One day I’ll tell you what I think

Adam Shatz

  • No Exit: Arab Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre and Decolonisation by Yoav Di-Capua
    Chicago, 355 pp, £26.00, March 2018, ISBN 978 0 226 50350 9
  • The Stillborn: Notebooks of a Woman from the Student-Movement Generation in Egypt by Arwa Salih, translated by Samah Selim
    Seagull, 163 pp, £20.00, April 2018, ISBN 978 0 85742 483 9

In the spring of 1961, Frantz Fanon wrote to his publisher in Paris to suggest that he ask Jean-Paul Sartre for a preface to his anti-colonial manifesto, The Wretched of the Earth. ‘Tell him that every time I sit down at my desk, I think of him.’ For revolutionary intellectuals in the Third World, Sartre seemed miraculously uncontaminated by the paternalism – and hypocrisy – that gave the white left such a bad reputation. While intellectuals in the orbit of the French Communist Party were vacillating over the Algerian war of independence, he gave his unconditional support to the rebels, a stance that nearly got him killed by an OAS bomb planted outside his flat. He contributed fiery prefaces not only to Fanon’s book, but to Léopold Sédar Senghor’s anthology of Négritude poets and to Albert Memmi’s Portrait of the Coloniser. ‘Your influence in this region is deeper and wider than that of any other writer,’ the Egyptian writer Ahmad ‘Abbas Salih told him. Fanon, alert to the transformation that had caused Sartre to replace the abstract ‘self’ and ‘other’ of Being and Nothingness (1943) with a new understanding of power relations in Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), based in part on the distinction between coloniser and colonised, gave lectures on the Critique to Algerian soldiers in training camps in Tunisia.

But Sartre’s cachet crumbled in the aftermath of his visit to Egypt and Israel in 1967, when he aligned himself with Israel on the eve of the Six-Day War. ‘For reasons that we still cannot know for certain,’ Edward Said would lament, ‘Sartre did indeed remain constant in his fundamental pro-Zionism. Whether that was because he was afraid of seeming antisemitic, or because he felt guilt about the Holocaust, or because he allowed himself no deep appreciation of the Palestinians as victims of and fighters against Israel’s injustice, or for some other reason, I shall never know.’ Yoav Di-Capua, though, suggests that Sartre’s actual position on Israel-Palestine was more troubled, and less hostile to the Arabs, than Said’s phrase ‘fundamental pro-Zionism’ suggests. In No Exit, he provides a thorough account of Sartre’s trip to the Middle East, when Arab and Israeli intellectuals fought to win over a single heart and mind – Sartre’s own.

Existentialism had been in vogue in the Arab world since the mid-1940s, when the philosopher Abd al-Rahman Badawi wrote his doctoral dissertation on ‘existential time’. Sartre’s thinking, according to Di-Capua, commanded such a strong interest because it spoke to a hunger for freedom from both colonialism and the fetters of piety and patriarchy. It also provoked a vibrant and specifically Arab response: a movement known as iltizam, or ‘commitment’. Di-Capua’s readings of this tradition provide a glimpse of a vanished world, as intellectuals gathered in cafés in Beirut, Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad to argue over the meaning of freedom, authenticity and – the most enchanting mirage of the 1950s and 1960s – the ‘new man’ who would transform their traditional societies.

But the man was perhaps more important than his ideas. For the Arabs, Sartre represented the ‘universal intellectual’ who spoke truth to imperial power. His approval was all the more eagerly sought because he had yet to state his views on what, since the decolonisation of Algeria, had become the Arabs’ most sacred cause: the liberation of Palestine. Had he been silent because of his well-known sympathy for Jews in the face of antisemitic persecution, the subject of his book Antisemite and Jew (1946)? This was one theory to explain what struck the Arabs as a maddening enigma: how could the defender of colonised Africans and Algerians not also be a champion of the Palestinians whose lands had been confiscated by Zionist settlers? Another hypothesis was that his views were coloured by those of his young Jewish colleague at Les Temps modernes, Claude Lanzmann, a fervent Zionist. Sartre’s Arab admirers reasoned that if only they could show Sartre the revolution unfolding in Egypt, and the Palestinian refugee camps in the Gaza Strip, he would come to embrace the only authentically Sartrean position: solidarity with the Arabs in their struggle with the colonial-settler state.

