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Poetry and Partition: Barbara Harlow’s Insistence on the ‘Here-and-Now’ of Historical Reality

[Barbara Harlow at a protest at the University of Texas against Israeli settlement construction near Beit Sahour. Image by Sheila Contreras, via the author.] [Barbara Harlow at a protest at the University of Texas against Israeli settlement construction near Beit Sahour. Image by Sheila Contreras, via the author.]

Barbara Harlow held a visiting position at the National University of Ireland in Galway in the spring of 1992. That same year, she published an essay in Polygraph titled “Drawing the Line: Cultural Politics and the Legacy of Partition,” which offered comparative readings of literature across three colonial contexts: Ireland, India, and Palestine.[1] During the fall semester, upon her return from Ireland to the University of Texas, Austin, where she had been employed since 1985, she taught an English graduate seminar under the heading “Poetry and Partition.” Required readings included a wide variety of pre- and post-partition texts; among them were W. B. Yeats’s “Easter 1916” and Bobby Sands’ Prison Poems, E. M. Forster’s Passage to India and Khuswant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, and Ghassan Kanafani’s “Men in the Sun” and Sahar Khalifeh’s “Wild Thorns.” The course attracted numerous graduate students, many now established scholars in their own right; for some of us, “Poetry and Partition” would condition future studies of imperial culture, third world literatures, and postcoloniality.

While Harlow’s spring 1992 residency in Ireland was the immediate occasion for her preoccupation with literatures of partition, her years in the Middle East from 1977 to 1983, when she was employed as a professor of English at the American University in Cairo (AUC), decisively shaped her critical awareness of poetic resistances to imperialism. In Cairo she began studying and writing about Arabic literature in earnest, publishing articles on a range of topics, such as Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migrations to the North, “The Maghrib and The Stranger,” and E. W. Lane’s Account and Ahmad Amin’s Dictionary.”[2]

It is also during this initial Cairo period—she returned to AUC as Acting Chair of English in 2006-2007—that she began reading extensively and writing about Palestine. Harlow’s critically incisive and politically unflinching publications on Palestinian literature and her noteworthy expertise on the writings of Ghassan Kanafani, the Palestinian intellectual assassinated in Beirut by Israeli agents in 1972, prefigured much of her later work, which covered urgent issues ranging from the hunger strikes of political prisoners in Ireland to the political economy of diamonds in South Africa. And while the cultural politics of empire in Ireland and apartheid in South Africa—in particular her ongoing and endless interest in the figure of Ruth First—came to occupy important places in her later work, she always returned to Palestine as the crucial context for understanding the operations of empire and the possibilities of resistance in the present.

That said, Ireland as the historic locus of imperial experimentation and the model for anti-imperialist struggles was a key reference point in much of her scholarship after 1992. If it would be an understatement to say that working in Cairo influenced Harlow’s intellectual and political commitments, it would be an oversight not to acknowledge the place of Ireland in her work and her contributions to Irish studies. In the 1990s, Harlow consistently connected Ireland to Palestine—for example in a key passage from the 1993 essay “Speaking from the Dock,” where she writes presciently about the centrality of colonial courts, of repression by law and of resistance on trial and the relation between the various sites of legal repression: “While the focus is on Ireland, the new interlocutionary engagements in Palestine, South Africa and El Salvador, to name but a few of the colonial contexts that are currently being renegotiated, inform as well this analysis of ‘speaking from the dock.’”[3] In the conclusion of the essay, Harlow reasserts the correspondence and difference across colonial contexts, underscoring the farce of the peace negotiations of the 1990s and their procedural exclusions of anti-colonial opposition movements:

That struggle continues now, and despite the protracted violence, in the forms that have been dictated by protocols at the negotiating table…the Palestinians are present at the negotiating table of the Middle East peace talks, albeit still without full political status and officially only as members of the Jordanian delegation. Meanwhile, Sinn Fein, the legal party representative of Irish republicans in both the 6 and the 26 counties, has yet to be invited to join the official talks between the British government, the Dublin government, and other “constitutional” parties to the conflict, both loyalist and nationalist.[4] 

Living and traveling in the Arab World, Ireland, and South Africa motivated Harlow’s significant contributions to literary studies, which she tied persistently to solidarities there and everywhere, to revise an Edward Said quotation that she used as the title of her 2003 commemorative essay. Harlow’s “Remember the Solidarity Here and Everywhere,” which appeared in Middle East Report in 2003, quotes a passage in which Said calls for a comparative and critical understanding of the Palestinian struggle in ways that must have resonated profoundly with her own work on Palestine, Ireland, South Africa, and beyond. Here are the lines that Harlow quoted from Said:

