Our region, our collective memory and Ghassan Al-Imam
A few days ago, we lost Ghassan Al-Imam, a brilliant opinion writer. The veteran Syrian journalist and writer lived through a fascinating period of Middle Eastern history, documented it and commented on it with exceptional lucidity, precision and a rare encyclopedic knowledge. He was one of the foremost authorities who through the years honed my interest in Syrian affairs, and I was very fortunate to have read his articles for almost three decades.
Although I never met Al-Imam personally in Paris, where he lived in exile, we talked more than once and on every occasion, Syria was the main topic of conversation. I recall I once read an article of his in which he mentioned “The Military Committee,” which practically re-established the Baa’th Party after it was dissolved by the founding Secretary-General, Michel Aflaq, in the aftermath of announcing the union between Egypt and Syria in 1958. Going through the article, I felt I needed to look at what Al-Imam had written about Ahmad Al-Mir, one of the prominent members of the “Committee” — and, indeed, we had a most enjoyable short journey through Syria’s history.
Al-Imam and people like him are sorely missed these days, not only for being most capable of explaining their positions courageously, logically, and in a brilliant and intuitive way, but also because they are a part of a gradually disappearing political memory. It is vanishing for good in a time when we need, more than ever, to learn, consider and draw conclusions.
This is what I felt during my college years, when I majored in politics and history, and was studying the political history of Iraq under the exceptional Professor Hanna Batatu. In those days, I missed my late father more than ever as he knew Iraq well, a result of living there for 10 years, and was a keen witness to momentous events that shook the country between 1931 and 1941. I really wished then he was with me, answering my queries about personalities, events and trends in a society he liked and interacted with.
The same happened when I began studying Syria under another brilliant academic, Professor Yusuf Ibish. He was a Damascene who loved every inch of Damascus and, whether in Beirut or later in London, where he spent his last years, he made me feel that Syria was a part of me.
I was introduced to Syria’s political history when I read “The Memoirs of Khaled Al-Azm.” I was simply carried away by those memoirs of one of Syria’s greatest politicians. Later, Al-Imam complemented what knowledge had already taken root in me about the collective memory of this great country, which we might be about to lose.
Talking about loss, I owe my deep interest in Palestine to three people. Two of them are my former professors, Walid Al-Khalidi (may God bless him with health) and the late Mahmud Zayid. The third is the great researcher Mustafa Murad Al-Dabbagh, who single-handedly authored the huge, encyclopedic book “Biladuna Filastin.”
What I mean to say by sharing the above recollections is that memory is the third-most important thing that links us to our home countries, after the land and the identity, and that one of our worst ongoing disasters is not just our lack of memory, but also our inability to realize how detrimental losing it can be.
A few days ago, I was in touch with a very dear relative living in Lebanon. Among the issues we discussed was the political situation, in particular, the country’s parliamentary elections scheduled for May 6.
People like him are sorely missed these days, not only for being most capable of explaining their positions courageously, logically, and in a brilliant and intuitive way, but also because they are a part of a gradually disappearing political memory.
Eyad Abu Shakra
This relative belongs to a much younger generation and knows a lot more than I do about current and futuristic innovations, while I can claim to know much more about the past than he knows. Of course, this is natural, as he is a young man who is looking for a future that I hope is long and fruitful, unlike me who cannot hope for much from the future.
Thus, it was logical that we discovered during and after our discussion we read the political situation differently. We disagreed on how the scene would change, on the qualities (or lack thereof) of political figures, and the threats facing Lebanon, where they came from, who was responsible for them, and what is the best way to overcome them.
Lebanon’s younger generation, like younger generations all over the world, is honest, well-meaning and looking forward to a future without ills, which it regards as crucial, and is embarking now on solving problems that cannot wait. And through the debate with my relative — who is a social activist — I remembered the famous saying: “If a person is not a liberal when he is 20, he has no heart; if he is not a conservative when he is 40, he has no head.”
I simply found out that we were talking two different languages, not only because my young relative’s memory was limited, but also because in his honest and eager push for change he was unwittingly underestimating strategic threats. He was keen — like his fellow social activists — to eradicate corruption, sectarianism, political feudalism, nepotism and improve public services. For my part, I feel that no honorable person should disagree with that; however, the “civil society” activists, in spite their beautiful idealism, do not want to remember the past and hesitate in acknowledging the truth about the present, which makes their theories about the future pretty doubtful.
One has to accept that Lebanon is no “normal” case. It is not really an independent or sovereign country, nor is it a free democracy that is capable of defending itself. Indeed, it is not a political entity that has been able to develop an encompassing non-sectarian political culture.
In a sectarian country such as Lebanon, elections are conducted under a nonsensical, perplexing and contradictory electoral law, which through the adoption of proportional representation does not allow for broadly based programs, and through providing a single preferential vote system fails to dilute sectarianism. Hence, due to this electoral law — described by former Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora as “unconstitutional” — there has been a bonanza of short-term, tactical and spiteful alliances between heterogeneous groups who are running together in some places, and facing off against one another in others.
Furthermore, the election fever conceals a huge strategic anomaly that cannot be dealt with merely by idealism and wishful thinking.
Currently in Lebanon, there is a partisan armed militia that acts outside state control, an acute sectarian polarization whereby extremists in each sect benefit from the extremists in other sects, and a divisive regional climate that is exacerbating internal divergence and facilitating foreign hegemony.
This is the reality, while all other issues — as far as I can remember — are just details.
• Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat.