The Unmaking of the Arab Intellectual: An Interview with Zeina G. Halabi
Zeina G. Halabi is Assistant Professor of Arabic Literature at the American University of Beirut. From April 2018, she will be a EUME fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien. During her first stay with EUME in 2012/13, she began writing her first book The Unmaking of the Arab Intellectual: Prophecy, Exile, and the Nation. In the following interview she discusses the book that was published in May 2017. Zeina G. Halabi is particularly interested in questions of loss, mourning, and dissidence in literature. She previously taught at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She has authored articles on the shifting notion of political commitment in the writings of canonical and emerging Arab writers and she is currently working on her second book project provisionally titled Excavating the Present: History, Power, and the Arab Archive, in which she explores archival practices in literature.
Micah Hughes: Can you start by talking a little bit about your intellectual background and how you came to the topic of your book, The Unmaking of the Arab Intellectual: Prophecy, Exile, and the Nation?
Zeina G. Halabi: 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 1990s Beirut. In their essays and novels, they reflected on a set of political posts-: the postwar Lebanese era of artificial peace and the post-Oslo moment of settlement that suspended hopes for Palestinian justice. They also saw in the post-Gulf war era the disintegration 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 many Levantine intellectuals conceived of themselves and of each other as agents of change. They also prompted a set of questions that will ultimately animate my book: What remains of the legacy of the politically committed intellectual in the wake of unrealized hopes, when the anticipated future did not usher in salvation and emancipation; when, in fact, it fell through.
In my undergraduate years in Beirut in the late 1990s, I was curious about the intertwinement of memory and violence particularly as they materialized in Beirut’s war relics. The Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) had ended on a mantra, which was the backbone of state policies of liberalization and reconstruction. This mantra was based on two arguments: that intercommunal violence was driven by external forces and that debates over loss and reconciliation were damaging to a budding national unity. Around that time, I was involved in a project in architecture that examined the relics, physical and imaginary, of Beirut’s infamous demarcation line. I realized that, although sectarian violence was suspended, it was really everywhere: in the way the political system functioned, but also in the mass graves that popped up under construction sites.
This is how violence and memory became the focus of my graduate studies in Anthropology. I was interested in how the civil war continues to hover over the discourse of peace and reconciliation, specifically how violence had returned through new memorial practices (e.g. street naming, posters of martyrs, commemoration events)that ultimately reconfigure the city into new sectarian turfs. The transformations I observed were fascinating, but I was becoming increasingly cynical about fieldwork. I renounced the discipline of anthropology but did not renounce my interest in the notions of loss, memory, and violence that drew me in the first place; I just grounded them in what I think still offered a field of meaning: the literary text.
My dissertation in literature was about the ways in which Levantine intellectuals reckoned with loss following the 1967 military defeat against Israel. The novelists, thinkers, and poets I observed wrote elegies and eulogies, which lamented not only the loss of peers and interlocutors, but also the loss of self. This poetics of mourning was inherently melancholic, symptomatic of an incomplete work of mourning, of un-mourned ideals, projects, paradigms, and modes of being in language and text—a collective sense of defeat that turned the gaze inward in the context of a complex political and military setback.
As I was preparing my dissertation for publication, the 2011 uprisings began unfolding. I immediately realized that the figure of the intellectual I had in mind had become incongruent in that moment where everything was under scrutiny; there was a sense among a group of writers and activists involved in the uprisings that intellectuals who had once spoke of justice had become too comfortable around power, too secular, perhaps also too oblivious to new modes of writing. The uprisings revealed to me a corpus of novels, essays, and films that evoked a certain disenchantment with the prophetic intellectual, in fact, two decades before 2011. And so, in The Unmaking of the Arab Intellectual, I repositioned the intellectual from an agent that critiques by way of mourning to a faltering figure that has become the object of criticism.
MH: The subtitle provides three keywords that inform your argument: “prophecy,” “exile,” and “nation” – what brings these three concepts together and how do they relate to the intellectuals you address in your book?
ZGH: The archetype of the intellectual as a prophetic, exilic and nationalist figure, one whose deconstruction is central to the different works I examined, speaks to, but is ultimately not at home, in the typologies of Gramsci, Sartre, or Foucault. Contemporary writers, as it became clear to me, interpret the intellectual more in line with the ethos of the exilic, prophetic, and nationalist intellectual that Mahmoud Darwish evoked so well in his trajectory.
