Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
18 - 24 May 2000
Issue No. 482
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Sartre and the Arabs: a footnote

By Edward Said

Edward Said Once the most celebrated intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre until quite recently had almost faded from view. Shortly after his death in 1980 he was already being attacked for his 'blindness' about the Soviet Gulags, and even his humanistic existentialism was ridiculed for its optimism, voluntarism, and sheer energetic reach. Sartre's whole career was offensive both to the so-called Nouveaux Philosophes whose mediocre attainments had only a fervid anti-communism to attract any attention, and to the post-structuralists and post-modernists who with few exceptions had lapsed into a sullen technological narcissism of the sort that excoriated Sartre's populism and his heroic public politics. The immense sprawl of Sartre's work as novelist, essayist, playwright, biographer, philosopher, political intellectual, engaged activist, seemed to repel more people than it brought him readers, so that from being the most quoted of the French ma”tres penseurs, he became the least read and the least analysed, all in the space of about 20 years. Forgotten were his courageous positions on Algeria and Vietnam, his work on behalf of immigrants, his gutsy appearance as a Maoist radical during the 1968 student demonstrations in Paris, as well as his extraordinary range and literary distinction (for which he both won, and rejected, the Nobel Prize in Literature). He had become a maligned ex-celebrity, except in the Anglo-American world where he had never been taken seriously as a philosopher and was always read somewhat condescendingly as a quaint occasional novelist and memoirist, insufficiently anti-communist, not quite as chic and compelling as (the far less talented) Camus.

Then, as with many things French, the fashion began to change back, or so it seemed at a distance. Several books about him appeared, and once again he has (perhaps only momentarily) become the subject of talk, if not exactly of study or reflection. I must say that for my generation he has always seemed one of the great intellectual heroes of the 20th century, a man whose insight and intellectual gifts seemed at the service of nearly every progressive cause of our time. Yet never did one feel that he was infallible or prophetic. On the contrary, one admired Sartre for the efforts he made to understand situations and when necessary to supply solidarity to political causes, and never to be condescending or evasive. He could be wrong perhaps, was frequently vulnerable to error and overstatement, but he was always larger-than-life, and for a reader such as myself, I found nearly everything he wrote interesting for its sheer audacity, its freedom (even its freedom to be verbose), and its generosity of spirit. Except in one obviously special instance, which I'd like to describe here.

What encourages me to do so are two fascinating if dispiriting reviews about his visit to Egypt in early 1967 that appeared last month in Al-Ahram Weekly's Books Supplement (issue no. 477. 13-19 April 2000). My own rather forlorn experience with Sartre was a very minor episode in a very grand life, but it may be worth recalling both for its ironies and its poignancy. It was the first part of January 1979, and I was at home in New York preparing for one of my classes. The doorbell announced the delivery of a telegram and as I tore it open I noticed appreciatively that it was from Paris. "You are invited by Les Temps modernes to attend a seminar on peace in the Middle East in Paris on 13 and 14 March this year. Please respond. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre." At first I thought the cable was a joke of some sort: no one like me would be likely to receive so remarkable a missive from such legendary figures. It might well have been an invitation from Cosima and Richard Wagner to come to Bayreuth, or one from T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf to spend an afternoon at The Dial's offices. It took me about two days to ascertain from various friends in New York and Paris that the telegram was indeed genuine, and far less time than that to signify my unconditional acceptance (this after also learning that les modalités, the French euphemism for travel expenses, were to be borne by Les Temps modernes, the celebrated journal established by Sartre after the war). A few weeks later I was off to Paris.

When I arrived I found a short, mysterious letter from Sartre and de Beauvoir awaiting me at the modest hotel that I had booked in the Latin Quarter. "For security reasons," ran the message, "the meetings will be held at the home of Michel Foucault." I was duly provided with an address, and at ten the next morning I arrived at Foucault's spacious apartment to find a number of people -- minus Sartre himself -- already milling around. No one was ever to explain the mysterious "security reasons" that had forced a change in venue, though as a result a conspiratorial air hung quite unnecessarily over our proceedings. De Beauvoir was already there in her famous turban, lecturing anyone who would listen about her upcoming trip to Tehran with Kate Millett where they were planning to demonstrate against the chador; the whole idea struck me as patronisingly silly, and although I was eager to hear what de Beauvoir had to say, I also realised that she was quite vain and quite beyond arguing with at that moment. Besides, she left an hour or so later (just before Sartre's arrival) and was never seen again.

