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Barbara Harlow and the Necessity of ‘Renewed Histories of the Future’

[Mural of Ghassan Kanafani at the entrance to Bethlehem. Image via arablit.org.] [Mural of Ghassan Kanafani at the entrance to Bethlehem. Image via arablit.org.]

[Editors’ Note: This essay will appear in Volume 13:3 of the Journal of Middle Eastern Women’s Studies, a themed issue on the gender and sexuality of borders and margins, in November 2017. It was first posted on the JMEWS website, and is reposted here with permission of the author and the journal’s editors.]

Barbara Harlow’s commitment to struggles for liberation and justice was always at the same time a commitment to academic inquiry. She entwined them and located emancipatory potential in each even as both were subject to her criticism. She emphasized the contradictions and debates within these projects as generative of what she called “renewed histories of the future” (Harlow 1996, 10). She saw construction and (re)construction of the historical record as part of the process of forging alternative futures. Harlow focused on the possibility of producing narratives that challenge conditions of domination and oppression, as well as the disciplinary boundaries and modes of analysis within the academy that supported these conditions and restricted “more comparative and critical ways” of reading and writing.[1] Her work was always critical, generative, and political.

The author of several edited volumes and numerous articles, essays, and book reviews that crossed geographies and disciplines, Harlow grounded her discussions of anti-imperialist struggle and its cultural politics in “theoretical-historical” or “historicized-theoretical” formulations. When she wrote about a figure, she outlined the material-historical conditions of each life to explain how they theorized resistance, dissent, and literature. Her work challenged the assumption that theory is solely the “domain of the western critic and intellectual” (Harlow 1986a, 1). She names and took issue with intellectual trafficking in third world narratives as “raw material” to be processed in the first world academy. She defined her practice as deploying the critical perspectives and theories of those she wrote about and with whom she stood in solidarity.

Harlow discussed the writings of revolutionary strugglers, political prisoners and critical dissenters. Her first book, Resistance Literature (1987), brought together writings of national liberation struggles from Africa, Latin America, and the Arab world. She challenged the isolationism of area studies and the formalist tendencies of literary criticism that claim literature to be an autonomous arena of activity. She borrowed the book’s title from the Palestinian revolutionary writer and critic Ghassan Kanafani’s 1966 study of literature produced by Palestinians under Israeli military-colonial rule (Kanafani 1966). Her essay “Egyptian Intellectuals and the Debate on the ‘Normalization of Cultural Relations’” with Israel is informed by Kanafani’s refusal of “cultural ‘cooperation’ with the enemy” (Harlow 1986b, 36). Literary and cultural production, she argued alongside Arab intellectuals, are never politically neutral. As a scholar in the Western academy, she cautioned against academic practices that may “become just one more example of cultural imperialism or renewed cultural invasion” (ibid., 58).

Harlow engaged with Kanafani’s ideas on its own national liberationist terms. She translated into English and introduced a collection of his short stories (Kanafani 1984), and did the same for a public lecture he gave to Arab intellectuals and writers in the wake of the naksa, the 1967 Arab defeat that resulted in Israeli colonization of additional Palestinian, Syrian, and Egyptian lands (Kanafani 1990). Harlow located Kanafani’s critique of “blind language”—where terms such as “revolutionary,” “justice,” and “freedom” have no meaning, specificity, or connection to a clear anti-imperial praxis—to the political debates of its time and to her contemporary moment (Harlow 1990). In addition to Kanafani, she often drew on other revolutionary actors such as Amilcar Cabral, Roque Dalton, and Ruth First, all of whom were assassinated because of their resistance work. Harlow’s question: If they were alive today, “are there not still those who would feel it necessary to assassinate them?” is to remind us of the continuing urgency and relevance of politically-engaged work and words. A little over a month after Harlow died, on 6 March 2017, 31-year-old Basil al-Araj was assassinated by the Israeli Army during a raid in Ramallah because of his commitment to revolutionary struggle. Described by Palestinians as the “engaged intellectual,” Basil was imprisoned by the Palestinian Authority (PA) in coordination with the Israeli authorities in April 2016 after he and others were accused of reviving the armed struggle. A vocal critic of PA politics and its structural complicity with Israeli colonialism, Basil brought to life the history of Palestinian anti-colonial resistance through his local oral history tours, organizing with activists, and social media engagement. This history of resistance, Basil insisted, was not the past but the living present.