We have to see the Arab world generally and Palestine in particular in more comparative and critical ways....The Palestinian struggle for justice is especially something with which one must express solidarity….Remember the solidarity here and everywhere in Latin America, Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia, and remember also that there is a cause to which many people have committed themselves, difficulties and terrible obstacles notwithstanding.[5]

Although a generation younger, Harlow’s intellectual trajectory has many parallels with Said’s, stemming in large part from her concern for the Arab World and her commitments to Palestine. They both contributed to Middle East Report (MERIP) at a time when the magazine emerged as the major North American independent publication on the region and the most important venue for publishing critiques of US foreign policy. Equally important, Harlow too was a comparatist whose literary education was initially oriented toward an understanding of European modern stylistics read through the prism of 1970s poststructuralist theory; she wrote a dissertation on “Marcel Proust: Studies in Translation” (1977) under the direction of the famous scholar of deconstruction Eugenio Donato. In contrast with Said—who grew up in the Arab countries, was a native speaker of Arabic, directly experienced the loss of Palestine, and immigrated to the US—Harlow’s experience of the Arab World, her studies of Arabic, her solidarity with Palestinians, and her move to Egypt were what Said would describe as the work of affiliation. Her decisions to embrace Arab World issues occurred at a time when there was little interest in Arabic literature among Anglo-American scholars in the humanities and no public support for Palestinian politics in the US academy.

In her first book, published thirty years ago, Harlow translated Kanafani’s critical concept of resistance literature, applying it to an array of texts from the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Resistance Literature (1987) challenged students and scholars in the humanities to use their training as expert readers to oppose the “strategies of containment” that reject “historical necessity” in literary criticism, appealing instead to “universality, posterity, and the human condition”: “controversial insistence on the ‘here-and-now’ of historical reality and its conditions of possibility underwrites much of the project of resistance literature and the internal debate which surrounds that literature. It likewise arouses the objections of ‘First World’ critics generally to the literature of partisanship.”[6] The book’s specific focus on partisan writing exposed the pointlessness of the generalization that everything is political; but the lasting relevance of Resistance Literature is its explicit advocacy of a new model of engaged criticism that defied the 1970s backlash in literary studies and moved beyond limited postcolonial approaches to third world literatures, which in the 1980s United States academy often took the form of international multiculturalism.

Harlow explained Kanafani's theory of resistance literature as a genre of writing that was inseparable from political movements engaged in pitched armed struggles against the new forms of colonialism that defined the post-World War II era. She would follow up Resistance Literature with other volumes equally informed by the urgency of oppositional political movements and insurgent cultural expression. Especially noteworthy are Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention (1992) and After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writing (1996), which evince her efforts to foreground literature that explicitly resists the historical and ongoing effects of empire. The central preoccupation of Harlow’s critical project was foregrounding the intellectual work and writings of men and women who were assassinated, imprisoned, or exiled, many of them cadres of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Irish Republican Army, the African National Congress, and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front.

To understand this historical necessity that generated resistance literature, she also studied and documented the instruments of colonial control and the cultural archive of imperialism, which represented Harlow’s other major preoccupation. She edited with Mia Carter the indispensable Archives of Empire, volumes one and two, and Orientalism and Imperialism: A Documentary Sourcebook. In effect, the “Poetry and Partition” course was grounded in the study of colonial textual authority, but worked to reconnect the fractured territories and disjointed narratives of the three former British colonies. The design of the course also asserted the historic solidarities linking the island of Ireland to the Indian Subcontinent and to the Arab World. Harlow writes in “Drawing the Line”: “Peculiar to Britain's participation in the processes of decolonization was the practice of partition: of Ireland in 1921 into the twenty-six and six counties of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland respectively; of India in 1947 into India and Pakistan; and of Palestine in 1948 into ‘Palestine’ and Israel.”[7] In the essay, as she did in the “Poetry and Partition” course, Harlow brings into focus the discredited precedents and blind perpetuation of a politics of partition through an exploration of texts that signify across the shadow lines—to use Amitav Ghosh’s phrase—of territorial division and historical amnesia.

