Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

In Memoriam: Dr. Hisham Sharabi (1927-2005)

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

In Memoriam: Dr. Hisham Sharabi (1927-2005)

Article excerpt

I was shocked to receive the e-mail from the Palestine Center announcing that Dr. Hisham Sharabi, who helped found the center, had died Jan. 13 at the American University of Beirut Hospital, of prostate cancer that he was diagnosed with about 10 years ago.

I first met Dr. Sharabi in 1994, when I was just starting my Ph.D. program at Georgetown University. He was the professor everyone seemed to look up to-even the other tenured professors. It was he who had the big corner office and an endowed chair-the Umar al-Mukhtar Professor of Arab Culture. Dr. Sharabi was handsome and distinguished looking-and not a little scary.

Then I had my first seminar with him. Still in our first semester and trying to adjust, my cohort and I sat in class trying to figure out what Dr. Sharabi wanted to hear as we discussed the works of such philosophers as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Hegel, Freud and Kristeva. I hadn't even heard of some of them. Dr. Sharabi sat and listened with an enigmatic look on his face. Then, just as the sometimes agonizing, always enlightening class was about to end, he would jump in with a few pithy comments that shed light on the subject at hand like the sun bursting suddenly through the clouds. These moments did not diminish the scary aspect of Dr. Sharabi.

As I got to know him as a person, however, I wondered how I could ever have cringed before his comments ("You're skating on thin ice, Sara," he said once, when I fumbled around to analyze some passage we'd read). Dr. Sharabi called every one of his students into his office to have a personal chat in an effort to know them better. He wanted to know what made me choose to study Middle East history. It was later, however, through a mutual friend, that I was lucky enough to discover that behind the enormous intellect that made Hisham such an intimidating teacher, was a kind, thoughtful, passionate man. Sharing a glass of wine and a pizza at his house, some of us would discuss Palestine and politics, poetry and prose. Or we would go out to smoke a sheesha, or water pipe, laughing and talking.

He could still make me cringe, though! When I would attend Palestine Center events to report on them for this magazine, Hisham would stand at the podium to address the audience. Spying me, he would say hello and ask me how I was doinginto the microphone! Yes, I cringed, yet I was always aware that I was enjoying the company of a truly great intellectual and activist, a great man.

Hisham Sharabi was 77 when he died. He had left his home in Washington, DC following the passage of the PATRIOT Act and the invasion of Afghanistan, saying he could not live in this country anymore. But perhaps there was no compelling reason for him to stay. In 1995 he lost his second wife, Gayle Quessenberry, whom he adored. A few years later his beloved dog, Henry, died. Hisham also had retired from Georgetown University, where he had taught since 1953, when he received his doctorate in European Intellectual History from the University of Chicago.

Originally from Jaffa, on Palestine's Mediterranean coast, he studied at the Friends School in Ramallah. In 1948 Sharabi was studying for his Ph.D. in Chicago when Israel unleashed the Nakba. Overnight he was transformed from a student from a well-to-do family (his father was a lawyer and a judge) attending university abroad into a penniless refugee stranded in a foreign country.

Having joined the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in 1947, Sharabi returned to Beirut, where he received his bachelor's degree. He then edited the party's magazine until it was shut down by the Lebanese government. Sharabi fled to Jordan, then back to Chicago. Testifying to his brilliance, his University of Chicago professors found scholarships to enable him to finish his course work. A temporary job at the United Nations paid the bills, while Sharabi wrote his thesis in his spare time.

The newly graduated Dr. Sharabi immediately was hired at Georgetown, and became a full professor there in just 11 years. …

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