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Introduction: Remembering Barbara Harlow

[Barbara Harlow speaking in 2012. Image via YouTube.] [Barbara Harlow speaking in 2012. Image via YouTube.]

In the opening pages of her 1996 book After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writing, a book that focuses on Ghassan Kanafani, Roque Dalton, and Ruth First—all of them revolutionary writers, all of them assassinated—Barbara Harlow notes that all three of these writers were also “committed critics…at a time and place when criticism and commitment often challenged each other’s practices.” She goes on to suggest that “in their own work, as in their persistent example,” such writers “continue to give critical dissent a good name.”[1] These very words apply beautifully to Barbara Harlow herself, the model of a committed critic, whose work and whose “persistent example” have inspired so many.

For this reason, the passing of Barbara Harlow, on 28 January of this year, left an aching absence—not only for those who knew her best, but even for those like myself who never had the chance to meet her (or perhaps encountered her only in the passing way that one does with those in one’s academic field) but who have lived with her work, and her example, for so many years. Her colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin, where she taught in the English and Middle Eastern Studies programs for more than thirty years, have provided us with moving tributes and remembrances of her life and work (two of them can be found here and here). In these and other commemorations, such as the ones we present in this tribute, Barbara Harlow is remembered, quite rightly, as a brilliant, impassioned, and influential critic, activist, and teacher.

What might be most remarkable of all is the extent to which she was able to carry off the almost impossible task of being all these things at once: the critic-as-activist, the activist-as-critic, and the teacher throughout it all. In this, she closely resembles her contemporary Edward Said. As Salah Hassan notes in his contribution below, Harlow’s tribute to Said after his passing in 2003, “Remember the Solidarity Here and Everywhere,” brings to the fore the extent that Said, in all his work, united the virtues of criticism and solidarity, even when the two seemed to be at fundamental odds with each other.[2] Indeed, Harlow’s characterization of Kanafani, Dalton, and First as “committed critics” resonates with Said’s own view of the relationship between criticism and solidarity in his own work: “I take criticism so seriously as to believe that, even in the very midst of battle in which one is unmistakably on one side against another, there should be criticism, because there must be critical consciousness if there are to be issues, problems, values, even lives to be fought for.”[3] The admiration between Barbara Harlow and Edward Said, it should be added, was quite mutual: in his 1994 book Culture and Imperialism, Said cites Harlow’s book Resistance Literature, together with Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Decolonizing the Mind, as embodying the crucial work of documenting, at both the cultural and the political level, how “resistance and decolonization…persist well after successful nationalism has come to a stop.”[4] Committed critics, rare as they are, tend to recognize each other.

In her contribution below, Ferial Ghazoul provides a moving account of Barbara Harlow’s intellectual development, and how her travels—both across national borders and across disciplinary ones—influenced her life and work. Some of this personal history becomes immediately apparent to readers of Harlow’s work: for example, her years spent teaching at the American University of Cairo and the commitments to intellectual and political projects in Egypt, including the founding of the important journal Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, or her subsequent collaborations with colleagues at Birzeit University in Palestine, which contributed to her life-long engagement with the work of Ghassan Kanafani. Other aspects become visible more implicitly: for example, her studies in Paris and Berlin with some of the most eminent figures in comparative literature—Eugenio Donato, René Girard, and Jacques Derrida (she went on to translate Derrida’s Éperons: Les Styles de Nietzsche [Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles].

One more close connection between Barbara Harlow and Edward Said is thus worth noting: both were, at heart, true comparativists, and both saw comparative work as a way for different texts, contexts, and political struggles to speak to each other and thus to illuminate each other. For this reason, Harlow remains one of only a handful of critics (at least in the United States) who have worked closely and comparatively with Arabic literature, and Palestinian literature more specifically, neither imprisoning it within some self-contained entity called “the Arab world” (or, almost interchangeably, “the Muslim world”) nor dropping it glibly amongst other recognizable texts representing “global literature” in the manner of academic multiculturalism—put a Kanafani story or a Darwish poem or a Mahfouz novel on your syllabus and call it a day. For this reason, among many others, her body of work remains more crucial than ever.

