Ibrahim Abu Lughod

— Salim Tamari

A LEADING PALESTINIAN-American scholar and political activist passed away May 23 in the city of Ramallah. He was buried in the city of his birth, Jaffa (now an Israeli city), which denied him residency while he was alive. Ibrahim Abu Lughod’s biography reads like a record of contemporary Palestinian history of war, expulsion, and (attempted) return.

Born in Jaffa in 1929 he attended al-Amiriyyah school in the city. The United Nations-sponsored partition plan of 1947 was soon followed by a country-wide internal war between Jewish (Zionist) and Arab (Palestinian) forces. At the age of 19 Abu Lughod joined a local militia force for the defense of Jaffa, but the defending forces collapsed by April of 1948 and virtually the whole Arab population of the city – the largest in Palestine – was forced to leave the country under the heavy bombardment by the Hagana (mainstream Zionist militia) and the Stern and Lehi (far-right “revisionist”) forces.

Abu Lughod chose his exile in the United States, where he led a successful professional and academic career. He received his first academic degrees at the University of Illinois, and his doctorate from Princeton University (1957). During the late ’50s he joined UNESCO in Egypt (Sirs al-Layyan), where he administered a successful program on Adult Education and combating illiteracy.

In 1971–72 he worked with UNESCO in Beirut in the educational planning department. That experience was crucial in his heading an ambitious program for the Palestinian Open University in the early seventies, which aimed at conducting a combination of remote learning (satellite and radio transmission) and regional centers for in-depth specialized education for the Palestinians living in the occupied territories.

In North America Abu Lughod taught cultural history and political science at Smith College, McGill University (Montreal), and at Northwestern, where he became head of the Political Science Department.

His academic works in this period include The Arab Rediscovery of Europe (1963) and The Transformation of Palestine (1981), which was reprinted several times. He often collaborated with his wife (divorced in 1992) the well-known urban sociologist Janet Abu Lughod.

In 1977 Abu Lughod joined the Palestinian National Council, the Palestinian Parliament in Exile, as an independent representing (with Edward Said among others) the North American community. In the PNC he continued to represent a critical (and often oppositional stance) until 1991 when he resigned his seat. But he also worked closely and supported Yaser Arafat within the Council.

In 1988, together with Said, he met with Secretary of State George Shultz on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization to discuss the proposed U.S. Peace Initiative, which led to the beginning of the PLO-American dialogue. After 1993, however, he became disenchanted with the Oslo Accords and distanced himself from Arafat’s policies.

In 1992 Abu Lughod became one of the handful of Palestinian intellectuals who returned to Palestine and established his home in Ramallah. There he joined the faculty of Birzeit University, teaching international relations, and assumed the position of Vice Chancellor for academic affairs.

In the last years of his life Abu Lughod made what are perhaps the two greatest contributions of his career. He headed a Palestinian committee to draw the guidelines for the first national project for a Palestinian curriculum for primary and secondary schools (1995–1997), aimed at freeing Palestinian education from decades of colonial influence and creating modern and progressive schooling textbooks. This program is currently being implemented.

He also headed since 1997 the Project of Palestinian Memory Museum, whose objective was to establish a series of exhibits and museums to reconstruct a profile of the Palestinians in the twentieth century. He died while still working on these projects.

Despite the restrictions of occupation and civil war, he had left the stable affluence of an academic career in Chicago. Upon returning to Palestine he immediately proceeded to establish close contacts with the residual Palestinian community of his birthplace, Jaffa, where he contributed selflessly to the projects of the Arab Association of Jaffa. During the summer days he would make weekly trips to the city where he would swim in the waters of Jaballiyeh Beach – the scene of his early youth adventures.

Carrying on his work despite ailing health and constant trouble with his lungs (he had a combination of lung atrophy and cancer), Abu Lughod died after a rich, productive and fulfilling career. Just a month before his death he planned to be buried next to his father’s grave in the Jabaliyyeh cemetery, on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean.

ATC 93, July–August 2001