On Literature and Resistance

Against the Current, No. 74, May/June 1998

Betsy Esch and Nancy Coffin Interview Barbara Harlow

BARBARA HARLOW IS a Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin where she is currently at work putting together an archive of imperialism. Professor Harlow is a longtime Palestine solidarity activist and is responsible for the English translation and publication of many works by the Palestinian revolutionary writer Gassan Kanafani.

Nancy Coffin, a graduate student at Columbia University who writes on revolutionary literature, and Betsy Esch, a graduate student at New York University in labor history and an editor of Against the Current, spoke with her following a 1997 conference at Columbia University in honor of Edward Said.

Esch: Would you start by giving us a little background about yourself?

Harlow: I guess I could say I have two higher degrees. One that was given to me by a U.S. university, the State University of New York at Buffalo for writing a dissertation on Proust.

The first paying job in a university that I got was in 1977 at the American University in Cairo. Teaching there, I guess, I got my second higher degree, which was not officially granted but really changed my work&#8212teaching in Cairo and what I learned from the students about the material I was pretending to teach them.

There I learned Arabic, people were very generous with me, introduced me to Arab culture, to Arab writers, to the Palestinian struggle.

Coffin: The American University in Cairo has a reputation of having a pretty rarefied atmosphere. Did you find that your students had strong opinions about the political situation?

BH: Well, Sadat had just gone to Jerusalem at that time and there was an idea circulating that he had said that when he returned, from Jerusalem and from Camp David, there was going to be a chicken in every pot. But it quickly became clear that there wasn’t gonna be no chicken. More and more people became disenchanted with what the agreements had brought.

At the same time what was then the left in Egypt organized to put together a committee in defense of national culture because they saw the culture itself being impinged on by the Camp David accords.

Part of the accords, in addition to the economic and agricultural aspects, entailed a set of cultural exchanges between Israel and Egypt. Those intellectuals who refused to participate in the cultural exchanges were censored in various ways. There were threats to their employment, book confiscation, so there was a very strong movement culturally to boycott the Camp David accords, which was very effective in terms of organizing the intelligentsia in Egypt.

It still exists to a certain extent though it has obviously gone through changes. But those intellectuals who were part of that Committee in Defense of National Culture were amongst those whom Sadat arrested.

As far as what the American University in Cairo officially represents, it is seen as part of the U.S. presence in Cairo; its presence is conditional on permission of the Egyptian government. It provides the bank tellers and bureaucrats, which makes it different from the American University in Beirut, which provided revolutionary cadre.

NC:It is my impression that the recent treaty between Jordan and Israel has reignited as well in Egypt the discussion around normalization of relations.

BH: One thing that people have told me is that just as Camp David had more than one aim, Oslo [the 1993 Israel-Palestine agreemen&#8212ed.] also has two projects. One was to set up the (Palestinian Authority) police force [already noted for its brutality and the depth of its cooperation with Israeli secret police&#8212ed.].

The other was to begin to create regional trading blocks, a kind of NAFTA arrangement for the Middle East. I’m told that there are now maquiladoras in Jordan, along the border with the West Bank.

BE:This raises for me a question about borders that seems like a very complicated one for internationalists at this historic moment. The question of borders in a global economy is changing. As Oslo is about both trying to integrate and separate the Palestinians from Israel, for the Palestinians this question is critical. Michel Warshawski, from the Alternative Information Center in Jerusalem, used to say that whoever controlled the keys to the Allenby Bridge controlled the peace in that region. It was a metaphor.

BH: Looking at the different documents and agreements that are rearranging the contemporary political geography tells you a lot about how they are thinking about borders now. If you read NAFTA, you can see goods and property, and this includes intellectual property, flow freely; but people cannot cross borders except in the case of businessmen who “must” come with the goods or property.

I see these documents as very important in thinking about how new narratives are being written and others are being excluded. With Masstricht [the treaty for European Union economic integration&#8212ed.], internal borders collapse for both goods and people but the ring around Europe becomes much tighter.

So I think an important project for scholars is to read GATT, Masstricht, NAFTA, the Oslo Agreement and understand them as writing the plot summaries for the fiction of the future.

