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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.

      Time is education, even when they tell you it’s sophistication.
                  —Sly Stone

You have never been to the Middle East and have no personal connection to it. Although Jewish, you have no family in Israel. Your parents are not Zionists but left-liberals of the civil rights generation; neither has gone to Israel. What sparks your interest in the Middle East is the first intifada, which breaks out when you are a teenager. You are aghast at the scenes of Israeli soldiers firing rubber bullets at demonstrators and bulldozing homes. Instinctively sympathetic to the uprising by the “children of the stones,” you set out to educate yourself about the occupation. You read Noam Chomsky, I.F. Stone and Edward Said, and later Israeli revisionist historians like Simha Flapan, Ilan Pappé and Benny Morris (who has yet to reinvent himself as an apologist for the ethnic cleansing he did so much to expose). In college, you meet left-wing Jews like yourself, as well as progressive Arabs with whom you find you have more in common than you do with the students in Hillel. You go to demonstrations against the first Gulf war and the Israeli occupation, and you rail against America’s double standards to anyone who will listen. The tirades come naturally to you. You overflow with righteous indignation; you are exasperating in your certainty.

I was that kid. I didn’t know very much about the Middle East, but I had the right attitudes, or so I thought. I also had a sense of mission and the energizing clarity that comes with it.

If you were a young leftist, it was easy to have a sense of mission during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a time of insidious propaganda and deceit about “weapons of mass destruction” and the threat that Saddam Hussein allegedly posed to “the homeland.” The American press was full of Middle East “experts” explaining “why they hate us.” These experts invariably started with the writings of Sayyid Qutb, a leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, who was hanged in 1966 for plotting to overthrow the Nasser regime. The roots of violent anti-Americanism could be traced to the basement of a church in Colorado in the late 1940s, where Qutb had been horrified by the sight of boys and girls dancing together. We were attacked a half-century later not because of what we had done in the Middle East, but because of who we were back home: free, open and tolerant. The New Yorker, which had distinguished itself for its opposition to the Vietnam War, was publishing Bernard Lewis on the “rage of Islam” and Jeffrey Goldberg’s dispatches from Cairo and Beirut, where everyone he met seemed to be an anti-Semite or a terrorist, or both. Reading the coverage in The New York Times, you might have concluded that the Palestinian leadership was entirely to blame for the failure of the Camp David negotiations and for the eruption of the second intifada.

One of my first articles about the Arab world was a review of a biography of Frantz Fanon for The New York Times Book Review. Shortly after I filed the piece, my editor called me to say that it was fine, except for one thing: I had referred to “Palestine,” a country that, according to the news desk, did not exist. We changed “Palestine” to “the Middle East.” It was just as well. Like most Americans, I saw the Middle East through the prism of the Israel-Palestine conflict, an error that I would discover only much later.

I felt strangely empowered by this brush with censorship. It was proof that I was expressing things, naming things, that were forbidden by the paper of record; that I was speaking truth to power. My task, I believed, was to unmask the rhetoric used to justify America’s war in Iraq, Israel’s repression in the occupied territories and other imperial misdeeds. And there was plenty of such rhetoric to keep me busy, about “humanitarian warfare,” “terrorism” and our unbreakable alliance with “the Middle East’s only democracy.”

I still stand by most of the positions that I took when I was starting out. But when I re-read the articles I published then, I find the tone jarring, the confidence unearned, the lack of humility suspect. I have the same reaction when I read a self-consciously committed journalist like Robert Fisk, who seems never to doubt his own thunderous convictions. I recently re-read Pity the Nation, his tome about the Lebanese civil war, and I was struck by how little Fisk tells us about the Lebanese, a people he has lived among since the mid-1970s. For all his emoting about the Lebanese, their voices are never allowed to interrupt his sermonizing. That I agree with parts of the sermon doesn’t mean I have the patience to sit through it. Fisk’s book, which once so impressed me, now strikes me as a wasted opportunity, unless journalism is understood as a narrowly prosecutorial endeavor, beginning and ending with the description of crimes and the naming (and shaming) of perpetrators. And yet Fisk’s example is instructive, in a cautionary way. It reminds us that immersion in the region isn’t enough: it’s how you process the experience, the traces that it leaves on the page. The Fiskian cri de coeur substitutes rage for understanding, hang-wringing for analysis.