Foucault was there, but he very quickly made it clear to me that he had nothing to say about the seminar's subject, and would be leaving directly for his daily bout of research at the Bibliotheque Nationale. I was pleased that my book Beginnings was readily visible on one of his bookshelves, all of which were brimming with a neatly arranged mass of books, papers, journals. Although we chatted together amiably it wasn't until much later (in fact almost a decade after his death in 1984) that I got some idea why Foucault had been so unwilling to say anything to me about Middle Eastern politics. In their biographies of him, both Didier Eribon and James Miller reveal that in 1967 he had been teaching in Tunisia and had hastily gotten out in unusual circumstances shortly after the June War. Foucault had said then that the reason he left voluntarily had been his horror at the "anti-Semitic" anti-Israel riots of the time, common in every Arab city after the great Arab defeat. A Tunisian colleague of his in the University of Tunis philosophy department told me a different story in the early 80s: Foucault, she said, had been deported because of his homosexual activities with young students. I still have no idea which version is correct. At the time of the Paris seminar Foucault told me he had just returned from a sojourn in Iran as a special envoy of Corierre Della Sera. "Very exciting, very strange, crazy" I recall him saying about those early days of the Islamic Revolution. I think I heard (perhaps mistakenly) him say that while in Tehran he had disguised himself in a wig, although a short while after his articles appeared, he rapidly distanced himself from all things Iranian. Finally, in the late 80s, I was told by Gilles Deleuze that he and Foucault, once the closest of friends, had clashed finally because of their differences over Palestine, Foucault expressing support for Israel, Deleuze for the Palestinians. No wonder, then, he hadn't wanted to discuss the Middle East with me or anyone else there!

La Cause du Peuple
Sartre with de Beauvoir at the Paris office of La Cause du Peuple which Sartre edited and which was banned by the French government, 1970
Foucault's apartment, though large and obviously extremely comfortable, was starkly white and austere, exactly mirroring the solitary philosopher and rigorous thinker who seemed to inhabit it alone. A few Palestinians and Israeli Jews were there, among whom I recognised only Ibrahim Dakkak, who has since become a good Jerusalem friend, Nafez Nazzal, a teacher at Bir Zeit whom I had known superficially in the US, and Yehoshofat Harkabi, the leading Israeli expert on "the Arab mind," a former chief of Israeli military intelligence fired by Golda Meir for mistakenly putting the army on alert. Three years earlier, I had spent a year with him at the Stanford Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioural Sciences, where we were both Fellows, but we did not have much of a relationship there at all. It was always polite but uncordial. In Paris he seemed in the process of changing his position to become Israel's leading establishment dove, a man who was soon to speak openly about the need for a Palestinian state, which he considered to be a strategic advantage from Israel's point of view.

The other participants were mostly Israeli or French Jews. They ran the gamut from very religious to very secular, although all were pro-Zionist in one way or another. One of them, Eli Ben Gal, seemed to have a long acquaintance with Sartre: we were later to be told that he had been Sartre's guide on a recent trip to Israel. But when the great man finally appeared well past the appointed time, I was shocked at how old and frail he seemed. I recall rather needlessly and idiotically introducing Foucault to him (as if they didn't already know each other extremely well), and I also recall how clear it seemed to me from the beginning that Sartre was constantly surrounded, supported, prompted by a small retinue of people on whom he totally depended and for whom he was the main business of their lives. One was his adopted daughter whom, I later learned, was his literary executor; I was told that she was of Algerian origin. Another was Pierre Victor, a former Maoist and co-publisher with Sartre of the now defunct Gauche Proletarienne, who had now become a deeply religious and, I suppose, orthodox Jew; it stunned me to find out later from one of the journal's assistants who hovered around that Victor was an Egyptian Jew called Benny Levy, and was the brother of Adel Refa't, one of the so-called Mahmoud Hussein pair (the other being Bahgat El-Nadi: the two men worked under this name at UNESCO and as "Mahmoud Hussein" wrote La Lutte des classes en Egypte, a well-known study published by Maspero). There seemed to be nothing Egyptian about Victor; he came across as a Left Bank Parisian intellectual, part-thinker, part-hustler. Third was Helene von Bulow, a trilingual woman who worked at the journal and translated everything for Sartre. I was a little surprised and disappointed to realise that despite the fact that he had spent time in Germany, had written not only on Heidegger, but also on Faulkner and Dos Passos, Sartre knew neither German nor English. An amiable and elegant woman, von Bulow remained at Sartre's side for the two days of the seminar, whispering simultaneous translations into his ear. Except for one Palestinian from Vienna who could only speak in either Arabic or German, our discussion was in English. How much of what transpired Sartre actually comprehended I shall never know, but it was (to me and others) profoundly disconcerting that he remained totally silent for the entire first day's proceedings. Michel Contat, Sartre's bibliographer was also there, but did not participate.

