Review: ‘The Unmaking of the Arab Intellectual’

In Zeina Halabi’s The Unmaking of the Arab Intellectual, a look at the position of the public thinker from the nahda to now, with an emphasis on the 90s:

By Nourhan Tewfik

The Unmaking of the Arab Intellectual: Prophecy, Exile and the Nation, Zeina G.Halabi, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017. pp191

In November 2014, Egyptian novelist Youssef Zaydan announced on Facebook that he was suspending his literary activity in protest at the appointment of Ismail Siraj al-Din, director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina at the time, as a cultural consultant to the Egyptian Council of Ministers. Zaydan stressed that his decision was to remain unchanged so long as his adversary stayed in either post. Siraj al-Din was appointed as the bibliotheca’s director during Mubarak’s reign and remained in this post even following accusations of his involvement in a major corruption scandal. For his part, Zaydan, it was said, had long dreamt of serving as the bibliotheca’s director and so could not refrain from taking his anger to social media. Suddenly, all hell broke loose and thousands of Facebook users strongly denounced what they believed was an act of unmitigated arrogance on the part of Zaydan, especially with doubts over the merit of his literary works being raised at the time. Zaydan, it seemed, saw himself as an intellectual-prophet leading people down the path of enlightenment. He also thought he could punish his readers by refraining from writing. This episode came to mind as I was reading Zeina G. Halabi’s The Unmaking of the Arab Intellectual: Prophecy, Exile and the Nation over the past weeks. In this timely study, Halabi explores the ways through which the understanding of the Arab intellectual-as-prophet was challenged, problematized and unmade by novelists and cineastes since the 1990s.

For Halabi, the end of the Lebanese Civil War constituted the last setback in a series of defeats that had started on the eve of the 1967 Naksa. The crumbling of Lebanese modernity, Halabi states, resulted in the “dislocation of the nationalist, socialist and pan-Arab ideological paradigms, which had framed literary and intellectual discourse in the twentieth century” (20). The gloominess that hovered over the Arab world at the turn of the nineties was further aggravated by the 1991 Gulf War and the 1993 Oslo Accords. Disenchanted and defeated, Arab intellectuals took refuge in their works and tried to question this legacy of the intellectual “as both the carrier and embodiment of a prophecy of teleological change and progress” (1).

Over the course of five chapters, Halabi traces the particularities of this process of ‘unmaking’ as it materialized in a number of cultural products. She does so by offering close readings or rather re-readings of works by Lebanese novelists Rabee Jaber, Rashid al-Daif and Rawi Hage, Saudi novelist Seba al-Herz and Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman. But before tracking this process of unmaking as it transpires in the oeuvres of the aforementioned intellectuals, Halabi delivers a meticulous portraiture of that Arab intellectual as he was fashioned in the early twentieth century.  She takes us back to the Nahda period, a time when intellectuals were preoccupied with the reconciliation of “acquired Western epistemologies with those drawn from Arab and Islamic heritage”(8). In their literary projects and scholarly works alike, these intellectuals “laid the contours of the emerging Arab subject,” advocating for a notion of humanism “that conceives of the subject as the master of a word that ushers in freedom and emancipation” (9). This very understanding of the Arab intellectual would continue throughout the first half of the sixties and to a certain degree following the 1967 defeat only to be challenged in the late eighties and nineties (10).

The disenchanted Lebanese intellectual figures prominently in this book. In chapter one titled “Requiem for the Enlightenment,” Halabi tracks how a post-civil-war defeated and disenchanted Lebanese novelist revisits the figure of the Arab Nahda intellectual and accordingly questions the very project of Lebanese modernity he helped shape (32). She does so by offering an alternative reading of Lebanese novelist Rashid al-Daif’s Tablit al-Bahr (“Paving the sea”, 2011) in which he fictionialises the Nahda intellectual Jurji Zaidan by basing his narrative on a Syrian intellectual anguished by his “troubled encounter with Western modernity” (31).

This focus on the disillusioned Lebanese intellectual continues in chapter two titled “Elegy for the Intellectual” albeit here the emphasis is on the death of the intellectual and its subsequent interpretation as an act of protest at the Lebanese Civil War. Here, Halabi traces how Lebanese literati responded to the demise of two of their counterparts following the culmination of the war: the death of Maroun Baghdadi in 1993 and the suicide of Ralph Rizqallah in 1995. On the one hand, a group of Lebanese intellectuals, among them the celebrated novelist Elias Khoury, translated the intellectual’s suicide as “an act of protest against the city’s enduring appetite for violence and its endemic propensity to silence and forget its war traumas” (65). As such, they vehemently believed that the literary text should challenge this process of erasure by preserving Lebanese collective memory (70).   Another group of intellectuals, though, were critical of this understanding of the text as having to resist this “post-war amnesia” (69). Belonging to the second camp was Lebanese novelist Rabee Jaber who fictionalized the suicide of Rizqallah in his novel Ralph Rizqallah fi-l-mir’at (“Ralph Rizqallah through the looking glass”) to, as Halabi suggests, “propose an alternative literary representation of the Lebanese intellectual” (66). In his novel, Jaber delivers a profile of the post-war marginal and isolated intellectual to suggest that he has “disengaged from the burdens of the dominant literary discourse that he was expected to carry” (86/89).

