Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Orientalism

The Debt We Owe Edward Said

A conversation with biographer Timothy Brennan about the enduring political and intellectual legacy of the Palestinian thinker.

By Kaleem Hawa. MARCH 25, 2021

Edward Said was our prince,” the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif recently said in a conversation reflecting on the Palestinian public intellectual’s life and writings.

An incomparable thinker, Said is credited with founding postcolonial studies, penning histories of cultural representation and “the Other,” and, in so doing, upending the Anglo-American academy.

His Orientalism, published in 1978, is among the most cited books in modern history, by some accounts above Marx’s Capital and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

Throughout decades of essays, books, and reviews, Said showed his care for form and the structures of feeling, seeing in their examination a means of understanding music, literature, the world, and Palestine, his home.

Said was a critic, a dandy, a narcissist, a mentor, a polemicist, and a singular wit.

In 1995’s Peace and Its Discontents—the first of his books intended for an Arab audience—Said describes the Oslo Accords as a “degrading spectacle of Yasser Arafat thanking everyone for what amounted to a suspension of his people’s rights,” shrouded in the “fatuous solemnity of Bill Clinton’s performance, like a twentieth century Roman empire shepherding two vassal knights through rituals of reconciliation and obeisance.”

The Palestinian leader for decades, Arafat would come to ban Said’s books in the West Bank and Gaza, a result of Said’s early positions in support of the one-state solution and his criticisms of Oslo.

With Ibrahim Abu-Lughod

Edward Said and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, 1986. (Photo by Jean Mohr)

Said’s commitment to the liberation of the Palestinian people made him enemies closer to home as well.

Late in his life, and after the Twin Tower 9/11, Said felt isolated by his American friends and colleagues, as if they had “suddenly discovered they were imperialists after all, and had turned themselves into mouthpieces for the status quo,” as he said in one of his final interviews, filmed by English documentarian Mike Dibb in 2003, just a few months before leukemia would take Said’s life.

After being faced with the capricious nature of American letters, Said found solace among Arabs.

Many who opposed Said’s political commitments to Palestine spent years attempting to tear him down, and those who owe a debt to him as a person and a scholar have had to rely on private conversations and his own enormous œuvre to contest those depictions.

Timothy Brennan, an author and professor who was Said’s former graduate student and a close friend, has attempted to change that with Places of Mind, his biography of Said.

As the reviews of the book have come in, though, it has been dispiriting to see a procession of white writers get Said wrong.

Dwight Garner, in his review for The New York Times, “A Study of Edward Said, One of the Most Interesting Men of His Time,” seems to find every possible thing interesting about Said except his identity as a Palestinian, devoting more lines to Said’s sex life than his views on the liberation of his own people.

This reflects Garner’s paper’s own treatment of Said when he was alive (The New York Times Book Review published Said 10 times, zero times on Palestine) and echoes its consistent overlooking of Palestinian voices—publishing almost 2,500 op-eds on Palestine since 1970, with only 46 authored by Palestinians.

This recent review only furthers something white critics have always misunderstood about Said: In treating his Palestinian identity as a curiosity rather than an animating feature of his life and work, they miss how generative the experiences of the (albeit privileged) colonial subject were to the writing of Orientalism (or BeginningsCovering Islam, and The Question of Palestine, for that matter).

These currents are convincingly traced in Brennan’s intellectual history.

In our conversation, Brennan discusses Said’s literary influences, his relationship to Marxism, his views on the growing movement to boycott Israel, his friendship with anti-war leader Eqbal Ahmed, and his experiences with the New York media.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Kaleem Hawa

KALEEM HAWA: Some people represent Said as a Palestinian academic “with a gentile intellect” rather than an ultimately Western one, whose project is situated within and in response to the Western canon. Do you believe Edward Said was an “Arab intellectual”?

TIMOTHY BRENNAN: This is probably one of the things that changed my mind about the Edward Said that I thought I knew so well.

First meeting him, it is very difficult to think of him as anything other than a British-educated, Ivy League product. And when you talk to some of the people who became Edward’s political enemies over time, they echo this sentiment, saying, “Don’t believe this commitment he has to Palestine. He never once talked about going back home or that he longed to live in the Middle East.”

But while this is a popular way of thinking about Edward, it is not borne out by the record. He took pains to relocate to the Middle East. He systematically apprenticed himself under the intellectuals of the Nahda [Renaissance], like Constantin Zureiq or Ibrahim Abu-Lughod. And I think it was very important to him to establish a direct line of communication with Arab readers and address them as Arabs.

