One of the first, and possibly sanest, pieces of advice I read about promoting my book was to stay away from politics, religion and controversial topics. I say sane because, regardless of the tenet of free speech touted by the free world, artists and writers that take a stand tend to be ostracized, judged and found to be wanting. They stand alone or with a tiny minority, and the downside is a drop in sales or a lack of distribution (of books, films, music and even art), and often an ignoble slide into poverty.
It makes me wonder about the truism that artists are often dirt poor until after their death. Is it because their ideas are unpopular? Is society just unwilling to be shown the realities and truths that live among them? Are they just unable to recognize the power of an artist’s message until she, or he, has been buried and is long gone? And, it makes me wonder if the artist or writer who speaks out against criminal injustice is insane for doing so?
In the past two weeks, plenty of ordinary citizens have spoken out for or against a conflict that has consumed the world. It’s a conflict that has crushed voices for decades, raped careers, muffled protest and stifled dissent at every turn. From Jostein Gaarder’s op-ed back in 2006 (for which he was forced to apologize, clarify, and retract his words—I had a tough time finding the original piece online) to Benny Brunner’s fall from grace, the ignominious deleted tweets of Rihanna and Katy Perry, to the overall political suppression of a small opposition, the picture has not been pretty. The world we live in today is divided into right and left. Artists and their ilk have been designated ‘leftists’, not to be mistaken for a compliment.
Despite mankind’s progress and technological achievements, the celebrated freedom of democratic nations and the online world without borders, I am astonished to learn that speaking one’s mind is a matter of great courage.
I struggled with this post for days—I was…am…worried about the effect my words would have on the sales of my book. For all I know, tomorrow will see me as a suffering artist languishing in a ghetto. For all I know, this may be the end of my writing career. For all I know, many of you may no longer choose to be my friend on Facebook, to Like my page, or to follow me on Twitter.
Fair enough. But the truth, and I cannot say it loud enough, is that I am, clearly, an insane leftist. I am an admirer of Arundhati Roy, Howard Zinn and Edward Said. I read Noam Chomsky and Dr. Norman Finkelstein. I subscribe to Guernica Magazine and regularly agree with the politics on Counterpunch.
Most of all, however, I have a deep, abiding admiration for Eqbal Ahmad, a political scientist, an activist, a teacher and historian and someone I had the good fortune of meeting a few times many years ago. If you haven’t heard the name, I wouldn’t be surprised. He was Pakistani and he died in 1999, well before the millennium’s turning point. He was an economist, a soldier, a member of Algeria’s National Liberation Front in the sixties, an anti-war activist and he stood firmly against imperialism in any form. He was once indicted and stood trial for conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger (the charges went nowhere). He was, as a Muslim, part of an Unholy Trinity with Noam Chomsky (a Jew) and Edward Said (a Christian), working for peace in the Middle East, and stability in South Asia.
In 1995, he spoke at my convocation, and I replicate part of that inspiring speech here, on artists and their role in society:
They are in the business of working with their minds. What distinguishes humans from animals is the manner in which humans use the mind. And what distinguishes various levels of civilization – their literary and artistic achievement, economic prosperity, and moral outlook – is shaped largely by the extent and manner in which the resources of the mind are put to use. This is a profoundly complex subject. There are a myriad aspects to it. I shall discuss only one which I deem important for this occasion. It has to do with the notion, by no means uncontested, that it is the intellectual’s special responsibility to affirm the good and just and resist the bad and unjust.
The argument, obviously a moral one, envisages a permanent symbiosis of affirmation and resistance in artistic and intellectual life. When artists, poets, or intellectuals lose sight of this symbiosis art suffers, intellect stagnates and people lose hope and faith in the future. The interplay of affirmation and resistance is the essence of art, the motor of creativity and soul of aesthetics. It alone rescues history, and liberates collective memory from the bitterness of pain and humiliation. It is thus that artists and architects leave timeless and universal monuments to the spirit of their time which no historian can match. I think of Goya’s paintings of the Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s army, of Picasso’s Guernica, and the pitiless faces Rembrandt painted of the trustees of the alms house in which he lived.
Intellectuals and artists can serve, as I trust you will, as a beacon to the most beleaguered people in history. I am tempted to cite two recent examples from Bosnia: Oslobodenje is a Bosnian newspaper. It started during World War II as an underground newspaper of the partisans who fought Yugoslavia’s fascist occupiers. After the war, it developed into Bosnia’s largest daily. As Yugoslavia broke up, it supported Bosnia as a multi-ethnic and secular country.
Oslobodenje practiced what it preached. Its editor is Muslim, deputy editor is an incredibly brave Serb woman. The staff are mixed – Muslim, Serb and Croat. As such, the newspaper and its staff became a target of Serb nationalists, an easy target because its offices are located in the ‘death valley’ of Sarajevo in range of Serb gunners. The newspaper and its staff sustained many injuries but did not miss a day of publication printing often a single page. Oslobodenje became a symbol of Bosnian resolve, Sarajevans’ will to live and, above all, of Serb failure to destroy the values for which Bosnia stood.
“Why don’t you move the paper out of Sarajevo?” I asked Editor Kemal Kurspahic soon after he had survived a bomb. “We can’t,” he replied simply, “Oslobodenje is a lighthouse.”
The second example involves young architects. Last year, an exhibition on “Sarajevo: Past, Present, and Future” was held in Paris and in New York where I saw it. It had been put up by students of architecture at the University of Sarajevo. It was divided in three parts. One the students had reconstructed – in photos, paintings, sketches, and narratives – the destroyed city as it once was. Two: they had reproduced in minute detail – street by ruined street – Sarajevo as destroyed by the Serb bombers and snipers. Three: they had prepared detailed plans in architectural drafts and papier mache models for rebuilding Sarajevo. Awesome, truly awesome! “Did they work on this for this exhibition?” I asked one of their professors. “Oh, no,” said he, smiling, “They wanted to show the people the good, bad and the wonderful.”
[Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist philosopher] distinguished the state and civil societies as distinct entities. Gramsci draws three fundamental conclusions: (i) When civil society (which includes professional, literary and artistic institutions and associations) conforms uncritically / or is coerced by the state into silence, totalitarianism prevails. (ii) When civil society enjoys a lively network of institution and associations, and these maintain critical links with state institutions then democracy prevails. (iii) When state and society are structurally and culturally antagonistic to each other, then conditions of civil war and anarchy obtain, and a society evades either fate only when its intelligentsia forges and popularizes a program for reform or revolution. In all three situations the choices artists and intellectuals make affects not only their own but their society’s destiny.
With these words still fresh and applicable almost two decades later, I stand up and say #FreePalestine.