From problematizing the death of the intellectual, we move to challenging the romanticization of his exiled counterpart that Halabi takes on in chapter three. Titled “The Banality of Exile,” this chapter traces how a contemporary novelist and a filmmaker discredit the understanding of the exilic intellectual as a “catalyst for change” (99). She focuses on works by Rawi Hage and Elia Suleiman, both of whom, she argues, “articulate a contemporary disenchantment with the mystification of exile and its presumed humanism” (126). Halabi outlines how Hage blurs the lines between asylum seeker and refugee in his 2010 novel Cockroach. By basing his narrative on a pseudo-intellectual who refuses to come to terms with his reality as an asylum seeker, Hage “deromanticizes the archetype of the refugee by delinking it from a discourse of innocence and charity [and] he [also] comments on the idealization of exilic intellectuals, specifically on the ways in which Edward Said and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra portray them” (111).

Halabi transcends genre boundaries to offer a reading of Elia Suleiman’s 1996 film Chronicle of a Disappearance. At the heart of Suleiman’s film is the Palestinian intellectual who following the Oslo Accords of 1993 was granted return except that he seems inept at realizing his homecoming. Instead of celebrating his return to the homeland, Suleiman’s protagonist takes refuge in silence. He is as apathetic about speech in as much as the Israeli occupation is indifferent about his return. By lending credibility to the disenchantment of the contemporary Arab intellectual while also emphasizing the political undertones of his work, Halabi ends up contributing to this very process of unmaking of the Arab intellectual that she traces in her book.

Moreover, Halabi’s book is an exercise in rethinking the Arab literary canon. She challenges the misinterpretations and sometimes-brutal dismissal, of literary works that do not satisfy the conditions set by this canon. This is particularly relevant in Chapter Four titled “Ruins of Secular Nationalism” in which Halabi contests canonization and its use as a tool of exclusion.  She takes issue with how literary contributions by Saudi female writers have been dismissed as belonging to a “chick-lit genre” by offering a rereading of Saudi novelist Seba al-Herz’s The Others (131). She invites us to think of the work as a critique of “secular nationalism and the secular-nationalist intellectual, which have hitherto framed the Arabic literary canon” (135). The intellectual at the heart of al-Herz’s work is “repressed, incarcerated and later executed” (150). But unlike his predecessor, the secular committed intellectual of the fifties and sixties, al-Herz’s intellectual is close to and familiar with “the street” and upholds sectarian identity as the remaining condition for emancipation (150).

This is precisely why Halabi goes on to challenge readings of those contemporary works as devoid of the political. In the concluding chapter of the book, titled “The Political Remains,” she argues that contemporary Arab writers and as disenchanted and critical as they emerge in their works, do not “surrender the political” but instead “reimagine modern literary parameters” (156, 157). They do so, she adds, by confronting the past and “articulated[ing] a new vision of a political collectivity and subjectivity” (3).

But how was the Arab intellectual-prophet further unmade during the Arab uprisings that erupted in 2011? According to Halabi, this political moment, coupled with the demise of print media and rise of the digital world, further disempowered Arab intellectuals who were now forced to acquaint themselves with this new and unfamiliar reality (168, 169). It was another group of “cultural actors” who would benefit greatly from this “democratization of media and platforms,” capitalizing on its ample opportunities and emerging as a new kind of “authority” (169). This group is exemplified by the figure of the “outraged social media subject” who “lurks online awaiting the first mistake to dispel and displace the intellectual in hashtags and mentions that encircle the intellectual and declare the prophecy dead” (169).

This was the same outraged social media subject who following Zaydan’s problematic statements listed in the opening of this review protested his assumed prophecy and further displaced him. Perhaps this is where Halabi’s most important contribution lies, in how she offers a much-needed sketch of the Arab intellectual’s demise in the decades leading up to the Arab Spring, the moment when his already trembling legacy was further decentered. Her book invites students of modern Arabic literature to further unpack this figure of the Arab intellectual and how his critique has redefined both the literary and the political since the 1990s.

Nourhan Tewfik is a Cairo-based arts and culture journalist and an MA candidate in Arabic Literature at the department of Arab and Islamic Civilizations at the American University in Cairo (AUC).