Foreword By ERIC GANS

René Girard and Eric Gans at Stanford University  

Ammar Abdulhamid’s The Irreverent Activist reflects, and is no doubt meant to reflect, the torments inflicted by the terrible irony of the Arab Spring on those who had hoped and worked for a modern, democratic Middle East. Ammar has long been active in the struggle to bring democracy to Syria. Today, when in that land even a peaceful despotism would be a utopian dream, he resides in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Ammar’s book is in three parts: an opening autobiographical “manifesto,” followed by two contrapuntal series of literary fragments. The first series is made up of fifty-eight “Heretical Affirmations,” cynically realistic aphorisms bracing in their refusal of facile hope. The second series, more personal and tormented, comprises the ninety “Confessions of Abel,” addressed to his murderous brother Cain. The first victim in the Qu’ran as in the Bible, Abel has for Ammar nothing of the serenity of a martyred precursor of Jesus. As the author’s introduction tells us, these “confessions” are the oldest stratum of the book, written mostly in the 1990s, well before the present political turmoil. 

As the book’s three parts recede from the present into the past, they also descend into the author’s psyche. From the social persona of the activist, expressed in the “manifesto’s” autobiographical first person, we traverse the impersonal, worldly maxims of the second part to reach the self-lacerating fictions of the third. These are so to speak three stages in the worldly life and other-worldly survival of the soul. At first, we are who we are on Earth, and because Ammar has been immersed in political life, he has been forced to measure more critically than most his impact on reality, which alone can count as success or failure. The “Heretical Affirmations” distill this bitter wisdom, in hopes “to inspire greater resilience in the face of adversity” in the hearts and minds of others like himself. We are told to avoid overestimating the permanence of our achievements—“Every loss is permanent, and every gain, ephemeral” (6)—and above all, to avoid hypocrisy, which “should always be condemned and contemptible” (19). Action for the good is more important than “philosophies”; Ammar has fought to promote the struggle among philosophies that is democracy itself rather than any of the positions that inhabitants of democratic societies have the luxury of debating. This compendium of disabused political wisdom ends on a fraternal note: “The best achievement anyone can have is to become a memory that brings happiness and warmth.”

In September-October 2001, and while still based in Damascus, Ammar conducted a dialogue with Professor Eric Gans, that was considered to be groundbreaking at the time, and perhaps to date, as it was intended for publishing in the Syrian webzine, Maaber, and was indeed published there. Conducting and publishing an interview with an American-Jewish pro-Israel intellectual on the Middle East, dealing with such sensitive issues as the Holocaust, the Intifada, Arab-Israeli peace, and the origins of human communications, was not only a first for a Syrian author and a Syrian publication, but as rare by regional standards, especially as it involves none of the usual political rhetoric and witnessed no attempts at censorship, neither of self or the other. Another interesting thing to note here is that Ammar and Eric have yet to meet in person. 

But the author has not yet expressed the deep subjective insights he has acquired in battle, nor the personal meaning of the political success he hoped for. This can only be done through the fictional persona of Abel. This is not the uncomplicated Abel of the Bible, whose animal sacrifice, unlike Cain’s vegetal one, has been accepted by God, but an Abel both guilty and unsatisfied, obsessed with his own impurity, impatient with “civilized” respectability and religiosity, and alienated from his brother’s commanding—dictatorial?—masculinity that contrasts with his own deeply feminine self. Abel claims both that God only accepted his offering because he blasphemed (3) and that “I am so deeply flawed, Brother, I am God” (47). He imagines himself in many guises: he is a woman, he mutilates himself or begs for mutilation, he bleeds from every orifice—all in a quest to purge the feeling of sinfulness that prevents him from bringing salvation to the world. It is as though the order of composition of the two series were inverted in the order of experience: Abel, having reached in his active life the world-weariness embodied in the “Heretical Affirmations,” needs his once-and-future murderer to grant him absolution, whether by turning his violent gesture into a caress—“I need your hand, Brother, your hand, not your dagger” (41)—or by shedding the single tear for his brother's martyrdom that will permit him to be resurrected (65).

There is no simple unity among the book's three layers of discourse other than the one we (re)construct for ourselves. Ammar Abdulhamid throws down a challenge to his reader to make a whole of the jigsaw pieces of an all-too-human being, revealed by this little book in an intimacy that few works of any genre or length attain. One senses the agonized self-knowledge, beyond self-pity or self-promotion, of someone who has striven in a noble cause, but whose success has been deferred by the impersonal forces of history, which is to say, the imperfections of the human heart. In The Irreverent Activist we encounter a titanic personality tested by cruel reality, aware, as few of us are, of his limits and of his strength to know and transcend them. The reader will not emerge unscathed.

Eric Gans
Distinguished Professor of French, UCLA
Editor, Anthropoetics: The Journal of Generative Anthropology