[Individual tributes from Jadaliyya Co-Editors can be read here.]
It is impossible to fully comprehend and convey the meaning of profound loss. It becomes all the more complicated when this loss is of a person who has affected so many lives and trajectories in a multitude of ways, leaving an immense void. All we have in such moments are the traces that we weave to proximate a whole. The depth of these traces surpasses our individual and collective memories. Such is the case with the passing of Asmahan Haddad.
Not a scholar or activist in any conventional sense, Asmahan (or Asma) molded minds, made the present possible, and inspired different futures. In this sense, she was a public figure who shaped those around her with her sharp insight and boundless wit. Asma was an endless fountain of wisdom, love, and strength that nourished generations of people, projects, and visions. She enriched all who crossed her path, until the last moment when dozens of loved ones from near and far surrounded her. Asma was a mother, a comrade, and an early principal supporter of the mothership of this publication, the Arab Studies Institute (ASI). She was a woman who had an indelible impact on every person she touched, always with what her grandson, Julian, described as “fierce grace.”
Asma helped propel ASI as an experiment in forging collectivity. Her energy went far beyond the warm generosity that characterized everything she did. It was her commitment to critical knowledge that inspired each of us in crucial ways. But perhaps more than anything, it was her faith in a group of young women and men who came together starting in the early 1990s. On paper, this group would embark on what is today ASI’s constellation of initiatives: the Arab Studies Journal, Jadaliyya, Quilting Point, Forum on Arab and Muslim Affairs (FAMA), and Tadween Publishing.
In 1992, when the Arab Studies Journal (ASJ) was launched as an aspiring graduate student academic journal at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS), Georgetown University, the administration was not ready to fund the ambitious project beyond providing emotional support. Yet, it moved forward under the editorship of Bassam Haddad, Asma’s son, and a dedicated team of editors—notably Michelle Kjorlien (now Esposito) and Steve Brannon—then all graduate students in the MA in Arab Studies program (MAAS) at CCAS. Asma backed the project unconditionally, and committed to handling any unmet cost.
Asma gave all of us an expansive model of family, a family that embraced our ideas, acknowledged our weaknesses, and fortified our strength with humor, curiosity, and—above all—unstinting honesty. Her faith in, and support for, the project only grew as ASJ attracted a number of students who enrolled in the MAAS program and beyond at Georgetown, including Sinan Antoon, Chris Toensing, Nadya Sbaiti, and Sherene Seikaly. By 1994, ASJ had also attracted prominent writers from the United States, Europe, and the Middle East, including from Georgetown University, based on the promise of its English section as well as its meteoric Arabic section, which, under Sinan Antoon’s leadership, featured some of the leading Arabic writers and novelists of their time. While short-lived, the Arabic section spoke the most to one of Asma’s enduring passions: her mother tongue.
During the lead up to publication, with hefty printing and distribution costs looming, Asma encouraged us to forge ahead without worry. In addition to financial contributions by some of the editors, and the remarkable dedication and volunteership of all the editors, she guaranteed the production of the publication during its early years. As the journal began attracting unsolicited work by luminaries in the field in 1995-96—while always serving as a platform for distinguished graduate student work—the new leadership at CCAS was far more forthcoming in supporting ASJ, and providing it with office space that continues to serve as its home at Georgetown University. And while the support came early on from our mentors, including Hanna Batatu, Halim Barakat, Hisham Sharabi, and Barbara Stowasser, among others, it was the steady hand of Michael Hudson and the leadership and unflinching enthusiasm of Judith Tucker that forged a permanent place for the journal at Georgetown University. This support continues until today, under the leadership of the center’s directors, Osama Abi-Mershed and currently Rochelle Davis.
For all these reasons, it was a painful but beautiful moment when Judith Tucker was among the first to arrive at Asma’s memorial, or “Celebration of Life,” in March 2019. Asma did not want grief to mark her farewell; she wanted us to go on, to fight the good fight, to celebrate life. Countless people attended Asma’s memorial or were there in spirit, including the good people who have fueled and nurtured ASI for nearly three decades: including (in addition to those mentioned above) Ziad Abu-Rish, Noura Erakat, Maya Mikdashi, John Warner, Ibtisam Azem, Rosie Bsheer, Samia Errazzouki, Kylie Broderick, Hesham Sallam, Lisa Hajjar, Mouin Rabbani, Anthony Alessandrini, Mona Harb, Adel Iskandar, Omar Dahi, Khalid Namez, Tareq Radi, Maria Bouzeid, Malihe Razazan, Asli Bali, Osama Esber, Muriam Haleh-Davis, Abdullah al-Arian, Paola Messina, Nour Joudah, Michael Haddad, Elliott Colla, In’aam Issawi, Musa Hamideh, Edward Gaeir, Samantha Brotman, Anjali Kamat, Allison Brown, Solene Ann-Maillet, Basileus Zeno, Mohammad Ali Nayel, Brittany Dawson, Katty Elhayek, Noah Black, Katie Jackson, Max Ajl, John Kallas, Michael Ernst, Alicia Cagle, Lama Khoury, Kevin Martin, and dozens more, with whom Asma came into contact. (Listed on the linked organizations above). Asma was the proudest when she attended ASJ’s twentieth anniversary in 2013, as the journal continued to thrive under the editorship of Sherene Seikaly, and Nadya Sbaiti prior.
