On June 2, pilule 2005, just weeks after the Cedar Revolution resulted in the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, prominent Al Nahar journalist Samir Kassir started his car at 10:30am and seconds later he was dead. An outspoken critic of the Syrian regimeâ€™s political and physical presence within Lebanon, Kassirâ€™s assassination sparked an investigation that seemed to point all the fingers in one direction, yet, till today, it is an assassination that remains unsolved. Today, his office at Al Nahar remains untouched as he had left it, including the newspaper he last read, while behind the publicationâ€™s building, lies a square named in his honor, playing host to a single bronze statue of the fallen journalist, perhaps symbolizing his memory as a contemporary figure in Lebanonâ€™s intellectual circles. For by the time Kassir was killed at the age of 45, he had already produced a volume of work to be reckoned with, in both French and Arabic, depicting his views on Lebanese history and politics as well as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; two topics he was well versed in. Indeed, by the time of his death, Kassir had garnered a reputation for holding opinions that not only rubbed many the wrong way, but the vocalization of which would likely cost a man his life. In the end, it probably did.
â€œSo who murdered Samir Kassir?â€ asks world renowned journalist Robert Fisk in an article published in The Independent the day after Kassirâ€™s death. It is this question that Fisk repeats throughout his analytical, yet angry piece republished in Kassirâ€™s book as a relevant introduction. While Fisk and the rest of the world may have their valid suspicions, who murdered Smair Kassir remains an unanswered question, and more importantly, perhaps an increasingly relevant one in the context of Kassirâ€™s book.
â€œBeing Arabâ€ is a bold and aggressive description of the Arab worldâ€™s status quo, or what Kassir attempts to describe as â€œthe Arab malaiseâ€. Offering a brief history of the region, Kassir focuses on the key events that he believes shaped the current malaise permeating through every corner of the Arab world. While many books of a similar nature might be more keen to indulge historical commentaries, Kassir cuts through the unnecessary encyclopedic data to arrive to the present tense, only to offer what is perhaps one of the most scorching self-examinations of what it means to be an Arab today. The picture is obviously not a pretty one. Kassir all but strips away the existence of any hope in a region he sees immersed unboundedly in a never-ending desert sea of religious extremism, pan-Arabism and senseless nationalism, which he sees as a response to western modernity. It is this simple notion that is at the center of Kassirâ€™s thesis, the underlying belief that the Arab people have yet to come to terms with modernity â€“ inherently obsessed with the â€œotherâ€™s gazeâ€ â€“ and have thus sought out other avenues that lead to a preoccupation with a glorified past.
For the Arab reader, Kassirâ€™s â€œBeing Arabâ€ is at times perhaps nothing short of a torturous roast highlighting the impotence and powerlessness of the region. Every page yields a self-inflicted emotional wound until the Arab reader, unaccustomed to this type of unrelenting sense of brutal honesty, eventually cries out in pain. It is not until somewhere midway through that Kassir begins to inject rays of hope, calling on the memories of the late 19th century nahda experienced throughout the region, alluding to the fact that such a renaissance in the Arab world is still viable and possible despite its grappling with modernity, which it has mistaken for absolute westernization.
â€œâ€¦It is clear that the lesson of Arab history cannot be that Arabs are powerless to regain the power and status they once possessed,â€ says Kassir, retracing hopes and aspirations in the regionâ€™s early 20th century pursuits that have become a mere footnote in contemporary history. â€œIf Arabs could re-enter universal history forty years ago, then nothing should stop them being reconciled with the spirit of synthesis â€“ cultural and political â€“ that has been the hallmark of their long history when they emerge from their malaise and cease to be the center of a world in crisis,â€ Kassir laments with a sliver of optimism. Self-examination does not come easy, but as Kassir might argue, it may be critiques of this nature that force the Arab world to awaken from its anesthetic slumber.
– Originally published in Jordan Business magazine, February 2010 issue.