A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
The late Hisham Ali’s (1952–2017) writings never received the attention they deserved; however, he never became bitter. He was a rare figure who continued to debate ideas, tried to dissect them and portray them to readers. He considered this his duty, to offer a gateway to reality. In the spirit of debate, his words tracked and critiqued texts thoughtfully. He wrote to ask questions and to contemplate.
Away from the self
Hisham was close to everyone and kept away from antagonisms, never standing with one person against another. He renounced and distanced himself from opportunism and prejudice, remaining the master of his own writings, never using his pen for personal issues, never using his views to advance any political or ideological causes.
Art work by Basma Rawi
He never wrote politically for commercial newspapers meant for mass consumption, and his pen never emitted rhetoric for war or conflict against anyone. He never sought to promote himself, and in the very few interviews he gave, Hisham had a very clear image of an intellectual’s role towards society, always on the side of reality, expressing caution and not relying on widespread beliefs.
Hisham Ali occupied senior managerial positions at many cultural magazines and institutions; he was the editor-in-chief of Althakafa Aljadeeda magazine, Althakafa magazine and Aldemocratia magazine. He was vice editor-in-chief of Almawkef magazine and a member of the Alhikam magazine editorial board, which was published by the Yemeni Writers’ Union. He was also the Deputy Minister of Culture for 25 years, and a Member of the Board of Trustees of the State Prize for Writing, along with holding many other editorial, managerial and academic positions. However, he never used his positions to advance his cause, and never used his pen in exchange for anything.
On the role of intellectuals
Hisham’s writings reveal his uniqueness. He sought, through his critical project, to read all the creative writings of Yemeni and Arab writers, always looking for unorthodox answers to questions about modernity.
Hisham played a culturally sensitive and calm role, and remained occupied with scientific culture, drawn to the role of words in enlightening. His valuable contributions established a very special style harboring objectivity and critical thinking; immersed in dissecting problems, he wrote meaningfully, always writing sentences with rational reasoning.
Through his writings on intellectuals, it is evident he always cared for humanity’s interests above all else. In an interview with Ahmed al-Agbarhi, Hisham said,
“The values f sacrifice, tolerance and cooperation have declined among revolutionary intellectuals, while impatience, avoidance, conspiracy, and the race for fame and fortune have sadly become goals for an intellectual’s career currently. Their path leads to limited success, without surpassing renown among a certain cultural society, and they show no interest in their direct role towards the community as a whole.”
His great admiration for the writings of Edward Saeed and Frantz Fanon came from his commitment and clear stance on power overruling rights. In his book Edward Saeed and The Dismantling of Imperialist Culture he wrote, “Edward Saeed returned to Frantz Fanon; he reintroduced his (Fanon’s) ideas in the context of belonging to the culture of the oppressed”.
In his writings on al-Baradouni, he described him as a critical intellect, and drew examples from other intellectuals, saying:
“We established that critical intellectuals are the ones who have curious minds that think critically, capable of detecting delusions, and exposing political and cultural myths. These kinds of intellectuals are the opposite of Party or Government intellectuals who are usually complacent, always seeking to justify or preach for politicians and walk behind them, while the critical intellectual always walks to the left of politicians.”
This intellectual role is visible in his critique of Paul Nizan’s Aden Arabie, where he tried to identify another way to interpret the book, away from Nizan’s critique of the capitalist system and its culture because of the class system it creates. Hisham says in his book The Problem of intellectuals and the West in the Arab Novel:
“Failure arises from creating a vehicle of identity and the duplicity of values, passion, and love. These historical conditions acquired by the Arab man or inherited in his DNA are carried with him everywhere he goes, dragging him to failure and defeat no matter how established or successful he becomes. Our heroes are broken; they enter the history books while they are chained to feebleness and other limitations because of their problematic past that hasn’t answered their existential questions since the Arab renaissance or after the liberation from colonialism.”
The first impression he leaves on his readers is his obvious desire to transfer knowledge to them, his incorporation of conscious reading mechanisms, and constant alerts to new perspectives and ideas, without making the reader feel alienated. Reading is an arena for contemplation; Hisham tries to ensure that there is no room for bias in the objective reality of the content.
Bin Ali in the late 90s, Art work by Basma Rawi
Hisham Ali appears in his book as a reader sharing what he reads, without overwhelming them with recommendations. He doesn’t shy away from expressing opinions based on facts. His books came from the spirit of research, showing a curious tone with a narrative that encouraged dialogue. When he dealt with great thinkers’ literary works, he was not guilty of subservience or just repeating and glorifying their work. In his book Reading Tracts, he clarifies the role of reading as: “It’s a relationship between the reader and the text entailing all the freedom practices reading contains in the form of interpretation, revelation, and conclusion.”
Since he published his first book, his interest in alternative books and the role of culture in creating change has been obvious – whether he was reading about history, poetry, novels, art, cinema, orientalism or about the renaissance and modernity. This is why all his sentences are busy with ideas and enlightenment.
Hisham Ali read Edward Saeed for Debating this Ideology, and Acquiring his Method of Critical Thinking, and he read Muhammad Mahmoud al-Zubairy, Ahmed Mohamed Noman, Abdullah Batheeb, Mohamed Ali Luqman, Audinis, Mohamed Bennis, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre, Mahmoud Ameed Alalem, Abdullah al-Ourwi, Mohamed Abed al-Jubari, Abdulla Mehrez, Lutfi Aman, Abdulrahman Fakry, Mohamed Said Jarada, Zaid Damag, and many others who write in the context of questioning or comparing, looking for a way for intellectuals to enlighten society, looking for the intellectuals’ role in producing change.
In the context of comparison between Arab and Western modernity he says:
“Because European modernity was alienated from culture, an alienated knowledge in a time when the relationship between humans, things, and nature was changing. Arab modernity could specify its intellectual position on Arab or European modernity, hence many pioneers of modernity longed for classical Arab theories that haven’t been questioned or subjected to the scientific method.”
“The Arab cultural map looks scattered and in disarray, isolated islands of thought very quickly forgotten. For example, existentialism and its pioneer Jean-Paul Sartre who dominated our culture in the 50s and 60s. Sartre disappeared along with his existentialism, its influence on Arab philosophy and literature also disappeared after the loss in the 1967 war. There hasn’t been any study examining the rise and fall of existentialism in Arab culture since.”
Reading his texts isn’t just a marginal activity; it lies at the heart of questioning and realism.
On his thoughts about Edward Saeed, he said, “Edward Saeed’s brilliance and distinctiveness stems from him leaving a prestigious university, liberating him from academic studies that impose isolation from society and prevent belonging to its causes and problems, under the pretext of objectivity and scientific neutrality.”
In Narrative Discourse in Yemen, an independent discussion of a number of novels written by Yemenis, he covers form and content, in the context of a conscious reading of the role of novels. He argues that Yemeni novels have not been written so far, covering social issues, though he tried not to judge, saying that some novels are very promising.
Hisham published more than ten books and worked on a critical project named Yemen’s Intellectuals and Renaissance. He published only part one of this book before he died, and wrote many studies, articles and translations which he published, but which were never included in his books. His titles are:
The Idea of Contradiction
Culture In a Changing Society
Vision of Yemen, Readings in Oriental and Anthropological Writings.
A Homeland Composed in Words, Studies in The Thoughts of Bardouni and His Poetry
East of Rambo, Aden and The Poetic Dream
Narration and History in The Folds of Zaid Damaj
Narrative Discourse in Yemen
Edward Said and The Dismantling of Imperialism
Abdullah Mehrez and the Aden Trilogy
Scribble on Mount Shamsan