Di-Capua’s story begins in the late 1950s, when a young Egyptian called Ali al-Samman arrived in Paris to enrol in a doctoral programme in political science. Al-Samman established the Association des Etudiants Arabes en France and became an eloquent spokesman for the Arab cause. A graduate student without title, he operated, in effect, as Nasser’s man in Paris, reportedly delivering messages from the Egyptians to de Gaulle during the Evian negotiations between France and the Algerian National Liberation Front. Nasser couldn’t have had a better emissary on the Left Bank: al-Samman, one of whose mentors was a former Resistance fighter who had survived Mauthausen, was unusually sensitive to the legacy of the Holocaust in France, and fought against antisemitism inside the ranks of the Arab student movement. But at the same time he tried to persuade ‘the French left, which always protected oppressed peoples, to protect the Palestinians as well’.

Here, he had his work cut out for him. Barely a decade had passed since the war, and Vichy had not covered the French – or its intellectuals – in glory. For most French intellectuals on the left, Israel was a sanctuary for the survivors: they thought no more of the Palestinians driven out to make room for a Jewish state than they did of the Sudeten Germans displaced at the end of the war. Israel, with its kibbutzes and Marxist intellectuals, was also widely seen as a socialist country. After all, it had won its independence with the support of the Soviet Union, and prevailed against the Arabs in the 1948 war thanks in part to a delivery of Czech arms. Only a handful of writers – notably the Arabist Jacques Berque, and Maxime Rodinson, a Marxist Jewish scholar of Islam who had lost much of his family in the camps – were even aware of the Palestinian catastrophe. Most people found it hard to distinguish Arab opposition to Israel from anti-Jewish hostility. The often bellicose rhetoric of Arab nationalism – not least on Egypt’s official radio station, Voice of the Arabs, with its calls to liberate Palestine from el-Yahud, ‘the Jews’ – didn’t help.

By coincidence, al-Samman was a neighbour of Sartre’s on the rue Bonaparte, and in 1965 Sartre sought him out to learn more about the Arab-Israeli conflict and the possibility of ‘fighting racism’ on both sides. Before long they were meeting every Sunday at Le Dôme Café. Al-Samman tried to persuade him of the virtue of Nasser’s revolution, describing Egypt as a country on the road to socialism, an unswerving friend to Algerians, Congolese and Vietnamese in their struggles against imperialism. Sartre was sceptical. Egypt, he said, was a ‘country which eliminates freedom’: in 1959, as part of a mass arrest of the left opposition, Nasser had jailed his friend Lutfi al-Khuli, an Egyptian Marxist journalist. But he told al-Samman that he wanted to see both Egypt and Israel for himself, so through the offices of the Egyptian embassy al-Samman arranged to have Sartre hosted by the newspaper Al-Ahram. The announcement of Sartre’s visit led to more than a year of negotiations. He would be arriving with Simone de Beauvoir, a feminist to whom he was not married, and – a much more delicate matter – with her lover Lanzmann, whose pro-Israel sympathies were no secret to Arab intellectuals. (In the Arabic translation of Beauvoir’s memoir from 1964, La Force des choses, the passages about her relationship with Lanzmann were deleted.) There was no question of leaving him in Paris. ‘I cannot move without Lanzmann,’ Sartre told al-Samman, who prevailed on the Egyptians to invite him along, explaining that a distinction had to be made between Jews and Israelis.

