After two dense scholarly books, each took about a decade to bring to press, I am currently writing a lighter scholarly work. The First Arabs: An Intimate History of Their Struggle for Dignity and The Aftermath of Defeat, returns to the dramatic story of the first Arab generation who, in the wake of WWII, laid the ground for the creation of a free and modern Arab world. It begins with the five million citizens, the largest crowd in the history of Cairo, that, in September 1970, showed up for the funeral of Gamal Abd al-Nasser, a modern-day prophet who promised redemption but delivered defeat. From there we follow a group of revolutionaries, writers, journalists, bureaucrats, military officers, radical feminists and born-again Islamists whose personal life was intertwined with the collective course of the Arab nation, nourishing it as well as contemplating its trajectory. The First Arabs reconstructs the dramatic odyssey of this generation; a generation that dreamed big, fought for dignity and freedom but, eventually, had to settle for a dystopian reality.
On the deeper scholarly front, I am continuing my work on the Arab pursuit of freedom. Freedom (hurriya), is both a political and theological concept. Scholars of have dealt with the political aspects of freedom (e.g. the “transfer of power” from colonial powers to the post-colonial state). They have yet to make sense of the theological. In Egypt, the historical record reveals a process by which the quest for freedom resulted in the sacralization of politics. This sacralization framed politics in stark existential terms as a choice between life versus death, demise or redemption. To say that for Gamal Abd al-Nasser and his generation the political is existential is to refer to the ways in which his movement, Nasserism, created, promoted and maintained a sacred experience of liberation with its own institutions, norms, ethics, moral spaces, rituals, ethos and distinct sense of history. Seen as a transcendental figure who can deliver the people from their wretched subhuman condition of colonial unfreedom, Nasser presided over a theological movement of deliverance. Conceived as a deep study of freedom during decolonization, this line of inquiry ventures into the field of political theology to examine how the organization of the politics of liberation that was founded on the imagination of the sacred became an article of faith that shaped everyday life for millions of people around the Arab world. The first article in this series recently appeared in Past&Present (see “articles”).