KH: They didn’t always like what he had to say; I am thinking of the criticisms of Said by Marxist Arabs like Mahdi Amel, for instance. On this, the Irish poet Seamus Deane said that Said was not a Marxist, but only if we recognize the wildly different degrees to which one can be not a Marxist. What would you say was Said’s relationship to Marxism?

TB: I think that Edward couldn’t accept Marxism as somebody fighting for Palestinian nationalism because he felt it was an imported ideology that had been largely negative in the forms that it had taken in the Middle East.

He thought that, however correct a program it might be politically, it did not have the attractive force as a political system in the Middle East context to lead to the successful founding of a Palestinian state.

KH: Are you referring to his book Beginnings in which he attempts to map an indigenous Arab culture, politics, and aesthetics, and criticizes Frantz Fanon and Taha Hussein for using the structures of Freud and Marx to fight colonialism, rather than create their own distinctly native culture?

TB: There is also the famous takedown of Marx in Orientalism. And there’s the complaint about certain Marxist movements in Culture and Imperialism.

But let’s not forget that a lot of Said’s close friends and associates were Marxists. He’s as tight as one can be with another intellectual during a formative period of his life with Sadiq al-Azm.

Marxism wasn’t off-putting to him in any way—in fact, there was some competition between him and al-Azm about who could be the worst enfant terrible in the Middle East, and the relationship that he has with Marxism is consistent throughout his life.

There’s evidence of a more generally politically liberal disposition, yes, but Said also acted as an agent for Marxist intellectuals, reminding people of the vital insights that they had brought to political and cultural theory.

His greatest heroes, apart from [Giambattista] Vico—who you could say was proto-Marxist—were Marxists: [György] Lukács, [Theodor] Adorno, [Antonio] Gramsci. A small cast of characters made up this pantheon.

KH: Were there any women in this pantheon?

TB: Yes, Rose Subotnik, a musicologist, and Gillian Rose, a sociologist and Hegel scholar. Susan Buck-Morss first book on Adorno was also an influence.

KH: You didn’t mention Eqbal Ahmad, the anti-war leader and Pakistani intellectual. Said’s FBI file would call Said the unofficial liaison between the US and the Palestine Liberation Organization. This was perceived as radical in American contexts—though it hardly is nowadays—and was in part attributed to Said’s relationship with Ahmad. How did that relationship come to be?

TB: Eqbal was one of the leaders of the American anti-war movement, and he caught Edward’s attention just when Edward was becoming more overtly political following the Palestinian Naksa in 1967. (The defeat of the both the Egyptian and Syrian armies)

Eqbal took a very bold and unpopular step at the time, giving a lecture to militant Arab intellectuals and activists saying that they would not be able to win their fight against Zionism in a military way, that they had to learn about the techniques of persuasion.

This was not where Edward was coming from at the time; he was very attracted to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was the most Marxist of the organizations in the Palestine liberation umbrella groups. Said was thinking in military terms at that point.

KH: It’s interesting because you also say that Said would admire his students and peers who would stand outside of grocery stores collecting signatures against the Vietnam War, but he would never do it himself.

He also famously called the campus police on student protesters when they stormed his class at Columbia. Are we talking about Said’s political failings as aberrations explainable by circumstance, rather than as constitutive of a worldview?

Would he have leafleted if it was for Palestine? Was he just not a leafleteer? How do we explain these contradictions?

TB: There are few reasons I can think of.

First, Edward was an elitist. He grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth and did not see himself as being in the trenches.

Secondly, if he’s going to put himself out for a political cause, it’s not going to be the Vietnam War; as much as he despised and was appalled by what the United States was doing in Vietnam, he only had one life to give and one set of energies.

Finally, he thought of the student activists as involved in a sort of middle-class playacting, that they didn’t know what real political danger was. He had seen that danger up close by knowing comrades in Cairo under [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser and comrades in Beirut who were getting assassinated. All those things would militate against him handing out leaflets.

KH: I wonder about the role of intellectuals then as a node in a network between other intellectuals and liberation causes. Said claims to have been the person that introduced Fredric Jameson to Palestine—he organized a trip with Ahmad with the intentions of elevating Palestine to a political issue, not just an academic one for Jameson. What do you know about this trip?

TB: Edward admired Fred and Fred’s intellect but would not identify with Jameson’s Marxism. He thought it was not interested in applying itself to real-world conditions, that it had become a kind of a compensatory philosophy where one could feel ethically pure but not engage with the world.

Edward would say things like, “Jameson, he’s as political as that chair over there.” The trip was to Lebanon, and the goal was to show Western academics what it meant to politically resist Israel.

