An unacceptable helplessness

An unacceptable helplessness

Will the last person to leave please turn out the lights? Edward
Said urges an Arab alternative to the wreckage that is about to
engulf our world

By Edward Said

Al Ahram Weekly
16-22 January 2003


One opens The New York Times on a daily basis to read the most
recent article about the preparations for war that are taking place
in the United States. Another battalion, one more set of aircraft
carriers and cruisers, an ever-increasing number of aircraft, new
contingents of officers are being moved to the Persian Gulf area.
62,000 more soldiers were transferred to the Gulf last weekend. An
enormous, deliberately intimidating force is being built up by
America overseas, while inside the country, economic and social bad
news multiply with a joint relentlessness. The huge capitalist
machine seems to be faltering, even as it grinds down the vast
majority of citizens. Nonetheless, George Bush proposes another
large tax cut for the one per cent of the population that is
comparatively rich. The public education system is in a major
crisis, and health insurance for 50 million Americans simply does
not exist. Israel asks for 15 billion dollars in additional loan
guarantees and military aid. And the unemployment rates in the US
mount inexorably, as more jobs are lost every day.

Nevertheless, preparations for an unimaginably costly war continue
and continue without either public approval or dramatically
noticeable disapproval. A generalised indifference (which may
conceal great over-all fear, ignorance and apprehension) has greeted
the administration’s war- mongering and its strangely ineffective
response to the challenge forced on it recently by North Korea. In
the case of Iraq, with no weapons of mass destruction to speak of,
the US plans a war; in the case of North Korea, it offers that
country economic and energy aid. What a humiliating difference
between contempt for the Arabs and respect for North Korea, an
equally grim, and cruel dictatorship.

In the Arab and Muslim worlds, the situation appears more peculiar.
For almost a year American politicians, regional experts,
administration officials, journalists have repeated the charges that
have become standard fare so far as Islam and the Arabs are
concerned. Most of this chorus pre- dates 11 September, as I have
shown in my books Orientalism and Covering Islam. To today’s
practically unanimous chorus has been added the authority of the
United Nation’s Human Development Report on the Arab world which
certified that Arabs dramatically lag behind the rest of the world
in democracy, knowledge, and women’s rights. Everyone says (with
some justification, of course) that Islam needs reform and that the
Arab educational system is a disaster, in effect, a school for
religious fanatics and suicide bombers funded not just by crazy
imams and their wealthy followers (like Osama Bin Laden) but also by
governments who are supposed allies of the United States. The only
“good” Arabs are those who appear in the media decrying modern Arab
culture and society without reservation. I recall the lifeless
cadences of their sentences for, with nothing positive to say about
themselves or their people and language, they simply regurgitate the
tired American formulas already flooding the airwaves and pages of
print. We lack democracy, they say, we haven’t challenged Islam
enough, we need to do more about driving away the specter of Arab
nationalism and the credo of Arab unity. That is all discredited,
ideological rubbish. Only what we, and our American instructors, say
about the Arabs and Islam — vague re- cycled Orientalist cliches of
the kind repeated by a tireless mediocrity like Bernard Lewis — is
true. The rest isn’t realistic or pragmatic enough. “We” need to
join modernity, modernity in effect being Western, globalised, free-
marketed, democratic — whatever those words might be taken to mean.
(If I had the time, there would be an essay to be written about the
prose style of people like Ajami, Gerges, Makiya, Talhami, Fandy et.
al., academics whose very language reeks of subservience,
inauthenticity and a hopelessly stilted mimicry that has been thrust
upon them).

The clash of civilisations that George Bush and his minions are
trying to fabricate as a cover for a preemptive oil and hegemony war
against Iraq is supposed to result in a triumph of democratic
nation-building, regime change and forcible modernisation a
l’americaine. Never mind the bombs and the ravages of the sanctions
which are unmentioned. This will be a purifying war whose goal is to
throw out Saddam and his men and replace them with a re-drawn map of
the whole region. New Sykes Picot. New Balfour. New Wilsonian 14
points. New world altogether. Iraqis, we are told by the Iraqi
dissidents, will welcome their liberation, and perhaps forget
entirely about their past sufferings. Perhaps.

