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Barbara Harlow: The Formative Egyptian Period

[Barbara Harlow with Mia Carter in Azhar Park, Cairo. Image by Mia Carter, via the author.] [Barbara Harlow with Mia Carter in Azhar Park, Cairo. Image by Mia Carter, via the author.]

In her late twenties, she arrived in Egypt of the late 1970s looking like a teenager who lost her way and ended up in teeming Cairo. Doris Shoukri, then chair of the department of English and Comparative Literature (ECLT) at the American University in Cairo (AUC), had interviewed her in Berlin in 1977 for her first teaching position as an assistant professor. Doris recalls Barbara, looking like a twelve-year-old blond waif with flowers in her hands. The animated discussion that followed at dinner persuaded Doris of Barbara’s talent and suitability for the position. Cairo at the time was bubbling with political and cultural crosscurrents—Sadat’s open door policy which undermined all the socialist infrastructures of Abdel Nasser, his unanticipated visit to the Knesset in Jerusalem, the aftermath of the students’ revolt of 1972, the cultural turn towards theory in the humanities. Structuralism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction offered new venues for intellectuals, and so did the works of Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Edward Said. I was myself in New York City defending my dissertation at Columbia University at that time, but no sooner did I come to Egypt and join the Department of Comparative Literature then Barbara and I became inseparable. Joined by Ceza Kassem Draz of the Department of Arabic at AUC, we were an enthusiastic trio, convinced that the study of literature contributes to our dreams of cultural renaissance and social justice in Egypt and beyond. Contacts with other colleagues in ECLT—Michael Beard and Steffen Stelzer, to name a couple—added to our resolve to make a difference in the world.

It was in the defense of the comparative MA thesis of Samia Mehrez on irony in James Joyce and Emile Habibi that we came up with the idea of starting a journal that deals with comparative studies. Doris Shoukri was encouraging for such an initiative, and the idea of Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics came about. The first issue came out in 1981. Barbara continued in editing and being part of the editorial team of the journal until she left Cairo in 1983, and since then she continued to be a dynamic member of Alif’s Advisory Board, contributing articles to Alif on Albert Camus, Ruth First, and Guantánamo, interviewing Jabra Jabra, Jeremy Cronin, and Terry Eagleton, and translating an essay of Ghassan Kanafani’s.

Having written a dissertation on Proust under the supervision of Eugenio Donato (who was raised in Egypt) as director and René Girard as a member of her committee, and having been a student of Jacques Derrida at the Ecole Normale Supérieure (who wrote a glowing recommendation for her), Barbara was well-versed in critical theory and had solid academic grounding in European literature based on her studies in the US, Berlin, and Paris. It was in Egypt that she developed an awareness of the importance of linking academic pursuits to actual struggles. She was heavily involved with Dar al-Fata al-‘Arabi and their progressive series of children’s literature that included such well-known writers as the Syrian Zakaria Tamer, the Palestinian Ghassan Kanafani, and the Egyptian Sonallah Ibrahim. She became very close to the executive director of the series, Hasna Mikdashi, and she ended up translating herself selected stories of Ghassan Kanafani, published in the collection Palestine’s Children.

At that time the Palestinian cause was central in the consciousness of the Arab intelligentsia and the Arab masses alike. The Committee for the Defense of National Culture, with Latifa al-Zayyat and Radwa Ashour as leading members—both novelists and professors of English Literature in Egyptian state universities—was vocal in protesting Zionist activities in Egypt and demonstrating against neocolonial projects. It was during Barbara’s Egyptian period (1977-1983) that Sadat incarcerated hundreds of intellectuals in 1981—many of whom were progressive women writers, known personally to Barbara: Latifa al-Zayyat, Nawal Saadawi, Amina Rachid, Farida al-Naqqash, Fathia al-‘Assal, Safinaz Kazem, Awatef Abdel-Rahman, and Shahinda Maklad, among others. It was these years of turmoil and struggle that gave Barbara the taste of activism and provided the nuclei of her later books on resistance (Resistance Literature, 1987), on women and incarceration (Barred: Women Writing, and Political Detention, 1992), and the enduring relevance of past struggles (After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writing, 1996) as well as the two-volume collection she co-edited with Mia Carter (Archives of Empire, 2003).

Barbara was a great team member and treasured solidarity and commitment. Once she moved to the US to take up a teaching position, first at Wesleyan, then Yale, and later the University of Texas, she continued to come back to Cairo. She visited Cairo regularly every couple of years or so. It was on one of these visits that she and I felt there was very little on literary theory by contemporary Arabs, and we undertook to co-edit The View from Within: Writers and Critics on Contemporary Arabic Literature (1994). She came back to chair her former department at the American University in Cairo in 2006-2007, where she revamped the undergraduate and graduate programs and introduced the graduate interdisciplinary Diploma of Literary Studies. She came again to give the keynote address of the first Graduate Student Conference in Cairo (co-sponsored by AUC and Alexandria University) in spring 2013. Her connection to Cairo never ceased and never diminished.

Serious and focused as Barbara was, some didn’t suspect her of having a sense of humor. When I sent her my photo in Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprising, she responded, “cool, revolutionary grandma” and went on to say perceptively that such salutary events should be enjoyed while they last—knowing all too well that all good things have to come to an end, and recent history proved her right. We all know of Barbara’s love of cats and how she adopted stray cats from the streets of Cairo—one, named Ganayna, ended up with her in Texas. She sent me a cartoon of a cat trying to wake up a sleeper, by saying “it is time, it is time” and when the awakened sleeper asks “time for what?” the cat answers: “time for revolution.” She assured me that the cat in the cartoon is “Ganayna for sure,” for even Egyptian cats were taking part in Tahrir’s uprising. I could not help but inform her of a woman in Tahrir who said, “we are like cats with seven lives; they take two from us, but we have five left!”


[Image via the author.]

In her last communication with me, one day before she departed, on 27 January 2017, she wrote me a heart-wrenching e-mail: “and now there is so little time left at all. But I will usurp a wee bit of it from the mean-spirited cancer that has laid claim to say farewell.” She then talked about the “journey” we have had “over the last decades, since we first met in Cairo in those jubilant and painful years of resistance and struggle.” She was so grateful that she was part of that world of “outrage and indignation,” of “pleasures in Cairo literary lights and back street smarts.” She ended: “In solidarity with you and all the comrades,” adding an Arabic motto from the Palestinian revolution, thawra hatta al-nasr (revolution until victory).

In the Arab world, we say that poets do not die except a little, al-shu‘ara’ la yamutuna illa qalilan, meaning their legacy outlives their life and gives them an afterlife. Barbara was indeed a poet of sorts in her passionate articulation of people’s struggles in the Third World and in the Global South, and thus she lives on. In Michael Beard’s condolence note to me, he recalled his time as a colleague of Barbara in Cairo. He cited a poem on Joe Hill—a militant and a singer comparable to the Egyptian singer Sheikh Imam whose censored tapes Barbara and all of us used to listen to in the 1980s—that captures living on:

Says Joe, “I didn’t die.”

And standing there as big as life

and smiling with his eyes,

says Joe, “What they can never kill

went on to organize.”

I can just see Barbara as big as life and smiling with her eyes. I can hear her saying in a resonant voice: “Stop it. Don’t Mourn. Organize!” In homage to Barbara and in recognition of her inaudible call, we will organize in spring 2018 a conference in Cairo celebrating her life and highlighting contributions by emerging voices of graduate students engaged in the literature of resistance and global justice.  

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