* * *

Just to be clear: I’m not saying that one shouldn’t take positions or make political arguments in writing about the Middle East. It would be very hard not to. And part of what drives me is anger over injustice, and the hope that I might persuade readers to think more critically about American policy in the region. But developing friendships with Middle Eastern writers and traveling to the region very much changed the way that I understand my work. Two Arab writers have been particularly important in shaping my understanding. One is the former FLN leader turned historian Mohammed Harbi, whose books on the Algerian independence movement are a model of critical history, and who has patiently guided me through the maze of contemporary Algerian politics whenever I have seen him in Paris. The other is Raja Shehadeh, the founder of Al Haq, a lawyer and writer in Ramallah who has taught me what Zionism has meant—legally, politically and psychologically—for the Palestinians. Anguished and somewhat fragile, he is a man who, in spite of his understandable bitterness, has continued to dream of a future beyond the occupation, a kind of neo-Ottoman federation where Arabs and Jews would live as equals.

When I finally began to spend time in the place about which I had pontificated for so long, I discovered that I was much more interested in what the people I met had to say than in my own views. It dawned on me that I could only be a good writer on the Middle East to the extent that I was a good listener. I realized how insufficient it was to have the right attitudes; they would provide me with little more than an entree. The brash young man I was could write with a sense of mission in large part because he had never spent any time in the region; he was intoxicated by the sound of his own voice, the power that he felt it gave him.

Shortly after September 11, I interviewed V.S. Naipaul about his views on Islam for The New York Times Magazine. Much of what he said was predictably ugly, a provocation calculated to offend liberal sensibilities. “Non-fundamentalist Islam,” he told me, is “a contradiction.” September 11 had no cause other than “religious hate.” But Naipaul said something else that I will never forget: that ultimately, you have to make a choice—are you a writer, or are you a missionary? At the time, this remark struck me as glib, even dishonest. If anyone was a missionary, wasn’t it Naipaul, with his crude attacks on Muslims, his extreme Hindu nationalism and his snobbery, all of it dressed up as devotion to the noble calling of writing and art?

Still, the remark stayed with me. I couldn’t dismiss it; I have since seen its wisdom, although I am no fonder of Naipaul’s views now than I was then. Naipaul was evoking the tension between the writer, who describes things as he or she sees them, and the missionary or the advocate, who describes things as he or she wishes they might be under the influence of a party, movement or cause. The contrast is not as stark as Naipaul suggests, but it exists, and the more closely you analyze a society, the more you allow yourself to see and to hear, the more you experience this tension.

In Finding the Center, Naipaul writes that travel “became a necessary stimulus for me. It broadened my worldview; it showed me a changing world and took me out of my own colonial shell…. My uncertainty about my role withered; a role was not necessary. I recognized my own instincts as a traveler and was content to be myself, to be what I had always been, a looker. And I learned to look in my own way.” He continues:

To arrive in a place without knowing anyone there, and sometimes without an introduction; to learn how to move among strangers for the short time one could afford to be among them; to hold oneself in constant readiness for adventure or revelation; to allow oneself to be carried along, up to a point, by accidents; and consciously to follow up other impulses—that could be as creative and imaginative a procedure as the writing that came after. Travel of this sort became an intense experience for me. It used all the sides of my personality; I was always wound up…. There was always the possibility of failure—of not finding anything, not getting started on the chain of accidents and encounters. This gave a gambler’s excitement to every arrival. My luck held; perhaps I made it hold.

In this passage, Naipaul captures some of the most crucial aspects of reporting: an alert or receptive passivity; a willingness to expose oneself to unfamiliar and even unsettling experiences and people, to give up control and to get lost. This is not as easy as it sounds. That “readiness for adventure or revelation” has to be cultivated. As Walter Benjamin writes in his memoir Berlin Childhood Around 1900, “not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.”

* * *

Losing one’s way is exhilarating; but it can also be destabilizing, even frightening. You may end up asking yourself the question Bruce Chatwin made famous: What am I doing here? I remember asking myself this early one morning last summer in Jenin, when I was awakened by the call of the muezzin, my head throbbing from jet lag. I had spent the previous day interviewing a group of activists working at the Jenin Freedom Theatre, each more earnest than the last. I wondered if I would ever get closer to the truth of what had happened to Juliano Mer-Khamis, the head of the theater, who had been murdered there two years earlier. I thought of declaring defeat and leaving until a close friend of mine, a French-Moroccan woman living in Jerusalem, told me to get over myself and to press on. And I did. I needed to trust the gambler’s luck that Naipaul invoked; I needed to let go. This was not a matter of finding the story, but of allowing the story to find me.