Harlow’s work shows how drawing the lines of partition coincided with the nominal end of one form of imperialism, but introduced new, equally insidious postcolonial political regimes, governed by opportunists, who celebrated partition as the national independence of new states (the Republic of Ireland, the Republic of India, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and the State of Israel); all of them are misbegotten entities to be sure, as is evident by the violence that accompanied their creation and still characterizes their contentious geo-political condition. In a characteristically layered and qualified historicization, Harlow evokes the nastiness of imperial partitions:

Britain's withdrawal from these three of its colonially occupied and administered territories incised a deep and violently protracted scar across the political, geographical, and cultural terrains of those arenas, a scar that has been writ again and again—racially, religiously, ethnically—along the unsettled “green line” dividing Israel from the militarily occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, on the disputed “border” between the northern and southern parts of the island that is Ireland, and across the tense national boundaries that divide India from Pakistan.[8] 

In Harlow’s critical practices, lines of partition drawn across the maps of Ireland, India, and Palestine are signs of past conquests and the site of ongoing resistances that remain urgently relevant in the current global geo-politics of fragmented and fortified nation states. Harlow’s approach to the literatures of partition, like her work on political assassinations, torture, and political prisoners, questioned unpretentiously, but decisively, the mandate of literary studies, undoing the fixed categories of genre, period, and nation, rejecting the hierarchies of literary value, and distrusting the US academy’s uncritical embrace of continental theory.

Even as she resisted the conventions of literary studies, Harlow’s commitment to literature was apparent in her service to the profession as a prolific book reviewer, editorial board member, and official of academic associations. She undertook service with the same keen attention to politics that characterized her scholarship and teaching. An example of her astonishing capacity to connect her professional service, her scholarship, and her political principles is evident in the Fall 2015 Cultural Critique essay “‘Be it Resolved …’: Referenda on Recent Scholarship in the Israel–Palestine Conflict,” which takes the form of a review essay that is framed by recent debates over Palestine solidarity in professional associations like the Modern Language Association (MLA). The article was written in the wake of the vote on MLA resolution 2014-1, “calling for relief from Israel’s rigidly discriminatory restrictions on the ‘right to entry’ for US academics into Israel and its occupied Palestinian territories.”[9] In the introduction to the essay, she writes:

The acrimonious public debates and vituperative intellectual skirmishes—in print, online, and before and behind the scenes of sponsored panel discussions—occasioned by these [BDS] resolutions and their eventual consideration and passage and/or defeat by important US academic organizations were not without a specific context, historic and political, that provided both substance and subterfuge to the critical exchanges among and between scholars, colleagues, and solidarity activists involved in academic protocols, international human rights, and research imperatives, with regard in particular to the “question of Palestine.”[10]

She concludes the essay with this sentence, “Be it resolved, then, that, at the very least, it is right—and a right—to enter this debate.”[11] This is all the more meaningful in the present context, marked as it is by legislation and legal efforts to silent academics who express their solidarity with Palestinians.

As with her criticism, Barbara’s life and work across—indeed, her life work in the service of—political justice, were marked simultaneously by a certain disciplinary restraint and an unassailable resistance to academic orthodoxy. These qualities of restraint and resistance found expression in her uncanny ability to ask searching questions that on the surface addressed nuances of textuality, but always revealed an uncomfortable politics, lurking within the pretentions of literature.


[1] Barbara Harlow, “Drawing the Line: Cultural Politics and the Legacy of Partition,” Polygraph 5 (1992): 84-101.

[2] See Barbara Harlow, “Othello’s Season of Migration,” Edebiyat 4.2 (1979), 157-75; “The Maghrib and The Stranger,” ALIF 3 (1983), 38-55; and “E. W. Lane’s Account and Ahmad Amin’s Dictionary,” Journal of the History of Ideas 46.2 (1985), 279-86.

[3] Barbara Harlow, “Speaking from the Dock,” Callaloo 16.4 (1993), 874.

[4] Harlow, “Speaking from the Dock,” 884.

[5] Barbara Harlow, “Remember the Solidarity Here and Everywhere,” Middle East Report 229 (Winter 2003), 4.

[6] Barbara Harlow, Resistance Literature (New York: Metheun, 1987), 16-17.

[7] Harlow, “Drawing the Line,” 84.

[8] Harlow, “Drawing the Line,” 84-5.

[9] Barbara Harlow, “‘Be it Resolved …’: Referenda on Recent Scholarship in the Israel–Palestine Conflict,” Cultural Critique (Fall 2015), 190.

[10] Harlow, “‘Be it Resolved …,’” 191.

[11] Harlow, “‘Be it Resolved …,’” 204. 

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