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Jews of the Arab World?

November 02, 1986|JONATHAN KIRSCH

As an American Jew and a Zionist, I confess to being impressed and intrigued, as well as troubled, by the voice of Edward W. Said in After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (Pantheon: $14.95; also available in hardcover, $22.95). Said, a professor of literature at Columbia University and a familiar figure in the Western media, was born in Jerusalem, reared in Cairo, and now lives in the United States: He is a self-described Palestinian nationalist with a mastery of Western culture, an accomplished intellectual who puts his considerable analytical and rhetorical skills at the service of his people. "After the Last Sky" is an important book, potentially an influential book, and necessarily an unsettling one.

The book "After the Last Sky" is presented as Said's musings over the black-and-white images of Swiss photographer Jean Mohr, who has documented the lives and landscapes of Palestinian Arabs in Israel and the Arab world. Said's method--and, more to the point, his mission--is to explain and enlarge upon these commonplace images of Arab life: the household, the mosque, the marketplace, the fields, the refugee camp. His prose--impressionistic and passionate--is an uneasy blend of bittersweet reminiscence, caustic political analysis, and pure Fanonesque rage.

"Why these natives in their untidy backwardness could not impress the Zionists, much less the rest of the world, with their presence is something I still cannot really understand," he writes of the Arab population of Palestine during the formative years of Zionist settlement and early Jewish statehood. "It is as if the Zionist web of detail and its drama, in alliance with our own inability and recalcitrance to dramatize and speak about ourselves, screened the Palestinians not only from the world but from ourselves as well."

Said writes movingly of the experiences and emotions of Palestinian Arabs in Israel and in the manfa ('exile') or ghurba ('estrangement'). (Significantly, he explicitly refuses to use the word "diaspora," although he ponders the provocative phrase which characterizes Palestinian Arabs as "the Jews of the Arab world," and claims--outrageously, I must say--that "the Holocaust has victimized us, too.") He moves easily between Western and Arab culture, citing Yeats, Kafka and Melville as readily as Mahmoud Darwish and other Palestinian poets, scholars and writers. And he succeeds brilliantly in evoking the Zeitgeist of the Palestinian Arabs: "a force building up out of a long, intense history, frustrated and angry about the present, desperately worried about the future."

What is troubling is Said's persistence in characterizing the Palestinian Arabs as victims--of "the unlovely solicitude of our Arab brethren," of "the alliance between Zionism and the United States (which) ultimately caused our dispossession"--without ever owning up to the moral or practical implications of the Palestinians' choice of terrorism as so frequent a mode of expression for their rage and aspiration. Said acknowledges without irony the fact that Yasir Arafat "made it impossible to see the Middle East in general, and Israel in particular, without also seeing the Palestinian." But he never confronts the question that plagues those of us who believe in accommodation between Arab and Jew in Palestine--how can these two star-crossed peoples co-exist in the same land when they perceive each other as murderers?

Indeed, Said is maddeningly ambiguous about the real ambitions of the Palestinian people: "(A)lthough to Palestinians today the word awdah (return) is crucial and stands at the very heart of our political quest for self-determination, to some, it means return to a Palestinian state alongside Israel, yet to others, it means a return to all of Palestine," he writes. "Many ask whether the impurity of our current posture--unable to make either peace or war--might be cleansed by a reversion to the methods of South Lebanese Shi'ites, or of Algerian mujahidin." When a man as attuned to Western sensibilities as Said expresses such sentiments, the prospect of any meaningful encounter between Arab and Jew seems very remote indeed.

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