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Edward Said a Tribute to Abu Omar

In the years after the Second World War, approximately forty-nine independent African countries came into existence. India gained its freedom in 1947, Indonesia two years later. Several other former colonial territories in East Asia and in the Arab world followed suit. Only Palestine went against the general current. Its predominantly Arab society was destroyed in 1948 and supplanted by a new Jewish state whose purpose was to settle the territory with incoming Jews from all over the word. Yet Palestine was restored to the historical pattern of decolonization when in the post – 1967 period a new nationalist and anti-colonial resistance movement took form, with the Palestine Liberation Organization at its head yet alone among modern anti-colonial movements, the PLO capitulation to the colonial occupation before that occupation had been defeated and forced to leave. This of course has been called (compromise), as embodied in the Oslo Declaration of principles and subsequent Cairo and Paris agreements, but various euphemisms do little to conceal what on the Palestinian side was in effect a massive abandonment of principles, the main current of Palestinian history, and national goals. Every conceivable abridgement of Palestinian self-determination was excepted as part of ‘limited self rule’, an arrangement that leaves Israel in charge not only of the exits and entrances to Gaza and Jericho, but also of fifty per cent of Gaza itself, and most of the West Bank, where the combination of settlements and road ensures that Palestinian autonomy will take place in half a dozen separated cantons (or ghettos).

Once again, the extent of a new official Palestinian amnesia was demonstrated in Yasser Arafat’s speech in Cairo on 4 May 1994. He spoke of Palestinian sacrifices ‘for peace’, as if it were a well known fact that the Palestinian struggle was not about self- determination and rights but getting the dubious achievements of the Gaza Jericho Accord. Whereas Yitzhak Rabin spoke about Israeli blood and Arab terror, rendered in his customary repertory of distorted, preposterous lies and half-truths that portrayed the Palestinian victims as the aggressors, Arafat referred passively to his people as’ living on their land for the entirety of their history’- as if they had never been dispossessed, dispersed, killed, imprisoned, and militarily occupied by the very Israeli leaders he was now publicly embracing.
I have always been in favor both of reconciliation and negotiation between Arab and Jews as equals in Palestine, but not at the expense only of the Palestine people. Why should we be required not only to give up what we have lost to military occupation and pillage but in addition to apologize for having made any claims in the first place? Yet the worst aspect of both Cairo and Paris agreements (on economic relationships with Israel) makes Israel a senior partner in what goes on within the domain of Palestine ‘autonomy’: Israel is part of the economic agreements, Israel must approve Palestinian laws and appointments, Israel has been given extraterritorial privileges for its settlers and military. Thus a new and, in my opinion, crippling dependence for Palestine has been institutionalized and is now set to unfold, with an easy foreseen set of extremely unpromising circumstances as the result. No wonder the PLO now seems to be hesitant and unready to take up the autonomy it so unwisely agreed to.

Although the Palestinian people as a whole will continue to suffer under the new dispensation, it is not true that all will suffer equally. If Israel has emerged as a victor, and Palestinian people as a net loser, within the Palestinian community there are also winners and losers. The current leadership of the PLO seems to have gained ascendancy, what with lucrative contract, political appointments, and authority over the new Palestinian police force as its prize. Relative to Israeli power, this of course is almost laughable, but relative to the refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan as well as poor and landless in Gaza, it represents a considerable amount. What makes it particularly disquieting for the majority of Palestinian is that no system of accountability has yet been instituted. A great leader sitting in Tunis (or perhaps later in Jericho) can appoint a US bank and a team of Moroccan and Israeli financial advisers to be his ‘experts’ in handling internationally donated funds to ‘the Palestinian people’, and as yet no one can ask why this has been done, and by what authority and in whose interests such people are allowed to determine the future course of Palestinian national development. The new draft constitution of the Palestinian entries says nothing about ceding authority to the people, but is quiet specific about handing everything to the President (or how ever he purpose to describe himself) so that he may unilaterally determine what either gets done or does not get done inside Gaza and Jericho. Is this state of affairs and these Palestinian winners what the immense struggle of the people has been about? Has the goal of the national effort to regain Palestinian rights only been to grant the current Palestinian leadership in Tunis the mantle of the unrestricted authority over the tiny fraction of their homeland?

The great German citric and philosopher Walter Benjamin once wrote that ‘whoever emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal processing in which the present ruler steps over those who are lying prostrate’. It is the duty of the historian therefore to provide a reminder of that fact, in which the losers who are lying prostate and forgotten are connected to the victors that strut the parade over their bodies before the world. In the Palestinian case; there can be no better way of doing this than to recount the experiences of a remarkable individual – Hanna Mikhail (Abu Omar ) – who gave his life in 1976 in order that principles and goal of the ‘Palestinian revolution’ (as it was then called) could be safeguarded and realized. When I think of the present state of affairs, with so much that have been discarded and voluntarily abandoned in our history, when the doctrines of realism and pragmatism are trumpeted by smug and shameless winners, and when a shabby, undemocratic Palestinian protectorate under Israeli rule is proclaimed as the fulfillment of our aspiration, Jam also led inevitably to think of Hanna Mikhail, and in particular his dedication and principled course on behalf of his people.

I first met him in the late 1950s in the United States. I was a student at Princeton at the time, he a student (exactly my age) at Haverford college, a distinguished Quaker University about fifty miles from Princeton. He came to Haverford from Ramallah, where he had graduated from the Friends school; I from an American boarding school and before that from Victoria College in Egypt. He was studying chemistry I literature. I was immediately stuck by his extraordinary personal modesty and civility, and his very sharp intellect. In those days, neither of us was political: Ramallah was part of Jordan, and the Arab world at the time was dominated by Jamal Abdul Nasser, whose message of Arab nationalism included but did not stress the special nature of the Palestinian struggle to regain the rights of its dispossessed and dispersed native Arab inhabitants. Both these contexts in a sense were not really ours. After getting our B.As, we both ended up as graduate students at Harvard. I recall seeing him there during the 1960s, and I also recall him telling me that he had changed from chemistry to Middle East Studies (he became a student of H.A.R. Gibb, the famous British Orientalist who had just moved from Oxford to Harvard). I myself had very little to do with the Middle East field – my concentration was on English and comparative literature- but I do remember Hanna described his switch as a necessary one for someone like himself who needed to know more about the historical traditions and culture of his people.

In 1965 or 1966, I saw him in New York; he was teaching Arabic at Princeton and had just divorced his American wife. Our meetings then were infrequent, since I lived in New York whereas he was only an occasional visitor. After 1967 we lost touch, even though I knew from a common friend that Hanna had moved to the University of Washington in Seattle to become an assistant professor of the Middle East studies there. I did not see him again until the summer of 1970. Like every Arab of my generation, I had been deeply affected and indeed traumatized by the war, and subsequently stirred into political engagement by the emerging of the Palestinian Resistance movement, as it was then known. In august 1970, I traveled to Jordan to see for myself what ‘our’ movement had become. Kamal Nasir was a distant relative and a good friend, and it was he who put me in touch with various comrades in the movement when I got to Amman. Among them of course was Hanna (the two men were both from Ramallah); I was unprepared for the transformation in my gentle, even pacifist old friend, who had now become a full-time partisan, a member of Fateh and a superbly effective information officer in charge of journalists and other outside visitors.

The main thing that struck me at the outset was the grandeur and generosity of his gesture in coming to Amman in the first place. He was a Harvard ph. D. with a secure academic job in the United States. His future as a scholar and professor was assured. Instead he gave all that up for the uncertainties, not to say the danger of a volunteer’s position in a popular movement that had barely begun, was about as insecure as it was possible to be in a volatile and hostile Arab environment, and above all had proposed for itself the all-but- insane goal of the liberation of Palestine. I never detected any uncertainty on his part about his decision to return. He never alluded to what he had left behind, and he always communicated to me the solid commitment of a man who had set the course of his life according to the magnificent principles of emancipation and enlightenment of his people from which he was never to budge. From then on he remained a Fateh militant, yet I never heard him utter a silly cliché or the slightest pomposity. In time, he acquired considerable authority and within the movement; but, unlike many of his counterparts, he did not abuse or bully underlings with his superior rank and attainment.

Like Kamal Nasir, Hanna Mikhail came from a Christian background; this is something I share with both. As I think about it, the three of us in fact had very different educations and we came to the Palestinian struggle from extremely divergent perspective. Kamal was a Ba’athist originally; Hanna was a Quaker graduate and a Middle Eastern scholar; I was almost completely Western in my education and knowledge. None of us however felt that we were members of a minority, although of course we were. Each of us in his own way regarded our heritage as Arab Islamic and our culture perspectives as internationalist. Palestine was a liberation ideal, not a provincial movement for municipal self- rule under foreign tutelage. We saw it as an integral unit within the liberation movements of the Third World- secular, democratic, and revolutionary.