Meanwhile, the soul-and-body destroying situation in Palestine
worsens all the time. There seems no force capable of stopping
Sharon and Mofaz, who bellow their defiance to the whole world. We
forbid, we punish, we ban, we break, we destroy. The torrent of
unbroken violence against an entire people continues. As I write
these lines, I am sent an announcement that the entire village of
Al-Daba’ in the Qalqilya area of the West Bank is about to be wiped
out by 60- ton American-made Israeli bulldozers: 250 Palestinians
will lose their 42 houses, 700 dunums of agricultural land, a
mosque, and an elementary school for 132 children. The United
Nations stands by, looking on as its resolutions are flouted on an
hourly basis. Typically, alas, George Bush identifies with Sharon,
not with the 16-year-old Palestinian kid who is used as a human
shield by Israeli soldiers.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority offers a return to peacemaking,
and presumably, to Oslo. Having been burned for 10 years the first
time, Arafat seems inexplicably to want to have another go at it.
His faithful lieutenants make declarations and write opinion pieces
for the press, suggesting their willingness to accept anything, more
or less. Remarkably though, the great mass of this heroic people
seems willing to go on, without peace and without respite, bleeding,
going hungry, dying day by day. They have too much dignity and
confidence in the justice of their cause to submit shamefully to
Israel, as their leaders have done. What could be more discouraging
for the average Gazan who goes on resisting Israeli occupation than
to see his or her leaders kneel as supplicants before the Americans?

In this entire panorama of desolation, what catches the eye is the
utter passivity and helplessness of the Arab world as a whole. The
American government and its servants issue statement after statement
of purpose, they move troops and material, they transport tanks and
destroyers, but the Arabs individually and collectively can barely
muster a bland refusal (at most they say, no, you cannot use
military bases in our territory) only to reverse themselves a few
days later.

Why is there such silence and such astounding helplessness?

The largest power in history is about to launch and is unremittingly
reiterating its intention to launch a war against a sovereign Arab
country now ruled by a dreadful regime, a war the clear purpose of
which is not only to destroy the Baathi regime but to re-design the
entire region. The Pentagon has made no secret that its plans are to
re-draw the map of the whole Arab world, perhaps changing other
regimes and many borders in the process. No one can be shielded from
the cataclysm when it comes (if it comes, which is not yet a
complete certainty). And yet, there is only long silence followed by
a few vague bleats of polite demurral in response. After all,
millions of people will be affected. America contemptuously plans
for their future without consulting them. Do we reserve such racist

This is not only unacceptable: it is impossible to believe. How can
a region of almost 300 million Arabs wait passively for the blows to
fall without attempting a collective roar of resistance and a loud
proclamation of an alternative view? Has the Arab will completely
dissolved? Even a prisoner about to be executed usually has some
last words to pronounce. Why is there now no last testimonial to an
era of history, to a civilisation about to be crushed and
transformed utterly, to a society that despite its drawbacks and
weaknesses nevertheless goes on functioning. Arab babies are born
every hour, children go to school, men and women marry and work and
have children, they play, and laugh and eat, they are sad, they
suffer illness and death. There is love and companionship,
friendship and excitement. Yes, Arabs are repressed and misruled,
terribly misruled, but they manage to go on with the business of
living despite everything. This is the fact that both the Arab
leaders and the United States simply ignore when they fling empty
gestures at the so-called “Arab street” invented by mediocre

But who is now asking the existential questions about our future as
a people? The task cannot be left to a cacophony of religious
fanatics and submissive, fatalistic sheep. But that seems to be the
case. The Arab governments — no, most of the Arab countries from
top to bottom — sit back in their seats and just wait as America
postures, lines up, threatens and ships out more soldiers and F-16’s
to deliver the punch. The silence is deafening.

Years of sacrifice and struggle, of bones broken in hundreds of
prisons and torture chambers from the Atlantic to the Gulf, families
destroyed, endless poverty and suffering. Huge, expensive armies.
For what?

This is not a matter of party or ideology or faction: it’s a matter
of what the great theologian Paul Tillich used to call ultimate
seriousness. Technology, modernisation and certainly globalisation
are not the answer for what threatens us as a people now. We have in
our tradition an entire body of secular and religious discourse that
treats of beginnings and endings, of life and death, of love and
anger, of society and history. This is there, but no voice, no
individual with great vision and moral authority seems able now to
tap into that, and bring it to attention. We are on the eve of a
catastrophe that our political, moral and religious leaders can only
just denounce a little bit while, behind whispers and winks and
closed doors, they make plans somehow to ride out the storm. They
think of survival, and perhaps of heaven. But who is in charge of
the present, the worldly, the land, the water, the air and the lives
dependent on each other for existence? No one seems to be in charge.
There is a wonderful colloquial expression in English that very
precisely and ironically catches our unacceptable helplessness, our
passivity and inability to help ourselves now when our strength is
most needed. The expression is: will the last person to leave please
turn out the lights? We are that close to a kind of upheaval that
will leave very little standing and perilously little left even to
record, except for the last injunction that begs for extinction.

Hasn’t the time come for us collectively to demand and try to
formulate a genuinely Arab alternative to the wreckage about to
engulf our world? This is not only a trivial matter of regime
change, although God knows that we can do with quite a bit of that.
Surely it can’t be a return to Oslo, another offer to Israel to
please accept our existence and let us live in peace, another
cringing crawling inaudible plea for mercy. Will no one come out
into the light of day to express a vision for our future that isn’t
based on a script written by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz,
those two symbols of vacant power and overweening arrogance? I hope someone is listening.