This is the experience I’ve had almost every time I’ve reported, but the most memorable of these experiences took place in Algeria in late 2002, on one of my first long reporting trips. It happened almost by accident. I had been writing about the memory of the Algerian war of independence in contemporary France, where the controversy about torture by the French army had been reignited by an interview in Le Monde with a former FLN militant, Louisette Ighilahriz, who described her ghastly experiences in a French prison cell and her rescue by a man she knew only as “Dr. Richaud,” whom she was desperate to thank after all these years. After Ighilahriz’s interview, an even more explosive interview appeared in Le Monde with a one-eyed octogenarian general named Paul Aussaresses, who emerged from retirement to give an unapologetic account of carrying out a series of murders, disguised as suicides, of leading nationalists during the Battle of Algiers. Algeria was not my only interest in telling this story. Writing about the French-Algerian war, a story of settler colonialism, guerrilla warfare, torture and repression, was my indirect way of commenting on Israel’s response to the second intifada. Like the French during the Battle of Algiers, the Israeli government claimed that it was merely fighting “terrorism” in the occupied territories, rather than a nationalist insurgency with popular backing. The French, I noted, won the Battle of Algiers, but this turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory.

After my article on the Aussaresses affair was published, I met a group of Algerians visiting New York City, headed by one of the FLN’s historic “chiefs,” Hocine Aït-Ahmed, the longstanding leader of a Kabyle Berber opposition party. One of the Algerians at that discussion was an intense young woman named Daikha Dridi, a reporter for the Quotidien d’Oran. Daikha told me about the war between the security services and Islamic rebels that had claimed more than 100,000 lives; about the machinations of the so-called pouvoir, the dominant military-industrial clique that ruled Algeria; about the country’s still-traumatic relationship with France, its former colonial master. She urged me to visit: how, having written on France’s repression of the Algerian independence movement, could I not care about the fate of the independent Algeria? She was right. Not long after that meeting, I booked a flight to Algiers.

When I arrived there, a city I knew mostly from Gillo Pontecorvo’s film, the civil war had been over for about a year, but no one quite believed it: no one had been punished for their crimes, and attacks at fake checkpoints were still common. My editor probably expected me to write about Algeria’s history and possible future in a tone—or at least an impression, an impersonation—of authority. Authority, however, was not what I felt, walking through Algiers and in the dilapidated Kabyle town of Tizi Ouzou, where alienated young Berbers were in revolt against the central government. What I felt was the utter strangeness and futility of trying to explain Algeria, a notoriously opaque country. I was often followed, particularly when I went to Internet cafes, by the secret police. One agent, a fresh-faced man with reddish hair, saw that I was typing a message in English and asked if I was from Texas, “like President Bush.”

I stayed in a dingy hotel; the only other guests were a group of German tourists on their way to an expedition in the Sahara. I was incredibly free and incredibly alone. I’d return to my room each night too tired to even read my notes; there was so little hot water I didn’t have the relief of a decent bath. So I turned on the TV. Every night the same movie was playing on the state channel, Marcel Carné’s adaptation of the Georges Simenon novel Trois chambres à Manhattan, the story of a love affair between two French expats in New York, a depressed actor and a woman fleeing her marriage. When they’re not in bed—or driving each other to tears—they’re at a club where the house pianist is Mal Waldron, who performs with his usual sorrowful elegance. He looks as if he’s always at the club—as if the club exists so that he might play there. I would drift off to sleep as Waldron played his trance-inducing, darker-than-blue blues, a cigarette dangling from his lips.

My fixer in Algiers, Farès, was a hard-drinking man in his mid-50s whose candy factory had been burned down by Islamist insurgents. He seemed pleased to have someone like me to drive around, a Westerner who paid him well, listened to his stories and spoke passable French. He wasn’t much interested in talking about the present—it was shit, he said, though I sensed he supported the éradicateurs, the hardliners who promised to wipe out the Islamist rebels and restore security. I could understand that, even if I didn’t share his sympathies for the army: if the Islamists hadn’t destroyed his livelihood, he wouldn’t have been driving a taxi.