There was apparently a scandal in Egypt this summer about chewing gum. Did you hear about this?

NC: Yeah, there was this gum being imported from Israel which was reputed, when chewed, particularly by girls, to make them uncontrollably sexual. There were reports all over about how someone knew someone who had chewed this gum and then had sex.

BH: I thought this was an interesting story because now that there is free trade between Egypt and Israel, the reaction to products is in national terms and is incredibly contradictory. The response in the street is going to be all over the map as new relationships are formed, as these regional blocks get created and the nation states are reorganized.

NC: What do you think that means for countries that are cut out of the trading deals, like Iraq, which is definitively cut out, or Syria, which has refused to participate?

BH: Well, I don’t know how to respond directly but I will say this. In terms of the arsenals available to wage war, the conventional weapons are being complemented now by things like sanctions, embargos, boycotts, debt.

Conventional armies are being reconstituted as peacekeeping forces allegedly engaged in humanitarian intervention. But even the debates about so-called humanitarian intervention have to do with how these states are going to fit in the world economy. As in the former Yugoslavia, will those states become part of the European community?

The United States still is waging a war on Iraq but relying on this new arsenal, which cannot even be adjudicated or attacked under the old guidelines about waging war on civilian populations, because allegedly there is no war. But in Iraq this is very much a war against the civilian population. The Fourth Geneva Convention should apply there, but doesn’t.

BE: What do you think all this means for national liberation struggles? In your talk you linked the experiences of South Africa, El Salvador and Palestine, which I liked. It seems that our side is behind in how we are thinking about national liberation in today’s world, that we need to learn cross-border, multinational strategies&#8212which is incredibly difficult. More than ever it seems that organizing needs to be international in character.

BH: It’s hard to know how to describe the new situation in South Africa, but it confronts these kinds of problems. It had a kind of moral distinction that gave it a certain leadership role.

Just before and immediately following the elections there was a lot of discussion about where South Africa would position itself in world politics. What would its relationship to GATT, to the United Nations, to Africa, be? It still wanted to identify with the moral leadership role it played because of its history, but was also trying to fit into the world political map as it was.

One can almost see a kind of center-periphery being restructured on the map of Africa, with South Africa as the metropolis and the rest of Africa as the periphery.

The analog for this in the Middle East might have been the PLO and the Palestinian struggle. I think at this point they have relinquished that possibility.

BE:Well, of course the vanguard role you describe South Africa as playing was a result of the mass movement. But Mandela was nonetheless seen as incredibly important as the leader of the ANC. In Palestine it was never the PLO that got the status of moral vanguard, but the Palestinian people, more specifically the intifada [the uprising that began in December 1987&#8212ed.], which was simultaneously creating the conditions for the old leadership to be discredited, something that never happened in South Africa. That seems like a significant difference.

BH: I suspect that Arafat and his crew were very threatened by the leadership that was being expressed on the ground in the Intifada&#8212and, in addition to the other things it accomplishes, that Oslo also represents Arafat’s effort to reclaim the right to that leadership, even if by stealth.

Arafat’s means of doing it are simply further evidence of the fact that he doesn’t qualify for it. To the external PLO leadership it was ideologically, economically, politically, practically absolutely necessary for the intifada to be contained.

NC: It seems to me that there had been a growing movement toward an intifada against the PNA (Palestinian National Authority) within the areas that it controls. I was talking with a journalist from Jerusalem who said that she basically thought the tunnel incident [in 1996, when the Israeli government opened a tourist tunnel in occupied East Jerusalem&#8212ed.] had cut off the immediate possibilities for that to happen because it turned the whole discussion back to the question of Israel.

BH: All summer long before the tunnel opening, everything you read was very critical of the absolute abusiveness of the Palestinian authority toward the population, the arrest of human rights workers, torture in detention etc. All of the challenge was to the inadequacies of the authority to govern.

The tunnel switched all of that and relocated it. I think there is a way in which we all really miss the Intifada.

I ask myself sometimes what would it mean now to have another intifada? I think about the Israeli concern about having armed the Palestinian police, but really I am much more concerned about what would happen to the Palestinians than to the Israelis were there to be an uprising now.

