Monday, February 26, 2007

Why I'll miss Joseph Samaha

Lebanese writer Joseph Samaha died suddenly on the weekend of a heart attack. He was a beacon for thoughtful Lebanese, but you won't see any appreciation of his life and work in the English-language press. As a last resort, you could punch "Samaha" into the search-box at the top of this page, you will find a number of summaries or attempted summaries of recent columns. Don't miss "The Rice doctrine" (Oct 1), "The hand of fitna" (Nov 22), and a couple on where the Mecca agreement fits in the American strategy (Feb 8 and 14).

For my part, being self-taught in Arabic and never having visited his country, I was struck, first, by how difficult it was to render what he had to say into English, compared to other commentators, and the reason soon became apparent: Samaha avoided the prefabricated phrases and sentence structures that characterize a lot of daily journalism in any language. He let the events in question speak in their own language, and you will see that very clearly in the "hand of fitna" piece. Secondly, he short-circuited the party-political aspects of events when other, social and economic, factors were more important, or rather he kept both the political and the social elements in focus at the same time. In writing about the Hizbullah Beirut sit-in, while examining the roles of the various "government" parties in trying to foment crisis, he didn't forget that the contemptuous language being used to describe the Hizbullah people was fundamentally class-based and that the dynamics were those of fascism. This wasn't a case of name-calling, but rather a careful consideration of what was actually being said, plain and simple. I remember struggling with that piece, to try and summarize it in English, then giving up.

The same ability to keep in focus the political and the social side of things was evident in his treatment of the Mecca agreement and the question of what the Saudi role would really amount to. Having considered all of the technical-political details, Samaha didn't forget to remind readers that the real question was whether or not the Saudis would use their influence to help the Palestinians free themselves from the occupation, or not. The point was that the key, simple, questions can get lost in the labyrinth of political "analysis".

It was a style of thinking and of writing that you don't see in English. In English you will see party-political discussions, and you will see cookie-cutter "sociology", but you won't see the two sides of things brought together in flesh and blood, in the way that Samaha was able to do. (In the wasteland of acceptable newspaper English there isn't even such a thing as "occupation", and certainly there isn't such a thing as "fascism", heaven forbid!) Instead, on the one side you have political-party and sectarian analysis that goes out of its way to ignore the social and economic basis of politics, and on the other side you have "social and political science" coming out of the think-tanks. If you're not following me, try this: Re Iraq, read James D. Fearon of Stanford in Foreign Affairs magazine on the Iraqi "civil war", for the views of the white-coated laboratory technician, then read the latest piece by Seymour Hersch in the New Yorker, where he takes you down into the boiler-room where there are all the levers of power, and reflect: They are talking about the same goddamn thing. The civil wars that Fearon collects like baseball cards are the result of the dismantelment of existing governing structures by the type of people Hersch tells us about. But Fearon doesn't want to tell you about those people, he is into science, not filth. Conversely, the coming special-ops projects that Hersch tells us about are going to be manifested in the real world of Mideast political configurations, but the discussions--take my word for it--will be limited to how the executive-branch levers of power ought to be merged with the legislative-branch levers of power. They are each, Fearon and the scientists, and Hersch and the Washington-junkies, one-dimentional in what they present to us. (This is too generous to Fearon and completely unfair to Hersch, who obviously makes important contributions to our understanding of what is going on, but it is in the interests of making what I think is an important point about the overall picture).

Someone asked the old Chinese philosopher Mencius how his thought differed from the thought of his predecessors, and he said: "I know words, and I nourish the great flowing spirit". No
one really knows what he meant, but personally I think he would have been a fan of Samaha, who knew words and the discipline of using them, at the same time that he didn't lose sight of the great flowing spirit. It is a tradition we don't have. Did I mention that Samaha also wrote some recent pieces on the superficiality of the American left and the fact that Clinton and Edwards are looking to outflank the Republicans to the right, not to the left, on Iran?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't believe that he's dead. He was one of the most thoughtful persons NOT only in the arab world but far beyond it... Where in the western press does one still find such a complex thinker?

What will become of the newly started Al-Akhbar now?!!

6:28 AM  
Blogger annie said...

how sad. just recently i became aware of him thru this blog. may he rest in peace.

10:01 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

You make a good point, but I have my doubts. Seymour Hersh reports in his latest article for instance that money from Bush is going to "Sunni jihadist" groups. He doesn't focus for instance on the morality and consequences of backing the dominant side in a class-based social conflict in Lebanon to the detriment of a large amount of Lebanese Shia.

But I am sympathetic to Hersh even though I feel that such moral issues are more important. Because if he wants to get anything done, to change the political landscape for the better, all he can really do is expose the most egregious wrongdoing. He can rant and rave all day, but what will that accomplish? Of course, the ranting and the evidence need to be connected.

I think you're right about the vast majority of the American Left, that they do not see the existential and moral dimensions of occupation and are incapable of looking at U.S. military actions from the eyes of those who receive them. But also, there are some very good sites that acknowledge this reality and have very strong reportage that goes well beyond "socio-political cookie-cutter ideology" or whatever your term was. Here is one site:

Also, Britain's Independent and Guardian as well as other English-language newspapers seem to be significant exceptions to your argument.

10:04 AM  
Anonymous Yohan said...

Samaha, yet another lost member of the shrinking old breed of intrepid, independent Arab language reporters. They all seem to be dying off or being assassinated lately. With that generation of writers fading away, and with the ever-swelling(and easily replaceable) ranks of the bought and paid-for journalists of the ubiquitous Saudi media, is there any hope for the future? Do you see any notable fresh faces emerging in the Arab press to replace the likes of Samaha?

As for self-teaching Arabic, do you have a natural aptitude for languages or was there a certain method that made it easier for you? I'm having a damn hard time getting past my "intermediate" plateau and would love to see a post on tips and encouragement for learning media Arabic.

Keep up the great work!

11:56 AM  
Blogger badger said...

yohan, I', afraid I don't yet read widely enough to be able to spot talent in that way. I'm sure it's there. More important is to get your reading capacity up off that intermediate plateau. I do have some ideas I think should work, but you never know... I'm going to work on a post with some tips for people interested. (I had some comments for a commenter at the end of the 9 comments to "Editorial" on Feb 13, but he's a beginner).

1:50 PM  

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