Farès became my guide to Algiers. Whenever we ran into people he knew, he introduced me as a friend from Tizi Ouzou, a Kabyle city. He said I could pass for a Berber; so long as I only murmured a few words in French, no one would ask any questions. He wasn’t worried about walking around with an American, but he enjoyed fooling people. We wandered through the Casbah and the slums of Bab El-Oued, where the FIS leader Ali Belhaj had preached jihad against the “impious” regime at the al-Sunna mosque; we went to nightclubs and bars pulsing with strobe lights and frequented by wealthy Algerians and Arab businessmen; we drove through the neighborhoods in the hills where the leaders of the FLN settled after independence. We ate piles of golden fried sardines at long, wooden communal tables, where men (only men) watched football on television, and told the latest jokes about “Boutef”—President Abdelaziz Bouteflika—and Khalida Messaoudi, the fetching minister of culture he was said to be sleeping with.

One day, Farès told me about a novel he was writing, about his childhood during the Battle of Algiers. It revolved around the stories of three friends—a Kabyle Berber, a Jew and a pied-noir—growing up in the Casbah. Algeria, Farès said, had lost something in 1962; the country’s radical decolonization had sapped it of the diversity that had been a great source of vitality. The Algeria he knew and loved had disappeared, and he wanted to re-create it in his novel. Farès blamed the French for causing the exodus of pieds-noirs to the métropole; Algerians and the “historic FLN,” he insisted, never wanted them to go.

* * *

France’s ultimate responsibility for everything that had gone wrong in Algeria, I found, was about the only thing Algerians agreed on. I interviewed dozens of people, from high-ranking officials to Islamist sympathizers; from mothers of the disappeared to hardline generals; from Berber activists to human-rights campaigners. Each claimed to be a critic of le pouvoir, including those who were plainly its beneficiaries. Each expressed disappointment in the post-independence era. Each claimed unimpeachable nationalist credentials and believed that his or her views were faithful to the “historic FLN,” the leadership that had lost out to those who had “confiscated” the revolution. What no one seemed to agree on was what the Algerian nation actually was. One man, a former member of the maquis who fought in the Aurès Mountains during the independence struggle, insisted that Algeria was not an Arab country like Egypt; it had more in common with Mediterranean countries like Italy, Spain and Greece. A Kabyle activist told me, no less passionately, that Algeria was a Berber country, and that its true character had been perverted by state-led Arabization. Others told me that Algeria was profoundly Arab and Muslim in its identity, and that anyone who told me otherwise was self-hating, a victim of a colonial complex. Algerians had been having this argument for years. The feud had started before the war of independence, when “assimilated” Muslims, populists, Islamists and Communists quarreled over Algeria’s identity, and it continued after independence was achieved. To be an Algerian was, in a sense, to participate in this debate, to have a stake in it. The fact that it remained so alive and so fraught after four decades of “liberation” led me to a realization that applies with equal force to the Middle East: nothing that is solid melts into air.

Algeria had been the prism through which I understood the Israel-Palestine tragedy and, to some extent, the rise of an insurgency in Iraq. Now Algeria helped me to develop a more nuanced understanding of power and identity in the region. The Algerian story was, in part, the story of a military government that refused to hand over power to civilians; but to tell that story was barely to scratch the surface. The obsession with France and with French plots, real and imagined, also suggested to me that the French/Algerian story had never really ended with the rupture that decolonization had brought about in 1962: independence was but a new and more subtle chapter in a history of unequal relations between the two countries, the two peoples. Every morning outside the French consulate in Algiers, there was a line of Algerians requesting visas, hoping to get into the country they at once hated and needed. There was no “solution” to France’s influence over Algeria; it was too late for solutions.

Algeria made a mockery of my nostalgia for the heroic certainties of anticolonialism and cured me of my lingering Third World–ism. The problems of post-independence Algeria could not be divorced from the history of colonization, but the failures were also homegrown, and they could not all be laid at the foot of France, the native bourgeoisie or even le pouvoir. And what was le pouvoir anyway? As one friend of mine put it, “Le pouvoir, c’est nous.” Algerians deserved better than a regime that had kept itself in power by distributing rents from natural gas. They had suffered terribly, and the world had largely ignored them in the darkest hours of the civil war. I wanted to give an account of their suffering, but I had to do so with a measure of humility, without pretending that I knew more than I did—or, more to the point, more than they did. Algerians were at once impressively informed about their country and stunned by what had happened to it during the civil war. Reporting on Algeria, I was forced to own up to my own uncertainty and to make it a part of my writing. This is easier said than done: readers want to be informed, not given a lecture on the limits of knowledge. I don’t claim to have a method, but admitting to the murkiness is a start.

