Geographies of Liberation: The Making of an Afro-Arab Political Imaginary by Alex Lubin, University of North Carolina Press (2015)
Reviewing Keith Feldman’s A Shadow over Palestine and Alex Lubin’s Geographies of Liberation in conjunction induces both happiness and consternation. But before I try to clarify this bit of obliqueness, allow me to go ahead and announce that both books are superb and I urge anybody reading this review to pause now and purchase them.
Back to the obliqueness. The consternation arises from the fact that each book is distinctive despite significant theoretical and methodological overlap. Feldman and Lubin both examine the interplay of Palestinian activist and intellectual traditions with US racism and imperialism, with emphasis on Black internationalism in relation to the Arab world.
They didn’t write the same book, though, and I have no interest in reinforcing such an impression.
The two books are often discussed in tandem because they examine American racial issues in conjunction with certain politics of the Arab world. Feldman and Lubin are colleagues. A Shadow over Palestine and Geographies of Liberation were published within months of one another.
I confess that I’m not really helping my own goal of convincing readers that the two books are distinct. I was asked to review one and promptly suggested reviewing both instead.
In my defense, I want them to be more widely read. And great comparisons can result from textual materials that are discrete but complementary. A Shadow over Palestine and Geographies of Liberation are worth reading together.
Now to the happiness. Both books are groundbreaking and should be mainstays in various disciplines for years to come (American Studies, Middle East Studies and Ethnic Studies in particular). They benefit from great timing, with Black-Palestinian solidarity a topic of widespread international conversation. But the timing would be much less fortuitous if Feldman and Lubin didn’t provide crucial insight into the historical conditions that animate that solidarity.
Those historical conditions are complicated. Both authors make a strong case that today’s iterations of cross-ethnic and transnational organizing contain vast antecedents that often are subsumed by simplistic rhetoric.
International points of view did not arise from intra-group activism; rather, international points of view helped constitute intra-group activism. There is no such thing as a hermetic national movement in Palestine. That movement has developed, in ways both inspiring and troublesome, through constant interplay with other movements that became mutually referential.
In a sense, Palestine’s identity is a reaction to its own symbolic presence in the world.
Feldman recovers a luminous tradition of Palestinian internationalism. He explores a wide range of scholarship, policymaking and theorization from the early period of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1960s to the present.
His careful reading of these texts is the strongest part of a terrific book. He expertly guides readers through the nuance of his sources while clearly situating them in specific historical epochs.
Important epochs include the heyday of non-alignment, Nasserism, the 1967 War, the Camp David Accords, the right of return for Palestinian refugees; analogies with apartheid South Africa; the value of nonviolent resistance — each of these matters has been vigorously discussed and debated for decades. Feldman illuminates the anatomy of those discussions and debates.
Racial landscapeWhereas Feldman orients much of his discussion in Palestine, which he juxtaposes with issues of US racism and imperialism, Lubin’s analysis originates in an American racial landscape, which he in turn juxtaposes with Palestine.
Although Lubin is interested in a broad Third World politics, he’s keen on rhetorical and geostrategic representations of Palestine as something of an avatar of anti-colonial struggle.
As a result, Lubin spends significant time exploring elements of African American thought that highlight colonization and imperialism as central features of US racism. The most visible of such thinkers is Malcolm X, whose travels through Africa and the Arab world in the early 1960s famously transformed his theology and his political outlook.
Malcolm X is the main figure in Geographies of Liberation, a presence the book announces on its cover, which features a photograph of X meeting the leadership of a nascent PLO.
Lubin ably guides the reader through these journeys, revealing important connections between the development of Black and Palestinian nationalist politics. These nationalisms did not invent one another or necessarily arise in tandem, but they share a profound history and Lubin shows that neither can properly be understood absent the influence of the other.
The reader learns from Geographies of Liberation how inspirational Black activism in the US has been to a variety of decolonial projects around the world. Part of its appeal has been its relationship to sites of worldly decolonization.
Although these are different books, they deeply complement one another and speak to a variety of relevant contemporary issues while being grounded in particular histories. Anybody concerned with Black Lives Matter, Palestinian liberation, North American decolonization, transnational solidarity and anti-racist intellectual traditions will be well served reading both.
Both books are reasonably described as academic — both, after all, are written by scholars and published by university presses. I wouldn’t describe Feldman and Lubin as incomprehensible, but neither are they monosyllabic.
A Shadow over Palestine and Geographies of Liberation are rigorous but readable. Non-academics should have little problem with either title. In fact, these are precisely the sort of books that need to make their way to consumers beyond the academy.
They have plenty of academic value, though. I taught both in the same section at the American University of Beirut last fall.
They worked extremely well in the classroom. Students from the Arab world learned much about the region of their birth and the complex presence of US imperialism in their lives. I imagine American students would experience similar epiphanies.
And I am confident that teachers will find in both books a variety of pedagogical opportunities, particularly in relation to the profound interchange between the US and Arab world too often reduced to the detritus of the events of 11 September 2001 in mainstream American discourse.
It is an exciting moment to be involved with decolonial thought and activism, which these days is necessarily international — and perhaps, if one believes Feldman and Lubin, always has been. Reading A Shadow over Palestine and Geographies of Liberation offers plentiful opportunities to disrupt the common wisdom of both imperialism and its detractors. I recommend both books with an enthusiasm bordering on overbearing.
Steven Salaita’s latest book is Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom.