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Your Key to Palestine
The Palestinian Initiatives for The Promotoion of Global Dialogue and Democracy

1927 – 2005

Born into a well-to-do family in Jaffa, Hisham Sharabi spent his childhood in Jaffa and Acre. He studied at the Friends School in Ramallah and at the American University in Beirut, where he graduated in 1947 with a B.A. in philosophy. He earned an M.A. in philosophy in 1949 and a Ph.D. in the history of culture from the University of Chicago in 1953. Sharabi's political activism started at an early age, when he joined the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) in 1947. He was deeply influenced by its leader, Antun Sa'ada, whose charisma and stern, uncompromising determination, especially on the issue of Palestine, appealed to the young Sharabi. Sa'ada confided in Sharabi, showing great interest in the promising young intellectual.

While Sharabi was studying in the United States, Palestine fell to the Israeli forces in 1948. At Sa'ada's behest, Sharabi returned in 1949 to resume his activities with the SSNP and became the editor of SSNP's monthly magazine, al-Jil al-Jadid (‘The New Generation’). In June of that year the Lebanese regime cracked down on the SSNP, putting most of its members in prison and executing Sa'ada. After fleeing to Jordan, Sharabi went back to the United States to resume his studies. In 1953 he started teaching history at Georgetown University. He attained full professorship in only eleven years. In 1955 he officially ended his affiliation with the SSNP.

Until 1967, Sharabi was in what he himself calls "silence in exile," writing and publishing in English only to fulfill academic requirements. The 1967 defeat and the 1968 student movement transformed Sharabi both intellectually and politically. He abandoned his liberal views and became a leftist, rereading Marx and Freud with a fresh eye and incorporating them into his ground-breaking analysis of Arab Society. He became very active in Palestinian and Arab affairs. After giving numerous talks across campuses, Sharabi moved to Beirut in 1970 to work in the Palestine Planning Center and was visiting professor at the American University in Beirut in 1970-71. At around the same time, translations of his English work, ‘Arab Intellectuals and the West’, began to appear in Arabic, al-Muthaqqafun al-Arab wa al-Gharb. The eruption of the Lebanese civil war in 1975 thwarted his plans to settle in Lebanon. He returned to Georgetown, where he was professor of European intellectual history and holder of the Omar al-Mukhtar chair of Arab culture. Sharabi has had an important role in building institutions to promote awareness and understanding of the Palestine issue and the Arab world. In 1971, Sharabi was chosen to be editor of the 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 in the USA that is solely devoted to the study of the Arab World, in 1975. In 1979, he founded the Arab-American Cultural Foundation and Alif Gallery in Washington, D.C. In 1990, he founded the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, a Washington, D.C. based institution that provides information, publishes papers, and sponsors talks and symposia pertaining to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Sharabi was also the founder and chair of the Jerusalem Fund, a Palestinian charitable organization that provides scholarships for students from Palestine. Sharabi retired from his post at Georgetown University in 1998.

Sharabi is best known as a committed, influential writer and scholar and remains a unique phenomenon as an Arab intellectual living in the West. Despite half a century of exile, he has maintained a lively dialogue with the Arab world through his substantial contributions in Arabic and English. He has been one of the few intellectuals who dared to critique and propose a break with the leftist and nationalist establishments in order to chart a new epistemological horizon for Arab intellectuals. His Muqaddimat li Dirasat al-Mujtama al-Arabi (‘Introduction to the Study of Arab Society’), published in 1975, was a trail-blazing work and has had, and still has, a great impact on Arab intellectuals and educators, especially Palestinians. His two-volume autobiography, al-Jamr wa al-Ramad: Dhikrayat Muthaqqa Arabi (‘Embers and Ashes: Memoirs of an Arab Intellectual’), published in 1978, and Suwar al-Madi: Sira Dhatiyya (‘Images of the Past: An Autobiography’), published in 1993, are already classics. Unparalleled in their candor, the two volumes eloquently depict and critique the experience of a whole generation of Arab intellectuals, most of which has ended in compulsory or self-imposed exile, replete with dreams, disillusionment, and defeat. ‘Neopatriarchy: Theory of Distorted Change in Arab Society’ appeared in 1988 and was published in Arabic as al-Nizam al-Abawi (1989) and in French as Le Patriarcat (1996). It provided an alternative way to understand Arab society and has had a great impact on scholarly and intellectual circles in the Arab world. Sharabi's other work in Arabic, which is organically linked to the works discussed, is al-Naqd al-Hadari li al-Mujtama al-Arabi (Cultural Critique of Arab Society (1990)).

For Sharabi, social change cannot be achieved merely by a revolution or a coup. In a post-revolutionary world, change is a very complicated and dangerous process that entails a complete transfer from neopatriarchy to modernism on all levels. Arab intellectuals must carefully walk an independent route through which they are capable of choosing what is suitable from the tools and concepts of both modernism and postmodernism in order to achieve modernism. Aware that a new critical discourse by itself cannot effect sociopolitical change directly and must go hand in hand with praxis, Sharabi stresses that such a discourse is the first step to serious change.

Intellectuals can influence the battles for sociopolitical change. Prerequisites for this new critical discourse are putting an end to the hegemony of metaphysics and philosophers and engaging in horizontal dialogues in society, not between ideological theorists. Another prerequisite is a new understanding and attitude toward language, reading, and writing (texts). Patriarchal language is ceremonial and ritualistic, leaving no space for dialogue and discussion. Sharabi confesses that even he himself writes under its hegemony. Reading equals writing in its critical role and importance. In order to liberate themselves and break with patriarchal structures, Arab intellectuals must master a foreign language in order to be able to translate the new intellectual concepts and categories and lay the grounds for a new language and new consciousness. The new critical discourse must overthrow the hegemony of any one discourse, even the secularist or revolutionary-nationalist. It must provide more than a description of the alternative to existing structures, but rather a social and intellectual preparation for the terrain required for establishing alternative structures. If read correctly, the critical-secularist text can challenge, and pose a serious threat to, the dominant powers and their ideologies. As for the fundamentalist movements, they should be confronted only as political forces. Engaging in theological debates or appeasing such movements is a lost battle.

The issue of women was the most crucial one for Sharabi. He was deeply affected and transformed by his readings of feminist writings and realized how this issue was never addressed seriously and was given only lip service, even by secularist and leftist intellectuals. The oppression of women is the cornerstone of the (neo)patriarchal system.

Therefore, women's liberation is an essential condition for overthrowing the (neo)patriarchal hegemony. Women are the time bomb at the heart of (neo)patriarchal societies.

Sharabi was a harsh and outspoken critic of the Oslo Agreement of 1993, referring to it as “within the context of treason”. However, he emphasized the need to reform the PLO rather than replace it, although he also called for a General Palestinian Conference, which should “inscribe on its banner…the right of self-determination and the right of return”.

At a guest lecture at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank in 2001, Sharabi said "We will not win our war against the Israelis through military powers, but through the people. . . We need non-classic tactics, not an army or simple theories, but a change in perceptions and the development of an intellectual approach to advance our vision for the future." Sharabi's other works include ‘Government and Politics in the Middle East in the Twentieth Century’ (1962), ‘Nationalism and Revolution in the Arab World’ (1966), ‘Arab Intellectuals and the West’ (1970), and al-Rihla al-Akhira (‘The Last Journey’), a novel in Arabic (1987). He also edited ‘The Next Arab Decade: Alternative Futures’ (1988) and ‘Theory, Politics and the Arab World: Critical Approaches’ (1991).

In April 2002 Georgetown University held a conference, ‘The Role of the Intellectual in Contemporary Political Life’, on and in honor of Sharabi.

Dr. Sharabi died on January 13, 2005, at the American University of Beirut Hospital with family and friends at his side. He was 78 years old.

The above is based on the Sharabi entry by Sinan Antoon, in Encyclopedia of The Palestinians, edited by Philip Mattar.

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