On life, literature and Palestine, a tribute to Abdelwahab Elmessiri

Abdelwahab Elmessiri (elmessiri.com)


Abdelwahab Elmessiri passed away on Thursday, 3 July, in the Palestine Hospital in Cairo at the age of 70. There is a befittingly poetic resonance about the name of this hospital — the place of his final struggle — when one considers that Elmessiri had devoted almost his entire intellectual career to the defense of the Palestinian cause. Over the past few years Elmessiri had been fighting a prolonged battle with a form of cancer that relentlessly challenged his health; what the cancer could not do was to rob him of his intellect. Elmessiri remained fully engaged as a thinker until his very last breath.

In an intellectual career spanning more than 30 years, Elmessiri managed to write over 50 books and scores of articles on a diverse range of topics ranging from Zionism to postmodernism, secularism, Muslim political thought, Palestinian liberation movements, the intifada, Palestinian poetry and English literature. He also found time to indulge in his hobby of writing children stories.

Even though he leaves behind a written corpus that very few will ever be able to match in terms of depth, breadth and sheer quantity, he did not allow his sickness to slow him down. When death came knocking he was putting the finishing touches to his study on the history of English poetry and was planning to write a book on Egyptian humor.

Elmessiri was a careful observer of the human condition and his writing therefore addresses a broad audience. Even his children’s stories are motivated by his philosophy. In his version of Cinderella, the beautiful maiden that puts on the glass slipper does not immediately agree to marry the dashing prince: she decides to go to university to continue her studies and the prince, being not only charming but prudent, is understanding enough to wait for her.

Nor was Elmessiri willing to be constrained by the limits of our common vocabulary when giving expression to his ideas. If he could not find the appropriate words to describe what he wished to say, he would create them. For example, he was never satisfied with using the terms subjective and objective, arguing that they fail to account for the cultural biases that people are prone to. He therefore chose to speak about reality in terms of paradigms that were more explanatory or less explanatory. Such terms create for us the space that is needed to transcend our own cultural baggage and to look at things from a different perspective, which is a prerequisite for understanding the other.

This does not however imply that we should not pass judgment. Elmessiri showed no prevarication in his thought and always strove to explain his position. While he was happy to admit that he became a Marxist at the age of 16, he was not at all uncomfortable to declare his new found faith after the birth of his daughter, an experience that helped him understand the limitations of materiality.

These limitations also explain his fascination with Samuel Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, one of his last published works. Elmessiri translated the epic poem into Arabic and published it in a bilingual edition, along with a long interpretive essay. Coleridge’s poem comes alive in Elmessiri’s reading. Reflecting on the poet’s words “He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small,” Elmessiri finds an acknowledgement of the transcendent reality and a rejection of vulgar materialism. As he explains: “In the universe of pure matter, … there are no values, sanctity or specificity. In such a value-free existence there is no ultimate point of reference, and no basis for moral or aesthetic distinction, sheer power, might and brute force are the only way to resolve difference and resolve conflict.”

Elmessiri’s work on the Palestinian question undoubtedly represents his greatest intellectual edifice. In 1976 he wrote Israel and South Africa: The Progression of a Relationship, which is one of the earliest works to compare Zionism with Apartheid. He also began seriously researching Zionism and Jewish culture at about this point in time, which would keep him preoccupied for almost the next 30 years, culminating in the publication of his eight volume magnum opus, The Encyclopedia of Jews, Judaism and Zionism.

Elmessiri was equally concerned with viewing Zionism from the perspective of its Palestinian victims and within its broader socio-historical context. He thus argues that Israel is a Zionist settler colonial enclave similar to other Western settler colonial formations, though it has specific traits that set it apart. Elmessiri employs the analytical concepts of the functional group and the functional state to account for many of the specificities of the Zionist settler enclave. As he explains it, the functional community is a group of people, usually a numerical minority, either imported from outside the society or recruited from within its ranks, who are generally defined in terms of a definite, limited, abstract function (for example by its profession), rather than by their complex, concrete, and full humanity. They are entrusted with certain jobs and functions that members of the host society (the majority) either cannot or will not perform for a variety of reasons.

Elmessiri sees Jewish communities, especially in Europe, as a prime example of the functional group. For him, the Jewish question is basically the question of a functional group that lost its function. The Western world failed to solve the question in a civilized and humane manner, by integrating members of functional groups that had lost their function into the host societies that utilized them. Instead, Western civilization solved its Jewish question in its customary imperialist way, by exporting it to the East.

In the case of the Jewish question it took the form of transferring what was termed the Jewish surplus; once transferred to Palestine, Jews were assigned a new function, which was to form a settler colonial state that would simultaneously absorb the transferred surplus and serve the interests of the Western world. In other words, the newly founded functional state had all the traits of the functional group.

On the basis of this analysis, Elmessiri argued that the Arab-Israeli conflict could be settled in a peaceful manner if the Zionist state were to shed its identity as a functional state and became a state for all its citizens, integrating into the Middle Eastern cultural formation. He remained categorical when it came to condemning any form of racism and colonialism and would not submit to any regime of political power. It is therefore not surprising that after South Africa attained liberation, he urged Palestinians to draw lessons from the South African experience. In 2006 Elmessiri delivered a paper at a conference in South Africa on Zionism, arguing that no matter what the odds were against the oppressed people of Palestine, there was no reason to surrender to the status quo: “God has given us minds to think and reason with, and an ability to transcend the limits imposed on us by our social and political surroundings, if we have enough imagination and tolerance.”

If one carefully examines Elmessiri’s life there is an added lesson to be learnt from his posture, in addition to all that can be learnt from his words: Elmessiri was a man who chose to live in the empire of the mind, where there are no shackles and where freedom is absolute. In this space, not only did he discover his freedom, he discovered his faith as well. May God bless this solitary companion and shower him in the Divine Light.

Aslam Farouk-Alli completed a M.Soc.Sci at the University of Cape Town and lectured part-time in the faculties of religion, language and literature and historical studies. He left the academy to pursue a career as a diplomat in the South African Civil Service. He is also the editor of The Future of Palestine and Israel - From Colonial Roots to Postcolonial Realities (Midrand, South Africa: Institute for Global Dialogue, 2007).