“Embers and Ashes:” An intellectual’s exile, struggle and success

“My homeland, you have spurned me … I shall never return to you … I shall never ever return to you …”

So ends Hisham Sharabi’s compelling autobiography, Embers and Ashes: Memoirs of an Arab Intellectual. Sharabi, a leading Palestinian intellectual who died in 2005, uttered these words to himself on board a plane from Amman, Jordan to the United States in 1949. He studied and taught in the US for the rest of his life, retiring as a professor of history at Georgetown University in 1998. Ably translated from Arabic by Issa J. Boullata, Embers and Ashes is a poignant story of an intellectual’s exile and struggle.

Sharabi transports the reader seamlessly from his early life in Palestine, where he was born in 1927, to his studies at the American University of Beirut, and finally his own American experience and life as a university professor at Georgetown. While it occasionally lacks cohesion, the book is unmistakably personal and insightful.

Sharabi’s departure from Amman was preceded by tumultuous events in Lebanon where he was a prominent activist in the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), led by Antun Saadeh. Perhaps more than anyone else, it was Saadeh who influenced Sharabi’s intellectual trajectory. Saadeh’s political line and that of the SSNP was premised on unity between Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. Sharabi depicts Saadeh sympathetically as a man of deep human values: courageous, inspirational and subtly intellectual. But he also shows other aspects of Saadeh’s personality:

“He used to speak of the party as if it were an actual government on the verge of taking power. In his personal behavior and public stance, he acted like a man of state. The party in his view was the only political force that stood up to colonialism and could achieve independence. It was the only force that could liberate Palestine. I think that Saadeh underestimated the depth of sectarian, tribal, and feudal feelings in [Lebanon]” (150-151).

There are two issues regarding Saadeh’s approach to which Sharabi submitted uncritically, and on which he later seems to renege. Firstly, he did not oppose Saadah’s grandiose vision of the Syrian homeland, which shifted from being confined to Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Transjordan, to include Iraq, Kuwait and Cyprus. Secondly, Sharabi embraced Saadah’s view that “the individual was a mere means that society used to achieve its aims; and that society represented a firm and abiding ‘truth,’ whereas individuals fell away like autumn leaves,” thereby “ascribing a universality to society and considering society an ultimate ideal in itself” (59-60). However, Sharabi developed a more nuanced and critical view of these matters, particularly in his attribution of a more central and visible role to the individual in society.

Sharabi was also influenced by German philosopher Nicolai Hartmaan, who “considered moral values as justice, courage, love, and friendship to be objective and timeless. For him, those values enjoyed an eternal existence, like Plato’s ideals” (129).

Embers and Ashes also provides an insightful reading of the Arab and American intellectual landscape. Sharabi is unsparing in his biting criticism of the intellectual and academic environment in the Arab world and points to serious flaws in education. Nor does he hold back in criticizing Arab universities for failing their students. He attributes to them his slowness in grasping the rigorous methods of learning which he encountered in the US. Stating that “I may forgive those to whom I owe my education for their ignorance and their foolishness. But it is far more difficult to forgive them their arrogance and the moral cruelty they practiced in distorting me and calling it an education” (22). For this discussion alone, Sharabi’s book deserves a wide reading, particularly by Arab intellectuals, because it is critical of teachers and professors who are too engrossed in themselves and their self-made grandeur.

Sharabi was born in Jaffa and lived in Acre, and his discussion of Palestine is the familiar but ever-relevant Palestinian yearning for a country that was stolen. He tenderly evokes the image of Acre, the beautiful sea stretching before his eyes, the fertile fields of grain glistening in the eye of the sun, the orange, lemon and olive trees with their scent wafting through; the cascade of houses, finely built and designed; the neighbors sitting peacefully together. But there is often something tragic about Palestinians recollecting or being exposed to images of their towns and villages from which they were expelled in 1948. The Acre that Sharabi knows and evokes before 1948 in his book becomes a less recognizable place as he receives a photograph of it from his Jewish friend, Uri Davis: “familiar, but strange at the same time, in another world … the remaining Arab inhabitants have been forbidden to live in the new city, outside the wall, and have been forced to live within the walled old city, which has become a casbah to the Jews, visited by foreign tourists wanting to buy locally made articles and to see ‘the Arab population of Israel.’” (76).

Sharabi does not dwell on his own significant intellectual contributions as such. In the book, he reflects on his observations and involvement in the SSNP and interactions with events in the Arab world from a distance. He does, however, refer to papers he presented at conferences and gives general comments about his contributions. He considered Zionism as part of an imperial project that could only be understood, and as such dealt with, once there is a proper understanding of the broader context of European colonialism. He also refers to the patrimonial and patriarchal characteristics of Arab societies that weakened their sense of resistance against their aggressors and curtailed their individual freedoms. In this sense, the book provides an incisive reading on many levels of the Arab cultural and political landscape by someone who has been at the thick of major historical events: 1948, the emergence of socialist and nationalist parties in greater Syria and the Arab world and his experience as a Palestinian Arab in America. Sharabi rightly saw value in transmitting his experience and thoughts to new generations, and he does so with distinctive astuteness and sensitivity.

Embers and Ashes is not only a story of exile and struggle, but also of well-deserved resounding success. It is a fitting testament to Sharabi’s life as a Palestinian beacon of humanity and intellectual honesty.

Atef Alshaer has first graduated from Birzeit University in Palestine, where he studied English Language and Literature. He holds a doctorate in Linguistics from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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