Sara Khatib died on 5 September. The last time I saw Sara, she was lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by a worried and loving grandmother, a selfless mother camouflaging her sense of helplessness with a comforting smile, and an older sister who was silently battling a feeling of impending tragedy. Sara had undergone surgery to remove a recurrent tumor in her arm. A post-operation infection had brought her back to the hospital where doctors were unable to diagnose the cause of infection. Less than a year later, Sara died of cancer. She was twenty-two. Approximately two weeks before her passing, she gave a speech at a Tedx event at the Lebanese American University where she shared four lessons she learnt from living with a painful disease. She ended her talk with a call, and a promise, to create a support group for amputees in Lebanon. Sara’s right arm had been amputated shortly after her diagnosis. Hers was a sober, humorous, and excruciatingly hopeful account of living with disease. It was about everyday resistance to pain–both physical and psychic–as well as the tactics of living with disability. It was also a future-oriented account of what needs to be done to make such a life less exceptional and more livable.
Bassem Chit died of a heart attack on 1 October. On that day, Bassem was supposed to deliver a lecture on the Marxist analysis of social classes in Lebanon to a group of students at the American University of Beirut. He did not show up to class and his body was later found on the floor of his Furn al-Shubbak apartment. Bassem was a revolutionary Marxist and co-founder of the Socialist Forum in Lebanon. His published articles and essays, in English and Arabic, reveal a complex and grounded theoretical grasp of power and the mechanics of domination. Though only thirty-four, Bassem was a fine thinker and a prolific writer whose future theoretical and political contributions were highly anticipated by those who knew him. This was a common belief that was expressed in the many eulogies published since his passing. Bassem’s friends and comrades are mourning the past, but also a future that they now know will never be. And perhaps this is the most tragic element of Bassem’s death: the realization that there is, indeed, no future. In the words of his close friend and comrade, “There is no other life, no encounter, no goodbye, no greeting, and no extensive discussion between us. Nothing but this futility that we have tried to change, and that we always will.”
How do we deal with senseless loss? Indeed, are there losses that make sense? How do we deal with loss at a time where everything seems to have been lost already: nations, revolutions, hope. At a time of perpetual war, of spectacular mass death, how do we mourn those who die because their hearts simply stop?
The unspectacular, private deaths of Sara and Bassem have decidedly different publics. But both are stamped by the optimism that characterized their brief lives. Faced with knowledge of her imminent passing, Sara decided to make the imminence of her death public. She wanted to share the meaning of her experience with others, to leave a trace that would outlive her material body. Her talk, now available in an online video, preserves her memory and gives meaning to her death. It therefore also renders our loss less senseless. Sara passionately wanted the ones who loved her, and the millions of strangers she would never meet, to learn something about living with, despite, pain. With the little time she knew she had, she wanted to make disability an issue of public concern.
But Sara knew what Bassem did not. His was an unexpected and sudden death. As a public intellectual, however, his trace could be found in his many published fragments and essays, and perhaps most notably in the monthly magazine he helped launch, Permanent Revolution. Bassem`s passing, the way he is being mourned and remembered by those who loved, thought, worked, and protested with him, captures a glimpse—and promise—of alternative lifeworlds at a time of counter-revolution. The local and global network of leftist individuals and collectives that has materialized online since the news of his death gives hope. And perhaps this is why his untimely death is itself an act of optimism, as it reveals, through his disappearance, all those who are still here.
How do we deal with senseless loss? We start by giving it meaning, understanding the sense that has been inscribed onto those brief lives at the moment of death. Loss is productive when it creates publics. But this is as far as Sara and Bassem can take us. Now, we are on our own. Now, it is up to us to take the meaning and allow it to move us, change us. Allow ourselves to be transformed by it. To recognize that we are not the same, and that we will never be.
A Public of Death
What has prompted this joint tribute to two very different individuals is a realization that we have become a public of death. The “we” here is highly specific yet heterogeneous and differentiated. It is highly specific to a time and place: An imagined contemporary Arab geography that is being transformed by state-managed, militant-perpetrated, disease-caused, and naturally-occurring deaths. The feelings of helplessness and hopelessness in the face of such a colossal force of destruction transforming our region are compounded by the individual, unspectacular losses of those we love. Are we doomed to be the witnesses as everything falls apart?
I look for a politics of hope that emanates from loss, both individual and collective.
Hope, to be sure, is not something to be found. Rather, it is something that emerges through the very act of searching. Hope resides in the search for alternatives, and is not in itself the alternative. We must look for alternative forms of embodiment, alternative intimacies, alternative collectivities, and alternative lifeworlds because what we have now is not enough. In Bassem’s words, “It is a comprehensive and ongoing struggle for a better world to live in . . . and we will live in it!” I like to think that this is the common legacy of Sara and Bassem: a tireless will to change their respective realities. Is this not a politics of hope?