Ibrahim’s rich life and his death both reflected and clarified the turbulence and suffering that have been at the core of the Palestinian experience: this is why his life bears scrutiny. So much in it bears out the Palestinian situation in all its irresolution. The one thing that seemed to stand out to everyone at the time of his death was that Abu-Lughod had staged his own private right of return to Jaffa, something that only a person with his extraordinary will could have done. No one failed to comment on the fact of his return to Palestine in 1992, after an absence of 44 years, nor on the decade he spent there rounding out his life as teacher, public intellectual and founder of institutions.

Despite that theatrical conclusion, a vast instability remained. He was still unfulfilled and unsettled. The return didn’t change him, though he was more contented at home than he had been in exile. For him, Palestine was an interrogation that is never answered completely – or even articulated adequately. Everything in his personality confirmed that restlessness, from his gregariousness to his moody introspection, from his optimism and energy to the immobilising sense of powerlessness that has claimed so many of us. His life simultaneously expresses defeat and triumph, abjection and attainment, resignation and resolve. In short, it was a version of Palestine, lived in all its complexity by one of the finest Palestinians of our time.

Ibrahim – a relentlessly articulate man – will be remembered less for his writing, which was relatively sparse, than for his ability to organise people and establish institutions that allowed them to play a more effective role than they could have done as individuals. In America, he was instrumental in founding the AAUG (the Association of Arab-American University Graduates), the United Holy Land Fund, the Institute of Arab Studies, Arab Studies Quarterly and Medina Press. He was the prime mover in the planned Palestinian Open University, which was to have had its headquarters in Beirut until the 1982 war in Lebanon put paid to the idea. On the West Bank, he designed a centre for curricular reform, and then the Qattan Center for Research on Education. Even so, he seemed to know that the struggle for Palestine could not be won either by founding institutions of this kind or even by repatriation and return. They were in the end reflexive, self-referential structures, and would be undermined by dispossession, struggle and unending loss. Like a Conradian hero, Ibrahim seemed always to be trying to rescue meaning and pride from the dramas going on around him, as well as from his own weaknesses.

Consider the dramas that surrounded his life. At the time of his death, a powerful but directionless intifada was unfolding outside his window. In 1982, it had been the siege of Beirut, the results of which were the massacres of Sabra and Shatila and the evacuation from Lebanon (his as well as the PLO’s); in 1948, it had been the fall of Jaffa, his family’s dispersion, the beginning of his long American exile, and his outspokenness in defence of the Palestinian cause; eventually, in 1992, his abrupt return to the West Bank. Nearly every Arab American who fights against racial stereotyping, the ideological racism suffered by Palestinians, and the perennial antagonism to Islam, owes Ibrahim a tremendous debt. He began the fight, and for most of us, he made fight possible in the first place.

After almost forty years of struggle in North America, there was indeed some kind of return – or ‘awda – but it brought Ibrahim back only to a flawed substitute: not to a liberated Palestine but to Oslo’s Area A and, with his American passport, to a Jaffa very much under Israeli control. He would have been the first to note that Palestinian return was subject to Israeli power even at the time of his death (anonymous intelligence personnel threatened to cancel his funeral), just as he was the first to note that in 1988 the Palestine National Council and the PLO had changed themselves from a liberation movement into a national independence movement – a far lesser thing, as Oslo was to reveal.

No one knew better than Ibrahim how to turn the shambles of defeat into some sort of achievement. But he was never satisfied by purely moral triumphs. He was too much the realist in his understanding of raw military power to be taken in, for example, by Arafat’s survival of the cataclysms of Beirut in 1982. ‘We have no tanks,’ he would say, ‘we have no real power. That’s why it was so easy for the Israelis to destroy our institutions and kill all those people.’

I met Ibrahim at Princeton in 1954. There were no foreign undergraduates at the university in those days; no African Americans, no women: only white male upper-crust young men who were given an excellent classical education and made to feel that they were entitled to rule the world. Later, many of them did. A wealthy resident of the town had given the Music Department money to supply graduate students with tickets to Princeton’s quite respectable concert programme. I had been asked to dispense the tickets. One especially hot, slow afternoon in September a young man with a brisk manner, piercing blue-green eyes and a heavy accent came in, asked for tickets, showed me his identity card quickly (I had no chance to see his name, only to register that he was a graduate student), and then, as he was leaving, turned and asked me what I had said my name was. When I told him again he came all the way back into the office and asked me where I was from. I said something like I’m from Egypt now, but formerly I was from Palestine. His face lit up: I’m from Palestine, too, he said, from Jaffa. Ibrahim was studying with Philip Hitti, a Lebanese immigrant who had established a leading department of ‘Oriental Studies’ – meaning mainly Arab history and culture. He introduced me to the other Arab graduate students, and in no time at all I had a small group of older friends with whom I could speak Arabic and lament the Zionist presence in Princeton, which was particularly evident during the Suez crisis.

