Our Region, our Collective Memory, and Ghassan Al-Imam

Thursday, 26 April, 2018 - 17:45 Issue Number [14394]

A few days ago, Asharq Al-Awsat lost Ghassan Al-Imam, one of its most brilliant opinion writers. The late veteran Syrian journalist and writer lived through a fascinating period of the Middle East history, documented it, and commented on it with exceptional lucidity, precision, and rare encyclopedic knowledge. He was one of the foremost authorities who through the years honed my interest in Syrian affairs, and I was very fortunate to have read his articles for almost three decades.

On the other hand, although I never met Mr. Al-Imam personally in Paris where he was living in exile, we talked more than once, and on every occasion, Syria was the main issue of discussion. I recall that once I read an article of his in which he mentioned “The Military Committee”, which practically re-founded the Baath Party, after being dissolved by the founding Secretary General Michel Aflaq in the aftermath of announcing the union between Egypt and Syria in 1958. Going through the mentioned article, I felt I needed to go through what Mr. Al-Imam had written about Ahmad Al-Mir, one of the prominent members of the “Committee”; and indeed, we had a most enjoyable short journey in Syria’s history.

Ghassan Al-Imam and people like him are sourly missed these days, not only for being most capable of explaining their positions courageously, logically in a brilliant and intuitive way, but also because they are a part of a gradually disappearing political memory. It is disappearing for good, in a time we never needed most, to learn, consider and draw conclusions.

This is what I felt during my college years, when I majored in Politics and history, and was studying the political history of Iraq under the exceptional Professor Hanna Batatu. Those days, I missed my late father more than ever, as he knew Iraq well, as a result of living there for ten years, and was a keen witness of momentous events that shook the country between 1931 and 1941. I really wished then he was with me, answering my queries about personalities, events, and trends in a society he liked and interacted with.

The same happened when I began studying Syria under another brilliant academic, Professor Yusuf Ibish. He was a Damascene who loved every inch of Damascus; and whether in Beirut or later in London where he spent his last years, he made me feel that Syria was a part of me. Initially, I was introduced to Syria’s political history when I read “The Memoirs of Khaled Al-Azm”. I was simply carried away with those memoirs of one of Syria’s greatest politicians. Later on, Ghassan Al-Imam complemented what had already taken root in me about the collective memory of this great country that we may be about to lose.
Talking about loss, I owe my deep interest in Palestine to three people. Two of them my former professors, Walid Al-Khalidi (may God bless him with health) and the late Mahmud Zayid; the third was the great researcher Mustafa Murad Al-Dabbagh, who single-handedly authored the huge encyclopedic book “Biladuna Filastin”.

What I meant to say from the above is that memory is the third most important thing that links us to our home countries after the land and the identity; and one of our worst ongoing disasters is not just our lack of memory, but also our inability to realize how detrimental losing it can be.

A few days ago, I was in touch with a very dear relative living in Lebanon. Among the issues we discussed was the political situation, in particular, the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 6.

This very dear relative belongs to a much younger generation, who know a lot more than I do about current and futuristic innovations, while I claim to know about the past much more than what he knows. Of course, this is natural, as he is a young man who is looking for a future that I hope is long and fruitful, unlike me who cannot hope much from the future.

Thus, it was logical that we both discovered through and after our discussion they we read the political situation differently. We disagreed on how the scene would change, on the qualities (or lack of it) of political players, and the threats facing Lebanon, where from the threats came, who was or were responsible for them, and what was the best way to overcome them.

Lebanon’s younger generation, like every younger generation all over the world, is honest, well-meaning and looking forward to future without ills it regards are crucial and embarking now on solving problems that cannot wait. And through the debate with my relative – who is a social activist – I remembered the famous saying: “If a person is not a liberal when he is twenty, he has no heart; if he is not a conservative when he is forty, he has no head.”

I simply found out that we were talking two different languages, not only because my young relative’s memory was limited, but also because in his honest and eager push for change he was unwittingly underestimating strategic threats. He was keen – like his fellow social activists – to eradicate corruption, sectarianism, political feudalism, nepotism and improve public services. On my part, I feel that no honorable person should disagree with that; however, the “civic society” activists, in spite their beautiful idealism, do not want to remember the past, hesitate in acknowledging the truth about the present, which makes their theories about the future pretty doubtful.

One has to accept, that Lebanon is no “normal” case. It is not really an “‘independent” or “sovereign” country, nor is it a free “democracy” that is capable of defending itself. Indeed, it is not a political entity that has been able to develop an encompassing non-sectarian political culture.

In a sectarian country like Lebanon, the elections are conducted under a nonsensical, perplexing and contradictory electoral law, that through adopting “proportional representation” does not allow for broadly based programs, and through providing a single “preferential vote” fails to dilute sectarianism. Hence, due to such an electoral law – described by former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora as “unconstitutional” – there has been a bonanza of short-term, tactical and spiteful “alliances” between heterogeneous groups who are running together in one place and facing one another in others!

Furthermore, the election fever conceals a huge strategic anomaly that cannot be dealt with merely by idealism and wishful thinking.

Today in Lebanon, there is a partisan armed militia, which acts outside state control, an acute sectarian polarization whereby extremists in each sect benefit from the extremists in other sects, and a divisive regional climate that is exacerbating internal divergence and facilitating foreign hegemony.

This is the reality, while all other issues – as far as I can remember – are just details!