Book Review | Samir Kassir’s “Being Arab”

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 regime’s political and physical presence within Lebanon, Kassir’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 publication’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 Lebanon’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.

“So who murdered Samir Kassir?” asks world renowned journalist Robert Fisk in an article published in The Independent the day after Kassir’s death. It is this question that Fisk repeats throughout his analytical, yet angry piece republished in Kassir’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 Kassir’s book.

“Being Arab” is a bold and aggressive description of the Arab world’s status quo, or what Kassir attempts to describe as “the Arab malaise”. 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 Kassir’s thesis, the underlying belief that the Arab people have yet to come to terms with modernity – inherently obsessed with the “other’s gaze” – and have thus sought out other avenues that lead to a preoccupation with a glorified past.

For the Arab reader, Kassir’s “Being Arab” 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.

“…It is clear that the lesson of Arab history cannot be that Arabs are powerless to regain the power and status they once possessed,” says Kassir, retracing hopes and aspirations in the region’s early 20th century pursuits that have become a mere footnote in contemporary history. “If Arabs could re-enter universal history forty years ago, then nothing should stop them being reconciled with the spirit of synthesis – cultural and political – 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,” 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.

11 thoughts on “Book Review | Samir Kassir’s “Being Arab”

  1. Hmm.. 225 reads of your book review but not a single comment. Had you written about the the Jordanian Government or one of its figures you’d have attracted 43 comments by now 🙂 This “self critical” stuff is just not what people want to hear. You know it’s too “fluffy”.. like that other issue.. honor crimes.. etc.

    Anyway.. I think I will buy this book. I read my fair share of Arabic self critical books in my 20’s, but would not mind a more contemporary take on the Arab malaise.

    That someone would assassinate Kassir for his “dangerous” ideas just tell you how depressing this part of the world can be.

  2. @Ahmad: lol only in Jordan would Dan Brown get a bigger response than Samir Kassir. well, that’s not entirely true. thanks for the comment and i very much agree with your last statement. to quote kassir’s opening line in the book’s forward: “it’s not pleasant being arab these days”

    @mo: you’ll have to read it to find out i suppose.

  3. What a great review! I was worried I wasn’t going to find it at Chapters.ca but I did! I will buy it with the next batch of books.

    Keep reading and reviewing Nas 🙂 .

  4. Arabism is racism!
    see: http://pan-arabism.blogspot.com
    The wild racist virus on a vicious campaign of burning all non-Arab ethnicities down, main victims include: Kurds, Jews (not just in Israel), Berbers (the indigenous of N. Africa), Persians, Assyrians, Asians, Africans (not just in Sudan genocide), Nubians (indigenous in Egypt), Copts, etc.

Your Two Piasters: