Zeina G. Halabi, The Unmaking of the Arab Intellectual: Prophecy, Exile and the Nation (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Zeina G. Halabi (ZGH): The Unmaking of the Arab Intellectual examines the legacy of a generation of Syrian, Palestinian, and Lebanese intellectuals, many of whom shaped my understanding of the political in the 1990s. It was a juncture defined by a set of political posts-: the postwar Lebanese era of fragile peace, the post-Oslo moment of settlement that suspended hopes for Palestinian justice, and the post-Gulf war era that saw the collapse of a unified Arab position on Iraq. These sets of posts-, not of defeat and shock, but rather of suspension and unfulfilled hopes, transformed the ways in which an emerging generation of writers represented the prophetic, nationalist, and exilic intellectual in their writings. Revisiting this literature, I examine in this book the remainder of the legacy of the politically committed intellectual in the wake of such unrealized hopes, when the anticipated future did not usher in salvation and emancipation; when, in fact, it fell through.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
ZGH: The book’s subtitle, “prophecy, exile, and the nation,” lays out the conceptual framework of my work. The intellectual that I identify in contemporary literature is in line with the ethos of the exilic, prophetic, and nationalist intellectual that Mahmoud Darwish evoked so well in Simone Bitton’s biography of Darwish in As the Land is the Language.
The film opens with a scene that haunts my readings: Darwish stands on Mount Nebo in Jordan, exactly where, we are told, Moses promised return to his exiled people. Bitton portrays the intellectual as dispossessed and displaced, a figure that gathers and leads, one with a prophecy that shall be fulfilled. That portrait of intellectual as a figure of power and salvation, I argue, has been displaced in contemporary texts that began looking at power differently and for salvation elsewhere.
Displacing the exilic, nationalist, and prophetic intellectual is significant inasmuch as it invites us to conceptualize that which I call ‘the contemporary.’ The contemporary juncture, in my understanding, is a temporality that has emerged, not following a collective sense of loss similar to the effect of the 1967 war, but rather from a shared sense of suspended hopes and lack of resolution in the context of consecutive ‘posts-’(post-war Lebanon, post-Gulf War, and post-Oslo Accords).
In different chapters, I reveal how the three constituents of that intellectual fashioning have been deconstructed and unmade: I read Rashid al-Daif’s parody of the emblematic Nahda intellectual Jurji Zaidan as a critique of post-war intellectual debates; I show how Rabee Jaber probes Elias Khoury’s representation of dead intellectuals as messianic figures; how Elia Suleiman and Rawi Hage debunk the romanticism associated with exile; how Seba al-Herz’s depiction of Shia militancy and piety in Saudi Arabia searches for emancipation beyond the nationalist exilic paradigm. These writers reveal to us how the exile, prophecy, and nationalism that once constituted the core of intellectual fashioning have been displaced and redefined in contemporary writings.
In fictionalizing and subsequently transcending the concept of prophecy as salvation, the contemporary writers I discuss in this book articulate a counter-discourse of criticism that questions intellectuals as knowledge producers and disseminators. They reveal how notions pertaining to the intellectual-prophet as a modernizing subject, political commitment as a literary ethos, exile as a catalyst for change, and nationalism and secularism as ideologies of emancipation have lost their critical vigour and become symptomatic of a defunct political discourse. The Unmaking of the Arab Intellectual ultimately shows how the contemporary moment in literature invites us to engage in a practice of criticism that is inherently retrospective and evaluative, putting into question the very foundation of what has constituted the legacy of modern Arab intellectuals.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
ZGH: As an undergraduate student in 1990s Beirut, I was interested in retracing the civil war (1975-1990), not only to focus on the destruction of the city, but also to examine the ways in which intercommunal violence and collective memory were portrayed and repressed. At that time, it was clear to me that underlying the prevailing discourse of peace and reconciliation, a sinister past of suspended mourning and violence was too visible and too loud. After initial graduate studies in Anthropology, particularly the social experience of loss, I turned to the literary text in search for meaning.