In an interview in Al-Ahram in December 1965, shortly after the announcement of his impending visit, Sartre said that he had supported Egypt since the 1956 Suez War but insisted on his neutrality in the Arab-Israeli conflict. While he had backed the Zionist struggle against the British, he said that he didn’t consider Israel to be the only place where Jews could live an authentic life, and emphasised his commitment to Algerian independence. A friend of the Jews and the Arabs, he felt ‘torn between contradictory friendships and loyalties’, and experienced the Arab-Israeli conflict as if it were a ‘personal tragedy’.

As Di-Capua puts it, Sartre was leaving himself ‘ample space for ambiguity’. This ambiguity would come to infuriate his Arab friends, but in the months before his arrival in Cairo they heard only what they wanted to hear. The day after the interview, Lutfi al-Khuli, who was no longer in prison and had since made his peace with Nasser, published an article entitled ‘Beginning a Dialogue with Sartre’, in which he predicted that Sartre would see that Arab opposition to Israel ‘had absolutely no relation to the Jewish question’. The Israelis were warier, but unlike the Arabs they had allies who could scarcely be closer to Sartre: Beauvoir and Lanzmann, who were soon engaged in their own private talks with Sartre’s sponsors. In March 1966, Beauvoir visited Simha Flapan, a Polish-born Jew who – as the representative in Paris of the Marxist-Zionist party Mapam and editor of the peacenik journal New Outlook – was organising the Israeli leg of the trip, to reassure him that during his visit to Egypt Sartre would not respond to any question that would compel him to criticise Israel. Flapan sent a report back to his boss: ‘Simone was charming,’ he said. The Israeli embassy in Paris was less sanguine, but conceded to Sartre’s appearance in Israel after being assured that he would be met not only by Mapam but by members of a bipartisan public committee.

*

Sartre, Beauvoir and Lanzmann arrived in Cairo on 25 February 1967. He was welcomed by an editorial in Al-Ahram, and treated as a foreign dignitary. ‘The enthusiasm that the Cairo population seems to feel for Sartre,’ according to one newspaper, ‘is very similar to what the Paris population has shown at the Tutankhamun exhibition.’ He spent three hours with Nasser, urging him to release a group of communist prisoners; they were freed a few days later. He met writers, students and artists, and attended a local production of No Exit. He couldn’t restrain himself from occasionally correcting what he saw as misinterpretations of his philosophy. In a lecture at Cairo University he asked: ‘Have you all read my work? I do not think so. I am nothing but a fashion to you.’ Committed literature, he said, was not a matter of writing ‘politically oriented texts’ – as many Egyptian intellectuals had understood it – but of exploring the ‘totality’ of the writer’s ‘existence in the world … When I called for committed literature I did not mean propaganda.’ One night he drank so much that al-Samman and Lanzmann had to carry him back to his hotel. They were ‘queers’, he shouted, and as such ‘the prime examples of how to resolve the conflict’. Al-Samman was shocked, but not Lanzmann.

‘I have come to learn, not to teach,’ Sartre told his Egyptian interlocutors. In Kamshish, a village in the Egyptian delta, Sartre and Lutfi al-Khuli took part in a Q&A before an audience of peasants. One by one, the audience members asked startlingly erudite questions about existential philosophy and the nature of commitment: it turned out that the entire event had been staged by the authorities. Still, Sartre was stirred by the stories the peasants shared of their battles with landlords, and impressed by Nasser’s land reforms. On his visit to the Gaza Strip, he asked Palestinian refugees in the camps whether they were waiting to be freed by Arab armies or if they intended to fight Israel themselves. The latter, they replied. Moved by their suffering, Sartre declared his support for ‘the national right of all Palestinian refugees to return to their country’, an apparent endorsement of the right of return; but he also asked why the Arab states had done so little to help the refugees in the meantime. Things started getting tense. When a group of journalists photographed Sartre with a child carrying a Palestinian flag, Lanzmann asked them to destroy the film. Any such picture, he said, would jeopardise Sartre’s commitment to neutrality. At this point, the refugees physically attacked their guests. As al-Samman put it, ‘some of the Palestinian leaders in the camps … were not politically suitable for this kind of a meeting.’