If we go back to the comparative framework we were using, the issue of policing has become really dire in these different post- negotiation arrangements. A civilian police force was created in El Salvador and is very interesting; to qualify one had to have been neither a member of the FMLN or the military. That was part of the negotiation and there was a lot of hope about that decision.

On the one hand there was supposed to be demilitarization, on the other, safety and security for the population. Well, in the years since the agreement we have watched that police force deteriorate and the rise of something that hovers between vigilantism and community policing.

The issue of crime in the police force in South Africa is really desperate, you see similar discussion taking place there with regard to this new police force.

The other place where it is also being contested is in the North of Ireland. The IRA once played a role as community police because people could not rely on the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary&#8212official police force) to defend them, say if their television was stolen or someone was dealing drugs. But today with all this punishment shooting that has really broken down.

BE: I wanted to switch gears and ask a question that has to do with the work both of you do on literature and revolution. As I’ve listened to you both talk about Gassan Kanafani and others, it has been clear that these were not only revolutionaries in the abstract but participants in particular struggles, movements which don’t exactly abound in the world today. I wonder if you would talk about where you see the new producers of revolutionary culture coming from, and what you think they are saying.

NC: I liked the suggestion that Barbara made about thinking of GATT, NAFTA etc. as writing new narratives, and the possibility of combining those with narratives of human rights.

BH: I don’t really know who the new heroes and heroines might be. In a way it is also the question that has been posed to the PLO at the top. For years it has been criticized that it has not allowed young cadres to form and rise to the top, which is one reason it has become so bureaucratic and defensive.

It is also the question that Jeremy Cronin [a leader of the South African Communist Party&#8212ed.] posed in the poem that I read: What happens after Mandela goes? These are questions everyone is asking, where are the new struggles and who is going to generate them?

So it may be that we need to look at not just who these folks might be, but where they might come from. It may not be from national liberation struggles. Maybe there will be new projects, can we locate any?

One of the questions we started this conversation with was resistance literature. I actually think that my definition of resistance literature is that it is a very site and history specific literature. Resistance literature was written in the context of organized resistance movements and national liberation struggles.

There are no more national liberation struggles. There are no more organized resistance movements. There is no more resistance literature. There are other kinds of literature, just as there are other kinds of struggles. But that one is over, as a literature it is closed.

NC: I’m curious because I heard that you had said this at Bir Zeit [the Palestinian university in the West Bank&#8212ed.]. It seems very clear that we do find that literature does still give hope and voice, and should be read as historical document especially when there is so little hopeful on the horizon.

BH: I’m not saying literature can’t do that. Part of my argument is not just with regard to politics but also with regard to literary studies. That is against the perceived literary ethos that literature exists outside of time and place, only represents universal values and so on.

On the contrary, I think that literature is really history specific, really site specific and is a worldly phenomenon. So I want to create some possibilities for literature by limiting the definition of resistance literature.

I want literature to be able to exist at historical conjunctures, to take seriously what the realities are that it has to negotiate. I do not want the term resistance to be deactivated and I think we run that risk.

NC: Watching the type of activism that you engage in, both in terms of organizing with students at a level that many professors seem to fear and as a literary critic in a field where the more obscure theory one can cite seems to be what raises one’s stature, I wonder what it is that keeps you going.

BH: I feel, and I think that others do, that this is a very fallow time. We don’t know very well what terms are going to define us: how do we define what kind of engagement we should have? One of the things I am trying to do right now in my teaching is to explore what the situation is in the world.

For example, I am teaching a course on literature and human rights and I teach half the class and the students do the other half. We do that in order to get all of us reflecting on what the discipline is, what the critical options are, what avenues there are for exploration.

One thing we deal with in this class is land mines. I mean, just imagine trying to tell a story in which you can’t get your character across the field without losing at least one of his or her limbs. You simply have a different story. So we organized this discussion around reading both The English Patient and the factual material on land mines.

We are grappling with the idea of which are the mines we need to explode and which are the mines we can defuse. I see my new project as being a sapper in the stacks.

ATC 74, May-June 1998