There is a strange kind of disrespect in pretending to analyze the soul of a people without knowing the language in which they think, speak and write. Steven Salaita, currently the center of a minor tempest in the academic teapot, has founded his career on this peculiar brand of hubristic disrespect.
Salaita’s PhD dissertation, written for the Department of English at the University of Oklahoma, is entitled: The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the Quest for Canaan. In the preface, he describes it as, “a comparative analysis of Native Americans and Palestinians, with attention to how politics influence literary production.” (p.1) He chose the topic, he tells us, because he, “was never much interested in work that failed to ground itself into pragmatic contexts relevant to the activist…” (p.2) He wrote it for the, “reader interested in issues o f justice for Indigenous peoples, especially if they are concerned with formulating resistant strategies.”(p.3)
The thesis was published without change of title by Syracuse University Press in 2006. It received scant attention from reviewers and has been cited only a handful of times since publication. In 2010, however, the Iraqi poet, novelist, and scholar Sinan Antoon reviewed Salaita’s book for the Journal of Palestine Studies.
Antoon considers Salaita’s decision to largely ignore poetry in favor of fiction, “unfortunate;” in Antoon’s view Salaita would have judged better to give poetry and, in particular, Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “The Penultimate Speech of the Red Indian,” an entire chapter.
Antoon skims over Salaita’s first three chapters, deeming them, “a prelude to the literary reading readings,” on which both reviewer and author are focused. In Antoon’s opinion, Saliba “could have done a better job, analyzing Emile Habiby’s novel, The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist. In addition to other inadequacies, Antoon objects that, ” Salaita is confident about, “Habiby’s supposed ‘intention’ in writing the novel but does not cite a single interview with him.”
Overall, however, he judges that Salaita’s, “decisions to exclude poetry, which is viscerally important culturally and politically, especially in the Palestinian case, and to limit the bibliography to works in English (or translations), narrow it’s scope.” Indeed.
It is hard to imagine an analysis of any Arab literature that omits poetry, so central is the poem to Arabic literary endeavor. But it is impossible to understand how a scholar can write a doctoral dissertation drawing broad, sweeping conclusions about the literary ouvre of an entire people whose language he shows no evidence of knowing. There is, to express just one caveat, no reason to suppose that the literature by or about Palestinian Arabs in English is a representative selection of what is published and read in Arabic. This is, after all, true of no other people or language.
Salaita, however, exhibits no reluctance in writing about that which he does not know. In 2011 he published an entire book about the Israeli soul, without giving the least evidence that he can read Hebrew.