Events like this hardened Beauvoir’s already frosty view of the Arabs, which had been shaped by her conversations with Lanzmann. Although she had been struck by Nasser’s ‘melancholy charm’, and encouraged by his campaign against female circumcision, she was repelled by the ‘life of repetition’ to which Egyptian women seemed condemned, and didn’t try to ingratiate herself. As she wrote in her account of the trip, ‘I accused Egyptian men of behaving like feudalists, colonialists and racists towards women.’ She feuded, too, with her friend Liliane al-Khuli, Lutfi’s wife, who told her ‘the Jews should have stayed in their “own countries” after the war.’ Liliane, she wrote, ‘knew nothing whatsoever about the Jewish question as it existed in the West’.

Beauvoir wasn’t wrong about Liliane al-Khuli: returning to their ‘own countries’ was not an option for Jewish survivors. But the real question was whether the European Jewish catastrophe should determine one’s stance towards the catastrophe suffered by the Palestinians, who bore no responsibility for the genocide and had lost their homeland because of it. Everywhere he went in Egypt, Sartre found himself confronted by people whose perspective on Israel had been shaped by the history of Western colonialism, not the Holocaust. Many were disappointed admirers. ‘How,’ one asked him, ‘do you, the protector of freedom, disagree with Israel on its position towards Vietnam, Cuba, Algeria and Africa yet, at the same time, agree that the abusive Israeli entity is legitimate?’

How moved was Sartre by these arguments? Moved enough that Lanzmann began to worry, especially when he noticed that Sartre had been reading Fin du peuple juif?, by the anti-Zionist Jewish writer Georges Philippe Friedmann. There were other signs of a shift in Sartre’s sympathies. As he left Egypt on 13 March, he gave an interview to the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, in which he promised that ‘one day I will tell you what I think of the Palestine problem.’ Even before his plane landed in Tel Aviv, Israeli newspapers, enraged by his ‘flagrant tactlessness’, were declaring his visit a disaster: ‘Sartre declared his position on the refugees without even hearing our views.’ Lanzmann was preparing for the worst. ‘The fate of the Jewish people,’ he told Simha Flapan, ‘is dependent on the success of this visit.’

In Israel, Sartre seemed aloof, even when asked about his writing. Israelis were no less excited by his work than the Egyptians had been, but they too disappointed him. As Annie Cohen-Solal writes in her Life of Sartre from 1985, philosophers in Israel were still preoccupied by the ‘question of concrete relations with the Other’ in Being and Nothingness, but as Sartre told one audience, ‘that search is over … It no longer interests me.’ Sartre talked to the Israeli prime minister, Levi Eshkol, for an hour and a quarter – less than half the time he spent with Nasser. He visited the former general Yigal Alon, Eshkol’s labour minister, at his home in a kibbutz, and declared him ‘the most sympathetic fascist I ever met’. He cancelled a meeting with Yitzhak Rabin, then the army chief of staff, protesting that ‘I came to meet the people, the left and civil society, not the military. Besides, I had already spent an excellent evening with this fascist general!’ He even stood up David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the state, while missing none of his appointments with Palestinian citizens of Israel. When Meir Ya’ari, the Mapam party leader, asked him about his remarks in Cairo on the right of return, Sartre said: ‘It is impossible to justify the Jewish right of return after two thousand years and to deny the same right to the Arabs after only twenty years … The refugee camps that I just saw in Gaza last week are realities that weigh very heavily on the future of Israel.’

From Israel’s perspective, Sartre’s visit went so badly that his Mapam party sponsors were assailed for organising an ‘unpatriotic’ tour. At his final press conference, he offered muted praise of Israel, but, Di-Capua writes, ‘his gestures, body language and overall condescending attitude betrayed a profound aversion to Zionism.’ To his Israeli hosts, he appeared as ‘a committed Arab philosopher and as a dangerous antagonist’. Lanzmann was devastated, feeling that Sartre’s coolness towards Israel was a repudiation of his own Jewish identity.