KH: Sometimes I think what is missing in the Western intellectual is a deeply felt anger. Was Said’s rage real?

TB: He was angry. He was really angry. He would have taken up arms if it would have been the way to achieve victory.

I am absolutely astounded at the prodigious energy that went into his writing about Palestine from so many different angles over so many years.

But also, his political strategies vis-à-vis Palestine and the post-9/11 attacks on freedoms in the United States had everything to do with what he learned from studying literature—there is a direct connection between his patient study of rhetoric and narrative and his belief in the authority that the intellectual has in society.

He would talk about the entire Israeli apparatus of stories that had been brought to the public on a mass basis, like the movie Exodus or the eye patch of Moshe Dayan.

Edward would say that Palestinians didn’t register with the public, that they needed to tell their stories and find a way to mythologize their experiences so that people could identify with it. Essentially, Said’s view of narrative was not just as something that literature professors study in a classroom—it had everything to do with the Palestinian national project.

KH: The audiences for these stories are implicitly Western ones, though. What about Said’s visions for communicating with Arabs?

You describe his essay “Withholding, Avoidance, and Recognition” in Mawaqif, the Beirut magazine, as the first time Said addressed an Arab audience, staking out a sort of Arab pessimism, the very thing that Ghassan Kanafani described as a “masochistic festival of self-disparagement.” What was Said arguing in that essay and why?

TB: It’s an absolutely stunning essay. Said argues that what the Arab intellectual most needs to recognize as lacking in their culture is a theory of mind. In the essay he is attempting to show that the challenge with resisting Western imperialism as an Arab has to do in part with the overemphasis on the Arabic language as a reservoir of beauty and perfection, and that Arabs must work to understand what makes them different, what they most need, what they lack. It’s very political, but it’s also psychoanalytic.

KH: You also write that Said was fascinated with fiction writers he should not have liked. He championed Jonathan Swift instead of anti-colonialist William Blake, and he loved Joseph Conrad rather than his anti-imperialist colleague R. Cunninghame Graham.

You argue that in Conrad’s pessimism and moral darkness, Said could find himself as a relief. But Said also saw similarities, describing himself and Conrad both as “exiles in the imperial world capitals of their time.” Can you talk more about Said’s connection to Conrad?

TB: Edward was attracted to those whose politics he disagreed with. This is clear in his early emulation of [Lebanese nationalist and Phalangist] Charles Malik.

In part, Edward sought to get in the minds of those who in some respects he despised, interested in what would be produced by the friction. But I also think his attraction to Conrad was because Conrad had invented himself, creating fictional masks under his own persona in his works.

Edward really identified with that and wanted that, especially in his abortive attempts at writing a novel. Edward wanted to hide himself, and Conrad doing so gave him ideas about how he might do it.

KH: Said also saw in Conrad a duality that replicated in his personal life. You quote Said saying, “When I was beginning to teach at Columbia…I was really considered two people…the teacher of literature…and this other person who did these quite unspeakable, unmentionable things.”

What were Edward Said’s unspeakable, unmentionable things?

TB: Well, I think they’re largely imaginary. I think what he’s really saying there is that despite his eloquence, despite his success as a professor, people could never get over the fact that he was different, he was slightly off, he was from another part of the world.

It was a feeling of inferiority in his presence because he had a global reach and a cosmopolitan depth that they didn’t have.

They saw this man who spoke Arabic and knew the British Empire from the inside out, having grown up under it—all of those things made him formidable. And so it wasn’t what he was doing, it’s what he was thinking.

KH: I always thought that stuff was kind of libidinal, that it operated at the level of psychosexual distrust for Arab people, à la Joseph Massad’s Desiring Arabs. Were there any consequences of this attention for Said?

TB: Yes, it was apparent when he arrived in New York City. He was always in love with New York, always felt at home in New York, and that went way back even to childhood.

He gets there and soon he’s established. He’s the darling. He’s handsome. He’s articulate. He’s funny. He writes perfectly for that kind of intellectual crowd. He’s got the cachet of being from Columbia, and he’s from unidentifiable origins, which makes him intriguing.

But then he publishes The Question of Palestine. And the problem with that book for the New York media world was precisely what made it attractive to people like Cyrus Vance and George Shultz:

He could be “reasonable”; he could patiently explain; he had the rhetorical techniques and the evidence to drive his point home. 

He explained too well, and nobody had ever seen anything like it. They felt endangered. They felt that this person could make a case for Palestine that more and more people would accept. So they start to blacklist him.