I wish I could say that I always adhered to the uncertainty principle and listened to my own advice, but I didn’t. Algeria changed me, but it took a while for these changes to inform my writing. And the closer I got to the Israel-Palestine conflict, the more of a missionary—a Fiskian—I became. This is, as it were, an occupational hazard, the “Jerusalem syndrome” of journalists, whatever their ideological bent.

I was reminded of this a few years ago, when a mysterious man living in Damascus was killed in a car bombing. Imad Mughniyeh was one of the founders of Hezbollah and the architect of some of its most spectacular “operations,” from the 1983 bombings in Beirut to the attacks in Argentina in the early 1990s. Sometime in the 1990s, Mughniyeh went underground, and he was never mentioned by Hezbollah again until he met his fate in February 2008.

In 2004, several years before his assassination, I spent a few weeks in Lebanon reporting on Hezbollah’s “Lebanonization” under the leadership of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. While Israel and its spokesmen in the press continued to denounce Hezbollah as a “terrorist” outfit, Hezbollah appeared to have evolved into a more pragmatic political organization, moderating its rhetoric and entering Lebanese politics—including the confessional system that it had excoriated in its founding manifesto. It no longer seemed fair, or accurate, to describe Hezbollah merely as a proxy of the Islamic Republic of Iran or as an unreconstructed global “terrorist” organization, as Jeffrey Goldberg had argued in an alarmist series for The New Yorker. Goldberg’s articles on Hezbollah read as if they had been written by committee at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; he even predicted that Hezbollah, a Shiite organization, might attack the United States in solidarity with Saddam Hussein, the great persecutor of the Shiites, a modern-day Yazid.

The fact that Hezbollah is a social movement and not just a militia or a pro-Iranian proxy is widely accepted today, but at the time it was a highly controversial thesis. My article came close to being killed. A platoon of fact-checkers spent nearly half a year investigating my claims. The excerpts from my interview with Nasrallah, with whom I had met for more than an hour at the party’s headquarters in the southern suburbs, were severely cut for reasons that were never explained. I had asked Nasrallah why the movement hadn’t laid down its arms after Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. Wasn’t Hezbollah handing Israel a pretext to attack again? Israel, he replied, has never needed a pretext to attack Lebanon. He pointed out that when Israel invaded Lebanon in order to destroy Arafat’s PLO, it claimed to be responding to the shooting of Shlomo Argov, the Israeli ambassador in London, even though the shooting was carried out by the renegade Abu Nidal, an enemy of Arafat. Nasrallah’s argument was self-serving, to be sure, but he was right about the Argov pretext, and I succeeded in getting this passage restored.

Still, in my zeal to present a corrective to Goldberg’s take on Hezbollah, I made errors of my own. When I asked Nasrallah about Mughniyeh, who Goldberg claimed was still deeply involved in Hezbollah, he played with his prayer beads and told me that Mughniyeh was no longer in the organization and that his whereabouts were unknown. I was not fooled, but I didn’t push him further; I did not want to be shown the door, and I was willing to entertain the possibility that Mughniyeh had offered his services to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Was I flattered by Nasrallah’s generosity and politeness? Was the Mughniyeh relationship simply inconvenient for the case I was building about Hezbollah’s evolution? Whatever the case, I remembered these conversations when Mughniyeh was assassinated in Damascus. After Hezbollah staged an enormous funeral procession for him, the world learned not only that he had never strayed from Hezbollah, but that he had directed the 2006 war. His image was revealed for the first time in years and is now a fixture of Hezbollah iconography. I don’t blame Nasrallah for lying to me when he denied knowledge of Mughniyeh’s activities: he was merely doing his job. But I wasn’t doing mine.