Barely two months later, however, it was the Arabs’ turn to be devastated. A report in Le Monde gave the impression that during his trip Sartre had endorsed Zionism – Sartre thought the article was ‘an obvious act of sabotage whose sole purpose is to create a crisis of trust’ with the Arabs. The Egyptians didn’t mind too much: Sartre had after all embraced their leader and their revolution. But the Palestinians were furious, and the Syrian daily Al-Thawra thundered: ‘Is it possible that every tragedy Europe inflicted on the Jews would become a justification for the occupation and deportation of another people?’ In response to these attacks, Sartre expressed his conviction that ‘the state of Israel must remain open to any Jew who would like to live in it but it cannot request all the Jews to settle there. I therefore reject Ben-Gurion’s approach of “maximal Zionism”.’ He also declared his support of the right of Palestinian refugees to ‘the entire land of Palestine’. Lanzmann, disconcerted by the binationalist implications of Sartre’s text, which juggled support for a Jewish homeland with support for the Palestinian right of return, showed it to Flapan. ‘Kudos to Lanzmann who is taking care of our interests,’ Flapan wrote to his boss. As Di-Capua notes, ‘no one in Sartre’s circle was looking after Palestinian interests.’

*

Ever since he began his conversations with Ali al-Samman, Sartre had been planning a special issue of Les Temps modernes on the Israeli-Arab conflict. Negotiations had been complex: Fayiz Sayigh, a member of the PLO executive committee, had flown over from Beirut to discuss it, and the Egyptian embassy in Paris had given its blessing on the condition that Arab contributions would appear separately, rather than in dialogue with those of the Israelis, to avoid any appearance of ‘normalisation’ with the enemy. Now that the issue was approaching publication, Lanzmann and Flapan persuaded Sartre that it would be a violation of the journal’s neutrality – which they had no scruples violating themselves in their private communications – to publish a statement on Zionism. Instead, Flapan would write a letter on Sartre’s behalf to Le Monde to make it clear that he had not expressed ‘any position’ on Zionism, which he saw as ‘an internal business of the Jewish people’. This clarification offered cold comfort to Palestinians, for whom Zionism had been anything but the internal business of the Jewish people.

It was just the beginning of Sartre’s crisis with the Arabs. On 27 May, he began writing his introduction to the special issue, again affirming his ‘neutrality – or if you will – absence’. But his commitment to neutrality had already been severely tested by Nasser’s show of force in the Sinai. ‘The Jews threaten war,’ Nasser declared from an air-force base, ‘and we say welcome, we are ready!’ The chorus of fear was led by Lanzmann. ‘If Israel were destroyed,’ he told Le Monde, ‘it would be far more serious than the Nazi Holocaust.’ He said he was ready to ‘shout long live Johnson because America is the only force that can save Israel.’ Johnson, in fact, was convinced that the Israelis would ‘whip the hell’ out of the Arabs in a war, and urged them not to fire the first shot – a warning seconded by de Gaulle, Israel’s main arms supplier at the time. But the French intellectual class rallied overwhelmingly in Israel’s defence. Lanzmann organised a petition in support of Israel, and arrived, paper in hand, on Sartre’s doorstep; Sartre grudgingly signed, and on 30 May the letter appeared in Le Monde. Jean Genet, who never forgave Sartre, reported that Lanzmann had threatened to throw himself out of a window if Sartre sided with the Arabs.

The special issue of Les Temps modernes was published on 4 June, the day before Israel launched its offensive. Sartre was not the only left-wing luminary to have signed the petition – or to regret it – but he paid the steepest price because of his standing in the Arab world. In Algiers his books were burned – an auto-da-fé gleefully noted by the CIA. Josie Fanon, Frantz’s widow, accused him of having chosen the ‘camp of murderers, the camp that kills in Vietnam, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America’, and asked the publisher to remove Sartre’s preface from The Wretched of the Earth. Suhayl Idris, his Lebanese translator, cabled the Iraqi government in support of its ban of Sartre’s books.

