Obituary Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri: 1938-2008
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Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri (top); with his wife Hoda Hegazy, two grandchildren Adham and Nadim, daughter-in-law Dina, his son and daughter Yasser and Nur Elmessiri
Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri died on 3 July at the age of 70. He carried this life heavily within him. One would have thought him much older.
Six years of cancer treatment and cancer itself took their toll on his face and body. Over the past years, his trips for cancer treatment to the United States were regularly reported by the press or mentioned matter-of-factly by his friends and acquaintances. Elmessiri spoke casually of his deadly disease and shared his astonishment of the staggering cost of his daily treatment -- covered by a Saudi prince -- with his friends.
Historian, activist, academic, writer, critic, poet and antique-collector, Elmessiri was too engaged with his abundant contributions to this world; he allowed nothing, not even cancer, to claim victory over his willpower. It was normal, thus, for many of us who knew the man to forget over the past six years that he was battling a deadly disease until the early hours of last Thursday when he passed away in the Heliopolis Palestine Hospital. But if there were any surprises in his death, it was what his wife, Hoda, later revealed: it was a heart attack, and not cancer, that claimed her husband's life. The disease failed to defeat him.
Now that he is gone and obituaries in Egypt and across the Arab world are making their way to the press in large numbers, one cannot but notice the common dilemma that possibly faced their authors. Just how does one evoke the life of Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri?
In mourning him, most of the local and Arab media described him as the author of the first-of- its-kind eight-volume Arab encyclopaedia, Jews, Judaism and Zionism, published in 1999 and that took more than 15 years to compile.
Until his death, Elmessiri was also the general coordinator of Kifaya, the anti-Mubarak and anti- hereditary succession opposition movement. It was a post he assumed, surprisingly, or not perhaps, in 2007 out of his belief "that we live in historic times during which the political situation categorically must change; Kifaya is the beacon." Then 69-year-old Elmessiri joined anti- government street demonstrations that left him, many a time, in confrontation with riot police. Last January, security officials detained him and his wife prior to a Kifaya demonstration where they were dropped off on the desert highway between Heliopolis and new Cairo.
Elmessiri graduated from Alexandria University with a BA in English literature. He then moved to the US to complete his post-graduate studies and obtained a PhD in comparative literature at Columbia University in 1969. In the same year, he returned to teach English at Ain Shams University.
Two years later, at the age of 33, he was appointed as a consultant on Zionism at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in 1971 by then Al-Ahram star editor Mohamed Hassanein Heikal. A year later, Elmessiri published his first "real" book The End of History: An Introduction to the Study of Zionist Thought. That was 30 years before Francis Fukuyama published his book with the same primary title. But while Fukuyama considered the end of history a victory for US civilisation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Elmessiri's interpretation of the end of history was entirely different. As Palestinian columnist Bilal El-Hassan explained in an obituary published in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat 5 July, Elmessiri argued that fascist philosophies always seek the end of history. And this is precisely what Zionism did to the Palestinians and the Jews themselves. It saw Arab Palestine as a land without a people, and promoted the notion that Jews were a people without a land. Elmessiri's conclusion, wrote El-Hassan, "is a philosophical achievement".
Before joining his wife in the US, where she was obtaining her PhD, Elmessiri published an encyclopaedia on "Zionist idiom" in 1975. Whilst in the US, he was a cultural consultant to the permanent Arab League delegation at the United Nations.
Upon his return to Egypt in 1979, which happened to coincide with the signing of the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, Elmessiri not only lost his job at Al-Ahram, but also was shunned by his former colleagues. He had left Egypt renowned in 1975, yet upon his return in 1979 there were those who would not return his calls. He was no longer invited to talk on the radio, or appear on television. Reality stung at first, but he learned to adapt and pursue his scholarly work away from the limelight and applause he was accustomed to previously. In 1983 he left Egypt to teach at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia. In 1989 he moved to Kuwait to teach at Kuwait University for one year. In 1990 he moved back to Egypt, resigned from Ain Shams University, and devoted himself entirely to his encyclopaedia on Jews, Judaism and Zionism.
He had realised six years earlier that it was his "destiny" to write on Zionism. In the past, he had fought this idea intensely, seduced by his desire to explore new trends of thought. But no sooner had he settled down to do so than he was sidetracked by entreaties to exercise his expertise one more time. In an interview with Fayza Hassan in Al-Ahram Weekly in 1999, Elmessiri explained: "I became convinced that my preoccupation with Zionism had been preordained, that it would never completely go away. I made up my mind that it was simpler to go with the flow. And lo and behold, my theoretical preoccupations were immediately embodied in, and resolved by, the case study of Zionism. This is why the first volume of my encyclopaedia is purely theoretical, while the seven others are simple applications of the theory."
Elmessiri says he came to know Zionism from "within" way back in 1965, when he attended in Columbia University and came to be close to an Iraqi Jewish colleague who spoke of the end of Israel -- a notion amongst Israelis previously unknown to Elmessiri. It was an encounter he said, that "coloured" his views (he describes his early vision of the Arab-Israeli conflict as "Zionist"). He describes himself as the first Egyptian to write about Zionism with more than a superficial knowledge picked up randomly. "I was also the first one to predict the Intifada and the advent of the stone-throwing children, four years before it actually came to pass. I am not afraid of Zionism, because I feel that I have a deep understanding of its mechanisms and I am full of optimism regarding the ultimate fate of the Palestinians."
Jews, Judaism and Zionism stands out as his main intellectual achievement and singles him out as perhaps the Arab world's leading researcher and critic on Zionism. But Elmessiri was a multifarious man whose critical mind left him little choice but to pursue a series of intellectual journeys that were not necessarily connected. Or perhaps they were -- in his own way. His prolific works covered secularism, philosophy, Western culture, modernism and post-modernism. In 2000, he published a series of children's stories.
Over the course of his life his outlook moved from Western secularism to a modern Islamic vision. He had been a Marxist since age 16, he confesses, embracing historical materialism after his religious education teachers failed to provide him with answers to his questions about the origin and point of existence of the universe. In his own words, it was when his first-born daughter came into being that he became a believer, because "materialism could not explain the miracle and mystery of creation".
Illness taught him two things, he said: that there are limits to human capability; and that, rather than disease per se, it is the so-called patient's response to their condition that matters most. "When I was in the hospital, I received heaps of flowers from friends and students who visited me, and that's when I realised how important it was to visit ill friends and family, which I had only ever done on rare occasions." His journey of growth continued until the day of his death.
Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri's friends and colleagues will be paying tribute to his life and work at the Press Syndicate in downtown Cairo today at 7pm.