In my dissertation in literature, I was interested in the ways in which the 1967 war scarred and transformed Levantine writers. The novelists, thinkers, and poets whose writings I examined wrote elegies and eulogies for their peers, but they ultimately mourned themselves. Their writings were inherently melancholic, pointing to the impossible position of embodying an emancipation ethos and witnessing its demise. In the context of a complex political and military setback, the loss was collective, but the gaze was inward.
By the time I began working on my first book, the 2011 uprisings began unfolding. All power regimes—language, critics, but also intellectuals—that had informed my previous understanding of the literary and the political were suddenly under scrutiny. I came to understand that the figure of the intellectual that I had envisioned in my earlier work on mourning had suddenly become part of the problem: intellectuals were too comfortable around power, too secular, perhaps also too indifferent to new modes of writing. The uprisings made visible a corpus of novels, essays, and films, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, but particularly in the Levant, that evoked fatigue with the prophetic intellectual that had begun materializing as early as the 1990s. In the context of the watershed that was the 2011 uprisings, I repositioned the intellectual in The Unmaking of the Arab Intellectual from an agent that critiques by way of mourning to a faltering figure that has become the object of criticism.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
ZGH: The Unmaking of the Arab Intellectual does not put forward a literary history of the Arab intellectual, an exhaustive illustration of all the ways in which committed, exilic, dissident, Islamic, or nationalist intellectuals have been depicted in literature since the 1990s. Neither does it propose to examine questions of intellectual self-fashioning, the construction of intellectual capital and its circulation. My aim is to look closely at the contemporary depiction of intellectuals particularly through the reconfiguration of notions of exile, nationalism, and prophecy.
Each of the texts I chose to analyse speaks to a specific literary field (e.g. Rabee Jaber and Elias Khoury in the postwar Lebanese literary field), a specific mode of subversion (e.g. the parodic and anti-romantic turn in Rawi Hage and Elia Suleiman), or a retrospective and anachronistic reconfiguration of canonical Nahda intellectuals (e.g. Rashid al-Daif on Jurji Zaidan). I show what these texts—each in turn, and all together—tell us about how the prophecy of the intellectual is understood in the contemporary Arab world.
Who does this project speak to and what does it ultimately perform? I often have to respond to two important questions about the political implications of the project. First, why do we need to point to the limits (to unmake, to de-center, to question) a once-emancipatory (secular, nationalist, modernist, progressive) figure that is the Arab intellectual? Second, do we really need to revisit notions of mourning and defeat that may feed into available essentializing representations of Arabs? As much as they are important, these two questions reinforce what I think is growing rift in scholarship on the Arab world and its reading publics. The answer, I believe, is in the approach, particularly in the ability of the literary text to suggest to readers and critics proper tools to interpret the political. Close readings allow us to be attentive to worldviews and narratives that may not always conform to our available theoretical models or to the ways we understand the political. It also reveals to us the nuanced critiques inherent in works that have either received limited attention (e.g. Al-Daif and Jaber) or have been repeatedly read within a critical lens that fails to attend to their discursive transgression and political intervention (e.g. Al-Herz, Suleiman, and Hage). The closer I read the texts, the more I was convinced that contemporary writers look inward, that their writings evoke resistance, dissent, and disenchantment with notions of exile, prophecy, and nationalism in ways that were clearly endogenous to their respective cultural fields and immanent to their own experience of the present. It became clear to me that my book does not counter, redress, or speak to essentializing representations of the Arab intellectual; nor does it aim to search in the remainder of that archetype for a salvific ethos that is nowhere to be found in contemporary writings.
J: What made you choose the cover art?
