Monday, December 12, 2016

Sadiq Al-Azm dead, his family confirmed.

Sadiq Al-Azm has died, his family in Germany confirmed.  He was one of the best known writers and polemicists of the post-1967 Arab world.  I first met him in the late 1970s, when as a young revolutionary Marxist at AUB, and I was writing a long (unpublished) study of the colonial role of the American University of Beirut.  He talked to me about his experience at AUB and how the right-wingers at the University (especially the Lebanese, like Charles Malik and Samir Khalaf) wanted to get rid of him in the 1960s, before he was fired.  What struck me about him at the time was how friendly and how accessible he was.  He does not carry himself like the typical Arab intellectual and would love to engage with young students.  He was at the time teaching at the philosophy department at Damascus University--if I am not mistaken or maybe he was working at the Palestine Research Center--not sure.  That was my first and only encounter.  I read at the time his articles in Dirasat Arabiyyah which he had written after the 1967.  They were thrilling to me at the time, as was the writings of Al-Afif Al-Akhdar who was far to his left and was one of the first Arab Marxists to offer anti-Leninist, anti-Stalinist critiques of Soviet Marxism and its branches in orthodox Arab communism.  I also heard about him from my uncle, Naji AbuKhalil (still alive and lives in Paris), who knew him from the days of the Movement of Arab Nationalists and from its mouthpiece, Al-Huriyyah where my uncle and Ghassan Kanafani among others worked and contributed.  He was close--like my uncle--to Nayif Hawatmah and the DFLP leadership and both would attend politburo meetings without being official members of the Front.  But I only got to know Al-Azm well in the 1992-1993 academic year, when I spent a year as a scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute while teaching at Georgetown when Hanna Batatu was on sabbatical.  Al-Azm had finished a year at Princeton's Center for Middle East studies and was spending a year at the Wilson Center.  Bassam Haddad and I got to know him well, and would socialize over Arabic food often (often at Bassam's home).  He was still very nice and very accessible and very engaging with younger students.  He would sometimes ask me to speak on his behalf (often about Arab secularism) when he could not fulfill an obligation for whatever reason.  I liked him at the time but was surprised that his family name meant much to him: he would tell me (more than once) the story of his teasing Mustafa Talas's wife (from the "elite" Jabiri family) about their elite backgrounds and that he would tell her that if your family is blue-blooded my family is purple-blooded, or words to that effect.  I also saw him with his family (his wife and his son Ivan, who was studying at American University in DC at the time, if my memory serves me).  But I had a rift with Al-Azm at the end of the academic year when I noticed that his attitude toward Zionism and American Zionists and Israeli academics have softened, as when he accepted to speak at WINEP.  (He later canceled his appearance).  But when we discussed his newly moderate views on Arab-Israeli issues,  I remember his answer which shocked me, he said: "The Jews have won, ya As`ad." (In Arabic: اليهود انتصروا).  I was surprised at the sentiment and at the phrasing of the sentiment.  During the year, because I liked Sadiq, I tried (with his encouragement) to mediate between him and Edward Said.  Edward was adamant against any reconciliation with him and told me that the Zionists at Princeton only invited him to US because of his critique of Orientalism.  We would exchange publications over the years and I would send him materials to his address at Damascus University.  Ironically, Al-Azm was never associated or close to Syrian opposition and his strong opposition to all forms of Islamism perhaps made his relations with the regime less conflictual.  He held a senior position at Damascus University, as is known.  I never saw him during the years until a few years ago when I ran into him at MESA in Boston.  I could only say this to him: You are now a liberal democrat? How ironic.  He said: something to the effect: that we need to breathe. And I said: there are many ways to breathe other than liberalism, or words to that effect. The encounter was civil but very brief.  Ironically, in all those decades when I lived in the US, Al-Azm would rarely if ever be invited to speak at American colleges and universities.  Only his friends at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University would invite him, along with Arab American organizations, like the AAUG.  But his critique of Said endeared him to many American Zionists.  I also changed my mind over the years about his writings of post-1967 (under the rubric of "self-criticisms" which are covered in Fouad Ajami's The Arab Predicament) and the writings of Adonis in the same period.  I wrote against them in Arabic and regard them as full of generalizations and crude Orientalist essentialism.    His role in the Syrian exile opposition and his resort to sectarian critiques after 2011 shocked me and shocked many of his former admirers--as his positive remarks about Islamists of Syria.  I wish I can remember him prior to this period, and I wish personally that he opposed the Syrian regime long before 2011.  In fairness to him, it was not easy to oppose the Syrian regime from Lebanon as the henchmen of the regime often killed Syrian dissidents in Lebanon.  Killing of Syrian dissidents in Lebanon by the regime did not even stop after the Syrian army withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005.  I believe that Al-Azm took his feminism seriously and practiced it in his life.  He was as a person--politics aside--far better and modest and kinder to younger Arabs (and Western students) than most Arab intellectuals I know--if not all.  Condolences to his family.