I was struck by Simone Bitton’s biography of Darwish in As the Land is the Language. The film opens with a scene that haunts my readings: Mahmoud Darwish stands on Mount Nebo in Jordan, where, we are told, Moses promised his exilic tribe that they shall return to the promised land. This particular depiction of the intellectual—as dispossessed and displaced, a figure that gathers and leads, one with a prophecy that shall be fulfilled—hovers over the contemporary texts that challenge that particular depiction of the intellectual. As such, I divided the book into chapters that reveal how three constituents of that intellectual fashioning have been deconstructed and unmade: Rashid Daif reconfigures prophecy of the nahda intellectual, particularly the emblematic Jurji Zaidan in contemporary fiction; Rabih Jaber probes Elias Khoury’s depiction of the dead intellectual as a messianic figure; Elia Suleiman de-romanticizes the Saidian exilic intellectual in post-Oslo Palestine; Seba al-Herz’s depiction of Shia militancy and piety in Saudi Arabia searches for emancipation beyond the nationalist exilic intellectual. These writers reveal to us how exile, prophecy, and nationalism that once constituted the core of intellectual fashioning have been reconfigured in contemporary writings.
In fictionalizing and subsequently transcending the concept of prophecy as salvation, contemporary writers 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. Displacing the exilic, nationalist, and prophetic intellectual is significant inasmuch as it invites us to conceptualize that which I call ‘the contemporary.’
MH: When you began writing this book you were teaching Arabic literature in an area studies department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; now you are teaching in the Department of Arabic at the American University of Beirut. Yet, the book is neither confined solely to the disciplinary field of literature nor to an area studies paradigm. Could you talk about where you position this book?
ZGH: It was clear to me that The Unmaking of the Arab Intellectual is a multidisciplinary project, partly due to my previous training in anthropology but more importantly, because the disenchantment with the figure of the intellectual is not only a literary phenomenon. The project branches out to disciplines such as intellectual history, anthropology, and film studies, but also to area studies. I was interested in hosting a conversation between different authors and different literary and non-literary genres; English and Arabic. So, I paired film directors and poets, novelists and historians, essayists and film directors, emerging and consecrated writers. Such staged conversations remind us of the productive power of cross-genre, cross-linguistic, and transnational readings that are the core of the aesthetic turn that marks the contemporary moment.
MH: How do you navigate the different reading publics that might be interested in this project?
ZGH: The Unmaking of the Arab Intellectual is by no means a literary history of the contemporary representations of the intellectual (committed, exilic, dissident, Islamic, nationalist) or an examination of the construction of the intellectual’s symbolic capital and its circulation in various national cultural fields. In addition, the texts I selected in this book are not meant to be exhaustive in illustrating all the ways in which Arab intellectuals have been represented in contemporary fiction since the 1990s. I chose them because each is emblematic of a specific literary field (e.g. Rabee Jaber and Elias Khoury of the postwar Lebanese literary field); of a specific mode of subversion (e.g. irony in Rawi Hage and Elia Suleiman); or of a retrospective and anachronistic reconfiguration of the nahḍa intellectual (e.g. Rashid al-Daif on Jurji Zaidan). I show how each in turn and all together refigure the prophecy of the intellectual.
But the issue of readership became increasingly important. I often had to answer two questions about the impetus of the project. The first pertains to its political implications: do we really need to point to the limits (to unmake, to de-center, to question) of a once-emancipatory (secular, nationalist, modernist, progressive) figure that is the Arab intellectual? The second was about the implications of bringing back to the table notions of mourning and defeat, and how such notions may feed into available essentializing representations of Arabs. These questions are thought provoking, but they reinforce what I suspected was a growing rift in the scholarship on the Arab world and within its reading publics.
Close reading held the answer to these two questions. It is a method that I find important precisely because it is attentive to worldviews and narratives that may not always adhere to our theoretical models or how we understand the political in scholarship. It also reveals to us nuanced political critiques inherent in exemplary 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). I noted how contemporary writers intervened in local debates that animated post-war Beirut, post-Oslo Palestine, post-Gulf War Saudi Arabia.
The more I engaged 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 western representations of the Arab prophetic 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.
MH: Your book reads to me as an anthropologically-informed genealogy of what you call “the contemporary” as it appears in Arab literary production. What is “the contemporary” and how do you see the relationship between your scholarship and the disciplinary questions that inform it?
ZGH: The question of how we understand time and make sense of its workings is central to my project in which I probe the contemporaneity of these texts. I was particularly interested in how Edward Said theorized Arabic prose post-1948. In the introduction of the English translation of Halim Barakat’s novel Days of Dust, he describes a post-Nakba Arab world as a desolate space set between a past of tragedy and a future of possibility. In this juncture writers are committed to writing the Arab scene, of laboring in the present, as they emerged from past tragedy and resisted the looming fear of annihilation. This notion of the present as a scene makes legible novelists writing their experiences of loss and desolation—from Halim Barakat, Ghassan Kanafani, to Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, all the way to Elias Khoury, among many others.