It was harder for him to publish in The New York Review of Books after that; he only got to publish certain kinds of things. And there’s lots of correspondence with The New York Times Magazine where they say, “Well, we’re interested, but only if you stay away from politics, if you just talk about your childhood.”

KH: On this point, one of Said’s first essays for the London Review of Books was about the journalist’s relationship to power.

He planted a flag for the idea of media criticism. Why?

TB: You could say that Covering Islam was the book that most perfectly embodied the fruits of the media criticism that he was reading in others.

There are writers who precede Said who are writing these really important studies of the media, like Edward Herman and Armand Mattelart.

Said argues that we need to systematically and structurally unpack media bias on the subject of the Middle East. And he brings to it literary critical notions like the problem of representation and the mediation of the news by capitalism.

KH: Yes, but do you believe his critique is always so structural? I think of his essay in the London Review of Books, “Permission to Narrate,” in which he argues that there is a unique standard when it comes to Palestine. Why did he think this?

TB: The Zionist project both objectively is—and Edward was trying to convince people that it was—a genocidal attempt to disarticulate a people, to deny its existence, to prevent it from associating with itself, prevent it from telling its story.

And so anything that would create the impression that there was this people with a history and a heritage that was conscious of itself as a people had to be anathema.

KH:  Did Said ever describe what Israel has done and is doing to the Palestinians as genocide?

TB: To my knowledge, no, he never uses that word. It is one that I think would be appropriate myself, but I don’t think that he uses that word.

I think Said would have thought it polarizing among the people he was trying to reach, but then he would write several essays about the complete disarticulation, denial, and elimination of Palestinian collective existence, which fits under the official UN definition of genocide.

KH: In some ways this is an evasion, because the enemies of Palestinian people understand this deeply and police the parameters of which language is reasonable and not reasonable. We are seeing this firsthand with the boycott, divestment, and sanctions [BDS] movement, which Zionist groups have tried to present as something that is not discussed in polite society. I struggle with Said’s position.

TB: Right.

KH: I do want to talk about BDS for a moment.

Said died in 2003 and the BDS movement was founded in 2005. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra program that Said co-founded with Daniel Barenboim [an Israeli citizen] would become the subject of a Palestinian boycott by the cofounder of the BDS movement, Omar Barghouti.

Some in Said’s family, like his sister Grace, took issue with the orchestra project because of the ways that it normalized the Israeli state. Nevertheless, she and others have said that Said would have been a supporter of BDS today.

TB: I agree with Grace. Before 2003, Said himself was actively participating in boycotts of Israeli companies.

And he was absolutely livid with close friends and associates at Columbia for not participating in a boycott of any company that was investing in the occupied territories.

He would have probably taken the position, which is BDS position, that the boycott is not a question of individuals but is a question of institutions, and that these institutions should be punished for what they are doing.

KH: You dedicated your book to the Palestinian people. Why?

TB: I guess being around Edward taught me to throw my energy into trying to do something for the cause. He taught me to risk professional censure to take a stand on Palestine.

To me, it’s a litmus test for whether your anti-colonial politics is sincere or not, whether you risk speaking out on behalf of the great injustice done by Zionism to the Palestinian people.

To me, this is one of the biggest ethical questions of our time.

Kaleem Hawa Kaleem Hawa has written about art, film, and literature for the New York Review of BooksThe NationTimes Literary Supplement, and other publications.

How ABC’s “Alice in Arabia” Is Racist?

Have you seen a US film that talk nice of “Arabs” or “Moslems”?

Have you seen a US movie or TV program that talk bad of Jews , Zionism or the State of Israel?

Do you think the narratives on Jews or about Jews are done by non Jews or anyone not supporting the State of Israel?

Do you know of a narrative on “Arabs” or Moslems in the US done by an “Arab” or a Moslem?

Do you know that the “Arab World” is constituted of two dozen independent States and this Arab World has at least four major differences, such as the North African countries, the Nile region States, the Arabic peninsula and the Gulf Emirates and the Syrian Nation (Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine?)

The pilot, which riffs on the Alice in Wonderland tale, reinforces old racist tropes:   an American girl (presumably a white girl) is threatened by scary “other” people of color.

American Muslims have lost control of their narratives both online and in the media.

While violent Islamic extremists have grown increasingly adept at using social media to craft their messages – as have anti-Muslim activists – more normative voices from Muslims have been drowned out.

Rabia Chaudry posted this March 19, 2014

The lack of control over self-articulated narratives was exemplified yesterday with the announcement of ABC Family’s new pilot programs, which include a show that got the attention of Arab and Muslim Americans across social media.