Hanna, for example, was a scholar of Arab Islamic thought; that to him furnished a traditional continuity for later generations of Arabs to forge anew on their own efforts for national revival and freedom. On the other hand, none of us denied or felt anything but pride in the family and communal background that may have made us seem different to many of our fellow Palestinians. But, for the three of us, the Christian communities from which we emerged were elements in the larger mosaic of Arab, Islamic and Third World anti- colonial movements, of which we were proud to be a part, different perhaps but never separate. Both Hanna and Kamal always impressed me, a relatively pedestrian Arabic-speaker and writer, with the eloquence and clarity of their language, which I have always since striven to emulate.

Hanna and I stood next to each other at a mass rally in Amman just before Black September. Yasser Arafat was declaiming from the balcony of a small house that ‘we’ had turned down the Rogers Plan and that the 15000 Iraqi troops in Jordan had just committed themselves to ‘us’. Hanna took me to meet Arafat just after the speech, but there were many people around to say very much except the routine greetings that such occasions usually afford. But I distinctly remember Hanna’s discomfort around Arafat. Both of us, I think, felt the power of the man’s melodramatic oratory, but also sensed that, though he could speak the language of liberation, he was a great actor and a supreme political animal with only a tenuous relationship to the truth. The Iraqi troops were not helpful, of course.

In 1972-3, I spent my academic sabbatical year in Beirut where I saw quite a lot of Hanna, whom I had begun to know Abu Omar, in charge of student contacts, journalist and various segments of the by now growing Palestinian presence in Lebanon.
I never knew or visited him where he lived, nor until later did I know much about his personal life. During those years before his death in 1976, he seemed to me to have immersed himself completely in his role as a political officer in the movement. In dress, manner and style of life, he struck me as ascetic in the extreme. He put on a little weight, but I never saw him wear anything but khaki fatigues, he never drove a car, and in his manner he never affected anything but a simple, austere rhetoric. He was always anxious to listen. Alone among my Palestinian comrades, when he asked me a question about developments in the united states he would actually wait for me to answer; usually when I would be asked the same question by some of the other intellectuals and Abus, I would be the one who would have to listen to a ninety-minute lecture on what was happening in America, most of it gleaned from Time magazine and the Beirut rumour exchange. I remember talking with Hanna about the anti-Vietnam war movement, about Noam Chomsky and others whose work he respected, and about developments in the military- industrial complex. I think by that time he had become a Marxist, but how different from his colleagues in the progressive movement he was! His vocabulary was full of observations about the human suffering of people, of deprivation and nobility, of tragedy and hope, of powerlessness and optimism.

Two episodes in Beirut have remained especially clear in my memory. Hanna would often visit me in the little room I used in my house as a study. As we sat going over the latest Israeli raid on Nabatiye, their American planes raining down terror and punishment on innocent Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, I was so upset at the viciousness of our enemies that I asked him; ‘Do you feel any hatred for them?’ never was I so flabbergasted when first he expressed surprise at my question, and second when he said; ‘No, I don’t think I can’. I saw in a flash both his essential gentleness as a human being and how much more sophisticated politically than me. He was; he had affiliated himself with a movement that protected him from transient and ultimately not very useful emotion, so that a long-term political philosophy and commitment might develop instead. Hanna’s answer taught me a lot about dedication and patience.

The second episode took place in early October 1972. I was at home with my family when, late at night, the phone rang. It was Hanna asking whether he could bring Jean Genet round to see me. At first I thought he was joking, since for me Genet was a giant of contemporary literature, and a visit from him was about as probable as one from Proust or Thomas Mann. No, Hanna said, I’m really serious; could we come now? They appeared fifteen minutes later and stayed for several hours. I have written elsewhere about what Genet said and did during that time, but Hanna’s role needs some comment here. It is clear from Le Captif Amoureux – Genet’s posthumously published book on his love for Palestinians- that Abu Omer was a crucial figure for him as guide, friend, trusted confidant. Hanna’s French wasn’t extraordinarily good, but he could manage. As Genet and I talked that night, Hanna sat quietly in the shadows, making occasionally interjection, answering a question, laughing at one of Genet’s frequent apercus. He never forced himself into the discussion, but instead remained as a patient, modest and enabling presence. Beret seems to have felt that, like many of the Palestinians to whom he grew close, Hanna represented a kind of purity and even personal, unselfish carelessness about himself that to a great French writer contained the essence of the Palestinian revolution, its wonderful gaiety, its awesome internal power, its beautiful ideals. And I felt exactly those things about Hanna as he sat there with Genet. He told me later that he admired Genet because his special poetical insight into ‘our’ doings, and that, he felt, was much more enriching than dry, textbook political analysis. By sitting there as he did – even though, without Hanna, Genet and I would not have met- Abu Omar embodied the prevailingly generous and unconventional principles of the Palestinian revolution. It was a moment of illumination for me.