In 2011, Samah Selim called for: “a new critical literary history” that articulates “new questions of method and theory that emerge from local—national or regional—contexts rather than as an appendage of contemporary Euro-American epistemologies and intellectual histories” (Selim 2011, 735). Harlow’s work exemplified this critical literary history from the early 1980s. Harlow more than once drew on the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who in 1981 delineated between two opposing aesthetics in literature: “the aesthetic of oppression and exploitation” and that of the “human struggle for total liberation” where literary categories were “‘participatory’ in the historical processes of hegemony and resistance to domination, rather than formal and analytic” (Harlow 1987, 9). She engaged with the words of Bolivian Domitila Barrios de Chungara to critique universalizing feminist theorists who privilege and isolate gender as a category of analysis. “For us,” Harlow quotes Barrios de Chungara, “the first and main task isn’t to fight against our compañeros, but with them to change the system we live in for another” (Harlow 1986c, 508). Harlow discussed the variety of ways women and men in the third world inscribed women’s liberation within popular struggles against forces of oppression and insisted on the “new relational possibilities” in these narratives (ibid., 516).

Her analysis challenged disciplinary borders and individual authorship. She engaged multiple contexts, texts, and voices syncretically within a single page, which one reviewer described as “maddening” though “inspired” (Gelfand 1993, 20). Harlow refused linear and hierarchical methods of reading and analysis. She read the logic of prisons and institutions of higher education with and through one another in her book, Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention (1992). In this book, Harlow examined counter-hegemonic narratives to construct a new historical record and challenge dominant institutions using prison memoirs, novels, short stories, autobiographies, personal letters, poetry, and cinema from Lebanon, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Palestine, Guatemala, El Salvador, Kenya, and Cuba, among others. She persistently challenged the arrogant certainty of imperial and colonial orderings of the world, the extinguishing of revolutionary thinkers, and the single solution in struggles against oppression. It was imperative to assume “open-ended histories” (Harlow 1996, 57-58) in concrete struggles as well as in the realm of the literary. The “necessity of historical endings” (Harlow 1996, 58) limits the literary possibilities and misrecognizes our historical realities.

Ghassan Kanafani describes an exchange in Palestine in 1920 between poet Wadi‘ al-Bustani and a British Public Prosecutor following a demonstration during which protesters chanted a poem composed by al-Bustani:

Public Prosecutor: Statements have been made that you were carried shoulder-high, and that you said to the people who were following behind you: “Oh Christians, Oh Muslims.”
The Accused: Yes.
Public Prosecutor: And you also said: “To whom have you left the country?”
The Accused: Yes.
Public Prosecutor: Then you said: “Kill the Jews and unbelievers.”
The Accused: No. That violates the meter and the rhyme. I could not have said that. What I said was both rhyming and metrical. It is called poetry.[2]

Al-Bustani used artistic principles in his anti-colonial resistance, but not to protect the sacredness of poetry from the stain of politics. After all, he was leading a chant of his poetry to protest British colonial politics in Palestine. His defense of poetry was his defense. Kanafani found it important that al-Bustani’s closing defended poetry according to its own standards. The poet set the frame of reference for understanding art in times of revolt. Harlow similarly insisted on her own frame of reference as she wrote, read, and translated; stood in solidarity with those in struggle; and took seriously the histories that produced their poetry and prose. Her politics of narrating was an act of renewing these histories in contemporary struggles of liberation and justice.

NOTES

[1] Harlow draws this phrase out in her memorial essay honoring Edward Said’s passing (Harlow 2003). The phrase is taken from Said 2003.

[2] I cite from the English translation (Kanafani 1972).

REFERENCES

Gelfand, Elissa. 1993. “Liberation Struggles.” Review of Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention, by Barbara Harlow. The Women’s Review of Books 10, no. 10-11: 20.

Harlow, Barbara. 1986a. Introduction to “Third World Theorizing.” Special issue of the Journal of the Society for Critical Exchange 21: i-ii.

——. 1986b. “Egyptian Intellectuals and the Debate on the ‘Normalization of Cultural Relations.’” Cultural Critique, no. 4: 33-58.

——. 1986c. “From the Women’s Prison: Third World Women’s Narratives of Prison.” Feminist Studies 12, no. 3: 501-524.

——. 1987. Resistance Literature. New York: Methuen.

——. 1990. Introduction to Kanafani’s “Thoughts on Change and the ‘Blind Language.’” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 10: 132-136.

——. 1992. Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention. Hanover: Wesleyen University Press.

——. 1996. After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writing. New York: Verso.

——. 2003. “Remember the Solidarity Here and Everywhere.” Middle East Report 229: 4-7.

Kanafani, Ghassan. 1966. Literature of Resistance in Occupied Palestine, 1948-1966. Arabic. Beirut: Institute for Arab Research.

——. 1972. The 1936-39 Revolt in Palestine. New York: Committee for a Democratic Palestine.

——. 1984. Palestine’s Children. Translated by Barbara Harlow. Washington D.C. and London: Heinemann/Three Continents Press.

——-. 1990. “Thoughts on Change and the ‘Blind Language.’” Translated by Barbara Harlow and Nejd Yeziji. Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 10: 137-157.

Said, Edward. 2003. “Dignity, Solidarity and the Penal Colony,” Counterpunch, September 25.

Selim, Samah. 2011. “Toward a New Literary History.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 43, no. 4: 734-736.

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