ZGH: Titled Waiting for Youssef, the painting is the portrait of the renowned Syrian artist Youssef Abdelke as he was imagined by the artist Tarek al-Butayhi during his arrest in the early days of the Syrian uprising. I was struck by Abdelke’s iconic red shirt as well as his posture and gaze that evokes both power and paralysis. Waiting for Youssef evokes so well the interplay of deference and dissent that I identify in the works of contemporary writers as they depict a previous generation of intellectuals.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
ZGH: In the interdisciplinary spirit of The Unmaking of the Arab Intellectual, I am currently working on a second book project on the excavation practices in literature. I am particularly interested in the ways in which contemporary Arab writers reclaim the past against the backdrop of present uprisings and wars.
Excerpt from the Conclusion:
Chapter 5 | The Political Remains
Mahmoud Darwish speaks of his transcendence as a subject of history in a present that shall usher in a future of certainty: ‘I have found a terra firma saturated with history. I draw my strength from it because I look through the prisms of past and future. Thus, the present appears less fragile, more like a passage toward a more certain history.’ He reveals himself as a historical subject and a subject of history interpolated by a teleology that draws on the materiality of dispossession and exile, the transience of the present, and the impending future. Endowed with the prophetic word, the intellectual speaks in the name of the disenfranchised truth and emancipation to power, refiguring thereby the tragedy of displacement from an individual affliction to a catalyst for collective salvation. In this sense, the temporal stability in the triangulation of the past/present/future is intrinsic to the ways in which the intellectual-prophet conceives of himself and his peers.
Examining the yield of that prophetic legacy in literature, The Unmaking of the Arab Intellectual has shown how the predicament of the prophecy has been profoundly disturbed in a contemporary era emerging from the vestiges of modern ideologies of emancipation. In the context of consecutive aftermaths, if the present has lost its prospects, so has the intellectual who inhabits it. Since the 1990s, contemporary novelists and filmmakers who identify with different historical and literary generations have depicted their engulfing anxiety about the demise of ideological paradigms, that terra firma or Mount Nebo on which the intellectual once stood overlooking the impending future. In their individual ways, Rashid al-Daif, Rawi Hage, Elia Suleiman, Seba al-Herz, and Rabee Jaber have reckoned with the intellectual’s arduous journey from prophecy to disenchantment. Their refiguring of the prophecy transforms the ways in which we read the prophetic intellectual as a modern and modernizing subject, political commitment as a literary ethos, exile as a catalyst for change, and nationalism as an ideology of emancipation.
Contemporary writers have thus experienced, internalized, and subsequently exorcised the spectre of the intellectual-prophet that had hitherto personified the stable triangulation of past/present/future and the inevitable transition to a future of certainty and liberation. Theirs is a cynical, ambivalent, mournful, and irreverent revisiting of the portrait of the Arab intellectual. Facing the scepticism of modernist epistemologies and aesthetics, they have to defend their apparent cynicism. As they watch the collapse of ideological paradigms and their icons, they have to demonstrate all the ways in which they are still committed to notions of atonement and salvation. They have to reiterate their attachment to language as a vessel for truth and eschew the celebration of meaningless and apolitical individualism. But to what extent can we read their disenchantment with the prophetic legacy as a post-political gesture?
The contemporary texts that I probe in The Unmaking of the Arab Intellectual have deconstructed iltizām as a literary ethos along with the intellectuals who have channelled it in their writing but kept a tight grip on the political thread. Contemporary writers have not simply forgone the prophecy but have pointed to the fault lines apparent in its formal, linguistic, and conceptual dissonance. The intellectual figures that these narratives probe are not the object of gratuitous critique but, as Hanan Toukan observes in her research on contemporary artists, ‘are although admired, often also bemoaned and interrogated through different art forms for embodying a failed aesthetics of resistance.’ I concur with her observation about how contemporary artists, and in our case writers, return to their predecessors ‘to understand their critical role in the life, death and afterlife of a botched modernist project of liberation where the centrality of writing was an unquestionable tool in the collective experience of subjugation and hence resistance and commitment to change.’ Contemporary writers do not surrender the political. Rather, they reconfigure it by displacing its tenets. Close readings have shown how the political unravels: first, it professes a contemporary subjectivity that is reflexive and retrospective; second, it ultimately transcends canonical literary tropes and genres, and in so doing reimagines modern literary parameters.