Sartre protested that he had been misunderstood, and tried in vain to persuade his friends Lutfi and Liliane al-Khuli over lunch in Paris that he remained a friend of the Arabs. ‘All I did was to take a principled stand against war,’ he said. ‘I did not change my support for the Arab and Palestinian struggle for freedom and progress.’ They were unpersuaded but agreed to meet again. At their second lunch, Sartre explained that he supported Israel’s existence ‘not because it is a solution to the Jewish problem but because it is an existing human fact which includes men, women and children … and these children have no understanding of this problem. From this perspective the talk about the destruction of Israel generates nothing but pain. Once again I do not think that Israel is the solution to the Jewish problem.’

Sartre’s actual position on how the conflict might be resolved wasn’t so different from the views of Maxime Rodinson, the historian of Islam, who considered Israel an expansionist colonial-settler state, but also believed that its existence was an irreversible fact and that any lasting settlement would have to accommodate the national aspirations of both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. But Sartre continued to see Israel through the prism of the Holocaust and European responsibility, while Rodinson emphasised the injustices that Israel had visited on the Palestinians and firmly aligned himself with the Palestinian camp, notably refusing to sign Lanzmann’s petition. For their comparative reputations in the Arab world, that distinction made all the difference.

In his few public statements on Israel-Palestine before his death in 1980, Sartre tried to balance his belief that Israel had a right to exist and his belief that the Palestinians had a right to take up arms against their occupiers. But he did his best to avoid the topic, and when he bothered to address it he seemed incoherent: justifying the Black September attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics as ‘terrible’ but ‘necessary’, then assailing Unesco for withdrawing funds from Israel. It’s possible that Sartre’s feeling of being caught between his Arab and Jewish friends left him incapable of committing to either Israel or the Palestinians. He wasn’t the only French writer to experience the conflict as a ‘personal tragedy’: so too did Pierre Vidal-Naquet, a son of Holocaust victims who had helped lead the campaign against torture in Algeria, Jean Daniel of Le Nouvel Observateur and Eric Rouleau of Le Monde – to say nothing of Jewish radicals like Rodinson and the Trotskyists Marcel Liebman and Daniel Ben Saïd. But unlike Sartre, they all became critics, with varying degrees of vehemence, of Israel’s occupation.

Neutrality in one of the last struggles of national liberation was a peculiar stance for the philosopher of commitment. Arabs construed Sartre’s position as pro-Zionist, much as Camus’s silence on Algeria, which had enraged Sartre, had been interpreted as implicit support for the French army. Sartre’s fall from grace, Di-Capua argues, led to the sad demise of ‘Arab existentialism’. I’m not sure Sartre had much to do with it. Much of the writing Di-Capua excavates appears to have been an unstable, superficial compound of nationalist mysticism and Heideggerian jargon, and, as he himself concedes, the Arab version of ‘committed literature’ was often closer to didactic writing on behalf of the ‘masses’ than the engagement with the world Sartre had meant it to be. So, too, with Sartrean categories such as freedom, alienation and authenticity, which had barely arrived in the Levant before they were given a nationalist, Baathist or Marxist-Leninist gloss. And the appeal of these concepts may have owed less to their explanatory power than to the seductive fragrance they emitted of Paris after Liberation. In a wry remembrance of his literary peers in the early 1950s, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, a Palestinian writer exiled in Baghdad, writes that ‘few of them could distinguish’ Sartre from Camus, and

fewer still realised that Albert Camus was not an existentialist in the sense that Sartre meant. Most of them liked to understand existentialism as a new bohemianism, philosophised this time in the cafés of Saint-Germain in Paris. For some it meant commitment as the left in those days understood it. There were some who saw in its logic something exactly the opposite, namely, a sort of nihilism that allowed the individual to go beyond all values and all political philosophies.