One such pilot, “Alice in Arabia” — a title cringe-worthy in itself — has been described as follows:

“Alice in Arabia” is a high-stakes drama series about a rebellious American teenage girl who, after tragedy befalls her parents, is unknowingly kidnapped by her extended family, who are Saudi Arabian.

Alice finds herself a stranger in a new world but is intrigued by its offerings and people, whom she finds surprisingly diverse in their views on the world and her situation.

Now a virtual prisoner in her grandfather’s royal compound, Alice must count on her independent spirit and wit to find a way to return home while surviving life behind the veil.”

(Frequent regurgitated plot: no imagination when applied to the “Arab World” situation)

Dieter Spears—Getty Images/Vetta

The Twittersphere exploded with the hashtag #AliceinArabia, as people tweeted their offense to ABC Family. The criticisms are plentiful and varied.

1. The show reinforces old racist tropes in which an American girl (presumably a white girl) is threatened by scary “other” people of color.

Considering the sordid history of Americans vilifying Native American men and then black men as dangerous to white women, it is a completely understandable objection.

2. The entire framework of the show is through the kidnap plotline, confirming the kinds of fears about Arabs, Iranians and Muslims that the movie “Not Without My Daughter” established decades ago.

3. The show certainly pits Americans against “Arabs” (tweeters pointed out “Arabia” is not actually a place), and we can assume the “independent spirit and wit” of Alice the American will prevail as triumphant over the lesser evolved Arabians. Thus the plot both bolsters the highly troublesome binary of us vs. them (Muslims being them), a factor linked to the growth of anti-Muslim bigotry and hate crimes in the US since 9/11, and confirms American superiority.

4. Not only will “Alice in Arabia” exacerbate the marginalization of Muslim and Arab men, it perfectly reflects Western attitudes towards Muslim women. Hear that sound?

It’s millions of Muslim women snorting as Alice attempts to survive “life behind the veil.”

The very idea that the veil is something to be survived strips Muslim women of their intellect and agency and makes them the subjects of this practice rather than sentient protagonists 5. of it.

5. The pilot uses the real-life difficulties faced by women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a platform for ratings, and diminishes the work of activists in and outside the country to effect meaningful reform.

An imported heroine, who is both the victim and the great white hope, not only smacks of Orientalism but frames serious issues through her narrative alone. In doing so, it reaffirms the fact that overwhelmingly the stories in the West of Muslims and Arabs are not actually being told by Muslims and Arabs.

The challenges of Muslims in the West are many, but there is no question that having control over our narratives and the messages about our faith are paramount.

These narratives shape public opinion, impact civil liberties, and even influence our foreign policy.

In failing to self-define ourselves, our culture and our faith we lose authority both to religious extremists and anti-Muslim bigots.

It can only be hoped that ABC Family and other media outlets are paying attention.

The American Muslim community is ripe with talent and voices who can actually tell these stories in relevant, meaningful, and authentic ways.

Portraying Muslims and Arabs as nuanced Americans instead of foreign caricatures would be a good first step for television.

Instead of reaching across the globe for “Alice in Arabia,” perhaps we should start here at home with “Ahmed in Austin”.

Questions Palestinian Queers are tired of hearing: 8 of them

You might think that the main goal of a group of queer activists in Palestine like us in Al-Qaws (The Bow) should be the seemingly endless task of dismantling sexual and gender hierarchy in one’s own society.

It is. But you might think otherwise, judging from the repetitive questions we get during our lectures and events, or from inquiries we receive from media and other international organizations.

Ghaith Hilal posted in The Electronic Intifada this November 27,  2013


Graffiti in Ramallah reads “Queers passed through here.” (Image courtesy of Al-Qaws)

We intend to end this once and for all. Educating people about their own privilege is not our burden.

But before we announce our formal retirement from this task, here are the eight most frequent questions we get, and their definitive answers.

1. Doesn’t Israel provide Palestinian queers with a safe haven?

Of course it does: the apartheid wall has sparkly pink doors lining it, ready to admit those who strike a fabulous pose. In fact, Israel built the wall to keep Palestinian homophobes out and to protect Palestinian queers who seek refuge in it.

But seriously: “Israel creates refugees; it does not shelter refugees. There has never been a case of a Palestinian — a descendant of a family or families who were forcibly displaced, sometimes massacred, often thrown in jail without charge — magically transcending the living legacy of this history to find him or herself granted asylum in “Israel” — the state that committed these atrocities.

If some people manage to cross the wall and end up in Tel Aviv, they are considered “illegal.” They end up working and living in horrible conditions, trying to avoid being arrested.