In what I took to be the French style, lunch -- which in most other contexts would have been an hour or so -- was a very elaborate affair held at a somewhat distant restaurant, and since the rain had been non-stop, transporting everyone in cabs, sitting through a four-course repast, then bringing the group back again, ended up by being a major enterprise lasting about three and a half hours. So on the first day our discussions about peace lasted for a relatively short time. The themes of that discussion were laid out by Victor with no consultation with anyone else that I was aware of. Early on, I sensed that he considered himself a law unto himself, partly because of his privileged relationship with Sartre (with whom he occasionally had whispered exchanges), partly because of a sublime, some might call it an arrogant, self-confidence. According to him we were to discuss: (1) the value of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel (this was Camp David time), (2) peace between Israel and the Arab world generally, and (3) the rather more profound conditions of coexistence that might come about between Israel and the surrounding Arab world. None of the Arabs seemed happy with this, in my case because on the face of it it simply leap-frogged over the Palestinian dimension. Dakkak was unhappy with the whole set up, and in fact left after the first day. He had been promised that Egyptian intellectuals would be present, and when they didn't turn up as apparently agreed upon, he felt he couldn't stay for more than half the time.

As that day wore on I slowly discovered that a good deal of negotiating had gone on beforehand to bring the seminar about, and that what participation there was from the Arab world was compromised, and hence abridged, by all the prior wheeling and dealing. I was somewhat chagrined that I hadn't been included in any of this. Perhaps I had been too naive and anxious to come to Paris to meet Sartre, I thought skeptically to myself? There was talk of Emmanuel Levinas being involved, but he never showed up, any more than the Egyptians did. In the meantime all our discussions were being recorded and subsequently published in a special issue of Les Temps modernes (September 1979). I thought it was pretty unsatisfactory, with all of us going over more or less familiar ground, with scant meeting of minds or of interesting new discoveries.

I had in part assumed that the whole event would be a mainly verbal exercise to begin with, but had come, obviously, because it wasn't just anyone who had convened the meeting, but Sartre himself. De Beauvoir had proved herself to be a serious disappointment and besides, she had left after she had held forth for an hour of opinionated babble about Islam and the veiling of women. Under the circumstances, I did not regret her absence; later I was convinced she would have livened things up. But Sartre's presence, or rather what there was of it, was strangely passive, unimpressive, affectless. He said absolutely nothing for hours on end. At lunch he sat across from me, looking disconsolate and remaining totally uncommunicative, with egg and mayonnaise streaming haplessly down his face for much too long a time. I tried to make conversation with him, but got nowhere. He may have been deaf, but I'm not sure. In any case, he seemed to me like a haunted version of his earlier self, his proverbial ugliness, his pipe, and his nondescript clothing hanging about him like so many props on a deserted stage. I was very active in Palestinian politics then: in 1977 I had become a member of the National Council, and on my frequent visits to Beirut (this was during the Lebanese civil war) to visit my mother, regularly saw Arafat and most of the other leaders active then. I thought it would be a major achievement to coax Sartre into making a pro-Palestinian statement at such a "hot" moment of our deadly rivalry with Israel.

Throughout the lunch and afternoon session I was aware of Pierre Victor as a sort of station-master for the seminar, among whose trains was Sartre himself. Aside from their mysterious interactions at the table, he and Victor would occasionally get up, Victor would lead the shuffling old man away, speak rapidly at him, get an intermittent nod or two, then the pair would come back. Meanwhile every member of the seminar wanted to have his or her say, so that it was impossible to develop an argument, though it became clear to me that Israel's enhancement (what today is called "normalisation") was the real subject of the meeting, and neither the Palestinians nor the Arabs. I was very much in the position of several Arabs before me who well-intentionedly thought it worthwhile to try to convince some immensely important intellectual (like Sartre and several others of his standing) in the hope that he would turn into another Arnold Toynbee or Sean McBride. Few of these great eminences did. Sartre struck me as worth the effort simply because I could not forget his position on Algeria, which as a Frenchman must have been harder to hold than a critical position on Israel. I was wrong of course.

