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Writers or Missionaries? | The Nation

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Writers or Missionaries?

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V.S. Naipaul

V.S. Naipaul

The author would like to thank Sara Roy and Elias Muhanna. This essay is an adaptation of the 2014 Hilda B. Silverman Memorial Lecture delivered in May at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies of Harvard University.

The aura of the “resistance,” of course, is not universal. I remember sitting in a cafe in Beirut with the writer Samir Kassir. He had devoted himself to Palestine but had grown increasingly alarmed by Syria’s meddling in Lebanon, and by Hezbollah’s efforts, through its television station Al-Manar, to Islamize the Palestinian struggle. Israel’s occupation, he said, was not the first, or even the second, target of “the resistance.” This was, above all, a power play inside Lebanon. I remarked that the disaster of America’s war in Iraq had only heightened the prestige of Hezbollah’s resistance model. To my surprise, he replied, “I’m less worried about the fact that America is here than that it doesn’t know what it’s doing.”

Kassir was no fan of the American war, but he was a hardheaded analyst, unwilling to take refuge in comforting ideological formulas. He was not persuaded that the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon was an essential component in the struggle to liberate Palestine: Lebanon, he believed, deserved to breathe again, free of Syria’s corrupting influence. He made this argument in writing, over and again, and paid the ultimate price. Two years after our conversation, he was killed in a car bomb attack, most likely by pro-Syrian agents. Though I did not share all of Kassir’s analysis, I had great respect for his integrity, and I paid him tribute in these pages [see “The Principle of Hope,” July 4, 2005]. In the eyes of the blogger Asad Abu-Khalil, who calls himself “Angry Arab,” I had revealed myself to be an Orientalist for praising Kassir, an opponent of “the resistance.” This was a first: I was used to being attacked as a self-hating Jew!

Identity: you can’t get around it when you write on the Middle East. I consider myself a New Yorker first, an American second; although I have a certain private connection to Jewish culture and humor, I don’t go to temple, I don’t believe in God, and I am not a Zionist. My “Judaism,” such as it is, is not political. The trouble is that, in the Middle East, the idea of a nonpolitical or non-Zionist Judaism is virtually unintelligible. I have never written as a Jew, much less tried to prove to others that there are anti-occupation Jews like me, an effort that I find silly, if not offensive. So the question has always been: How candid should I be about something that matters to me, but not in a way that most people in the region would ever understand? Would I be opening up the possibility for serious misunderstandings? Isn’t it better just to shut up rather than shut down the conversation? After all, I’m here to report the story, not to be the story.

The problem is that sometimes, without your wanting it, you are the story: the fact of your presence is news. So while I usually keep my Jewish identity to myself, if asked whether I’m Jewish, I don’t lie. And sometimes, if I’m lucky, I can use it to my advantage. Not in the sense of opening doors, but in the sense of opening up the conversation in surprising ways. I think, for example, about the albino Palestinian woman I met in Jenin who, when she discovered I was Jewish, asked me, “Were you in the Holocaust?” and began to chuckle. Fortunately not, I replied, laughing at the absurdity of her question. This led to one of the most fascinating conversations I had in Palestine, a conversation about the oppressions of occupation, gender and, in her case, colorlessness.

I also think of the conversation I had in Nablus with Ghada, a local PFLP leader who had spent much of her adulthood in Israeli prisons. I liked her immediately. She was as playful as she was fiery, with a disarming, throaty laugh. Before we began our interview, I asked her if she had any questions about me. I usually do this—if people want to have a better sense of who I am, I want to give them the opportunity to ask. Their questions can deepen the conversation and help me to formulate my own. She paused, took a drag of her cigarette and said: “If you are Israeli, or related to Israelis, or even if you are just a Jew, I cannot speak to you. Do you understand?” Abed, my fixer, sat there waiting, nervously, while I came up with a reply. I said: “Really, you wouldn’t talk to Noam Chomsky? You wouldn’t talk to a Jewish critic of the occupation?” She replied that a French-Jewish journalist who had interviewed her recently had written that she supported a two-state settlement when, in fact, she wanted to liberate Palestine from the river to the sea. A Jew had betrayed her; how could I be trusted?

I said, a bit desperately, “If you read my work, I believe that you will see that I am progressive, and honest. Now, you can decide not to speak with me because I’m Jewish. That’s your right. I can’t force you to talk to me. But I think you’d be making a mistake not to.” She looked at Abed; he looked at her. “Because I love Abed, because I trust Abed, I will speak to you, with total frankness.” And she did. She gave me great material.

When we left her office, Abed said, “You never told me you were Jewish!” I said I assumed he knew. He said, “What you don’t understand is that for Ghada, your kind of Jew is not really a Jew.”

What did I learn from this encounter, besides the fact that in the Nablus offices of the Popular Front, I don’t quite count as a Jew? I learned that having a trusted fixer makes a huge difference. And I realized that, in some cases, you can create intimacy by showing your cards, by not being sheepish about your identity, by owning up to your discomfort. I could have lied to Ghada, but if I had lied to her, I would have shown her less respect, and showing respect, I believe, is the yeast of any successful interview.

When I started out, I didn’t have the confidence about my identity that I displayed that day with Ghada. And I had not yet learned to listen; I still took words, ideological formulas, slogans at face value. Around the time that I met Ghada, I interviewed Hussam Khader, a Fatah leader in the Balata refugee camp. Hussam, like Ghada, had spent a number of years in Israeli prisons. He told me that he was sure that in time—maybe twenty years, maybe fifty, maybe a hundred—they, the Jews, would all go back to wherever they came from, and all of Palestine would be free. A few minutes later, he spoke of his hopes for co-existence and offered, as proof, the example of his own friendships with members of the Knesset. What did Khader actually believe? Does it matter? Aren’t we all contradictory in our aspirations and beliefs—particularly if, as in Khader’s case, an ocean lies between our desires and our power to fulfill them? Doesn’t this paradox, this floating between the dream of recovering historical Palestine and the dreary and corrupt business of “peace processing” under occupation, tell you more about the Palestinian predicament than any speech, than any declaration of principles?

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