2. Aren’t all Palestinians homophobic?

Are all Americans homophobic? Of course not. Unfortunately, Western representations of Palestinians, particularly lesbian, gay, transgender or queer Palestinians, tend to ignore diversity in Palestinian society.

That being said, Palestinians are living under decades-long military occupation. The occupation amplifies the diverse forms of oppression that are experienced in every society.

However, homophobia is not the way we contextualize our struggle. This is a notion comes from specific type of activism in the global north.

How can we single out homophobia from a complex oppressive system (patriarchy) that oppresses women, and gender non-conforming people?

3. How do you deal with your main enemy, Islam?

Oh, we have a main enemy now? If we had to single out a main enemy that would be occupation, not religion — Islam or otherwise.

More fundamentalist forms of religion are presently enjoying a global resurgence, including in many Western societies.

We don’t view religion as our main exceptional challenge. Still, increased religious sentiment, regardless of which religion, almost always creates obstacles for those interested in promoting respect for gender and sexual diversity.

Palestinian nationalism has a long history of respect for secularism. This provides a set of cultural values useful in advocating for LGBTQ Palestinians.

Furthermore, religion is often an important part of Palestinian LGBTQ people’s identities. We respect all of our communities’ identities and make space for diversity.

4. Are there any out Palestinians?

I’m glad you asked that question. We have great Palestinian gay carpenters who build such amazing closets for queers with all the Western comforts you can dream of — we never want to leave.

Once again the notion of coming out — or the politics of visibility — is a strategy that has been adopted by some LGBT activists in the global north, due to specific circumstances. Imposing this strategy on the rest of the world, without understanding context, is a colonial project.

Ask us instead what social change strategies apply to our context, and whether the notion of coming out even makes sense.

5. Why are there no Israelis in al-Qaws?

Colonialism is not about bad people being mean to others (“bad” Israelis don’t steal queer Palestinians’ lunch money). Being super “good” doesn’t magically dissolve systems of oppression.

Our organization works within Palestinian society, across borders imposed by the occupation. The challenges that LGBTQ Israelis face are nothing like the ones faced by Palestinians.

We are talking about two different societies with different cultures and histories; the fact that they are currently occupying our land doesn’t make us one society.

Being queer does not eliminate the power dynamic between the colonized and colonizer despite the best of intentions.

We resist the “global, pink, happy, gay family” sentiment. Palestinian-only organizing is essential to decolonizing and improving Palestinian society.

6. I saw this film about gay Palestinians (Invisible Men/Bubble/Out In The Dark, etc.) and I feel I learned a lot about your struggle

You mean the films that were made by privileged Israeli or Jewish filmmakers portraying white Israelis as saviors and Palestinians as victims that needed saving?

These films strip the voice and agency of Palestinian queers, portraying them as victims that need saving from their own society.

These films rely on racist tropes of Arab men as volatile and dangerous.

These films are simply pinkwashing propaganda, funded by the Israeli government, with a poignant oppressed/oppressor love story the glitter on top.

If you want to learn about the reality of our community and our struggle, try listening to what queer Palestinians have to say, at the Al-Qaws or Palestinian Queers for BDS websites.

7. Isn’t fighting for gay rights a more pressing issue than pinkwashing?

Mainstream LGBT groups in the North would have us believe that queers live in a separate world, only connected to their societies as victims of homophobia.

But you cannot have queer liberation while apartheid, patriarchy, capitalism and other oppression exist. It’s important to target the connections of these oppressive forces.

Furthermore, pinkwashing is a strategy used by the Brand Israel campaign to garner the support of queers in other parts of the world. It is simply an attempt to make the Zionist project more appealing to queer people.

This is another iteration of a familiar and toxic colonial fantasy — that the colonizer can provide something important and necessary that the colonized cannot possibly provide for themselves.

Pinkwashing strips away our voices, history and agency, telling the world that Israel knows what is best for us.

By targeting pinkwashing we are reclaiming our agency, history, voices and bodies, telling the world what we want and how to support us.

8. Why do you use terms from “the West” like LGBT or queer to describe your struggle? How do you answer that critique?

Though we have occasionally been branded as tokenized, complicit with Israel, naïve and Westernized (by those based in the West), our activists bring decades of experience and on-the-ground analysis of cultural imperialism and Orientalism.

This has provided the raw material for many an itinerant academic. However, the work of those in the Ivory Tower is rarely, if ever, accountable to those working in the field nor does it acknowledge its power (derived from the same colonial economy) on activists.

We are accountable to our local communities and the values developed over years of organizing.

Language is a strategy, but it does not eclipse the totality of who we are and what we do.

