Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2001, page 20
Ibrahim Abu-Lughod (1929-2001)
By Deborah J. Gerner
Dr. Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, one of the 20th century’s most significant and articulate Palestinian-American intellectuals, died on May 23, 2001 at his home in Ramallah, Palestine, at the age of 72. A scholar, educator, political activist, and institution-builder in both North America and the Middle East, Abu-Lughod was a tireless and passionate advocate for Palestinian democracy and human rights.
As word of Abu-Lughod’s death spread, he was praised for his numerous contributions and his far-reaching vision of a better world:
“We have lost one of the greatest lovers of Palestine” (Mahmoud Darwish); “an individual of deep integrity with a steadfast commitment to democracy” (Roger Heacock); “a dedicated scholar, a first-rate intellectual, and an activist for justice” (Jamal Nassar); “the most important teacher in the history of Palestine” (Edward Said ); “a man with a global vision” (Ali Jarbawi); “One of the two or three most important Palestinian voices in the United States for decades and one of the first Arab-American scholars to have a really serious effect on the way the Middle East is portrayed in political science and in America” (Rashid Khalidi).
I first met Ibrahim Abu-Lughod when, as a new graduate student at Northwestern University, I wandered into his office to ask about a seminar he was teaching. I had heard he was a “PLO terrorist” and wasn’t sure what to expect, but I recall being nervous as I knocked on his door. The urbane, distinguished-looking gentleman who graciously invited me into his messy office quickly allayed my fears as he asked about my background and academic goals. When I confessed that I was considering enrolling in his class for lack of better options rather than because I actually was interested in the Middle East, his only comment was, “Well, we’ll see if I can change your mind.”
In 10 short weeks he did just that. His impact on my life—first as a mentor, later as a colleague and friend at Northwestern and Birzeit universities—was profound.
Ibrahim Abu-Lughod was born in Jaffa, Palestine, in 1929. On May 3, 1948, as Jaffa fell to Haganah and Irgun forces, Ibrahim reluctantly fled the city of his birth by sea, traveling first to Beirut, then to Nablus, Amman, and finally the United States, where he was able to continue his education. He quickly earned B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Illinois and a Ph.D. in political science from Princeton University in 1957.
After completing his formal studies (for he never stopped learning), Ibrahim spent four years in Egypt, where he directed the social science research department of UNESCO, creating a relationship with the organization that extended throughout his life. Upon returning to North America, Abu-Lughod taught at Smith College and McGill University before joining the faculty of Northwestern University in 1967, serving as political sciencedepartment chair between 1985 and 1988. Along the way, he also worked for UNESCO in Paris and Beirut to develop plans for a Palestine Open University to be based in Beirut. Unfortunately, the June 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon put an end to that project. It also meant Abu-Lughod was unable to attend my dissertation defense, although he was chair of the committee, because he was trapped in Beirut at the time.
Abu-Lughod obtained his U.S. citizenship in 1975, but he held on to a dream of one day carrying a Palestinian passport. With this dual identity, Abu-Lughod took on the challenge of interpreting U.S. politics and society for the Palestinian community as well as eloquently articulating Palestinian aspirations to the rest of the world. As a result of his high visibility, Abu-Lughod and his friend Edward Said were asked to meet with Secretary of State George Shultz in March 1988 as part of initial U.S. moves toward recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
A Difficult Task
The following year, this magazine reported Abu-Lughod’s remarks at a Palestinian-Israeli conference held at Columbia University:
“We have a very difficult task as Palestinian Americans. On a daily basis we testify to the horrors of Israel’s occupation of our people and our land, the expulsion, the killing. And we testify to the commitment of the two people[s] to reach an agreement that will make it possible for Palestinian Arab and Israeli individuals to coexist on the land of Palestine on a footing of equality. We are bringing a message of hope to the American people, and we are asking them to assist us in the process of making peace.”
Through the more than two decades of our friendship, I never saw Abu-Lughod waver in this commitment. He believed peace and justice were possible, stating emphatically: “It isn’t normal for people in the Middle East to live in perpetual conflict. This cannot last forever. There must be a political solution, but it must be one that does not condemn the Palestinians to a position of subordination to Israel.”