Mughniyeh was, for Hezbollah, a heroic figure in what they call “the resistance.” No word is more sacred for Hezbollah, which has sought to portray itself as a “national resistance” rather than another sectarian militia. When I started out in journalism, I was more willing to use this word without quotation marks; it seemed preferable, after all, to the alternative, “terrorism.” Today, I am more skeptical of terms like “resistance,” “armed struggle” and “solidarity.” When I read these words, I want to ask: What do they actually mean, and what do they conceal? What do the people who use these words actually do? What does the word “resistance” mean if it can describe a Sunni-based insurgency against Bashar al-Assad and the Shiite-based insurgency in Lebanon that is fighting to crush that uprising? What ambitions, what goals, lie behind floating signifiers like “resistance”? What do those who hold up its banner hope to achieve? Mouloud Feraoun, an Algerian novelist who kept an extraordinary diary of the Algerian war before he was murdered by the OAS in 1962, put it well when he stated: “Sometimes you start asking yourself about the value of words, words that no longer make any sense. What is liberty, or dignity, or independence? Where is the truth, where is the lie, where is the solution?”

A writer’s job, I believe, is to ask these questions, even when—especially when—they are inconvenient. And the answers lie in the verbs, not the nouns. They lie in the distance, sometimes the chasm, between words and deeds.

* * *

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?

* * *

Words are all we have, but silences are sometimes more meaningful. In Prisoner of Love, Jean Genet writes:

if the reality of time spent among—not with—the Palestinians existed anywhere, it would survive between all the words that claim to give an account of it. They claim to give an account of it, but in fact it buries itself, slots itself exactly into the spaces, recorded there rather than in the words that serve only to blot it out. Another way of putting it: the space between the words contains more reality than does the time it takes to read them.

How do we reach the space between the words, when our only way of doing so is through words? I’m not sure, but I would suggest it is largely a matter of listening, observing and describing—with a sense of history, and without false consolations. It also requires resistance, not only to the clichés and stereotypes that are often pilloried as “Orientalist,” but also to the missionary temptation to mistake one’s hopes for realities. When the uprising in Egypt broke out, I succumbed, like many, to the latter temptation, when I wrote that Islamists and secular opponents of Mubarak appeared to have laid aside their differences in the interest of national unity. I had written about these divisions only six months before the uprising, in an article called “Mubarak’s Last Breath”; but during the early days of Tahrir Square, I allowed myself to forget just how deeply the fear and distrust run, and how easily these emotions can be manipulated by the army. I succumbed to this temptation again after Israel’s most recent war in the Gaza Strip, when I argued that Israel’s strategic position had been weakened by the emergence of a Muslim Brotherhood–led Egypt allied with Hamas and Erdogan’s Turkey. That article, which felt so good to write, could not seem more dated. Mohammed Morsi is in prison along with thousands of Muslim Brothers; Erdogan, having revealed himself to be a thug rather than a visionary Islamic democrat, is embroiled in several scandals; Hamas is scrambling to repair ties with Iran; and Israel is deepening its colonization of East Jerusalem and the West Bank and, once again, launching an offensive in Gaza—only this time without much protest from Cairo.

Edward Said was fond of quoting Raymond Williams’s argument about the struggle, in any society, between dominant, residual and emergent forces. But the Middle East severely tests the teleological assumptions, or wishes, of Williams’s formulation. “Emergent” forces like the progressive youth movements in Egypt are not destined to win, however much we admire them and hope for their success. And what about jihadi organizations like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a Sunni Islamist group so extreme that it was excommunicated by Ayman Zawahiri of Al Qaeda? Is ISIS, which has captured several major Iraqi cities and declared a new caliphate, an “emergent” force or a “residual” one, or some combination of the two?

The Middle East is the graveyard of predictions. Just after the uprisings, the so-called experts declared that Al Qaeda had died in Tahrir Square. But these days Tahrir Square seems moribund, while Al Qaeda is resurgent and facing competition from still more radical offshoots. A military dictatorship even harsher than Mubarak’s rule has returned to Egypt, and Assad appears to be winning in Syria, thanks not only to his horrifying tactics, but also to the fragmentation and brutality of the insurgents. Nine million Syrians have been internally displaced, and more than 2 million have gone into exile; more than 100,000 have been killed. Meanwhile, a highly sectarian government in Iraq has been fighting against an extremist insurgency. The Arab uprisings brought about an end to the political stagnation that had characterized the military dictatorships of the region during the Cold War, but except in Tunisia, they failed to deliver on their promise of establishing more democratic systems of governance. The result, for now, is a deepening sectarian struggle throughout the region and, in Syria, a vicious proxy war that has produced a Nakba on a scale that, in numbers of dead and displaced, dwarfs the Nakba of 1948. There is no obvious solution to this crisis, and it seems all but inevitable that Syria—and perhaps Iraq as well—will be dismembered under any transition.