[The three varieties of ASJ covers: 1992, 1995, 2010]
Asma’s fearless energy did not stop at print alone. When we took our foray into documentary filmmaking, she was there holding us up just as the United States invaded Iraq. Despite the risks of venturing into Baghdad weeks after the occupation, Asma co-funded what became ASI’s award-winning documentary About Baghdad, the transnational series What is Said About Arabs and Terrorism, and the forward-looking documentary The Other Threat: Arab and Muslim Immigrants in Europe. Asma was always interested, always ready to learn more, always reminding us of the urgency of the political moments we were lucky to live with her. She believed we were on to something long before we believed it ourselves.
Asma’s contributions far exceeded the material foundations that made these collective projects possible. Most, if not all, of us at ASJ juggled doctoral work, ASI development, and sometimes full-time work. The Haddad household, with its own supportive small business headed by Asma’s two other children Elie and Carole Haddad, continued to be a material incubator. For nearly three decades, Asma’s home was the laboratory where we could hatch plans, ideas, and dreams; hold weekly meetings, workshops, and mini-conferences, and most of all grow and learn. She fed, comforted, listened to, and made space for hundreds of team members over the years. She would not rest until everything was in its place, even after a day of laboring over stoves and serving multitudes from large trays of delectables (“take this piece, you always ask for it”). Her food gave a new meaning to joy. Hunger was not an option at Asma’s. She fed us effortlessly with edible delicacies, with her commitment to social justice, and with her piercing observations around the circle of life and love that was her kitchen table. It was at that table that we debated, gossiped, and most of all laughed, well into the early hours of dawn. She was always the last one to call it a night.
[ASJ’s silver celebration of twenty-five years on 18 April 2018. Left: Panel on Knowledge Production, chaired by Judith Tucker. Right: During the reception, Sinan Antoon, Nadya Sbaiti, Bassam Haddad, Sherene Seikaly]
Perhaps one of her lasting lessons was the power of friendship across generations. She did not lecture or preach or don the mantle of the all-knowing matriarch. Asma’s bravery in confronting and transgressing social norms and taboos made her the best sort of friend, comrade, and confidante. She taught us to love what we do, and to stand tall against the odds. When we thought we were doing well with our projects, she would lift us up to see a yet broader horizon, another milestone to surpass, and a loftier goal to achieve.
There were never any pretenses with Asma. She revealed her beauty and her flaws. She did not hide her imperfections and limitations. Her willingness and eagerness to learn has imparted on each of us the lessons of humility. In her life and in her death, she inspires the desire to proximate her humanity and resolve. Asma’s ability to transcend the era she hailed from was evident in her practice. Her home was a refuge. She forged comfort and empowerment. You could just be, at Asma’s, even in ways that tested social norms and conventions. This personal comfort was itself an experiment in freedom. We observed and consumed it whole.
Asma gifted each of us the “je ne sais quoi” glue that continues to bind us. Even for those who did not share the most intimate of moments and ideas, the abundance of her power and love is evident. She was a living example of what friendship and thoughtfulness is, in theory and practice. When she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in early January 2019, with few precious weeks/months to live, she opted to postpone the immediate treatment needed in order, instead, to travel with an inordinate amount of pain back to what she calls home (Beirut and Damascus), and say goodbye to her life-long friends and family. When the doctors told her “you may not make it back,” she responded with her emphatic accent: “I don’t care.” Asma knew they would surely be denied a last encounter with each other, as many could not make it to the States to say goodbye. She made it back, underwent an albeit moot round of therapy unselfishly against her own preferences, and decided to discontinue the process and go back to be at home, surrounded with her family and loved ones. Asma passed away shortly after at her home in Fairfax, Virginia, on 23 February.
With her passing many things die: her exquisite taste, her unstinting commitment to freedom, and a kitchen that was always full to the brim with delicious food, laughter, and the kinds of discussions that were taboo elsewhere. Asma tore through boundaries and norms seamlessly and with passion. She was an anchor of anchors. And while her death leaves us bereft, we carry her hope for different futures and her celebration of the present with us always.