Resistance literature and ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ in colonized Palestine

By Haider Eid
This semester, I am teaching two novels and a few short stories written by brilliant, critical “Orientals,” and Africans following Edward Said’s advice to make use of his work on orientalism so we might then produce new studies of our own that would “illuminate the historical experience of Arabs and others,” including Muslims, in “a generous enabling mode,” as he puts it in the Forward of his masterpiece Orientalism. I realized that the exploration of the multi-faceted reflections of these literary works with my Palestinian students, living all their life in besieged Gaza, might be a way into a discussion of the sources from which the East-West differences ultimately arise as a strategy for understanding what Said labels as the ”clash of ignorance.” But I also have Paulo Freire’s theories of the pedagogy of the oppressed  in mind. The texts I am referring to here are written by our own Ghassan KanafaniOusmane SemebeneNureddin FarrahNgugi Wa Thiong’o, and Mohsin Hamid.

I thought that since it is primarily American Christian fundamentalism, embedded in the highest level of U.S. military and governmental power, and Ashkenazi Zionism which perceive themselves under attack by ”Islam,” and the essentially “antisemitic Orient,” it might be useful to pursue literary texts exhibiting non-confrontational juxtapositions of the two traditions, or the “other” story, that of the oriental/Muslim. And most of my students fall into this category.

This approach seems to me in keeping with the spirit of Edward Said’s life work. Said tried to show that what Samuel Huntington called ”a clash of civilization” was actually a ”clash of ignorance .” In a series of books distinguished for their inclusiveness, Said presents a profound and nuanced analysis of this conflict, following Vico’s conviction that human culture, since it is man-made, can be positively shaped by human efforts. In addition to Orientalism, I am thinking of Covering IslamThe Question of PalestineCulture and Imperialism, Reflections on Exile,  Representations of the IntellectualThe World, The Text and The Critic, and Out of Place. Said’s concern stems from the fact that as an Oriental who grew up in Egypt, Palestine, and Lebanon, all subject to the domination of the colonizing West, he found it important to define the impact of the United States, where he later received his education and which had had such a profound effect in his own life and that of all other Orientals exactly like the Muslim narrator/protagonist of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Hence the choice of Mohsin’s text to teach to my Palestinian students, i.e both the text and the act of analyzing it are an attempt to de-orientalize the orient, so to speak. As Said says in the Introduction, he writes from the perspective of an Arab/Palestinian with a strong concern and empathy for the region. This identification is obvious from such statements as this: ”Orientalism is written out of an extremely concrete history of personal loss and national disintegration,” recalling that Golda Meier’s notorious and deeply Orientalist comment about there being “no Palestinian people” had been made only a few years before he wrote the book.

Hamid’s protagonist, like Said, suffers from the Islamophobic mood dominating the U.S., where he works for a multi-national company after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and from what can essentially be defined as a rising American white supremacy that dates back to the inception of “modern America.” The late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon seized that moment to vent all that orientalist, Islamophobic, Zionist wrath on the West Bank and Gaza, both of which became the testing laboratory, before Afghanistan and Iraq, for what should be done to “Anti-American” bearded and hijabi, dark-skinned Muslims. My students understand this, being at the receiving end of all the crimes committed in the name of “civilizational mission.”

As the current disastrous phase of Anglo-American colonialism sinks even deeper into chaos and anarchy, causing untold suffering in the Arab and Muslim worlds and elsewhere, thoughtful reflection and careful analysis become more urgently needed.  Headlines daily reveal ever more clearly not merely the failure of American politicians, diplomats, and military leaders to understand the Middle East and the Muslim World but their failure to take the simplest measures to compensate for this failure.

While teaching my Palestinian students, I am reminded of what Said called for so eloquently in Culture and Imperialism, namely ”the possibility of a more generous and pluralistic vision of the world.” There is an urgent need for books, courses, and lectures which encourage that approach.  And this is precisely why teaching the literary works of Ghassan Kanfani is of paramount importance as it comes in the context of decolonizing the Palestinian mind; Kanafani was after all the writer of Resistance Literaure.