Writing about the region, never an easy undertaking, is likely to become still more difficult. I am not sure whether the most influential current of oppositional thinking about the Middle East is equipped to deal with the changes the region is undergoing. I am referring to the critique of Orientalism that Edward Said initiated. This style of thinking was formative for me, but I fear that it has congealed into an orthodoxy; and, as George Orwell wrote, “orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.” That we are now able to have a more open conversation about Palestine, that students are mobilizing against the occupation, is welcome; but Palestine is not the Middle East, and it seems peculiar, if not myopic, to talk about Palestine as if it were insulated from the rest of the region. And while it is understandable that young American students are particularly concerned about their government’s policies in the region, these policies do not wholly determine its shape and direction. America’s power in the Middle East has weakened, though not in favor of forces that most of us would consider progressive. Today, we are witnessing a tacit alliance of Israel, the military regime in Egypt and the Gulf states—particularly Saudi Arabia—against Iran, with which the United States, in conflict with its own regional allies, is seeking rapprochement. The latest Israeli offensive in Gaza is a measure of how marginal Palestine has become to the agenda of Arab states.

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But to quote a poster I recently saw in the home of a solidarity activist, isn’t Palestine still the question? That “still,” you’ll note, qualifies the confident “the”: it suggests an anxious insistence, perhaps a fear, that Palestine might not be the only, or central, question in the contemporary Middle East—especially now that much of the region is preoccupied with other matters, like the wars in Iraq and Syria, Iran’s overture to the West and the re-emergence of military rule in Egypt. It is, of course, only natural that Palestinians would consider the question of Palestine to be the question; they experience the daily humiliations of occupation and the sorrows of exile, the ongoing and, it seems, ever-deepening results of the 1948 catastrophe. It is only natural that Arabs and Muslims, for national and religious reasons, see Palestine as a sacred cause. For them, Palestine is not just a national struggle but a metaphor for suffering and redemption, exile and return, dispossession and justice. But that does not explain why Palestine is seen on the Western left as the question, the key that opens all doors in the region, not just those to the homes from which Palestinians were driven in 1948.

“Do you know why we are so famous?” Mahmoud Darwish asks the Israeli writer Helit Yeshurun in Palestine as Metaphor. “It’s because you are our enemy. The interest in the Palestinian question flows from the interest in the Jewish question…. It’s you they’re interested in, not me!… So we have the misfortune of having an enemy, Israel, with so many sympathizers in the world, and we have the good fortune that our enemy is Israel, since Jews are the center of the world. You have given us our defeat, our weakness, our renown.” As Darwish suggests, this concern for the Palestinians is not a matter of anti-Semitism, as Israel supporters claim, so much as it is a reflection of self-absorption: the Palestinians are important to the West because, through their oppression by Israeli Jews, they have become characters in a Western narrative.

I thought of Darwish’s remark when I saw a poster in the Balata refugee camp declaring, in English, “Our existence is resistance,” as if opposition to oppression were a way of life. “A gift from our foreign guests,” the Fatah leader Hussam Khader explained to me, unable to suppress a smile.

In an essay on French opposition to the war in Algeria, Pierre Vidal-Naquet observed that for a small but influential current of French dissidents, identification with the FLN’s struggle was a kind of surrogate religion; for these so-called Third World–ists, “Algeria represented the suffering just man and thus a Christ-like figure…the symbol of a humanity to be redeemed, if not a redemptive humanity.” The most devout Third World–ists, he noted, believed that Algeria’s liberation might awaken the dormant French working class, spark a revolution in France and rescue the West from its spiritual decadence. Vidal-Naquet, a scholar of classical Greece who lost his parents in the Holocaust as well as an independent socialist who campaigned tirelessly against torture during the war, saw this faith for what it was: part of France’s conversation with itself. The Algerian struggle, he understood, was a struggle for national self-determination, not for humanity as a whole, and Algerian nationalists were themselves profoundly divided, not some unified subject of history who could replace the proletariat. Today, it seems to me, Palestinians are for the radical Western left what Algerians were for Third World–ists in Vidal-Naquet’s day: natural-born resisters, fighting not only Israel but its imperial patrons, as much on our behalf as theirs. That is the role assigned to them in the revolutionary imagination. Like the kaffiyeh worn by anti-globalization protesters, this Palestine is little more than a metaphor. Palestine is still “the question” because it holds up a mirror to us. “Too many people want to save Palestine,” one activist said to me. But it could just as well be said that too many people want to be saved by Palestine.