The words that have gained global currency — LGBTQ — are used with great caution in our grassroots movements. Simply because such words emerged from a particular context and political moment does not mean they carry that same political content when deployed in our context.

The language that we use is always revisited and expanded through our work.

Language catalyzes discussions and pushes us to think more critically, but no word whether in English or Arabic can do the work. Only a movement can.

Ghaith Hilal is a queer Palestinian activist from the West Bank who has been part of Al-Qaws leadership since 2007.

Beirut Metropolis: Orientalism with a surgical twist

For much of its contemporary history, Beirut has been characterized as the Paris of the Middle East, a cosmopolitan metropolis that misfortune has placed in the middle of a region otherwise hostile to the civilized pleasures of material excess, free-flowing alcohol and exposed female skin.

Beirut’s Parisian charm has tended to become less apparent during periods of mass sectarian slaughter.

In the introduction to his Orientalism, the late US/Palestinian author Edward Said notes repercussions of civil conflict in Lebanon on the European consciousness:

“On a visit to Beirut during the terrible civil war of 1975-1976 a French journalist wrote regretfully of the gutted downtown area that ‘it had once seemed to belong to the Orient of Chateaubriand and Nerval [18th- and 19th-century French Romantic writers] ‘. This journalist was right about the place, of course, especially so far as a European was concerned. The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” (See link in note 2)

Belen Fernandez published in AlJazeera on Nov. 6, 2012 “Orientalism with a surgical twist: Beirut”

The ‘New York Times’ advertised Beirut as number 1 out of 44 ideal travel destinations in 2009 [Reuters]
Can the representation of Beirut as a “Middle Eastern Paris brimming with wealth” function on behalf of imperialism?
“The civil war may indeed have upset a regional landscape constructed over time by European scholars, poets, travelers and other self-appointed authorities, who, as late Edward Said argues, helped institutionalize Eurocentric prejudice, deny agency to the actual inhabitants of the romanticized exotic lands and thus facilitate imperial and colonial conquest.

The civil war did not, however, halt Orientalist traditions – made quite clear in manuscripts like From Beirut to Jerusalem, unleashed to wide acclaim in 1989 by former New York Times Beirut bureau chief Thomas Friedman.According to Friedman’s account, civil war-era Lebanon was populated by “buxom, Cleopatra-eyed Lebanese girls“, whose presence threw invading Israeli soldiers for a loop:”This was not the Sinai, filled with cross-eyed Bedouins and shoeless Egyptian soldiers“.

That such caricatures were permitted to pass as insight, exposes the delusional nature of Friedman’s subsequent complaint that “a toxic political correctness infected the academic field of Middle Eastern studies“.

Paris revisited 

In recent years, Beirut has reclaimed its image as the Paris of the Middle East, outfitted with expanded shopping opportunities and a spiffy new downtown erected on the former dividing line between the Muslim and Christian halves of the city.

A spate of Times articles about Beirut’s various amenities offers such trivia as that “[i]n a city of many faiths – Christian, Sunni, Shiaa, Druze – at least one religion is universally practiced: sun worship“.

The New York Times has dutifully taken on the role of PR firm for the resurgent Lebanese capital, advertising it as number 1 out of 44 ideal travel destinations in 2009.

Given that the specified temples of worship are high-end beach clubs where “hordes of heliophiles absorb ultraviolet rays and cultivate their bronzed exteriors”, it would seem that said religion is not so universal after all

– either from an economic perspective or one that recognises the incompatibility of certain prominent faiths with public bronzed exterior cultivation.

On the new Zaitunay Bay waterfront promenade, a “luxury playground” where “tablecloths gleam white and bottles of wine sweat in silver coolers”, the Times observes that the boardwalk planks, “a nod to maritime authenticity, present a design flaw perhaps foreseeable in this city: Women with Louis Vuitton handbags are forever extracting their spike heels from the cracks”.

Additional sights at Zaitunay Bay, itself described as “Lebanon’s latest effort to recapture the prewar 1960s – when Brigitte Bardot was a regular and Beirut was a fashionable port of call”, include an Iraqi immigrant in “leather miniskirt, thigh-high boots and a fur vest and whose fire-engine-red lipstick and long yellow hair” would have appeared out-of-place in her native land but “were right at home in Beirut”.

In other Beirut-centric dispatches, the Times raves about gay nightlife and restaurants offering beef and duck flown in from France.

The point of taking issue with such idealised odes to money and fashion is not to deny the affluence that exists in the city or the comparatively liberal nature of its society.