The Political Remained/Renamed
The texts that I have examined probe teleologies predicated on the stable triangulation of past/present/future temporalities without, however, discarding the past as a unit of analysis. The subject of return and reckoning with the past has become what Scott calls ‘a pervasively recurrent question’. As such, the past in these texts continues to be a site for confronting contested memories and the articulation of contemporary anxieties. Each in turn, the different novelists and cineastes revisit the past as a means of making sense of the troubled contemporary moment. There appears an overarching sentiment that the past, no matter how one wishes to delineate and historicize it, cannot be accepted as a given in the temporal prism of past/present/future. It must be archived, debunked, unearthed, demystified, and confronted.
As it reveals the hitherto discounted political critique inherent in the contemporary Arabic literary moment, The Unmaking of the Arab Intellectual seeks to open an entire literary and intellectual corpus up for reconsideration, thereby charting an additional layer to what constitutes the political. My analysis of Seba al-Herz’s depiction of the intellectual draws on critical studies examining sidelined literary genres that evoke nonsecular feminine poetics. Putting The Others, the first and last novel by an obscure Saudi woman writing under a pseudonym, in dialogue with influential and critically acclaimed works decentres notions of canonicity and representation. Such an approach is important precisely because it demonstrates the ways in which some literary genres, national literatures, and authors invite critical attention and are more prone to canonization than others, thereby sentencing other writers to silence. The importance of The Others is that it is indeed contemporary insofar as it burns the effigy of the secular, nationalist, omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent intellectual in a register that defies logocentrism and challenges the masculinist ethos that is prevalent in the literary tradition and its criticism. Placing The Others in this collection brings to the fore a new mode of depicting the contemporary intellectual in a poetics of loss that is autochthonous and divorced from previous modes of mourning.
The preceding chapters have shown how the political manifests in the ways in which structures of power – of intellectuals and their words – are displaced and repoliticized. Specifically, the political crystallizes in the interstices of al-Daif’s modernist prescriptive ethos and his nostalgic rapture with the premodern, an approach that sets his historiographic irony in opposition to Jabra’s unapologetic modernism. The political is articulated in Suleiman’s silence, self-effacement, and cynicism, which caution us against the perils of fetishizing and commodifying Palestinian nationalism and the intellectual that embodies it. Jaber’s conception of the political lies in his rejection of the intellectual’s messianicity resulting from his objectification and ideological codification. By unearthing repressed narratives of transgenerational violence and reinscribing them on the narrator’s aching body, al-Herz understands the political at the intersection of the ideological and the corporeal; where spectral hauntings are more truthful and real than the secular-nationalist intellectual tradition from which she hails.
Underlying the convergent critiques that emerge from contemporary literature is a collective interest in reexamining the power of the word – narrative, poetic, or philosophical – thought to achieve collective salvation. Although hailing from different literary fields and generic traditions, Rashid al-Daif, Rabee Jaber, Seba al-Herz, Rawi Hage, and Elia Suleiman articulate a critique of the intellectual-prophet from a shared contemporary sensibility that traverses their works. They have all returned to the intellectual in a discourse that is simultaneously retrospective and self-reflexive; retrospective because they critically portray the intellectual as a construct of an incongruous past, and self-reflexive because they search for the remainder of the intellectual’s prophecy in their own unsettling experience of the contemporary. As such, burning the effigy of the prophet-intellectual is as personal, as political, and as public as the act of writing is; it is a public exorcism of an intimate state of possession, one that undoubtedly triggers an affective reaction to that which is being ejected from the contemporary literary body. The intellectual-prophet standing on Mount Nebo, overlooking the Promised Land, is now replaced by the disarmed and disillusioned intellectual, akin to Jaber’s Rizkqallah, standing before a cliff – back turned to the city, arms open in the shape of a cross – jumping into the clear sea. In the contemporary of consecutive aftermaths, the intellectual may still stand on Mount Nebo, but the intellectual’s prophecy has fallen.