That body of work is vital and far-reaching. It includes, in addition to her translations of Kanafani and Derrida, three single-authored books: Resistance Literature (1987); Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention (1992); and After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writing (1996). There is also her crucially important collaborative work, much of it involving critical engagements with the archives of imperialism, such as the three volumes she co-edited with Mia Carter: Imperialism and Orientalism: A Documentary Sourcebook (1999); Archives of Empire: Vol. I: From the East India Company to the Suez Canal (2003); and Archives of Empire, Vol. II:  The Scramble for Africa (2003). With her colleague Toyin Falola, she also co-edited two volumes in honor of the African literary historian Bernth Lindfors: Palavers of African Literature and African Writers and Their Readers (both 2002). And with Ferial Ghazoul, she co-edited The View from Within: Writers and Critics on Contemporary Arabic Literature (1994), which remains an all-too-rare example of an attempt to present and engage with the views of Arab literary critics, rather than simply seeing Arabic literature as grist for the mill of metropolitan Euro-American critics.

For many of us, however, Resistance Literature will remain the key, the book that opened up so many possibilities for new forms of committed criticism. As Jennifer Wenzel reminds us in her contribution below, revisiting the book reminds us of Harlow’s “astonishing bravery” in publishing such an unprecedented work as “an untenured assistant professor, turning her back on (thumbing her nose at?) the edifice of high theory and the canons and common sense of Euro/American literary studies.” It is also easy to forget (though Wenzel eloquently reminds us) that at the time of its publication in 1987, only a tiny handful of related work in English had gone before: Wenzel notes Said's Orientalism (1978) and Fredric Jameson's The Political Unconscious (1981), and I would add Ngugi’s Decolonizing the Mind and a new edition of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks with an introduction by Homi Bhabha, both published in 1986. Resistance Literature was thus, in every way, a ground-breaking book, and for those of us who have followed in its wake, it was a world-making book as well. I cannot think of a text more relevant to our contemporary cultural-political context. Read it, if you haven’t already (if you can find it—it seems to have fallen, somehow, among the ranks of the “books that are difficult to get” that Joseph Slaughter praises in his contribution below).

Both Joseph Slaughter and Rania Jawad, in different ways in their pieces below, enumerate Barbara Harlow’s crucial influence upon their work. In presenting this tribute to the life, work, and legacy of Barbara Harlow, the editors of Jadaliyya hope, in a small way, to celebrate, and thus hopefully to help continue, this legacy. As Ferial Ghazoul notes in her contribution, if she could speak to us now, Barbara Harlow would likely invoke the famous words of the US militant organizer Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn. Organize.” The organizing does indeed continue, for example in the conference to be held in Cairo in spring 2018 to honor her life and legacy with which Ghazoul ends her piece. Harlow’s legacy of organizing can also be traced in the ongoing efforts to push the Modern Language Association to endorse the academic boycott in support of Palestinian academics, a struggle in which she was an instrumental voice for many years.[5] And it can be found, as Rania Jawad notes in her piece, in the continuing brave work of those like the Palestinian oral historian Basil al-Araj, who was assassinated in March 2017, as well as in the work of those of us left behind to remember and amplify the voices of those marked for death for daring to speak out and resist. This, too, is the legacy of Barbara Harlow, one of remembering and resisting. We hope, in presenting the pieces below, to try to do a bit of justice to the life, work, and legacy of Barbara Harlow.

Ferial Ghazoul, “Barbara Harlow: The Formative Egyptian Period”

Jennifer Wenzel, “Generations of Resistance”

Salah Hassan, “Poetry and Partition: Barbara Harlow’s Insistence on the ‘Here-and-Now’ of Historical Reality”

Rania Jawad, “Barbara Harlow and the Necessity of ‘Renewed Histories of the Future’”

Joseph Slaughter, “The Occupation of Literature and Books That Are Difficult to Get”

NOTES

[1] Barbara Harlow, After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writing (New York: Verso, 1996), 10.

[2] Barbara Harlow, “Remember the Solidarity Here and Everywhere,” Middle East Report 229 (Winter 2003). For an earlier and more extended reading of Said’s work, including this relationship between criticism and solidarity, see Barbara Harlow, “The Palestinian Intellectual and the Liberation of the Academy,” in Edward Said: A Critical Reader, ed. Michael Sprinker (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1992).

[3] Edward Said, “Secular Criticism,” in The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 28.

[4] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1994), 213.

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

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