However, the marketing of a Beirut brand of “joie de vivre“, so blatantly equated with material wealth becomes morally problematic when we acknowledge the glaring economic disparity in the country, visible in the capital itself.

Consider, for example, the aesthetic differences between the refurbished downtown and the overcrowded and neglected Palestinian refugee camps and primarily Shia southern suburbs.

In these areas, recent infrastructure projects have included the rampant flattening of apartment blocks by the Israeli air force in 2006.

Needless to say, less sanitary aspects of life in Lebanon – such as the enslaved status of many migrants employed in the domestic help sector – have no place in the portrait of Beirut as a paradise of wealth, where tantalising opportunities await foreign visitors and their pocket-books.

Cleopatra on Botox 

Three decades after Thomas Friedman discovered buxom Cleopatra in Lebanon, another Western voyager by the name of David J Constable has confirmed that the women still “look like Cleopatra”, and that they have acquired new methods for enhancing their appearances – becoming in the process veritable ambulatory showcases for “tucks, lifts, firming, lipo, implants, grafting, tightening, otoplasty, mammoplasty, rhinoplasty and many other physical manipulations”.

A member of the Royal Geographical Society, Constable approaches his anthropological subjects with Orientalist vigour, compiling his findings in a Huffington Post report entitled “Boobs, Botox, and the Babes of Beirut“.

Constable dispatch begins with the curious hypothesis:

“For a largely Arab country it’s a bizarre thing that in Lebanon (Beirut specifically), women care more about their appearance than men.

Males lead a rather sullied existence, priming their closely cut mini-beards and, from my own observations, eating rather a lot.

The formula in Lebanon’s capital for women is fashion-forward, from their choice of cloth to the decisions they make surgically.”

Non-experts on Arab grooming habits might of course be surprised to deduce that men usually spend hours preening in front of the mirror while women mope about in filth.

Undeterred, Constable rumbles on: “Muslim, Christian and Druze women in Beirut dress surprisingly skimpy. There are vests and silks and bikinis and cashmere and come-hither off-the-shoulder numbers.

Constable warns, however, of occasional inauspicious outcomes among operated females: “Some look as if a drunken Picasso has drawn a face on to a balloon”.

In the very least, Picasso’s inebriated doodles attest to the European role in literally shaping the Orient.

Indeed, in 2006, the Israelis were presumably just as pleased as they’d been in 1982:  They discovered that not all Arabs were cross-eyed Bedouins, and Lebanon is still inhabited by bikini-clad plastic surgery recipients (and their slovenly overeating menfolk).

Field notes 

The Orient’s existence as a spectacle for the Westerner to behold and interpret is meanwhile made especially clear during Constable’s expedition to a nightclub “to witness the dolls and their dates myself”.

A power outage interrupts the exotic display but is fortunately resolved:

“The lights slowly raise and the permafixed smiles return. The waxed, toned limbs of party women begin to pop and gyrate again.

They’re back on show, electrified so their surgical enhancements, botoxed-brows and designer names can bounce off my eyes, competing in a variety of silk-cut blouses, Louboutin heels and over-night handbags.

At another rooftop bar, Constable surmises that “there are benefits to marrying/dating/having sex with a plastic surgeon, since surely no one can afford to spend that much of their own cash on reconstructive surgery and blow-me-up operations”. Case closed.

As with the New York Times‘ fixation with Beirut glamour, the effect of essays like Constable’s is to reduce the Lebanese to a superficial existence in which personal concerns are limited to inflating one’s lips and breasts and not getting one’s designer heels stuck in boardwalk planks.

Never mind that many Lebanese are faced with more pressing preoccupations, such as a southern neighbour with a penchant for massacring civilians, upending infrastructure and saturating portions of the country with unexploded cluster bombs to serve as post-conflict population control.

Some may argue that the Times Constable approach is less detrimental than other reductionist portrayals of the country, such as Lebanon equals terrorist den.

These reductionist statements helps propagate an ethnic stereotype that has been exploited to justify more than one imperial project in the Arab/Muslim world.

However, the representation of Beirut as a Middle Eastern Paris brimming with wealth and cleavage – a place the West can relate to on account of its fervent materialism – can also function on behalf of imperialism, eliminating as it does all context legitimizing other aspects of Lebanon’s identity, like resistance to Israeli regional designs.

Note 1: Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Workreleased by Verso in 2011.

She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blogAl Akhbar English and many other publications.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Note 2:

Note 3: I think Miss Lebanon of 2012 is the one on the far left, the tall blonde one?

Around the World Social Event Miss Lebanon 2012 In Las Vegas Lebanon




June 2023

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