At some point, as the turgid and unrewarding discussions wore, I found that I was too often affirming to myself that I had after all come to France to listen to what Sartre had to say, not to people whose opinions I already knew and didn't always find specially gripping. I therefore brazenly interrupted the discussion early in the evening and insisted that we should hear from Sartre forthwith. This caused consternation in the ranks of his circle. The seminar was adjourned while urgent consultations between them were held. I must say I found the whole thing both comic and pathetic at the same time, since Sartre himself seemed to play no apparent role in consultations concerning his own participation! At last we were summoned back to the table by the visibly irritated Pierre Victor who, with all the portentous affectation of a Roman Senator, announced testily "demain Sartre parlera" (tomorrow Sartre will speak.) And so we retired, to reassemble the following morning to hear the great man.

Sure enough Sartre did have something to give us the next day: a prepared text of about two typed pages that basically -- I write entirely based on a 20 year old memory of the moment -- praised Sadat's courage in the most banal platitudes imaginable. I cannot recall that many words were said about the Palestinians, or about territory, or about the tragic past. Certainly no reference was made to Israeli settler-colonialism, similar in many ways to the French practice in Algeria. It was about as informative as a Reuter's dispatch, obviously written by the egregious Victor to get Sartre, whom he seemed completely to command, off the hook. I must say I was quite shattered, that this intellectual hero had succumbed in his later years to so reactionary a mentor, and that on Palestine, an issue I considered to have great moral and political urgency -- surely on a level with Algeria and Vietnam -- the former warrior on behalf of the oppressed could find only the most conventional, journalistic terms of praise for an already well-celebrated Egyptian leader! For the rest of that day Sartre resumed his former silence, while the rest of us continued as before.

Interestingly, when the transcript of the seminar was published a few months later, Sartre's intervention as he gave it seemed to have been excised from the record. What the reason for that was I cannot imagine nor did I try to find out. I do know that even though I still have the issue of Temps modernes in which we all appeared I haven't been able to bring myself to re-read more than a few extracts, so flat and unrewarding do its pages now seem to me. So I went to Paris to hear Sartre very much in the spirit of Sartre's invitation to come to Egypt, to be seen and talked to by Arab intellectuals -- with exactly the same results, even though my own encounter was coloured, not to say stained, by the presence of an unattractive intermediary, Pierre Victor, who has since disappeared, I think, into well-deserved obscurity. I was, I thought then, like Fabrice looking for the Battle of Waterloo -- unsuccessful and disappointed.

One further footnote. A few weeks ago I happened to catch part of a broadcast of Bernard Pivot's weekly cultural discussion programme "Bouillon de culture," screened on French television, and rebroadcast in the US a short time later. The programme was on Sartre, his slow posthumous rehabilitation, his new prominence despite the continuing criticism of his political sins. Bernard Henry-Levy, whom in quality of mind and political courage there could scarcely be any one more different than Sartre, was there to flog his apparently approving study of the older philosopher. (I confess that I haven't read it, and do not plan to.) He was not so bad really, said the patronising BHL, since there were things about Sartre that were consistently admirable and politically correct. BHL intended this to balance what he considered the well-founded criticism of Sartre (made into a nauseating mantra by Paul Johnson) as having been always wrong on communism. "For example," BHL intoned, "Sartre's record on Israel was perfect: he never deviated and he remained a complete supporter of the Jewish state." The words "Sartre's record on Israel was perfect" are a close verbatim quotation.

For reasons that we still cannot be certain about, Sartre really did remain constant in his fundamental pro-Zionism. Whether that was because he was afraid of seeming anti-Semitic, or because he felt guilt about the Holocaust, or because he allowed himself no deep appreciation of the Palestinians as victims of and fighters against Israel's injustice, or because of some other reason, I shall never know. All I do know is that as a very old man he seemed pretty much the same as he had been when somewhat younger: a bitter disappointment to every (non-Algerian) Arab who admired him justifiably for his other positions and work. Certainly Bertrand Russell was better than Sartre, and in his last years (though led on and, some would say, totally manipulated by my former Princeton classmate and one-time friend Ralph Schoenman) actually took positions fairly critical of Israel's policies towards the Arabs. I guess we need to understand why great old men finally succumb either to the wiles of a younger one, or to a kind of rigid submission to an unmodifiable political belief. It's a dispiriting thought to contemplate, but there it is in Sartre's case. Except for Algeria, the justice of the Arab cause simply could not make much of an impression on him, and whether it was entirely because of Israel or because of a basic lack of sympathy for cultural and maybe religious reasons, I do not know. In this he was totally unlike his friend and idol Jean Genet, who celebrated his strange passion for Palestinians in extended sojourn with them and by writing the extraordinary "Quatre Heures en Sabra et Chatila" and in Le Captif amoureux..

A year after our brief and disappointing Paris encounter Sartre was dead. I vividly remember how sadly I mourned his passing.

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