These ideas were further developed in his classes, his frequent public lectures, and his numerous authored and edited books, including Arab Rediscovery of Europe: A Study in Cultural Encounters (1963), The Evolution of the Meaning of Nationalism (1963), The Arab-Israeli Confrontation of June 1967: An Arab Perspective (1970), which was reprinted in three languages, The Transformation of Palestine (1971), Palestinian Rights: Affirmation and Denial (1982), The Landscape of Palestine: Equivocal Poetry (1999), and many others.
He was the quintessential teacher, always willing to share his knowledge, to challenge his listeners’ preconceptions, and to support younger scholars with his time and insights. Abu-Lughod also had the unusual ability to let go, to allow a student to evolve from apprentice to peer, an attribute I deeply appreciated.
Despite his great skills as an academic, Abu-Lughod was not content only to lecture and write. He often told me: “It is essential that Palestinians not remain victims; we must become doers.”
And, indeed, Abu-Lughod was politically active his entire life. As a young man, he was involved with the Arab Student Association. He was one of the founders of the Association of Arab-American University Graduates in 1968; 10 years later he and Edward Said established the multidisciplinary journal Arab Studies Quarterly. Many young scholars, myself included, first presented their research at an AAUG conference or published their findings in the pages of ASQ.
In addition, Abu-Lughod was a member of the Palestine National Council between 1977 and 1991 and lent his voice and talents to numerous Palestinian organizations and initiatives around the world, including the recently created Council for Palestinian Restitution and Repatriation.
In 1992, Abu-Lughod retired from Northwestern University and returned to the Middle East, settling in a large apartment on a hilltop in Ramallah, from which, as he liked to show me, he could see the lights of Jaffa. Some years before, on a trip to China, Abu-Lughod had become enchanted by the widespread Chinese use of “the bicycle,” as he put it, so he had purchased one for himself and rode it from home to his Evanston office whenever the weather allowed. Although the Ramallah terrain was too hilly for him to continue this practice, he set up a stationary bike in a nook off the kitchen and would pedal long into the night, looking out over the landscape and remembering his early life along the Mediterranean coast.
During the nine years he resided in the West Bank, Abu-Lughod continued to work on behalf of Palestinian educational, social and cultural development. He taught political science at Birzeit University and for several years served as the institution’s vice president. In that capacity he initiated the development of a graduate faculty, beginning with master’s programs in international studies and in education. At the time, Abu-Lughod commented in a Birzeit Newsletter:
“Palestinian society today needs a higher level of competence and specialization which is achievable only through education at the graduate level. We cannot depend on the achievements of other societies; we Palestinians need to generate our own specialists on the ground. “
Due in large part to Abu-Lughod’s efforts, Birzeit now offers more than a dozen graduate programs.
Between 1995 and 1997, Abu-Lughod headed the Curriculum Development Center, whose responsibility it was to develop an independent Palestinian national curriculum for both primary and secondary schools. That curriculum is now being implemented. He then moved on to create the nongovernmental Al-Qattan Foundation for Educational Research, the purpose of which was to strengthen education at all levels in Palestine. At his death, he was also deeply involved in preliminary steps to establish a national library and a Museum of the Palestinian Memory that would trace Palestinian lives from prehistory until the present.
Always a political independent, Abu-Lughod was critical of the ossification of the Palestinian bureaucracy that he observed in the years following the Oslo accords and deeply troubled by the autocratic elements within the government. Yet he never gave up working for a free, independent, and democratic Palestine.
Ibrahim Abu-Lughod was buried in his beloved Jaffa, next to his father and older brother on a hill overlooking the sea. He is survived by several siblings, his former wife, Janet Lippman Abu-Lughod, four adult children, Lila, Mariam, Deena, and Jawad, and six grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held June 30 at the Alice Millar Chapel, Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois at 7 p.m. Contributions in his honor may be made to the Association of Arab-American University Graduates, 4201 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 303, Washington, DC 20008, marked “Abu-Lughod memorial.”
Deborah J. Gerner is a professor of political science at the University of Kansas. She is the author of One Land, Two Peoples: The Conflict over Palestine (1991, 1994) and editor of Understanding the Contemporary Middle East (2000).