Writers or Missionaries? | The Nation


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.

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