I met Hisham Sharabi only once, when I was a visiting professor at Georgetown ten years ago. It was late at night, and we shared an elevator on the way out of the building. It wasn’t at all memorable, yet I remember it—I suppose because I’d been reading him for so long. He died of cancer in Beirut on Thursday, at the age of 77, and his departure marks the end of an era. He formed one corner of that formidable Palestinian triangle, comprised of Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Edward Said, and himself, that defined academe as war by other means. Now all three are gone.
As a Palestinian activist, Sharabi had the least impact of the three: he was a bit too academic. But he was the one most likely to surprise you by some brutally frank insight into the Arab condition. His book Neo-Patriarchy is loaded with sweeping generalizations that would be denounced as orientalist were any non-Arab to make them. Last May, when Seymour Hersh claimed that neo-conservatives had cooked up the idea that Arabs were “particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation,” I brought this quote from Sharabi:
A principal technique of child-rearing in the middle-class Arab family is shaming…. The child’s physical functions, particularly his sexual functions, become the instruments of control. The child becomes ashamed of his body and its functions…. In the more traditional families, emphasis on ritualistic purity only strengthens the awareness of physical impurity and heightens the feeling of embarrassment associated with the body…. The child’s experience of sex is chaotic, painful, and humiliating.
Sexual frustration figured in his amusing account (in his Arabic memoir, Embers and Ashes) of his first encounter with striptease, while a young student in Chicago in the 1940s. (It’s translated here.) But there was something sadly poignant, and even ominous, about this passage:
There is not a single Arab student who does not experience feelings of disappointment after arriving in America. The first disappointment is that they discover that American girls are not all as pretty as they appear in the movies and the magazines. The girls who are very beautiful are difficult to befriend because the competition over them is strong. One must spend months before being able to befriend a reasonably attractive girl. I know young men from Arab countries who have spent years in America without having romantic relationships or sexual encounters.
The fact that America, less beautiful up close, offers no escape from sexual frustration may belong somewhere in explanations of anti-Americanism among young Arab men, and even of 9/11.
Sharabi was born and partly raised in Jaffa, but he will be buried in Beirut. He did return to Jaffa, at least twice as far as I know—once to make a documentary film with Amos Oz, and again to attend Abu-Lughod’s funeral. But Beirut is where Sharabi went to college (at the American University), and it’s where he first became politically active in the cult-like pan-Syrian movement of Antun Saadeh. Sharabi also returned to Lebanon after his retirement from Georgetown in 1998. I have a paperback copy of his 1966 book, Nationalism and Revolution in the Arab World, and the back cover describes him as “a native of Lebanon.” I invite others who knew him well to parse that, but it suggests a certain complexity that shouldn’t be completely subsumed as he’s inducted into the Palestinian pantheon.