I understand this Palestine-centrism and have felt its gravitational pull. Israel’s occupation, now nearly a half-century old, is the longest in modern history. It is subsidized by US tax dollars and maintained by a state that claims to speak not only in the name of the Jewish people but, more obscenely, in the name of those who perished in the Holocaust. I have witnessed the occupation’s horrors firsthand: the subjugation of an entire people through a system of pervasive control and countless petty humiliations, always backed by the threat of violence; the confiscation not only of that people’s land, but of its future. I have been shamed, as well as touched, by the hospitality for which Palestinians are rightly famous. While traveling in other Arab countries, I have seen the poisonous effect that the occupation has had on the perception of the United States, the well of resentment, suspicion and rage it has bred. Still, I am not sure that the Palestinians benefit when their struggle—an anticolonial, nationalist struggle like that of Algeria, no more, no less—becomes a matter of metaphysics rather than politics; when their suffering is romanticized, even sanctified. Palestinians need friends, not missionaries or fellow travelers.

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When Gershom Scholem scolded Hannah Arendt for showing no love of the Jewish people in her book on Eichmann, Arendt replied that she could not love a people, only friends. Her point was overdrawn for dramatic effect; our political positions are almost always influenced by the bonds we form. I would be the first to admit that my own hatred of the occupation has been deepened by spending time in Palestine with friends like Raja Shehadeh, a man who embodies sumud—steadfastness in the face of a system of oppression as absurd as it is cruel. But, as Arendt warned, too strong a bond with one people can lead to a contraction of empathy for others: the case of Israel illustrates this all too well. Love of a people in particular can lead us to engage in moral calculations that betray the principles we claim to hold, even to defend the indefensible. Now we are told, by some who call themselves friends of Palestine, that we shouldn’t concern ourselves too much with war crimes in Syria, unless they are committed by jihadists in the opposition; that, all things considered, perhaps Assad, the butcher of Yarmouk, deserves our “critical” support, since he is a leader of the resistance front, in the cross hairs of the West and the Gulf states. I have seen this argument made privately by one well-known champion of Palestinian rights; this person is a Quaker, but then so was Richard Nixon. According to Amal Saad Ghorayeb, writing in the Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar, support for Assad is a litmus test of support for Palestine. How different, morally, is this from saying, as Benjamin Netanyahu has done, that Israel is better off if its Arab neighbors remain dictatorships? Can Palestinian emancipation be served by such vulgar anti-imperialism?

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As the regional balance of power has shifted and American dominance wanes, I have begun to worry that an all-consuming preoccupation with America and Israel leads progressive writers to become strangely incurious about the crimes for which the West can’t be blamed and the developments, such as the politicization of sectarian identity, that are shaking the region far more profoundly than the Israeli-Palestinian arena. This paradigm also leads them to belittle, or simply to overlook, what academics call “agency”: the fact that people act in this region, and are not merely acted upon by more powerful external forces. And it has increasingly been my sense that much of the work Said inspired fails to examine the lived experience of people in the region; it often relegates much of that experience to silence, as if it were unworthy of attention or politically inconvenient.

Enormously liberating when it was developed, the critique of Orientalism has often resulted in a set of taboos and restrictions that inhibit critical thinking. They pre-emptively tell us to stop noticing things that are right under our noses, particularly the profound cleavages in Middle Eastern societies—struggles over class and sect, the place of religion in politics, the relationship between men and women; struggles that are only partly related to their confrontation with the West and with Israel. Indeed, it is sometimes only in those moments of confrontation that these very divided societies achieve a fleeting sense of unity. The theoretical intricacy of academic anti-Orientalism, its hermetic and sophisticated language, sometimes conceals an attempt to wish away the region’s dizzying complexity in favor of the old, comforting logic of anticolonial struggle. Anti-Orientalism will continue to provide a set of critical tools and a moral compass, so long as it is understood as a point of departure, not a destination. Like all old maps, it has begun to yellow. It no longer quite describes the region, the up-ender of all expectations, the destroyer of all missionary dreams.

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