After the Lebanese civil war began, I saw Hanna in Beirut only intermittently, but we always kept in close touch. As the head of the Quaker community in Lebanon my father-in-law Emile Cortas presided over the simple wedding ceremony that joined, Hanna and Jehan Helou in a Quaker marriage ceremony (required by Lebanese law), and that fact brought us together for few social occasions. It was also then that I grasped how Hanna had slowly begun to gather around himself a group of like-minded Fateh members (Fateh for him was the only movement to which he could belong because, he once told me, it was broad enough to represent all the people) who were dissatisfied with political direction taken by the reigning power. Hanna was against the abuse of power, he was against ostentatious spending and garish lifestyles, and he was of the first to lament the appalling influence of petro-dollars. He soon refused to have anything to do with foreign journalist and dignitaries, believing his task to be ’our’ self-education. He retained the deliberate, attractive and self-effacing manner of the truly gifted teacher. He neither preached nor scolded. Yet he unfailingly expressed his conviction in the principles of popular struggle and revolutionary transformation that were crucial to any real Palestinian victory. Once I recall that he lamented to me that folly of Palestinian involvement in Lebanese affairs; he was prophetic, since this was to head to the 1982. but he also distrusted conventional Arab politics, a trivial copy of which Palestinian politics had become. Above all, he scorned the cult of the gun and the personality: these he knew supplied superficial and immediate satisfaction, but they were too easily exploited by the opportunistic and unprincipled.

In the months before his death, I was impressed with how his dissenting ideas had spread within Fateh in Beirut. He told me of a trip he took to North Vietnam and how that had strengthened his conviction on selfless dedication and careful organization and discipline. I had also begun to surmise-I have no hard information on which to rely, except that somewhat precarious evidence I deduced from friends of his –that he had begun to trouble the leadership with his earnest dissent and the growing influence that he exerted on those who worked with him. I must say in all honesty and sadness that his untoward disappearance and subsequence death in 1976 seemed to me not to have been so inconvenient for those in Fateh who found his opposition to political maneuvering, cronyism and the bending of principles so irritatingly well-represented by Hanna’s practice and theory. His disappearance while on what appeared to be a foolishly contrived mission to go by a small and unprotected boat from Beirut to Tripoli in waters that were constantly patrolled by Israeli and Phalanges forces seemed like the result of incredibly poor planning and a great deal of unacceptable carelessness. For year after this tragic cadence to his life, I often thought that that ill-fated voyage had robbed the Palestinian movement of one of its most principled and humanely inspired cadres. No wonder then that so many of his friends and especially his brave widow Jehan refused to accept that fact of his capture as final, and no wonder that so many of us had a strong stake in keeping hope alive for his release and return.

It seems to me, however, that his tragically foreshortened life has acquired an even more considerable significance today. Hanna Mikhail is not among the victors in the march of today’s peace process. His compatriots are still under military occupation. His co-workers in Lebanon and elsewhere are still in exile. Worst of all, in my opinion the ideas and principles for which he quite literally lived and died, principles of humane liberation, decent coexistence between Arab and Jews, social and economic justice for men and woman, all these have been put in temporary eclipse not just by the cynical movement. A new ascendancy stressing pragmatic realism now advocates unconditional friendship with a United State that still donates $5 billion per year to Israel, and that still opposes Palestinian self-determination as that phrase is understood every where else in the world.

More perniciously, this ascendancy believes that deals between highflying financiers are better for ‘the people’ than that people’s own effort. Hanna Mikhail’s whole life was focused on a searching radicalism, unsatisfied with the vulgar clichés of politics as business, unconvinced by empty slogans of triumphalist demagoguery, scornful of lazy incompetence and favoritism. Hanna stood for principles and ideals, not as airy abstractions, but as concrete manifestations in everyday life, among ordinary men and woman, for Arab and Jew alike. In recalling Hanna Mikhail as a friend and a historical figure in the struggle for human freedom and knowledge, we need to accept what Walter Benjamin suggests is the historian’s task which, he says, is to dissociate oneself from the so- called march of progress, then to provide a different history against the main, apparently victorious current.

Hanna Mikhail was a true intellectual. What I have said about him neither sentimentalizes nor exaggerates his qualities. He retained his original Quaker modesty and plainness. But, as an intellectual should, he lived according to his ideas and never tailored his democratic, secular values to suit new masters and occasions. For all Palestinians today, and in stark contrast to the great sell-out and abject surrender of our leaders, he represents a distinguished role model, a man who did not debase himself or his people. Why? Because he lived his ideas, and died for them. It is as simple as that. By his example, Hanna Mikhail admonishes those who have outlived him for a while.


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E. Said in Memory

6 July 2011
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