We both left Princeton in 1957 – he with a PhD, I with a BA – and I returned to Egypt for a year. I saw Ibrahim and his wife Janet regularly in Cairo, where he was working for Unesco. At that stage there was little sign of the political activities that lay in store for us both. I drifted off to graduate school at Harvard and saw the Abu-Lughods less frequently, although I knew that they had returned to the US to start their teaching careers. Then, the thunderbolt of 1967 hit us all, and unexpectedly, Ibrahim sent me a letter asking if I would contribute to a special issue of Arab World, the Arab League monthly published in New York, guest-edited by him, and intended to look at the war from an Arab perspective. I used the occasion to look at the image of the Arabs in the media, popular literature, and cultural representations going back to the Middle Ages. This was the origin of my book Orientalism, which I dedicated to Janet and Ibrahim.

In the years that followed, although the Abu-Lughods lived in Chicago and I was in New York, we became closer, drawn together by politics. We testified in Congress, met with George Shultz in 1988, set up the Institute of Arab Studies in Boston, established Arab Studies Quarterly and attended Palestine National Council sessions in Cairo, Amman and Algiers. During those years of great activity Ibrahim displayed a genius for discovering talented individuals in the US and the Arab world, whom he introduced to one another and helped to work together. In June 1982, after a year in Paris, he moved to Beirut to start up the Palestinian Open University, on which he had worked with Unesco and the PLO. Two days after his arrival, the IDF invaded Lebanon, and almost immediately after that, his new apartment was destroyed by an Israeli rocket. He spent the next two months besieged in Beirut, living in my mother’s house with his good friend Soheil Miarri. We communicated with each other during those difficult weeks on a regular basis, most of the time at the request of Arafat, who used a number of people, including me, as go-betweens with the US Administration.

Beirut was perhaps a more important experience for Ibrahim than any before or after. It taught him first of all that even the best institutions could be undermined by mediocrity and the brutish instability of politics and society in the Middle East. Second, it taught him the real dynamics of power, both as they affect those who have it, and those who do not. Third, and perhaps most important, it taught him that one can always press on, even though failure looms. That was the real Ibrahim: the man who understood that the only thing was to press on, remaining optimistic and loyal to one’s comrades (and making the most of one’s sense of humour, however macabre).

Every so often he would say to me: we’re mediocre Edward, mediocre, and in the end maybe that very mediocrity is what’s going to beat the Israelis, for all their brilliance. But he would always add: we’re a good people, and stubborn too, even if we’re not always very smart. What bothered him so much about Oslo were the indignities it entailed for the Palestinians. Arafat’s obsequious, clownish posturing disturbed us both a great deal, and we were terribly ashamed that we had been taken in by him before Oslo. Unlike me, Ibrahim wanted to be in the part of Palestine that Oslo had excavated and partly prised away from the Israelis – Area A – and it was there that he put himself, his colleagues and his students to work.

Ibrahim believed in scholarly, intellectual standards, whether in Arab culture or in the West. He was elated when he found someone in whom he discerned promise or talent, because that would give him an opportunity to bring out what was hidden and make it shine. There are many people – I am one – who feel that they were discovered, appreciated and subsequently enlisted in the ranks, by Ibrahim. He was the greatest of encouragers, protectors, sponsors. There was nothing quite like a compliment from him (‘you were terrific’), and nothing quite so definitive as when he put someone down (‘he is a jerk,’ the ‘j’ pronounced with a heavy Jaffa downbeat.) As a teacher, he was torn between an urge to influence and dominate, and the wish for equality to prevail. As the father of three talented daughters and the husband of a greatly gifted scholar, he was more tolerant of women than is normal for an Arab, or for a Western man. Even when he was being fatherly, there was a fraternal quality to the monitoring, and you rarely got any sense that he was a tyrant – though he could affect a tyrannical manner, usually to very good purpose. There was a kind heart beneath the roaring certitude.

Like many of us, he never really recovered from the loss of Palestine, and his early days as a refugee marked him indelibly. Memories of that time, though never spelled out, seemed always to be part of his anger with Israel; and he understood that our fight would be long and complex and would not earn us self-determination in our lifetime. In one way or another, ‘the transformation of Palestine’ (the title of his best-known collection of essays and a euphemism for the theft of the country by Zionism) dominated his life’s work, but he wasn’t a mindless militant, rather a fiercely independent, often corrosively critical intellectual. Despite the fact that professionally and personally he was always working for the cause, you could never have described him as a professional. He was too much the amateur, driven by love and commitment.