Together, they asked how their prose could evoke their experience of a present as a condition of possibility for the future. In so doing, they pointed to a future of emancipation, one that is bound to arise from their meticulous reconstruction of an Arab present of ruins. This earlier understanding of the present, as a scene awaiting reconstruction, one on which we stand anticipating the future is central to Mahmoud Darwish’s portrayal on Mount Nebo. As he stood where Moses once stood, he, too, is exilic; he, too, shall lead his people to emancipation. His is conscious of his past of tragedy, of his present of dispossession, but he also leads his people to emancipation.
But what happens, I ask in this book, when contemporary writers stand at the borders of that promised land without being able to access it? I was inspired by the ways in which David Scott probes the predicament of previous epistemological models when they are voided of their emancipatory power in a temporal experience of ideological ruins and disenchantment that he calls the ‘aftermath.’ The aftermath is an experience of the present, not as a transitional temporality, or what Said describes as interstitial temporality between a past and a future, one that is fertile with possibilities, but one in which time has become paralyzed, ‘stranded in a post-revolutionary present that has nowhere to go.’ The promised future that did not yield disturbs the teleological understanding of history and praxis and engenders a collective disillusionment not only with the prophetic ethos, but also with the intellectuals who had been associated with it. The tragedy of being abandoned in the aftermath of unfulfilled prophecies is what constitutes the contemporary.
I understand the contemporary, then, as a temporality based on a collective experience of history and time defined along the parameters of suspended time, of a stillborn temporality of consecutive ‘posts-’, which are post-war Lebanon, post-Gulf War, and post-Oslo Accords. It is this present sentiment, not of shock and loss, but rather of suspension and disillusionment that brings together the different contemporary texts I am interested in. In Rashid al-Daif’s fictionalization of an early twentieth century Enlightenment figure, Jurji Zaidan, we read a commentary on post-war Beirut; in Seba al-Herz’s representation of sectarianism in Saudi Arabia, we are struck by the absence of the nationalist, secular intellectual from contemporary Saudi Arabia; in Elia Suleiman’s depiction of the returning-exilic intellectual, we are bemused by the banality of exile, and so on.
The contemporary, in this sense, offers an opportunity to re-examine the present moment by pointing to the fault lines of the Arab intellectual-prophet as an early embodiment of emancipatory ethos. The contemporary invites us to engage in a practice of criticism that is inherently retrospective and evaluative, putting into question the very foundation of what constitutes modern Arab intellectual legacy.
MH: You directly engage with the notion of generations and generational shifts, but you don’t seem to mean generation as a neatly bound unit of periodization. It seems for you it is rather something more organic, united less by biological time than by political time – that is the time of political action and aesthetic representation. Can you talk a little bit about the notion of generation that informs your work?
ZGH: The question that I grappled with from the outset is whether or not what I have observed was a neat generational shift. Was this paradigm shift a question of age group; a mere dissent of a younger generation of writers who were critical of previous modes of being in writing? Or was there something else at stake?
The different texts I addressed led me to the notion of generation as the site of an alternative aesthetic and political sensibility, rather than one related to biological identification. Some writers were born in 1945 and others in 1985. So, what brings them together is not their age, but rather a shared experience of the contemporary, a common interest in theorizing it, and articulating new modes of representing it by unmaking the figure that once pointed to it as a site of salvation.
The shift is not generational in the biological understanding of the term, and yet it evokes a mode of thinking that is not foreign to generational dissent. Although identifying with different historical generations and espousing distinct aesthetic sensibilities, the authors I discussed engaged in a contrapuntal mode of thinking, one that is always in dialogue with an intellectual forebear who is then deconstructed. It begins with a dialectical appropriation of the archetype of prophetic intellectuals by engaging the legacy of predecessors like Jurji Zaidan, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Edward Said, and Mahmoud Darwish, and then points to their limits. As they embrace a self-reflexive, non-secular, and affective mode of criticism, these contemporary writers reject the objectification and the ideological codification of the intellectual and ultimately question the viability of the modernist principles associated with their fashioning. It is therefore generational inasmuch as generation means a dissenting critical sensibility.
MH: Could you tell us more about the cover photo?
ZGH: When I first saw Tarek Butayhi’s painting, Waiting for Youssef (2014), which now adorns the cover of the book, I was struck by the man sitting on the low chair. His gaze and posture speak of a troubled aura. Staring straight at us, he looks defeated yet resilient. His forceful presence invites us to reflect on the crisis that he endures in silence. His face was all-too familiar: he is the Syrian painter Youssef Abdelke. It is curious how Abdelke, whose oeuvre I do not engage in this book, features so prominently on its cover. But the ambivalence that Butayhi’s portrait evokes, at the intersection of generational deference and dissent, speaks to this book on many levels.
MH: Thank you for taking time to answer our questions!
 Scott, David, Omens of Adversity: Tragedy, Time, Memory, Justice (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), pp. 24.
The interview was published with kind permission of the author and publisher at themaydan.com