Intellectual fashions come and go, and Sartre was swept away by the next wave of French thinkers – including Michel Foucault, whose even greater sympathy towards Israel was never an obstacle to his appeal among Arab thinkers. The hopes that Sartre raised by visiting the Middle East had as much to do with philosophy as Noam Chomsky’s celebrity in the global South has to do with linguistics.

If any system of thought suffered a blow in 1967, it wasn’t Sartrean existentialism: it was the secular Arab nationalism that had led to what Nasser called the Naksa, the setback. In the days after the defeat, Arab leftists who had piggybacked on the Nasser project began to express their doubts, though still mostly in whispers. But even these were heard by the regime. Shortly after their lunch in Paris with Sartre, Lutfi and Liliane al-Khuli were arrested in Cairo: the secret police had been bugging their conversations. Liliane was soon released but Lutfi was freed only after Nasser’s death in 1970. Death spared Nasser from having to take the blame for the ‘setback’. But the promise of his ideology began to fade as Sadat, his handpicked successor, steered Egypt into an alliance with the United States and Israel. In the early years of the Sadat era, the radical left seemed on the march on Egyptian campuses. But they were no match for the growing Islamist movement, which had stronger links both to the poor and to the regime. Leftist intellectuals who had made a tactical alliance with Nasser found themselves orphaned in a post-Nasser era. Nasser had been their persecutor, but he was also their father, their sole connection to ‘the masses’, and without him they were lost.

*

The story of the Egyptian intellectual left’s conflicted attachment to Nasser, a bigger and more tragic story than their estrangement from Sartre, isn’t told by Di-Capua, but the costs of this relationship are conveyed with unflinching candour in Arwa Salih’s essay from 1996, The Stillborn, which has just been published in English. Salih, a leader of the Marxist-Leninist Workers’ Party in the early 1970s, reflects on the wreckage of the radical left in 1970s Egypt, the young men and women who had received their education thanks to Nasser, and who had been intoxicated by the Palestinian revolution and the promise it heralded of radical transformation in the Arab world. Her tone is fearless, often furious, as if she were fed up with allowing others – especially insecure and arrogant male comrades who had nervously crowned themselves with ‘the status of “leader”’ – to tell her what to think. ‘I no longer believe that the Israeli state is more vicious or more oppressive than its neighbours (and may my comrades forgive me if they can),’ she writes. ‘It is simply the stronger state. Moreover, I confess, with grief, to now believing that a future Palestinian state – if it ever comes into being – will almost certainly also be built on inequality and exploitation.’

For Salih, the chief problem that bedevilled Egypt’s left was its sanctification of state authority, a weakness she traces to its alienation from the masses. ‘Incapable of resisting a regime that claimed to be leading the battle against imperialism’, intellectuals embraced Nasser’s revolution, only to discover that ‘the intellectual’s role was scripted by the Nasser regime: a reasonable prison sentence, discharge, then a job in one of the regime’s bustling bureaucracies.’ After Nasser’s death, ‘there was nothing to clutch at in the darkness but nostalgia … The new map moved the masses of the Egyptian people back into the fold of religion while our generation continued to cling to its old faith.’ That old faith had been exposed, she writes, as little more than a ‘militant kitsch’ that ‘had no consistent, principled application in the world’. For all their praise of the masses, Egyptians were ‘incapable of thinking about the history of socialism or its future without anchoring it in state power’. Nasser ‘turned himself into an idol raised high above the corpse of the masses who had worshipped him … we were shamed and disgraced while his image continued to shine in glory.’

These sorrowful and defiant words have resonance in an era of counter-revolution and dictatorship in the Arab world. A few months after The Stillborn was published, Salih killed herself. She could find no exit from her anguish, but in her writing she helped pave the way for an indigenous and radical Arab existentialism, and for future generations of Arab rebels, who are her children more than they are Nasser’s, or Sartre’s. For all the despair she expresses, her book flickers with the profane illumination that, in the struggle to overcome the weight of the past, father figures usually stand in the way of emancipation.