Bassam K. Frangieh reviews

Embers and Ashes
Memoirs of an Arab Intellectual

by Hisham Sharabi

Translated by Issa J Boullata

Olive Branch Press, 2008,
ISBN 97801056656-702
188pp, US$15, CAN$18.50

Touching the soul

Embers and Ashes is probably the most widely-read book written by an Arab intellectual in the modern era. It is certainly the best-known work of Hisham Sharabi, the distinguished authority on Arab culture and society and one of the most influential Arab thinkers of the twentieth century. Originally written and published in Arabic as a three-volume set of memoirs, Embers and Ashes represents more than a simple autobiography. Powerfully invoking themes of independence, freedom and modernity, it constitutes part and parcel of the Arab national and cultural struggle since the renaissance of the nineteenth century. The Arab project of modernity, set reeling with the establishment of Israel in 1948 and ending in fiasco in 1967, plays the prominent role. Sharabi is a proxy for the larger story.

These memoirs offer a candid and touching account of Sharabi’s personal life and development, first published in 1978 and beautifully translated into English in 2008 by Issa Boullata. With his masterful rendition Professor Boullata has done a great service to world literature and to modern Arab culture, literature and thought as well as to the movement of translation in which he has been a leader. Sharabi always used simple and attractive language, with an almost novelistic style. His words come warm and sincere, penetrating deeply into the subconscious of all those who read his work.

I have read the Arabic Embers and Ashes many times and am always deeply affected by the work, not purely due to Sharabi’s eminent status or his profound insight into Arab culture and thought, but because he was my teacher and mentor during my days as a graduate student at Georgetown University. In my memory, Sharabi was the most inspiring and fascinating personality in all of Georgetown. I still keep his letters, written in his own hand, responding to my comments on Embers and Ashes when it first appeared in print.

Sharabi tells of his childhood, chronicling the everyday humiliation suffered by Palestinians at the hands of the British and by the Lebanese people at the hands of the French. He tells of his experience studying in Lebanon, in a university program that did not value self-analysis and criticism. Sharabi criticizes the imposed values and attitudes of the authoritarian professors, who failed to encourage free thinking and who lacked any real knowledge themselves.

Throughout his long journey, from his college years in the 1940s until his death in 2005, Sharabi lived the bitter experience of disappointment and exile. Departing Palestine in 1943 to study at the American University of Beirut, Sharabi became heavily involved with the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, under the leadership and vision of Antoun Sa"ada. Sharabi possessed great admiration and love for Sa"ada, the ideal standard-bearer for Arab unity, nationalism and modernity, and was devastated by Sa"ada’s extrajudicial execution by Lebanese authorities. The tragedy of the loss of Palestine also hit him hard. Sharabi’s homeland became memory, and America became his exile. He lived in continual torture.

Despite his close personal and ideological relationship with Sa"ada, Sharabi never ceased to raise questions, wondering if Sa"ada and SSNP could really achieve change in the Arab world. These questions would occupy his mind throughout his intellectual and academic career. When Sa"ada was abruptly put to death by the Lebanese government, Sharabi returned to America disappointed and broken, choosing to leave the Arab world and study at the University of Chicago. This would prove a weighty decision. Looking back in Embers and Ashes, Sharabi confesses that he considered his elite social status to confer upon him a right to higher education, rather than imbue him with a sense of duty to stay in Palestine and fight to prevent the establishment of Israel. He might write eloquent, learned articles about the need to defend Arab land, but it would be the peasants, not the bourgeois, who would take care of the fighting.

This realization would haunt Sharabi and lead him to critically examine his own social background. Embers and Ashes reflects on the city of Jaffa, where Sharabi was born in 1927, and on its bourgeois and upper class. He sought to distance himself from this class in the Arab world by uniting in solidarity with the oppressed common man. Sharabi explained that the Arab poor are poor because they are dominated by the wealthy classes. He called out the privileged bourgeois who studied in the West or at Westernized colleges in the Arab world while the majority of their generation stagnated in refugee camps, lacking the basic requirements for a decent life. The ills and contradictions of Arab society, the poor, the powerless, and the hopeless all were topics of Sharabi’s interest, as was the idea of liberation for Arab women. He pinpointed the flaws of Arab societal structure, culture, and politics, and kept alive the Palestinian historical narrative.

The Arab defeat of 1967 caused a radical change in Sharabi’s life; he was in America when the defeat took place, but he decided to devote himself entirely to the national, social and political issues of the Arab world. In 1970s, he resigned his post at Georgetown, where he had taught since 1953, and moved back to Beirut. He was denied residency in Lebanon, however, and thus returned to Washington and resumed his teaching duties at Georgetown, where he remained until 1998.

The original Arabic Embers and Ashes made Hisham Sharabi the most well-known Arab intellectual in exile, with his contribution to Arab culture and society outreaching even that of Edward Said. Sharabi was seen as more committed than Said to the Arab nationalist cause, having more than once tried to return to the Arab world. Unlike other Arab intellectuals who could return but chose otherwise, Sharabi was unable to go home until the last few years of his life. He died in Beirut in 2005, less than 150 miles from his native but inaccessible birthplace in Palestine.

Sharabi was a powerful writer and a man of great credibility, who enjoyed a strong and deep memory and possessed the gift of communicating it. Embers and Ashes profoundly touched the soul of his readers. His words, thoughts, narrations of events, questions, reflections and revelations came straight from his heart. The memoirs are both literary and intellectual, featuring poetic expression while depicting the struggle of the Arab intellectual against losing his identity and homeland.

Professor Boullata, himself a colleague and friend of Sharabi, has done an extraordinary job in capturing the beauty of this testimony, written by this outstanding figure of our time.

From Banipal 31 - Spring 2008

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