MERIP mourns the passing in mid-January 2005 of Hisham Sharabi, a formidable thinker and extraordinary teacher who, along with Edward Said and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, led a generation of activist Palestinian intellectuals who lived and worked in the United States. Sharabi died of cancer at the age of 78 in Beirut.
Born in Jaffa in mandate Palestine, Sharabi was a student at the American University of Beirut when that campus began to be the center of political-intellectual ferment in the Arab world. After leaving Lebanon due to political pressure, he nurtured a life-long passion for Western philosophy and intellectual history while completing his doctorate in those subjects at the University of Chicago. Toward the end of his distinguished 45-year teaching career at Georgetown University, where he helped to establish the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, he was known to most students as the convener of a challenging and required “Great Books” course.
But Sharabi’s heart always remained in Palestine, and he devoted much of his professional life to building institutions of public education and advocacy for his home country and his people’s national rights. He was the long-time editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies and the co-founder of the Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development and its educational arm, the Palestine Center (originally called the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine). Like Said and Abu-Lughod, he offered key intellectual guidance and moral support to Middle East-related projects with a broader canvas, like this magazine, particularly early on. Also like his peers, Sharabi was a caustic critic of corruption and poor strategic thinking in the PLO leadership, and an important voice for progressive political and social change in Palestine and the Arab world.
Though he was courtly and soft-spoken, Sharabi did not always suffer fools gladly in the classroom. No one who took his course with me can forget when he evaluated one student’s laborious presentation on a post-modernist thinker with one sentence: “You haven’t added to my understanding.” Hisham Sharabi, with his omnivorous, exacting mind and his infectious interest in what he taught, added immeasurably to the understanding of generations of his students. He will be long remembered and sorely missed.
Hisham B. Sharabi, Ph.D.
On January 13, 2005, the international community lost a leading Arab and Palestinian intellectual and activist. Dr. Hisham Sharabi died in Beirut, Lebanon, on Thursday evening. He was 78 years old.
Born in Jaffa, Palestine, Dr. Sharabi’s political activism started at an early age. In 1947, Dr. Sharabi graduated from the American University in Beirut with a B.A. in philosophy and joined the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). The group’s uncompromising determination on the issue of Palestine captivated the young Sharabi who in turn impressed the group’s leader with his intellectual power.
In 1977, along with like-minded colleagues and friends, he founded The Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development in Washington, D.C. The Fund’s original mission was to provide scholarships to Palestinian university students for study in Israel, the West Bank, and abroad. In 1981, The Fund expanded its mission to provide direct assistance for the educational, cultural, health and community service institutions of Palestinian society.
In 1991, Dr. Sharabi and The Jerusalem Fund Board of Directors established the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine (CPAP) to provide a much-needed Palestinian/Arab perspective to political, academic, and media establishments in Washington, D.C. and beyond. CPAP was later renamed the Palestine Center.
Dr. Sharabi served as chairman of The Jerusalem Fund and the Palestine Center until his death in 2005.
Dr. Sharabi played a key role in building institutions that promote awareness and understanding of the Arab world with particular emphasis on Palestine. For 24 years, Dr. Sharabi served as editor of the English-language quarterly, Journal of Palestine Studies, published by the Institute for Palestine Studies. He co-founded the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, the only academic center solely devoted to the study of the Arab World in the United States.
Dr. Sharabi began his professional academic career in 1953, teaching history at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. At his death, Dr. Sharabi was professor emeritus of European Intellectual History and was previously the Omar al-Mukhtar Professor of Arab Culture at Georgetown University.
Dr. Sharabi put his academic studies on hold in1948 after Palestine fell to the Zionist forces. Dr. Sharabi left his master’s program in the United States and returned to Lebanon to resume his activities with the SSNP. He became the editor of SSNP’s monthly magazine, al-Jil al-Jadid (The new generation). When the Lebanese government began to crack down on the SSNP, Dr. Sharabi fled to Jordan and returned to the United States. He earned his M.A. in philosophy in 1948 and a Ph.D. on the history of culture from the University of Chicago in 1953. In 1955, he officially ended his affiliation with the SSNP.
However, that was not the end of his political involvement. The Arab defeat in 1967 and the 1968 Arab student movement had a strong impact on Dr. Sharabi both intellectually and politically. He moved toward the political left, reading Marx and Freud, teachings he later incorporated in his analysis of Arab society.
In 1970, Dr. Sharabi moved back to Lebanon to work in the Palestine Planning Center and was a visiting professor at the American University in Beirut. At that time, the Arabic translation of his book Arab Intellectuals and the West became widely available. Dr. Sharabi is the author of eighteen books, numerous articles, monographs and conference papers published in the United States, Europe and the Middle East.
Dr. Sharabi is best known for his influential writings and will remain a unique Arab intellectual phenomenon. His two-volume autobiography, al-Jamr wa al-Ramad: Dhikrayat Muthaqqaf Arabi (Embers and Ashes: The Memoirs of an Arab Intellectual) published in 1978 and Suwar al-Madi: Sira Dhatiyyah (Images of the Past: An Autobiography) published in 1993, is already a noted classic. His book Neopatriarchy: A Theory of Distorted Change in Arab Society (Oxford University Press, 1988) had a great impact on scholarly and intellectual circles in the Arab world. Dr. Sharabi’s critique of Arab society was on the basis of its neo-patriarchal nature. He saw the cornerstone of this phenomenon in its oppression of women, an issue on which he wrote extensively and by which he was deeply influenced.
After retiring from Georgetown University in 1998, he devoted all his time to The Jerusalem Fund and The Palestine Center. That year he wrote:
In Jaffa, one of my favorite places as a small boy was the city’s ancient harbor. I visited the harbor when I went back in the fall of 1993. Standing where I often stood so many years ago, I felt only the bitterness and anger all Palestinians feel when they go back to where they were born and where their grandparents were born and spent their lives before becoming refugees. As I stood there I could hear people speaking Russian, probably recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union. They were full citizens in my country, and I was there only on a limited Israeli tourist visa. I try to remind myself of what sustained all Palestinian refugees over the long years of exile: this land is not a memory, it is not lost, it is out there where it can be seen and touched, a patrimony that can never be given up nor taken away. Does this mean that there can be no peaceful solution to the conflict? Does the solution lie in the reversal of what happened 50 years ago and the destruction of Israel? No, the clock cannot be put back, the past cannot be redeemed, Israel’s destruction cannot be the goal. The conflict’s real solution cannot be a zero-sum outcome, but only a political compromise. The legitimate struggle of the Palestinians will seek a solution based on justice, international law, and the imperative need for mutual accommodation and survival. (Hisham Sharabi, “Palestinians Fifty Years Later.” Washington, DC: Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, 1998.)
Dr. Sharabi is survived by his daughters Nadia and Leyla, his brothers Nizam and Nazim, his sisters Afaf and Etaf, his son-in-law Mr. Ali Shihabi, and his grandchildren, Omar, Dina, and Faisal.
Condolences will be received in person at the offices of the Jerusalem Fund in Washington, DC beginning at 1:00 pm on Friday, January 14 and continuing weekdays 9:00 am 5:00 pm until 5:00 pm Friday, January 28. You may also sign our online condolences book. Condolences will be received in Lebanon at the American University of Beirut Alumni Club (Wardieh) on Saturday, January 15 from 3:00 6:00 pm, and on Sunday, January 16 from 10:00 am 1:00 pm and 3:00 6:00 pm.
At the request of the family, donations may be sent in lieu of flowers to the Inaash Charitable Association in Lebanon. Contact the Jerusalem Fund for more details (firstname.lastname@example.org / 202.338.1958).