Ibrahim introduced me to the subject and the experience, as it were, of Palestine. Seven years older than me, and more embedded in the life of Mandatory Palestine, he aroused in me and many others the wish to recapture long-buried memories of our early days, before the nakba changed everything. He had an enormous, fastidiously accumulated and articulated knowledge of our history, as well as a living memory of where everything and everyone came from, where they went, where they were now living, or when they had disappeared.

Jaffa must have been a remarkable place in the 1940s. Ibrahim’s school, the Amariye, produced an astonishing collection of teenagers, who went on as refugees to lead lives of distinction as activists, scholars, businessmen. Ibrahim introduced me to these people and they have become close friends. They include his swashbuckling pal, the PLO stalwart and orator Shafik el-Hout, who never left his post in Beirut, even during the Israeli occupation of the city in the autumn of 1982, but resigned from the Executive Committee as a result of his deep disagreement with Arafat over Oslo; and Abdel Mohsen al Qattan, a successful businessman, who has spent much of his fortune helping Palestinians to build institutions and, like Shafik and Ibrahim, has been outspokenly critical of Oslo.

Ibrahim kept up with their lives with the zeal of a medieval chronicler. At National Council meetings, or during gatherings at the Welfare Association, he would introduce me to an ever-expanding circle of Palestinians, from whose lives he could extract, in the slightly embarrassed presence of the individuals themselves, an amazing amount of learned information and useful homily. Teachers, lawyers, scholars, bank employees and engineers drew expert appreciation from him as a concrete part of the story of Palestine. You could feel him refusing their evanescence as his tale unfolded, another Conradian trait that gave depth to whatever he was saying.

It was Ibrahim who introduced Arabs in America to the world of national liberation struggles and post-colonial politics. Far from being a provincial Palestinian nationalist, he had a wide perspective nurtured by an enviable ambition to see the whole world. He spoke grippingly of places I had never thought about going to, including Peru, China and Russia. He loved being in the big city and often spent time in Paris, Cairo and Chicago. More important, he was alert to the potential – and the limits – of people’s capacity to help the cause of Palestine. A decade before me, for instance, he understood that C.L.R. James saw himself as a Westerner and could not easily identify with the Arabs. By the same token, as the director of Northwestern University’s Program of African Studies, he had an impressive acquaintance with Africa’s liberation movements, many of whose leaders he knew and invited to Northwestern. He was years ahead of his time in appreciating such figures as Amilcar Cabral and Oliver Tambo, in distinguishing their movements and the kind of colonialism or system of oppression they fought against, as well as finding parallels with the situation in Palestine. Through him one also encountered the great figures of Arab nationalist discourse, such as Mohammed Hassanein Haykal and Munif el Razzaz.

It was thanks to Ibrahim that in 1970 I first met Eqbal Ahmad, the other comrade-in-arms whose untimely death has left me so diminished. Like Ibrahim, Eqbal was (to use one of Ibrahim’s highest terms of praise) asil, an ‘authentic’, with the same gift of endlessly fertile, untiring eloquence. To sit up late at night with both of them was to be slowly cowed into silence, as they spun out lengthy disquisitions, learned and even arcane analyses, never entirely free from competitive zeal. Neither of my gurus was ever stingy with his time, and neither – perhaps for the same reason – cared much for the relative parsimony of print. Stylists of the uttered word, pluri-lingual, generous with ideas and stories, they sustained me during my illness in ways that embarrassment prevents me from recounting here. What dismays me is that they should have died before me – particularly now, when their voices would have been so telling and humanely informative.

Writing about Eqbal at the time of his death two years ago, and now about Ibrahim, I have found it hard to give an account of their essentially performative achievements. Both men made a lasting impression on everyone they met; their memorial is not embodied in a body of work, however, but scattered through several societies, groups, associations and families, all of which have been changed visibly, and imperceptibly, by the nature of these men and their achievements.

Both returned for their final years to their countries of origin: Eqbal, a native of Bihar, to Islamabad; Ibrahim, a native of Jaffa, to Ramallah. But they didn’t actually go back home. In trying to capture their memory, one confines and solidifies it, and in this sense betrays it: what these men stood for was energy, mobility, discovery and risk. In the unfolding story of Palestine, Ibrahim, I believe, will remain a model of what it is to have been dedicated to an idea – not as something to bow down to, but to live, and to re-examine constantly. To understand him properly is to re-enact the drama of struggle and principle in which he was engrossed, not by copying it but by living it anew, and in doing so, leaving it open for future revision and critical reflection.